The Cumbria Way – Day 4

July 13, 1985: Ulverston to Torver River

The Lees and Dorothy near Broughton Beck

The Lees and Dorothy near Broughton Beck

At 7:00 on the morning of Friday, July 12, 1985, the Lees pulled up in their familiar green Grenada and we began to load up for a second week-long expedition in Lakeland. A car would be useful, I reasoned, in helping us move from spot to spot in a non-sequential itinerary that would accomplish two goals: completion of the Cumbria Way (begun the previous October during Alternatives) and conquest of the one missing link in the Lake District portion of Wainwright’s Coast-to-Coast Path: Patterdale to Bampton Grange. I had my worries about Harold’s stamina as a driver, for he had only returned from the States on Wednesday – but we made a fast enough start up the M1, quickly reaching the Trusthouse Forte services at Newton Pagnel. I took Bertie the Schnauzer for a stroll while the others had breakfast. It was a grey morning.

We began making progress on the M-6, a new route for me, and got caught up in Birmingham traffic. By the time we had cleared the Potteries it had started to drizzle. As we turned west at Exit 36 a nervous Tosh moved to the wheel. I couldn’t help thinking about our arrival in St. Bees on a Friday afternoon a year ago – we had brought the rain then too. I was serving as navigator from the back seat and this proved to be quite a strain, the front headrests blocking my view. We sailed right past the turn off to Coniston because I couldn’t see the appropriate sign quickly enough. In Ulverston, where we twice circled the same roundabout, we stopped for petrol and directions. Then, with Harold once more at the wheel, we drove north to Lowick where we found the Red Lion pub. Harold took five minutes to park the car in the rain. My head pounding, I drank only a lemonade. There was a nice fire going here but we were excluded from the main room because of the dog. We ordered lunch and unwound a bit after the long journey. I took Bertie for a sodden ramble along the main road while the others finished up. We left at about 2:30. By 3:00 we were beginning to unload at our hotel in Coniston. Here we were subjected to a most unpleasant episode.

I am not sure why the proprietor of this posh hostelry took against us. Perhaps we were too American or too grotty. We weren’t further examples of the trendy or tweedy types relished by puffed-up country innkeepers. He certainly didn’t like the fact that we were walkers – indeed that we planned to go walking in the rain that afternoon – and he advised us to take a ride in the car instead. He was appalled by all our gear – some of it in shopping bags – but mostly he was offended by young Bertie, who inspected our tiny room by jumping on the bed. We were not to let the dog come in contact with any of the furniture. We were especially not allowed to put our own clean spread over the bed to prevent any injury – lest the dog chew the headboard! We were to feed the dog out of doors and, when we were at dinner or anywhere but in our rooms, we were to keep the dog in the car. This from an establishment that “permitted” dogs.

Some of these strictures were added to an ever-growing list as I went alone to fetch in more luggage. I was very angry, and every attempt on my part to propose rational alternatives only elicited further hostility – “These are the rules of my home and if you can’t accept them I suggest you find other accommodation.” I left to consult with Dorothy, who had a similar go-round with the madman, and the Lees, who were unpacking in a nearby room. There was no way we could live comfortably in this environment for two nights. The proprietress, far more conciliatory, was also involved in the palaver now. She seemed to find reasonable all the proposals I made in my efforts to find some way of protecting her bedspread from the depredations of a marauding Miniature Schnauzer. She, it was obvious, had assured Harold (who had done all the bookings this time) that dogs were welcome at her establishment. Finding herself in an impossible situation, she offered, with my hearty concurrence, to phone around town for us – after mine host had suggested we try our luck at some egregiously overpriced local establishment. A room for two was located at the Crown down the hill  – and we began to repack. The Lees would have liked to leave as well, but they were stuck. The best they could do was drive us down to our new digs and see us installed. Did the Crown take dogs? Everybody thought so – but the proprietors were away at a wedding.

We unpacked in rage. We had lost our bathroom, though one was right across the hall. There was a bit more space here and, ironically, a view of the bus shelter where the 3:45 to Ulverston was waiting to depart. It was clear that we would not make this connection. Though we were spared an afternoon’s soggy stroll along the lake the delay meant that the walking schedule I had worked out for this holiday was already in ruins. I was terribly upset. The Lees left to have a rest and to inform the crazy person that they would not be dining at his table. Instead we agreed to meet at 6:30 for drinks and dinner, either at the Crown or elsewhere.

Bertie ate first and I took him on a long walk through Coniston, up to the Ruskin museum, over the bridge where the local beck thundered, into the little triangular park with its Donald Campbell monument. It drizzled steadily. When the Lees showed up we agreed to try the Yewdale Hotel. We had drinks at the bar and then a very enjoyable and relaxing meal, though the wine, supposedly a dry white, was brown and tasted like sour sherry. We strolled around the village after dinner – there were occasional dry periods now. Dorothy wanted to buy an art deco tea service in the window of Lady Winstanley’s antique store, but there didn’t seem much chance of our being in town during opening hours. I took Bertie on a long walk to the east as darkness fell. This had been a most upsetting opening day, and I was uncertain how to get back on course.

While we were having breakfast on the morning of Saturday, July 13, Dorothy ordered four packed lunches. They came in two large plastic ice cream cartons, one of which I gave to Harold when he arrived at 9:15. One of the problems left over from the previous day’s fiasco was that we had been unable to check out the habits of the local bus drivers, whose cooperation was necessary for today’s venture. On our drive from Lowick I had noted the precise spot where I wanted to leave the car today, but would a bus stop here, or only at the advertised “South Junction Road to Oxenhouse?” To make certain there were no slipups I had decided that Harold and I would leave twenty minutes before the bus, park the car in a lay-by opposite the path coming up from the Torver River, and walk down to the junction in question. Dorothy, Tosh, and Bertie would take the 9:45 from the bus shelter and would make certain that the driver spotted us, no matter where we were. This plan, no doubt overcautious, worked perfectly; indeed, Harold and I had spent several minutes in our wet-proofs waiting for the red Ribble bus before it emerged at the head of a long straightaway at about 10:00. We had to pay for the women, as they had forgotten our destination – Ulverston. By the time I had stored my pack and taken off my cape I was already bus sick. I sat in some misery as we inched southward – the locals climbing on and off with complaints about the effects of four days of rain on the rose show.

We rode all the way to the end of the line but when I asked the driver for instructions to our starting point he said I should have asked earlier – for now we had to retrace some of the bus route to the market place. It was drizzling, of course, and everyone had to don raingear. The Ulverston market place was crowded but we managed to flag down a shopper in order to receive further instructions on how to reach the Gill, the Cumbria Way’s southern terminus. This large parking lot had loos, which the girls paused to use, and this gave me time to take a compass bearing among the Metros and the Minis. It was 10:50 before we were ready to leave the western side of the car park along a tarmac path.

Bertie was allowed to go free here and he responded with his usual high spirits, dashing about in mock contests with the Ulverston dogs. I was happy to be on the move at last, though it was obvious from the very start that I was the slowest ship in our convoy. When we had crossed the beck and reached the top of our path I located the gap stile that all the other members of our party had missed and squeezed through in order to begin the traverse to Old Hall Farm. Unfortunately, there was no path and the long wet grass swept water into ever aperture of our “waterproofed” boots; this meant a day of discomfort down below. The farm track, reached at last, was sodden with mud and manure. We entered the farmyard and, at beckside, used several stiles to circumnavigate its garden. We ended up in a field of cows – with assignments from Trevelyan that involved an unexpectedly steep climb in a northwestwardly direction toward Bortree Stile.

All the disadvantages of a purely “literary” guide were apparent on this stretch. I think the most ambiguous of all phrases is “the far end of the field” and so it proved at Bortree Stile. While we were puzzling out what this meant the occupant of this farmhouse emerged from his premises in shorts and long yellow rubber gloves and asked us if we were looking for the Cumbria Way. He then directed us up the west side of the beck on an overgrown path that finally lead us to a series of stiles. This spot cannot have been the “far end of the field” we were looking for under any circumstances. We worked our way over to the Higher Lath Road in terrain that actually promised a bit of bracken as an antidote to the muck and manure. We soon inherited these conditions again as we left the hard road surface for tracks at Newbiggin and field paths to Stony Crag. We spent a good deal of time behind this farm trying to figure out which of the many available gates actually corresponded to those proposed by Trevelyan as a means of reaching Hollowmire. In the end we chose our own route to the beck, always expecting to hear an angry shout of “Trespass!” behind us.

A straightforward section then ensued as we left behind Hollowmire’s monkey puzzle trees and used the farm access road to rejoin tarmac. Then we followed a series of gates cross-country to an isolated church. Tosh wanted to eat her lunch in the vestibule but I held out lingering hopes for some refreshment in Broughton Beck. We reached the main road and were appalled to see that Ulverston still lay only two and three quarters miles to the south. We had taken over two hours to walk a little more than three miles. There was no pub in the village, so we marched on, looking for gates and stiles and, in a field some distance north of the village, we paused for lunch. It was no longer raining and the sky behind us was brightening. However the sun never came out on this day and the rain returned after lunch. I did some scouting to find a bridge in the “middle of the field.” This turned out to be some stones over the beck – certainly not in the middle of anything. There was no path most of the time, no evidence of use, and route finding was a tedious battle.

After climbing over several stiles we arrived at the farm road to Knapperthaw and followed tarmac to the Keldray turnoff. We were greeted by some exotic fowl here and by a sign advising us of a “legal” diversion that prevented us from walking through the farmyard and thus from understanding where in the text we were. This was a problem because we were trying to orient ourselves with the aid of a telephone pole mentioned by Trevelyan. I spent some frustrating time, compass in hand, in the fields above Keldray, trying to figure out how to proceed. The instruction to pass through the next farmyard was undermined by mud and a large log edged against a needed gate – which we had to climb. It was with some relief that we reached the road at Gawthwaite. Here I expected a village but found only a maze of roads and houses and a shy little kid who wouldn’t or couldn’t communicate. The village men, huddled at the entrance to a barn, were a little more helpful and pointed up the hill to the north when I asked them the route to High Stennerley.

A half a mile of track walking seemed sweet relief. Before beginning our descent behind the farm I once again attempted to catch up with my instructions in Trevelyan and my orientation on the South Lakeland OS map. Both of them were being carried by hand in an old plastic map case but I now noted that this had a tear and a leak had begun to dissolve the fold in the OS map. Nor was it easy to make adjustments as the rain was driving in on us at the moment. We walked down the hill in front of the farm and looked for our next turnoff. We found the gate in question but soon we became enmired. There seemed to be no sure way forward – nothing seemed to correspond to Trevelyan’s description and I was reluctant to press forward and find myself blocked by stone walls. Also, a large herd of cows, especially fascinated by Bertie, was beginning to follow us everywhere. I ordered a retreat, which involved a second dose of mud. We had to cover the next stage via road, a considerable detour. (I had no hesitation at the end of the day is adding two miles to the eleven I had measured out as this day’s distance.) It was now nearing 4:00 and we still had at least five miles to go. Tosh was full of complaints and hunger pangs and I suggested she could turn right as we neared the Kiln Bank road and try to walk over to a good hitchhiking spot on the main road – but she agreed to continue north with the rest of us.

In fact as we cleared the Kiln Bank farm we were beginning to escape the worst of the manurial past – and hill walking, with a consequent improvement in scenery, now became the dominant method of progress. Our pace seemed to quicken – the miles came faster. Still there were ambiguities involved in discovering the right track over the first hill and onto the distant, misty Tottlebank road. I used my compass repeatedly to get my bearings and, often, I relied on my intuition. I guessed, for instance, that the “bridge” before Totttlebank was merely the tarmac road crossing a beck. We headed north through bracken, pretty spongy underfoot, and climbed the next crest to see several farmsteads below. I rejected a quick descent to Appletree Holme and persevered until Cocken Skell came into sight. Again it was not clear from the text that we were only to skirt this farm. By the time I had determined that we were on the right track, we had gone around behind Cocken Skell and down to a bridge over a beck.

Beacon Tarn

Beacon Tarn

Here began a steep climb up to Beacon Tarn, but this reedy lake was quite beautiful and well worth the effort, a real taste of Lakeland at last. Tosh was chagrined that we would walk around the indented west shore, but I assured her progress would be faster than that offered by the shorter but boggy eastern side. The weather was again having its bright patches as we circled the lake and climbed up out of the basin, here described by Trevelyan as a “depression” – but that could only be true for north to south walkers. Leeches, or something similar, luxuriated at our feet. The path to the northeast was clear on the ground and we were making good progress. We had a rest and a snort of gin, then followed the trail as it approached the Stable Harvey Road. To arrive precisely at the bend of this road required the fording of a fast flowing beck. I took a flying leap and cleared it (though landing in a heap), so did Bertie, but the others were more cautious.

Our party on the bridge over the Torver River

Our party on the bridge over the Torver River

We walked up the road and headed west under telegraph wires, eventually turning north to reach the Torver area at last. Two more becks had to be negotiated, the second giving Dorothy some problems as she searched for a suitable place to cross. Loyal Bertie crossed back to be with her, thus fording the stream three times. Finally we were on a track heading for the Torver River. A bridge over a cataract and the sight of the Lees car perched in its lay-by above us served to strengthen our flagging steps. It was 7:30 – one of our latest arrival times on one of our longest days. Though the last four or five miles had been lovely, we had endured much that was uninteresting and ungratifying.

Back in Coniston we had only thirty minutes or so to get ready for dinner at the Yewdale. Most of this time was needed to get a layer of mud off the belly and feet of the pup. We left him and his food and met the Lees for a kind of victory dinner. Everyone was thirsty and we had pints of lager instead of more syrupy wine. I tried the halibut but it was dull. I told my troops how proud I was of them today. In sum the day’s journey had been far more arduous, lengthy, and fraught with route-finding problems than I had anticipated. I was planning a much lighter day, particularly for the others, on the morrow.

I took Bertie out for a last walk in the almost dark of Coniston, where the last of the Scandinavian tourists was now in bed. I returned to the Crown and stepped over the hotel’s ancient dog on the first floor landing. I noticed that our friend, the psychiatrist Colin Brewer, was holding forth on the telly. The innkeeper turned up the sound for me. Colin was discussing euthanasia with Norman St. John Stevas. It seemed a startling intrusion of London matters into the quiet of the countryside.

The next day I filled in a gap (although north to south) and we continued on from the end of the previous day’s walk:

Day 5: Sunny Bank to Coniston and Tarn Hawes to Coniston

If you want to see how we progressed from Tarn Hawes you would also need:

Day 2: Hawkshead to Elterwater