The Cumbria Way – Day 1

October 17, 1984: Windermere to Hawkshead

Our group at Windermere station

Our group at Windermere station

I reached Euston Station at 9:45 on the morning of Wednesday, October 17, 1984. It had been only a few months since my wife Dorothy and I (and our dog Bertie) had met Tosh and Harold Lee here for the first of many summer walking trips. Now Tosh and I would return to the Lake District for the first of our joint assignments (there were many to come) in the Alternatives program, an out-of-classroom venture for students of the American School in London ­– where we were both teachers. Bertie, who would not have been admitted to the youth hostels, had to stay behind on this trip. Harold, a history professor, had his Grinnell students to attend to (and was always wise enough to give our school trips a miss). Dorothy was still busy at ASL with my old assignment as Alternatives Coordinator. So it was only Tosh, in wool cap and green bomber jacket, who answered the call this morning.

This trip was accompanied by more than the usual anxieties. On the previous Saturday I had broken a tooth – and it had been attended to with an emergency root canal at noon on the following Monday. This seemed unconnected to the pulsing tic beneath my right eye. But, altogether, this evidence of strain palled into insignificance when Tosh and I considered the enormity of the chore we had saddled ourselves with ­– for on this morning at Euston we were expecting the company of no fewer than 18 ASL teenagers! It was my first time as a chaperone on a high school trip. Did I know what I was getting into?

The station was full of our folk and there was also a group heading for rock climbing at Plas-y-Brenin as our lot (and 30 more headed for the Lake District Outdoor Pursuit Center) boarded the 10:20 train for Oxenholme. Senior Peggy Dybvig and tenth-grader Randa Hassan, delayed by taxi traffic, were the last to arrive at 10:10. Perky Peggy, full of the wonder of it all, was a tall blonde in glasses, new to our school and wonderfully wholesome and likable. There has been parental concern when young Randa had been allowed twenty minutes free time to roam in the wilds of Covent Garden during the spring version of this program – so we would have to make sure she came to no harm in the wilds of Cumbria. With Tosh bringing up the rear I now lead a corking charge the length of the platform to Coach K, and here we installed ourselves for a journey of about three and a half hours.

As usual, the ride was a bore. I had a good gossip with Tosh, whom I rarely saw on campus in those days. She played a card game with Jeff Hill, a new 9th grader, a young chap with big glasses and duck boots so tight it took him half an hour to get them off. We were worried that he might not fit in well with the rest of the chatterboxes – but this turned out to be an unnecessary concern. Fellow teacher Lynn Anderson, on his way to the Outdoor Pursuits Centre, banished all of the smokers to another car – which meant that we lost sight of half of our charges almost at once. I can see, in retrospect, that this was probably a bad sign.

Behind us poor Marian Collins, suffering from motion sickness, lay collapsed on the seats. I was afraid I was going to lose one of my favorite students at the outset – but after an hour she recovered and was soon her old, witty, positive, intelligent self. I had asked the students to bring packed lunches and they munched these all day long. Dorothy had provided me with a magnificent collection of edibles. I was still eating some of them on the train home.

I encouraged my people to tape up as we neared Oxenholme, having alerted them that we would be changing trains soon. We were a few minutes late but the two-car shuttle to Windermere was waiting for us at the siding. By pre-arrangement, I put all of our students in one car and sent the Pursuits Center people to the next. It was crowded on the shuttle and I stood part of the way. The locals seemed amused by our lot and offered an impromptu history lesson as we neared Kendal-in-Wainwrightdale. The weather, which had been drizzly and grey down south, now became sunny and pleasant. What a relief, when we arrived at 2:30, to have such useful walking conditions for our first day.

The other party climbed into two large vans and we waved goodbye. I announced a five-minute comfort stop and then lined everyone up for the obligatory group photo. I tried to subdivide our very large group into smaller sections of four, hoping to keep some order as we began our long march down to Lake Windermere, but there was immediate resistance to any form of trailside discipline and in the end only my own group kept any cohesion. Tosh, at any rate, had been appointed to bring up the rear and keep an eye out for stragglers. I announced that we would make another stop in Bowness and at about 2:45 we began our walk; none of the day’s six-mile route actually coincided with the Cumbria Way, but we were getting there.

Once again I was wearing my grey Michigan sweatshirt, now accompanied by maroon cords and topped by a pennant-winning Tigers baseball cap. I carried my blue pack and the first of my horn-handled walking sticks. I had loaned Dorothy’s brown pack, blue rain suit, and green canteen to blonde Becky Lyon, a petite innocent senior from my psychology class – who was no doubt gamely trailing at the rear of the pack.

It was unusual to begin a Lakeland walk with two miles of pavement but it was also fun to pass all the windows and touristy storefronts as we descended in the afternoon sun. I pulled up near some pubic conveniences in Bowness and we had a five-minute break while everyone satisfied a lust for baked goods, sweets, and postcards. Then we were off again, with views of the lake as our reward. It was obvious that this trip would luckily coincide with the turning of the leaves; it was a gorgeous afternoon.

At the lakeside we passed a pier where Dorothy and I had taken ship on our first visit to England in 1967. We wanted to cross the lake not here, however, ­but on the car ferry half a mile to the south – and when I saw a “Footpath to Ferry” sign I decided not to follow the highway but to take this shortcut. I could see where we were on the excellent Outdoor Leisure map I was using, one of a series of four (The Southeast sheet in this case) devoted to the Lake District and done in a scale of two and a half inches to the mile.

My group of Randa, Peggy, Jeff, and Mark Kananen, were still with me, but there were some clear gaps behind. Mark, a bright, personable tenth grader in a khaki fatigue jacket, was enjoyable company. He seemed more mature than his years, though I was worried by his 38-pound pack (which included a superfluous sleeping bag) and his history of broken bones.

Windermere cemetery

Windermere cemetery

We passed a cemetery and a churchyard and crossed our first field by footpath. The kids, not surprisingly, were wondering how easy it would be to turn a cow upside down. Soon we were on the road to the ferry landing where we had about a ten-minute rest ­– with marvelous views up and down the lake – waiting for the ferry to return from the other side. My worst fear has been that the ferry would not be running or that fog might have delayed its progress, but we were obviously going to make it to the other side and everyone seemed to be in a jolly mood. Someone circulated with candy bars, another dried fruit. Kids posed for pictures against the blue and white sky above the long lake.

The ride took less than ten minutes. Before we set out on several miles of tarmac I spoke to our group about the necessity of keeping reasonably close together, about walking on the right side of the road, and about walking in single file – but it was hard for them to take in the seriousness of this request since they were all deep in conversation as I spoke. For their part, they insisted on walking shoulder to shoulder ­– so as not to lose a precious word of chatter. We followed a narrow road along the shore of the lake but as we climbed the hill toward Hawkrigg Farm the frontrunners outran my supervision and the result was that an unsuspecting cyclist, silently coming over the crest toward us, was greeted by a roadway littered with American teenagers in a pattern that only Jackson Pollock could have duplicated. “You all belong on the right! ” he screamed hysterically, weaving among us skillfully.

I then directed the hard-charging boys to wait for the rest of us at the post office in Far Sawrey, the next village. This they agreed to do reluctantly, but I just didn’t trust them to make it to our youth hostel without a map. Suzanne Soudbash and I stopped at the brow of our hill to take photographs of the church at Town End, but I forgot my walking stick here and discovered the loss only about 300 yards later. So I had to retrace my steps (sore left toes) to retrieve it. By this time everyone had reached Far Sawrey. When I caught up I released the speedsters to wait for us next at the first tarmac turnoff in Near Sawrey. This second village, with its Beatrix Potter associations, was holding hound dog trials on the green but none our scholars stopped to take this in. Indeed we had to recall a good number of our group because they had overshot the turnoff to Esthwaite Water. “I thought it would be a bigger road than that,” one of the Farrell twins explained in mitigation.

Esthwaite Water

Esthwaite Water

When we were all reassembled I lead a charge down to the south end of the lake. At Ees bridge I was able to give directions to the youth hostel without fear that anyone would get lost. Many headed off on their own but not Anita Kacik or Karen Notairanni, who were walking with their huge packs on backwards – that is resting on their stomachs instead of their sore shoulders. Tosh and I paused with some of the girls at a viewpoint at the southern end of the lake. Then we walked along the road to the north, with brambles and sloes hanging from bushes on our right and a bellowing bull holding forth on our left. A lovely twilight descended as we reached Esthwaite Lodge, a charming stately home that had been converted onto Hawkshead Youth Hostel. It was 5:45.

Each of us had to sign in individually and the somewhat pedantic warden became exasperated when Randa dithered over what nationality to put down. The girls and Tosh had their own dorm on the first floor. The males had a similar arrangement a short distance away – though here Mark K, the Farrells, Marty Cornelius, and Ty Jerhoff claimed an elevated inner chamber which was soon choked with Ty’s omnipresent cigarette smoke. I extinguished this but neither Ty’s flair for rebellion nor the offbeat charm that had worked its wonder on last fall’s European Literature class were affected. The oldest of the boys, Ty was clearly more interested in establishing some distance between himself and the symbols of outdated adult authority than in the wonders of the Lakeland scene. Nevertheless he and I had always gotten on well, perhaps because I could recognize that we were already dealing with a grown-up here. Ty and his pals were obviously not going to settle down in front of the TV set in the lounge or even out in the game room, which had ping-pong tables and a juke box. They gathered here briefly but at 7:00 we were summoned to the dining room.

Tosh and I sat with an American father and his English son; they were cycling from hostel to hostel and the father had something tedious to say about each. No doubt Hawkshead lost a star because the kitchen ladies didn’t have any brown bread and there was no extra butter. Tomato soup was followed by quiche and a baked potato with cheese sauce. Slimming Anita and Karen abruptly abandoned the table after the soup. There was apple crumble and custard for dessert.

Tosh had called a meeting for 8:10. Its chief purpose, I discovered, was to present me with a t-shirt in honor of my 750th mile on British footpaths, a milestone that I was not due to reach until the following Friday. Everyone had signed a card as well. I talked a little about the next day and left half of them in the game room as I went to enjoy a quiet shower, a further toenail clip, and a period studying tomorrow’s maps. Then I joined a jolly group in one of the lounges for the first ever Alternatives Trivial Pursuit evening, the inauguration of what turned out to be a very long tradition indeed. This evening’s contest turned out to be a two-person playoff between Marian and myself – in which I prevailed only after stubborn resistance.

We had a wonderful time until Tosh noticed that the gameroom contingent had disappeared! I had started a postcard to Jay, my Pennine Way companion, but I was now too upset to do anything after the first line. As the hostel’s curfew hour (which we had not even mentioned to our students) drew ever nearer, Tosh was deputized to explain our predicament to the wardeness. But just at 11:00 the missing persons emerged merrily from the dark lane to Hawkshead (and its many pubs). Perhaps Tosh, who had much more experience in the ways of ASL’s enterprising upperclassmen than I, should have anticipated something of this kind. I had naively thought there wasn’t any place kids could get to – since we hadn’t even been to Hawkshead yet. I suggested that the young people should have told us if they were leaving the premises (a fixed rule ever after) but Tosh and I agreed not to breathalyze anyone.

The older boys were certainly in a giddy mood – one of the Farrells climbed out on the roof outside the girls’ dorm and jumped in their window to give Tosh a goodnight kiss. Giggling and chatter persisted in the darkness for an hour in our dorm – in spite of my many pleas for quiet. Fortunately I had some earplugs and the 9th grade boys slept soundly. Nevertheless I did not get enough sleep at the end of a very difficult day.

To continue with our walk (and even reach the Cumbria Way this time) you need:

Day 2: Hawkshead to Elterwater