Shropshire Way Celebrations

My wife Nicola and I were among the sixty people who came to celebrate the completion of the Shropshire Way Main Route at the Trinity Centre in Shrewsbury. Kate Ashbrook proposed a toast and spoke about the origins of the Shropshire Way the Shropshire Way Chairman talked about the history of the way and the pathway to completion. She also thanked those who had seen it through. Clare Featherstone talked about the partnership between the Shropshire Way Association and the Shropshire Council. I said a few words about my Shropshire Way film, which was to be shown later, and in thanks for the excellent hard work done by all concerned to “get things done” as a certain Boris would say.

Hannah Stevenson from Cicerone showed advanced copies of my Shropshire Way book and took pre-orders. It’s always nice to meet your readers and a certain Graham Leddington approached me asking me to sign copies of my Lakeland to Lindisfarne guidebook and pocket guidebook – he had enjoyed the walk in 1992. He mentioned that he had been part of the Hope House Way Guide project which was produced by my friend Chris Bagshaw with illustrations from another friend Mark Richards. I had in fact got a copy of this and thoroughly enjoyed it so we had both read each other’s books.

I have now completed two books about Shropshire and have fallen in love with the county, which has to be the most beautifully rural of all the English counties.

 

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Kate Ashbrook, Clare Featherstone, myself and the Shropshire Way chairman, Audrey Menhinick

Stretton Skyline Walk, Shropshire Video

Here’s a preview of my 20-mile Stretton Skyline Walk video. The final version will have newer and better sequences of the Long Mynd, Caer Caradoc and the Lawley and will have full background sound including commentary.

Telford, Ironbridge and the Wrekin

We’d been getting a Toyota Hiace converted to a campervan at G&P in Stafford  so Nicola and I had been spending some time in the West Midlands while we made visits to check on the van’s progress – Cannock Chase, Church Stretton and Telford were on the itinerary. The hills around here may be tiddlers but what tiddlers: we were gobsmacked how beautiful they were and it was lovely to see so many broad-leaved trees as well as the crags.

    Sometimes you have to forget about hills though – it’s difficult for me – and the Telford area is just such a place to do it. Telford itself is a strange sort of place. It didn’t exist before the 1960s and was designed to be a dormitory town for Birmingham. The planners were not starting from scratch; they just filled the gaps between Wellington, Madeley and Dawley with a shopping centre and lots of hotels. But don’t let me put you off for Telford has lots of lovely spaces with woodland, streams and a wealth of history. Ironbridge, along with Coalbrookdale, claims to be the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and this has been recognised by its World Heritage Site status.

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The Iron Bridge

    In September 2011 they had their 25th anniversary celebrations and Nicola and I took our shiny new campervan to see them. Our day began with a walk down to the bike hire centre in Jackfield. There’s an old railway track that goes all the way down the Severn Gorge to Bridgnorth. Old railway tracks and small wooded hills offer many good bike rides around here.  In the evening the anniversary celebrations were to include  bands playing  in the local pubs and in the square above the bridge. Highlight of this was a local country singer-made-good Raymond Froggatt. In the background the old iron bridge designed by Thomas Pritchard, glowed in the night sky with ever-changing purple, green, yellow and blue floodlights, which were soon enlivened by a fireworks display.

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Raymond Froggatt

 

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The Iron Bridge on the anniversary night

    Visitors to the area should consider buying a passport to see the ten museums of the Ironbridge Gorge. The most fascinating is the village of Blists Hill, where they recreate a Victorian community with real shops and working factories. ‘Villagers’ dressed in Victorian costumes mill around the streets and serve in the local shops. You can even buy real fish and chips in paper and take refreshment in an authentic pub. Other museums include a tar tunnel, pipe works, and a tile factory – tiles from here went all around the world, including all the old London Underground favourites. A frequent shuttle-bus links all ten museums and if you miss one out for lack of time your passport allows you to revisit within 12 months.

    Just to the south west of Telford lies the Wrekin a steep-sided  hill clothed in attractive mixed woodland. The rocks near the top are dark and clearly volcanic, being made up of lava flows – rhyolites and tuffs. A summit view indicator shows you what you can see – a panorama across a dozen counties, where patchwork fields lead to the bold outlines of Brown Clee Hill, Caer Caradog, the Long Mynd and the Berwyn Mountains of Wales.

     You must go

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The Wrekin

Offa’s Dyke: The Border Lines

Under Saxon rule, Wales had no need for political borders, for Wales had hills: the English border kingdoms in general did not. So the foothills seemed to satisfy the early warlords, until Offa. This Saxon king had extended his Mercian borders as far as Northumberland and Wessex, and had other ideas. The Welsh were not a major threat, just a nuisance. Offa needed to flex his muscles.

He decided on a border dyke. Maybe it would not be in the class of Hadrian’s Wall, but Hadrian was Roman, and had more soldiers and slaves to build it for him. No, Offa’s wall would be symbolic rather than strategic.

Little did Offa know that in trying to keep the Welsh out of Mercia he would centuries later entice new armies over his earthworks. Twentieth-century walkers liked the idea of the Dyke for company: after all, this was a coast-to-coast earthwork, passing through some darned good countryside, and there were castles, old Iron Age forts and lovely valleys en route.

At first Offa’s Dyke seeks the shade of the Wye Valley woodlands. Then there’s the first of many gaps – from Redbrook right through to Kington, covering much of the Herefordshire sandstone area. The mystery of this bit of missing dyke was solved by Sir Cyril Fox, who discovered that in Offa’s day the place was blanketed by impenetrable forest. Here, the path heads for high ground – the Black Mountains.

From Kington to the Ceiriog Valley near Chirk Offa’s Dyke is at its best. Even when confronted by the chaotic east-west ridges of the Clun Forest it runs powerfully up and down the hillsides without wavering. In Flintshire the Dyke runs through what was coal-mining country, and sensibly the path leaves it for the heathery Clwydian Hills.

It has to be said that Offa designed a mighty fine path.

Chepstow, the Wye Valley and the Black Mountain

So here I was on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late April, following the Offa’s Dyke Path through the woods north of Chepstow. Down through the trees, the sleepy Wye meandered among fields that were green after weeks of rain. Four miles ahead at Tintern was our first night’s B&B. Thirty yards ahead was Nicola. This last distance was widening, my head was thumping.

“Are you OK?” Nicola asked without turning her head. How many times have I done that to her without waiting for an answer?

“Yep!” I lied, and tried to pick up speed beneath my brand new Lowe Alpine rucksack.

Last night, at home in Hoddlesden, neither of us had managed any sleep. Some mystery bug had left me shivering uncontrollably in the bed, and Nicola, restless with the violent vibrations of my shivers.

Our walk had started a few miles back in Chepstow, a busy little town where the Wye, brown with tidal mud, flowed swiftly by the ramparts of a powerful castle. Attractive streets of shops offered last chances to stock up with the things that had been forgotten, the night before – another pair of socks for me; a couple of Mars bars for Nicola.

Tintern Abbey appeared through the trees; tantalisingly close, but in reality, still a mile or two away. The B&B, when I finally got there, was a pretty cottage next to the Cistercian abbey and right by the riverbank. And, inside this pretty cottage, Mrs Russill had a cup of tea waiting for us – this was all very civilised.

Next morning the sun had gone. “Two or three days of rain,” the weatherman informed us with a grin. After managing (in my case only just managing) the first of many breakfasts of bacon, egg and sausage we went out into the rain, clad with our pristine waterproofs. Past Bigsweir we climbed through more woodland where oak, beech, holly, and lime perched high on the valley sides above the Wye. The river was still brown with mud. So now were the woodland paths, but the scent of bluebells and wild garlic was a heady mix, and the trees gave us a certain amount of shelter. Yes, this was all right! Across the valley the dark steaming forests, some conifer and some oak, were punctuated by little clearings with huddled whitewashed houses and the odd riverside inn.

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Rain and bluebells in the Wye Valley forests

After making us come down to the valley at Redbrook, the Offa’s Dyke Path wanted us to go back up the hill to Kymin. Offa’s reward was a naval temple and an airy view of Monmouth. We were having none of this for the Wye Valley Walk offered us an easy riverbank way into Monmouth.

We didn’t give historic Monmouth the time that it deserved, for we had still four miles before nightfall, three of them uphill. Statues of  Henry V and C S Rolls of Rolls Royce fame overlooked Agincourt Square, and we hurried under the 13th-century gatehouse of Monnow Bridge. The forestry track up this last hill seemed to go on longer than the map promised, but the last mile to our B&B at Hendre Farm was easy and downhill.

Another night’s rest and a full English breakfast later and we were on the path again. The rain rained, and the mud still flowed. It was good red mud that lodged itself in every cleat of our bootsoles. I’d hoped for a newsagent at Llantilio Crossenny. There wasn’t one, just a church, attractive though that was, and a pub, The Hostry. It was early for a pint, and a bit late for salvation, so we pressed on, over rolling pastures, with the ghostly grey outlines of distant peaks peeping over the hedges.

I hadn’t expected much of White Castle, but it turned out to be rather splendid, and, better still, free. It’s not white; the whitewash has long since been removed. However, there’s an impressive moat round the inner walls and a well-preserved keep. The only thing wrong with White Castle was that I couldn’t get a decent picture of it – it was too big for a measly 28mm lens.

The Black Mountains appeared through the damp grey atmosphere – not the proud, rock-fringed escarpment we had anticipated, but a faded shadow, capped with wispy clag.

The sound of rustling waterproofs and fast moving bootsteps made us look back up the hill. Two walkers were moving just as swiftly as the rustling had suggested.

Jenny and Josh were doing Lands End to John o’ Groats. Offa’s Dyke was a short link in their itinerary. We picked up speed and walked with them down to Pandy.

Some places look unpromising, and the Lancaster Arms was one of them – just a turn-of-the century box of a building between two roads. Inside was a rather tatty bar area with furniture and fittings from the sixties. But the Lancaster Arms gave us one of our most enjoyable nights of the walk. Here we shared the company of people who we were to meet and remeet along the whole of the route. Jenny and Josh had come in for their meal, and Tom and Jill had, like us, decided to stay at the pub.

The landlord, Terry Lyon, had seemed quiet when he first showed us to our rooms, and his hands shook badly from high blood pressure. So it came as a shock when this quiet man announced confidently that he would sing us some songs, if we promised to drink plenty of his beer. He strolled to the corner of the bar, where an old guitar, a microphone and an amplifier stood, then burst into I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester Way……he was doing Mike Harding and Ewan McColl proud.

Somebody said that a weather lady had promised a change in the weather – tomorrow afternoon. But much of the talk was of tomorrow morning. We were told that the wet winter had made the Black Mountains ridges very, very  marshy. Jill looked troubled and muttered something to Tom. Tom, well he just laughed. He had been planning the walk all year, and wasn’t to be put off by a bit of peat.

Terry cheered the rest of us up with a monologue about King Harold and William the Conqueror. Now he was doing Stanley Holloway proud. In turn, we kept our promise.

Next morning the cloud hung even lower across the green foothills of the Hatterrall ridge. Jenny and Josh had beaten us to the path and were steaming up the fellsides ahead, soon disappearing into those clouds.

Having done the Black Mountains before, I knew that their valleys were much nicer than their ridges. The tops reminded me of the worst of parts of the Peak and Pennines.  Nicola and I planned a route through the Olchon Valley before climbing the narrow rocky ridge to Black Hill, then onwards to the main ridge near Hay Bluff. “Where are you off to then?” asked a man on the street by Longtown Castle.

“Black Hill.”

“We pulled a bloke out from there last Thursday. It’s just a mire.”

The man was from the local mountain rescue team and told us about a bridleway that goes round the mountain and onto Hay Common.

This route was pretty. The lanes had sweet smelling hedgerows with flower-filled verges, and we could see the odd spot of sun highlighting distant hillsides. Bathed in sunlight and standing proud above the common, Hay Bluff looked impressive. The path up it was steep, but Nicola and I were feeling like wimps and we were compelled to make amends by climbing to the top.

At Hay, we had a B&B, aptly named Rest for the Tired, and had been looking forward to a bar meal at Kilverts, one of the best pubs for food in Wales. Kilverts was heaving with hungry hillwalkers, bookbuyers and locals. We grabbed a corner table, then saw Jill and Tom, two tables away.

“Never again!” said Jill. “I was up to my knees in it every few steps!”

Tom smiled.

Nicola and I felt slightly guilty, after having such an enjoyable day.

Over the Green Hills of Radnor

The Wye is one of Britain’s loveliest rivers, and this morning it was bathed with sunshine and flecked with wildflowers. My camera battery decided this beauty was just too much for it to take in, gave me one picture, then died.

Once out of the valley, Offa’s Dyke threads through devious countryside of small hills and remote farming valleys. It uses the odd country lane and wanders through wooded dingles. I remember seeing apple blossom in abundance and hearing dogs and shepherds on distant pastures. Highpoint of the day was to be Hergest Ridge. Being a bit of a Mike Oldfield fan I had bought the record. Now I needed to climb the hill.

Today, Hergest Ridge was not at its best, for the views from this free-striding grass and bracken ridge were lost in a dull, grey mist. Sinister silhouettes appeared through this mist. Hergest is known for its mysteries – the Whet Stone, for instance, goes down the hill each morning for a drink of water. As we neared the sinister silhouettes, they cleverly turned themselves into Monkey Puzzle trees – perhaps under the spell of the local ghost, Black Vaughan, or his murderous wife; or maybe they were an evil experiment in genetic engineering.

One of my ankles had started to bother me. I checked it out – just a faint red patch on the bone with a bruise underneath it. The terrain was dry enough to put my trainers on for the descent into Kington. This did the trick – for the moment.

Kington greeted us with an attractive spired church, half hidden by the blossoms of cherry trees. At the Swan Hotel we remet Josh and Jenny; Tom and Jill, and another Offa’s Dyker, Martin. Martin was travelling light and was strutting around the bar in his stockinged feet.

Next day, after crossing dew-soaked fields by the River Arrow, we climbed back to Offa’s Dyke proper at Rushock Hill. The path gets more erratic in its quest to seek out the elusive dyke. After dropping down to the wide green valley of Hindwell Brook and climbing past the delightfully restored half-timbered farmhouse of Burfa, the path finds the Dyke more helpful and stays with it across the high pastures of Hawthorn Hill.

The George and Dragon, our B&B at Knighton, turned out to be rather less salubrious than we had imagined a country town pub would be. We left the local rugby club players celebrating in the bar, and found the Horse and Jockey at the bottom end of the village. Here, they served the best Chicken Tandoori I had eaten all year – all hot and sizzling in cast iron bowls.

The following morning I decided to buy some waterproof trainers to help with my ankles. Knighton had no outdoor gear shops, just a shoe shop with a few boots and some promising looking white trainers on display. It was five to nine. Two men were in the shop, examining shelves at the back, but they didn’t seem to be keen on opening the door. We waited… The others must have been well up the first hill by now.

At ten past, one of the men finally opened the door, then returned to the back of the shop. On close inspection the trainers were less promising. They were a job lot of outsize ladies’ trainers. In desperation I picked the best fitting pair I could find. They helped me up the first big hill without any real pain, and the leather seemed to be keeping the morning dew out of my socks.

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With my new trainers by the River Teme at Knighton

The book said this was to be the toughest section of the route. It calls these next hills the Switchbacks, though the map calls them the Clun Hills. As we strode the flat high sections of Llanfair Hill, we wondered what the fuss was about. This was grand pastured ridge with the dyke, now straight and proud, for company, and with one wonderful section in the shade of some larch trees. But Llanfair Hill and the dyke finally deposit you back on the roadside, and the road goes downhill to another path, which takes you further down – in fact, to the very bottom – of the Clun Valley.

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Now the Clun Valley goes east and Offa wanted his dyke to go north. So back up the hill you go, then round into an anonymous, twisting cwm that makes you climb towards another steep sided spur, Hergan. The path now has you crossing a series of pastured spurs to Knuck Bank. Here, you have hit the heights. But the path dumps you into depths of despair by diving straight down into Cwm Ffrydd.

Nicola and I studied the view for some time.

“Lovely place. We must come back here, sometime….”  then added, “without these heavy packs.”

We’d gone only a few yards further, when we met some scousers, who were picnicking on the slopes overlooking the Cwm Ffrydd.

“You doing the Dyke then?”

“Yeh.”

“All the way?”

“Yep.”

“You’re the fourth lot we’ve seen today.”

“Are the others much ahead?” I asked.

“The last couple are about half an hour ahead of you. The lady was struggling. I’ve not seen them come up the other side yet.”

That would be Tom and Jill.

“There was a lone man (Martin) steaming ahead and then there was another couple. We saw them come out of the valley onto that hill…” He pointed towards Edgehope Hill. “… but, they were faced with a bull and seemed to stand still for a long time. Finally, they went on, the bull panicked, then scampered into the next field. I saw it all through my binoculars.”

That must have been Jenny and Josh.

Churchtown at the bottom of Cwm Ffrydd has the church, but not the town. The climb away from it was steep, and my trainers only just gripped the grassy hillside. I scanned each beast for udders, but we made the top of the hill without seeing the bull. It’s now all downhill to our B&B at Little Brompton Farm.

Little Brompton Farm was as picturesque as a chocolate box cottage – whitewashed, with pretty gardens, blossom everywhere.\

Across the Shropshire Flatlands: Brompton Crossroads to Selattyn

They call this next stage the flat bit. Well, we were due a bit of a rest. I got lost looking for Offa’s Dyke at the back of the farm. Half an hour later we were back on course and really motoring. But really motoring even faster were Joss and Jenny. They appeared in my viewfinder while I was trying to capture Montgomery for the album. We picked up speed and walked with them. Joss and I lagged behind the girls. Joss told me that he always lagged behind Jenny. She was the energetic one. But, as he had already walked several hundred miles from Lands End, I concluded that Josh was underselling himself.

We were all making good time, and the pub at Forden seemed like a good idea. The landlord was in crisis. His wine machine had sprung a leak. Tom and Jill were already there, contentedly sipping their beers, and resting their feet in a puddle of Stowells French Dry White.

We had one ‘up’, the Long Mountain, to do before a long flat section through the Severn Valley. Beacon Ring, at the top of the mountain, had looked promising, but, disappointingly, it turned out to be obscured by forest.

The last we saw of Josh and Jenny was through a car window. As usual they had their heads down and were steaming down the road towards Llanymynech. They were to peel off Offa’s Dyke at Chirk and head for the Pennine Way, or their version of it. The car? No we hadn’t cheated: we had been forced to take a B&B off route and were being brought back to the point we left it by a very kind host, Illid Parrot.

‘There’s a view from the crags of Llanymynech Hill’, the book proclaimed – not on this day, though. There were some limestone quarried crags to explore, and another golf course to negotiate before coming down the other side of the hill. Although there were no flying-out-of-control golf balls around our ears there were flying-out-of-control heather flies – thousands of them!

This was to be a long day, but a good one, with the afternoon sun filtering through a thick haze that would have drawn Turner back to his canvas.

 

The Home Run: Selattyn to Prestatyn

The stretch from Selattyn to the Dee is the last you see of the Dyke itself, and it’s fitting that the earthworks are prominent and substantial. You’re soon looking down on the beautiful Ceiriog valley and across to the imposing Chirk Castle.

Getting back up the other side of the valley to the castle was made easier by the woodland’s shade. Cars lined the lane by the outer walls. This was going to be a bumper bank holiday weekend for the National Trust.

From the castle we dropped down the hillside to join the Llangollen canal. The canal is high up on the south side of the valley and has to cross to the north; hence Telford’s masterpiece, the Pont Cysyllte aqueduct. Here, a cast iron trough carries the canal for a kilometre, 120ft (35m) above the River Dee. Queues of people and a couple of colourful barges were crossing it. On the other side at Trefor, scores more were sitting on the grass, eating ice creams.

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The Llangollen Canal

Though most Offa’s Dykers do Llangollen, it’s two miles off route. Llangollen Bridge is a nice one. You can while away time, hanging over the edge looking at the trout swimming in the fast-flowing Dee. Today, revellers were diving into the river to join the fish.

The next morning Llangollen itself had a hangover: the bank holiday was gone and the place was silent as we set off in search of World’s End. The castle on the conical hill, Dinas Bran, watched from on high as we rounded its lower slopes to rejoin the Offa’s Dyke route.

To get to World’s End you walk on scree paths beneath the fine limestone cliffs of Eglwyseg. This is one of the walk’s highlights. But World’s End is not much of a place for such a grand name – a car park, two limestone crags peeping out from a conifer-filled hollow, and lots of confused motorists driving up and down the road looking for the real World’s End.

Beyond World’s End, the limestone terrain gives way to peaty heather moorland, and I felt I was back on the Pennines. There was just a bit of field-walking, then a few Clwydian outliers to be done before tea.

Our B&B at Clwyd Gate turned out to be one of the more interesting – in a sixteenth century farmhouse with tiny windows and original beamed ceilings that pub landlords would pay a king’s ransom for.

“That’s a big bed,” Nicola said to Mrs Gates.

“Well, actually it’s two beds pushed together.”

They were big old beds too. When you slumped onto them you really slumped into them, then further into them. But that night I didn’t sleep too well, and it had nothing to do with the roast beef dinner I had at the nearby pub.

At one, I heard Mrs Gates go to the loo.

I heard her come out of the loo.

I heard our door open.

What?

I felt a hand on the bed.

Oh no, she’s a sleep walker. This is going to be embarrassing!

I turned on the light.

“Oh I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

It was Nicola!

Mrs Gates did us all a b-i-g breakfast. It fuelled us for the ups and downs of the Clwydian range, and her for the canvassing she was about to do for the first Welsh Parliament elections. By ten we were standing on the biggest peak, Moel Fammau. Last time we were here we had to share the old fort on top with well over a hundred walkers. This time there were only four others.

You can see the whole of Snowdonia from Moel Fammau, but in today’s haze, even Snowdonia wouldn’t be able to see Snowdonia. Nicola and I moved on through the heather to see the Iron-Age fort on Moel Arthur, what a steep climb, and then the even bigger fort on Moel Penycloddiau.

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Today Brian and Jean, Nicola’s Mum and Dad, were bringing their camper van up to Bodfari. They would also bring my little two-man tent. This trusty old Vango Beaufort had served me well over many years. Even when I let the wind blow it out of my hands and down the Afon Goch in the high Carneddau, it had the sense to wedge itself under a rock rather than plummet down the Aber Falls.

“David Hempleman Adams had one just like this for a South Pole trip,” I boasted to Brian as I knocked in the last peg. Brian, unimpressed with my revelation and its minuscule proportions, carried on with the more serious task of brewing up some hot tea.

 The last day

The last day was a bit of an anti-climax. Its first hill may have been little, but it was steep, and the path seemed to go to great lengths not to avoid its steepest slopes. We advanced onto the last of the book’s maps by lunchtime and the Prestatyn cliffs an hour later. Prestatyn town sprawled across a narrow coastal plain, but the sea was still disguising itself as part of the sky. Brian appeared from the thickets that lined the cliffs, then Jean. They had parked their campervan in a small car park at the foot of the cliffs.

“I could murder a coffee,” Nicola said as we drew up to the van.

Then a familiar face popped round the corner. It was Tom; then Jill appeared. So it was coffees all round.

“Well, we’ve made it. Does anybody know about Martin?”

“No: the last time we saw him was at Knighton.” Jill said, rubbing the perspiration from her brow. “Never again. Next time Tom wants to go off on his own, I’ll let him.”

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Me, Nicola, Jean and Tom near journey’s end

Prestatyn’s concrete sea-defence walls are a strange and unfitting end to the walk. Perhaps we should have waited until the tide went out. It is a tradition for the Offa’s Dyker to continue the line of the path out to sea for as far as he or she dares! Well, we didn’t have bathing costumes and the sea looked quite boisterous and freezing. Instead, we signed the Offa’s Dyke book in the Tourist Information Office, shook hands and parted, Tom and Jean to their B&B: Nicola and I to the van, which Brian had kindly parked nearby.“Home then?”

“Home.”

“Who was this Offa geezer then?” Brian asked.

“Oh, some ditch digger who couldn’t afford a wall.” I said as the van crossed the tarmac that crossed the line where Offa’s Dyke should have been.

 

Lakeland to Lindisfarne

Lakeland to Lindisfarne is a 190-mile (310km) coast-to-coast between Ravenglass and Holy Island, taking in the hills of the Lake District, the high Pennines and the Northumberland coast.

The low-level Lakeland to Lindisfarne route is not a difficult one: it’s about on a par with Wainwright’s Coast to Coast and much easier than the Pennine Way. The mountain alternative route, though easier than Snowdonia to Gower or the Scottish Coast-to-Coasts, is tougher and would throw out a stiff navigational test to the inexperienced walker.

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Great Langdale with the Coniston Fells on the horizon

“A coast-to-coast across the Lake District and the Pennines to the North Sea? Wainwright’s already done it.” I hear you say. But why should Wainwright have all the fun, steal all the best bits, and didn’t he go wrong  – just a tiny little bit – on the Cumbrian plains, the flatlands between the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors?

My route started life back in the eighties – as Ravenglass to Edinburgh, a 260-mile epic that left England at Kielder and crossed the Southern Uplands to Scotland’s historic first city.  But instead of walking it I got married to Nicola, so Ravenglass to Edinburgh was forgotten; put into a dark drawer, somewhere in the loft.

Several years later, Nicola said that she’d like to do a long distance route with me but she didn’t want to do any of the camping on the tops that I had talked so enthusiastically about. We would do the walk in style; stay at B&Bs and eat bacon and eggs, not muesli and tea made with powdered milk.  Oh! And Ravenglass to Edinburgh’s 260 miles was too far.

Edinburgh would have to be dropped. Looking at the maps I found that we could come off the hills to one of those castles on the Northumberland coast. But which castle?

Bamburgh might be the place, or Dunstanburgh perhaps? But when you get to the coast you look across the waves to yet another castle – Lindisfarne on Holy Island. How romantic to be stranded for the night on the island colonised by the early Christians, Aidan and Cuthbert.

And that’s three coasts! Wainwright 2 Gillham 3 – so far, so good.

The in-between routes of the Lake District were easy. Muncaster Fell, the hill above Ravenglass, drops you nicely into Eskdale, and Eskdale’s just one ridge away from Wasdale, Lakeland’s most spectacular valley. The next couple of days explores the heart of the Lakes – you could pick from a dozen routes hereabouts. Beyond Ambleside you need to go northwest to find a good line across the flatlands of the Eden valley. Two ways work. For the original book I chose Kentmere and Haweswater (now an alternative for campers). I have since modified the route to go by way of Patterdale and Ullswater. This offers a wider choice of accommodation for non-campers.

In Northumbria good paths were harder to find. Some were non-existent on the ground and not signposted: others were blocked by barbed wire. Many more were made unpleasant by the farmers’ plough or by five-foot high oil-seed rape. Council footpath officers pleaded poverty when asked to reinstate the paths. We were on our own.

But bit by bit the route was pieced together, and we set out on our first crossing.

Damp Days and Ducks on a Coast to Coast without Wainwright

Somewhere amongst that swirling grey mist are some of the Lake District’s finest rocky peaks, though you wouldn’t know it. And somewhere among those rocky peaks are England’s only golden eagles: they’re keeping a low profile too.

Nicola says nothing as we climb the tortuous boulder-ridden path that I told her was a splendid trek to the tops. She says nothing about my attempts to cajole her through the entire width of the English Lakes in three days on what is her first long-distance walk, and nothing about the incessant rain that trickles between our necks and our waterproofs. She says nothing, but I hear it all. After all I am a guide book writer. I invented this route, and I am the expert on what’s fun in the mountains.

We press on; the rain presses on even harder, but the sting cannot match the pain of my embarrassment.

Three days ago we left Ravenglass on the Cumbrian coast to the sun and the seagulls. Within an hour of this take-it-easy sort of day we were strolling among the rocky bluffs and the wind-warped rowans of Muncaster Fell; by evening we had our feet up in the outside bar of the Wasdale Head Inn. Lingmell through a beer glass at twilight had never looked so good.

The next morning old packhorse trails took us into those high mountains before depositing us in yet another beer garden; this time at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where we were entertained by musicians playing old Eagles songs.

Yes, this was the life!

Well, it would have been if I’d planned the day to end at five in Elterwater. But I planned it to end at Ambleside, and it was seven-thirty. Nicola said nothing. Ohl, she did mutter something about me asking the landlady for a bath, as we didn’t have one.

The next day saw Nicola limping among Wordsworth’s daffodils, struggling through Skelghyll Woods, and hobbling up the rough Garburn Pass track. Had she battled with her injuries just to be here, in the dampness of Kentmere?

The rain still pours and our tortuous zigzag path reaches Nan Bield, a high windswept pass hemmed in by crags. The rocks are shiny with water and so are we. Finding a wet rock away from the howling wind, I reach for the tea. It’s amazing how good flask tea tastes when you’re out in the open, considering how bad it tastes when you try to finish it off back home. Would we be finishing it off back home? If things were bad here, what would they be like in the Eden Valley, where the map promised only dull flatlands?

Well, the tea got Nicola talking, even if it was just to say her knees wouldn’t bend and her feet were raw. We fumbled down the rocks to the shores of Haweswater. The plan was to walk the splendid paths along its western shores, but today they didn’t seem too splendid, so we put on our nice soft trainers and walked down the lane instead.

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Haweswater

After a very slow pint at the Haweswater Hotel we floated down, limbs anaesthetised, to Bampton Grange. Hanging over the bridge, we watched as some of the locals raced plastic ducks down the river – sensible folk on such a day. After the excitement of a close finish everybody traipsed into the Crown and Mitre, our B&B for the night.

We had always hoped for the best weather to be saved for the days spent on high ground but we got it on the next day, which was to be a short one. One little limestone hill and we were out of Lakeland. Basking in sunlight, we strolled across the pastures of Eden on country lanes and riverside paths, through villages with apple and cherry blossom … and into Mrs Jephcott’s at Temple Sowerby.

Nicola needed mollycoddling after her hardships, and Mrs J was the person to do it. Tea and biscuits were waiting on our arrival – just the thing, as we’d had no lunch. Our room overlooked the cottage garden, complete with a red swing, lots of primulas and tulips, and a fishpond with Koi carp in it. Nicola bounced on the bed and wrapped herself in the luxurious pink duvet.

“Pour me a bath, slave.” she ordered. I dutifully obeyed.

Mrs J had taken Nicola’s “no lunch” remark of yesterday very seriously and provided a breakfast to last all day. Huge portions of scrambled egg accompanied the sizzling smoked bacon, mushrooms, fried bread and tomatoes.

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Morland Village

It seemed a shame to leave the green fields of Eden, but Cross Fell had been casting its shadow across the fields for a while. We could see fluffy white cloud skimming over its summit. But those pretty clouds meant there was a Helm Wind. This wind builds its strength on the slopes of Hexhamshire Common then unleashes its full force over the edge of Cross Fell. Often walkers caught in Helm Winds are forced to their knees and unable to make further progress. Hmmmm!

At Kirkland there’s nowhere else to go but up. The winds strengthen as we climb to the shoulder of the moor, by which time I look like the Hunchback of Notre-Dame with Ace Ventura’s hairstyle.

A lead-miners’ track takes the route through some of the remotest and complex hills in England, and it is with relief that we descend safely into the South Tyne Valley.

In the George and Dragon at Garrigill, we traded stories with mud-stained Pennine Wayfarers. They talked of their adventures in the peat bogs of Kinder, and we of rocky mountain traverses and a sunset over Wastwater.

From Garrigill we climbed over a dark windswept moor and into the next valley at Nenthead. Today the old lead-mining village was closed, and dreary under the blanket of low grey cloud. A dull day in Nenthead keeps your expectations low and your feet on the ground. There’s a Wright Brothers’ garage, but these brothers don’t fly aeroplanes, they drive buses.

We climbed out of Nenthead past a blackened statue with railings round it, then out of Cumbria.

Northumberland greeted us with more driving rain as we reached the top of the Black Hill.

A Ford Transit van pulled up beside us.

“Want a lift?” the driver asked.

Nicola’s face lit up for a moment, but I said, “No thanks”.

The white van disappeared into the murk, and we turned off the road onto a path ominously signposted, the Black Way.

The Black Way, Carrshiels Moor
The Black Way

Everybody talks about blooming purple heather, but on a stormy day out of season, heather can be as dreary as the wet peat it grows in. Today its wicked tangled stalks tried repeatedly to upend us whenever we lifted our eyes to the horizon. This must be England’s bleakest moor.

East Allendale shyly presented itself. First as a sliver of green beneath the black, then as a pretty pastured valley with woodland hiding the fast-flowing river. Narrow paths squeezed through the woods to reveal a fine waterfall, Holm’s Linn, and colourful wildflowers on steep grassy riverbanks.

Northumberland had been as kind as it was going to be today. Raindrops regrouped on the sycamore leaves, then bucketed down our necks. By the time we reached Allendale Town we were drenched.

Allendale Town is really a village, even though its four-storey buildings suggest that it has known greater importance. Our hotel, the Heatherlea, looked posh, so we thought we had better take our muddy boots off at least.

“Hoody was here,” proclaimed the graffiti on the stone walls of the bus shelter. “Well, he wouldn’t want to be here now.” I thought as I watched the steam waft from my thick red walking socks. At the Heatherlea they gave us the bridal suite, which was nice – there was plenty of room to hang up our soggy clothes.

It’s a short section – just ten miles to Hexham. Normally it would be a quick one too, over the heather moors of Hexhamshire Common and down leafy lanes, and woodland paths.

But today a little spice had been sprinkled into our itinerary. Nicola opened the bedroom curtains and wiped away the condensation on the windowpane.

“It’s snowing!”

Mr Bucher, the Swiss chef and owner of the Heatherlea, was driving into Hexham for supplies.

“I’ll give you a lift,” he said.

“No we’re walking.”

It was Nicola who said it this time. I think she was actually enjoying herself.

“Strange people these British.” I could hear Mr Bucher thinking.

With our boots and socks still damp from yesterday, we squelched up the lane into the grey and white murk of the hillside. Primroses poked through the snowflakes of the roadside verges. Through the top gate at the end of the road we could see that any semblance of a path was hidden under a blanket of snow. Here was my chance to regain expert status, something that sadly had been lost on the pretty paths of the Lake District. I did so by getting across safely on a compass bearing, only to lose the compass and credibility together somewhere on the streets of Alnwick.

Hexham’s too fine a place not to dwell in. Its magnificent priory dominates the town centre; its Moot Hall and Manor House add to the market town’s proud history.

“The Railway Hotel is not a suitable place to stay.” Nicola had told me.

“Oh it’ll be OK. The man said he had a fine restaurant.” I had this vision of an old-fashioned ivy-clad inn with a roaring fire in the bar, and I had tried to convince Nicola of this when booking in advance. I was wrong.

“What did you expect?” she said as we looked up to see this horrible red engineering-bricked pub right next to the railway station and a huge car park.

North of Hexham we spent two more days in the rain. Sloshing through the fields of the North Tyne, and climbing through misty spruce forests, we could have done with Wellingtons rather than walking boots. My boots were sad  – and leaking: I’d asked of them one trip too many. Their reward was to be discarded in an Alnwick waste bin.

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Alnwick Castle

I remembered Alnwick from my misspent youth in bedsitter Newcastle. Like me, it had tidied itself up since then (though Nicola might dispute my part of the claim). A magnificent castle stands out from the town’s Georgian terraces and cobbled ginnels. It’s only 8 miles to the coast at Boulmer.

Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh! Socks and boots tossed off, and sand in her Elastoplast-covered toes; Nicola rushed for the crashing North Sea waves, and soaked herself in cool surf. She’s always liked the sea. Me? Well I’ve never been much of a water baby – I was content to take in that salty air and search for seafood in the nearest rockpool.

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Dunstanburgh Castle

The rugged Northumberland coastline transforms many times. The ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, set on dark dramatic cliffs north of Craster, are followed by two rocky coves, Newton Haven and Football Hole. Then there’s the long, sweeping sands of Beadnell Bay. Two fishing villages, Beadnell and Seahouses lie between here and Bamburgh. Beadnell’s a rustic place with lime kilns on the seafront, while Seahouses is like a mini-Blackpool, with funhouses and ice-cream stalls. But then you’re back to the rockpools, the sand and the kittiwakes.

The locals call it haar. Before we knew what was happening, this swirling mist had drifted in from the sea, and made mysterious shadows of all around us. Small rocks could have been cliffs, and headlands, mere rocky islets. Wanting to keep our toes sand-free we had been keeping to the east of the dunes. In doing so we nearly missed Bamburgh Castle and a well-earned cup of tea at the local café.

The red sandstone fortress is not as romantic as some, having been modernised many times. People live here in double-glazed luxury. But Bamburgh’s sheer scale cannot fail to impress. From rocky perches it towers over the beach and the village green.

We arrived at Beal Sands. The timetable said that we had enough time to cross safely to Holy Island. A line of poles marked the ancient Pilgrims’ Route, but those sands looked more like mud; deep, deep, “you’ll sink to the bottom if you dare tread on me” type mud. I used the excuse that we didn’t want to be treading all that mud into our nice B&B. Nicola nodded and we followed the easy tarmac causeway instead.

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Sunset at Lindisfarne Castle

Free of heavy backpacks but filled with tea and scones, we walked the shoreline, passing a little chapel, then some fishing boats. The tide came lapping back onto the sands: the noisy seagulls came with it. In silence we watched the setting sun flickering pink onto the grey North Sea waves and flooding red into the skies behind the castle walls. We remembered Ravenglass. And we remembered Mrs J.

We remembered Nan Bield, but said nothing of that.

This article first appeared in Coast-to-Coasting by John Gillham and Ronald Turnbull

The Cumbria Way and More

Cumbria sits pretty on the top of England. Its beauty is timeless, one that inspired the words from Wordsworth’s quill, and enticed ‘the Lakeland Poets’, Coleridge, Ruskin, Keats and Shelley to stay in this place of lakes, riverside woodland and high fell. If you’re looking for a place to walk, where better than here, and if you’re looking for long distance walk that you can do in a week, look no further than the Cumbria Way.

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Keswick and Derwent Water

At just over 72 miles long the Cumbria Way allows you time to walk, also time to look around and be inspired by these great landscapes too. It takes in all that is best in the Lake District; views of the majestic fells, lakeshore promenades and strolls through woodland, past waterfalls, pretty cottages and fine inns. Devised by local Ramblers’ Association groups during the 1970s, the route starts in Ulverston not far from the shores of Morecambe Bay and finishes in the City of Carlisle.

The official way is a low-level walk though the valleys of Cumbria. It’s ideal for both youth hostellers and those liking a bit of luxury. The latter group can ease through leafy Cumbria in style and dine in some of the country inns for which the Lake District is famous. This is not to say backpackers are not catered for: they are, for there are plenty of good campsites throughout the journey.

Ulverston is a place unknown to most but you’ll feel its friendly ambiance and laid back style straight away. This is a place of festivals – enjoyment and entertainment is high on the agenda. Strolling around you’ll come across the statues of Laurel and Hardy, Georgian houses and shops and little ginnels threading between the main streets. One of them, Bolton’s Place, has a colourful 70-foot mural painted by the townsfolk and the schoolchildren. If you have time, perhaps you’re staying the night, you may want to visit the canal, climb to see the Sir John Barrow Monument on Hoad Hill and take in a Morecambe Bay sunset from the end of the town’s short canal.

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The Cumbria Way Monument at Ulverston

The walk out of Ulverston starts well, on a little beckside path, and more often than not the continuing route is pretty. However there are lots of field paths to negotiate and it’s ‘bitty’. By the time you get to Gawthwaite you’ll feel you won’t make it to Coniston. But you will. The second half of the day seems to go quicker than the first and the paths get easier to follow and enhanced by glimpses of the Coniston Fells peeping above low hills and moors on the horizon.

The Lake District proper starts small, with Beacon Tarn, a lake in miniature, surrounded by small but rocky and perfectly formed hills. And those Coniston Fells get nearer and nearer, their rock faces more and more defined. Towards the end of the day you’re strolling on easy paths by Coniston Water, staring across at Ruskin’s Brantwood mansion and contemplating Wordsworth’s daffodils – well okay if it’s too late in the year you can buy the postcard.

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The Blawith Fells north of Beacon Tarn

The next day the Cumbria Way goes into the heart of the Lake District, taking in more tarns, waterfalls in the woods and whitewashed cottages with rose gardens. It enters Great Langdale, where the rocks form great buttresses and gullies and the mountains become distinctive and gob-smackingly inviting temples. Beneath these temples is the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, a fine place to stop, eat and discuss tomorrow’s route with fellow travellers.

You look to the skies for next day’s route and there’s no obvious way out. The map shows you that the way out is up, over the 500m Stake Pass. It’s steep but short-lived and the path is easy to follow. Next you contemplate Langstrath, a wild, uninhabited valley with nothing but a bouldery river and bouldery mountainsides for comfort. It’s a long way to Keswick from Langdale, maybe too long, so when the walker sees beautiful, ever-so-green and lush Borrowdale he or she may feel the urge to make this an overnight stop. And it would be a good decision for Rosthwaite and Grange are pleasantly peaceful places among beautiful mountain and riverscapes.

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The Langdale Pikes seen across Elterwater

Derwent Water is a prince among the Lake District lakes and that view of Skiddaw’s smooth pastel pink and green shaded slopes is exquisite. Keswick at its north end is lively, a place to restock, maybe recover before the long day over the Back o’ Skidda to Caldbeck. Those who stopped at Rosthwaite are lucky as long as they’ve pre-booked the hostel at Skiddaw House, for they will find they’ve discovered one of the most remote and romantic locations en route and they will have shortened the next day to Caldbeck.

As long as you’re confident enough about the weather to ignore the inferior foul weather Bassenthwaite route, the day out of Keswick will be highlighted by reaching the summit of High Pike, highest place on the whole of the official Cumbria Way at over two thousand feet. It’s an airy place with a view indicator to show you the hundreds of hills in view, including the Scottish ones across the Solway Firth.

Looking north you can see that there are no more big hills left in England. Between you and your destination there are low ridges and mile upon mile of pastureland. All is not lost though, for the last day will be remembered for its riverside scenery. The Caldew, which you first saw near Skiddaw House, will guide you all the way, including through the streets of Carlisle. And Carlisle’s cathedral quarter is rich in the histories of both England and Scotland. It’s a fitting end to a truly memorable walk.

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The end of the Way at Carlisle

If all this is not exciting enough for you, what about taking in some mountains?

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Dow Crag and Goats Water on the mountain route above Coniston

If all this is not exciting enough for you, what about taking in some mountains? The mountain routes come down to meet the official route at convenient points, allowing you to mix and match according to the weather and your inclination or mood. The Cumbria Way passes beneath the Coniston Range but by leaving it a Torver the mountain route takes in Goat’s, Water Swirl How and Great Carrs. It descends to Slater’s Bridge, one of the prettiest ancient packhorse bridges in Cumbria before rejoining the ‘Way’ at Elterwater in Great Langdale.

The moraine scenery of the Stake Pass above Great Langdale is fascinating but climbing beneath the buttresses of Bowfell, past Angle Tarn and onto the high peaks of Allen Crags and Glaramara is more spectacular. The way views of Borrowdale open up on the descent from Thornythwaite Fell makes the day worthwhile on its own. Walla Crag comes next. It’s not big but it’s got a well-sculpted rock and heather top with superb views of Derwent Water, Bassenthwaite Lake and the surrounding Fells.

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Angle Tarn beneath Bowfell

The big one is Skiddaw, one of the Lake District’s three thousand footers. If the day is a fine one Skiddaw is so close that you’ve got to do it. If the day is too big you can drop down from the summit to the hostel at Skiddaw House. Either way, Great Calva, the Knott and High Pike can be included in a high-level traverse to Caldbeck.

Cumbria runs out of mountains beyond Caldbeck so the now-hardened mountain walker can take it easy and follow the official route by the Caldew into Carlisle, knowing that they have completed the ‘Cumbria Mountain Way’.

Wildlife

Once much of Cumbria would have been covered by oak woodland but today’s mosaic of diverse landscapes has been shaped by widespread farming and grazing by deer and sheep. Sheep and cow pastures form a large part of the early Cumbria Way landscape between Ulverston and Gawthorpe and although you’ll see some wildflowers the continuous grazing means species are limited. The thin acid soils of the Coniston foothills mean that bracken, rushes and cotton grass proliferate with the odd birch tree and juniper bushes scattered across the fellsides. In the marshy areas by Beacon Tarn you’ll also see a Bog Myrtle a deciduous shrub about a metre tall with oval leaves. Its oils are claimed to repel biting insects. Although they’re quite common in the dry moors and mountains of the Lake District you’ll probably not see any adders. If you are lucky enough to see one basking on a rock, leave it be for it will almost certainly slither away into the undergrowth when it knows of your presence.

As the path makes its way through mountain valleys you’ll see ravens and buzzards soaring on thermals around the crags above, searching for carrion. The sheep are still here in the low fell country so the main colour will be provided by the larger ‘less tasty’ flowers like the bright yellow gorse and the purple-pink foxgloves. Primroses, bluebells, wood anemone wood sorrel, herb Robert and red campion, will be confined to woodland and hedgerow.

Many of the modern forests are of spruce, pine and larch, although the old coppiced woodland still covers the central regions of the park, especially so between Coniston and Langdale and in Borrowdale. The high rainfall in the sessile oakwoods of Borrowdale has helped propagate lichens, liverworts and insects, which in turn have offered a habitat for various owls, peregrine falcons, pied flycatchers and greater spotted woodpeckers. In the rivers and streams there are otters and you may well see the dipper, a small active dark brown white-chested bird that bobs and dives into the waters looking for insects. I’ve seen grey herons on the River Derwent near Grange. These large long necked wading birds wait, ever so still and patient, for an unsuspecting fish to pass by.
Although it’s in serious decline in southern Britain the shy red squirrel still thrives in the woods of central Cumbria. Elsewhere it has been displaced by the larger grey squirrel, which was introduced from North America.

As the Way approaches Derwent Water’s flood plains you’ll be able to see more Bog Myrtle, also Alder woodland and reed beds, which are ideal for wildfowl and wading birds, including sandpipers. Beneath the waters of the lake is a rare fish, the vendace, which only exists in four British lakes.
In the 1990s ospreys were seen feeding in Bassenthwaite Lake. They had been absent from Cumbria for over 150 years and the Lake District Osprey Project was set up to encourage them to nest here. A nesting platform was erected in woodland above the lake. In 2001 the project’s efforts bore fruit and a chick successfully fledged, the first of many. If you have any time to spare there are viewing platforms in Dodds Wood off the A591 west of Keswick.
The Skiddaw and Back a’ Skidda peaks have thin soils and very few plant species other than expansive carpets of heather, a perfect habitat for the red grouse and the insect-eating sundew.

When to Go
April and May are best for wildflowers and vivid colours – the bracken is still red and contrasts beautifully with the fresh green leaves of the forests. The days are still short but, if you’re a photographer, the sun creates a much better light with pleasing shadows to give depth to your pictures. Also, the campsites and B&Bs won’t be at full capacity and will be more reasonably priced. Summer is obviously warmer, meaning you’ll need less clothing in your rucksack, and the long days give you more time to get to your destination. There would be more time to see the attractions on the way. Autumn is still good, with with the woods, and there are lots of them on the route, displaying beautiful fiery colours. Often the British weather is quite settled at this time. Winter days are short so you’d need to break down the route into more sections and you’d need to pack far more clothes and equipment. Snow and ice would add to the difficulties, especially on the crossing of Stake Pass between Langdale and Borrowdale and the Back o’ Skidda. Most of the campsites, youth hostels and small B&Bs will be closed at this time.

Maps
The OS 1:25,000 Explorer maps needed for the route:
OL6 (Ulverston to Coniston)
OL7 (Coniston to Great Langdale)
OL4 (Great Langdale to Skiddaw House)
OL5 (Skiddaw House to Dalston)
315 (Dalston to Carlisle)
Harvey Maps do a special Cumbria Way 1:40,000 map, which is convenient because everything is on one water-resistant map and it also includes useful town plans

The Book
‘The Cumbria Way’ by John Gillham (Cicerone) ISBN 978-1852847609

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Update Notes

The floods of December 2015 caused two landslips in Dentonside Woods east of Caldbeck (at NY 351 403 & NY 355 404). Cumbria County Council has issued a closure notice However in July 2016 the Ramblers Association reported that this section could be walked with care. Check the Ramblers Association site for further updates.

A few miles north the same floods also resulted in Bell Bridge being washed away. Work begins this summer (2017) to rebuild the bridge. Until then follow the short stretch of lane between Sebergham and the west side of the bridge.

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Bell Bridge as it was before being washed away following Storm Desmond

Here’s my 15-minute video of the Cumbria Way: