Natalie Simpson reflects on her first long-distance experience - a failed attempt on the Cumbria Way - and the lessons she has since learned.
In September 2015, two friends and I set out to walk the Cumbria Way. The 73-mile route is usually walked from south to north, however we decided to walk north to south so that we would be walking home to Ulverston. Early on the Monday morning, we donned our packs and caught the train to Carlisle, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and looking forward to completing our first long-distance route. It would be fun! It would be a challenge! It would be an adventure!
The truth: it was an ordeal. I didn’t even manage to finish the walk: I had to drop out at Keswick due to a knee injury. My friends did make it back to Ulverston but I don’t think they particularly enjoyed the experience.
Looking back, it’s easy to see where we went wrong. We made a number of mistakes but I think it’s fair to say that they all stemmed from one basic error of judgement: we assumed that long-distance walking was just like any other kind of walking. We over-estimated our own ability and under-estimated the route and ultimately ended up paying the price.
Don’t neglect to train
We had planned to do some longish walks in preparation for the main event, however, somehow this didn’t quite happen – we didn’t even manage to get out on any of our usual fell walks in the run-up to the Cumbria Way. I was called in for routine surgery three weeks before the start of the walk and so I couldn’t do much for a fortnight. I finally got my doctor’s clearance to do the walk about a week before we were due to set off, on the condition that I take care when lifting my pack. Consequently, I had no practice at walking with a full rucksack.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew
My Cicerone guidebook split the route into five stages of 12 to 16 miles but unfortunately, John Gillham’s wisdom fell on deaf ears. 16 miles, we scoffed, that’s nothing! Hadn’t I done a 30-mile trek on the Isle of Man carrying a fairly heavy rucksack? Sal and Neil are veterans of the infamous Keswick to Barrow sponsored walk and we are all keen peak-baggers. 16 miles seemed too easy. So we decided to do the walk in four days, with overnights at Skiddaw House, Borrowdale and Coniston. The cumulative effect of those long days did not cross our minds.
Our first day would take us from Carlisle to Caldbeck, then on over High Pike, the highest point of the route at 658m – a total distance of 25 miles. This proved our undoing…
Don’t forget your waterproofs
This is one thing we did get right. Although the weather was fine when we left Carlisle, by the time we got to Rose Bridge there was drizzle in the air, and this continued for the rest of the day and well into the night. I came to be thankful for my waterproof coat, overtrousers and rucksack cover.
We left Carlisle at about 9.30am, with all the time in the world. After all, it hadn’t taken me that long to do my 30-miler on the Isle of Man, and Sal and Neil had clocked up impressive times on the K2B. 25 miles shouldn’t take all day, right? I think we envisioned getting to Skiddaw House around 7pm, but when 5pm saw us finishing our tea in Caldbeck, it became increasingly apparent that this was unlikely to happen…
We didn’t exactly set a good pace leaving Carlisle. We stopped at the shops, a pharmacy, a post office, a bakery. We ambled along on the flat easy path beside the River Caldew, putting the world to rights. Even though this was the easiest section of the route, it didn’t occur to us to try to pick up the pace a bit: we didn’t even glance at our watches or spare a thought for our progress thus far. It was only at Caldbeck that it really dawned on us that it was 5pm and we still had 10 miles – two fifths – of our day’s journey still to go.
We reached the summit of High Pike around 7pm, in thick fog. I suggested we call Skiddaw House to let them know that we were safe and well and on our way, but that we would be rather late. Sal made the call since she was the only one with reception. She sounded so dejected it took quite a bit of persuasion to convince the warden that we weren’t in difficulty. ‘Are you sure you’re okay?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ Sal replied. ‘We just bit off a little more than we could chew.’
Don’t under-estimate the weight of your pack (or settle for any old rucksack)
We didn’t anticipate how much heavy rucksacks would slow us down. In truth, it was another one of those things we dismissed, ‘oh, we’ll managed that!’. I tend to carry a fair weight in my usual day-sack – 3 litres of water in summer; crampons and spare clothing in winter – but my Cumbria Way bag was heavier still. And whilst it didn’t seem so bad as we left Carlisle, on the long slog up High Pike it felt like Atlas’s burden!
I also committed the cardinal sin of not having my rucksack fitted properly. I bought a new bag for the trek, having discovered that my old DofE one was marginally too small to fit everything I intended to take (although, with hindsight, I should have taken the smaller bag and left one or two unnecessary items behind). My new rucksack seemed okay at first, but after a few miles it soon became apparent that it wasn’t right for my frame. It didn’t really rub (small mercies!) but it certainly wasn’t comfortable. And over a 73-mile walk, you want comfort!
Don’t neglect your feet
We were all wearing hiking boots, even though we had never worn them over a similar distance (our previous long day-walks having always been done in stout trainers). Sometime before Caldbeck, Sal’s feet started to hurt. By the time we started our ascent of High Pike, she was in considerable pain and could not walk quickly. Her soles were red and swollen and painful to the touch. The pain continued for the next two days, but then on the third day she discovered Nurofen.
She wasn’t the only one to suffer with her feet either: Neil’s were quite tender too and he ended up losing a toenail.
Don’t forget your head-torch
Fortunately, we knew better than to venture out without a head-torch and spare batteries and we had need of them on that first day. Darkness fell as we approached the Lingy Hut and I have to confess, Sal and I were sorely tempted to spend the night there (to us poor weary walkers, the raised wooden sleeping platform looked temptingly comfy). But Skiddaw House was waiting, with the promise of a hot drink and a warm bed.
We picked our way down Grainsgill Beck in the pitch-black. The path is somewhat indistinct at the best of times, but in the dark it is pretty hazardous. The gradient is fairly steep and the ground damp and tussocky. It was somewhere on this stretch that I picked up the knee injury that would ultimately force me to abandon my Cumbria Way attempt.
Don’t forget to check the map – and double-check it
We took a slight ‘detour’ by the sheepfold in Mosedale. By ‘detour’, I mean we went the wrong way. As it was both dark and foggy, we could not make out the continuation of the path and so we decided to follow the beck (Wiley Gill). However, after picking our way through a marsh for a couple of hundred metres, it struck me that I should probably check the map again: we had been following a fairly distinct path previously, but now there was no path at all and I had a strong feeling that we’d gone the wrong way. The map confirmed my suspicions: the path does not follow the beck. I informed Neil and Sal and, tired and frustrated, we retraced our steps to the sheepfold.
The whole ‘detour’ couldn’t have been longer than 500m, but that was 500m on top of the twenty-something miles we’d already walked. It was no big deal really but it knocked our already-depleted morale.
The journey up Mosedale seemed to go on forever. Now that the fog had cleared a little, we could see the light of Skiddaw House in the distance but it didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. However, at long last, we reached our destination. We checked into the hostel at 11pm and, after a welcome cup of tea, retired to bed.
Don’t leave the map behind
The second day of our walk dawned bright and sunny. We set off on the path from Skiddaw House, admiring the gorgeous purple heather and views back to Great Calva and the other fells back o’ Skidda’. It wasn’t long before we’d worked up a sweat. We paused somewhere at the foot of Lonscale Fell to shed a layer of clothing, and at some point I must have set the map down.
Refreshed after a drink and breather, we continued on our way. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice the map was missing until somewhere around Latrigg, at which point we were not strongly inclined to go back for it.
I had brought the Harvey’s Cumbria Way 1:40,000 map, which had proven very useful up until that point (the Cumbria Way is not waymarked). Luckily, Neil had also brought an OS map as back-up. However, he had only brought OL4 and not OL6, the map needed for the final section of the route from Coniston to Ulverston. Needless to say, he and Sal struggled to find the route around Beacon Tarn and through the lanes north of Ulverston. (I had unthinkingly taken my Cicerone guide home with me when I dropped out on the second day.) They made it successfully to the finish point but they may have had to improvise slightly!
Don’t neglect to stretch
My knees had started to niggle on the steep descent of Grainsgill Beck on the first day. They were aching a bit when we reached Skiddaw House but when I woke the next morning, they were agony! My joints had completely stiffened up and were really painful, especially the left knee. It took considerable effort to bend my leg and getting over the stile at the bottom of Lonscale Fell was very difficult. (I stupidly ignored the unlocked gate right next to it!)
We stopped for lunch in a café in Keswick and were all very grateful to be able to sit down and rest and enjoy a tasty bite to eat. However, when we finished our meal, I found I could scarcely get up from the table. My knees just didn’t want to cooperate. It took extreme effort to bend or straighten my legs and walking was reduced to a painful hobble.
I knew then that I couldn’t go on. To continue would have been to put myself at risk of more serious injury and at any rate, I could scarcely walk. Reluctantly, I informed my companions that I was dropping out. I limped off to the bus-stop to catch a bus to Rosthwaite, where I would meet them at the hostel that evening. My Cumbria Way adventure was over.
I went to the physio a week later. I was relieved to learn that nothing was damaged in my knee: I had simply pushed it beyond its natural limits and the muscles had tensed up and protested in a pretty dramatic way. That said, it has never been the same since!
I’m not certain that stretching would have prevented my injury but it certainly would have reduced the risk. Now I perform quad, hamstring and VMO stretches (the Vastus Medialis Oblique muscles in your quads) before virtually every walk, especially when I know a steep descent will be involved.
I was really disappointed to drop out of the Cumbria Way, but I know I couldn’t have continued even if I’d wanted to. My first long-distance walk ended in defeat…
There were, however, a few things we got right on the Cumbria Way.
Do consider staying in hostels
Lacking suitably lightweight tents, we opted to overnight in hostels. We booked beds in YHA Skiddaw House, YHA Borrowdale and YHA Coniston Coppermines. Skiddaw House was a most welcome respite after 25 long hard miles. We arrived at 11pm to a warm welcome from Martin, the warden. We were offered slippers and hot drinks and then shown to a very cozy dorm, where we slept like logs. It was quite an experience to stay somewhere so remote and wake to views of sweeping slopes of purple heather.
YHA Borrowdale was quite the contrast – bright and modern where Skiddaw House is more ‘old-school’. There was only one other guest at Skiddaw House but the Rosthwaite hostel was busy. It was great to get chatting to other walkers, many of whom were doing the Coast to Coast: we soon found ourselves swapping stories in the comfortable bar/common room. When we told them about our grueling 25-mile first day, they all thought we were mad! The food in Borrowdale was also great: the tasty lasagna was just what we needed.
I didn’t stay in YHA Coppermines as I’d opted to return home to try to rest off my injury, but Sal and Neil said that it was equally good. It certainly has a marvelous setting, nestled among the Coniston fells.
Do take a camera
I take my camera on nearly every walk and am rather snap-happy when it comes to the number of pictures I take. I love looking at my photos and reliving the happy memories. Even though the Cumbria Way proved pretty grueling at the time, when I look back on it now it just seems like a big adventure – one which, admittedly, we were ill-prepared for, but which nonetheless taught us a lot about ourselves. The pictures remind me of our journey and include a few areas of my home-county that I’d never visited before.
Do walk with friends
As the saying goes, ‘good company shortens the road’. Although I rather enjoy solo day-walks, I wouldn’t fancy doing a long-distance walk on my own – and I certainly wouldn’t want to be alone in the dark in foggy Mosedale! These kinds of adventures are best shared!
Our grand Cumbria Way challenge did not prove hugely successful. I wouldn’t say that it has put me off long-distance walking entirely, but it has certainly made me more cautious about what I take on (especially now that the weakness in my knee has been exposed).
I would like to do the Cumbria Way again but setting a more relaxed pace next time, over five days. (Now I know why our long-distance guidebooks generally have daily stages of around 10–15 miles!)
I am planning a gentle re-introduction to long-distance routes sometime in the near future: I intend to walk the Furness Way, a 75-mile path from Arnside to Ravenglass. However, I hope to commute to and from the route using public transport, eliminating the need for overnight accommodation and a heavy pack. It feels like cheating but I think the flexible approach will make things much easier and allow me to concentrate on enjoying the walk.