“The Best Run I’ve Ever Been On”
24-hours after arriving home, I’m still buzzing. My knee is stiff and I’m walking down the stairs backwards, but I’ve just run further in a weekend than I’ve ever done, and I’ve had an absolute blast. I set out wondering how many miles I could cover and surprised myself, but I couldn’t have done it on my own, and I’m certain that every other runner on the event felt something similar. We have laughed, we’ve marvelled, we’ve offered encouragement and we’ve received it. We’ve eaten fit to burst and we’ve made firm friends and I, for one, want to do it all again.
Part way around the second of the three trail routes, one runner said, “I think this is the best run I’ve ever been on.” At the end of the day, a full off-road marathon completed – woodlands, valleys, lakes, moorlands, caves, rivers and waterfalls – the words “I think” were dropped from the description. It was the best run. The best company. The best scenery. The best support. And on Sunday, we went out again and added a few more fabulous miles.
So where to begin? Well, the week prior had seen the arrival of the Beast from the East and conditions could have been against us. As it was, the Southern end of the Lake District got off lightly. It was damned parky, but there wasn’t much snow, and Friday’s howling gales had tailed off to a whimper by the time we met in the car park at Elterwater village early on Saturday morning.
By nine, we were off, kitted up with hydration packs, protein shots, compression socks and technical gloves and we made great progress until 9.03 am when the public loos came into view. I’m beginning to see the care that goes into planning these events – if we had done the route in the opposite direction it wouldn’t have worked out nearly as well. It is hard to run with your legs crossed and several of us had driven a fair way to the start.
Part 1 – The pretty woods and the icy trails
Suitably relieved, we set off again, following Great Langdale Beck along a well-made slate path out towards Elterwater itself. Around the lake, it was quiet, the weather having deterred a lot of visitors, and our trails were dusted with snow and peppered with patches of ice. We took care but moved swiftly as the gradients were shallow and the paths wide. We followed the River Brathay towards Skelwith Bridge, crossing the river via a sculptural bridge – imagine a graceful, steel ribcage – that led us into woodland. The route meandered through tall conifers. Cold winter light filtered through and the ground was littered with fragments of pine, broken after the week’s storms and still a fresh, vivid green against the snow.
We were moving out towards Windermere, through open fields and coppices, crossing over bridges rather than paddling through the icy fords. In the distance, the towers and turrets of Wray Castle stood out, but we shunned the tourist trap, passing Bielham Tarn and heading into Spicka coppice.
On the other side, the gentle slopes were swapped for a climb and we headed up towards Iron Keld, slowing all the time as the trails became thick with ice. At the top, in sunshine, half a dozen Belted Galloway cattle, waited for their fodder. It arrived by quad bike as we made our even slower descent down the bridleway. This part of Cumbria might not have seen much snow, but it had coated itself liberally with the slippery stuff and the new mantra became ‘eyes on the trail’. Nobody took a tumble although one runner collapsed into a patch of drifted snow, spooking everyone until we realised he was making a snow angel.
We followed the Cumbria way north. We were chattering, picking our way through more coppices, enjoying the rare firm conditions underfoot, but always watchful for stray rocks, tree roots and ice. Boulders were covered in thick moss, a fallen tree was armoured with coins, stone staircases twisted and turned.
We rounded a corner, all noise and enthusiasm, and stopped dead because there was Colwith Force, with its neat hydro-electric plant tucked into the bank opposite. The waterfall was even more impressive for being half frozen, and giant icicles seemed to hang in mid-air amongst the trailing ferns. No doubt we disturbed the peace of the couple who, until we arrived, had been enjoying a reflective moment while sitting perched on a log.
We moved on, and then came the sporting part of the route. We helped each other slither down a steep bank clinging to saplings, brambles and anything else handy. Negotiating the path had diverted attention from what lay at its base. There was another beck with two routes across. One route was rounded, slick boulders, decorated with seasonal frosting. The other was a bracing, calf depth paddle. We picked our poison, and everyone made it safely across.
A couple of fields later, another woodland, and we emerged back onto the road close to our home for the night, the Elterwater Hostel, where we kicked off our shoes and filled kettles. One half marathon done, talk turned to knocking off another one after a spot of lunch.
Part 2 – Cathedrals, church bells and magnificent views
Okay, this is what happened next. A few of us wanted to run another half, others thought that five miles would be just about right. So, we set off together in some lovely sunshine, easing the knees back into action and it was good. It was very good.
We followed Great Langdale Beck north this time, along paths made from the local slate. Bell ringers were working hard at an unseen church as we ran through the dappled shade, beneath trees grounded in an intricate maze of gnarled roots. It needed delicate footwork, every step at a different depth and angle, every root threatening to trip, but it was a great game and great fun.
We swapped it for the open floor of a valley. Wide and flat, easy running with just a little ice to watch out for. Herdwick sheep wandered across our path – or were we wandering across theirs. At Oak Howe, it seemed too early for those of us who’d opted for a short run to head back to base. The sun was out, the grass was green (ish) and around us loomed the Lakeland fells elevated from their winter brown plumage with a good coating of snow. We pressed on instead, up the Great Langdale Valley, Lingmoor fell to our left, Harrison Stickle to the North and Bowfell way ahead.
We crossed and re-crossed the beck, spied sheets of ice, suspended above the water’s surface, and took a lane through a campsite where a few modern yurts, with propane cylinders standing to attention, promised something a little cosier than a nearby canvas tepee.
The flat, easy valley floor had come to an end. We exchanged it for a zig-zag up towards the pass that would take us past Blea Tarn and down into Little Langdale. We carried on with a mix of ice avoidance, bog-hopping and contouring. We seemed to have the hills to ourselves and it was hard to believe so few had ventured out on such a stunning winter afternoon. Every few minutes, the shifting clouds allowed the sun to illuminate another snowy peak.
We came out onto the Wrynose pass, followed the road around a bend where a chorus of Border Collies heralded our approach, crossed a very frozen River Brathay again and then headed out towards Atkinson Coppice and the promise of a cave.
And what a cave.
It’s no wonder it’s known as the Cathedral. It’s a quarried site with a wide entrance tunnel, a chamber – 40 feet in height – and a gaping window to the world outside. For all the spectacle, no one fancied a dip in the cavern’s murky pool and we all glanced nervously at the roof when an icicle broke free and hit the water. it seemed a good time to move on.
And that was when the group split into two, with a few opting for the extra miles of a loop around Hodge Close and some of the other slate quarries. We promised to put the kettle on, crossed a slate-built bridge and headed across fields for home.
Part 2 (b) or “don’t tell the bishop”
We’d done enough miles for the day and the light was fading. It was time to grab a bunk and stand under a shower. It was time for brews, beers and sharing stories. It was time for celebrating 22 or 26 amazing miles, for food, and for daft, but fiercely competed, board games.
And later, it was time for a kip.
As for not telling the bishop. Sorry, but you had to be there.
Part 3 – The hilly one with the big lake in the middle
But first – breakfast.
There was no way anyone was going hungry. We had bagels, croissants, brioche rolls, hot cross buns, muffins, cereals, porridge, bacon, sausages, eggs and beans, jams, sauces, coffee and tea. But, of course, you need fuel to run and we used that as an excuse and got stuck in.
And then we went for a run.
Within a few minutes, we’d climbed high above Elterwater, and as we stopped to grab our breath we picked out the landmarks we were getting to know. Soon enough, we crested the hill and there, below us was Grasmere, looking very cold, black and wintry. We made our way down to it, through Hammerscar Plantation and along a snow and ice-filled bridleway, emerging into woodland.
As we reached the road, a small group jogged past. It looked like a military fitness outfit, and they gave way to us as we caught them up at a gateway. Perhaps they simply wanted us to negotiate the ice-slick first, but we made it through unscathed and headed to the lake shore, running west through the trees.
At Grasmere’s western end, we crossed the road and headed up towards White Moss Common. In the distant trees, we could hear woodpeckers hammering away. So close to a major tourist hub, we had the place almost to ourselves. We saw a couple on mountain bikes and a pair of walkers – no more than that – as we traversed the hillside, and then made a careful descent of a steep, narrow path, before crossing the road again and popping into the woods at Butharlyp Howe.
The easy, flat fields around Grasmere were crossed quickly because coffee and hot chocolate had been mentioned, but it had started to rain and the idea of stopping at a café had lost its appeal. With another big climb on our return route and conditions worsening, we were right to keep moving. We left the north-west corner of Grasmere behind and started the climb to Silver Howe.
As we gained height, the temperature fell, and the rain turned to sleet and then to snow. The path we followed wandered. Stone-filled, iced, pockets of snow, the odd softer bit where a sudden surge of icy water threatened to soak the feet. When we reached the plateau at the top, we could have been on another planet. The snowfall had bleached all the colours and instead of the rocky path, we made our way across Spedding crag through scrubby pine and gorse bushes which hugged the close-cropped hill.
We took our time heading down on the other side. The path was steep, and legs were tired, but when we made it down to easier gradients at Chapel Stile, it was a joy to run again, and we picked up speed, spurred on by the promise of home-made, curried parsnip soup.
The run was another cracker, and the soup the ideal way to round it off.
Everything about this weekend was great, and it’s not easy to sum up the experience. We had a superb base in the Elterwater Hostel and we ate piles of food. We had vast parts of the Lake District almost to ourselves. We ran on moss, bogs, pastureland, slate, bridleways, crags, forest floors, crushed stone, snow and ice, and we helped each other to cover lots of miles. We ran as a group, talking and laughing all the time.
Just occasionally, we shut up and paused to reflect on just how lucky we were.