Today’s section was, said Tom “the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done”. Coming from someone who hiked above 5,000 meters in the Himalayas a couple of years ago, that is quite a testament to the challenges of the Lake District.
At least we had vast Full English breakfasts to see us on our way. It was the first of three meals Tom had today, built around the Cumberland Sausage. I think we were the last walkers out of the Shepherd’s Arms Hotel. I asked the Manager how the season was looking. “Pretty quiet” he said. “Ennerdale is too hard to get to for most tourists, so we really only get walkers passing through and bookings are down because of Covid. But next year’s looking better”. He said they would be quiet through the summer until an older crowd of walkers started coming through in September, after the school holidays. It has been very quiet so far, given that this is supposed to be one of the most popular walking routes in Europe. We barely saw anyone yesterday.
We left Ennerdale on a narrow road with no traffic. Either side of us were woods and fields. A red squirrel hopped into the road and darted back to safety. He was a wispy little thing, no match for the Greys which have gradually driven them out almost everywhere in the UK. When we reached Ennerdale Water (a small lake which provides water for surrounding villages) it felt like this walk had really begun. On the far side, a tractor rumbled in the fields but at the head of the lake, mountains loomed either side of the valley, beckoning us in. It was an easy walk in sunshine, the air completely still.
Beyond the head of the lake, we had a choice. Low Trail, or High Trail, which would take us along the ridge towering over us. We cut left through a gate and up into a steep field scruffy with bracken. And up, and up. We passed through the moraine left by the glacier which carved this valley – sharp lumps of broken rock turning into scree. Wooly brown sheep watched us go. In no time we could see the whole length of the lake we’d walked along.
We were getting ever closer to the summit of Red Pike. It’s only 755M but starting from sea level, it’s a good climb. A handful of people on the top shared the view over the surrounding valleys with round green mountains rolling off into the distance. The clouds were thinning out and it felt so good to be up high again.
What we hadn’t fully appreciated though was that this wasn’t the end of the hard climb, but the beginning. It was now early afternoon and we were less than halfway to Rosthwaite with three more summits to reach.
Next along the ridge was High Stile, at 807m, the highest point in the Coast to Coast. Cloud was now piling up on one side of the narrow ridge, with wisps spilling over and dissolving in the sunshine, like dry ice. As we scrambled over jagged rocks to the summit, a man with an eager spaniel was coming down. “He’s dragged us up and now he’s dragging us down”. He said. Perhaps we could borrow him? “Yours for a fiver” he laughed.
Looking down from High Stile, the path fell away to near vertical proportions and ahead were two more mountains that we had to climb up and then down before heading into the valley again. It seemed impossibly ambitious at that stage of the afternoon but the views were glorious.
The vertiginous path down abused our knees and toes and it was almost a relief to be climbing again. A brief pause at the top of High Crag and down to the last of this chain – Haystacks. And it turned out that Haystacks was fun. The path vanished into a wall of rocks several times forcing us to do some actual climbing.
Easy and safe though it was it made it feel more of an accomplishment and at the top an inky black tarn sat in the rocks like a scale model of the lake we’d walked around at the start of the day.
But it was now after 5pm and we still had to climb down and then walk at least 10k to Rosthwaite .
Thankfully it turned into a gorgeous sunlit evening as we walked through the old slate quarries. Here, says our book, slate miners lived during the week and sent messages to their families via carrier pigeon. The path follows the route of the old tramway. We were driven on by the thought that our hotel kitchen might well close if we got there too late, so it was a route march into the Borrowdale valley with the sun warming our backs.
It is an idyllic place. A busy river gushes through rocks and ferns and old woodland rises either side of it. Clumps of stone houses some whitewashed, some dark slate, soaked up the late sunshine. We marched on through the woods and by a river with a chain set into a rocky ledge to grab hold of.
We emerged from the woods, through fields and onto a narrow lane threading through a handful of ancient houses. Rosthwaite.
We’d been on the go for ten and a half hours, walking about 26km or 40,000 steps according to my phone. Overall we’d climbed more than 1,200m and descended about the same amount. A good point for a day off I think.