Archive feature: Cumbrian Wheel

Cumbrian Wheel

Bob Elliott describes how he and wife Dot battled the floods of summer 2012 to circumnavigate the Lake District on foot.


Archive: November/December 2013

The exterior of The Thornhill Arms, located in Yorkshire's Calverley

Bob pauses with the Coniston range behind him, seen from above High Dam

The Lake District is like a giant wheel, its longer lakes forming the spokes from the hub of the Langdale Pikes. I have spent many a happy hour studying maps of the Lake District, constructing imaginary fell walks for future use; on one such occasion the notion of walking the 140 miles around the “wheel”, keeping outside all 17 accredited lakes, came to mind.

My wife Dot and I planned to start from Bowness, getting around Windermere by walking first up to Post Knott and following the ridge down to Lakeside, via Gummers How and Newby Bridge. We’d then head for Torver to pass the end of Coniston Water. The route unfolded logically from there, passing Wast Water and Ennerdale Water and then the watery spine of Loweswater, Crummock Water and Buttermere. We’d round the top of Bassenthwaite, passing Derwent Water without needing to go too near Thirlmere, then on to Ullswater and finally Haweswater. The central lakes would not be seen but would have been rounded.

We estimated that our Cumbrian Lake Circuit (CLC) would take 11 to 12 days. Most of the walking would be on paths new to us, offering opportunities to see virtually all the major fells from unfamiliar angles. Dot suggested that, at our age, we should do it that summer, rather than wait…

Logistics had to be considered. Camping was out – too much extra gear to carry – so I set about booking B&Bs. We then looked at our equipment and, with the help of our local fell walking shop, Stuart’s Sports in Bowness, and Rohan in Keswick, we acquired the kit we needed for all weathers.

We would have to average 12.5 miles a day with full packs and climb above 2000ft on at least three days, so we set about training. We were seriously held back by the inclement spring weather, on top of leg injuries we had each picked up. Nevertheless, come July 4, we were ready.  

Coniston Old Man from the Walna Scar track

We set out from our house on Brantfell Road in pouring rain, ground conditions as sodden as I can ever remember. The depth and speed of the water in the streams made us wary of river crossings over which there were no footbridges. We nearly came to grief at the stepping-stones over the River Duddon to Grassguards, leading to the pass between Harter Fell and the Ulpha Fells. Dot attempted
the crossing first, clinging to a less-than-taut wire but, with water racing around and over many of the stones, she edged her way back rather than being swept into the torrent. It entailed a detour of about four miles up the valley to the footbridge to Birks, then through the forests back to Grassguards to set out on the saturated watershed slog through to Eskdale. A beautiful fox seen on the detour was scant compensation for the additional time expended.

On our first day we realised that our lack of training was a problem. We jettisoned a carrier bag of kit at the first B&B. On the second day, my rucksack leant to the left, causing discomfort, and the five road miles to Torver from Low Nibthwaite almost proved too much. Dot helped by carrying both packs for most of the last mile. That evening we decided to have a taxi take my pack, and a bag of superfluous items from Dot’s, to our next stop at Boot, in Eskdale. That turned out to be a lifesaver, albeit an expensive one.

It was here that we decided to manage on what we stood up in, a change for evenings and a few essentials. We ditched two more bags of kit, adjusted the height of my pack and that solved our problems for the easier day through the Mitredale Forest and over Irton Fell to Wasdale Hall. We arrived well before the YHA’s 5pm entry time, so we bathed our feet in the lake, taking in the view to the forbidding Wasdale Screes.

The big day along Greenburn Beck and over Haycock into Ennerdale was to follow but, despite an early start, progress through the fell mist was so slow that by 6.30pm we had only reached the Shepherd’s Arms in Ennerdale Bridge. Exhausted, Dot enquired about buses to Cockermouth the following day but was advised that there was “only one a day, sometimes less”. The bus stop timetable displayed the full story: “Wednesdays only”. It was Monday! The signpost in Ennerdale Bridge said “Cockermouth 10¾”, so we decided to walk along the road and make an early day of
it. As we went, we composed a shopping list: “Nurofen, plasters and boot insoles”.

Dot points out Illgill Screes, at Wast Water

The Croft Guest House at Cockermouth turned out to be the circuit’s star B&B, though all were very good. We were advised to eat at a pub called The Bitter End, which seemed to sum up our mood.

We set out on the seventh day refreshed and re-plastered, scheduled to follow the Allerdale Ramble (marked by a significant green line of intermittent diamonds on the OS map) around the head of Bassenthwaite. The turning off the road out of Cockermouth, just out of the town, merely said “Isel Bridge”. Having seen that this was on our route, we took it.

There cannot have been many walkers on the Ramble recently: the track was indistinct and, if it had not been for a stile or gate in the corner of each field, we would not have found our way. We strayed on to Watch Hill, missed the path and abandoned our efforts to rejoin the Ramble in Setmurthy Plantation. We found our way back to the road we had recently left and followed its dead straight, traffic-free course all the way to the head of Bassenthwaite.

There, we stupidly rejoined the Allerdale Ramble as it crossed back to the lake from the Armathwaite Hall Hotel, to travel along the shore side to Scarness. That was a disaster, with
fallen trees and every other imaginable obstacle in our path: an indistinct swamp of a path over countless stiles and bogs. Finally, a herd of threatening bullocks blocked the route, compounding our miseries. Fortunately Dot had the red rucksack and anorak, so I felt safe as we sidled past!

The forecast of low cloud and rain showers for the eighth day put us off climbing on to Ullock Pike and along the Long Side ridge to Carl Side. Instead, we followed the Keswick road and sought out the osprey viewing points on Dodd Fell. Both adult birds could be seen, sitting quietly on the tree by their huge nest, while the nearly mature chick showed itself from time to time. A rewarding detour indeed.

Dot on Long Stile, with Haweswater behind

An attempt to use the descent from Carl Side via Dodd Fell – again, shown on the map as the Allerdale Ramble – was abandoned for lack of any seemingly viable route across the fell side and over the intervening gorge. We returned to the osprey viewing point and followed the road to Keswick, renaming the aborted route “The Allerdale Shambles”!

In Keswick, friends swapped our dirty washing for clean clothes. They also, along with Dot’s sister and her husband, who had travelled from Cambridge to support us, Sherpa’ed our excess baggage between B&Bs, enabling us to tackle the three days between Ravenstone Manor, by Bassenthwaite, to the Haweswater Hotel with just one pack, leaving us in much higher spirits.

During a rest day at Haweswater Hotel, watching the red squirrels they encourage to the lawns there, we reconnoitred our final day’s route over High Street. We hoped to do the entire 18 miles to Bowness so we left surplus luggage at the hotel and shared a rucksack containing only waterproofs, pack-up and water.

The 3.5-mile walk to The Rigg put us at the foot of Long Stile and by 12.30pm we had scaled the long ridge to the scree path leading to High Street’s summit. We didn’t see the golden eagle reputed to live around Riggindale but from the top we could recognise all the famous Lakeland fells. After
lunch, we made our way to Thornthwaite Crag, from which we gained a fine view of Windermere. We can see Thornthwaite Crag’s towering summit cairn from our bedroom window in Bowness and had chosen to do our circuit clockwise to give us the incentive of seeing our final destination, even though we would still be 12 miles away. It served its purpose: once Dot could clearly see Belle Isle
on Windermere there was no way she was not going to finish the walk that day!

The descent, by the path to the Froswick and Ill Bell ridge, was so stony and the northwesterly wind so bitingly cold that we opted to descend into the Troutbeck valley. We skirted past Troutbeck Tongue and walked home along roads, with a pit stop at the Queen’s Head, the first daytime pub break we had had during the entire walk.

We reached home at 5.35pm on July 15, having covered 150 miles during 12 days and having each lost half a stone. We had enjoyed seeing hills from different angles and most of the big lakes from unfamiliar tracks. Much of the route had been away from regular itineraries – perhaps that’s why we met only five fellow off-road walkers during the first five days (that’s not counting the 150 orienteers
swarming over the Wasdale fells on days four and five) – and it was only when we reached High Street’s summit, on a rain-free Sunday, that we encountered other hikers in numbers.

Haycock (2619ft), High Street (2803ft) and Thornthwaite Crag (2569ft) were climbed and many more Wainwrights could have been bagged if the ground had not been so wet underfoot and we had been a bit fitter. Country lanes were fine but, on main roads, constantly having to jump into verges was no fun.

We have not heard of anyone doing such a circuit of the Lake District before. We wonder whether ours might be the first?


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