The Cumbria Way – Day 3

October 19, 1984: Elterwater to Longthwaite

The road to Oak Howe

The road to Oak Howe

The stage was now set for one of the most memorable days in my walking career. October 19, 1984 will always be remembered as both the worst and the best of my many outings with students.

We had the usual struggle getting everyone down to breakfast and getting all the chores done afterwards. The room occupied by the Farrells, Marty, and Ty looked like a cyclone had hit it ­– playing cards and fag ends and exploded packs covering every inch of floor space. When it had been put right and we were ready to leave I sent Tara and Marian out to the drying room to fetch my boots. Then I gathered all our troops in the dining room and told them that, although the weather did not look promising, I was sure they could all make the dozen or so miles to our next hostel – and that it was perhaps best to keep moving on such a dull day anyway.

So we filed out of the hostel shortly before 10:00 and began our walk up the south bank of Langdale Beck, a roaring river once again. The weather was now distinctly antagonistic; a driving rain and a cold wind lashed us and most of the students, having ignored my advice about rain preparation, were soon wet and miserable. (At that, I recall that one student from the Middle East had told me he planned to wear street shoes on this expedition, carry a suitcase, and use an umbrella. We had left him behind in London.)

At Chapel Stile we used a bridge to cross the torrent over to the hotel. We walked up the road a little bit and turned off to follow a track up the north bank of the beck. This soon became a lake, the rainwater trapped a foot deep in the road bed. There was a struggle to find a way around this on a narrow verge next to a stone wall, but many of our troopers gave up the struggle and walked into the ankle deep water. At the end of the lane the track crossed a bridge to the south side and turned west again, following a raised bank through wide green cow-filled fields. I briefly paused at this point to note that we were, in fact, at the precise moment of my 750th mile. “Mr. Linick,” pretty Dawn Ulijohn from Period 2 U.S. History asked, “Is it true you do this for pleasure?” “Usually I choose better walking conditions,” I replied.

I suppose I should have realized that there was real distress in the ranks from the fact that my frontrunners were now sadly trailing behind. I was the first to reach the farm buildings at Oak Howe and this enabled me to take a shot of the straggling line struggling up behind me. A path lead over rough ground, with stiles and fences blocking our progress and innumerable streams rushing across our route from the steep incline on our left. There was water everywhere – the views were all watery: Langdale Beck a wide, swollen river; every streamlet a thundering white cascade; water filling every pothole on our route; and water falling all the while from the skies. We had to spend some time finding a safe place to cross one roaring stream. Here we waited for the late arrivals, now some ten minutes behind the rest. Tosh brought me Mark Kananen. “Mark thinks his toe is broken.” “Did you fall or injure your foot in any way?” “No, but I’m sure it’s broken anyway – my bones break easily. I can still walk, though,” he added grimly. In this spirit we began our descent to Side House farm.

A bridge crossed to the north bank here and I turned briefly left on the tarmac in order to re-gather my troops in the parking lot below the Dungeon Ghyll trail. Ty and the Farrells, having spotted the lights of a hotel on the right, headed off in that direction as soon as they reached our group, and I had to administer several severe blasts on my whistle to get them to rejoin our party; the scolding from Mrs. Lee was extra. That lady and I held a brief conference while the youngsters searched for cover in a nearby pine grove. Then I gathered them together again and spoke to them as follows, “We are at the last outpost of civilization here and a choice has to be made. Mrs. Lee and I will press on with any of you who wish to continue on foot. If you don’t feel you can walk any more then you must make your way to tonight’s youth hostel by public transportation and thumb. We are about eight miles away by foot. By road you will travel perhaps 30 or 40 miles – so it will not be easy. Nevertheless I can give you money for buses before you start. Now choose.”

Not surprisingly the division that followed resembled that of yesterday afternoon – except that our group of Marian, Tara, Suzanne, Peggy, Randa, and Mark Schuld now claimed Jeff Hill as well. So there would be nine walkers and eleven hitchhikers.

“Now I want four groups of two, and one group of three. No driver will pick up larger numbers. I want one boy in each group.” A second division took place on these lines and the sodden eleven trailed off down to the road and turned up the hotel’s access lane, hoping to dry off a bit in the hotel’s pub before beginning their journeys. This seemed like a really good idea so the rest of us headed to the pub via the parking lot. By this time I was anxious to catch up with the others anyway – “You forgot to take your money!” So we all entered the hotel and continued to parlay for the next half hour. I gave each hitchhiking party £10.00 and I made sure that each wrote down my instructions on how to get to our youth hostel in Borrowdale, using buses from Ambleside or Grasmere via Keswick. “You’re not mad at us?” Dawn asked. “No, I’m not,” I answered truthfully, “I’m just terribly worried. I’m supposed to be looking after all of you but there is no way we could all hitchhike together – even if we wanted to – and there is no public transportation up here so we must now scatter. I won’t have an easy moment until I see everyone tonight. Remember it’s a long way and there is limited daylight. You must get going soon.”

This did not seem to be happening. The non-walkers had all gone to the toilets to change into dry clothes. Ty was shivering with cold. A few of them wanted a snort at the bar but they were reluctant to pick up their orders until their instructors were gone. (Later, a much-amused Lynn Anderson, taking refuge from his mountain climbing duties at the LDOPC, found one of the twins still nursing his pint, but the incident went unreported.)

The walkers were also slow off the mark. They were gobbling fries and sipping hot chocolate. It was 12:30 and we had covered only three or so miles. Finally I got them all organized and outside. Some of the non-walking couples were beginning to put up their thumbs on the highway. It was with the greatest anxiety that I turned up the hill in search of my westward track. The instructions in Trevelyan were not clear but I found what proved to be the right route. The pressing necessity of getting the magnificent seven into Borrowdale had to replace my nagging despair over those I had left behind.

At the pub I had refolded my map for the next section and inserted this into my plastic map case; it took us a little while to walk onto this section – long enough for the map case to wrap itself around my neck several times in the stiff breeze. Marion had the special responsibility of rescuing me from my garrote whenever this happened. Ahead there was an incredibly beautiful scene – the golden bracken, the green hills, the imposing fells, the ribbons of cascading water everywhere. Walking was very easy as we followed the Mickleden Beck branch at the head of Great Langdale. “Do we have to go over that?” my little charges kept asking – not so much in apprehension but in anticipation of the challenges of Stake Pass. For an hour I kept saying, “No,” but at last I could see Stake Gill up ahead on our right – it too seemed like one long waterfall today. Fortunately there was a footbridge at its foot and even a directional sign. Here I paused – having resisted several calls for a rest stop since I was now fighting the clock and the short daylight hours. We had lunch (again prepared by the hostel) and watched the wonderful scene at our feet – Great Langdale lashed by occasional rays of sun. “Don’t eat the peanuts,” someone said, “They’re stale.”

Great Langdale from Stake Gill

Great Langdale from Stake Gill

Finally it was time to leave the valleyhead moraine behind and begin the many switchbacks up to the top of the pass, the one great ascent of our trip. The route was far easier than I had anticipated – the switchbacks made it a far more comfortable ascent than the previous summer’s scrambles up Ling Gill and Lining Crag on the Coast-to-Coast Path. Of course the trail was itself a stream today and rain persisted on and off throughout the day. Jeff and Peggy lead the way; Tosh and I, the old bones, brought up the rear. Fortunately the kids knew enough to stop when the track crossed the top of the gill. We had to perform a running jump to get across and here I insisted on taking the lead again, using my compass to make sure we were still on the right line to the pass. The countryside was wonderfully desolate but no longer steep. At last we reached the summit – it was near 3:00. Sheep splashed in blue-green paint grazed with those emblazoned in red or black. We rested for five minutes while I changed maps in a high wind. Then I lead a charge down the path that switched back and forth as it paralleled Stake Beck. Poor Suzanne Soudbash, one of ASL’s varsity stars, had been limping on a sore ankle for miles. I insisted she take my walking stick.

The views of Langstrathdale before us were magnificent, but a moment’s inattention inevitably lead to a tumble on the steep, wet, insecure surface of the path. We all fell repeatedly. I fell once on my camera; it left a loud bruise on my chest for weeks. Even before I hit the ground five or six concerned voices behind me were asking in unison, “Are you all right?” At the foot of Stake Beck there was a footbridge. We paused only a short moment and I pressed on. How much was I reminded of my stepfather’s attempts to keep his charges moving all those years ago in California’s canyons.

Our progress was now slowed by all the streams coming in from the steep hillsides on our right. Trying to find a way to get over them and still keep the feet dry proved increasingly impossible. Eventually we just waded in: there was no other way forward. Jeff Hill slipped and fell, got up, slipped and fell two seconds later, got up, slipped and fell a third time – all within a minute. The little freshman, Mark Schuld, his spectacles gleaming from the depths of an orange hood that covered his huge pack, marched cheerfully forward. Tosh and the limping Amazon Suzanne brought up the rear.

Langstrath Beck

Langstrath Beck

At about 5:00 we reached the confluence of Langstrath Beck and Greenup Gill – a wonderful watery meeting. By reaching this point Tosh and I were actually rejoining, for a mile, the previous summer’s path to Lining Crag. And what a mile it was – the track a deep stream itself. Marian and her cheerful sidekick Tara lead the way through these extended puddles boots first. As we neared the Stonethwaite Bridge and the last mile of this trouble-beset, exhausting, exhilarating, day of walking Randa now said, “Well if anyone ever asks me if I’d be willing to do another day like this again, you know what I’d say . . . I’d say, ‘Yeah, sure, anytime.’” This speech brought tears to my eyes. I was now in a state of extreme emotional agitation anyway – for we had to negotiate only the access road to Stonethwaite and – crossing the Seatoller Road – follow the lane to Longthwaite Youth Hostel before all would be revealed of the fate of the other eleven students.

We had made it just as darkness descended at 5:50. A Farrell poked his head out of the door as we were suctioning off our sodden boots. All eleven were safely arrived! Each had his or her adventure to tell; every combination of bus and thumb had been tried. They were all quite proud of themselves, as they should have been.

I stood dazedly at the desk, trying to remember 20 names for the register. I left little wet spots everywhere my socks touched the lino. Then I entered the huge men’s dorm and selected a lower bunk but I didn’t clean up until after supper. Tosh and I were exhausted but as usual we were not through with our duties – which included the usual anxieties as we waited for half of the group (the well-rested half) to return from who knows what watering hole at 11:00. Becky Lyon did not look so well after this excursion. “Good,” Tosh concluded, “She needed to rebel just once.”

Everyone arrived on time and some sat sipping hot chocolate while others went to their dorms. Unfortunately, sleep was not at hand. A large group from Scotland was admitted to our dorm (against hostel rules) at 1:00. The lights were turned on and little kids were inserted into bunks adjacent to our restless seniors, whose whispered conversation was easy for me to hear in the ensuing dark. “Don’t go to sleep. The girls are coming!” A few seconds later there was a whispered conversation at the door. “Yeah, the coast is clear.” I got up at this point and slipped on my trousers. By the time I reached the door I was able to grab a feminine form and propel same into the darkened hall. A second wraith slipped out while I hissed some dire warning about the possibilities of continued enrollment at our school. I never knew who our visitors had been and no one ever mentioned the incident. I got only three or four hours sleep.

I had originally planned to have our group walk to Keswick on the morning of Saturday, the 20th of October. Now I knew this was not possible. Our boots were still sopping; we couldn’t make an early enough start; and the bus timetable did not favor a late arrival in Keswick. So I decided to make this into just a travel day. We were assigned all the morning kitchen chores – a very large task which everyone put a hand to. While I was coordinating this activity I was also trying to get everyone to move packs onto the front porch. I almost forgot my YHA card as I rushed us up the lane to the bus stop on the Seatoller Road. Here, in the event, we had a ten-minute wait. Tosh asked the driver if she could pay with a check and he said yes – when we arrived in Keswick. By that time I was suffering from motion sickness.

The kids piled their packs in front of the bus office door and I told them to return in an hour. Tosh and I paid up and moved all the bags around the corner so we could keep an eye on them while having coffee in a cafeteria. I left once to get some Dramamine in a nearby Boots. (I had twisted a foot during one of yesterday’s falls and I was taking Feldene too.) My walk took me through downtown Keswick, not seen in seventeen years. Gradually our kids began to file into the cafeteria. We were thrown out, however, since no one ordered anything (after three days of non-stop snacking) and we had to wait outside as the rain began to fall again. I paid cash to the driver of the Windermere bus.

The hour-long ride was much more comfortable for me; we passed through Grasmere and Ambleside, scenes of our earlier summer trip. In Windermere I gave everyone lunch money. Tosh and I found a nice hotel and had a meal and coffee. It was cold and windy waiting on the Windermere platform for our afternoon shuttle. Marty gave me a wad of his chewing tobacco to try, and I was spitting out shards of the stuff for the next hour. The kids were all complaining that the trip had been too short!

In Oxenholme we met the delayed LDOPC people; we had their company again on the return trip to London. I played Trivial Pursuit with the kids and other teachers. Dawn wanted to make sure that I wasn’t mad at anybody, and that I had had a good time. As we neared Euston I said an individual goodbye to each of the kids. A shell-shocked Tosh wanted to know, “Will we do this again?”

That proved to be a hard question to answer. We were so strung out by this experience that the next year we chose to stay in London during Alternatives Week – a real bore as it turned out. So in 1986, with a much smaller and better prepared group, we hit the trail again and I did a walk with kids every autumn for years. I have thought many times about what might have been done, especially on the last day of walking, to have come up with a more satisfactory outcome than that achieved – but I am still content that the right decisions were those made on the spot. So my introduction to the Cumbria Way was over; the next summer it became evident that we were not destined to have an easy time on this route – whether accompanied by eighteen teenagers or not.

Our next adventures on the Cumbria Way required us to start at the actual beginning of the route:

Day 4: Ulverston to Torver River

If you want to continue north from Longthwaite, however, you need:

Day 6: Longthwaite to Keswick