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Hiking the English Lake District

Senior hiker Ellie Smith in Stake Pass with Borrowdale behind her. © Sara Hudston
Senior hiker Ellie Smith in Stake Pass with Borrowdale behind her. © Sara Hudston

By Sara Hudston

Hiking the steep climb up to Dow Crag in England’s Lake District, I nearly got left for dust by an 85-year-old.

There were six of us on the trail high above Coniston Water on a trip organized by The Wayfarers Walking Vacations. It was the second day and the hiking was getting serious.

‘Come on,’ called Ellie, her voice almost whirled away by the strong wind, ‘it’s nothing!’

She forged on relentlessly up the stone staircase, cap jammed down low over her eyes, without resting until she reached the summit. Puffing along behind, I learned to never underestimate a senior walker, let alone one as super-fit as Ellie.

The Lake District, despite its name, is famed for its rugged mountains as much as the ravishingly beautiful lakes that glimmer beneath the peaks.

On the first day, our Walk Leader Alan Pinkney broke us in gently with a bucolic ramble through lush, green meadows and tawny woodland in the Winster Valley. We covered ten, easy miles before boarding a restored steam train, which took us down to the shores of Windermere. The only difficulty was crossing some wet, boggy pastures where the path had flooded. In the course of three fields, everyone slipped at least once and got boot-fulls of watery sludge. It didn’t matter – with the sun shining and after a stop for an excellent pub lunch, we thought we had it cracked. Our wet boots and muddy legs were badges of honor proving our worth as real walkers.

That night at dinner, Alan said sternly: ‘This trip is not a walk you know. It’s a hike.’ There was a twinkle in his eyes as he described the route for the next day: ‘It’s only seven miles and I promise it will be dry underfoot. The thing is, it’s mostly uphill.’

The Wayfarers categorize their Walks into five levels, from ‘easy’ to ‘energetic’. This one was a level five, requiring a good level of fitness to tackle a variety of uneven terrain. Everyone said they chose it because they wanted invigorating hikes. They got them.

That second day above Coniston left us breathless in both senses – there was a moment atop the peak when the low cloud parted and we could see right across the fells to Morecombe Bay and the Irish Sea shining beyond. On the descent we felt like heroes returning from a successful quest.

“Now that was a hike,’ said Alan with satisfaction at dinner. “Tomorrow’s going to be even better.”

The magnificent scenery of Langdale at the heart of England’s Lake District National Park. © Sara Hudston
The magnificent scenery of Langdale at the heart of England’s Lake District National Park. © Sara Hudston

The next day we packed our bags and drove north a few miles to Langdale. Bill Glover the Walk Manager dropped us off at Dungeon Ghyll. The word ‘ghyll’ is ancient Norse for a ravine. It’s a reminder that the Lake District was once settled by Vikings. The Norsemen brought a distinctive breed of sheep, the Herdwick, which still grazes the mountain slopes, surviving in the harshest and most inaccessible conditions. This charming, teddy-bear like breed has a white face and black fleece when young that – like all of us – fades to grey with age. We passed many Herdwicks as we walked up Langdale and climbed the mountainside to Stake Pass.

The views from the pass looking back down the long valley of Langdale were magnificent.  The ‘beck’ or stream shone like a silver necklace dropped on rumpled velvet. On either side rose the steep fellsides, crowned with jutting crags of bare granite. Here and there clung mountain ash trees, bent under the weight of scarlet berries.

Herdwick sheep, an ancient breed found only in the Lake District and introduced by the Vikings about 1,000 years ago. © Sara Hudston
Herdwick sheep, an ancient breed found only in the Lake District and introduced by the Vikings about 1,000 years ago. © Sara Hudston

We twisted between low hillocks of moor grass to emerge on the lip of Borrowdale, one of the most stunningly beautiful valleys in the Lake District. The view offered a majestic sweep across bare fells with the mountain of Helvellyn pointing on the horizon.

A narrow path zigzagged down alongside the bouncing waters of Stake Beck. The stream tumbled and smashed over black rocks, fracturing into mists and rainbows. This atmospheric setting was a reminder that the landscape inspired some of the best poetry in the English language. In the early 19th century, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge roamed its wildest places, pitting themselves against the testing landscape and exulting in its beauty. They believed that experiencing Nature in a direct, physical way by walking in all weathers and at all times of day and night, would stimulate their imaginations.

In many ways, Coleridge and Wordsworth could claim to be the first hikers. They walked great distances, thinking nothing of 30 miles a day, striking off across the mountains without maps before trails existed. Coleridge took this to extremes and on one epic nine-day hike he got stuck on a rock ledge on Scafell, the highest and hardest mountain. He thought he was going to die and went into “a state of almost prophetic trance & delight” until he worked out how to climb down a narrow crack or ‘chimney’ in the rock.

Walking down to Derwent Water near Keswick in the north of the Lake District. © Sara Hudston
Walking down to Derwent Water near Keswick in the north of the Lake District. © Sara Hudston

Nothing so dangerous or dramatic happened to us, but we shared a similar sense of physical elation. By the time we reached Keswick that evening after crossing the numinous calm of Derwent Water, we were exhausted and triumphant. After walking nearly 13 miles, the ecstasy of a hot bath is worth a sonnet or two.

 

Castlerigg Stone Circle, a Neolithic circle admired by generations of poets and painters. © Sara Hudston
Castlerigg Stone Circle, a Neolithic circle admired by generations of poets and painters. © Sara Hudston

For the final two days of the trip, we explored the shores of Derwent Water, the ‘Queen of the Lakes’, and the slopes of Blencathra. We walked up the valley where children’s author Beatrix Potter set ‘The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’ and saw the old mining doors in the hill that Potter imagined led to the hedgehog’s home. We pondered the mysteries of the Neolithic stone circle at Castlerigg and spent an evening at the theatre watching a production of Agatha Christie’s ‘Dial M for Murder’.

Below the slopes of Blencathra mountain. © Sara Hudston
Below the slopes of Blencathra mountain. © Sara Hudston

On our last evening, Alan and Bill devised a quiz. They split the group into two teams and set questions about the trip. I was with Greg and veteran Ellie against Barbara, Ellen and Carol. While good-humored, of course both sides really wanted to win. My team was slightly ahead when Alan asked, ‘what was the name of Donald Campbell’s boat in which he attempted to break his world waterspeed record on Coniston Water in 1967?’ I couldn’t remember. I looked at Greg. He shrugged. The other side were fizzing as they scented victory. We looked at Ellie. ‘Bluebird,’ she said calmly, winning the crucial point. I really should have known by then – never under-estimate a seasoned traveler.

 

Trip details:

The Lake District from The Wayfarers  Walking Vacations offers invigorating hiking in the mountains and valleys of England’s Lake District. It is rated Level 5, which means “Mountain trails and tracks, some steep ascents and descents. Meadows, woodlands, lakeside paths, wild uplands and open moor lands. 8-15 miles walking per day.” The six night trip is priced from $4,395.

 

Sara Hudston is a British writer living in rural Dorset, UK. She contributes to the Guardian newspaper’s Country Diary column and writes freelance features for a spread of magazines and newspapers. A member of the Society of Authors, she has written books on art, the Victorian theatre and islands. She is also a freelance editor at Little Toller Books, an independent UK publisher specialising in nature writing. See her website www.sarahudston.co.uk
Sara Hudston is a British writer living in rural Dorset, UK. She contributes to the Guardian newspaper’s Country Diary column and writes freelance features for a spread of magazines and newspapers. A member of the Society of Authors, she has written books on art, the Victorian theatre and islands. She is also a freelance editor at Little Toller Books, an independent UK publisher specialising in nature writing. See her website www.sarahudston.co.uk
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