Day 16: The Gauntlet

We peeled our tents off the damp leaf litter, then shook the damp leaf litter off our tents. Though last night’s rain coated the woods, the sky was looking a bit brighter and more promising. Just a short way down through the trees, we came out to the campsite and youth hostel at Rosthwaite, where we popped in to read some information about the area. We then headed into Rosthwaite village and rejoined the Cumbria Way. I had followed this long-distance path for a while two days before as I made my way along Great Langdale, but instead of going over the high fell summits, it went all the way to the top of the valley and over a pass to come down into the valley of the Stonethwaite Beck, which joins the River Derwent at Rosthwaite. From here I would follow the Cumbria Way to its end point in Carlisle, just south of the Scottish border.

Borrowdale has a remote feel to it as, rather than gradually opening out as you might expect a valley to do, it is blocked off by the small but charismatic fell of Castle Crag, forming the Jaws of Borrowdale and leaving only a narrow course where the river runs through. While the only road in hugs the east side of the river, the Cumbria Way rises through the woods on the west. We passed three great heaps of slate, then arrived at Millican Dalton’s caves. In his thirties, Dalton abandoned his life as an insurance clerk in London, and embarked upon a life in the great outdoors. For many years he returned to these caves in the summer months, leading groups on climbing, hiking, and camping trips and calling himself the Professor of Adventure. Few people could get away with giving themselves such a moniker, but if you have the commitment to go through with living in a cave, then you can probably take whatever name you want.

A wooden boardwalk took us over some wet, tussocky ground to the shores of Derwent Water. This is my favourite of the lakes, and in my opinion one of the loveliest parts of the country. We wended our way up the wooded western waterside, past little bays and boathouses at the foot of Cat Bells, and looking across to the handful of islands which give the lake its character. Simple jetties jutted invitingly into the water.

Smiley team

An unexpected discovery was the Teddy in the Window. In the window of a mossy shed was a slightly sorry-looking bear that had been lost by a child in the area and never been reclaimed. Pinned to the wall around it were two dozen or more letters from the bear’s admirers from all over the world, many describing the lovely time they had had on their holiday to Keswick and often including a photo. Apparently you only need to address a letter to “the Teddy in the Window, Keswick” and it will find its way there. Further on, we came to the “Entrust” sculpture – a giant pair of carved wooden hands placed there in 2002 to commemorate the centenary of the National Trust buying its first land in the Lakes, in the Brandlehow Estate. According to Hugo, people sometimes complain that it is not being properly looked after, being mossy and cracked in places, but in fact it was always the intention of the artist, Rosalind Rawnsley, that it should be allowed to decay and return to the soil.

We crossed the suspension bridge over the outflowing river Derwent and arrived in Keswick some time in the early afternoon, after a leisurely 14km walk. There we met up with Zoë’e parents, Steve and Caroline, who treated us to lunch at a café. I didn’t want to take advantage, but they encouraged me to eat my fill, so I did – a full veggie fry up, supplemented by excess toast, and possibly even followed by a piece of cake.

At Hugo’s urging, we then went into an outdoor shop on the high street. My tent is a Vango Mirage 200. I had spent a long time researching a couple of years before and had settled on it for its sturdy design and good value. I maintain that it is an excellent tent but the drawback was that it is not particularly light. Hugo said I should try my luck in a shop by explaining what I was doing and seeing if I could pick up a lightweight tent at a discounted price. I found one on display and lay in it. I can’t remember what model it was, but it had a single pole and whisper-thin material. I weighed a packed one in my hand and was sorely tempted. There was no doubt it would make the going easier. That said, it was expensive, and I don’t tend to buy kit without deliberating about it for far too long. The shop assistant said they could offer me a small discount. Steve didn’t want to hurry me, but their parking was about to run out. With a last wistful heft of it in my hand, I put it back. I would soldier on as I was – people buying things they don’t need is a problem in the world that I wouldn’t be contributing to that day. There would be moments when I would wish that I had.

Steve and Caroline were giving Hugo a lift to Ambleside before going back to Cheshire with Zoë. They all wished me luck. Steve grasped my hand and said, “See you on Ben Nevis in two weeks, then.” In my mind’s eye, a gauntlet thudded heavily to the ground at my feet. That had indeed been what I had (arbitrarily) planned: to do the peaks at fortnightly intervals, each one on a Saturday, but to me it had always been flexible. I hadn’t set myself a particular target date to complete the challenge by, but if I wanted to finish it together with Zoë, and I did, then I had less than thirteen days to get from Keswick to Glen Nevis.

To be clear, despite what I had planned, Scafell Pike is not halfway between the other two peaks; it is significantly nearer to Snowdon. When plotting out my route, I had assumed I would get fitter and be able to cover longer and longer distances. Now I would reap what I had sown. It was after 4pm on Sunday the 6th of October. OK then. “See you then,” I said. Game on.

(These dramatics were all in my head; Steve was just being friendly)

Illustration of relative farness

I waved to them as they drove away, then sat staring at the image of the route that was my phone’s home screen. This was something I did all the time, going over and over estimations of how well I was doing, comparing my actual progress to what I had planned. It felt like I had done a day’s walking already, but if I was going to manage this, I would have to keep going. With a grimace, I traced the path of the Cumbria Way uphill on my map, reaching nearly 500m as it passed between the Skiddaw and Blencathra massifs. I saw a campsite marked on the other side of the mountains, and decided to get to there this evening. It was 15km away. In the golden afternoon light, I set off, on my own again.

The Skiddaw massif blanketed in cloud

I crossed over the A66, which runs all the way east-west from coast to coast, and began to climb. I slanted up round the shoulder of Latrigg, and onto the side of Loughrigg Fell, a broad, featureless, heather-covered slope which faces south. The path traversed this until it rounded onto the steeper eastern face of the fell and entered a deep vale, with Blease Fell and Blencathra on the far side. I paused on the cusp and let the last rays of the westering sun wash over me. Everything ahead lay in shadow. The formation of the mountains had created the perfect metaphor to mirror my mind. I said goodbye for now to laughing and singing with friends, and entered the vale of gloom and mist.

The vale. This doesn’t quite capture how gloomy it seemed compared to the sunshine

I set myself a quick pace, pumping my walking poles and cracking the whip. I felt fit and ready for this. I pressed ever deeper, to where the valley floor rose up and opened out into a wide and empty area of heather, used for grouse shooting. I felt I must be the only person for miles, until I saw what looked like the loneliest house in the world. Skiddaw House was marked as a hostel on the map, but there was little welcoming about it as I approached in the rapidly fading light. It looked grim and grey, and was backed by straggly pines; somewhere where optimistic children would be sent to have their spirits crushed in a gothic novel. I took off my pack and leant it on the stone wall for a quick rest, then tried to see if anyone was home. I wanted to fill my bottle, but all was locked and barred. It felt like a cold place. I left.

After another couple of kilometres, I could see the end of the vale. I had thought that it was already full night, but out beyond the shadow, the sky was noticeably brighter. I could see a few lower hills but mostly a great carpet of velvety dark lower ground, with the odd few scatterings of light. The beck I had been following burst out to freedom in a waterfall and the path took me down a steep shoulder into farmland (beneath a summit point called Cockup).

Emergence

Bright eyes reflecting my head torch tracked me as I went through fields trampled by cattle. I tried not to slip at the gates where the ground was the most rutted up and wet. At last I tramped into the campsite at Kestrel Lodge, and found someone to pay. She seemed a bit surprised for me to have turned up at that time of night. “I’m walking to Scotland,” I said, by way of explanation. This didn’t seem to have any effect, and I realised my old mantra had lost its power, now that I was only a couple of days from the border, on a path that would take me most of the way there. “I’ve walked here from Wales,” I corrected myself. This didn’t appear to register either – this was clearly a hard woman to impress, but she was nice enough, and showed me where to pitch my tent and cook.

I still I still had a fair amount of food, and would be able to resupply in Carlisle, so I treated myself to a double helping, sitting wrapped up on a picnic bench in all my warm clothes, dimly illuminated by my little stove. One way or another, I had been with people I knew, whether walking with them or seeing them in the morning or evening, for over a week and a half, but that was finished now. Tomorrow it would just be me and miles of trail.

Published by Alasdair Robertson

Hiker, birder, conservationist, and occasional comedian

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