Blustering winds shook the walls of the tent, waking me up for another day of walking. I lay there for a while. There is nothing quite like the peace of hearing the besieging weather breaking against the thin material of a sturdy little tent, knowing that it will howl and rattle, but will not touch you. Eventually, though, you have to take a guess at how cold it is going to be outside, wrap yourself up in an appropriate number of layers, and step unwillingly out.
Navigation today should be straightforward – I was following the Cumbria Way to its endpoint in Carlisle, the county town of Cumbria and the closest English city to the Scottish border. I had come out of the Lake District fells down a valley trending northwest. For the first 10km of the day, I would curve round to the northeast, skirting round the base of the northernmost group of fells, before turning north and following the Cald Beck, which became the River Caldew downstream, which would take me all the way into the middle of the city. The total distance for the day would be 37km – easily my longest yet. There was nothing for it but to get cracking.
After crossing a few fields of pasture, the way went along lanes and tracks for several kilometres, passing a few farm houses and little else. I contoured round the lower reaches of spurs, up and down, up and down. The wind continued to blast into my face. I didn’t see many people. The sudden increase in the distance I had to go threw my judgement off. I kept thinking that I must be turning north soon, but on and on I went. Maybe my rapid 15km march the night before had worn me out, too. I had less energy today, and before I reached the lane that would start to take me north, I knew I was flagging. I did the only sensible thing to do, and found a partially sheltered fold of ground, sat down, and had a snack. This improved matters slightly, but I knew it was early in the day to be needing a break. This did not bode well.
I followed a lane downhill to the charming village of Caldbeck. Had the Old Smithy Tearoom been open, it would definitely have beckoned to me, and the Oddfellows Inn seemed made for me. I was in no doubt that I was the oddest fellow around. It was not to be, though. I crossed the river on an old footbridge by the church, and passed out of the village. I came to an area of parkland on the hillside above the river. A comfortable-looking log was too tempting, and I stopped for another break. I told myself that this was fine; I could take all the time I needed and just plod on.
After that I managed to keep going for some time. The land opened up as the hills around the river gradually got lower and I walked along the margins of wide meadows. The most exciting moment for me was seeing a red-breasted merganser, a kind of advanced-looking duck with a serrated bill, cruising along the river. I passed Rose Castle as the afternoon took on a soft glow, where the bishops of Carlisle used to take refuge from marauding Scots, and presumably still would, if any modern Scots got into a marauding mood.
The sun was getting low when I sank to the ground to eat, in a field of relaxed sheep. It felt like I deserved to be nearly done, but there was still another 11km to go. One thing I reflected on a lot on throughout the walk, and particularly now I was aiming for a strict deadline, was that there were no shortcuts or easy ways out; no way of reducing the hardship. The hardship would end when I had been through all of it and not before. On any given day, if I gave up early, that would just mean there was more distance to go the next day, and more allotted hardship. This was my grim motivator. I always had a stick, and only occasionally could look forward to a carrot.
A couple of kilometres further on, I went through the town of Dalston, where the Cumbria Way joined with a tarmac cycle path. Several cyclists and dog walkers were out, and I became more self-conscious of how bedraggled I was. I now also knew that I would be on a hard surface for the rest of the way. By this point, my feet were hurting constantly, but on grass or gravel, it stayed at a bearable level. Surfaces made of tarmac and concrete dealt a hammering that made my morale deteriorate inexorably. As the light faded, I considered my options for the night. Before I had set off on the walk, my mum, in a fit of worrying, had said that if I ever wanted to stay in a hostel, she would pay. As I limped on, I kept an eye out for likely discreet camping spots, but the fact was that I had decided to get into Carlisle that day, and once I was there, I would be unlikely to find anything. It was time. I rang home. Mum immediately asked if I was all right. She was only too happy to book me into a Travelodge.
Knowing exactly where you are going to finish, and that there will be a bed for you, is just the thing to push you on through the pain of the last few kilometres. I moved under orange street lighting through an industrial part of Carlisle. People wandered about, having normal nights, not exhausted, not weighed down by a commitment to a bizarre journey, not looking like a vagrant. At last, the soulless lights of the Travelodge reception beckoned me in (I have not been well disposed towards Travelodge since getting in from a late-night bat survey when working as an ecologist, only to find that they had apparently given our room away, forcing me and my colleague to spend the night in his car). I gave my details to the receptionist, half in a daze, and went up to my room. I don’t normally take the lift, but I thought, “Screw it, I’ve earned it.”
I dumped my things and lay on my bed for a while. I decided I would go and get some food, but I thought I should try to do something about my smell and general presentability first. I showered and tried to pick out some cleanish clothes, I had two pairs of trousers, but both were muddy. I also noticed that I had tramped mud over the carpet and made a token effort to pick the worst of it into a bin, though I couldn’t find much will to care about it. I dug out my wallet and stumbled along to one of the two Wetherspoons that graces Carlisle’s main street, less than a hundred yards apart. It was noisy, and filled with far more people than I had become accustomed to. I had been here before, stopping for lunch while on the way to Scotland for some winter mountaineering. Those drives had seemed pretty epic, setting off in the early hours before dawn from Sussex to reach Fort William in the evening. Well, look how long it was taking this time.
After filling up on a large amount of greasy food, I returned to my room. I thought I would be able to take a huge amount of pleasure in having a bed, but in fact I just started to feel a bit sick. I was exhausted. It had been by far my toughest day yet, mainly because of the distance and the amount of hard ground I had covered. And I would have to keep going tomorrow, and the day after, and every day after that. I slept.
This was another day when I took very few pictures, so I will provide another summary of my progress since day 8. You can see how much I had to suddenly increase my pace after climbing Scafell Pike on day 15, having had several more gentle days in a row.
|14||14.7 + 5km walk round Blea Tarn|
I have also just come across an online tool for visualising my elevation profile, so here is one covering the distance from Liverpool to Carlisle. You can see just how flat it was most of the way through Lancashire.