Tales from the Great North: Volume One

15 Jun

…wherein I recount my adventurous exploits in the English lakes of wild Cumbria and the highlands of savage Caledonia (“Scotland”), including treacherous mountain treks, swarming midges, killer attack dogs, and hordes of barbarian Scots children.

Ok, so maybe my trip wasn’t quite *that* dramatic, but it does grab your attention, doesn’t it? I’ll explain what midges are and how I was “attacked” by a dog and Scottish children later. First, we begin in England.

Like most great journeys, this one began problematically. I arrived at the bus station in Brighton on time and everything, but as the coach was getting ready to leave for London, the door wouldn’t close. The driver tried everything, called the garage, and still couldn’t get it to close. While I feared a major delay that would cause me to miss my connection in London, we were transferred to another bus after a short while and all was well.

The coach from London to Preston (in the northwest of England) was a spacious double-decker with reclined seats (not bad for ₤1!); while I failed to get one of the coveted upstairs front-seaters, I sat a couple of rows from the window for some good views of London as we drove out of the city. The ride made me realise how much of London I still haven’t seen and won’t have a chance to see… it’s such an overwhelming city for me. While I doubt I’ll have time for another trip, I wish I could’ve done some sightseeing in the summertime; winter in London was somewhat depressing.

Westminster and the whole west side of London is incredibly lovely and extravagant. I wish I could’ve spent some more time walking around in that area, but alas. The Lake District was my destination.

After finding the train station in Preston, I was off to the county of Cumbria, home of England’s beautiful lakes and mountains. The sunset over the hills in Oxenholme was lovely; unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good POV for a photo. Upon my arrival in Windermere, I headed for my hostel, Lake District Backpackers. This hostel is rather unusual in that it is basically staff-less; you’re required to put your payment in an envelope and drop it into a safe, where it will be collected in the morning.

Of course, this means you need exact change when you arrive at the hostel — which I didn’t have. I ended up being 2p short of my full payment, but dropped my money in the safe anyway. I didn’t think the owner would mind that much. Does that make me a bad person? (Not as bad as the people who have surely shirked payment there).

The next morning, I headed to the nearby Tourist Information Centre and ended up buying a map of a few local walks — I was specifically looking for a viewpoint known as Orrest Head. In retrospect, I should’ve asked before buying the map — the trailhead was virtually across the street from the Information Centre. Nonetheless, it was a great walk – very short, very easy, but with very excellent views of Lake Windermere and the surrounding countryside. A sample:

Lake Windermere, at a length of 10.5 miles and a surface area of 5.7 sq. miles, is the largest lake in England. Not very big by North American standards; Lake Winnepesaukee, for example, has a surface area of 71 square miles. (Although Scotland certainly has some big lochs; I overheard a train passenger in Scotland remarking that there is more water in Loch Ness than in all of the lakes in England and Wales combined!)

At the Tourist Info Centre I had also picked up a copy of the Cumbrian bus timetables, and so my next intended journey was a bus ride to the high Kirkstone Pass, and a hike back to Windermere; I went back to the Centre to ask how long the walk would take, but the woman at the desk pointed out that the bus only ran on weekends. It was Wednesday. (Always read the fine print on those bus timetables!)

Instead, she recommended a walk along the northern end of Lake Windermere, which I did. My walking map helped me find my way along the pleasant eastern side of the lake, which was being enjoyed by swimmers, kayakers, and the like (including a dog that almost got its tail bitten by two swans) — I should’ve brought my bathing suit! Then I reached the ferry that carries cars and foot passengers to the western side of the lake; the fare was only 50p, so I hopped on… but no one ever came to collect my money. And I couldn’t find a place to give it to anyone. Once again, I underpaid for someone’s services.

The western side of the lake was much quieter, and the path went through thick woodland along the edge of the lake; apparently the forest is of an unusual type in Europe, but it reminded me quite a bit of home. Quite a few areas of the Lake District reminded me of New Hampshire, and I even found myself referring to it as the “Lakes Region” once or twice. There was one particularly noticeable difference in the vegetation, however, which was the omnipresence of wild rhododendrons, both in the Lake District and Scotland. Quite lovely.

Although the UK has a great network of public footpaths, my biggest pet peeve is that they are not all consistently marked and signposted, so it can be pretty easy to lose your way. This was almost the case on my lake walk; I eventually found a major landmark, Wray Castle (where I encountered a deer), but from that point I was mostly clueless. I stumbled upon a campsite, which inexplicably had a small art studio in the main building, which is where I found someone to ask for directions. He was clearly a local fellow, with not the best teeth, but he helped me find my way.

Speaking of the locals…I took great enjoyment in listening to the northern English accents, which were a pleasant departure from the posh southern varieties. At this point, I’m pretty efficient at placing Englishmen to a particular corner of the country based on their accents, although the Midlands are still a bit of a mystery to me.

At any rate, the walk back to civilisation was long and arduous, following a winding farm road for much of the way, then along the edge of the main road to Ambleside, at the northern end of the lake. I was trying to rush to make it in time for the bus back to Windermere, not even knowing if I was going the right way, but fortunately made it in time.

Now, if you’re good at math(s), then you might be able to solve this equation: lots of walking + new shoes that are half a size too small = x. Well, since the variable is already isolated, it’s pretty simple — BLISTERS! Not just little baby ones, either; I quickly developed a massive (I’m talking…huge) blister on my left heel, as well as nasty ones on my right sole and pinky toe. Needless to say, every step for the rest of the day was painful, but I kept walking.

I walked up to Queen Adelaide’s Hill, the summit of which consisted of a single bench surrounded by a large herd of sheep. The sheep were quite curious about my presence, but I just sat there and put up with their incessant bleating as I watched the sun set over the lake. Une photo:

To see Part I of my Windermere photos, click here. For Part II, click here.

The next day, I headed north to Keswick (the ‘w’ is silent), passing through the charming little villages of Rydal and Grasmere before entering into some breathtaking scenery. Keswick is surrounded by impressive mountains (including Skiddaw, the highest mountain in England), which, although not as tall as the mountains in New Hampshire, are just as scenic. The low treeline and steep edges give them a very daunting appearance, and the lakes make the area all the more beautiful.

I had also bought mapped walks for Keswick, which turned out to be very useful – my first destination was the peak of Walla Crag, on the eastern side of Derwent Water (the major lake in Keswick). Considering the condition that my feet were in, this was a terrible decision, and in retrospect I don’t know how I put up with the pain, but I made it to the top fine. The climb was a little strenuous but nothing major, and the views were well worth it:

The path down was something else entirely… it was extremely steep, but fortunately the path consisted of rock ‘stairs’; I just took it slow, endured the pressure on my blistered feet, and gradually made my way down from the summit into a forested area. Here, I once again had some trouble finding the right footpaths, but miraculously made my way to the shores of Derwent Water without any problem. There were lots of sheep grazing near the shore…it was a very tranquil and idyllic place.

To see Part I of my photos from Keswick, click here.

After returning to downtown Keswick, I hopped on a bus that services a circular route in the northwestern corner of the Lake District, which includes two high mountain passes, scattered picturesque hamlets, a couple of beautiful lakes and incredible scenery all-around. Of course, trying to take pictures from a bus is a terribly frustrating affair, especially when you’re sitting on the ‘bad’ side. But I ended up taking this route a few times during my stay in the Keswick area, which meant I had several chances to get photos.

Of course, I did get off the bus as well. My first stop was the hamlet of Buttermere, a highly picturesque locale situated between two lakes. The scenery around Lake Buttermere was simply breathtaking. I enjoyed a walk in the area (despite my blisters) and then returned to the village. A herd of sheep was grazing around the centre of the village (they seem to roam free in the area; they are often on the roads, but usually run off when they hear a car getting close). Anyway, one of the local farmers unleashed his sheep-herding dog on the herd, which caused quite a bit of a ruckus. Ah, the excitement of rural England!

The next day, I would stop at Honister Pass, a high stretch of road in the mountains, and home to a big slate mine. My initial plan was to stop for a few minutes to take pictures, and then get on the bus going in the opposite direction back to Keswick. I started climbing a footpath on the side of the road, leading to what I assumed was the summit of a small hill. I kept walking upwards, but I wasn’t getting the view that I wanted for my picture. I kept walking higher…but the hike was becoming strenuous, and I realised that I had little time to get back down for my bus.

I tried walking down the hill as quickly as possible, but to no avail; the bus passed by. Since I now had time to kill before the next bus arrived, I figured that I would start back up the hill and have a rest at the top.

Since the tree line in this area is so low, there was nothing to obscure my view towards the top of the slope, except for the slope itself. I continued climbing up the grassy, rocky, windy hill, stopping a few times to catch my breath and drink water. I quickly realised that this ‘hill’ was deceptively high. Every time that I thought I was approaching the summit, I would reach the top of the slope and see another slope ahead of me. I continuted climbing this giant step pattern until I realised that before long, I would have to turn around in order to catch the next bus back.

“Screw it,” I said to myself, and kept on climbing the larger-than-a-hill-hill. I decided I’d keep walking until I reached the bloody top, if only to prove myself to the mountain sheep, with their mocking “baa”s. After a good climb, I arrived at the summit of what I later discovered to be Dale Head. The views were fantastic, particularly of the Newlands Valley to the north, which could be seen just over the edge of an extremely steep cliff:

To see all of my photos from Buttermere and Honister Pass, click here.

I soaked in the beauty of the landscape before beginning the descent, which was significantly less strenuous. After killing some time at the slate mine visitor centre, I caught the late bus back to Keswick. Here, I decided to take one more walk, to the Castlerigg Stone Circle, an ancient pagan formation in a field on the outskirts of the town. Not quite Stonehenge, but fascinating nonetheless.

Whilst walking to the stone circle, I saw a large group of paragliders in the air. Looked like they were having fun. 🙂 I continued on towards a flowering field, which offered some of the prettiest sights I’ve seen during my travels. This is Cumbria in all its glory:

After my second long day of walking, I was ready for a good night’s sleep at the hostel in Keswick. After I had lied down in bed and closed my eyes, I noticed someone come into the dorm room, stand there for a few seconds, then leave. A little while later, I overheard a woman outside the room on her cell phone, explaining that there was someone asleep in the 4-bed dorm room that had been booked by her 4-person party.

Merde.

A little detail about my reservation that I had forgotten — I was supposed to change rooms for my second night. I quickly packed up my things and headed into the hallway to find the woman who had walked into the room. I explained to her what had happened and she was kind enough to help me move my things to my new room. I told her that I forgot about my room change because I could never find anyone at the reception office to make my payment to (they would have reminded me about the room change). She explained that she had called someone who was supposed to come down to the hostel and sort out the situation, and that she would tell him to talk to me about payment as well.

I stayed up for over an hour (nearing midnight after a long day…) waiting for this ‘someone’ to come down to the hostel. The only person who passed by my room just said “hi there” or something to that effect and left — but this could have very well been the person that I was supposed to talk to. Basically, the staff service was lackluster at best (the English woman agreed with me on this point). I also suspect that I was overcharged — after finally making my payment on the morning of my departure, I went back to make sure the amount was right — but once again, couldn’t find anyone to speak to about it.

Anyway, my apologies for these trivial details.

My departure from Keswick took the form of a short scenic route into the isolated Eastern Fells of the Lake District, including the area around Ullswater. More beautiful countryside, and a few great photo opportunities. For Part II of my Keswick area photos, click here.

The bus continued to Penrith, where I changed for Carlisle, just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Yes, it was time to continue northward – on to Scotland.

Unfortunately, as I am running out of time to write this blog entry (it’s nearly 4am and I need to leave for the south of France in 2 hours), my Scottish adventures will have to wait for their own entry. I will try to upload the corresponding photos and write the update as soon as I return from Provence on Wednesday, and my post on France will most likely have to wait until I return to the U.S. My European adventures are drawing to a close, but I appreciate your readership.

…to be continued…

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