It all started on a dark and stormy night… which isn’t an uncommon thing in England, since there’s only a small number of daylight hours and it’s always raining, at least in the Cumbrian winter. I was living as a volunteer in the Lakes District at the time, and I’d just seen the Rydal Hall rota for the next week, to realize that – starting the next day – I had a three day weekend ahead of me, and no money. Logically, I decided that I would walk north, and see how far I could get.
It wasn’t entirely spontaneous- who wouldn’t be in love with Scotland and take every opportunity to go? Besides which, I had a record to beat. When Bernardo/Jaewoo the South Korean had been at Rydal Hall he’d gone down as a legend in Rydal history for riding to the Cumbrian Coast and back in a day for no reason. So this was a chance to do both, if I could make it the 60 miles to the border.
Early the next morning I started packing, grinning madly. I was less fit and capable then than I am now, which only made the feat seem more impressive. Most of my pack was taken up by spare socks, a rain coat and half a loaf of bread, with my camera swung across my body. I said some brief goodbyes to whomsoever I ran into, in case I never saw them again, including an oddly accepting Jonathon. As our General Manager, he normally worried when Rydal Hallians did crazy things, but he merely waved me off and wished me well. (I discovered later that it’d taken a while for this new feat to actually register with him, but that when he did contemplate the challenge further he put the Mountain Rescue number on top of his desk, and kept it there all weekend.) By then – with a last minute map thrown in for good luck more than practical purpose – I was out the front entrance and on my way.
It occurred to me as I began taking pictures of the flooded Rydal Water that it would have been far faster to walk the Coffin Route to Grasmere instead, but I shrugged off this thought. The flooded paths made interesting enough pictures to justify the extension. The summer of 2008 had been one of the wettest in a long time, which by Lake District standards meant a very considerable amount of rain. Flooding was widespread and common, and everything, everywhere, was permanently damp.
Still, it was a beautiful day. I was heading towards Keswick, which was a 14 mile hike from Grasmere and thus a reasonable day’s stroll. The weather for the weekend was wet, but that was a given, and that morning the sun was almost out (a real treat). The autumn colours, which I’d been so scared that I’d miss while I’d been travelling, were beautiful. Admittedly the bright golds, crimsons and ambers had burnt themselves into more subdued tones, and some trees were already taking on their naked winter limbs, but all in all it was a photographer’s dream.
Unfortunately, while I was taking photos and working out how to word my adventure in my head I was splashing carelessly through puddles, and also getting myself mildly lost. I’d never walked the full way around Rydal Water and Grasmere before, and ended up at Deerbolt’s Wood for no reason, which I had not even realised existed. I overcorrected by walking through a flooded sheep paddock – bemused Herwick sheep grinning at me – and finally found myself at Grasmere an hour later than I should have arrived.
I’d already been aware that there was a long hill between Grasmere and Keswick. In the past when community members Bin and Sara had said that they planned to ride from Rydal to Keswick I’d laughed and noted this never-ending ascent… only to now walk it myself. Still, it ended, and then I had an even bigger problem on my hands. The road that I’d been intending to take – the one that the bus takes to Keswick and thus the only one that I had ever travelled – turned out not to be fit for walkers at all. In fact I probably wouldn’t have survived the walk, since the narrow two lane road was hedged in by thick stone walls, flooded for much of the way, and at this time of day was thick with trucks.
Thus in order to preserve my life I decided to walk around the other side of Thirlmere, which I discovered led to Keswick after asking a very rude English woman at West Head Farm. The walk was nice enough, though the track next to the lake was several feet under the surface and I had to walk along the road. On my way around I took the 250m detour to see the, “Giant Tree”, which was not impressive by any standards. I also ate some Kendal Mint Cake for energy, which led for a short time to a sugar high, inevitably resulting in me reciting poetry, singing patriotic songs and waving sticks around while I walked until the high had worn off.
Still, there was no one else around. I eventually reached the dam wall at the end of the lake, and decided to take the route to Keswick via the local stone circle, Castlerigg. It was several miles longer, but it did take me past a paddock full of flooded sheep and the tiny church of St. John’s in the Vale. By the time I’d reached Castlerigg Stone Circle it was getting dark, so despite finding the famous puddle, (in a photo on the wall of the Rydal Hall Tea Shop), I was unable to get good photos. Still, the druid-looking woman amused me.
Once I was in Keswick I was directed towards the YHA, but this was ₤21 per night. Instead I spent an hour wandering the B&Bs of Keswick, finding that the average price was at least ₤30. I returned to one woman at “Number Ten Southey Street” who seemed particularly nice, and struck a ₤20 agreement without breakfast, which was incredible.
I’d certainly picked the right place. The woman gave me fresh milk for my coffee, pressed on me a collection of snacks and promised to even make me a sandwich of my choice. She even insisted that I could have the breakfast at the price I was already paying, but I assured her that I wanted to be gone early. She finally gave in, but only because I’d told her my intent to walk to Scotland.
I slept VERY well that night.
My day started at 5:45 when the alarm on my phone rudely awakened me. I stumbled around my room stiffly for a while, some of my muscles still aching from the day before, but my coffee and makeshift breakfast soon put me right. My clothes had all dried on the radiator, but I’d forgotten about my boots, and to my horror found that they were still soaked through from the previous day’s puddles. Cursing myself I packed my things, stowed my thick-socked feet into my damp boots and enjoyed how dry they were for a moment and headed downstairs.
As promised my kind hostess had left me a cheese and chutney sandwich, and even a chocolate bar too. Finally, she’d left me her entire fruit bowl, and a kind little note. I left my own note in return, and then I was off.
I had no idea what time the sun would rise, nor exactly how long it would take to walk to Castlerigg Stone Circle, and since I wanted to see the sunrise behind it I’d set off by 6:30. I found myself at the circle only thirty minutes later, but the constant, violent downpour forced me into a paddock of sheep to huddle under the meagre protection offered by a stand of trees. Half an hour later I figuratively cuffed myself for being so foolish – how could there be a sunrise when the sun couldn’t even get through the clouds?
Thus, cursing myself once more, I hopped the paddock fence and started down the road to Penrith. The rain had lightened to a fine drizzle that ran off my raincoat and onto my pants, which were soaking up from the base too since they were over-long for my legs. The motorway between Keswick and Penrith was an awful walk, because there was nothing to see and there were cars everywhere, which left my spirits depleted. (At one point I timed it and realised that a truck covers in 17 seconds the same amount of ground that I walk in 3 and a half minutes.) Furthermore I wasn’t keen on walking the 15 miles east to Penrith, only to have to turn up and walk probably that same distance to north west Carlisle, when all I wanted was to walk north.
Conveniently a place called Scales presented itself, and I knocked on the door of the White Horse Inn. Nobody answered, but in a holiday cottage next to the Inn a kindly elderly couple let me borrow their road map. (The poor husband had been washing his dishes by the window and looked surprised to see a soaked Australia suddenly asking for directions.) I took a photo of the map, but the only alternative path had already presented itself to me in the form of back roads, starting – with amazing luck – exactly where I was standing.
Keswick, Penrith and Carlisle make a sort of triangle of motorways, tilted slightly to the west. I’d decided to head towards Penrith – despite that that way was slightly longer – because I hadn’t wanted to go around Skiddaw, the large mountain squatting just behind and towering over Keswick. I’d hoped that a way up through this triangle would present itself… and luckily it had, else I would have walked about 10 unnecessary miles!
I set off along the path, already feeling better for being away from the motorway. (And also in possession of a map, which was almost as much of a comfort thing as it was a practical one.) The sun also managed to break through the clouds for the first time at about 10am, which was thoroughly uplifting, and following which I decided to eat an early lunch. Eventually I made it to Mungrisdale – which, to my knowledge, no one outside of Mungrisdale knows exists – and began my winding north-ish route through the labyrinth of back roads. It was a long day, broken irregularly by crossing other deserted roads and sometimes a town made up of four or five buildings, and filled in between with endless paddocks of sheep. The rain came on and off, sometimes even screaming out of the sky as hail, but for the most part it was a pleasant walk.
By the time I was at Lamonby my socks were saturated once more, and my make-shift map had run out of the names of these unvisited towns in the middle of nowhere. I asked a man who luckily happened to walk out of a house just ahead of me, but he was only a builder not a local, and like me he’d never heard of the strange places on the road signs. The one place that he did know was on the way back to the motorway… and thus I had no choice but to return.
Serbergham came upon me in its own good time, and I collapsed onto a small bridge next to the road to change my socks. I was exhausted, I knew that there were a limited number of daylight hours left, and I’d eaten through nearly all of my rations just to keep me going. Even so, I ate the last of my Kendal Mint Cake. At first I’d thought it had just taken away my pain and left me with my exhaustion, (which even so was quite an achievement), but some minutes later when I was humming happily to myself I realised that the sugar rush had kicked in too. By this point I’d found a road before the motorway after Serbergham, which I took rather than the motorway, and I’d spotted a wonderful sign that told me it was a mere 9 miles to Carlisle. 9 miles! I’d always known that if I wanted to give up along the way I could, but 9 miles suddenly seemed like such a short distance that I sailed over them.
Or at least I would have liked to. In reality 9 miles is still a distance, especially when one starts walking them at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. By the time I’d reached Dalston it had started to rain again, the sun was setting behind the clouds, and I was exhausted enough to buy a packet of toffee and peanut biscuits from the local Co-Op, to eat huddling under the megre protection in front of a locked shop door.
Then, the last stretch. I put my small bag on the outside of my raincoat because it has reflective patches on it, as I did not have the energy to pull myself over into the grass for each car to go past (there was certainly no footpath on this road). Encroaching darkness faded rapidly into true night, and I lost my way briefly in the border city of Carlisle. Getting stressed with pain and fatigue I still managed to find my way to the train station, where I grabbed a few timetables and asked about places to stay in Carlisle. There was no Youth Hostel so once more I was forced to turn to B&Bs, several streets away.
I promised myself that I’d take whatever was on offer first, no matter the price, but when the first woman with vacancies named her lowest price as £30 I simply could not bring myself to accept. Five B&Bs later I was still stubbornly rejecting everyone, until the 6th said that she had a non-ensuite for £25. Even in my agony I said, “Well, I was really hoping for something more like £20…”, and so she agreed to meet me half way. I grudgingly accepted, and staggered up to my third floor room to have a quick shower and hot chocolate. In order to stop myself getting blisters my final sock change had also included strapping my boots so tightly around my feet that it left me with pressure welts. These were painful to sleep with… but blisters would have been far worse in the morning. I browsed momentarily through the timetables – long enough to see that there were lots between Gretna Green and Carlisle so I needn’t worry – and fell asleep.
I didn’t sleep as well as I would have liked, since each time I turned it hurt and I woke up, but I survived until the morning. If I’d been stiff the previous morning it was nothing in comparison… I was very literally limping as I made my way to the shower. I was honestly worried that I would be physically unable to finish my walk, and decided to wait till after breakfast. The hot food did me well however, and I talked to my land-lady about my walk. When I paid her I only had a £20 and a £5 note plus the 50 pence coin, but instead of giving me change she let me off with paying £20.50.
This helped my enthusiasm, and so I packed up and set off on the last leg of my walk. It took 2 miles or so to simply get out of Carlisle, and then I had to work out how to get to Gretna Green. Luckily a helpful bloke in the Traveller’s Rest Inn beside the road pointed me down a road that runs parallel to the motorway.
It was only 10 miles to Gretna Green, and though I was still sore from the abuse I’d given my body the previous day my socks were dry and my heart was light. I composed new lyrics to “We Are The Champions” in celebration of myself along the way, and took particular pleasure from admiring a beautiful violet in a clump of clovers. Despite hundreds of cars passing by the place each day I was probably the only person in existence ever to have seen it.
Eventually I reached the bridge, which had road works running along its length for about a mile. I’d been warned of it by some friendly workmen further back, who’d given me the best of luck for being allowed to cross it, for the detour was miles around, and the alternative was to swim.
So with much anticipation and trepidation did I begin walking through the road works. I’d made it most of the way across before I was stopped, and I could almost feel my heart slow as the worker came towards me. “I’m so close!” I wanted to scream. “Please don’t make me turn around when I have a mere mile – of 60 miles! – left to walk!”. But I kept my mouth shut.
Thankfully the worker instead offered me a chauffeur across the rest of the site, in the form of the huge truck that he pulled over. I had to haul myself into the cabin, and was only driven a half mile before he pulled over and let me out. And then, after perhaps 500 metres, I found the most beautiful sigh I have ever laid eyes upon.
“Scotland Welcomes You.”
I ran up to the sign, (yes, it hurt), and hugged it. I kissed the ground of Scotland. And then I marched triumphantly into Scotland, singing my version of, “We Are The Champions” so that anyone within 100 metres (which, thankfully, there wasn’t) could have heard me.
Gretna Green is the closest town on the Scottish side to the English border, and as such when the English and Scottish marriage laws were different this was a popular place for English elopers to run off to. But for me it was the just a relief, and the thrill of satisfaction for having done something so random for so little reason.
I celebrated my success in the most appropriate of ways – with the eating of haggis and the drinking of whisky, while I contemplated how little pain mattered when I’d achieved so much. I then caught several trains back, and in my final victory managed to only spend £9 on tickets.
Meaning that a 3 day weekend, encompassing 60 miles and two nations, cost me less than £60.