The Cumbria Way
It was 7pm, I was scheduled to be finished in Ulverston now but instead I was battling against sideways rain, gale force winds and the mercy of storm Malik. With nothing to shield me against the elements over the exposed Torver Commons it was hood up, draw strings pulled and into the storm I went. A stark contrast to how the day began with beautiful winter sunshine and clear views over Derwentwater and the surrounding Lakeland Fells. I guess you could say it was classic Cumbrian weather, rather fitting considering I was about to head out for a run that takes me right through the heart of this county
The Cumbria Way is a 73 mile liner route that starts in the historic market town of Ulverston in the south of the county and finishes in the historic city of Carlisle in the North. The route offers some of the best scenery Cumbria has to offer, from rolling farmland to glacial valleys, gentle rivers and becks whilst not forgetting the breath taking views of the Lake District Mountains, serene lakes and magical Lakeland woodlands. Those who take on the route will see the best the county has to offer.
It was after talking with a good mate of mine, Jack from Adventuring, about running the Coast to Coast route in March the idea of running the Cumbria Way was planted in my mind. At this point my longest run to date was 31.5 miles so I decided to split the Cumbria Way into two days and figured it would be a good test of my abilities to run two big mileage days back to back. Typically the route is done from South to North but with my hometown being just a few miles outside of Ulverston I thought it would make more sense to run from North to South. Just a long run home is what I sold it to myself as. The first day would see me from Carlisle to Keswick (31 miles approx.), where I would stop the night in the YHA there, then the second day would be Keswick to Ulverston (42 miles approx.).
Prior to the run I had only ever ran a small section of the route from Langdale to Skelwith but with the route GPX downloaded onto OS Maps, a thirst for adventure and the will to put myself out of my comfort zone I was ready to take on the challenge.
DAY 1 – CARLISE TO KESWICK
A quick lace adjustment, running vest on and a obligatory photo at the start point, at 9am on the 28th January I set off from the tourist information centre, headed out from the high street and followed the river from Carlisle through an industrial area to Dalston then from here, still along the river but with more interesting scenery in the form of bank side farmland and woodland until I reached Caldbeck some 15 or so miles away. So far the day was off to a good start, I had rested for about 5 days beforehand so I was feeling fresh and strong, the weather was mostly sunny with some pockets of rain however there was quite a wind blowing its way around.
I had enough snacks in my pack to fuel the first day but whenever I passed a café and I would stop for a quick bite to eat and a flat white. Once I had arrived in Caldbeck, I was feeling a bit peckish and I managed to find the village store where I picked up a veg pastie, a Lucozade sport and a coffee, with a bench out the front this made an ideal rest stop to refuel and reflect on the first half of the day before focusing on the next.
Feeling alive and psyched after a swift pit stop, I joined back onto the Cumbria Way and set of on the second leg of the day towards Keswick. The route out of Caldbeck was again relatively easy going just following a road up until Nether Row farm where you’re faced with two route options.
1) The high pass which takes you up and over the only Wainwright on the route, High Pike, down to Skiddaw How Hostel before descending into Keswick.
2) The alternative low level, poor weather route which traverses the outside of the fells before turning back in before tackling a small incline up Skiddaw How Hostel to continue along the marked route.
With 60+mph winds and a yellow warning from the Met Office I opted for the second, this added on an additional 4 miles however with the conditions on the summits being pretty wild I felt like this was the best choice. The poor weather alternative takes you around the base of the fells along some rural roads and trails before you drop down a valley and begin the climb up to Skiddaw How Hostel. This final climb was a bit of a slog however the views made it worthwhile, on the right side after gaining some height you get the welcoming view of Derwentwater before exchanging this for the mountainous views to the left and the seemingly never ending snaking uphill trail in front.
Once I made it to the hostel, I came across the ruins of an old stone building and I took the opportunity to momentarily escape the wind and enjoy a brief sit down. After a snack and some water, I was back on my feet and made my way from the hostel along the trail before making the final descent down to Keswick. The last bit of this was fun, the rain the day before had essentially created a slip and slide from mud all the way, which was entertaining at least and before I knew it I had arrived at Keswick YHA. Day one in the bag with 35 miles and 3,554ft of elevation, it was time to get the calories back in, do some recovery stretches before promptly assuming a horizontal position to which I would stay until morning
DAY 2 - KESWICK TO ULVERSTON
This second day was a step into the unknown for me, 42 miles on the back of yesterday’s efforts. It would be the first time I’ve done such a thing so of course there were doubts in my mind about my ability to pull this off. Praying my legs wouldn’t buckle but to my surprise, when I woke up my legs weren’t into to bad of shape, just a slight ache in the Achilles but that soon sorted its self out after a couple of stretches.
My doubts were quickly complimented with the equal excitement to get this day moving, in my opinion this was about to be the best day. Going right through the heart of the Lake District, the route takes you along the shores of Derwentwater, up and over Sticks Pass down into the stunning Langdale Valley before making ways to Tarn Howes and then over to Coniston. This would be the ultimate adventure running home via home.
Today Jack was going to join me for the first few miles or so today and after a decent breakfast at the YHA we set off at 9am. What a morning! Clear skies and sunshine it was certainly a beautiful winter’s day to be out. Joining back onto The Cumbria Way, Over towards Catbells and along the shores of Derwentwater the psyche was certainly high. Stopping for a couple of pictures on one of the public jetties, the views over the lake and mountains was just out of this world.
Time flies when you’re having fun and before I knew it we had been running for a couple hours and had arrived at Rosthwaite, Jack headed back to Keswick and I carried along my way along a stony trail for a mile or so before crossing a bridge to join the Langstrath Beck. Following the beck heading up the valley the trail turned to rocky, boggy single track which seemed to go on forever. Out there in the valley with no phone signal and not a single soul in sight, I had the place to myself.
To be alone in such an environment is a really unique feeling; to be cut of from the world and alone amongst the mountains brought a strong sense of peace, the perfect time for some self reflection. The last month has been a bit of a rollercoaster and this was the perfect time to put some demons to rest and to clear the mind.
Zigzagging my way up Stakes Pass, I had the Langdale Valley in sights. Some moody looking clouds were making their way over so I wasted no time dropping down the other side into the Valley. It was getting close to lunch time and after 15 miles and a big climb I was ready for some real food. In my mind I was going through all the possibilities of food I could have at Stickle Barn (I was super hungry) as a weird carrot on stick sort of thing but to my disappointment it was closed! My heart sank momentarily, I could of cried haha. New Dungeon Ghyll over to the right was open and the day had been saved. Faith restored.
Wasting no time, I ordered myself a bowl of broccoli soup with bread, delicious. Just like yesterday, I could feel myself coming back to life. With over 20 miles still left to run I enjoyed a flat white and some flapjack. Flat whites seem to of become a bit of a staple when I’m out on long runs, maybe it’s the caffeine or the simple pleasure of taking a moment to sit down and enjoy a cup; either way they keep me going.
Stepping outside after lunch, I felt a few raindrops and had a giggle. Evidently the rain has rolled in, classic Cumbria. After putting on my waterproof layers I was on my way out of the Langdales. Storm Malik was due to hit today which I had totally forgotten about; I was hoping the rain would pass but little did I know what was to come.
Just before I got to Tarn Hows I experienced my first real low point of the adventure, the rain hadn’t lifted and I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. Coming up was a fallen tree, aha, the perfect place to have a word with myself. I was mentally prepared for the The Cumbria in terms of distance but weather was something I didn’t really factor into this. With the rain still coming down and the wind picking up, I was cold and wet. When I sat down that’s when the tiredness hit so I pulled out a pack of cigarettes (A backwards comfort on long runs) and had a moment to reflect.
Back up on my feet again, I zipped up my jacket, pulled my hood down and put on a drum and bass playlist on Spotify. “Just one foot in front of another” I told myself as a slowly made my way. Tarn Hows was fun though, from recent storms there were quite a fair few big fallen tress which created a break from running and instead I seen it as a bit of an assault course; Leaping over, crawling under or navigating a tangled mess of branches. Soon I had cleared the tress and began the descent into Coniston through the woods. Around about now my low was history and I was feeling alive again this was helped by knowing there would be a friendly and familiar face waiting for me at Coniston.
A good friend of mine from home joined me on the Cumbria way, Danny, had offered up some of his time to meet me in Coniston for a brew. Before I moved to the Lakes we used to hang out quite a bit but since then you know how it is, life gets busy. An odd circumstance for a catch up but it was really nice to switch off from the run and just have a good old laugh and natter with a friend. Conscious of time and imminent weather conditions, the catch up was short but sweet and once again I was on my way. It was dark now so I put on my head torch before pulling down my hood.
Now I run in the dark a lot, with working night shift the evenings are the only time I get to train but running in the dark in the midst of a storm with tired legs and equally tired mind was about to present a new challenge in its self. I made the school boy error of relying solely on one navigation form, the dreaded mobile phone. Most phones offer some form of water resistance these days but I’ll always question how far you’re willing to test it and with my map and route being on OS Maps, I wasn’t willing to put the integrity of the water seal to the test. My plan was to try and remember key points on the route, take a mental picture of the route and hope it worked out. This of course wasn’t a solid plan, my first of many errors to come.
Heading out of Coniston I should have been running along side the shore but instead found myself about a mile down the main road before checking my phone to find I should of took a different route. Oh well, back track and make it right, now’s not the time to dwell. Along the shore of Coniston are Torver Woods the trail through here is really cool however with wind speeds quickly picking up, the sounds of trees rustling and with fallen trees still on route from previous storms its safe to say the feeling was rather ominous. A couple of occasions I genuinely felt a bit scared I was going to be crushed by a falling tree, thankfully that didn’t happen and I made it out alive.
As if that wasn’t enough, once I reached Torver Commons I was fully exposed to the might of storm Malik. Wind strong enough to make crawling seem more efficient and rain so heavy it was blinding in the beam from my head torch, it was now the challenge had really begun. As I pulled my hood down more, tightened the chest straps on my bag and adjusted my head torch for optimum beam I had to dig deep.
“You’ve got just over a couple of hours and 10 miles to go, this storm isn’t going anywhere. You wanted to be challenged; well now you’ve got what you asked for so deal with it. From here to the end is where you get those answers to the questions. What are you made of? Do I have what it takes? Can I thrive while faced with adversity? You can either sink or swim Les and we about to find out” This was the last pep talk I had with myself before digging deep and taking on Malik head on.
With my phone battery slowly getting lower, I kept it away more which lead to second guessing routes, the Commons was a labyrinth of footpath and sheep trails. A couple of occasions I took the wrong one and had to back track but soon enough I was in the respite of Braughton Beck, a small town not too far from Ulverston. Broughton was welcoming for a couple of reasons; first the houses gave some shelter from the
wind but with knowing its not far from Ulverston I felt relief in knowing this ordeal was approaching its end. Not hanging around long it was on to the last leg of the adventure, which in turn was the hardest part of the whole thing both mentally and physically.
Here I got complacent again with the map, thinking “oh its just farm fields, this should be a breeze” oh how I was wrong. I kept misreading the route and ware on the fields and would often end up at the wrong end confident I was right, only to check my phone to see that I was way off, this only added to my frustrations and drain the battery further. Now because of the rain the fields were just mud but due to its resident cows, most likely equal parts cow turd. Pretty much every other step I found my self slipping and sliding my way down slopes and skating my way across the flats, nearing the end of the farm land was my lowest of lows. At this point I was so tired and so fed up o not being able to run on the slip in slide I let out a tear and had a moment. I just wanted to be home, warm and dry.
My Mum and Step Dad were acting as my support crew, they collected some belongings I had left at the YHA in Keswick but were also my ticket home. I had originally planned on being in Ulverston for 7 but it was just after 9 before I arrived. Seeing the headlights of the car brought on a mix of emotions, firstly I felt bad that I had kept them both waiting for 2 hours but equally a massive overwhelming sense of achievement washed over me. I had done it; I had run from the top to the bottom of Cumbria.
I couldn’t thank my Mum any more as when I reached the car there was a hug, an abundance of blankets to wrap myself up in, a recovery drink, a smoothie and a warm car waiting for me. Time to go home, my mission was complete.
The Cumbria Way was exactly what I wanted from start to finish, a long run home through Gods Country. I passed through a lot of new places, seen a lot new views, revisited some old ones, met a cool few local folk and found myself along the way. This journey has defiantly given me a new sense of appreciation to where I live and not to take it for granted, Cumbria and The Lake District is a pretty special place to call home.
All in all I accomplished what I had set out to achieve, learnt some valuable lessons and discovered a lot about myself along the way. It has left me with a new set of questions, the first most nagging one…What’s next?
In January of 2022 - Les ran a solo winter Cumbria way starting in Carlisle and finishing in Ulverston. Les is a keen mountain runner and climbing and works for Adventuring as an instructor during the summer months.
Hit the picture to see more of Les's adventures on Instagram.