To Borrowdale

Breakfast is served at 7am, a rare treat offered without any pleading. George said he’d call us at 5am if we wanted – we declined – but shortly after that hour a robin pecked peremptorily at the glazed outer door of our converted cowshed, as if placing an order for the crumbs from our table.

Bt 7.30am I’m walking beside the road, cold hands gripping the trekking poles, bare knees yearning for the return of yesterday’s sun. Overnight cloud lingers on the summits. Commuters race towards Sellafield, but Ennerdale Bridge is quiet, and there I break away from Wainwright’s route, taking the lane to Howside and Whins.

‘Break away?’ cry the great man’s faithful acolytes.
‘Why so surprised? Wainwright described a Coast to Coast Walk, not the Coast to Coast Walk. He did his route; I’m doing variations on it.’
‘So what made you choose any of his route at all?’
‘Because I’m walking solo, and the route is popular. The best thing about the Long Distance Paths is the camaraderie. But the clinching feature is that it ends at Robin Hood’s Bay. I spent all my childhood holidays there. If it ended anywhere else, I don’t think I’d bother with it at all.’

Having previously walked beside Ennerdale Water, I decided when planning this walk that if conditions were favourable I’d try my luck on Great Borne and Starling Dodd en route to Red Pike. Views from a ridge beat those in a valley, and this morning’s weather gives me no excuses for ducking the option. The decision commits me to a hard day early in a long walk, and only the knowledge that tomorrow’s hike to Grasmere is a doddle reassures me that I’m not making a reckless choice.

The bridleway to Buttermere starts at Whins, where the winter rains – some five inches fell at Shap in one day –ripped down the hillside and piled tonnes of unsorted boulders and gravel into banks of debris. By contrast, my path today is unseasonably dry.

It’s an easy route, useful in foul weather for anyone worried about the higher and more exposed trek via Loft Beck. Once at Buttermere, road options are available. All that may seem awfully negative, but a lot of people struggle as soon as they hit the Lake District. Travel in the hills demands wise judgment rather than rigid adherence to plans dreamed up in a warm sitting-room.

At the hause above Floutern Tarn the wind blows cold, but the cloud has lifted from Great Borne. My chosen way follows a fence across the red-brown grass of a marshy flat. The climb of the shadowed face proves seriously steep and trackless, a hard slog up an unstable surface. The wind chill is astonishing, and despite the exertion I need a coat on top of fleece and base layer, but as soon as the gradient eases the icy blast is gone. I then find myself wandering in one of those delightful Lake District retreats where the landscape is infinitely knobbly, a rugged patchwork of minor rock faces, peaty hollows, grassy hummocks, small banks of heather and random patches of bare and stony ground, all crossed by the sandy beds of ephemeral rills. Finding a way through a rarely frequented and localised natural garden on no path at all is one of the great pleasures of hill walking.

Suddenly the view opens up. The summit of Great Borne is on my right. A broad watershed extends ahead to Starling Dodd and Red Pike. The Pillar range scowls in shadow, whilst Grasmoor and its satellites enjoy a hint of sun. The climb has been worthwhile: the sight of these familiar mountains early on a bright day warms the heart, and I stride out happily on the soft surface of a welcome downslope.

Optimism is soon diluted. Second-day-blues invade my legs, and the final pull up to Red Pike is hard work indeed. I stop for a snack at the summit, but a light rain threatens to spoil the fun. A large group from Buttermere struggles over the brow with grunts of relief, so it’s time to escape across the uneven ground to High Stile, staying by the cliff to snatch the best glimpses of the Buttermere valley through fickle veils of drifting cloud.

The rain desists while I’m skirting the crags of Burtness Combe, pausing to gaze into the void. The loop out to High Crag and round to Gamlin End shows the Lake District at its best. I’ve never climbed here from Scarth Gap, because it looks so horribly loose, but now there’s some stone pitching, and those grinding their steep way uphill seem remarkably cheery. I take my hat off to them!

A sneaky breeze niggles where crowds pass through the busy crossroads of Scarth Gap. It’s time for a snack while watching people struggle down the rocks of Haystacks. How many of them are visiting in homage to Wainwright’s memory?

Wainwright was no JFK, but I remember what I was doing when I heard of his death: I was driving up Borrowdale. Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme announced that he’d died the previous day.

What a foul one that had been! I’d walked round Melbreak in howling wind and pouring rain – it was too wild for the tops - but the tumult that coincided with his passing gave way to a calm, clear and frosty morning. I climbed snow-capped Scafell Pike by the Corridor route. All around me, the mountain tops were bathed in January sunlight. As I returned over Broad Crag the mist was rising from Eskdale, and I was treated to the sight of a Brocken spectre. The old codger himself would have cherished such a day.

There’s no shortage of old codgers on Haystacks now. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many of them at such a distance from a Lake District car park. I hope they all get back safely on their stony route, which many of them are tackling in an exceedingly circumspect manner.

By now I’m feeling slightly challenged too, needing frequent stops but making a virtue out of necessity by taking in the superb views down the valleys of Black Beck and Warnscale Beck. Wearily I trek to Dubs Quarry and pick up the track of the disused tramway. From there it’s an easy finish over the moor to Honister Hause and down the line of the old road to Seatoller, where the siren call of the Yew Tree seduces me for tea and cake, served by a very personable Polish waitress.

I’m not a mile from my lodgings now, so I head east for a bath and a change of clothes. About an hour after me, Terry and Pauline arrive from Ennerdale Bridge. She goes to soak her aches away in the bathroom while we chew the fat. They’ve found it hard going, but after a few words about the advantage of baggage transfer he’s on the phone, arranging a lightening of their load for the next twelve days.

The Yew Tree draws me back for dinner and opportunities for greater international understanding. This has little to do with the waitress, nice though she is, but much to do with the menu. Tonight it features South African specialities, a rarity in England and a far cry from the ubiquitous pie-&-chips that I feared I’d eat in pubs all the way across the land. A good day under my belt, a couple of pints of real ale, a filling but otherwise undistinguished dinner, and a cold walk back beneath the stars: I’ll settle for that.

                                                                                                                                                                           To Grasmere >>