The Cumbria Way is 73 miles / 120km long from Ulverston in the south to Carlisle in the north of the county. Unfortunately I had to do the walk in two halves due to a foot injury in new trail shoes. I walked the route from Ulverston to Keswick (a total of 42 miles / 67.5km) at the beginning of May 2013 and completed the stretch from Keswick to Carlisle via High Peak two weeks later.
The route crosses the stunning Lake District National Park and takes you through some of the wilder areas within the park with a few villages and hamlets along the way. It passes Coniston Water, Tarn Hows and Dungeon Ghyll and crosses the Stake Pass to Borrowdale, Derwent Water and Keswick. At Keswick the Way continues to Caldbeck either via Dash Falls or over High Pike, and then follows the Caldew valley to Carlisle.
One of the joys of walking in this lovely area is that there are plenty of hostels, campsites and bunkhouses along most of the route. I was therefore able to plan the route using only one B&B in Ulverston followed by three youth hostels and one camping barn. My original plan was for a total of 5 days continuous walking averaging about 15 miles per day starting over the early May bank holiday. My daily distances were planned as:
- Ulverston to Coniston 15 miles / 24 km
- Coniston to New Dungeon Ghyll 12 miles / 19 km
- New Dungeon Ghyll to Keswick 16 miles / 25.5km
- Keswick to Nether Row 18 miles / 29km
- Nether Row to Carlisle 15 miles / 24km
I took the bus across to Carlisle and then opted for the coastal train journey south to Ulverston as I don’t know the coast so well. This journey was the first time I had ever seen request stop trains where you signal for the train to stop. I was also surprised by how pretty Sellafield was (from my side of the train at least) I think I had expected a scene out of Metropolis! Once I had found my B&B, I treated myself to an Italian meal and a wander round Ulverston which was looking very colourful during Flag Fortnight. When I was growing up I had family in nearby Barrow in Furness, so it was lovely to hear the accents of the area again.
1/ Ulverston to Coniston
Next morning, after a huge breakfast and much chat at the friendly B&B, I set off out of town from the cairn sculpture by Chris Brammall in The Gill to start the walk. The forecast was overcast but with no rain for that day or the following day, so I was feeling confident about my first trail with a new rucksack and trail shoes (see my full kit list here). The route initially crosses open pasture interspersed with small hamlets for the first 7/8 miles (12km).
Shortly after Kiln Bank it was as if a film had opened up to wide screen as I was greeted by a spectacular, if overcast, panorama through the gate into the open moorland and the fells.
From here the walk crosses wilder moorland running alongside the small Beacon Tarn, the first lake of the route. The trail then heads north east towards the southern corner of Coniston water. There is then a long and relaxing walk winding along the side of the lake, where you can watch small boats and canoes criss crossing the water until you reach the marina and turn inland.
After some lovely fish and chips à la Wainwright, I spent a fairly refreshing night at Holly Hows hostel. Next morning I set off again, leaving the lovely town and Coniston Old Man (my first Wainwrights) behind.
2/ Coniston to New Dungeon Ghyll
The next day I followed the route past the pretty Tarn Hows via woods and moorland towards Skelwith Bridge where the route turns eastwards along Great Langdale Beck to New Dungeon Ghyll. It was strange to pass from remote moorland tracks into busy bank holiday villages. Little did I know I would be retracing my steps later that day.
At New Dungeon Ghyll I discovered a planning error which I should have noticed before I left. I had thought that Langdale Youth Hostel would be in or near Great Langdale but it transpires that it is near Elterwater which I had passed through earlier in the day.
The kind people at the hotel in New Dungeon Ghyll seemed to be accustomed to walkers who have made the same error and explained that I could take the bus back to Elterwater to reach the hostel. My feeling of panic subsided and I had a drink and some food while I waited for the bus. My experience of Cumbrian bus drivers is that they are always helpful to walkers. This driver was no exception as he took me to the foot of the hill where the hostel was, stopping the bus to give me precise instructions on how to get there.
3/ New Dungeon Ghyll to Keswick
The next day, in true Bank Holiday fashion, was really dreich with steady rain and low cloud as I took the bus back to New Dungeon Ghyll from Elterwater. The rain continued as I passed up and over Stake Pass into Langstrath valley. The ground was pretty waterlogged and the streams were gushing so I had a few nerve wracking moments crossing the stepping stones there. The views down into the Langstrath Valley on the other side were spectacular, even in the rain.
I was glad of my rainproof gear as I sat down for my lunch in the rain at the spot pictured above. As I zig zagged down the path, the rain eased off and it brightened up, but I became aware that my socks were wet and my toes were hurting in my trails shoes. I can see the advantage of trail shoes in terms of weight but this was possibly not the route or the weather for them.
After a painful walk along the rocky section from Stake Pass to Stonethwaite Beck, I finally arrived into Keswick just after dark, having taken some painkillers. When I got to the hostel I realised that my big toenails were a fetching shade of purple.
The next day I was advised that there was a fit issue with the shoes and that I would be best to postpone the remaining two days of the trip from Keswick to Carlisle. This was a huge disappointment so I went for a cruise around Derwentwater to cheer myself up, before returning home on the bus.
4/ Keswick to Nether Row
After a couple of weeks, I found the opportunity to complete the walk to my original plan, wearing my boots instead of trail shoes. It is amazing what a difference two weeks can make to the scenery. By the time I did the second half of the walk the daffodils had disappeared and the bluebells were out, the new leaves on the trees were showing vivid greens and there were swallows darting around over the fields.
After Keswick the route gradually rises along the side of Lonscale Fell above the Glenderaterra Beck for about four miles, with stunning views across the valley.
At Skiddaw House there are two alternative routes: the west route via Whitewater Dash falls which crosses pasture and arable land, and the east route via High Pike which crosses moorland and fells. As the weather looked set to stay fine at Skiddaw House, I decided to take the eastern route through one of the wilder areas of the National Park. The path passes through the heather along the side of the remote and peaceful fells above the River Caldew, crossing the occasional small bridge over the gills which feed in to the river.
After four or five miles I turned sharply to the east towards the disused Carrock mineral mine land which is now a protected area.
The path all but disappears here so I followed the steep hills to the side of Grainsgill Beck as best I could towards the ridge by Great Lingy Hill. From here I turned towards Lingy Hut which is a well placed refuge on this remote section of the route. It was fascinating to read the recent entries in the visitors book and I felt privileged to add my own.
By this time I was feeling tired so I stopped for tea and a snack in the lee of the cairn on the windy summit of High Pike (my 4th Wainwright). From here I was able to enjoy the spectacular panorama of patchwork fields to the north as I drank my tea. From the summit it was all downhill to my camping barn for the night.
5/ Nether Row to Carlisle
The forecast for my final day to Carlisle said overcast but this turned out to include a wide variety of weather. I stopped in Caldbeck to get a packed lunch for the day and headed off east along the woodland ridge above the Cald Beck. Here I was rewarded with my first bluebell wood of the year in the warm morning sunshine.
During the day, the warm sunshine was interspersed with occasional showers, one of hailstones, so my various layers were on and off a few times. As it was midweek, I had most of this pleasant stretch of woods, pasture and rolling hills up to Dalston to myself.
At Dalston I sat down for a cream tea to galvanise myself for the final leg of the walk into Carlisle. Like most walks which head into cities it briefly skirts round an industrial estate but the tarmac cycleway which runs close to the River Caldew into the city centre is fairly pleasant. Unfortunately I arrived too late to add my entry to the Cumbria Way log book kept by the Tourist Information centre in Carlisle.
It is always a bit of a culture shock to arrive back into a city and I tried to adjust quickly to my urban surroundings after the wildness of the Northern Fells. I arrived at the bus station just in time to get something to eat and hop on the bus back to Newcastle.
The Long Distance Walkers Association gives the following statistics for the Cumbria Way:
- Length: 118.5 Km (73.6 miles)
- Ascent: 3,051 m (10,010 ft)
- Maximum height: 649 m (2,129 ft)
Observations about the trail
There are very few “improved” surfaces which makes the walk feel much wilder than some of the national trails. Some stretches were rocky and muddy so I would recommend wearing good footwear. Because there are few way markers in the wilder areas of the route, and they are often very discreet, the route is intended for people who can read maps. I gather from someone who used to be in a local search & rescue team, that people often get lost in the Northern stretch of this walk, so take a map and compass along with adequate clothing, food and drink just in case. There is a refuge hut near Great Lingy Hill should the weather change, but apart from this there is very little shelter between New Dungeon Ghyll and Stonethwaite or between Skiddaw House and Nether Row. For information I used the Harvey strip map for the Cumbria Way.