Rosthwaite to Sycamore Gap

June 2009

This trip didn’t start out quite as planned. There was no accommodation available in Rosthwaite, so we booked two nights at the Keswick youth hostel instead. The first day we would back-track to Rothswaite. The second day we would continue our journey northwards.

I met Rosalind at Birmingham and despite two platform changes we caught our connection to Penrith. We took the bus to Keswick and after buying some supplies found our way to the hostel, which is in a prime position overlooking the River Greta and Fitz Park, with the little and large mountains of Latrigg and Skiddaw forming the backdrop.

Thinking we had the four-bedded bunk room to ourselves, we were surprised when two more bodies crowded in. They were on the cyclists’ coast to coast route. One was a very large woman who had a power-assisted bike. “Without the power-assistance, the bike would stay in the shed”.

After our meal we planned our route for the following day, over the tops rather than in the valley, then had an early night, oblivious to the comings and goings of the other occupants of our room.

I woke up early with a headache, but it soon cleared. There was a wide choice of food at the self-service bar and we each sneaked out a rasher of bacon and a slice of bread which would do very nicely for lunch.

The sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky as we climbed onto the ridge path along the top of Walla Crag (1,234ft) above Derwentwater. From here the ferry looked like a water boatman skimming across the surface of the lake to the opposite shore. Some of the passengers would be heading for Cat Bells, a very popular mountain in miniature in a prominent position overlooking the lake.

A rather mundane permissive path through agricultural land brought us out onto the road above Ashness Bridge, possibly the most photographed packhorse bridge in all of England. Further up the road we reached the car park for the ‘Surprise View’ from where the path meanders through the woods, suddenly emerging at the top of a sheer cliff with panoramic views across Derwentwater to the fells beyond. Great care is needed here in wet weather.

As we forsook the road for a track alongside Watendlath Beck, a bird-watcher was making ‘cuckoo’ calls, so realistically that a cuckoo responded and flew over to investigate. It was an unkind trick perhaps, but not as cruel as laying eggs in another bird’s nest.

The walk through the buttercups meadows beside the beck was very pleasant. On family holidays when the children were small they used to race the golden-cupped flowers down the fast-flowing water, which eventually would plummet 100ft over the Lodore Falls into the Borrowdale Valley.

The elevated little hamlet of Watendlath and the tarn of the same name nestle among the fells between the Borrowdale and Thirlmere valleys, attracting visitors from all over the world. The farmhouse was the fictional home of Judith Paris in Hugh Walpole’s ‘Herries Chronicle’ saga. Now it is offering refreshment to tourists and thirsty walkers like us. We ordered a large pot of tea and bought some flapjack for the next day.

Newly invigorated, we followed a steeply descending path through trees, lined with ferns and foxgloves. It emerged on the road a little short of Rothswaite in the Borrowdale valley, but it didn’t take us long to reach the village. It was still early, so we strolled back as far as Grange along the River Derwent on the official Cumbria Way, a delightful saunter. From there we caught the open-topped bus back to Keswick. Our elevated position on the top deck afforded us a splendid view across the lake with Skiddaw dominating the skyline, but we were showered with leaves and small twigs as the bus scraped past the trees.

Back at Keswick we bought fish and chips and ate them in the gardens overlooking the lake, the surrounding mountains magnificent in the evening sunshine. It was hard to believe that it was going to rain the next day. Obviously even Roswenda couldn’t keep the rain at bay indefinitely in Borrowdale.

As promised, we woke up to pouring rain, so we were in no hurry to leave in the morning. There was a school party staying at the hostel and at breakfast I asked the two boys sitting next to us where they had gone yesterday. They said they’d climbed a big mountain and that it had taken seven hours. I thought they’d climbed Skiddaw, but it later emerged that the ‘big mountain’ was Walla Crag, which we had traversed yesterday.

It was only five miles to Skiddaw House where we were staying that night, but we hoped to climb Skiddaw, at 3,054ft the 4th highest mountain in England. From the summit we were then going to drop down to the hostel from the tourist track, across Scale How.

As we had plenty of time we had a look around the pencil museum before setting off. The very rare solid graphite used in pencils was discovered at Seathwaite in 1555 and was later mined to supply this factory in Keswick, which still has a world-wide market for its pencils. The mine became unviable and closed in 1891. Today the factory relies on reconstituted graphite imported from Asia.

It was raining harder than ever as we went up the path behind Latrigg and started to climb Skiddaw as planned (A teacher at the hostel had said ‘go for it’). We plodded on, but at the top of the steep bit at about 2,000ft we were in hill fog and it was just horrible, so down we came again.

Back on the Cumbria Way we managed to find a dry spot under some conifers to eat our stolen bacon sandwich and sticky flapjack. Some mosquitoes were also sheltering from the rain and of course I got bitten.

As we continued along the traverse towards Skiddaw House Rosalind was hallucinating about a hot cup of tea and a welcoming fire, and lo, it came to pass. We had a very friendly welcome from Mike and Trisha Anne, the kettle was simmering on the wood stove, and we were soon clutching a mug of the warming brew in our hands.

NONE of our waterproof gear had worked and we were soaked to the skin. No, we hadn’t re-proofed jackets or trousers for ages but there was no excuse for the gloves and socks. We retrieved soggy tissues from pockets and spread out soggy maps to dry. Everything else we draped around the stove. Being so used to having good weather had made us a little careless.

At last the rain cleared and it was a fine evening. A young vet, who arrived later having walked from Stonethwaite, was comparatively dry.

In 2015, while holidaying with the family near Latrigg, I climbed Skiddaw with my son, Mike. From the summit we went down to Skiddaw House on a well-defined track and returned to Latrigg on the Cumbria Way. It was delightful; a meandering terrace path well above the valley with spectacular views across to Blencathra and the surrounding countryside. Rosalind and I had seen nothing of this in the pouring rain which was a great shame.

Skiddaw House was once two cottages, situated in splendid isolation at 1,550ft, three miles from the nearest road. Wood from a nearby copse kept the stove going and there was calor gas for cooking. Warm water had to be carried from the scullery to the washroom.

We prepared our concoction of pasta salad and cheese, followed by rice pudding with banana, while our vet friend had fried steak and new potatoes washed down with beer. The smell of the steak as it cooked was mouth-watering and we wished we’d made a little more effort. An evening of lively conversation followed before we retired to bed with hot water bottles!

We awoke to a much better day and our clothes were dry. Our breakfast ‘tray’ had plenty of variety and there was enough to make a packed lunch.

The vet strode off early and we followed at a more leisurely pace, taking our rubbish with us as there were no facilities for its disposal. From the end of the lonely valley we looked back at our shelter for the night, now a small dot on the hillside.

When our track reached the road, we turned off up the mountainside, passing some old mines. A party of youngsters arrived to study any minerals they found. In the past mining in the Caldbeck Fells had provided rich pickings. Over twenty different ores were available here including silver, copper, lead and zinc. Peak production occurred during the Industrial Revolution when copper and lead were in high demand.

It was very steep up to the col beside the beck, pathless and boggy in places. At one point we had to cross to the other side of the fast- flowing water, tricky after the previous day’s torrential rain.

The blob on the skyline that we’d seen from the valley turned out to be a bothy with a sleeping platform. Candles and matches were provided and there was a water tap outside. In bad weather it would be a welcome refuge. We wrote in the log book ‘Land’s End to John O’Groats the Pretty Way’ and signed our names before we left.

It was an easy amble along the ridge over Great Lingy Hill to the summit of High Pike, just over 2,000ft high.

Sir Chris Bonnington, the distinguished mountaineer, lives at Caldbeck. One of his favourite relaxations is to climb the fell behind his cottage, where a slate seat overlooks the valley.

Among Sir Chris’ many achievements are the first ascent of the south face of Annapurna and the first British ascent of the terrifying North Wall of the Eiger. He was also the expedition leader of the first successful attempt on the south west face of Everest in 1975. Subsequently he reached the summit himself.

Our first attempt at the descent of the northern slopes of High Pike was not so successful. We missed our way and had a period of indecision before finally reaching the valley.

Caldbeck is a pretty village with a duck pond and many old building dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Mary Robinson, a shepherdess who was the real ‘Maid of Buttermere’ depicted in Melvyn Bragg’s historical novel, is buried in St Kernigan’s churchyard. John Peel, who was a local huntsman, is also buried there.

The path beside the River Caldbeck was slippery with mud. After it joined the River Caldew we missed our way again and had to climb steeply up from the river bank to get back on track. Our destination was Brow Top, from where we were getting a lift to Rose Castle Farm. As there was no mobile phone reception we knocked on a cottage door and asked to use the land-line. Our hostess, Helen, duly arrived with her two children in the back of the car and took us to the farm, which was inside the grounds of Rose Castle. After lovely hot baths Helen took us to the pub at Bridge End where we enjoyed our meal with a glass of wine.

Next morning, after a gourmet breakfast, we did the school run with the children, then Helen dropped us off at Brow Top. It soon started to rain quite hard and the long grass in the water meadows cleaned the mud off our trousers. However, the rain lasted less than an hour and by the time we passed Rose Castle we were dry.

Rose Castle had been the residence of the bishops of Carlisle for 800 years, and witnessed much conflict as the land constantly changed allegiance between England and Scotland. Later this year the building became vacant, the church commissioners wanting to sell it for development. This was met with outrage from locals and historians alike, forcing the church to back down. The Rose Castle Foundation was formed and in 2014 the building became an international centre for reconciliation.

We followed the River Caldew most of the way to Carlisle where the Cumbria Way meets Hadrian’s Wall. As we neared the city, extensive work was being done to strengthen the flood barriers. In 2005 there had been a devastating flood when the Rivers Eden, Caldew and Petteril all burst their banks. Three people died, 2,700 homes were flooded, and the local football team was re-located to Morecambe.

The outgoing bishop of Carlisle said it was God’s retribution on a sinful world. Others blamed climate change.

Finding our way through the busy city was not easy but we eventually reached the castle and then the Hadrian’s Wall path. This had also been diverted, but luckily at the barrier a walker coming the other way showed us a way through.

Having established our route for the following day, we went to the station where Helen eventually picked us up. She had a very busy schedule. On the way back to Rose Castle Farm she told us she had been a nanny at Rose Castle and had fallen in love with the farmer’s son. They were married at the castle.

Helen was in the yard outside at crack of dawn pushing a wheelbarrow through the mud in her wellies. She changed into respectable clothes to serve us another excellent breakfast. With precise timing she then drove us to Carlisle and set us down right on our path before returning to the farm to serve her 9.30 am breakfasts. A farmer’s wife has a busy life.

Initially, we followed the River Eden through water meadows then passed through farmland. Several of the farms provided ‘help yourself’ refreshments with honesty boxes, and in two fields portable loos had been provided. An old lady (much older than us!) was coming the other way, gamely plodding along and being encouraged by her daughter. There’s hope for us in the years to come.

We dodged a heavy shower by sheltering under a tree. There was quite a strong side wind and the weather ahead looked very stormy, but luckily it passed over.

Arriving early at the imposing residence where we were to spend the night, we found it deserted. A neighbour said the family was at a wedding and she wasn’t sure they were taking bookings. Had there been a mix-up? We hoped not, and went on to the village of Walton, which was also deserted. There was more heavy rain, forcing us to take refuge in a bus shelter, but seeing that we were disturbing nesting swallows, we moved to the church. Rosalind had a nap in one of the pews and I wrote my diary.

When we returned to the house the son was back from working on the farm and gave us a welcome mug of tea. He booked a meal at the village pub for us, but with rather bad grace. There seemed to be some friction there. The house was part Georgian, part Victorian, full of family heirlooms and with sweeping views across the low-lying land to the Pennine Hills. A footpath through the grounds led down to the village and pub where I had a yummy lamb shank and shared a bread and butter pudding with Rosalind (two spoons, please).

Back at the house our hosts had returned from the wedding and we had a cup of coffee with them, the dogs play-fighting on the floor. We heard all about the feud with the pub. The new proprietor had gone up-market, banishing the pool table and darts board, concentrating on good food, much to the dismay of the village community. Our hosts had joined the villagers in an all-out war against the pub. It was probably a losing battle.

We escaped at last and retired to our room. From our beds we watched the swifts darting to and fro in their quest for juicy insects.

Next morning, we were in no hurry to depart as we had a short day. After a leisurely breakfast and much time-wasting, it was nearly ten o’clock before we left.

On this section of the walk there was more evidence of the Wall and the remains of milecastles and turrets. Hadrian’s Wall, which stretches across the breadth of the country, was built by the Romans as a defensive fortification against the ‘Barbarians’. Today it is a very popular tourist attraction.

Refreshments and a picnic area had been provided at a farm where friendly dogs were patiently waiting on the off chance of getting some food. They looked as though they often succeeded.

We went down the long hill to visit 12th century Lanercost Priory, a target for Scottish attacks after English raids. The local ice-creams we bought were disappointing and as we trudged back up the hill in the heat we wondered if the detour had been worth it.

Coming down into Gisland I realised I didn’t know where the B&B was. A man working in his garden called his wife who directed us – up the hill the way we’d come and about half a mile further on. Back we went.

At the pub (down the hill and up the other side) we had rabbit pie for supper. It didn’t taste of anything much. I wonder how the Romans would have prepared it.

The swifts were in action once more when we returned to the house (down to the valley and up the hill). Constantly flitting backwards and forwards they never seem to run out of energy.

In the morning we decided to catch the bus to Housesteads and walk the twelve miles back. Although this would mean a late start it would avoid the uncertainty of being in the right place at the right time to catch the bus. They ran at infrequent intervals.

At breakfast our rather scatty landlady gave us ‘the special table with the view’ which was a great honour. We killed time until 10am when we waved down the bus outside the house and had a rickety, scenic journey to Housesteads, our furthest destination on this section of the walk, arriving about 11am.

Formerly known as Vercovicium, this Roman fort was probably built because of its strategic position at a gap in the ridge. There was no local source of water, and large stone-lined tanks had been installed to collect the rain which would have been used in the bath-house and latrines as well as for food preparation and drinking.

It was already mid-morning and the fort was swarming with people, but we soon escaped the hordes, following the rugged path along the Wall on the escarpment. There were lots of ups and downs and initially we made slow progress, but soon got going. There were great views on this section in all directions.

We found a sheltered spot out of the wind on the slopes of Steel Rigg to have our lunch before climbing to the highest point on Green Slack. From here the views were even more extensive.

After Green Slack the peaks and troughs along the ridge became less pronounced and we knocked off the miles at a brisk pace, soon coming to Carvoran Magnis, the next fort.

We had cup of coffee in the visitor’s centre then went to have a look at the ruins of Thirlwall Castle. Originally build in the 12th century it was further fortified by John Thirlwall around 1330 using stone from the Wall which was in a state of disrepair.

Further on, BIG DADDY was contentedly cropping the grass in the outer ditch of the vallum. I tip-toed past as quietly as possible but Rosalind was so engrossed in her thoughts that she didn’t even notice him.

As we approached Gisland we met two tired walkers who were having trouble climbing a wall ladder. We were also quite weary. It was 6.45pm as we came down the final hill to the pub where we ordered soup and a roll followed by apple crumble. Some of the locals were playing darts to an extremely high standard. Two more walkers hobbled in with swollen feet carrying large packs, having covered 17 miles. What we do for pleasure.

For the last time we climbed the hill to the B&B and had a welcome hot shower before bed, with the swifts again showing off their flying skills outside the window of our room.

Someone else had been allocated the ‘special’ table at breakfast next morning. We shared a table with a Roman historian and two Belgian tourists. Most of the breakfast orders were wrong but Rosalind’s boiled egg was timed to perfection, so we had no complaints. The husband served us, and he was just as dippy as his wife. They had an excuse though as they had to look after their four-month-old grandchild while their single-parent teenage daughter was taking her exams.

Holiday over, we returned to Carlisle on the Hadrian’s Wall bus. We sat in the sun in the garden outside the station until it was time to catch the train home.

A year later we were back again, ready to head north on our old friend, The Pennine Way from Sycamore Gap.