The Cumbria Way – Day 4: Chapel Stile to Coniston

I should have repositioned my tent last night. I woke several times in the night balled up having slipped down my sleeping pad like a water slide and pooled in my bag against the tent door. Still being too stubbornly tired to get out and do something useful about it, I had simply tried various imaginative angles of sleeping mat placement, and tried to raise the base with my bag and boots to little success.

Today I had been hoping to go off on a side quest. The other side of the Silver How fell was Grasmere; a refined little village with links to literary greatness, having housed all the famous Lake Poets at one point or another. Wordsworth had rented Dove Cottage there for fourteen years whilst Coleridge resided in Greta Hall. Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, was frequently freeloading even though he had his own home in Keswick.

However, I wasn’t wanting to go there for the poetry. After seeing the looming Skiddaw, traversing Stake Pass, and climbing High Pike in the eerie mists, I was somewhat annoyed that the most famous poem to come out of the area was about sodding daffodils.

No, it was gingerbread I was after. Specifically Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread, whispered about as the best in the country and with a protected name and a secret recipe (it’s got oatmeal, nutmeg and syrup. That’s the secret).

As I packed up my tent, the mist got quickly and increasingly heavy over Silver How. I was naively hopeful, having been made complacent about the weather after three beautiful days. The older man packing away his things next to me decided seven in the morning was a good time to be a killjoy.

“Don’t like it here” he said, “Reminds me of Wales”

“But Wales is lovely”

“Why didn’t you stay at the National Trust campsite?”

“They needed a two night minimum”

“Should’ve stayed there. It’s nicer.”

“…less like Wales?”

“Where you from?”

“Manchester”

“Still all those guns in Manchester?”

“Plenty. Got three of my own.”

He sniffed, informed me the weather was on the turn, placing that information into my brain that didn’t really want to acknowledge it, and plodded off. I sighed, the sky over Silver How had thickened even more now. There wouldn’t be any gingerbread today.

I reluctantly pulled on the rain shell and bag cover and set off to join the path along the waters edge to Elterwater. Suddenly it was as if all those waymarks that had been absent in the last three days turned up at once; the yellow arrow was in eccentric abundance in absolutely every place where any route decision could possibly be made. Yellow arrows everywhere. Yellow arrows for all!

Today was to be my shortest day and I was grateful for it. All the diminishing energy from a lack of calories and a bad night’s sleep was not a good foundation for a steely resolve. The trail would be kind today, and, in many ways, it was.

It seemed another world from the mountainous moorland and sheer crags and long and lonely valleys. The path was sculpted, manicured, genteel even, as it entered Elterwater along the Langdale Beck. Three quarters of the houses in Elterwater are holiday cottages, including the converted gunpowder factory. It’s a small place to begin with; sheep brazenly ambled around the street and chewed nonchalantly from the kerb, I imagine it must feel quite empty for sections of the year.

As I walked out onto the lane the roar and blast of a military jet screamed above me. A woman driving a car nearby, slammed on her brakes and wound the window down wide eyed.

“Where is it?!”

“There! At eleven o clock”

“Jesus, I thought it was the end of the world. Came up here for a break and now thought I’d end up dead”

“Was up in the northern fells a couple days ago, all alone, and one came over. Felt sure it was one of those secret military experiments and I wasn’t meant to be there and now I would die for it”

She laughed. We wished each other another day of living, and I went into the woods.

Gunpowder in the Lake District

With the mining boom, the production of gunpowder really took off. Bringing in the saltpetre from Chile, the sulphur from Italy, and using the local woodlands for charcoal, the process was refined in the Lake District for a purer product (however pure gunpowder can be)

There were several types of powders produced, from the large coarse type for the quarries and iron mines and the finer types for the military.

Demand was reduced with the introduction of dynamite, and the old Cumbrian gunpowder factories renovated or abandoned.

The RAF Spadeadam is an Electronic Warfare Tactics facility that is primarily a place of training for the air force and for NATO, though details of its shady past in the cold war was brought to light in 2004, when tree felling uncovered an abandoned missile silo. Situated right in the north of Cumbria, training occasionally sees the jets roaring above the lakes and mountains and is no small interruption to the silence.

The sculpted paths continued along the river bank and Nab Island. It was all very nice, but all getting a bit boring. It felt like a fair bit of overkill to be carrying a home on my back through something from a romantic’s painting of sophisticated parkland. I eventually passed close to the Skelwith Force and took a small detour to see the Colwith Force better.

These two small waterfalls drop in stages, usually moderately, but become furious after the rains. A small stone building at the base of Colwith Force houses a hydroelectric plant. My woodland amble took me further across High Park and a country lane and then the rain really started.

I was already getting uninspired by today’s walk and searching for a bit of intrigue and interest, but the rain brought about a real inhalation of tedium. I went as far as to ask a man passing in a truck if there was a shortcut to Coniston, but on seeing the next waymark, I managed to tell myself that all this just seemed worse because I was tired and it was wet, and to be a good soldier and carry on. You don’t make it through the fells only to start shortchanging yourself on the easiest section, even if it is pretty dull.

I’m glad I rallied because, even with the rain, the walk to and around the Tarn Hows was pretty enjoyable. The large lake was once a favourite place of Beatrix Potter who went as far as to buy it and continued to manage the estate it is part of even after the National Trust purchased it from her. Of course, with today’s low and dreary weather, its impact is probably a fraction of the loveliness experienced in midsummer or a clear and snowy winter’s morning. I was probably seeing Tarn Hows at its worst, and it was still pretty charming.

A ‘tarn’ is, specifically, a mountain lake formed by a glacier. The word is from the old norse tjörn referring to a ‘lake without tributaries’. Indeed, these small water bodies were simply isolated after the ice that carved out their basins retreated, leaving the pools behind. Throughout Cumbria though, ‘tarn’ is now simply dialect for any small lake or pond regardless of its origin. ‘Force’, as in ‘Colwith Force’, is just a local word for ‘waterfall’, again from the Viking influence and the nordic word foss. The influence of the Viking invasion all those centuries ago is seen more starkly in the dialects of the northern counties. The placename suffixes -by (homestead), -thorpe (village) and -thwaite (meadow) are all significantly more common up here than down south where -ton and -ford and -ly are more abundant from the Old Saxon.

After Tarn Hows, I went into the Tarn Hows woods. Once again, in different weather, I imagine picnickers would be out in full force (full waterfall?) but with the low fog, sodden earth and wet everything it seemed ominous and odd instead. Trees would suddenly lurch out from the greyness and could barely be seen until up close. The grass sludged and limped rather than waved and everything was heavy with moisture.

It wasn’t far on a lane and a bridleway then into Coniston and I ran, shivering, into the first pub I saw. I realised with a deep sinking feeling that my campsite for the night wouldn’t open until five. I had very little motivation to get out and explore Coniston. A week ago I had figured that, since this was a short day, I might as well go climb the Old Man of Coniston on my arrival. Climb it?! I couldn’t even see it. In fact, I wouldn’t ever see it. In the evening to the morning when I would leave, the mountain would be shrouded and the only way I knew where it was, was by staring with a map and a compass in a general direction towards nothing but thick fog and cloud.

Instead I holed up in the pub, slowly ate another overpriced sandwich and repeatedly ordered tea. Rain had seeped down my shell and soaked its wormy way into the arms of my down jacket and through my fleece, sticking onto the shirt below. I turned the jacket inside out and stuffed the sleeves and collar down the back of the radiator I was pretty much glued to, but felt compelled by decency not to strip down further. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and fell asleep in my chair like an old man at a family gathering.

Ironically, I was woken from my doze by by smartwatch’s annoying ‘activity alarm’. The damn idle piece of technology was accusing me of being lazy.

By four thirty, the rain was still going. I gathered my things, tightly tightened the hood of the rain shell to not allow any water in whatsoever, covered my pack and set on outside again.

I set up my tent quickly. The site was proud of its walled garden, but I really wasn’t going to hang around outside to see it. I crawled in, wrote another vivid batch of postcards as the rain continued to slam down and settled in for another night, wrapping up like a mummy in all the dry layers I had.

Suffice to say, I made damn sure I wasn’t on a slope this time.

  • Distance: 9 miles
  • Ascent: 550m
  • Terrain: Wooded hillside, riverside, low fell, country lanes
  • Toughness: 2/10
  • Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: Cumbria Way

Food of Cumbria: Gingerbread

I may not have made it to Grasmere, but I made sure to order some of Sarah Nelson’s famous gingerbread to be waiting for me when I got home.

Of course, gingerbread itself didn’t originate here. Gingerbread had been a simple, sweet staple in England since at least the fourteenth century, but the influence of the Germans that came in to manage the mines put it properly in fashion.

Grasmere gingerbread is dense and half cake, half biscuit. Spicy, crumbly and rustic, Sarah Nelson first set up her shop in Church Cottage in 1854, where it still remains.

The protection of the Grasmere Gingerbread name has brought contrition to the area. Sarah, after all, was not the only gingerbread maker in Grasmere and many battles have been fought by other local bakers. However, it remains that the golden, paper wrapped rectangles now attract punters from far and wide, as they have done for over 150 years.

10 thoughts on “The Cumbria Way – Day 4: Chapel Stile to Coniston

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