Tag Archives: walking

The back door to the Lakes

Distant Wasdale

The best way to reach the lakes? The snaking, traffic-trodden M6? Crammed up against a beer-bellied chap with a large bag on a west coast mainline train to Oxenholme or Penrith, then begging a lift? How about none of the above?

Lost in the world of modern railways is the Cumbria Coast Line, a two-coach throwback to another era, complete with request stops, signal-box attendants who double as gate-keepers for level crossings and an abundance of wonderful scenery. You’re probably not surprised by the looming, brooding fells – though Cumbrians are a no-nonsense bunch and you won’t see poets scribbling lines in awe of the hills on board – but the delicate wetlands, estuaries and tidal flats of the coast are less celebrated. Yet this is a journey to savour.

In fact, the Cumbria Coast line may save you time too. The south-western fells around Wasdale are notoriously time-consuming to get to from the motorway. If Langdale and Borrowdale are an hour from the big roads, Wasdale can be close to double that. Ravenglass, Drigg and Seascale are all ten miles or so from the western tip of Wasdale, and can be reached from London, with kind connections, in four and a half hours.

The lakes unfold slowly and deliberately. Just north of Lancaster station, where you’ll leave the main line unless bound to do so at Preston by a service running fewer options, you’ll get your first view if the mountains glowering at Morecambe Bay. Though this is the best known of the tidal flats n the Lancashire and Cumbria coasts it is by no means the only one. Carnforth, famous as the setting for Brief Encounter, is next, with rusting boilers from steam engines sitting alongside mighty diesels at Steamtown, an open-air museum dedicated to locos from the past. At Barrow-in-Furness, where the Royal Navy’s submarines are built you change from the zippy sprinters services to the Cumbria  Coast line proper.

There’s more for rail-buffs of all ages at Ravenglass, close to my one journeys end. Here L’al Ratty, a narrow-gauge railway, climbs up to eskdale on a very scenic journey. Muncaster Castle next door offers tamer appeal, with gardens alive with colour year round.

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Request a stop at Drigg and have the station to yourself

The route crosses some of England’s most isolated spots, hiding amidst the folds of assorted Lakeland river estuaries, the North Sea and the cloud-covered Fells. The sun is intermittently blinding with the kind of fresh, sharp light that rain and breeze puts into sharpest focus.  Who needs to travel this beautiful stretch of the Cumbrian coast on a Thursday afternoon, bound for Ravenglass, Seascale and Carlisle? No-one except me it seems. So I have the train to myself until I get off at Drigg, a request stop. Requesting it seemed to surprise the Guard, whose tone of replying ‘really?’ to my request lends me to think that either no-one ever does or that it’s really not my kind of town. To my right, the bracken is a bright orangey-brown on steep, hummocky hills.

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Burnmoor Tarn, reached via the Old Corpse Road from Wasdale

The highlights of this journey are many. On the first leg to Barrow in Furness, the crossings of the Kent and Leven viaducts are astonishing, ever-changing vistas. Water and mountains are everywhere yet the train appears suspended, almost floating above it all. It looks more like the north-west of Scotland than the Lakes. A golf course with links on rocky promontories looms into view, then quickly passes. Wading birds find safe havens in the oxbows and inlets, the seagrass and sands out the window.

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Oliver’s Gill: good scrambling

As I get off at Drigg, I wait while the train pulls away bound for distant Sellafield, Whitehaven and Carlisle. There’s much more to explore on the coast, but I’m headed inland via a wonderful road where the mountains reveal themselves through folds of foothills. And then there it is: Wastwater. Not the biggest, not the most spectacular of the lakes but for me, the one that takes the prize as the biggest classic. As I slowly cycle its length to journeys end, the calm of England’s greatest landscape is already working its magic. If I were to stay forever would anyone mind?

Wasdale sunset

Classic Travel: A Time of Gifts

A Time of Gifts is everything a travel book should be: brilliantly written, educational, inspiring and full of memorable anecdotes that, once read, appear like ghosts in the reader’s own journeys.

It begins with a simple decision. It is December 1933. 18 year old Patrick Leigh Fermor can’t decide what to do with this life, so he decides to go for a walk. Full of the vim of youth, he decides that Constantinople is his destination. Resolved to this gently eccentric trip, Leigh Fermor proceeds to carry it off, armed with a stick, a few possessions and occasional pickups of money from home.

As the story progresses his naive charm works a magic spell, turning a trip that promised months of freezing nights in hedgerows into being put up in castles and fine apartments. Leigh Fermor never loses his edge though, and once back on the road returns to the traveller’s life with endless enthusiasm.

Two features of A Time of Gifts jump out and linger long in the memory. The first is Leigh Fermor’s prose which is rich and lively. He deserves the title of the greatest living British travel writer. While in part the lucid nature of the writing is due to the author writing – in 1978 – as an older man looking back on an adventure rather than scribbling in the moment, and therefore being able to weave in the astonishing knowledge he possesses, it is also the obvious thrill of discovery and the simple delights of an utterly free life that makes the book special.

Once read, I’d defy anyone to not recall the noise of the ice skiff charging along frozen Dutch canals or share the joy of rummaging around a ruined castle on the banks of the Danube, when considering a journey to the areas visited today. The Europe the book describes disappeared forever in 1939, and the lands travelled through in A Time of Gifts feel foreign and distant. That said, it remains a richly rewarding companion on a journey to the continent.

There is a sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, which takes the journey from the Hungarian Border to the Danube gorge known as the Iron Gate in what was Yugoslavia. Leigh Fermor did make it to Constantinople fourteen months after leaving Tower Bridge, but that was not the end of the adventure. The author went on to fall in love with Greece and a Romanian noblewoman with whom he lived with in Athens and Moldavia, and serve in the Irish Guards during the Second World War. Later adventures in Greece and the Caribbean, marriage and a life divided between England and Greece followed.

There has not yet been a third volume. Patrick Leigh Fermor will celebrate his 95th birthday on 11 February.

Suggestions for your favourite travel reads are welcome. With what’s left of winter, warm yourself up with A Time of Gifts.