Sunday 22 July 2012

Stake In My Heart: Day 3 on the Cumbria Way

The Afternoon Before the Morning After
 I like the view of the sky line hence again using this photo from the day before!
This was the third and last day of my walk along the southern half of the Cumbria Way.   Following the essential mug of tea whilst lying in my sleeping bag, without which I can never get started, I had what I regard as the ultimate lightweight backpacking comfort breakfast – good old Ready Brek.  Before I set out on trips I usually make up daily individual portions in plastic food bags – the oats, mixed with some dried milk and sugar.  If I am feeling particularly Jamie Oliverish I also bung in some dried fruit flakes.  Then it’s just add hot water.  There are two draw backs.  The first is that you do have a pot to rinse out, unless you are happy just to let the gunge boil off and add body to your next brew; and the dry oats do get everywhere when you open the bag – in your sleeping bag, trail shoes, socks, underpants, the lot.  A small price to pay.
I was walking by 6.30am.  The weather, true to the forecast, was dry, but rain was supposed to be heading over for later in the morning.
The walk from Baysbrown Campsite to the old Dungeon Ghyll is very straightforward, with the classic view of the Langdale Pikes in view for much of the time.  My heart did sink, however, as I dropped down to the farm at Side House, when I saw that yet again I was in cattle country (see my account of Day 1 for details of my abject cowardice / phobia when in the presence of bovines and equines).  Slow deep breath.  Another slow deep breath.  And another.  Spin the fear.  Yes they are right across the bloody path.  Yes that it is a bull standing right next to the path.  No there isn’t an alternative route.  Yes they have calves with them.  Yes they do seem to be ignoring me.  No the bull hasn’t looked up.  There is the gate out of the field.  No they aren’t following me.  Yes I am out of the field and there is the New Dungeon Ghyll.  Piece of piss, what was the fuss about?

Back down Mickleden

I have walked many times between the Old and New Dungeon Ghyll Hotels and usually do this along the road.  Today I followed the Way proper that runs parallel to the road but higher up behind the NDG and along the northern valley side.  I was mildly surprised at how rough this track was in places and it involved a reasonable height gain, the road being along the flat valley floor.  But I was soon beyond the ODG and into Mickleden.  I have walked along Mickleden many, many times.  Never before have I encountered a bull or cattle.  Today I had both.  Sod them.  I just marched passed.  Memories of the first time I walked this valley came back.  It was Easter 1974 and I was 16.  I was carrying a very heavy pack from the National Trust camp site near the ODG over to Borrowdale via Styhead and we toiled on a hot day up Mickleden and then up by Rossett Gill to Angle Tarn.  In those days, if you didn’t know about the old pack horse zig zags, and we didn’t, you had an hour of purgatory following the stream bed and the most appalling river of scree you could ever try walking in.  These days the zig zags have been re-engineered and are very evident.

Looking up Mickleden
Today, though, I forked right for Stake Pass before Rossett Gill and trudged up one of the few long climbs on the Cumbria Way.  The views ahead are initially relatively restricted; those behind back towards Langdale, and across towards The Band and Bow Fell are just magnificent.  At the top of the Pass is a short moraine filled plateau, Langdale Combe, with some wild camp possibilities.

The Stake Pass.  Steeper than it looks in this photo!

Mickleden from Stake Pass Path
A Geography Teacher's Heavenly Example of a Glaciated Trough

And now the rain came.  Just a fine drizzle at first.  And as the wind increased in strength so did the rain.  By the time I was descending into Langstrath I was into heavy clag, and boy did it tip it down.  The drop down into Langstrath is pretty steep.  There is a heavily engineered path for much of the way.  I hate most of these man made aberrations and the bends and zig zags in this were unnaturally symmetrical, and the surface looked as if it had been prepared for a final top layer of tarmac.  To me it was further evidence of the insensitive approach of Fix the Fells to what is, admittedly, a difficult problem.  But I have to admit it certainly made the going easier and quicker, not that that should be the point of such paths.

Langstrath from Stake Pass
Those skies were far more menacing than they appear in this photo!

By the time I had reached the valley floor the downpour appeared to be over and I sat on a boulder near Tray Dub to take off my waterproofs.  A walker coming up the valley gave me a cheery hello and then made a joke about me removing my waterproofs.  “Please don’t do that”, he said “you know what happens when you take waterproofs off.  It always starts to rain again”.  I smiled but as I set off I muttered something to myself about superstitious old cynics.
Five minutes later it was heaving down, and I was half soaked by the time I had got my cag and overtrousers back on.  I hared down the valley towards Stonethwaite.  Head down, hood up I took in little of the view, and certainly took no photographs, although I paused to look up to Sergeant Crags Slab.  This isn’t marked on the map but was the scene for me of a super day’s climbing in 1994 when Al Davis led, and then coaxed me up, an HVS and then a “soft touch” E1.  The crag had only recently been discovered by climbers and the rock was perfect, lots of friction, and so different to many of the polished climbs on the more popular crags of Borrowdale.  I had taken up climbing far too late in life and was remarkably inept at it, but the bug held me for 5 or 6 years and it gave me many an adrenalin and fear filled after work evening or weekend whenever the sun shone.
I had considered walking as far as Rosthwaite to catch the Keswick bus but this was no fun in what was now the most horrendous rain.  By a forced march I made the bus stop just beyond Stonethwaite with a couple of minutes to spare before the bus arrived.  Keswick beckoned.  So did the café in Booths, possibly the nicest supermarket in the world, and lashings of tea and an all day breakfast while waiting for the Penrith bus, and then the faff of getting tent, gear and clothes dry.  The tedium of unpacking and drying out always takes the gloss off a walk –for about 10 minutes – after which the good bits get better and the bad bits fade and die.  

Monday 16 July 2012

A Dead Sheep Never Hurt Nobody: Day 2 on the Cumbria Way

First View of Coniston Water

Many years ago I watched a drama on television about a group of teenagers on a school trip who were walking and camping in the mountains with their teacher.  One of the boys, who was a bit nerdy, was full of “interesting” facts.  At one point he spent a good few minutes explaining to the long suffering and cynical teacher that if a stream in the mountains was fast flowing the rapid oxygenation of the water would mean that it would be safe to drink just six feet downstream from a dead sheep.  The teacher looked at him witheringly for a few moments and replied “Jones, if you were at a stream, wanting a drink, and there was a stinking, festering, rotting, maggot filled dead sheep in the water, would you take a drink from six feet below it?  Or would you, instead, walk 12 feet up stream so that you were six feet above the carcase and take a drink from there?”  Good point.
In outdoor blogs when the subject of safe water comes up there is frequently advice given not to drink from a stream without checking that there aren’t dead animals in it.  I have to say that whilst dead sheep are not an uncommon sight in the hills seeing them in streams is reasonably rare and I have never really spent much time checking water sources if they are fast flowing.  I would be more concerned about the lingering effects of Chernobyl, or even Sellafield.  But my stomach did turn at least 90 degrees just after I had packed up and started Day 2 of my “Southern Half of the Cumbria Way” walk when I saw the stereotypical rotting sheep in the stream I had camped near, and taken water from, just a few yards upstream from where I had camped.  Still I live to tell the tale, so that lad in the drama was correct – either that or my Travel Tap is as effective as claimed at purifying water.
I do not use the adjective “charming” very often.  However, it seems just the right word to describe my second day on the Way.  I covered the section from Mere Beck on Torver Low Common to Baysbrown Camp Site at Chapel Stile in Great Langdale.  I took my time over the walk, about 7 hours or so, including stopping for a full English in Coniston, for an ice cream at Tarn Hows, and for tea and cake at High Park, and with innumerable stops to put on or take off waterproofs in a warm, humid day of incessant torrential showers.  Can a shower be incessant or is that an oxymoron?
So, having packed up in light drizzle, I found it was just 15 minutes down to the main road and five more to Coniston Water, with stunning views whenever the clag lifted.  The walk now follows the lake shore, or just above it, and is absolutely fabulous.  I had reckoned that from camping spot to Coniston was 3.5 miles.  In reality the distance and time felt longer but was none the worse for that.   I was at the camp site at Coniston Old Hall just as most of the bedraggled campers there were having breakfast, filled my water bottle from one of the camp site taps, conveniently located next to the public path  (is that stealing?) and wondered at and about the rather bleak looking Hall itself.  I also tried to work out the actual building that was used as the climbing hut set up in the 1920s by the late and very great AH Griffin, my favourite of all the army of Lakeland writers, which had been home to the “Coniston Tigers”** as they explored the gullies and buttresses of Dow Crag in the golden years of Lakeland climbing.

A Proud Mum

I have always loved the village of Coniston.  As you enter the village you pass the wonderfully located John Ruskin Secondary School, a place I frequently used to visit for work purposes.  Can pupils anywhere in England have better views from their school playing field?  Coniston feels like a real place, yes full of tourists, but not self-consciously touristy like certain other Lakeland villages.  And you can get a mean, if pricey, all day breakfast in the Green Housekeeper.  As I did.  Alas, it was far too early for the Black Bull.  A cracking pub the Black Bull, with its own brewery attached.
Then it was off on the long, slow climb through the fields and woods to Tarn Hows.  Did it rain?  Yes it did.  Torrentially. Did it dry up?  Yes it did. Occasionally.  Then it rained again. Then it dried up again and that was the pattern for the rest of the morning.  Paramo is superb clothing in these conditions.  You can wear it all the time without condensation building up, and the dry spells mean that it never wets out.  Unfortunately, I had left mine at home and was wearing Gore Tex so I had to stop time and time again to remove and replace it.  I once found myself racing to get my sack off, and waterproofs out, in the most sudden and torrential of downpours, which had stopped before I had even got my jacket on.

Tarn Hows
Tarn Hows is too Edwardian twee for me but it often boasts an ice cream van.  The stretch of the Way from here to Elterwater is sublime. There is no single highlight in terms of landscape.  It is just perfection throughout.  Also, this stretch of the walk at High Park can boast one of the best non-alcoholic refreshments stops ever known to tea shop man.  Here the cottage serves superb refreshments.  I paid £1.00 for a pot of tea and just £1.00 more for a massive slice of superbly baked chocolate cake.
 “Tremendous value and lovely cake” I said to the lady of the house. “Other places would charge far more”.
“Well I don’t want holiday makers to go home feeling they have been ripped off” she replied.
From someone in a location where few customers will be regulars, or able to repeat visit, this was such a superb attitude compared to what the multi-nationals and chains call “the customer experience” as they serve you mass produced, cellophane wrapped muffins with a bland cup of froth and no change from a fiver.  On the subject of fivers, Stuart Maconie tells the tale in one of his books*** that a bloke in Bolton was once bragging to his mate from Wigan that in Bolton on an evening you can get a pint, a pie and a woman for a fiver.  “Aye, but what make is the pie” retorted the guy from Wigan.

Towards Langdale on the Way to High Park

The Brathay nr Skelwith Bridge

The walk along the Brathay is picture postcard perfect. The sun was out by now and the combination brought out the crowds, but all was well with my world and I condescended to tolerate them, despite my now tiring legs as I headed to Baysbrown camp site at Chapel Stile.  Passing Langdale CE Primary School took me back a good few years.  As with the schools at Coniston, I frequently used to have to visit Langdale Primary in the early 1990s for work purposes.  It took the Headteacher of the time, Nigel, a good few visits before he cottoned on that I always came on a Friday morning.  I never used to tell him when I left at lunchtime that there wasn’t time to get back to the office in Carlisle, so giving me the perfect excuse to start the weekend early with a walk up onto the Langdale Pikes before heading home for tea.

Baysbrown and the Langdales
I highly recommend the camp site at Baysbrown.  Flat, and it all feels less chavvy than the NT site at the ODG higher up the valley.  And it’s only a fiver for one person on foot.  But watch out for the lack of taps and the very long trek for water and amenities if you do not camp up by the farmhouse.  Or, of course, camp well away from the site amenities but at the end of the site nearer the pub, if you are of that mind.

If you want water or the toilet block you have to walk to that farm - a full day's hike!
  This had been a wonderful day’s walk.  There had been little in the way of excitement, but everything in the way of contentment.

** If you haven’t read AH Griffin’s stuff you really must!   My favourites are his Lakeland Mountain Diaries.  But the Coniston Tigers is also a lovely read of youthful adventures in another age.
***Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie.  Another great read from another lover of Lakeland

Sunday 15 July 2012

A Load of Old Bull: Day 1 on the Cumbria Way. Fighting Fear and Phobia

Fear is the mind killer.  Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.  I will face my fear.  I will permit it to pass over me and through me.  And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear’s path.  Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.  Only I will remain.
From “Dune” by Frank Herbert

My route finding error led to a bit of an inauspicious start to my planned three day trek in Jubilee week last month.  I was intending to walk the southern half of the Cumbria Way from Ulverston to Borrowdale, or possibly to Keswick if time and energy permitted.  I had taken the train from Penrith to Ulverston.  The weather forecast was dire, as it has been for most of this dreadful summer, but the rain held off until I swung the train door open as we pulled in to the station.  It then started.  It was already mid afternoon and I had to get moving.  The plan was to get beyond Beacon Tarn by 8 ish for a wild camp. I reckoned this would be about 13 or 14 miles.  I shouldered my pack and headed for the start of the Way.
Because it was raining, and I was in the middle of a town, I left my map and guide book in my pack and relied on instinct.  How could instinct enable me to find my way across a town I had not visited for over 15 years? Well it couldn’t and didn’t. So I managed to get lost before I even started the walk proper, in the middle of a small town, by turning down the wrong side street.  I then did that nonchalant thing you do when there are a fair number of people about and you are lost.  This is usually on the hill, not in an urban setting but the principle is the same.  You know.  The “I have no intention of appearing to be a prat” thing.  But of course it actually makes you appear even more of a prat.  You pretend to know exactly what you are doing, that you are peering at the map and guidebook purely out of interest, and that the reason you have turned round was not because you had taken the wrong path or gone up the wrong street, but rather because you had fulfilled that very important task of, for example, looking at a particular view or stopping at an unusual shop that you had always wanted to visit that just happened to be a little off your intended route.  In my case it was a closed antique shop but it had a nice window display.
At least the shower had now passed and I then found the start of the Way and stopped to take a photograph or two.

                                    The start (or finish) of the Cumbria Way, Ulverston

My walking is almost entirely done in the hills, especially the hills of Cumbria.  The next 8 miles or so until I reached the open fell were to be a challenge for me.  Not because of the nature of the terrain, although I do find navigation over agricultural land more difficult than on the fell.  No, the challenge was not physical or navigational.  It was more in the mind.  It is to do with my entirely irrational** fear of large animals.  It really is a phobia, although some would simply call it pathetic cowardice.  Writing this blog post is, I hope, part of the cure - exposing the irrationality of my own fears in black and white to me and to others may help me combat it further in the future.
Since I was a small child I have been terrified of large animals with horns, teeth or hooves.  On the fells these can largely be avoided, although I sometimes reckon that certain sheep are looking pretty aggressively at me.  Those Herdwicks can be vicious little sods you know.  But the thought that there is no sturdy fence or high wall between me and bovines, equines, dragons or whatever can be enough to reduce me to a quivering, pathetic excuse of a man.  Indeed, a wall or fence does not always calm my fears.  They never look sufficiently strong or high to stop cows, bulls or horses getting to me.  Why, if a cow can jump over the moon, as I know for a fact that one once did, egged on by a cat with a fiddle, hey diddle diddle,  then a bit of barbed wire or dry stone is no real obstacle to prevent a determined attempt to bite / kick / stamp / trample / gore / eat me.  It is a well known fact that cows often jump fences to get to us walkers.
Yes, it is pathetic, but this fear of mine has ruined many a walk for many a year.  It has led me to changing my route, retreating from routes, embarrassing myself in front of small children and, worst of all, it has led to me avoiding completely walking in some wonderful places because of the high perceived risk of death or GBH being inflicted on me by a domesticated, four hoofed monster.
So doing this walk was partly about a middle aged bloke getting a grip, saying enough is enough, get real, get rational, take a deep breath, just do it and stop this phobia ruining your enjoyment of something you generally love doing.  That is why I chose this walk.  I knew that I would have several miles of farmers’ fields to pass through.  And in May in lowland Cumbria this would mean cows.  And possibly worse.  Bullocks.  And even scarier, the biggest, baddest, meanest of them all.  Bulls.  So I wanted to spin all my fears and phobias out of mind and body.

Looking back to Ulverston - it rained so much after this the camera had to be confined to my rucksack

The walk out of Ulverston is pretty straightforward and uncomplicated, but this did not stop me getting lost again at the very first stile, but that was soon sorted.  It was a mile or so in, just after Old Hall Farm, when I first had to confront my fears.  The largest, most ferocious looking cow you ever did see was lying down with its head right next to the path. Slowly chewing its cud.  Just like they do when they are about to attack.  It was all big and black and white and watching me with a menacing stare, but masking this as semi-disinterest.  A cunning specimen, this one.  My heart raced, my mouth went dry.  My pace perceptibly quickened.  I clocked the nearest gate; the height of the wall I would need to jump over to escape.  But I did not divert.  I forced myself to stay on the path.  I could have reached down and touched her if I had been brave enough.
I can only think that this particular cow was blind.  For I did not get bitten, gored, chased, butted or eaten. She did not call over all her mates to surround me and trample me to a bloody pulp. She just ignored me.  A poor excuse for an intimidating beast if ever there was one.
This was easy now.  I marched through field after field, through farm yards and on to Broughton Beck.  Doubts came on near this hamlet.  It was pouring down now; my map showed me that the next few miles were still through fields. There was a simple alternative route I could take, cheating by following roads to Gawthwaite, and thus with no chance of meeting cattle or horses.  No worry and no stress.  I took another deep breath and stuck to the plan and the way proper.
The feared attack happened somewhere between Broughton Beck and Knapperthaw.  As I crossed a field full of cows one pranced up to me, followed by her pals.   She danced around me, just a couple of feet away, literally running around me in circles, snorting.  I waved my trekking poles each time she advanced and made what I hoped were suitably scary comments in a manly voice.  I can’t write them down in a family blog but a lot of the words began with B and ended with ger or tard or itch and she kept her distance.  I edged backwards across the field, watching her whilst sticking determinedly to my route.  There was a line of stones crossing the field, the remnants of a long broken down dry stone wall.  It couldn’t stop her following me I thought, but it might be a psychological barrier she would not cross.  I made it over the stones, not taking my own eyes off her whilst avoiding her gaze.  She stopped. I let out my breath in relief and turned round and faced the right direction once more.  And there, right in front of me, not 6 feet away, was her husband.  The biggest, blackest bull you ever did see.
I could have cried.  I wanted to just lie down in the wet grass and let it do its worst, to get it over with quickly but painfully.  But I didn’t.  I walked passed it.  I walked on and climbed calmly over the stile and out of the field.  I continued on, through lots more fields of cows.  I got stalked by a herd of bullocks at one stage.  I also had to walk right next to the biggest horse in the world, far bigger than that Trojan thing ever was, and she had her foal with her and it’s a well known fact that animals turn into killers when they have their young with them.  Finally, I got to the open fell near Blawith.  I arrived at Beacon Tarn, tired and drained but pleased with myself.  I couldn’t care by then that the ground near the Tarn was far too marshy to find a decent camp spot.  I trekked on, shattered, more from nervous exhaustion, to a semi decent spot near the disused Torver reservoir and finally got the Akto up.  I was too stressed to eat the disgusting pretence for food that is a Travellunch dehydrated meal which was “cooked” and then largely discarded.  And I slept well knowing that for the next couple of days I was on known, familiar ground and there wouldn’t be a cow or horse in sight.  Or so I thought.

        This is possibly the worst example of pitching an Akto ever seen, but I was past caring

To be continued……
** Irrational fear?  A few days after getting back from the Cumbria Way my local paper reported that a walker had been trampled to death by cattle in Teesdale, County Durham.  And just as I thought I was conquering my phobia.