After leaving the Hawkshead valley only once during being on lockdown at the hostel, I was beginning to feel frustrated and restless. At the end of April I also sustained a knee injury from running which rendered my usual adventures to shuffles around the hostel grounds.
I missed going to find a random tarn or wood I’d found on a map. I missed the beauty and grandeur of the high fells. Recognising my frustrations, my housemate proposed we head out of the valley for a road trip around the Lakes.
We were in two minds about a trip – on the one hand, the government had recently loosened lockdown restrictions slightly, but on the other hand, we didn’t want to contribute to unnecessary crowding.
Saturday morning, I find Adam surrounded by all four of the Lake District OS maps, route planning. He suggested a trip out to the quieter, more remote Western Lake District. I’m immediately bouncing with excitement.
I’m someone who is used to charging off on adventures on my days off and thrive going new places. Whilst I’ve loved the increased time to slow down and embrace a lot more reading and writing, I was craving a change, a little newness.
I packed my Osprey’s bag with a phone charger, the maps, water and my bulky, old SLR camera and set about putting together a picnic – cutting slices of fat spring vegetable frittata I’d made earlier in the week into chunky triangles and delicately wrapping them in foil; slicing vegetables and packing a tub of fancy smoked hummus from my birthday trip to Booths (the Waitrose of the north) the previous week.
And off we went, back into Hawkshead village and up the narrow, winding roads to Skelwith Bridge. The sunny Welsh poppies either side of the road gave a happy splash of colour against the leaden May skies.
Mountain high #1: the Wrynose Pass
At Little Langdale, we turned right towards the Wrynose
A signpost at the bottom of the pass warns of extreme conditions, 30% gradients, not suitable in winter conditions. I smile nervously at Adam, who looks up for the driving challenge.
The Wrynose and Hardknott Passes are amongst the most challenging, most outrageous roads to drive (or cycle) in England.
Twists and turns, the roadsides are no longer lined by the familiar dry stone walls, the drop now alarmingly close to my passenger side door. The road is a patchwork job from the various filled in potholes over the years, a bumpy little ride in Adam’s tiny car.
Driving past the Langdale Pikes to our right, the fells suddenly looked so new, so dramatic. I felt like I was seeing the Lake District for the very first time again.
With awe and wonder, with new eyes.
At the top, we parked up to admire the views back down to the Langdale valley.
The winds are cool for May, but I suddenly feel so free, so alive after months of being locked up in one valley.
Continuing on, we descend steeply into a green valley, the road ahead looking like a meandering river.
A vast valley of emptiness.
I catch the eye of a cyclist, battling the steep ascent and we slow down to let him past on his valiant mission. I’m full of admiration.
Mountain high #2 The Hardknott Pass
One pass down, next up – the Hardknott Pass. I white lie to Adam that this one is easier. I accompanied my Dad driving over these two passes on a wet September day last year and found some of the bends on this pass truly terrifying.
The bends are narrower, more hairpin than the Wrynose. It felt like being on a Formula 1 race track, but on a massive hill. The little car strains and winces, as we dodge the grey, nonchalant Herdwick sheep which pepper the roadside, a familiar sight in the high fells, a true symbol of the Lake District.
As we reach the top, the Eskdale valley stretches out towards us and in the far distance, we can see the faint outline of the Isle of Man and the Irish sea. The Western Lakes have such a distinct, remote feel so unlike the softer, undulating hills surrounding us at the hostel in Hawkshead.
Back on flatter roads, we weave through the lanes of Eskdale, cow parsley instead of the poppies now lining the roadside. We follow the line of the La’al Ratty – the mini steam train that usually winds from Dalegarth to Ravenglass on the Cumbrian coast, before turning right towards Wasdale.
Re-visiting Wasdale & Wastwater Lake
As we approached, the mighty towering presence of Great Gable and Yewbarrow came into view, guarding the head of the lake so majestically. We both let out audible gasps of woooah, despite both of us having previously visited the valley on a number of occasions.
This was my third trip to Wasdale, my first was last May with my mum and her partner on a cloudless Sunday in May, when the valley was bustling with the usual hikers tackling Scarfell Pike, England’s highest mountain. I also spent three memorable, roasting hot days in July doing holiday cover at the YHA hostel, swimming in the lake and climbing the nearby Whin Rigg on my split shifts.
Despite today being slate grey skies with lingering cloud, it kind of felt the most Lake District like, in its true form.
By car, there is only one road in and out of Wasdale with access to this road either on a tour up the west Cumbrian coastline or over the two mountain passes we’d just driven over. No public transport serves the valley and the only other access is by hiking (or running) over the high fells from Borrowdale or Buttermere.
It requires planning and effort but you are rewarded with stark, spectacular views.
As this was the first weekend since the loosened lockdown restrictions, dog walkers and families dot the shoreline, but we find a secluded bay to escape to, sitting on two rocks by the water’s edge to eat our picnic and watch the birds swoop in and out of the water.
Driving up the single track road towards Wasdale Head reminds me of the grandeur of a Norwegian fjord, remote, isolated, untouched.
There is a simple beauty to the tiny Wasdale Head – a campsite, small shop, the famous Wasdale Inn climbers pub, a croft farm run by local fell running legend Jos Naylor.
Basic, unpretentious. All you need.
Wasdale doesn’t need bells and whistles, it’s natural beauty is already disarming.
Towards the Cumbrian Coast
As time is now pushing on. we skip Ennerdale lake and head back to the dull, fast A road which weaves through the small west Cumbrian villages, many of the front doors and windows displaying homemade rainbows, a familiar sight in these strange semi lockdown days.
I’m struck by how pedestrian the landscape suddenly looks after being so familiar with continuous mountain vistas.
After Frizington (cracking name), we head back inland. I predictably lose where we are on the map as I breezily chat to Adam about childhood holidays driving in France. As the youngest, I used to sit in the back, tasked with alerting my mum, who was driving, when traffic lights came in view as she negotiated the erratic French drivers.
We park up briefly to locate ourselves – north of Lowestwater. Back on track, our drive continues along the side of the lake and I trace the names of the fells on the map, the imposing 821metre Grasmoor, a towering beast.
Paddles at Crummock Water
I miss the turning, again, so we find ourselves in a small National Trust car park and Adam declares it break time.
A small footpath led us through Lanthwaite Woods dotted with bluebells and a small river glistens in the late afternoon sun.
The path opens out at the head of Crummock Water and as the sun peeks through the clouds, I kick off my hiking boots and socks, wading straight into the cool, clear water.
Lake paddles are the absolute one.
I’m half tempted to strip off to my bra and pants for a full-on dip, but I’m short of a towel or any additional clothes – plus families dot the shoreline, mindful of the 2-metre social distancing still in place.
Adam follows gingerly behind me, searching the shoreline for flat stones to skim in the lake as he goes.
Either side of us, a bit of stone skimming competition had begun. A young couple to our right and a dad and his competitive young son to our left. Adam gathers his stones, pointing out which ones will be most aerodynamic and we join in. I’m poor in comparison to most of the competitors.
Back on the shore, I pull off my thick jumper using it for a pillow, full of elation for just how amazing it feels to have a tiny glimmer of freedom again.
As the clouds draw in, we head back to the car and follow the road which hugs the shore of Crummock Water, awash with cars parked up to climb Rannderdale Knotts for the yearly bluebell display.
Buttermere & over the Honister Pass
Soon we reach Buttermere village and I point out to Adam Skye Farm Tea Room, where I spent many hours last summer writing my journals and blog posts, and look, I say, see that little chapel on the hill, I’d love to get married there one day (there or Latrigg in Keswick). The chapel overlooks Haystacks, one of the first fells I climbed solo last summer, a proud achievement.
Just past the chapel, the road splits and we debate whether to head back towards Keswick over the wooded Whinlatter Pass route or the remote beauty of another mountain pass – this time at Honister.
We opt for a trio of mountain passes in a day and choose Honister, continuing alongside Buttermere, past the menacing beauty of Fleetwith Pike and winding up the hillside to the top of the Honister Pass at 320m, guarded by twin figures built from the slate at the nearby mine.
The late afternoon light dances on our penultimate valley of Borrowdale and Derwentwater as we descend, both of us recalling our individual memories of hiking in the area, and I’m suddenly nostalgic for those crazy summer nights of wild camping and skinny dipping at midnight in the lake.
Seeing the hills of Cat Bells and Skiddaw shrouded in dark cloud, it felt like seeing old friends again.
The last pit stop in Keswick
In Keswick, we stop at Booths for snacks and the weekend paper and I love the familiarity of being back in a shop I know so well, although it feels weirdly different with the 2-metre distancing rule, queuing to get inside the shop and the perspex screens at the till.
Familiar, but different.
We sit in the car park sharing pork pies and sausage rolls and I stare over to Latrigg, now covered in scores of sunny yellow gorse flowers.
It’s only been 10 weeks since I left Keswick but I’m struck by how BIG the town feels after adjusting to the quieter rural village life of Hawkshead.
I never thought I’d want to live anywhere else in the Lake District, but maybe that’s changing.
I direct Adam out of Keswick on the A road which climbs high over the town and Blencathra comes into view on our left, looking moody and menacing in the darkening skies.
Past Thirlmere lake, the Dodds range and Helvellyn in the distance. The last time I’d seen these fells they were covered in a soft blanket of late February snow.
Past the smaller lakes of Grasmere and Rydal and into the oddly deserted streets of Ambleside, usually bustling with tourists at this time of year.
And then it’s a right turn, back to our green, softer valley; the high fells now off in the far distance.
It might not be as dramatic, but it’s quietly become somewhere I’ve been very happy to momentarily call home.