An Alternative Cumbria Way

I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to improve the Cumbria Way, with a suggested new northern end, some options for a new southern end, and a number of ideas for “quick fixes” to liven up the standard route. But now it’s time to actually put my money where my mouth is and share the first of my two proposed new alternative routes. My next post will look at my proposed new high level alternative, but today I’m going to look at a lower level route that is more in line with the spirit of the official Cumbria Way. By which I mean that it seeks to follow the valleys and climb over the passes between them rather than to route directly over the tops.

How I chose the route

I needed to find a route that passed through some of Lakeland’s best valleys, incorporating stunning scenery, but otherwise was a broadly similar character to the existing Cumbria Way. So I felt there needed to be a bit of woodland, a bit of lakeside walking and some modest high ground that gives good views over the area. It was also important that the walk breaks down into reasonable sections and that there are accommodation options at appropriate intervals. But I wanted to create a route that avoided the well-trodden central strip of the Lake District, to bring into play some of the impressive scenery to the west, and one of the consequences of this is that, whilst there are accommodation options, they are more sparse than a route through the middle of the Lakes would offer.

It was only when I started to write this post that I realised that I had already walked something similar to this route, albeit slightly more high level, back in September 2008. That was my first foray into the less populated and visited parts of the Lake District and at the time felt like an adventure, especially as it was my first go at a linear trek since my abortive efforts during my work sabbatical the previous year. My route from Eskdale Green to Keswick was plagued by wind and rain, a failure to climb Great Gable and a couple of moments of sheer terror. But it’s also remembered for the youth hostels I stayed in, and which are key to making this proposed route work.

The route

An Alternative Cumbria Way route

The route starts at Ravenglass, a former Roman port serving the chain of fortifications along the Cumbrian coast that supported Hadrian’s Wall. Crossing the railway, it passes the Roman Bath House and Muncaster Castle before climbing up onto Muncaster Fell. Briefly descending to Eskdale Green, the climb up through the Mitterdale Forest onto Irton Fell brings Wasdale into sight for the first time.

Wasdale

The walk then heads up Wasdale and Mosedale to climb over Black Sail Pass and descend into Ennerdale. Passing Black Sail youth hostel, the climb over Scarth Gap brings Buttermere into view and a walk alongside the mere itself.

Haystacks and the path to Scarth Gap from Buttermere
Buttermere and Crummock Water

Leaving Buttermere the route skirts the lower slopes of Whiteless Pike and Wandope following Sail Beck, before climbing over Sail Pass to drop onto Outerside and Barrow.

The route above Sail Beck
North Western Fells from Barrow

A descent to Keswick unites this route with the official Cumbria Way, which climbs up and around Lonscale Fell to Skiddaw House.

Approaching Skiddaw House from Dash Falls
Approaching Skiddaw House from Dash Falls

Continuing along the infant River Caldew, the route heads over High Pike and descends to Hesket Newmarket, cutting the corner of the official route and avoiding that horrible muddy bridleway through the woods outside Caldbeck. We then follow the Caldew to Dalston, before cutting across the lowland to Burgh by Sands and following Hadrian’s Wall to Bowness-on-Solway.

River Caldew
River Caldew

Some High Level Variations

This route has a number of logical options to divert to follow higher ground without getting too far off route:

  • instead of descent into Wasdale, could continue over Whin Rigg and Illgill Head before descending,
  • Black Sail could be approached by way of the Mosedale Horseshoe over Yewbarrow, Red Pike, Scoat Fell and Pillar,
  • from Scarth Gap, could follow the ridge over High Crag, High Stile and Red Pike before descending to Buttermere,
  • instead of contouring around above Sail Beck, the high level route over Whiteless Pike, Wandope, Eel Crag and Sail could be taken,
  • instead of following the Cumbria Way around Lonscale Fell, consider the climb over Skiddaw and descent over Bakestall,
  • the route over High Pike could be via Great Calva and Knott rather than climbing up from the River Caldew.

Stats

Distance: 69.3 miles (approx), so just fractionally shorter than the Cumbria Way.

Ascent: about 3,500m, compared with just under 3,100m for the Cumbria Way.

Note: the figures for my route are calculated using Anquet which is reasonably good for the distance, but sometimes is a bit difficult to pinpoint heights as marked on the map. Therefore, the ascent estimate should be viewed with caution.

Accommodation

Because the route avoids major towns and villages until it arrives at Keswick, accommodation is not as plentiful as the official Cumbria Way. The best bets seem to be (note: these are NOT recommendations and I haven’t checked all of these out, but places I have stayed are marked *):

B&B: pubs in Eskdale, Wasdale and Buttermere, plenty of choice in Keswick* and dotted about north of Caldbeck.

Youth Hostels: Wastwater*, Black Sail* (or Ennerdale*), Buttermere*, Keswick*, Skiddaw House*.

Camp Sites: Ravenglass, Fisherground (Eskdale), Nether Wasdale, Wasdale Head, Buttermere*, Braithwaite, Woodville (nr Dalston).

Camping Barns/Bunkhouses: Nether Wasdale , Buttermere , Skelgill, Hudscales*.

Transport

To Ravenglass: coastal rail line from Carlisle or Barrow, buses from Whitehaven, Ambleside and Coniston.

To Bowness-on-Solway: nearest railway stations is Wigton (8 miles), but also Dalston and Carlisle, buses from Carlisle.

In Conclusion

I’ve yet to walk this full route, but I’ve walked several parts of it – from Eskdale Green to Wasdale, the whole chunk from Black Sail to Hesket Newmarket, and of course the bit along the River Caldew that coincides with the official Cumbria Way. I mean to walk the whole thing in the near future, as the exercise of putting this route together at home has really fired up the desire to walk it in one go. I feel this needs to be done if I am to recommend this as a viable alternative to the real Cumbria Way, as it is only fair to give people an idea of how long each part takes and what is the sensible breakdown into daily sections. People are more likely to walk a route if they can see others’ experiences of doing the walk.

For reference, though, when I walk it I would most likely involve a mixture of wild camps, hostels and possibly a B&B in Keswick (I hate the hostel there). So this is roughly what my itinerary could probably look like:

  • Day 1: Ravenglass to Irton Fell – I would expect to travel up in the morning so only get about half a day’s walking in on the first day. Due to patchy accommodation I’d most likely wild camp. If I pushed it, a night at Wastwater youth hostel would be possible.
  • Day 2: Irton Fell to Black Sail – it’s quite likely that I would plan my walk to fit around getting a night in at Black Sail if at all possible. This legendary hostel is too good to miss if there’s availability. If I couldn’t get in here, I’d either wild camp or see if I could make it as far as Buttermere for the hostel there, which is also good.
  • Day 3: If I made it as far as Buttermere on day 2, I’d aim to get to Keswick for the end of day 3; if not then most likely a camp in the north western fells.
  • Day 4: Irrespective of where I finished day 3, my aim would most likely be Skiddaw House, another experience that ought to be had if you’ve not done it before.
  • Day 5: Skiddaw House to Hudscales camping barn, which I had all to myself last time I was there.
  • Day 6: Hudscales to just past Dalston.
  • Day 7: Dalston to Bowness-on Solway.

In order to make the weight of camping gear worthwhile, I’d aim to either wild camp every night except in Keswick and Dalston. Without a tent, I would plan my itinerary around the hostels at Wastwater, Black Sail, Buttermere and Skiddaw House and supplement with camping barns or B&Bs where necessary. Another option would be 2 nights in Carlisle using the train line between Dalston and Carlisle and the bus service along the Wall. This could allow the last day to be with a lighter pack.

As well as the half day on day 1, this itinerary could involve a couple of shorter days, but I prefer this to enable me to detour to take in some of the tops lying close to the route, or simply just to enjoy the scenery (if nice weather) or get it done for the day (if not nice weather). This route could probably be done in 5½ days if you’re a strong walker and can make the accommodation and daily distances work for you.

I’d be interested to hear if anyone does the route and has any comments on what I’ve put together.

14 thoughts on “An Alternative Cumbria Way

      1. Should be maybe a little more time .short day light hrs would be problem if I tried it in January .weather would need to be fair and cold

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    1. Sure do, will email you the gpx file. I certainly have the time as I’m easing back on work until September, and so would love to come along. It’s tricky during school holidays though.

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  1. Been looking more closely at the route. Why the road walk along Wast Water and not the path on the other shore?

    Also, if terminating in Bowness, it logically links this walk to Hadrians wall path, but using that path to reach Bowness somewhat spoils this option, as you’d have to retrace your steps to walk HWP.

    My thought would be to head for Wigton from Caldbeck and then try and reach the Cumbria Coast path somehow, and use that to reach Bowness. All options beyond Caldbeck seem to have an unwelcome amount of road walking involved though.

    Being picky here, I know, but I’m stuck in the house with an injured foot, so doing some walk planning 🙂

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    1. Mainly because I was trying to match the difficulty of the official CW and thought the screes route may be too much.

      The stretch along HW was on the premise that the ACW is a standalone walk – clearly if doing both as an extended walk you would head straight for B-on-S. Felt also for a standalone walk this was better option than all the dull road walking. There are no stand out routes from Caldbeck so following river until it becomes crap at Dalston seemed lesser of evils too.

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  2. Hi, any change of sendingme the GPX file as well. I am planning a 10 day stay in the Lake district beginning of June. I was about to walk the Cumbria Way with my wife, but this alternative looks more challenging. Thanks in advance.

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      1. Thanks. If my wife is up for it we’ll follow your alternative. But as it will be her first long distance trip she’s hesitating a bit. Maybe we will combine the two. My original plan was to skip Carlisle and make a loop after Keswick. I keep you posted.

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      2. Yes, I would seriously consider doing the two alternative routes of the official route from Keswick to Caldbeck as a loop taking you back to Keswick and ending there rather than Carlisle.

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