Walking the Cumbria Way route through the Lake District from Ulverston to Carlisle.
The Cumbria Way offers more than just incredible walking – myriad accommodation delights await the weary walker. Lesley Williams recounts stopovers with stories from her experience of this iconic Lake District walk.
The Cumbria Way is a 76-mile route spanning the length of Cumbria, from Ulverston on the southern coast to Carlisle in the north, gateway to Scotland. You can walk the entire route in around four days if you really want to rush, but it’s far better to linger as you pass through the magnificent Lake District fells and take the opportunity to stay in a range of accommodation – maybe a classic Lakeland inn, a welcoming bed and breakfast, or a remote bunkhouse or bothy.
Living just to the east of Kendal, we have the Lake District more or less on our doorstep. We planned to walk the route over seven days, stopping at Coniston, Great Langdale, Rosthwaite, Skiddaw House, Caldbeck and finally Carlisle. Although the first day had relatively little height gain, it was a long way to walk in the summer heat. Arriving in Coniston in the late afternoon, we enjoyed some long cooling drinks before walking out of the village towards the lake where Bluebird Lodge, our B&B was situated. Walking a long distance trail with a dog is great fun, and just brilliant for the dog, but it does place limitations on where you can stay. Our B&B accepted dogs, even offering fresh towels to help us clean up Cassie, our Labrador, after her swimming exploits. Then it was over the road to the Waterhead Hotel for a bar meal, where Cassie was made welcome and could sprawl at our feet while we tucked into a fantastic and well earned feed.
Coniston developed as both a farming village, and to serve the local copper and slate mines in the area, the remains of which can still be seen on the fells above the village and in the surrounding valleys. During the Victorian era the village became more accessible and its popularity grew. It became a centre for the Arts and Crafts movement after John Ruskin bought 'Brantwood' on the eastern side of Coniston Water. Coniston Water is also noted for both Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons stories, and Donald Campbell's attempt at the water speed record in his craft Bluebird.
Our second day covered the section of the route between Coniston and the head of Great Langdale, passing through some of the best scenery in south Lakeland, the tranquil and iconic Tarn Hows, then on to Skelwith Bridge, up the Langdale valley to Elterwater before we finally stopped for the night at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel.
The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel was originally a farm and an inn, with records dating back to the mid 1800s. Situated as it is at the roadhead in Great Langdale, when dusk falls and the day visitors have departed, the profound tranquillity of the location, which is cradled by some of the most iconic fells of the Lake District, is mesmerising.
In stark contrast to the rough and ready 'Walkers Bar', the hotel is relatively elegant; the rooms are well decorated and comfortable, although you will be lucky to have an ensuite bathroom actually in your room – my 'ensuite' was down the corridor, as the ancient thick stone walls can create some substantial plumbing challenges!
The Cumbria Way route between the Old Dungeon Ghyll and Rosthwaite takes the walker up though the wild and beautiful Mickleden valley, then branches right to climb over Stake Pass before descending into the wonderful long hidden and isolated valley of Langstrath (meaning long marsh, or flat valley). It's a glorious route on a sunny day, but bleak and challenging in bad weather.
The village of Rosthwaite sits at the confluence of the Borrowdale and Stonethwaite valleys, and is of strategic importance for walkers of both the 'Coast to Coast' and the 'Cumbria Way'. There is a huge choice of accommodation in the village, ranging from elegant country house hotels through to the campsite at the southern end of the village. Over various trips we have stayed at the campsite, the Scafell Hotel and the Royal Oak Hotel. The Royal Oak was once an 18th century farm and miner's tavern, but nowadays this family-run establishment offers a warm welcome from the owner, who also doubles as a member of the local Mountain Rescue team.
Emerging from our tent in the Rosthwaite campsite, the morning sun streamed down into the valley, banishing the midges from the camping field, except for the area where the trees still cast shadows – and yes, our tent was in the shadow, so all exposed skin was mercilessly munched! In an effort to dry the tent before packing it in our rucksacks, we ‘walked’ it to a sunny part of the field, where, by carefully rotating it every few minutes, it more or less dried while we had our breakfast and packed up.
As the sun rose in the sky the day rapidly became scorching hot. The sultry conditions prevailed even on the lakeside path as we walked north towards Keswick, and it was with some envy that we watched holidaymakers paddle and swam idly in Derwentwater.
The route out from the north of town took us on the steady climb up Spoony Green Lane, before we curved around to the east and then headed north of Latrigg to meet the top of Gale Road. What joy – an ice cream stall in the car park! Suitably cooled and fortified, we continued on our way, following the path to Skiddaw House as it contoured around Lonscale Fell and up through the Glenderaterra Beck valley. As we walked, we kept an eye out for a young Frenchman who had effortlessly passed us on the ascent, as he had told us he too was going to stay at Skiddaw House that night.
Walking the Cumbria Way provides a great excuse to stay at Skiddaw House, which occupies an isolated position some 470 meters (1550 feet) above sea level, in a remote location beyond Keswick, on the northern slopes of Skiddaw.
With a somewhat bleak exterior, Skiddaw House is one of the most remote buildings in England. A former shooting lodge and shepherd’s bothy, the house has a food shop and can accommodate up to twenty-two people in its four rooms. There is good basic facilities including hot water and a shower.
After being invited in for a cup of tea when we arrived, we checked where we should pitch the tent.
‘There IS space on flat sheltered ground for two tents,’ explained Martin, the warden, who went on to warn us of the bunkhouse’s own local midge population, and advised us to sleep inside. We quickly decided to leave the tent safely packed away rather than take our chances against another swarm!
Settling in for the night, we soon discovered that the young Frenchman also staying in the house had been hoping to practice his English – but he hadn’t known that Marie, Martin’s partner, was French, so he didn't get as much practice as he had hoped! The only other resident that night (apart from some mice!) was an American visitor who had just climbed his final ‘Wainwright’, having enjoyed walking holidays in the Lake District for the last four or five years. It all made for a very amicable evening.
As the scorching sun cooled and started to set, its fading final rays shone through the red curtains, gently giving the room its final light before night fell.
Soon there was no sound. Nothing.
Peering out between the curtains in the morning, I saw that it was another glorious, cloudless day. Thanks to its high and wonderfully isolated position, the commanding views from the bunkhouse are incredible: Great Calva on the left and all the way down the Caldew valley to Carrock Fell. We headed down the Caldew valley, turned left to follow Grainsgill Beck and continue past the old tungsten mines and up towards the Lingy Hut, (a popular bothy accommodation option) then headed over to the highest point on the Cumbria Way, the summit of High Pike. The descent towards Caldbeck is long and delightful, with distant views of the Solway Firth and distant Galloway hills.
Caldbeck is named after the Caldew, or 'The Cold Beck' on which it stands. Its origins in thriving milling, bobbin making, paper manufacturing and brewing industries are manifest in the village’s fine houses and pretty cottages. Tea rooms, craft shops, pubs and a campsite offer refreshment and accommodation, before the final stage of the Cumbria Way is walked, through the peaceful River Caldew valley to Carlisle.