Cicerone author Tom Martens recounts his first experience of backpacking in the Lake District - luckily he had brought waterproofs.
Milnthorpe was pretty much how we had imagined it: narrow streets, natural stone houses with the typical white sash windows, front yards, and beautiful trees. We stepped into one of the houses for a visit to a publisher of guidebooks, which was at the time still based in this small village.
It was the end of June. Me and my girlfriend Kadri are teachers and our summer holidays had just started. I had a thru-hike over the Pyrenees coming up and the nearby Lake District National Park seemed a good training ground for this bigger adventure. Naturally, we had brought all our rainproofs (jacket, trousers, pack-liner and a custom-made poncho) in the hope to put them to the test. We weren’t disappointed.
After meeting the team at Cicerone Press, we set off to Ambleside. We bought a map of the region at one of the outdoor shops and hiked out of the village. Soon we found ourselves hiking on a wide path up the green hills around Loughrigg. We passed Loughrigg Tarn and the hamlet of Elterwater and in the early evening we pitched our tent at the BaysBrown Farm Campsite. At about 7pm the rain came in and we discovered that my single walled two person tent had a few places left where I hadn’t managed to put quite enough silicone seam sealer. The weather wasn’t cold though and we played Yahtzee in the tent and then had an early night. We’d been on the go since 4 o’clock in the morning to take the plane to Manchester, so we enjoyed a long sleep, interrupted a couple of times in order to dry the tent from the water slowly dripping in.
It rained the best part of the night and, as it was still raining the next morning, we weren’t in a hurry to get going. We had breakfast and were reading an English newspaper in the tent. When the rain changed into a drizzle, we packed our things and headed for the hills. We were headed for Scafell Pike (3209ft/978m) from where we would then hike north towards Derwentwater, the lake near our final destination, Keswick. As we hiked into the hills, the rain intensified and visibility was down to ten meters as we reached 1000ft/300m altitude. I noticed Kadri was getting tired and I realised it wouldn’t be much fun getting totally soaked while having only mist to enjoy as a view. It would definitely make a good story to be able to say we had scaled Scafell Pike in these circumstances, but the price seemed quite high. Altogether, it looked like we could abandon our plans without having to feel the imaginary hiking community looking down upon us as faint hikers who give up as things get a little difficult. Also, by that time we had fully tested the rain gear, and the custom-made waterproof non breathable poncho turned out to be a great piece of kit.
It was around 3 in the afternoon as we got to a bus stop that provided some shelter. It was at a junction of three roads and we saw several small groups of hikers passing by. Without exception, they were heading in the direction of Ambleside. The bus stop was a good place to eat and have a rest, but pretty soon, we got cold and we realized we needed a plan B. We decided to hitchhike to Ambleside, hoping someone would be willing to take on two wet hikers. Each time I saw a car approaching I stepped out of our bus stop shelter and put up my thumb. Pretty soon a friendly man stopped and gave us a lift to Ambleside. We stepped into a coffee shop and, aided by a large cappuccino, decided upon a far less ambitious plan for our mini-adventure. We had train tickets back to the airport for the following day and we had to be at the Penrith train station at 2pm. Today it was 5pm already, so we weren’t going to hike much more. We just needed a good place to pitch the tent, a place that ideally would allow us to have an interesting hike the next morning and get to the Penrith train station on time. The northeast shore of Derwentwater seemed like a good spot because it looked green on the map and was at a reasonable distance from Catbells (1481ft/451m), a fell that was supposed to offer good views.
Somewhat reluctantly, we put our rain gear and backpacks on again, and walked to the edge of Ambleside. The rain had turned into a faint drizzle and this time we were more confident about catching a ride. After a while, a car with two women stopped and they were heading for Keswick. As we got talking, it turned out they were going to see a theatre piece at the Theatre by the Lake, which happens to be located almost at the north shore of Derwentwater. If we weren’t lucky with the weather, then a least we were with catching rides. As we explored Derwentwater’s shores, we realised this would make an ideal camping spot, probably better than the campsite a little further on. We asked and got permission from the people at a house nearby, and by the time we were pitching up our tent at Isthmus Bay, the rain had stopped. As surprising as it may seem, I felt like a swim, so I went and washed off the day’s hardships. After we had had dinner, the man of the house nearby came to have a little chat and soon after we went for another early night.
The weather forecast had promised a dry morning and continuous rain in the afternoon. And indeed, when we got up and packed our things, we even enjoyed a bit of sunshine. We didn’t hesitate and hiked through the outskirts of Keswick towards Derwentwater’s western shore, where a good number of other hikers were heading for Catbells’ summit. We had no idea this was such a popular hike, and finally got into the hiking mood. We had a friendly chat with the Fix the Fells rangers and volunteers who were maintaining the path leading up to the summit. The path was reasonably steep and as we got to a lower peak, it was almost time to head for the train station. In the end, Kadri and I agreed she’d have a rest with the backpacks while I’d make a quick push for the Catbells’ peak. I was wearing trail shoes, and without a backpack it was very doable to run up, at least until things got really steep. I felt I could finally release all the energy I’d been holding back because of the weather conditions and fifteen minutes later I found myself on Catbells’ summit, overlooking Derwentwater, Keswick, the surrounding green hills and Bassenthwaite Lake in the distance. I took the obligatory selfie and after a few more minutes of taking in the landscape I ran back down to where Kadri was. We both felt satisfied, we had achieved something and got a taste of the Lake District. In a good mood, we hiked back to Keswick where, in the end, we still had time to have lunch in one of the pubs.
During the train journey and the flight back, there was plenty of time to look back on the events of the past couple of days. It wasn’t until the following day that I felt something funny in my legs. This wasn’t just muscle stiffness, this was something that made going down the stairs feel like being torn apart in a torture chamber. For three days, my legs reminded me that I’m a long-distance hiker, not a fell runner.