The Cumbria Way- Day 5: Coniston to Ulverston

I definitely slept better, despite the rain. The outside may have been wet, but it hadn’t been unbearably cold. I shuffled in my sleeping bag working out my mental game plan for the day. The rain likely would not stop, the fogs likely would not lift, stones would be slippery to walk on and any stream that needed fording today would be full and strong.

Sometimes one just has to embrace the suck. It’s going to suck. Go with it. Pretend you love the suck. Like when a loved one serves up a meal you hate and you just have to tell not only them, but yourself, that actually it’s really delicious and seconds would be fantastic. I told myself I loved the rain, that it was refreshing and invigorating and it was because of the rain that our country was so green. Who needs lazy sunshine? Rain keeps me on my toes. Rain is great. I’m embracing the rain.

I got moving fast and acted quickly to get everything packed as efficiently and effectively as possible while the rain, the rain I love, dribbled and plopped all over. I was due to head around Coniston Hall to follow the bank of Coniston Water. I imagine on other days Coniston Water is quite the visually unavoidable centrepiece here, but right now it may as well have not existed.

Coniston Hall was an odd building. Simply registered as a Grade II house now owned by the National Trust, its dour stone walls seemed to sigh with disapproval and the front stairway that would have once lead to grand front doors was now grassed flat like a green ramp. It just seemed like a creepy ruin in the middle of a vast campsite, yet John Ruskin, the Victorian writer, critic and general oddball, loved it. He thought the primitive nature of it was fitting for the wild scenery it stood in.

I would argue that here by Coniston Water was hardly a wilderness, but I could see his point. As I walked the trail around the bank, the boats bobbed quietly and ghostlike at their moorings. The trail turned into rocks, and yet rockier still. Slippery and uncomfortable to walk on with water streaming down the side of the bank over them. Somehow I did not fall, though my bag repeatedly caught on the gorse bushes, the yellow flowers enjoying their pranks. It’s Ok, I love rain.

That might be the case, but I was grateful when the path went up and away from the water at the laughably named ‘Sunny Bank’. I thought briefly that that was probably going to be the most precarious part of the day, apparently much of the rest was farmland and woodland. Well, I was raised in the south and farmland and woodland was what I cut my hiking teeth and boots on. I can do rainy farmland and woodland. It’s easy.

Except when its not. Slodging over grassland I came to one of a number of streams that would need to be forded. Now flowing heavy and fast, there wasn’t a chance that my boots wouldn’t get soaked. In fact there was a good chance that all of me would be soaked. I inched further up the bank until I found a small tree growing out of the middle of the stream and messily used it to lurch around, the weight of my pack swinging me too far one way and a split second rectification gone wrong had me knee deep in water legitimately grabbing at the other bank before the force of the water took my legs from under me.

It wouldn’t be the first stream I would have to cross that day. And that crossing may be among the more dignified. After several more, everything up to my waist was sopping with stream water and my boots were filled with silt. The good thing is, after the second or third time I just stopped caring – I was already soaked through, I was already wet. It’s not going to make me any wetter. Just save the pack and, if necessary, my nose from smashing into the rocks if I slip.

This section is apparently guilty, even in good weather, of tricky to spot trails. Now the trails were invisible and I lumbered around with the compass, squinting at landmarks to guide me through the repetitive fields and waterworks until I started a small ascent up to a pass around Beacon Fell that would take me by Beacon Tarn.

Where before the paths were difficult to discern, now it seemed like there had never ever been any paths at all. The moor grasses were high, the mud was deep, what did seem to be the trail was just a lethally slippery set of rocks. What was this place? Was I even in the right place? What is going on?

Out of interest, I just googled Beacon Fell and all of the lovely images that the search engine gives forth were clearly from a much, much better day. I couldn’t even see the tarn yet, I was meandering over truly trying ground, really not sure what was meant to happen, being judged by a couple of chewing and quizzical Herdwick Sheep. Being wet now turned into being muddy as the odd misstep had me sinking and scrambling. Eventually I scrambled enough that I got over an edge and saw the tarn beneath me.

Herdwick Sheep

The Herdwick is a distinctive, curly horned, dark wooled sheep domestically native to the Lake District. The qualities that make them so agreeable to being raised in the area are their ability to live entirely off forage, and their territorial nature which means they do not wander far over the fells.

Clothing made from their wool is made with durability in mind. The bristled fibres form layers which make ample protection against blizzards and gales.

Their meat is strongly flavoured, and cuts from a 1-2 year old hogget are especially prized.

They are also smug, marauding arseholes.

Whilst I was very relieved that I had somehow squished, squelched, swore and tantrummed my way in the right direction, now all my frustration was levelled at the tarn itself. This stupid body of water thought it was so damn special. Sure, Wainwright himself jotted about it in one of his pompous books, but it presently had not been worth the dirty little journey to get here. Later research revealed that the tricky journey and the solitude was something that made it very appealing to the British Naturist Society.

I wearily walked around the edge of the water. Large and still, I contemplated all our strange folklore about lakes. How Excalibur was given from and retrieved into water, how they are home to vengeful mermaids and prehistoric monsters, how the bottoms just aren’t there and, instead, are vortexes to a different place, how they call you to doom and despair and destiny. Why lakes? What has been the fuss about lakes? Why not duck ponds? Is it just that there is something inherently scary about large amounts of deep and still water, or is it all just stories to stop kids from mucking around? Much like the old ‘don’t go swimming after eating because you’ll give yourself cramp’ lie?

I saw a post on the far end of the tarn with something on top of it. I squinted but could not make it out. As I finally rounded to the end of the tarn I saw someone had left a white woolen hat perched on top of the post, and affixed to the post was a waymark.

A waymark?! Where the hell was the waymark miles back?! Where were they in the slodgy, messy slopes with the judgy sheep?! Seriously?! Fuck you! I kicked the post. It hurt and I regretted it.

(It’s Ok, I love rain)

I didn’t know whether the hat had been accidentally abandoned or whether it had been left by another equally frustrated, but much kinder hiker to alert others to the post’s presence. I dithered briefly whether this was a trace that should be left or removed and eventually decided, somewhat uneasily, to remove it. I didn’t want anyone missing the post, but I also shouldn’t leave a hat out here where it has no place.

The worst part was over. I know I had told myself that previously already today, but looking at the map it really was just farmland and woodland from now on. I rounded one wood and another and then threw myself into the last few hours of fields.

It sounds like I’m rushing to get to the end of the story, but I don’t have many stories to tell about the fields. On a clear day, the Old Man, Dow Crag and Wetherlam would be seen retreating behind me, on a dry day I would have skipped over the streams, on a sunny day, this would be a pastoral wonderland of farmhouses and villages and long and lovely views. But it was none of those things. What it was, however, was MY day. This was my day to finish.

I would have finished this trail, that has taken me all the way from Carlisle, past the wild garlic, over High Pike and down incredible valleys. I had climbed Stake Pass in all it’s twisted, steep magnificence. I had walked beneath mountains forged from continental collisions and seen the history of the area, not just in the rocks, but in the old mines and the pollarded trees. I had slept under the stars and in the rain and got red cheeks in the sunshine. It had been exhilarating, it had been marvelous, and after a year of lockdowns and loneliness I hadn’t realised how much I had needed to be so free again.

So it was I paused in the rain, two miles short of Ulverston and just looked back for a minute. There was much to be thankful for and, in that moment, I really did love the rain.

The bustle of the market town of Ulverston embraced me as I made the last trudge to the cairn statue that marked the end of my journey. I sat there a moment, watching the world go by. There wasn’t anything more to be done, or anything more to be said. I got up, heaved the pack on, and headed for the station.

You know what, I thought, I think I’ll get fish and chips tonight.

And then I’ll plan the next one.

  • Distance: 15.5 miles
  • Ascent: 615m
  • Terrain: Farmland, rocky riverside paths, country lanes, low fell
  • Toughness: 3/10 in fine weather, 6/10 in whatever the hell my weather was
  • Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: Cumbria Way

10 thoughts on “The Cumbria Way- Day 5: Coniston to Ulverston

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