Sometimes in life you can feel boxed in, backed into a corner, with no exit. The thought of starting out the day soaking wet, trudging 24km uphill (mostly at the end of the day), only to finish soaking wet was depressing.
The situation felt a lot bleaker when I contemplated the possibility of failure along this route. There was nowhere to land between here and there. Both our walking options led over the fells, not through a village with a pub. So what if we had to stop before we made it? How do you fail so early into a “walk”? Humiliating thoughts ran through my mind. We’re Canadian! We have mountains. We faced trekking in the Himalayas. How could we beaten by… England?
We decided to sit our morning meditation before getting out of the tent. Then we’d get on with the hard march to Skiddaw House on the lower – yet still high – route. I think we both vainly hoped the rain might let up enough to allow us to pack.
When we finished sitting, I had a thought. What if we could get a bus to Keswick, camp there and walk up the route we meant to do today? We could do the route without our packs from the opposite direction. I Googled bus schedules in the Lake District. There was a bus leaving Caldbeck for Keswick in 25 minutes. Too late. But there was one other bus that would leave at noon. That gave us time to eat, pack up and walk into town with plenty of time to get the bus.
Karen was planning while we waited for the bus
Karen liked this plan. A lot. But it felt like cheating. The idea is to walk the entire way sequentially. But we had learned a couple of things in just two days on our path:
Our packs are too heavy. In the all the confusion and the logistical challenge of needing such different things for different parts of our trip, we hadn’t been ruthless enough on pack weight. If we were only doing a trekking venture, we could have planned this differently.
The Cumbria Way has a reputation of being well marked. Parts of it are, but a lot of it isn’t. We have a map with us of the entire route based on Ordinance Surveys. But while it has the Cumbria Way marked out, it doesn’t have many other footpaths and so it’s easy to get off track on a different route without knowing it. Also, since catastrophic flooding in 2015, many way marks have disappeared. Some just haven’t been maintained. This means that you can spend a lot of extra miles backtracking. And getting lost is frustrating. You never feel in danger here, because the place is basically a giant garden dotted with villages and pubs (except maybe for this day’s route). But frequently going off track makes for too much puzzling and not enough simple enjoyment of the countryside. Which is spectacularly beautiful. And we don’t want to add unnecessary distance to an already long-distance walk.
So we had a new plan. One that works with where we’ve found ourselves.
We have seven weeks in England. Lots of time. Therefore, we will hub and spoke our time here, camping in a spot for a few days and hiking onto the surrounding fells. We loved the idea of racking up a long-distance walk, end to end. But we came here to see England’s countryside, not to race along a track. So we’ll worry less about what we accomplish in a straight line and spend more time on the fields and fells.
As we rode the bus to Keswick, we loved our decision more and more. Karen and I have both lived in England. I was here in the Lake District 24 years ago working as a barman and waiter for a couple of swanky country house hotels, one on lake Ullswater and the other on lake Windermere. I loved it. Karen worked in London as a child-protection social worker and traveled a lot in England. We’ve been here several times and always wanted to spend some time taking in the countryside and small villages. A walking trip across the Lake District is a perfect, if challenging, way to do it.
We arrived in Keswick and walked to our campsite.
We decided to stay there three nights and walk the surrounding fells. We had hot showers. We did laundry. In Keswick the sun came out blazing in the afternoon. Up on the fells, where we would otherwise be, the visibility was zero and it was raining. Down here in Keswick we were drying everything out. Up there we would have been one quarter of the way through a long day of abuse, wind, rain and more pain. Down here we were eating fish and chips. Obviously, we had made a good choice.
One of the warden’s at the campsite told us it has been a very wet summer in northwest England.We felt a little validated. We never expected hot and sunny, but it’s definitely wetter than usual and that’s saying something around here. We were grateful for the sunshine, knowing it was temporary.
The next day we walked up to Skiddaw House. Karen was starting to feel more like her usual self. Her mouth was much better, the swelling almost gone.
Up on the fells on our way to Skiddaw House, the problem of way markers led us off the path a few times until we ascended above the tree line. Even then, without the packs it wasn’t a big deal. We even found some magical little spots just off the path. When we returned to the right route and on to the fells, it got easy and spectacularly beautiful.
The fells are a unique place. As mountains, they’re tiny. Canada has mountains. England has small hills. But the landscape up here can cause your mind to take a little time to calibrate. It feels simultaneously flat but steep. It’s an odd sensation. You can be walking up a path on the fell, turn around and feel sharp vertigo at the descent back down. It has something to do with the fact that the fells are very wide and sort of featureless. The eyes get tricked and level out things that are not actually level. Fells mostly lack the stark cliff faces that characterize mountains, so their vertical height and steepness can be deceiving. What looks like a gentle slope up to the crest of a fell top can turn out to be near vertical. Once your mind adjusts to this seeming contradiction, you can settle in for incredible beauty.
Without the oppression of our backpacks, we felt light. Our walk was enjoyable. It allowed us to keep training our legs and feet. We ended with a huge pot of tea in town.
We woke up to rain. Again. And we were a little sore from the day before. We decided a little rest day would suit us. That means we’d still walk but it wouldn’t be the 18-20km uphill we did yesterday. It would be a shorter walk to the Neolithic ruins of Castlerigg Stone Circle.
Erected around 3000 BC, it is among the oldest stone circles in Britain. Castlerigg is also one of the most dramatic Neolithic sites, sitting in the Thirlmere valley surrounded by some of the Lake District’s most famous fells, such as High Seat and Hellvellyn. I walked up Hellvellyn in 1993.
The only selfie we managed to capture at the Castlerigg Stone Circle
It was uphill in the rain and drizzle all the way to Castlerigg. But it was easy compared to our previous days. And the reward was a rich one. Not too many people were there when we arrived, so we had moments alone with the ruins. The cloudy skies are often moody here, so the stones had a perfect backdrop against the fells. I took photos after a Spanish couple had finished practising their “jumping photo” as they called it. After about a dozen attempts, they recruited a German tourist to take the photo for them. Then they all walked away.
We stood there for several minutes quietly looking out at the stones. The rain started coming down a little harder.
We woke up to a wet morning, visited by ducks. It wasn’t raining. Yet. So at least we could make coffee and breakfast in relative comfort.
Our plan was to leave the comfort and crowds of Keswick and carry our packs for another day to the Borrowdale valley. After a few days of walking without the packs, we thought we’d give it another go. It would be about 13km with elevation gain along a route that took us around the shore of Derwent Water. We knew we’d likely go off track a few places, so we prepared ourselves for 15km or more.
Shortly after we walked out of Keswick, the rain started in earnest. Karen put on her pants. I still hadn’t found my love for the pants. So I was pantless. Three hours later, in a torrential downpour, I stopped and put them on for the first time. I have to admit it, these are pretty damn good pants.
Karen in her beloved rain pants
Scott discovers his love for magic pants
The route along the lake lacked Cumbria Way markers. We had been told it was better marked along here than elsewhere. Okay. Sure. We followed our map, trying to stay off several other paths that led up to the nearby fells – known as Cat Bells – but several times we found ourselves asking for directions, or turning back after a kilometer or two in the wrong direction. More frustration.
But it was a beautiful walk. This is a peaceful place. And for all the thousands of visitors crawling around, it can be shockingly quiet. The lake was glassy and undisturbed by wind. The forests were silent except for the sound of the unrelenting rain. Beautiful in its own way. Even more beautiful with magic pants.
Our packs were a drag again, though. I found myself feeling very fatigued early on. I was feeling weak. Karen was no happier with her load. We were being lapped by old people. They were carrying nothing, but still, this just rekindled our doubt and humiliation.
“I know what it is,” Karen said after a long period of stewing silence. We had just finished a long, slippery uphill wrong turn. Frustration was pretty high.
“Really, I’m like an indoor cat that has had its claws removed. I’m ill-equipped for the outdoors.”
She was serious, but I still couldn’t help laughing. She laughed too. It isn’t true, of course. But this isn’t easy and your mind can turn quickly to doubt about just what the hell we were thinking. We are recovering urban bees. We’ve got bodies inured to office work, not physical endurance, and we’re trying to beat them into shape.
One more time we had to ask for directions due to several unmarked intersections (not showing on the map), but then we came to Grange, a small village with a popular teashop. There we met a couple on bikes that were leading a group of Duke of Edinburgh outdoor expedition trainees. We told them our frustration with the way markers. They told us the Duke of Edinburgh expedition participants are advised against doing the long-distance walks, like the Cumbria Way. Specifically because they are not well marked, and they are more difficult than people assume. That made us feel a little better.
We got back out in the rain for our final couple of hours.
It stopped as we arrived at Chapel House Farm, our campsite. Another hard day with the packs. We looked at the next leg of our route. It went up Langstrath over Stake Pass to the Langdale Pikes. It was the second steepest section of the Cumbria Way. Oh, boy.
We’re obviously a bit stronger. Our core muscles and hip flexors have started carrying our loads with less screaming anguish. It’s now more a relentless, low-intensity, burning sensation. In my daily fight with gravity, I might be a little broader now than I was when I left Vancouver, if not a little bit shorter.
Still, we decided to stay in Borrowdale (in Stonethwaite) for three nights. We would walk the surrounding fells without the packs and then take a bus to Ulverston, where we had booked an apartment for six days.
At least our boots look totally legit
Nails in need of some TLC
Our tent site at Chapel House Farm in Borrowdale
We set up camp, stood up and looked around. Wow. If you’ve never been to the countryside in England, you should try to see it before you die. It’s one of the places in the world where terrible weather enhances the beauty of the landscape. The more violent the wind and rain, the more magnificent the place becomes. Colours that fade in the bright sunshine, become unimaginably vibrant in the soft light of hard weather. Purple and magenta heathers; lichens, ferns and bracken with a million shades of green; blue slate and gray rock; and everywhere small explosions of orange, red and yellow flowers. The sheep are filthy, shy and cute. The rock walls are magical garden microcosms sprouted in the damp of centuries. The trees are photogenic masterpieces. This is Hobbiton. It’s a fairytale landscape.
Wanna hear the sheep in the photo above? Watch short video below.
We spent the next days walking the fells, visiting Watendlath and Langstrath and exploring the paths among the three small villages in isolated Borrowdale. In the afternoon or evening we visited a pub in Rosthwaite, the Riverside Bar at the Scafell Hotel. We’d sit there listening to Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, eating our meal and taking in the place, the people and their ubiquitous dogs.
Our nights in Borrowdale coincided with terrifically violent wind and rain storms. We were lucky. Daytime was fairly calm, some drizzle, some cloud, occasional sunshine even. When night came, however, it brought violence. Karen loves her pants. That much must be obvious by now. What she loves almost as much is our tent. Our home. It’s a roomy, sturdy Swedish thing. A Hilleberg, one of the best tents available I think.
Some things are a waste of money. A BMW or Mercedes? I couldn’t care less. But a Hilleberg tent when you’re camped on a hillside farm being thrashed by 50mph winds? Worth every penny. The design is just so ingeniously… Swedish. Simple, intuitive, robust, works flawlessly. Every time. Karen has become a huge fan. She mentions it almost every night. It’s cozy, it has a large vestibule for every piece of our gear with room left over for a person to sit. We use a footprint, so the vestibule has a floor. We’ve never woken up actually wet from condensation or rain leaking in.
But the first night’s storm in Stonethwaite was so bad, Karen was a bit worried. I knew the tent was designed for terrific abuse. I’ve watched videos of our tent being erected in hurricane-like winds. It was designed for it. But in real life, when the howling wind started lashing us, and the rain sounded like a dozen people were outside throwing buckets of water and punching our tent, my mind turned to doubt, too.
If one of the poles didn’t break in the wind, would the tent fail and allow water to run in? We could see small lakes forming outside on the field even before the storm got going. Would we wake up laying in a swimming pool?
It was a dramatic night. We recorded several videos knowing it would be difficult to convey the reality of it. Here is one to give you a taste:
When morning arrived, it was still raining. The wind had died down. Not a drop of water was inside the tent. The walls of our inner tent (where we actually sleep) were dry. At 100% humidity, there was no condensation inside. We were both impressed. We had reached peak confidence in our tent. If we could install a toilet and a little shower, we’d never leave.
Those days in Borrowdale were a bit of a turning point. We realized how happy we were to tramp around the many footpaths, exploring this beautiful countryside. We were now sure we had a doable plan for the next few weeks. There’s a lot to see, and we have a lot of time. When I saw Karen pick up a spider with her bare hands (a huge deal if you know Karen well) and help it out the door of the tent I realized that not only do I love being outside, but Karen loves being outside too. We don’t love carrying refrigerators on our backs over mountains. But we don’t have to. We need a few days indoors here and there to dry out our things because of weather forecasts that often call for “near constant rain.” Otherwise, if we could count on a day or two of sun to dry in, we’d stay outside until we fly to Ukraine.
Making the morning coffee for the family
Here in Ulverston, we’re taking the time to process our photos (I hope you enjoy them) and to write our update. We’re also exploring town and resting a bit. We even watched the Godfather trilogy. But after two days inside, Karen said she missed the tent, despite the rain.
“It’s like our home,” she said.
We have one more B&B visit to make, in St. Bees on the coast of the Irish Sea. But then we’ll head outside with the sheep and the fells, and back to our home.
PS: Several people asked about the magic pants and where to buy them. The pants are the Beta SL by Arcteryx and they come in men’s and women’s. We got ours on sale at the end of the summer season. At full retail price, they are expensive, but remember, magic doesn’t come cheap.