The Cumbria Way – Day 2

October 18, 1984: Hawkshead to Elterwater

Our kids at Hawkshead Youth Hostel

Our kids at Hawkshead Youth Hostel

Hawkshead Youth Hostel rang its wake-up bell at 7:30 on the morning of Thursday, October 18. I encouraged the gentlemen to get out of their sacks – but they only began to move when the breakfast bell rang. The girls were tardy risers too. Breakfast “orders” had been taken the previous night: cereal or porridge, eggs in various combinations with toast, fried bread or tomatoes – but our lot couldn’t remember what they had chosen and there was a good deal of confusion over who got what. None of this amused the disapproving wardeness.

As usual many of our charges disappeared before the meal was complete; nevertheless the American bicyclist (also a teacher, it turned out) said he liked our group better than a set of English youngsters who had proceeded us at this hostel: they had evidently accomplished every task in the paramilitary style favored by gamesmasters at some posh UK schools. At least our group accepted their youth hostel chores with good grace. Regrettably, some of them charged off to do their sweeping and scrubbing before receiving the printed card spelling out in detail that which must be obeyed – and they had to start all over again. I had to clean the basins in our dorm.

We were not ready to leave until 9:50. Unfortunately the warden (perhaps the same busybody who had offered advice on how to reach the local pubs) was now advising some of the lads on how to get directly to a teashop en route. They later nagged me incessantly about this – since the Cumbria Way route we would be using put us there at approximately 3:00, not the noon promised by Mr. Butinsky. The exact amount of time to be spent on the trail was especially meaningful on this day because it was obvious that we were not going to escape rain today. Most of us donned our rain gear before picking up our packed lunches (the dieters disdained these and some were left behind) and moved to the covered portico out front for some instructions from yours truly.

The village of Hawkshead – already visited in the dark by half of our party – had been recommended by a number of people at the hostel so I suggested that we have a leisurely stroll round it – a cup of tea if desired – and that we all meet in front of the post office at 11:00; this would give us almost an hour. The mob charged off down the road and by the time Tosh and I reached the outskirts of the town most of them had disappeared. At least it was too early for the pubs to be open.

A few stragglers agreed to join Tosh and me on a tour of Wordsworth’s grammar school. This was quite interesting, but it was a nuisance walking around in rain garb. I then went on a scouting expedition behind the church, where the OS map indicated I would find a path heading in the direction of Tarn Hawes. I found it. Then I returned to the village, taking pictures, and rejoined Tosh on a stroll through the crooked antique streets. The treasured wets, our obedient controllable darlings, were all on view in the vicinity of the post office but 11:00 came and went and there was no sign of the irreconcilables. I started to fret. Had they gone on to the next village or headed off who knows where? I was getting quite agitated when they all appeared around a corner, refreshed by coffee in some obscure shop. We did a head count and I led a long file up past the church. On my lips a small smile of relief became a smirk of revenge as we sloshed through our first muddy path, a surface many of these doubting Thomases had not prepared for in their choice of footwear.

The terrain was a lovely mixture of rolling pasture and woodland. The grassy trods were slippery, however, and this slowed down the hard-charging fellows, who had instructions to wait for me on various hilltops. “I’ve got to find a walking stick,” one of the Farrells kept moaning. I never knew which one: John and James were absolutely identical, down to their acne-covered cheeks, two irrepressible twelfth-grade enthusiasts who found delight in every aspect of the scene and every form of devilment. The twin who craved a stick ever tried, experimentally and unsuccessfully, to see if any fence posts needed uprooting.

It rained quite hard a number of times as we passed Walker Ground and Keen Ground and by the time we descended to tarmac there were large gaps between the frontrunners and the straggling girls. As they came down the hill I ordered them to walk up to the next collection of houses – which proved to be Hawkshead Hill. “Where’s this teahouse?” the damp ones wanted to know.

Tosh finally appeared with Karen and Anita. “Are they all right?” I asked. “Yes,” she answered, “just slow.” “Well, stay with them,” I advised. By this time we were all at Hawkshead Hill and I continued up the road to Tenter Hill and onto the Tarn Hawes road itself. There was a signposted path, one which got us off the tarmac, so I decided to use it – even though it failed to correspond to anything on the OS map. We were required to climb a number of high stiles as we gained altitude. At the foot of the first of these a black horse came rushing up and there was an argument over who got to give him a youth hostel apple.

We had a rest in a pine woods; I did a little scouting. Some of the girls were looking at me balefully now. There was some disagreement over whether lunch had been declared. I said it hadn’t. When we hit the road again I decided to see where it would lead. We had walked only a further 100 yards when we were greeted by breathtaking views of the tarn, glorious in its fall foliage, below us. Even the kids seemed impressed by the sight.

I began a descent toward the southwest corner of the lake – again there was a squall of rain accompanied by sunshine at the same time. When we reached the track at the western shore we were at last making direct contact with the Cumbria Way, the Cumbria Way of John Trevelyan, whose Dalesman guide we intended to follow for many a mile. The Cumbria Way was an “unofficial” route in 1984. Unlike the dozen or so “national trails” that have been waymarked by the Countryside Commission or its successors since then, unofficial routes exist solely because some dedicated walkers have figured out how to knit existing public rights of ways, bridleways, tracks, and roads into a useful overland pattern – and because one of their number has published an account of the route. Trevelyan’s The Cumbria Way, written on behalf of the Lake District Area of the Ramblers’ Association, first made an appearance in 1977. It traces a low-level, valley route of some 70 miles from Ulverston in the south of the county to Carlisle in the north (we were thus coming in at about the one quarter mark and I would have to find some way of doing the missing parts later).

Because of its unofficial status, we were about to learn, the Cumbria Way was a challenge to follow. It was not waymarked on the ground in any way, although it did appear on some Ordnance Survey maps. It was walkable, in short, only if you had a copy of Trevelyan’s book as your guide. One cannot underestimate the indebtedness of ramblers to an author like Trevelyan, but this does not mean that I found his book fully satisfactory. Like most texts based on written descriptions of physical settings (i.e., without detailed maps) it was occasionally insufficient and there were places where I found it easier to rely on my OS map.

Our first steps on the Cumbria Way were interrupted by urgent discussions on the topic of the luncheon hour. I was ready to agree this time, but one of the wet Farrells, his heart set of the tea shop miles away, demurred – so I continued along the tarnside track, overtaken soon by most of the older lads and the heavily laden Mark K, muffled against reality by the earphones of his walkman – which leaked tinny rock every time he passed me.

Trevelyan suggests a turnoff where the path from our side of the lake meets the path from the other side. Such advice is typically vague – a path around a lake is always meeting itself. In the event I was so intent on catching up with the boys that I missed the turn-off. By the time I had figured all this out the lads were beginning to walk back to our starting point in a giant circle. They were called back. Tosh caught up with them and offered a scolding while I retraced my route, looking for the right turn-off. I soon found it and we all left Tarn Hawes and followed a northerly path through woods. We reached a descending track. There were beautiful views; every stream was a waterfall today.

I was able to let the frontrunners get ahead again. I had been quite cross with them over their tendency to outrun the one person who knew where in the hell we were going, but when I had an obvious landmark ahead of us I could at least suggest a rendezvous point for them to wait at. “Stop at the tarmac road,” I now told them. This proved to be not the Coniston Road but the access track to High Arnside Farm. Here we tried to eat lunch. I attempted to do this with pack and rain cape still on – it wasn’t easy. Some of the kids found a little shelter in the lee of a wall but the rest of us had the full blast of a southerly wind. Consequently I tried to get us all moving again after ten minutes. Somewhat chastened by the morning’s misadventure the seniors agreed to bring up the rear, using their long legs to play catch up with the rest of us.

The weather was wild – windy, rainy, sunny too. I lead us along the road as far at the Tongue Intake Plantation and then we followed a track northwest. I stationed one walker at the road junction so that we would be sure not to lose anyone as we left the highway. It was extremely beautiful. Rusty bracken covered the hills and views of Little Langdale opened up below us as we descended to High Park Farm. Here we were supposed to find a path through the woods to the Colwith Bridge but I couldn’t spot a footpath sign or see evidence of one on the ground and I was reluctant to break into the farmyard with nineteen strangers. I should have done this, I can now see, for two years later I used the route in question on a summer jaunt up Little Langdale. But on this wet October day the force of all those chilly bodies stamping their feet began to propel us down the road – where a stile invited us to head downfield directly toward the River Brathay. As this was our ultimate destination, and since there seemed to be an outlet stile at the bottom, I gave the go-ahead and our troops were soon snaking down the steep hill.

At the bottom we found a thin trod by the side of the river; it may or may not have been a public right of way. I let Marty Cornelius do the pathfinding, which he did quite successfully. Only two and a half years earlier, in my first full stint at ASL, I had marched this kid into the middle school principal’s office when I found him running down the stairs brandishing a jack knife. Now, all this happily forgotten, he plunged resolutely forward, a red bandanna around his head, an eleventh-grade pirate looking for signs of a footpath in the fallen yellow leaves.

Kids and Tosh at Colwith Force

We passed Colwith Force, roaring with water, but a number of the slow-moving girls would not move the extra 30 yards from the path to see this marvel. Once we came up against a wire fence, a sure sign that we were probably where we ought not to be, but we scrambled through this and before long we had reached our next goal, the highway over Colwith Bridge.

Here I drew Tosh aside and we had a small conference. Then I sat everyone down on the abutment and gave each member of the party a choice. “You are about a mile and a half from the youth hostel – a direct march on this road. If you elect to take this route you will arrive at least an hour and a half before it opens. You may find a cup of tea in the adjacent village. Mrs. Lee and I are going to follow the official route, twice as long, but we will definitely be stopping for tea in Skelwith Bridge.”

A division in the ranks took place. The damp, the miserable, the weary, those anxious to escape the presence of grown-ups, began a brisk march along the road northwards. “You’re coming with me,” I told Marian Collins and her fellow Canadian, the russet-haired Tara McEldowney. Tosh and I were also joined by Randa, Suzanne, and the little ninth-grader, Mark Schuld. All of the rest had by this time disappeared. At least I could depend on my lot not to overtake me.

Rain pelted us as we continued on our track over farmland on the south side of the Brathay. At Park Farm there was some ambiguity over how to proceed: the way forward was obvious only after we had penetrated what seemed to be the cloistered privacy of the farmyard. Here we discovered a bed and breakfast sign and an arrow pointing toward Skelwith Bridge. Unfortunately the track split and I took the fork that brought us too close to the river again. As we retraced our steps we passed another equally lost couple poring over their maps. I took the other fork and we used it all the way to the road. I was sure we were meant to follow a path to the left (confirmed on the 1986 expedition) but I was then in no mood for additional wrong turnings.

The Cumbria Way was, of course not waymarked, but the route did appear – in outline – on the two and a half inch map. This, it would seem, should have given it enough of an official status to require some better recognition of its existence on the ground than that provided by those responsible for the terrain back in 1984, public or private. I have always wanted to know what streak of English perversity prevents landowners from erecting more signs, ones that might keep walkers from straying over territory not open to the public. Perhaps there is a need to be outraged here. Trespassers prove that the landowner was right in resisting access in the first place.

Once we had reached the road we had a descent of half a mile to Skelwith Bridge. Here we found the famous teashop, adjacent to the slate quarry showrooms. We stripped ourselves of packs and rain gear and warmed up nicely in a dining room full of genteel tourists who had arrived by car. The kids still seemed to be in a good mood. The showroom was full of kitsch – every household item buried in a block of unfriendly green-black slate – clocks, ashtrays, thermometers – you name it.

Approaching Elterwater village

Approaching Elterwater village

At 4:00 we emerged into the wet again and continued up the opposite bank of the Brathay, pausing to walk out onto the cliffs at Skelwith Force. Soon we were walking near the shores of Elter Water. Large sections of the path were ribbons of water, which we tried to dodge whenever possible. Nevertheless the footing was very juicy. I introduced the “Tude Family” game to Marian and Tara and this helped pass the time. “Which member of the Tude family is always high? Answer: Alta Tude.” The setting, as we rejoined the overflowing Great Langdale Beck, was superb. Nevertheless we were all happy to see the village of Elterwater ahead of us. We crossed the bridge over the beck and in a few paces we were at Elterwater Youth Hostel. It was just 5:00.

Quite a few people were checking in. It was necessary for us to put our boots in a drying room, entered directly from the front courtyard. This I did, returning to the front door by stepping gingerly over cobblestones in my sopping stockinged feet. These left large wet marks on the hostel floor. Some of the frontrunners were about but most of them were still out. They had arrived almost two hours before this and an English couple, who were renting a cottage in nearby Chapel Stile, had taken pity on them and invited them over to warm up in front of their fire. Marty had fallen asleep. This group trailed in over the next two hours, Ty last of all. This caused the sponsors some anxiety as we wondered whether they would all be present for the evening meal. They were. They were terribly pleased with their adventures and the kindness of these strangers. Jeff Hill had been given a new poncho by his hosts, something to replace his original one, now in tatters.

After a not very edifying YHA spaghetti we repaired to separate rooms. I assigned myself a double room with only Mark Schuld as a roommate. Mark K. and Jeff were put together and I let the rest of the older boys share a room for four. I dried my things on a radiator and, after waiting interminably, got into the showers. Tosh and I announced we would ourselves go to the local pub at 8:00 and would buy a non-alcoholic drink for anyone who showed up. (Tosh stuck to her pledge not to drink alcohol on this trip.) The wild bunch did put in an appearance. Young Alison Giardini, a tenth-grader, had played Trivial Pursuit with the wets on the previous night but by now she was smitten with one of the Farrells. Even freshman Kelly Fellers was part of this mob too. Our presence in the tiny pub discouraged the others from hanging around for long and no doubt they went up to the next village.

After an hour Tosh and I returned to the hostel. I played TP until my place was gradually usurped by a group of English schoolboys. They had been driven out of their tents by all the wet weather and were ordered to bed by their stern headmaster at 10:00. We passed another anxious hour waiting to see if the rest of our charges would show up. They did and then proceeded to wander in and out of one another’s rooms until Tosh and the warden appeared to put an end to the hi-jinks. I didn’t want to know; exhaustedly, I had gone to bed.

To continue with our walk you need:

Day 3: Elterwater to Longthwaite