The Lake District: on two wheels and two feet

The first time I ever visited the Lake District was for a mountain biking weekend one cold but sunny November. It was the days before digital cameras, so the photo of me falling into a stream as I tried to cycle through it is buried in an album somewhere: but what I do remember is that the weather was beautiful and that I immediately fell in love with the area.

Living in Cumbria (it’s 12 years next month), I still love the county and a trip to the Lakes usually engenders feelings of going on holiday, even if only for a half day. There’s also plenty I have yet to explore and to learn.

Despite my pre-children mountain biking weekends all those years ago, I haven’t cycled much in the area. So when my friend Jeremy suggested a 20-mile bike ride in Borrowdale and around Derwentwater I accepted eagerly.

He picked up my bike, Edward and me in his van and having dropped Edward at school we drove down to Keswick. As we cycled up the Borrowdale valley I thought back to running around and swimming in Derwentwater, and how each activity gives a slightly different aspect to the lake and its valley. The river near Grange was higher than it had been when Penny and I ran from Grange to Seatoller and back but whilst it was cooler, the weather was dry. We stopped to admire the Bowder Stone, which I hadn’t seen before, and its new steps, as someone Jeremy knows had something to do with them. I tried to imagine Victorian women in crinolines climbing up to admire the view, parasols in hand, and was glad to be clad in flexible lycra.

We cycled as far as the NT farm and cottages at Seathwaite before turning round and retracing our wheels to Grange. Here we turned to the west to go up the road that runs along the foot of Cat Bells, and I thought back to swimming in Derwentwater below there just a few months ago. I have loads of similar photos but it’s such a lovely view and one of my favourite lakes, by now dressed in its autumnal colours. How rapidly the seasons change and the temperature drops: various hardy swimmers are still open water swimming (without wetsuits) even now, and will continue throughout the winter, but I’m not yet anything like acclimatised!

We cycled back through Portinscale, discussing wanting to try some of the mountain passes and debating which would be the best to try first, and arrived back in Keswick in plenty of time for cake (Jeremy) and smashed avocado (etc. – me). On the way home we dropped into Rheged to look at Jeremy’s exhibit in a national landscape exhibition: I’ll leave the photos to tell their own story. I love the way Rheged have positioned it so the light creates a map in the shadow.

Only a short while later and I was down in the Lake District again, this time based at Monk Coniston for an assessment weekend to see whether I’d be good enough to be a walking holiday leader. As I drove down – over the Kirkstone Pass, as I love that route and it’s the most direct – the sun was setting and there was Windermere below me, shining as the sun went down. I never tire of getting to the top of the Kirkstone Pass and seeing the lake all the way down below me – I rarely stop to take a photo though.

I felt a little apprehensive about the weekend but before long Rachel, the other woman on the assessment (there were 3 men as well), and I were chatting away, comparing notes about 3 children, being divorced and life generally.

The following day the two of us were walking with Paul while the 3 men went off with a different assessor. We headed in a north-westerly direction up the Yewdale valley, alongside the Yewdale Beck for much of the way and seeing lots of remains of mines and quarries – we stopped for coffee in one, gazing around a corner at snow on the higher fells. There was a real feeling of human industry having returned to nature.

That evening was night navigation and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours trying to find our way in the dark up to Tarn Hows and back. I realised that either the battery on my headtorch was getting a bit low (it’s rechargeable) or I need a better headtorch; and we ‘calibrated’ my paces – I now know that c.63 of my double paces equals 100m.

The following day all 5 of us ‘candidates’ were out together with two assessors, starting at the New Dungeon Ghyll and walking up towards the Langdale Pikes. I had never walked further than the first waterfalls and pools before, and the stunning weather – the sky was a vivid cloudless blue until the afternoon – combined with the beauty of the fells made for a hugely enjoyable walk. I’m really looking forward to next summer and swimming in Stickle Tarn; there was also a small pool looking over Stickle Tarn: both reflected the sky and fells like mirrors. One day I shall do the entire Pavey Ark – Harrison Stickle – Pike of Stickle walk.

As we walked back down I could see Blea Tarn in the distance, and again thought back to swimming there not so very long ago. We could also see Windermere and Morecambe Bay, including Heysham power station; there’s something very gratifying about being able to orientate yourself because you recognise landscape features.

While writing this I’m studying the map again and my eyes are caught by ‘Castle Howe’ and ‘Ting Mound’ at the eastern end of the Wrynose Pass (the pass of my 3-hour wait for the breakdown lorry after swimming in Wastwater). Googling what they were, I discover that this could be an iron age fort of some sort and that the Ting Mound was used in the 7th-9th centuries as an open air meeting place. Apparently the route through Wrynose Pass might have been in use since neolithic times.

Perhaps this is what appeals to me most of all about living in this fairly remote, underpopulated part of the UK. The relative lack of development means that history of all periods surrounds you: the neolithic route and iron age hill fort; the roads, forts and great wall of the Romans; the names of Saxon and Viking settlements; the ruined castles of medieval times; the industrial archaeology of the Elizabethans and Georgians; and the tourism industry which more or less started with Wordsworth and continues to this day. The multiple layers of varying waves of human interest and influence; but over it all nature continuing with its own awe-inspiring beauty, ranging from the grandeur of the highest fells to the delicacy of a mountain flower.

Time with friends

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

They say “make new friends but keep the old: one is silver, the other gold”.

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with this saying, as it seems to imply that newer friends are somehow inferior to older ones. I suppose the thing is that you don’t always know how newer friends are going to turn out in the friendship stakes: and the ones who have hung around ‘forever’ are indeed precious. And they were new friends once upon a time.

I remember when I was quite young making the deliberate decision that I was going to be someone who had friends. I can hear you ask – “doesn’t everybody?” but sometimes making friends has to be worked on. I wasn’t brought up to be outgoing; nor was I brought up to show my feelings, being frequently told not to wear my heart on my sleeve. I made a conscious decision to go against my upbringing and be a sociable sort of person: even moving to London, which the rest of my family thought was bonkers.

I’m not sure how I came across to friends in my 20s and 30s, but I know that something happened inside me when I was about to turn 40 which meant that I became far happier and more confident about myself. Then I met the man who was going to become the father of my children; had my children, who are perhaps the biggest achievement of my life, and also moved to Cumbria.

I have been lucky enough since moving to Cumbria to have seen more of old friends but also to have made new friends, who I hope in time will become old friends. Living somewhere rural is in fact far more sociable than living in a big city, and far less lonely if you don’t want it to be. There are friends who have, inevitably, fallen by the wayside (some of whom I wonder about: where are they; what are they doing?) but my social life is truly rich. And not only on a superficial level: my friends are there to support, cajole, and have picked up the pieces when I’ve needed it.

So I wanted to write a blogpost about two weekends: one with two old friends and one with two new ones (of the ‘I hope they’ll become old ones’ variety).

I was at university with Caroline; when I moved to London I registered with the temp agency which she had registered with. As a result I met Jo: and because Jo wanted to work at the BBC I introduced her to Caroline, who had moved on from the temp agency to work as a Studio Manager at the BBC. I have known these two since my early 20s, and at one point we all lived near each other in Greenwich/Blackheath and share memories of times together, which often get referred to when we meet up. We don’t see each other often but when we do there is a lot of talking: sharing anecdotes of family life; discussing problems; reminiscing about times we have shared.

We met in the Peak District a few weeks ago. We all had a hideous journey to get there and the weather was rainy for most of the weekend, but we were staying in a lovely cottage – the Tudor Cottage at Foolow – we found through AirBnB – right next door to a lovely, friendly pub – the Bull’s Head.

Having got over our awful journeys and sorted out who was sleeping where, we headed to the pub. One of the highlights of the weekend was how friendly people were in the various pubs and cafes we went in. I know in a tourist area they have to be, but you’d have thought that this late in the season some ennui might have set in (maybe the seasonal staff have left and the more career-minded are left).

On the Saturday – after I’d burnt the croissants and we’d done yoga – we did a 9-mile walk from Foolow down Cressbrook Dale, along the Monsal Trail and then back over the hills. En route we found another lovely pub, The Packhorse Inn at Little Longstone. They didn’t have room for us for lunch that day but we booked for the next day – finding that they’re so popular that spaces are limited!

That night after a meal at the Bull’s Head we went back and played Trivial Pursuit, adding in charades… I still chuckle at the video, which probably would not be at all funny to anyone who wasn’t there. On the Sunday we visited the ‘plague village’, Eyam, just along the valley – and again went in a brilliant cafe, the Coolstone. I took photos of their authentic recipes and said I’d try them out, but haven’t yet. If I worked full-time in catering that’s the sort of place I’d want to work or own/manage.

Only a few weeks later and I had a day out in the Lake District with newer friends, Anne and Mark. We visited Wray Castle – where I bumped into the members of staff who I had met when Penny and I ran round Windermere, which seems an awfully long time ago now (6 months ago, in April) – then went to Claife Viewing Station before going to Stott Park Bobbin Mill. The steam engine was working so our tour didn’t only involve seeing bobbins being made but also hearing about this beautiful piece of machinery. You get a real sense of what it would have been like to have worked there: the noise, the sawdust, the dangers of the machinery.

We came back across Windermere by the ferry, which always seems like a ‘holiday’ thing to do. Both were occasions I shall remember for a long time. This is, for me, what life is about – being out and about, ideally with good friends. And in fact whilst I love travelling abroad, there is plenty to see in the UK alone.

Ladies of the Lakes (5) – Blea Tarn

We decided we’d fit in one more swim before the water got too cold. As four of the lakes can’t be swum in for various reasons, I had checked out various tarns and former reservoirs (it’s amazing how many of the lakes in the Lake District are in fact man-made, or man-fiddled-with) and we now have a list of 22 or 23 – which is by no means all of them, but you have to stop somewhere.

Anne had, very early on, mentioned wanting to swim in Blea Tarn, which is apparently shown in the opening credits of Country File. As this was likely to be our last swim of the year I suggested that it perhaps was time to do Blea Tarn. Perhaps I should also mention that this is the Blea Tarn near Langdale, not the other one. Penny was also free so on a sunny September Saturday we set off early (8 a.m. or thereabouts). I had vaguely suggested a sunrise swim, but that would have been a bit too early and also very cold.

There’s a National Trust car park just across the road from the Tarn and even at 10-ish (it takes a while to get there from Carlisle) it was already almost full. We squeezed in, got our various bags including the now-compulsory-picnic out of the boot, and walked over to the Tarn to find a good place to get changed and get in, ooo-ing and aah-ing at the beauty of the place, the water calmly reflecting the peaks around it.

In fact we should have walked a bit further round than we did as we found later that there was a rocky bit: where we had chosen had some rocks but also a bit of gritty sand and some rather wet grass. Despite a sky that was that clear, vibrant blue you get sometimes at the height of summer, we were all glad of our wetsuits, gloves and neoprene shoes as the water was not especially warm. Without too much shivering we got in though and swam first towards one side, turning round when it got a bit weedy, and then right across the diameter of the lake to a rocky bit of shore on the other side.

We seemed to have started a trend as other people also started getting in and swimming, some with no wetsuits on. Having done our obligatory 30 minutes or more, we got out. Anne and I debated whether to try swimming without wetsuits: as we headed back into the water I decided it was too cold and turned round and got out again, but Anne plunged fully in and swam boldly out towards the middle of the lake. As she turned round to swim back she shouted that it was fantastic – and when she got out announced that the top two centimetres had warmed up. As Jo said, we take up a bit more than two centimetres though.

As we sat and ate our picnic and drank coffee/tea/hot water, more people were turning up – it’s obviously a popular spot – and as soon as we drove away from the car park someone took our space. I guess it has a bit of celebrity status as it’s a TV star.

It was a bit muddier and weedier than the bigger lakes, though not much – in fact prior to ‘officially’ doing this challenge Anne and I had swum in two very weedy, muddy bits of Derwentwater and this was nothing like that, nor certain places I swam years ago as a triathlete where you were lucky if you could see your hand in front of your face. It was clear that it was going to score pretty highly on our scoresheet. As we drove home we debated whether we might get another lake in without feeling too desperately cold…

When I got home my younger son said that he’d come with me next time if he could go fishing. I have no idea what he is likely to catch – if anything – as all I have seen so far is some tiny fish. But if he likes the idea of sitting at the side of a lake and waiting for a fish to bite while his mother splashes about in the water, I’d rather he did that than stayed at home in front of the xbox. I just need to research what he might catch, and how, as I have no idea about fishing – I’ve done it about once, at night, in the Mediterranean, where I caught an eel. Which really was long.

Back on the bike

I may have mentioned that I bought myself a new bike (or rather, I acquired one that I haven’t yet fully paid for as it’s on a credit agreement) not so long ago. I want to start doing longer bike rides – of a sort of ‘sight seeing’ variety – and my other two bikes just weren’t really quite right for the job.

Having cycled a lot when I lived in London and then Watford, I’ve done a lot less since moving away from the south-east and having the children, even though the roads up here are perfect for cycling for miles. However my new bike has definitely encouraged a new love of cycling, and I’m trying to get out more than I have done for a while. Of course the big 6-0 is looming in a few years time so I’m also trying to get fitter (I want to be doing triathlon. I found out the other day that once you’re 60 you’re in the ‘vintage’ category for triathlon. It sounds rather like fine wine, or port, or cheese, doesn’t it).

So one day instead of sorting out all the other stuff I had to do, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and see if I could still cycle up the hill from Lanercost to Banks, along to Birdoswald and back via Walton.

I’m glad to say that I cycled up the entire hill without stopping, and whilst my time was a little bit on the slow side, I had a very enjoyable ride in the September sunshine – warm enough that I took my jacket off and was cycling in a t-shirt. There are some stunning views along the way and also, for anyone who likes cycling but also regular cafe stops, there are at least four tea rooms/cafes en route – Lanercost, Birdoswald, Slack House Organic Farm and Walton Reading Room cafe.

A few days later, the weather still being lovely, I decided again that despite needing to do various things like washing, hanging washing up, mowing the lawns or hoovering the carpets, what I really needed to do was to get fitter and get outside. I am determined that I am soon going to do the entire Reiver route – ideally the 40 mile one if there is a day of decent weather – but on this particular day I decided I’d try to get up to Bailey.

As it turned out, I didn’t as I felt I was getting a bit short of time, and I turned back a bit sooner. However I headed out via Lanercost, where instead of going up towards Banks I turned towards Burtholme and then up past Walton Wood to join the road that heads from Banks towards Askerton. Just before Askerton I turned left and cut through to Kirkcambeck, and then cycled as far as the Crossings pub.

From there I turned left or right as instinct told me, along quiet country lanes mostly with trees on both sides, until I came out at Hethersgill. About there a jet flew low overhead, almost making me jump – I watched as it flew lower towards Carlisle airport – and then realised it was coming round again. In all as I cycled back from Hethersgill towards Newtown, it went round in a circle 4 times. I assume the pilot was practicing landing and taking straight off again – after the 4th time it headed east towards Newcastle.

It had turned out to be another glorious, sunny and warm, autumn day – the threatened rain had not transpired. I had gone slightly further and slightly faster than the previous time: but more importantly I had loved being out on my bike.

I got home and sent a message to friends who live just in Scotland to see if I could cycle up to see them sometime.

Ladies of the Lakes 4 – and Wast Fest

One of the first lakes I ever swam in in the Lake District was Derwentwater, at the top near the Theatre by the Lake. I remembered there being lots of geese around and plenty of sheep and goose poo to avoid. Once in the water, however, it was fine.

When Anne and I attempted Derwentwater, before we ‘officially’ launched our lakes swimming challenge, we tried first swimming down near Lodore Falls (near the NT car park). It was hideous: weedy and muddy and you didn’t really know what you were walking on (or rather in), nor how deep the mud was. When we tried the top end near the Theatre it was equally bad: Anne swam further out than me but was still able to stand up and narrowly missed being in the path of a ferry. We gave it up as a bad job that day and instead took Edward, who was with us, to Java in Keswick for a chocolate covered strawberry and marshmallow kebab.

Anne’s husband Mark suggested we tried the western shore of the lake, at the foot of Cat Bells. So, a Saturday early in September it was agreed that it was time to attempt Derwentwater again. I woke with a headache and thought I’d have to miss the trip, so the others set out before me – fortunately the magic big pink nurofen did its trick and I set out an hour later. It wasn’t that easy to spot where they’d parked so I pulled in where I could get a space near Hawse End and walked along the lake shore to find them, every-so-often one or the other of us phoning to check on landmarks (“has the ferry gone past you – and if so towards you or away from you?” “can you see any boats?” “the people next to us have just started a barbecue”). As they’d described walking fairly steeply downhill, I had a feeling they were south of me and sure enough I eventually saw the barbecue. Anne and Jo, bless them, had waited for me before getting in and I was really pleased not to have missed out.

The day was sunny although having had some chilly wet weather the water wasn’t as warm as any of the other times we’d swum, and we were all glad of our gloves. When I put my head in the water I was disorientated at first – there seemed to be lots of goldish/coppery sparkles in the water and whilst I’d been expecting to be able to look down to the bottom, these sparkles seemed to be very near. Once it had become clear that it was sediment suspended in the water and that in fact the water was quite clear, the feeling of disorientation also went: and of course swimming into the sun or away from the sun made a difference.

As we sat and had a picnic in the sun (we moved to the barbecue spot, which had now been abandoned) while our fingers and toes thawed out – despite gloves and shoes – we admired the gorgeous view, enthused once again about the joys of wild swimming, and then turned to the important business of scoring this lake. It scored highly so is up there with Wastwater in the lead – but over the following week we added several tarns to the list, so at the moment we have swum 4 lakes and have 18 still to go…

It was my birthday the following weekend and Anne and I had already discussed swimming in Wastwater at sunset. So, at about 5pm on a fairly sunny Saturday afternoon, various vehicles set out for Wastwater and the same spot that Anne and I had swum from before. It was exciting that Jo was going to be able to experience Wastwater as we’d loved it so much the previous time.

Jo and her husband Jerry gave me a lift in their van and we arrived to find Mark A. had already got the barbecue going and that Laura and Mark B. had arrived. As the sun began to go down, the three of us who were swimming got into our wetsuits and into the water, feeling rather like minor celebrities as the others photographed and videoed us as we swam across to the island, got out on to it and waved, swam round it and back and then round to the other side of the picnic site. Despite gloves my fingers were already feeling cold, but the lake was as beautiful to swim in as before: crystal clear and little in the way of weed or tree roots, and plenty of rocks to get in and out on. I don’t have the words to explain fully the feeling of sheer joy and exhilaration of swimming in this lake: but the big beam on Jo’s face said it all.

Having got out, dried ourselves and put on several layers of clothing, the party began in earnest. It was a sort of bring and share picnic/barbecue and we had tons of food – starting with a Parsnip and Rhubarb soup I had made (recipe in the Covent Garden Soup recipe book) which was interesting: root veg. with a slight tartness to it. There were sausages, cheeses, salad, fruit salad and – of course – alcohol. Laura had made a fruit loaf and as a birthday cake I’d made a Black Forest Cherry Cake; my sister’s friend Sara brought some cupcakes but I don’t think anyone ate any of them, we were so full!

As our stomachs digested the food and the night sky grew darker overhead, Jerry and Mark A. got their guitars out and we had a sing around the campfire, watching a string of head torches coming down into Wasdale Head from Scafell. It was a magical, magical evening and one of the best birthdays I have ever had: when Anne said she could have stayed there all night and have waited for the sun to come up, I knew exactly what she meant (perhaps sometime we should do that!). What can beat being outdoors on a lovely evening, with exercise, good food, good company, and music?

p.s. we cleaned our wetsuits, etc. thoroughly – with a mild detergent and a thorough wash-down – after Derwentwater as we don’t want to go spreading any non-native invasive weed species around the Lakes

Ladies of the Lakes – 2 and 3

I’ve always been somewhat put off swimming in Ullswater by going out one evening with a triathlon club. The idea was to swim across the lake and back. It was colder than I’d expected; it was choppy (one person actually got out on to the boat accompanying us, she felt so sick); at one point the steamer went past; and I was right at the back of a bunch of serious, ironman-training triathletes. I also had visions of great pike shooting up from the bottom of the lake to nibble my toes, or worse. The fact that it is almost 200 ft. (63 m) deep in the middle didn’t console me much either.

I knew it would make more sense to swim up and down parallel to the shore rather than straight across the lake, and having swum in Bassenthwaite, Crummock Water (twice) and attempted Derwentwater (muddy), I was feeling somewhat more optimistic about Ullswater: and Anne had confirmed that she knew a really good place to swim.

So, one rather rainy Saturday – we were going to get wet anyway – Anne, Jo and I travelled down to Sandwick towards the south-east corner of the lake. I hadn’t driven down here before although I’ve run round there twice – in fact the cottages there were what made me comment to Penny on our ’16 lakes runs’ that I’d like to live in the Lake District one day. There’s a group of about 4 or 5 houses with a nice grass verge where you can park (though I’m not sure the householders would be that happy to have that widely advertised). It’s then a short walk over a rushing stream and through a field to a little beach. The path is part of the Ullswater Way, so we felt quite public as we got changed – and a family had chosen that point to stop at the picnic table provided so we probably bothered them as much as they bothered us.

It was definitely a wetsuits day, and Anne had even bought a pair of gloves – something I must invest in (I have to admit to wanting some Huub ones to go with my Huub wetsuit). Jo had a new wetsuit, having tried a secondhand boy’s shortie wetsuit in Crummock and also having enjoyed open water swimming enough to want to come along again. We swam up and down a fair amount in a slightly farmland-ish setting, walkers going past on a fairly regular basis and commenting. It was all really friendly though if what you wanted was a ‘get away from it all’ experience, this wouldn’t be the one.

So far the weather had been kind to us: despite the frequent rain showers of the previous few days it had been mostly sunny. We got out – we have set a criteria that we must be in the water for at least 30 minutes (even if we get out in the middle and then go in again) – and got changed and at that moment there was a sudden but brief downpour. Fortunately the trees around the lake and the beach sheltered us and after only a few minutes we started the walk back to the car, where we had some sandwiches etc. About 10 minutes later the heavens opened in earnest and we leapt into the car and headed home.

Unfortunately Jo wasn’t able to come with us the following weekend (I was due to have the kids, but my ex had taken them away) and we’d decided we’d do Wastwater. This is another daunting lake. The scree slopes glower over the water on the southern side, and at times the water can look black. There’s not a huge amount of vegetation around the lake either, which perhaps adds to its starkly majestic feel: it’s not as enclosed by woods as many of the lakes are.

Wastwater is the deepest lake in England so if anything I should have felt more nervous about it than I did about Ullswater. However it doesn’t have a steamer going up and down (and potentially likely to chop you up), which helped, and I had seen people kayaking, diving etc. from the other side. My aim was to park near where Penny & I had parked when we ran round the lake. Having had incredibly heavy rain earlier in the week (the rivers were looking full to bursting), Friday had turned hot and sunny with forecasts of some of the highest temperatures ever for the bank holiday weekend.

The weather forecast was right and Saturday was glorious. As a result Wastwater was heaving – at least, heaving for a relatively remote Lake District lake which can only be directly reached from the western edges of Cumbria (there’s one road in which comes to a dead end at Wasdale Head, where Red Pike, Great Gable and Scafell Pike look down over the lake). However due to the lake’s rather daunting reputation, having plenty of people around was good rather than bad, and we joined the groups around a bay with an island in it.

The water was beautifully clear, and you get into the lake via stony beaches. The water was so clear that swimming across to the island you could see below easily: there weren’t any weeds until we were in about 8′ of water (I didn’t feel them beneath my feet when I put my feet down) and you could see some sort of pipeline running along the lake bottom. We swam out to and round the island before having a picnic lunch; and then got back in again. While Anne swam round to the next bay, I swam round to the next bay and then to the island and back again.

I felt that my swimming was improving: I haven’t swum regularly for so long that my stamina isn’t great, but these swims are giving me the confidence to know that if I did more training I’d feel like tackling a triathlon again.

Ambleside in the distance – so near and yet so far

We drove back over Hardknott and Wrynose passes: a narrow, hairpin route with stunning views. Just over the top of Wrynose I pulled in to allow a cyclist more room to go past: and burst my nearside front tyre on a rock. We spent the next 3 hours looking as if we were having a picnic admiring the view towards Ambleside from the top of Wrynose and acting like police officers making sure nobody came round the corner too fast and straight into the back of my car. When the breakdown van finally turned up it took the guy less than 10 minutes to put my spare wheel on: and I was extremely glad I hadn’t tried to do it myself, as even with wooden blocks behind the back wheels and a rock in front of the offside front, the car shifted a bit as he jacked it up (the first guy who had gone past us had said we were on too steep a slope to change the wheel).

We got back to my house hours later than intended but Anne’s lovely husband Mark had good-naturedly driven down from their house (he had had a long journey back from London already that day) to look after the kittens, who I had left outside all day and who I thought might be rather hungry. As we sat and had some food and drinks, we discussed our scoring system for the lakes and came up with a scorecard which gives marks out of 70 for each one. So far Wastwater is in the lead, Crummock Water second and Ullswater last. Wastwater had been utterly superb: so superb that I’m hoping to get a group down there for a sunset swim and picnic on my birthday in a couple of weeks’ time.

Ladies of the Lakes (1)

I announced recently that I wasn’t going to do any more charity dinners, but that I would carry on having friends to dinner. As I only had a couple of ‘donating’ guests for the most recent dinner, I cancelled it as a charity do and instead invited friends to dinner. There ended up being 9 of us.

I kept the menu much the same – there are a host of recipes I wanted to try from Antonio Carluccio’s The Collection (which my Mum had kindly bought me when we went out for lunch to Carluccio’s at Cribbs Causeway) so I chose a 4-course menu from that book:

Insalata all’Abbruzzese (vegetable and tuna salad – basically an italian version of Salade Nicoise, which is one of my favourites)

Manilli de Seta (Silk hankerchief pasta with pesto – I was very proud of the pasta I made, which came out beautifully thin due to my Imperia pasta rolling machine: but I was really lazy and despite buying the ingredients for pesto I actually used Sainsburys fresh pesto, even though it would have been dead easy to make)

Stracotto (which means ‘overcooked’ – beef brisket cooked slowly in stock, a mirepois and white wine), served with Patate e Porcini (potatoes and ceps, except I used ordinary mushrooms. But a few of the potatoes came from my garden, as did the sage leaves)

Zabaione con salsa di cioccolato amaro (zabaglione with bitter chocolate sauce. This turned out well except the bitter chocolate sauce could have done with being lighter – it turned into solid lumps of chocolate and had mostly sunk by the time I served the desserts. I think the ratio of cream to chocolate needs to be different – and perhaps adding a bit of butter might help?)

It was one of those fantastic evenings which went well from the beginning, with 3 or 4 lively conversations at all times. The atmosphere was great.

Three of us had already arranged that we would go wild swimming in Crummock Water the next day. The weather forecast had looked a bit gloomy and damp but in fact the sun was attempting to come out and although the air felt slightly cool (if you were standing out in a swimsuit), the water was lovely – two of us even took our wetsuits off and went in just in swimsuits, although my fingers had turned green by the time I got out. As previously, it was great to be swimming at water surface level, the fells around dwarfing us. You feel completely part of nature and, as Jo said, ‘it’s very calming’. It was her first time ever wild swimming – but I think she’s hooked!

We discussed how we should go about celebrating Anne’s 60th and her goal to swim in all 16 lakes: we decided we needed to be in the water for at least 30 minutes each time in order to be able to make it ‘official’. The next lake we’re aiming to swim in is Ullswater, and as we drove back we picked our name: Ladies of the Lakes. Crummock Water was our first ‘official’ one – so 15 more to go!

The best things in life…

About five and a half or six years ago, not long before David left, one of his friends said to me that from reading my blog you’d think I was happy whereas when you met me I was a miserable git (those weren’t his exact words, but close enough).

I’ve looked back at blogposts from around that time and in fact I wasn’t always that happy, but expressed that at times I felt low. But I also know that I have always found some solace in being out and about on my bike or running; with friends; in music. But when your heart feels completely and utterly broken and life seems black even these things are not a consolation.

I think it says something about my general state of mind, therefore, that despite having been desperately upset about the children last week, it didn’t take me long to bounce back and to have a brilliant weekend. Having reacted incredibly emotionally to something on Wednesday evening, by the time I’d had a huge amount of moral support from friends I felt calmer though still tearful on Thursday. The weekend – which, as I don’t have to go to Newcastle to work on Friday, starts for me on Thursday evening quite often – got better and better from there on in.

I went for a bike ride on Friday morning with one of the Claires (I have several friends called Clare or Claire). Her two children are the same age as two of mine, and we’ve been talking about going cycling together for ages. I got side-tracked doing something at home so she cycled to mine, I cycled back with her to her house and had a drink, flapjack and a chat, and I then cycled home again. I hadn’t cycled all of the route before so it was good to try something new, and I saw exactly what she meant as I cycled home – the view as you cycle away from Heads Nook (her village) with the Pennine Fells ahead of you is a lovely one.

Friday evening I very nearly backed out of going to a concert with two friends, Anne and Mark, but was really glad I did go. It would have been so easy to have said “I really don’t feel like it and I need some quiet time and to do my ironing”. We went down to Salkeld Dykes to see Kinfolk in concert in a barn which has been newly converted by Michael Sanderson and Katharine May to a music room, big enough to put on small concerts. Michael plays and sings with Kinfolk as well as being a classical musician – he and his wife Katharine are also Eden Music/Eden Baroque. Kinfolk was performing at Music on the Marr the following night, so it felt quite a privilege to be able to see them in this smaller and more intimate setting – and it was great to be able to chat to them later. I’m never sure whether I’m going to like a whole evening of ‘folk’ music but this was fantastic – I was tapping my foot and smiling for almost the entire evening.

The following afternoon I was singing at Lanercost Priory, with James Booth on guitar, as part of the celebrations for the Priory’s 850th anniversary. I was relieved that I sang far better than I had for the choir concerts back in May (back then being affected partly by nerves and partly as I was going down with a cold) and I’m really looking forward to singing some more with Jim on guitar. Mark and Anne had said the previous evening that they were going to Lanercost on the Saturday evening to see Jerry King’s ukelele band. By now I was on a roll… not at all sure what I’d think of an hour of ukelele music, I agreed to go and again had a brilliant time.

On the Sunday I had arranged to meet up with my sister as she was staying with a friend of hers in Cockermouth. We went to Crummock Water and swam, paddle boarded and kayaked. Not only do I now want a bass guitar for christmas (as a result of seeing Kinfolk) but also I now want an inflatable kayak. The water was beautifully clear – until you got into the deeper part of the lake you could see the rocks beneath you quite easily: completely unlike Keswick the weekend before, which had been muddy, weedy, opaque and disgusting!

Having had a good time splashing about in the lake, followed by a picnic lunch provided by Rachel’s friend Sara, I headed over the Newlands Pass and valley to meet Penny. We drove down to Grange and ran along by the river Derwent (very shallow at the moment due to lack of rain, but very pretty) through Rosthwaite to Seatoller, before turning to go uphill and head in a northerly direction back to Grange. It was about 7 miles in total and we were not particularly quick! However there were some great things along the way such as the metal chain pinned into the rocks just past the YHA at Seatoller – the rocks must be really slippery when it’s wet weather – and Castle Crag, which is stunning. The view of Castle Crag from a distance and at stream level I felt was an almost alpine one – but then I’ve often thought that about Keswick, and also sometimes about Penrith, when I’ve seen them in the snow with the fells behind them. This time was more the summer mountain pastures aspect and I guess if climate change continues the way it is so far then actually that won’t be so inaccurate.

I stopped off at Rheged on the way home to buy some dinner for myself (even the food in the petrol station at Rheged is of a quality you don’t normally find in such places – including some beautiful French-style patisserie, though I didn’t buy any of those on this day). I sang to myself up the motorway and thought how lucky I was. I had had a weekend which had included friends (and my sister, who it was great to see), music, running, swimming, cycling and the beautiful outdoors.

What could be better (other than perhaps my kids having come along too, and enjoyed themselves)?

An almost-bonus lake

and a new challenge (or two)

“What run shall we do next?” and “so what’s your next challenge?” were questions running around in my head unanswered. That’s the trouble when you’ve achieved a goal: it can be a bit of an anti-climax, like the weird time after exams when all of a sudden there’s extra time and you’re not quite sure what to do with yourself.

Fortunately with ‘exercise’ type goals there doesn’t ever seem to be an end. Even for ultra-marathoners there’s always that new race to do or a set-back such as an injury or illness can mean going back a few steps and having to start again. So it wasn’t long before – almost accidentally – a couple of new challenges popped their heads up.

One of the challenges to decide on is for the year I turn 60. The year I turned 50 I had a baby, and so the following year I attempted Kielder marathon (having said I’d never run a marathon), just after I turned 51. For my 60th birthday I was recently reading something which gave me the idea for a cycling and walking challenge – but it’s still more than two years away and so far it’s only an initial idea, so I won’t say any more here and now.

But back to the Lakes. Penny wanted to go for a run, as did I. She’d been on holiday with her husband and then to Lundy for a weekend with a friend, and in between the two her mother had died. She’d done very little running but also, I sensed, needed to get up into the hills for a run. I made a few suggestions based around the fact that at some point we both want to run the entire length of High Street, from Pooley Bridge to Ambleside (c. 23 miles ‘from Fort to Fort’). Penny pointed out that Askham Fell would be really wet, so we opted to drive down to the car park at Brotherswater, just south of Patterdale, and run from Hartsop and up past to Hayeswater to High Street and then back down.

The track goes uphill from the beginning, alongside the Gill which splashes down in leaps and small waterfalls from the lake, which is at 425m (1,400 ft). Towards the top just before we met the lake, there was a small pool which, had the weather been warmer, would have been tempting to splash or swim in.

Whilst we were warm from ascending the track (at a walk rather than a run I must add!), there was a strong wind and I was beginning to wonder about the advisability of going up on to High Street, which we could see ahead of us and which would be very exposed. We’d been through one rain shower already, you hear frequently on the local news about the unwary being caught out and about people being blown off hilltop ridges, and all the people we met were going in the other direction to us – i.e. downhill. It may have been my imagination but I got the impression that they thought we were nuts, if not even totally irresponsible, to be out on the hills in running gear when the weather was so changeable.

The lake itself is beautiful: the slopes plunge down into it in a way reminiscent but not as grey or threatening as Wastwater – the scree is surrounded by grass, giving the valley a softer impression than Wastwater. The wind was rushing through the valley and we headed to where we thought there was a bridge over the stream, which showed that there was then a clear route up to Great Knott and High Street. Although the Gill looked ford-able at this point, we decided that today was not really a day for getting soaking wet (i.e. accidentally falling in), and instead turned back a short way to a foot bridge. Having been reading up about Hayeswater in order to write this post, it seems that when United Utilities stopped using Hayeswater as a reservoir, the National Trust took over and installed a micro hydro-electric scheme and carried out repairs to the footbridge and tracks. The scheme is not visible: photos on the National Trust webpage show a small powerhouse looking like a traditional barn.

From the footbridge we could see some walkers coming down from the High Street direction, and we followed a slightly indistinct grassy path uphill towards them, before joining a better path higher up. The wind had not lessened, and Penny pointed out another track to our left, heading in a northerly direction. We passed this and went higher up – stunning views of Hayeswater and a brief lull in the wind meant we were able to open the map. Deciding being safe was better than going up on to High Street, which would be exposed on both sides, we turned a few yards back to this other path.

This was a joy to run on. A stony path headed downhill, clearly manmade, and continued to undulate over the hills to Angle Tarn, splashing occasionally through some small becks. The wind was still strong – I had to borrow Penny’s buff as I couldn’t see for my swirling hair – and pushed us against the hill, but it at least meant that the rainclouds which we could see in the west got blown away over us without us getting wet.

Neither of us had been along this track before and we were both enjoying it. At Angle Tarn we spotted a little red tent and we both commented on what a lovely place it would to camp; the Tarn itself looked gorgeous on this sunny blustery day, its wiggly edges surrounding a few islets. Somewhere else to go wild swimming when it’s warmer.

From here the path wound its way up and round until suddenly a wide grassy pass opened out before us: my first thoughts were ‘the promised land’. I could imagine being a weary foot traveller, slogging through the mountains, to suddenly come out on these verdant meadows, still high enough for spectacular views towards the separate ends of Ullswater, but with a less wild, isolated and rugged feeling than previously. Perhaps not surprisingly we came out on to a small level area where there were signs of industry – there had clearly once been a power supply or something here, and there was further evidence of this as we descended a stony and initially steep track down towards Patterdale and the valley floor.

We ignored the track which went down into Patterdale itself and instead headed in a southerly direction down and back towards Hartsop, passing Hartsop Fold holiday lodges (I commented how much nicer these looked than those green plasticky ones you see so often around the Lake District). A short jog back along the road and we were at the car, talking about doing the run again but taking the route we had originally intended; debating how far it was along High Street Roman Road; and commenting on how this was a potential ‘bonus lake’, reiterating how lovely it was, and how lovely to see bits of the Lake District we hadn’t before. The comment ‘this is why we live here’ is one which we’ve both stated plenty of times while out running. There is little that can beat being out exploring this gorgeous landscape under your own steam: in all weathers, but especially when the weather is good.

We had covered about 6.4 miles but as we headed towards the bar of the hotel in Glenridding for a quick drink before going home, we also discovered and agreed on our next challenge: to try, each time we go running in the Lake District, to run (off-road) routes that we haven’t run before.

I think we’ll have a lot of options!

Bob Graham and the final lake

My children were with their father last weekend, and for once I had nothing planned. So when a friend posted on Facebook that he was thinking of ‘hiking’ the first leg of the Bob Graham round, followed by doing a 10km run at Whinlatter, and asked if anybody would join him… I said yes. After all walking up a few hills and doing a 10km run couldn’t be that hard… could it?

I hadn’t done a huge amount of running as I’d had a stinking cold/cough and choir concerts, but I’d been running on the Monday evening and felt relatively fit again. The weather forecast was reasonable and I even toyed with the idea of leaving my showerproof, fleece-lined jacket at home and with putting on a short-sleeved t-shirt.

Mark, from Stocksfield, picked me up on his way over and we drove to Keswick: the Bob Graham officially starts from the Moot Hall in Keswick (which I have previously valued) and Mark was keen to recce the route with a view to possibly doing the whole thing next year sometime. I knew we’d be going up Skiddaw but hadn’t really studied the route in much more detail, other than seeing that it ended up coming down Blencathra and into Threlkeld – where I know there’s a really lovely community cafe.

It all started well. Mark had no aspirations to run up every hill, so we made our way up Latrigg and then started on Skiddaw, him telling me about how he’d done a run which included Goat Fell on Arran the weekend before… As we got higher up Skiddaw the weather deteriorated. Only a bit – just a bit of Lakeland drizzle… we ran down the back of Skiddaw and headed towards Great Calva, and I was already beginning to feel tired. However once you’re in the valley at the back of Skiddaw, Great Calva and Blencathra, there’s nowhere to go other than back up a hill to get out… it’s really lovely and unspoilt, and there was a surprising number of other people trying out Leg 1 as well – and overtaking us as I was going so slowly…

Coming down from Great Calva was steep and my quads were already tight so I wasn’t as relaxed as I normally am when I’m running downhill. We got to the bottom and crossed a river before starting off up the backside of Blencathra. By now I was getting really wet and if somebody had said I could stop and get a lift, I would have done. However there are no roads to be seen and you have to walk on.

By the time we go to the top of Blencathra we were in mist. We met a walker and his dog (even he was walking faster than me), dressed sensibly in overtrousers and a waterproof jacket, who advised us not to go down Halls Fell as it would be slippery and difficult to see where we were meant to be going. We took the route to the west down instead, turning off the main path to head into Threlkeld and the cafe.

A cup of coffee later and I was feeling a lot better. Only 4 miles or so to jog back to Keswick – and with only one bus an hour that seemed like the best option. With the disused railway line track having been washed away in the floods, and still not re-opened, much of it was on road but the rain had more or less stopped and I knew we didn’t have too far to go. We passed Castlerigg Stone Circle and were soon back in the town centre, before taking the footpath up to where the car was parked.

I had already provisionally agreed with Penny that we’d run Esthwaite Water on the Bank Holiday Monday, and so having seen my children for the morning I handed them over to their father and met Penny in Penrith before driving down through Hawkshead, past Hawkshead Brewery, and parking at the trout farm car park. Again the weather seemed reasonable but this time I was taking no chances and had put a pair of dry socks, a dry sweatshirt and a pair of boots in the car.

I have to admit that I didn’t even really know Esthwaite Water existed until we started these runs. It’s just south of Hawkshead, but because there are signs for the Windermere Ferry at Hawkshead and the Hawkshead Trail Race goes up the hill and down along the western shore of Windermere, I’ve always tended to think that Windermere is ‘the lake’ for the village: and when you go up to Grizedale, just above Hawkshead, you’re then above Coniston. Also Esthwaite Water just isn’t one you hear about a lot or drive past that much; and much of the shore is privately owned.

It’s quite an attractive lake though, and we were fortunate to find that there is public footpath around quite a bit of it, although we got shouted at by a farmer at one point as we were running across his field rather than sticking to the path (in our defence, it wasn’t at all clear where the path went). I’d noticed while driving from Sawrey to Wray recently that an off-road footpath had been created in places on the eastern side, so that was a bonus; it must be quite recent as it wasn’t on Penny’s maps. As we ran along it we found that it’s the Claife Bridleway.

My legs were still suffering so I was hobbling rather than running, and the promising weather had again been deceptive and we were getting wet. The small amount of uphill just past the Brewery and back to the Trout Farm wasn’t easy – although if anything running down the other side on road was worse. We got back to the car park and found that we’d run a mere 5 miles or so: but as much as anything I was just glad I’d done it, and pleased that we’d completed Penny’s challenge.

We had completed the goal of running round all 16 of the Lake District lakes. As we drove towards the Daffodil Hotel at Grasmere for a celebratory glass of prosecco, we discussed which our favourites were: Derwentwater was definitely one of the best ones, partly as we had stunning weather but also because most of the path is close to the Lake and very little is on road. We agreed we also liked Ullswater, although part of the Ullswater Way takes you a long way away from the Lake; and that we’d like to run Windermere again, but this time have a better idea about where the footpaths actually go.

I had also learnt a few things about myself. I am perfectly capable of running 19 miles or so if I’m not racing and don’t feel I have to run every step of the way; I am also quite capable (especially with a sports massage to help) of running a long distance two days on the trot; and I am even capable of running when my legs hurt (albeit slowly – once upon a time if my legs felt the way they did I’d have rested until they felt better). I’ve seen parts of the Lake District I hadn’t seen before: we’re used to climbing hills and seeing the Lakes from the top, but there’s a lot of beauty from staying low as well. And I definitely, definitely, do not want to do any ultras and have no aspirations whatsoever to do the Bob Graham round: a half marathon is about my optimum.

But I love being outside in nature, whatever the weather, and I’m looking forward to retracing my steps on some of these lakeside runs again sometime.