There was a pink, candyfloss sky sweeping around me as I left the barn at 0500. As I walked a footpath to a lane, jumped a stile, and walked another, the pinkness deepened and then waned again as the sun stretched up and I got back to Keswick, walked a few streets, posted my postcards, and exited again to start heading west in a curve that would take me around the edge of Derwant Water.
On approaching Fawes Wood, I met a man with many opinions. He had opinions on smartphones, on the prevalence of general anxiety, on the decreasing amount of babies born in the UK and, as he gripped his trekking pole and looked stubbornly up at the approaching Catbells, he informed me that water bottles were ridiculous. When he was a kid, you see, you just drank out here straight from a stream, no need to carry around ridiculous water bottles, just how frail were today’s youth that they all needed to carry water everywhere? It was just so stupid.
I chose not to point out the water bottle he had attached to his hip, but grinned and wished him a good time in the fells as he set off to climb Catbells and I turned the other way to hug the edge of Derwant Water.
The name of the lake, Derwant, is from the Old Welsh derwā; a word referring to the oak trees that descend down the banks creating the charming woodland that the National Trust has so nicely manicured. A statue of cupped hands sat serenely under the trees marking the centenary of the National Trust’s first Lake District acquisition. Now they care for 20% of the entire area, which includes most of the central fell area, 24 lakes and tarns, the major valley heads and 91 farms.
Their conservation efforts have preserved native wildlife rarely seen elsewhere, such as the red squirrel, and encouraged dwindling populations of the vendace fish – Britain’s rarest fish and a relic of the last ice age (I wonder if its tasty?)
An anchorite saint called Herbert once lived out his hermitic life on the largest island on the lake. Initially having been responsible for bringing Christianity to the area, he felt called to the silent contemplative existence on the island. That or the converted locals were just really annoying and needy and he really wanted space. He probably feasted nightly on vendace.
Catbells, probably the most popular fell in the area, squatted to my other side, well known for its accessibility and strange little topknot. The name has nothing to do with cat bells though, and is suggested to be a derivation of ‘Cat Bields’ referring to a history where it made a suitable home for many wildcats (and perhaps for the present Beast of Cumbria, a large black cat that supposedly mauls the heads of Herdwick sheep). Unfortunately this is not a species that has been able to be preserved or reintroduced. Yet.
I left the water’s edge and rounded Castle Cragg on a rocky and bright path, now in the Jaws of Borrowdale; the narrowest part of the valley where the jagged rise of Castle Cragg is seen as a tooth. Where the previous day had seen mountains formed from spewed ocean sediment, the Borrowdale landscape is igneous. Where the Skiddaw Slates are imposing and looming, the Borrowdale group is dramatic and ragged; formed of lava and impact.
I marveled across the valley at the Great Cragg over Stonethwaite Beck and got lost in my own little reverie for a moment too long to catch the turn to take me to the side valley of Langstrath, annoyingly concealed in the fold of my map. It was a fair while later, after looking across at the other valley appearing as it started to move to the other side of High Knot that it finally clicked that that very pretty valley was, in fact, the famously pretty Langstrath Valley. The one I was meant to be in. And now there was a part of a mountain between us.
Cursing my own ability to just get lost in thought and rock out to songs on repeat in my head (Boston, Peace of Mind in case you were wondering) I shimmied down at the sidepath to Seatoller where I knew I then had to walk along the road until I got to Stonethwaite about two more miles further and back and round where I could rejoin the path.
However, it was starting to become painfully apparent that my inability to eat enough over the last couple days was catching up with me and I was at an uncomfortable energy deficit. Including my extra walk this morning, I had already racked up 35,000 steps and there was a shake in my hands and a slowness in my processing. My stomach was aching with a hunger my brain wasn’t recognising. Suddenly those miles to go round to Stonethwaite seemed really long. I sat in the bus shelter at Seatoller and did my best to pull myself together, forcing a couple of protein bars in my mouth, now increasingly annoyed at myself, before finally heading in the new direction.
There were two paths heading out of the small village of Stonethwaite to Langstrath – I knew one would take me the way I needed to go, the other on a different route up Greenup Gill. I went into a pub to ask for some clarity and found myself asking for a sandwich instead. Something in my subconscious had more sense that my own conscious that had been prepared to launch me up a long and uninhabited, utterly roadless valley to the trepidacious Stake Pass in some wild foodless panic.
I initially sat inside but, very quickly, became aware of just how much I smelled after almost three days of hiking with my pack, sans shower, and limited clothes. I instantly moved my stinky, shameful self outside instead so not to torment the older couple nearby with my sour and terrible stench. I offloaded my pack on a picnic bench and stretched out my shoulders as my ham, cheese and chutney sandwich turned up. Retrospectively, it was a pretty mediocre sandwich, but right then it looked like the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I indicated towards the campsite that lay beyond the pub that had closed signs around it and the waiter told me that the farmer that owned the land had closed it down after too many campers just left too much rubbish over too many years. Now, he added sadly, they just go in groups into the valley and wildcamp and trash it up there instead. Bad eggs ruining it for the rest of us.
The Ghost of Styhead Pass
Further down Borrowdale, a pass connects to Wasdale and onward to the famous Scafell Pike. Whilst these days it might be traversed by enthusiastic peak baggers, in far earlier centuries these remote and lonely slopes were a place of hiding for outlaws, vagabonds and vagrants.
One such outlaw, Bjorn, apparently never moved on from his desolate 13th century hideaway, and is still reported to be seen wandering the Styhead Pass. You’ll be able to tell him apart from the living as he distinctively carries a bag of cats. The cats are alive, don’t worry (or as alive as ghost cats can be) and their wailing can be heard long before Bjorn is sighted.
Why a bag of cats? Who knows. Ask him. He might not answer back though, as he doesn’t have a head.
I had eaten half the sandwich and the small ramekin of coleslaw before my body insisted that it was no longer hungry. Of course it was still hungry, but another bite of my sandwich had me just chewing it like it was a trial. I couldn’t finish, but that had to be better than nothing right? I still had my food in my bag – all my tortillas and fillings and half a million protein bars, it wasn’t all doomed. I refilled my water and placed an extra electrolyte tablet in it before carrying on.
The start of the valley was full of people out on a gloriously sunny day, enjoying the water of the beck and the grassy slopes, but about a mile and a half in there was a sharp change. The grass gave way to stone scattered paths and the people became fewer and fewer until there were none. Then I understood why the valley had such a reputation for being wild. It was both extraordinary and yet entirely unaccommodating. I felt like a trespasser. I couldn’t take my eyes off of my feet for too long or either my ankle or a rock would easily roll from under me. Suddenly there wasn’t another person at all in sight. There didn’t seem to be another person in sight for the next few hours.
Occasionally, in the fairly exposed valley, I would come across ash trees that had been pollarded with incisions and prunings at about head height to encourage new growth outwards rather than upwards. This prevents the trees from becoming unstable in their position and preserves them, not only for themselves, but for the wildlife that use them for habitat. It’s an old technique, and some pollarded trees here are over three hundred years old, but its a practice still evidently carried out today.
There was once a time, not too long ago in the big scheme of things, when all the fellsides were densely forested. It was when man moved in and settled and started to rear livestock that the mountains were cleared. The contradiction of this manmade interference is that the moorland that sweeps the mountains and valleys here, and the domestic Herdwick sheep that wander where they wish, is now seen as such as integral part of its identity that to a layman the idea of reforesting it seems intrusive and unnatural rather than regenerating. An argument continues, but I for one would love the go ahead to see the same dense woodland appear again here as we see in other mountainous regions of northern Europe and north America. We have changed the entirety of our most beautiful landscapes for the benefit of the sheep. I know we’re a nation of animal lovers, but there’s a line where its gone a bit too far.
I could see Stake Beck rise on the side of Langdale Comb long before I was near enough to climb it and it looked awful. I looked around, trying to placate myself that I was mistaken and that sheer, nefarious cliff was not meant for me. No such luck, I finally reached the base and intentionally didn’t let myself think before launching upwards. My body was so tired, my mind was getting confused, everything was heavy and complicated now, but I put my head down and went back and forth, back and forth on the hairpin switchbacks that seemed neverending. The beck toppled and slammed down the rocks beside me and when I peeked backwards it seemed I had gone no distance at all.
Whilst hikers before me have had an easier time of Stake Pass, there is a propensity to underestimate how much longer these climbs take than we think we might. One very proficient and confident hiker’s blog of the Cumbria Way made only a shrug at the little effort he needed to cross it, but noted that it took two and a half hours to get from one side to the other. Which is at least what it took me. In no small part because I overshot the top and ended up finding myself on the moorland of the summit wandering around in a confused and weary daze like some retrospective inspiration for Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights get up. It took me far too long to just go back, and instead I had to take a moment to swallow back my tiredness and frustration and turn, trudge once again to the edge and down to the rough path, across the pass and face a similarly steep descent on the other side along another series of rocky switchbacks. I regret that I never looked up at the top. I never saw the view. I expect it was extraordinary.
You do suddenly feel the prehistory up here though, seeing the mounds, or drumlins, around the top like graves. Formations caused by the glacial ice retreating. Less dramatic than the ravages of the valleys but somehow more real, more up close, more in your face. This was really a thing that happened, and you’re standing on it. You’re standing on, entirely on, not just as a speck on, a 26,000 year old scar caused by the sheer force of ice.
I was taken aback, pleased, but also a bit put out, to see many more people on the Mickleden side of the pass. Where had all these people been? Where had they come from? How could I have been all alone in Langstrath and all these folks are just jollying around the other side? By the time I had descended into the Mickledon Valley, every part of me was hurting, my feet just felt entirely squashed flat and my knees were aching from all the impact. I carry trekking poles for descents, but, unsurprisingly, I had forgotten they even existed right now.
I didn’t pay enough attention to Mickleden. With the Pike o’ Stickle on one side and The Band on the other, it swoops and dances in a lovers waltz rather than the bitter and passionate tango of Langstrath. Just reached the farm now, just a bit further, just a bit further…
I collapsed at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Pub on a bench and everything in me just gave up. Which was terrible timing because I still had to get to Chapel Stile two miles further. I was lucky I rise early and had set off early because I had been going for twelve hours now and, I checked my smartwatch, thirty miles
Thirty miles on two protein bars, two thirds of a Kendal mint cake, and half a sandwich through valleys and over passes and hither and thither with a full pack. Are you stupid?
Like a shining and gallant knight, the man on the table across from me had returned from his own hike in the fells and lived in Chapel Stile. His wife was coming to pick him up and he offered for them to drive me the two miles down the road. I didn’t even hesitate; screw trail purity, I had more than made up those two miles, I’ll take the lift!
It was a short but completely relished car ride down to the farm that would be my campsite for the night. I thanked the couple profusely and went off to pay the farmer, dragged my tent out, put it up on a slope, didn’t even care, shoved three filled tortillas into my protesting maw and fell fast asleep.
Food of Cumbria: Kendel Mint Cake
Not widely known outside the UK, here a peppermint flavoured, sugary brick of Kendel Mint Cake is a staple in many a hiker’s bag.
Supposedly created when confectioner Joseph Wiper left the solution for a batch of boiled sweets out overnight and, on finding the dense, sweet, cloudy result in the morning, started to market it as a snack for mountaineers and adventurers.
Mint cake has indeed journeyed on many an expedition – from Shackleton’s Trans-Atlantic quest to Hillary’s traverse of Everest. However, it is no surprise that these journeys took place in colder climates. A day in the sun will have the block starting to turn into a syrup in one’s leggings pocket. Which explains why only two thirds of mine was eaten.
- Distance: 17 miles (plus 6 for distance from barn, plus nine for getting lost, minus two for getting a lift)
- Ascent: 645 metres
- Terrain: Starts easy in woodland and along water but there are very rough and rocky trails through Langstrath Valley and a lengthy steep climb up Stake Pass.
- Toughness: 10/10 (OK, maybe not, but everything is much harder and more difficult on rapidly lost calories and dangerously dwindling energy, so of course for me this was a horrifyingly difficult day. For normal, non dramatic people it is probably a 6-7 overall, though this really is a section that bad weather can make incredibly dangerous. Do not underestimate it after rain or during fog.)
- Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: Cumbria Way