“If it’s not broken, then don’t fix it”, so goes the saying, and there’s a lot of truth in it. But for me the Cumbria Way is broken and what is generally a fine walk has got serious flaws that almost stopped me doing it in the first place and would weigh heavily on my mind if planning to do it again.
Whilst a stunningly good long distance walk in so many ways, it is some way short of being perfect, and certainly has some areas that could be improved upon. So what are these problems ? Before I go into the detail, I must, of course, acknowledge that to some people some or all of what I’m about to talk about don’t even represent problems and may even be positives for them. That’s ok, and please try to keep in mind that these so called “problems” are very much personal ones.
Problem 1: The northern end
Where do I start ? Suffice to say that the last five miles (or first five if you’re walking north to south) are a complete waste of time. And the 10 miles before (or after) those don’t match the splendour of the rest of the walk. The five or so miles into (or out of) Carlisle are spent mainly walking alongside industrial estates on the outskirts of Carlisle, and a miserable end to a fine walk this is. The other problem with the northern end is that no one seems quite sure where the actual end is, with Carlisle Castle (the obvious one, and my actual end point) and the Tourist Information Centre (the crap one) both being cited as the definitive point along with a footbridge and the Market Cross. I’m still none the wiser. Whichever it actually is, there’s no marker – the waymarks on the path simply run out, as if the council were embarrassed by the whole thing – pretty much the same as you are made to feel walking through “civilisation” in your mountain wear on the last part of the walk. For those that want some edifice to stand and be photographed next to to commemorate their walk, this is a sorry state of affairs. So the question is, where should the northern end be and how can we get rid of the massive anti-climax of the last few miles ?
Problem 2: The southern end
I don’t really have a big issue with the southern end point in Ulverston – certainly it beats Carlisle. But the marker is in a back street by a car park! Not in a trees and flowers park, on a riverside or even outside a prominent building. Hey, even having the start by the statue of Laurel and Hardy would be better. But what the current start point does do is enable you to get relatively quickly out of the town and into countryside, which wouldn’t be quite as much the case if you started at any of the points I suggested. It does just seem that the planners said “where can we put this inconvenient marker that won’t get in the way of more important things ?” Of course the choice of start and end points are a reflection of a long distance route created by a committee, who had certain criteria to fill. Both ends are within easy access of a railway station and have accommodation options nearby too. Committees also like paths to start and end in towns. The route also fulfils the aim of completely crossing the Lake District National Park. But why not make it coast to coast – after all Cumbria is surrounded on 3 sides by the sea. A seashore start would almost certainly make for a better and more inspiring start and end to the walk. So two more questions: where should the southern end be ? What should the objective of the walk be ?
Problem 3: The terrain
And this is the personal one. The Cumbria Way passes through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in England, yet doesn’t really pass over any of it. Of course this is what makes this route attractive to those who aren’t strong hillwalkers, as it enables them to enjoy the mountains without having to climb too many of them. But if that’s the case, why not simply route it alongside the A591 as it passes through central Lakeland ? It all becomes a lot more understandable when you know that the route was created by local Ramblers Association members. Not that I’m saying anything against the Ramblers per se – I am, myself a member – but Ramblers’ routes do tend to be a lot lower level and focus on lowland and general countryside. I know that’s a bit of a generalisation, but it’s how I see them.
When you take on board who devised the route, they actually seem to have done a reasonable job of the route in the middle part – passing through the mountains without going to extreme. The only real high points of the route are 1) Stake Pass, 2) where it passes over the lower shoulder of Skiddaw near Latrigg, and 3) the climb over High Pike. For me, and I emphasise ME, it’s just not hilly enough. So much so that when I walked the Way, I tweaked the route to add in some more hills. This resulted in a route that matched 70% of the official one, missed nothing significant out, but got in a lot more high ground.
The official route also misses out something that are an essential part of a Lake District walk – tarns. It passes just two tarns of note – Beacon Tarn and Tarn Hows. This is unacceptable to me as a major lover of tarns. Of course this is largely due to the lower level route choice as most significant tarns are up high.
Some might even argue that I haven’t really done the Cumbria Way. Maybe technically, but I’d rather do a slight variation and be happy with it than miserably stick to an official route I find boring.
So question: how to improve the Cumbria Way so that it includes more options for high-level routes ? And how to include more tarns ?
Problem 4: The Good Bits
The Cumbria Way has some really good bits, and it would be a shame to lose them. Of course what you and I consider good bits will differ, but I think most people would agree that parts of the route where you enjoy magnificent scenery and stunning views would constitute good bits. It’s also worth recognising that the Cumbria Way takes in a reasonably wide variety of terrain – from high passes to lakeside walking and extensive valleys, woodland etc. You’d not want to completely lose the variety that makes the walk pleasant, and you’d also want to keep the length of the walk about the same – it should fit comfortably into a week’s walking holiday.
For reference, my personal good bits are:
- Beacon Fell,
- the walk up Langdale, one of my favourite Lakeland valleys,
- the valley of Langstrath,
- the walk into Keswick along Derwent Water,
- Back o’Skidda
So how do we redesign the Cumbria Way to retain enough of the good bits, or at the very least swap them for other good bits ? And how do we create a new walk that is just as doable as the old one ?
So the questions I think need to be answered are:
- Where should an improved Cumbria Way end in the north ?
- How can we make the route avoid uninspiring terrain ?
- Where should the southern end be ?
- What should the objective of the walk be (e.g. is it to cross the whole National Park ? should it be a coast to coast walk ?) ?
- How can the route be improved to take in more high ground ?
- How can the route be improved to take in more tarns ?
- How can we keep the good bits ?
- How do we keep the walk achievable in a sensible number of days ?
Now, it’s fairly obvious from these questions that if you move the start and end points and change the bit in the middle, you’ve got a completely different walk. So the solution seems obvious – create a whole new long distance route that solves the problems above, but retains all of the good bits of the character of the official walk. But, there is a bit of a conflict just in the questions – any attempt to move the walk to the high ground risks making the walk longer or harder and potentially extending the number of days it takes to walk. That would also more than likely take it away from the bits that are already good.
So, I’m going to look at three possible solutions:
- The “minimal changes” solution which assumes much of the existing route is good, so the aim is to come up a number of potential variations that could be used,
- The “alternative” route which tries to keep to the spirit of the original route by being largely lowland based, but changes the start and end to better points. This route aims to keep the existing good bits and build from there.
- The “high level” route which, as the name suggests, is determined by sticking to the higher ground and making everything else fit around that.
In devising these variations, I’m also going to make myself fit the following constraints:
- the first two routes must include sensibly spaced accommodation options and not require carrying a tent. I think this will be important to the majority of people who walk the existing Cumbria Way. I’m not going to restrict myself like this on the high level route as it’s (a) more difficult to and (b) the high ground lovers are more likely to be happy camping out. But even wild campers need to re-supply, and so even the high route must allow for this. My aim with the high level route is to keep it high but allow for reasonable overnight detours off-route for accommodation lower down.
- the routes must still be on a roughly north-south axis. There’s no point attempting to make it east-west as the Coast to Coast route does this admirably and can easily be adapted to either high or low level routes or a mixture of both. And I’d hardly be fixing the Cumbria Way if I didn’t keep it roughly the same orientation, would I ?
- the walks must be a similar(ish) distance (70 miles) to the original, although the nature of the exercise means this will go up a bit. So say a maximum of 80 miles. It also needs to be kept to no more than a week’s walking.
- the routes must enable walkers without cars to easily get to the start and finish points. This is what I look for in a Lake District walk as I always use public transport and my own feet to get me there and get me around whilst I’m there. Clearly this constrains the start and end points to a degree.
The intention is to create and map these routes, then walk them to see if they really do solve the problems of the existing Cumbria Way. Naturally, I’ll share how I get on. Wish me luck!