“Have a great day hiking, the going is pretty easy,” said our friendly bed-and-breakfast hostess.
“Don’t worry, I will make sure your bags are safely delivered to your next B&B,” she confidently reassured us.
It was a cool but clear April day, perfect hiking weather. After a sumptuous full English breakfast we were at last ready to go, excited at the prospect of spending a week enjoying the grandeur of the Lake District. We would follow in the footsteps of literary greats, Wordsworth, Coleridge and de Quincy, and also Alfred Wainwright, England’s best-loved Lakeland hiking guidebook author. With its rugged fells (mountains), glacial valleys, peaceful lakes and picturesque villages, the national park, not surprisingly, attracts tourists and hikers from around the world, with more than 15 million visitors a year.
We waved farewell and found our way to the start of the 102km long- distance walk from Ulverston, a charming Lakeland village on the shores of Morecambe Bay, to the ancient city of Carlisle near the Scottish border.
The Cumbria Way was originally devised in the 1970s by local Ramblers Association members, with signposting of the entire route completed by volunteers and national park staff in 2007. The route follows public footpaths, bridleways, the odd short stretch of quiet country road and permissive paths available to hikers. For the most part it is a low-level walk, cleverly linking a series of Lakeland valleys and is less susceptible to the vagaries of England’s weather.
The guidebook recommended that the walk be completed over five days. Fortunately for our ageing bodies, the walk can easily be extended to seven or eight days at a less demanding 15-16km per day. Add in a rest day or two, perfect for a relaxing boat trip on Lake Windermere.
For those new to the challenge and joy of long-distance walking, the Cumbria Way is an ideal starting point.
Even though we were early in the hiking season, which runs from April to October, there was a small queue of eager walkers lining up for their photos at the starting point of the Cumbria Way. One family had two rather large dogs with them. They reassured us that it would be easy to navigate the variety of farmyard gates and stiles along the walk.
We were soon strolling through England’s green and pleasant land, en route to Blawith, a small hamlet on the quiet A5084 at the southern tip of Coniston Water, our pick-up point for the day. As we slowly climbed, the majestic Lakeland fells began to appear on the horizon.
“We get a lot of Australians staying with us,” commented our B&B host and driver, in his broad Cumbrian accent, on the way back to our overnight lodging in Coniston.
“Don’t you have walks like this in Australia, with much nicer weather?” he continued.
I was about to explain the benefits of hiking in England, including the lack of any deadly snakes and spiders, when his mobile phone rang. His wife advised us that she had taken the liberty of making a booking for dinner for two at the best pub in the village. After a long hot shower and a splendid pub meal we retired early, very satisfied with our first day walking the Cumbria Way.
The following morning we were pleasantly greeted by a blanket of snow on the higher peaks. A great day for morning tea beside Beacon Tarn and lunch overlooking Torver Tarn. These peaceful isolated mountain lakes were formed when glaciers tore out huge clumps of rock. A leisurely stroll along Coniston Water was the perfect way to complete the day.
Weather conditions were ideal for the 18km walk to Dungeon Ghyll at the head of the majestic Langdale Valley. With about 762m of ascent in total, this would be the most challenging day so far. Our feet were sore and calf muscles aching by the time we reached the Dungeon Ghyll Hotel in Langdale. A rest day would be most welcome.
After a good sleep-in there was ample time for a few tourist treats. Most enjoyable was a visit to Hill Top Farm, Beatrix Potter’s first Lakeland home at Near Sawrey, purchased in 1905. Upon her death in 1943 this remarkable woman left land, farms and cottages to the National Trust.
It was a fine day for the walk to Rosthwaite in beautiful Borrowdale. Ideal for the steep ascent over Stake Pass, at 481m, the highest point on the recommended route.
That night the pub was packed with hikers, some attempting the 320km walk known as Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, which runs west to east through Borrowdale. There was an immediate sense of camaraderie as stories of the day’s hiking adventures were shared, growing by the hour as everyone enjoyed the memorable experience of a traditional old English pub.
Keswick, the lovely town located on the northern tip of Derwent Water under the watchful gaze of Skiddaw, is an ideal place for an extended stopover. The short walk from Rosthwaite allows time to explore this busy centre and even get a massage for tired and knotted muscles. Another advantage is the opportunity to climb Cat Bells, a small fell offering great views over Derwent Water.
Two days later after a relaxing rest stop, we woke to discover there had been heavy overnight rain and low cloud covering the higher peaks.
There would be a continuous display of waterfalls cascading down the fells. With misty clouds hovering over the mountains, Lakeland would show us another side of its personality.
We had wisely split the recommended 30km walk from Keswick to Caldbeck into two legs, with an overnight stop in Bassenthwaite, providing an extra day among the fells. The route to Bassenthwaite followed the valley path and circled around the imposing girth of Skiddaw, its peak mysteriously hidden from view by the low cloud.
By the following day clear skies returned. The walk to the remote village of Caldbeck on the edge of the national park was sadly the last day in the mountains.
The final 24km leg to Carlisle is a low-level walk through farmland following the meandering River Caldew. A time to reflect and continue the subtle meditation that only long-distance walking offers. Some websites recommend finishing the walk at Caldbeck. Only if pushed for time should this option be considered.
After eight days hiking 102km, a few blisters and aching muscles, we had achieved our goal, a grand traverse of the Lake District from the south to north coast.With a great sense of excitement and pride we marched into Carlisle and started planning our next long-distance walk.