“So how many of your friends are going with you?” Asked the taxi driver en route to the station at stupid o’ clock in the morning.
“Oh, I’m by myself”
“Really? I’d never let my daughter do that!”
“That’s fair, you said your daughter was seven, it would be rough on a seven year old”
I spent much of the two hour train journey to Carlisle suspiciously eyeing the weather as I journeyed north from Manchester. Dark and low cloud loomed over Lancaster and stubbornly stuck through Oxenholme before, thankfully, lifting as the train pulled out of Penrith. By the time I arrived in Carlisle at 0814, the sky was blue and the morning was, dare I say it, starting to feel warm.
In the rush of a Monday morning commuting crowd, I lumbered along with my pack strapped on, tent secured to the front of it, and the tube from my water bladder slung over my shoulder. Map in hand, I already looked lost. I already was lost. Cities and hikers are an odd mix. There’s no real feeling of direction in a city; there’s left and right, but no east and west.
I found my way to the salmon pink tourist information office by the market cross where the route officially began for me. Officially it ends here for most others, but I had my reasons to want to walk against the grain. There were a few signs here and there indicating that there was a trail, but by the time I had reached the cycle path by the river they soon petered out.
The cycle path was followed for around six miles. Many hikers before me had complained of feeling deflated by ending in Carlisle; after everything they had experienced in the days before, a rather dull trudge along a rather dull track that sits for a while beside a railway line and passes looming factories in nondescript grassland had been more than anti climactic. As it was, I felt pretty solid in taking from their misery that my own walk could only get better and better.
Of course I’m being quite hard on Carlisle. It would be strange if a city and its sprawling suburbs were an exciting high point for anyone on a long distance trail. Carlisle is the only city in the whole of Cumbria, with the county dominated by the lakes, mountains and pastoral lands, and often gets forgotten alongside it all. For any other type of visitor, the marks and remnants throughout of its Roman history would be wonderful. Carlisle Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was held, is an imposing and traditional motte and bailey affair and the 900 year old gothic cathedral surely has many ghosts and secrets.
But I wasn’t there for that, I was there to get away. The cycle path occasionally passed massive flood gates along the water. In 2005, all three rivers that converge here had broken their banks and flooded nearly 3,000 homes causing chaos and, sadly, a number of deaths. Residents were evacuated from the roofs of their buildings in high winds. This was only one event of many, both before and after, and it seems that, however many tweaks to their flood security are made, rain in Carlisle is risky business.
The main river that the path followed was the Caldew, one that would become a familiar companion for the next couple days. Whilst the Cumbria Way is technically waymarked, it practically isn’t, and having a faithful piece of geography to follow is a helpful thing indeed.
Eventually the small suburban towns stopped sputtering the way and gave out to farmland. Countryside! At last! I practically skipped through Holmehill Farm along the track and into a cow field.
These cows, they did not want me there. One turned to face me, then another, and another, then mooing started; a mooing that could only be described as menacing and soon a whole field of cows was advancing on me like a Hitchcock inspired B-movie. I started backing away. Quickly, because they were moving quickly, and eyeing up the barbed wire fence to my right and judging my chances of hopping it. The chances weren’t good. The cows backed me out the field and it was with relief that I slammed close the gate.
I chewed on a protein bar and watched them crowd the gate, watching me right back. One was nudging the lock and for a second I was certain that this was an extremely smart and sociopathic cow and it knew how to open locks. Thankfully, this was not the case. Eventually the cows retreated. I tried again. I was backed out again.
Now what do I do? I retreated back around the corner and started studying my map to find an alternative route around the murderous cows when two other hikers showed up. I gravely explained the cow situation, that these cows were not normal cows, that these cows were sinister and had dark hearts. I insisted there might be strength in numbers and god bless that brave couple for agreeing to cross the field with me despite the gravity of what I had just told them.
I took a deep breath and we turned into the cow field but…there wasn’t a cow to be seen. The cows had just vanished. I stared around in disbelief. Had I just hallucinated a field of mad cows? The two other hikers certainly thought so. I insisted and protested and half hoped the beasts would re-emerge and stampede to prove myself right. The hikers were kind.
“Maybe they just moved to another field?” This was reasonable “Maybe they just thought you were going to feed them and wanted food?”
Uh, yeah they wanted food. They wanted to eat me.
The couple were a slightly dweeby, well matched, very reserved pair. Sometimes you see couples that have visually somehow become the same person over several years, somehow adopting the same hair and one without glasses starts to need them and maybe they start buying similar clothes and taking on each others mannerisms. This couple had clearly been together quite a while. They were too British to tell me that they didn’t really want my company, and were probably glad when my pace took me further from them.
From farm and into woods, along the bank of the Caldew with the heavy, spicy smell of wild garlic in the air. Their thick flat leaves, flaxy stems and small white starburst of flower covered the one side of the path whilst the other was adorned in bluebells. Like two football teams facing off.
Wild garlic has the suffix ursinium to its Latin name as, according to folklore, brown bears would get quite the craving for it after awakening from hibernation. All parts of the plant can be eaten; the leaves can be tastily pickled or left plain as salad leaves whilst it is the stem that produces the copious jars of wild garlic pesto that Farmers Markets seem stocked with this time of year. A number of cheeses are herbed with it and our own Cornish Yarg is rinded with the leaves. A plentiful part of the springtime foragers harvest, though one must look for a garlic smell left on the hands after rubbing the leaves or you could be picking any of a number of poisonous imposters and that pesto will be remembered for the wrong reasons.
A sequence of lovely stone bridges crossed and recrossed the Caldew. I admired Rose Castle across the fields; a fortified and grand building originally built as a home for Bishops, but now being developed into an ‘International Centre of Reconciliation’. I got distracted contemplating what a Centre of Reconciliation was (it’s apparently a religious thing) and miscounted my bridges. I wondered two miles off track before checking my compass and pottering back. The hiking couple from earlier must have been incredibly slow because they were just approaching the bridge by the time I was returning to it. I waved, they pretended not to see me, so I hung back and dangled my feet over the wall of the bridge for a while trying to work out this Centre of Reconciliation nonsense.
Rose Castle is a bit of a patchwork, The oldest part of its structure dates back to 1340 with additions and restorations in styles all the way up to the Victorian era.
It was first in use for many centuries as a Bishop’s residence that became a castle with added fortification. Damage sustained in the Civil War where it acted as a border fortress, was covered up in the 1700s.
The exposed pink sandstone stands out against the green surroundings. Though privately owned now, it can be seen from the road or this very lovely footpath I am taking.
A man joined me, he had a binder with him. Apparently he was a proper twitcher and enthusiastically showed me the feathers he had collected through the years. He said he had seen a great white egret just now. I didn’t know what a great white egret was (I’m a rock and plant person, I don’t know birds) so he delighted in telling me it was a long necked white bird, like a heron, that has decorative breeding plumage and, whilst fairly common, are still one of his favourite birds.
“Is that the bird on that Faith No More album?” I asked. He didn’t know (It is). I wished him well with his bird spotting and asked him what bird he really, really hopes to see one day that he never has. He said a northern mockingbird was sighted in Devon two days ago and had been sighted hither and thither for a week prior. One hasn’t been recorded in the UK for thirty odd years. He wants to go down to Devon and try see it.
I hope he finds his bird.
The path from Sebergham now edged around Dentonside Woods, densely rising up the slopes of the hills. I had become relieved that things were looking prettier after Holmehill Farm. Earlier in the day I had panicked at the relative mediocrity and had started taking pictures of pretty much anything so I could have something to remember the day by (and, you know, for the ‘gram). Turns out I could thankfully delete pictures of muddy distant streams and railway lines.
Emerging from Dentonside, I got my first proper look at the peaks of the Lake District rising up on the horizon behind all the bucolic loveliness. There had been a shadow of them around Rose Castle but now they were closer and looming and now, now, I was getting excited.
I arrived at Caldbeck, happy with my first day done. It was a sweet little village built, as many sweet little villages are, around a triangular green. Here, that green was now a pub. It was a little enough village that the corner shop was the only shop and had a single petrol pump outside. No other shops were open before Wednesday, not because of a religious holiday or anything, just, why would they be?
I managed to bump into the owner of my campsite outside the pub as I dithered around looking for it. I had booked a space at the back of a glamping barn set up where I was the only tent for the night next to a field of sheep. These sheep, fortunately, did not seem as murderous as the earlier cows.
Caldbeck had, reassuringly, been established and built around being a resting place for travellers since before 1100AD. For nearly a millennium, it has carried on its original purpose of being a place of hospitality to those journeying, wandering, or lost. I was proudly informed that the church is the resting place of both Mary Harrison and John Peel. I had no idea who either of those people were. I was sat down outside the pub and a drink placed in my hand as I was informed that Mary’s story, unfortunately, consisted purely of being the unknowing party in a bigamous marriage to a massive conman, and John Peel was such a successful huntsman that anti-hunting activists still come and vandalise his grave from time to time 150 years later.
Back at my tent, I made myself up some chorizo, cheese and hummus tortillas in an effort to replenish the days calories. As often seems to happen after a full hiking day, I wasn’t really hungry. I managed to stuff down one and another protein bar and was sound asleep by ten, before the sun had even fully set.
No sheep ate me in my sleep.
- Distance: Formally 15 miles. Including all my detours, it was closer to 21.
- Ascent: 190 metres
- Terrain: Paved cycle paths, woodland and riverside tracks, farmland
- Toughness: 3/10
- Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: Cumbria Way
Food of Cumbria: Cumberland Sausages
The ‘Traditional Cumberland Sausage’ is a proud banger, complete with PGI status. A ring of this peppery, porky chunker can be up to half a metre long! They have been made in Cumbria for at least 500 years, longer than Cumbria has been Cumbria – since it was Cumberland.
Made with chopped meat rather than ground for extra texture, and some adding ginger and nutmeg to the peppery seasonings, it is very much the opposite of, and should never ever be confused with, a Lincolnshire sausage