It’s Spring! For outdoorsy-types of a three-season disposition, 20th March is an exciting day. Winter is over and the start of the outdoors season has begun. Lighter evenings, longer days, new adventures to be had.
Now, to be fair, this Winter has been kind, so no excuses for not getting outside. No beasts from the east, daffodils in February and even a few days wearing shorts. Even so, it feels like a turning point in the year and I chose to mark it with the first Spring leg of my Lakes of the Lakes challenge.
As befits the first day of Spring, the country was basking in sunshine. Everywhere, that is, except the Lake District. Shrouded in mist, it wasn’t cold, windy or raining. It was just damp. Really damp. That kind of fine drizzle that gets you soaked without realising it. Grizedale Forest felt more like the cloud forests of Costa Rica and even though Coniston Water is only half a mile wide, seeing the opposite shoreline was out of the question for much of the day. This gave the lake a mysterious quality, forcing me to focus on my immediate surroundings and experience tiny details to build a picture of the entire lake.
I chose the northern tip as my starting point for this walk around Coniston Water. Thinking I was doing a good deed, I chose to park in the Monk Coniston car park. After feeding in a hefty wad of coin, the machine spat out a ticket with the wrong date on it. I didn’t have a pen to leave a note and loathe to risk a parking ticket, I moved the car to the village and parked (considerately) on the main road.
Grumpy about the ticket machine getting the better of me, I headed clockwise and on to the minor road which runs along the whole length of the eastern shore. It’s a decent option this. The road has little traffic and hugs the shoreline for much of your journey south. There is an alternative, high-level route, which takes you into Grizedale Forest. This alternative ordinarily promises great views of the lake but mist kept me low to start with.
You’ll soon pass Brantwood, John Ruskin’s former home. It was still early, so there wasn’t much activity, other than a groundsman tending to a bonfire – the crackle of burning twigs and thick smoke billowing from the pile adding to the atmosphere.
The next couple of miles were pleasant, despite the gloop hampering views of the lake. I snatched glimpses of shiny stones along the shoreline, skeletal trees framing the grey water and ducks gliding eerily into the mist. My other senses were heightened as I tuned into the sounds of Coniston in Springtime: newborn lambs bleating; woodpeckers tapping nearby trees; a distant chainsaw from felling operations in the forest.
This claustrophobic isolation soon got the better of my patience. My legs felt strong and I craved variety. A potential route to a high-level path was too tempting to ignore. Even if there were no views from on high, at least there’d be some climbing and navigation to do.
I started along a forest road before heading straight up. Footprints indicated others had ventured here before me but, as is often the case, the clear path soon disappeared and became a steep, off-piste climb. I was soon committed to this “shortcut” and so it was with heart racing and lungs burning that I eventually reached the defined high-level path and was able to continue my circuit from an alternative angle.
Any dreams of the cloud lifting soon evaporated, as I resigned myself to wading through the murk for the rest of the day. This recognition reminded me of the beauty of a challenge like the Lakes of the Lakes. Knowing when to turn back on mountains is something I’ve always been good at but it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Definitely more satisfying when you can complete what you’ve set out to do. Focusing your trip too much on summiting a mountain will eventually leave you disappointed, particularly if your plans aren’t flexible enough to accommodate inevitable changes in the weather. Rather than resent the lack of views, I was able to continue, safe in the knowledge I could enjoy the journey and achieve my objective.
A little further on, another well-defined track joins the path from the road I’d left below. This was hidden on the fold of my map, so I didn’t spot it. If I were linking the low and high level routes in future, this is the path to go for, rather than the near vertical slope of tree roots I chose to scale!
I settled into the walk as the path descends gradually to High Nibthwaite, a little hamlet complete with the oldest postbox I’ve seen in a while. You are right at the southern tip of the lake by now and it feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of Coniston at the opposite end.
The lake finishes where the River Crake begins, the bridge over the swollen river providing a perfect backdrop for a mid-morning pork pie. At this halfway point, I contemplated the walk around Coniston Water. The lake had so far not invited me in, the mist doing a fine job of concealing its charm. Pork pie ingested, I set off with renewed purpose, looking forward to finding out more on the lakeside path which guides the way for much of the return leg.
But first, a diversion to avoid the main road to Torver. It’s a pleasant yomp over the commons, the highlight being Beacon Tarn. I stood for a while contemplating a swim but the mist, absence of towel in my rucksack and lack of people meant my health and safety risk assessment failed on all counts. No excuses next time – it’s an ideal spot for a skinny-dip!
After a soggy trudge across the wetlands, which an elderly couple was keen to tell me is normally a beautiful walk, I finally rejoined the water’s edge by the dilapidated jetty at Sandy Bank. It seemed a little crooked but sitting on the rickety planks with the clear waters beneath made for an ideal lunch spot. It was only at the next jetty where a sign informed me the launch no longer stops at Sandy Bank as it is deemed unsafe for the foreseeable future. So much for my health and safety assessment there!
Here’s where the walk really picks up. The path along the western shore is a gem. A perfect ribbon draped alongside the lake. Little beachlets at strategic intervals. Eternal views up and down the water and across to the opposite shore. I was forced to make regular stops and enjoy the peace. This is what I’d come for.
Thoughts soon turned to the history of Coniston Water – not as a place to walk around but as a mecca for speed. The Campbells chose the lake as their arena for setting the water speed record. Windermere is longer but there’s a great big island to steer around. Ullswater too has the length but it’s a bit wonky. Coniston Water is arrow straight, providing five miles of flat racetrack to play with (and walk around).
My thoughts of Bluebird racing across the water were interrupted by the sound of an outboard motor, as a small boat wheezed its way up the lake. No speed records today, as the ageing boat’s engine strained to reach the maximum 10mph speed limit. The boat seemed to match my pace for an uncomfortably long time, like one of those flies which refuses to leave you alone. Despite the monotonous drone, it created an idyllic scene as it glided up the lake, creating gentle ripples in its wake which lapped against the water’s edge.
As I approached Coniston once more, the shoreline real estate morphs from woodland into marinas, the lake being rightly popular for watersports in the warmer months. Paddling a canoe, Swallows & Amazons style, along the water is a fine way to spend a lazy summer’s day. Something I hope to do with the family later in the year.
As a final treat, the clouds began to lift as I paused on a beach of fine shingle at the northern tip of the lake. The length of Coniston Water spread out before me. Over my shoulder, standing strong and proud, was the Old Man, keeping watch over the village and lake, evoking memories of previous adventures on its scarred slopes.
Today was different. No epic views, no sense of scale, but a long walk which forced me to focus entirely on my immediate surroundings and appreciate the finer details. When the mist lifts, it’s these tiny details which come together to reveal the majesty of the District in Springtime, and I can’t wait for my next adventure.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Various car parks around the lake; Coniston village
Distance: 16.5 miles (26.5 km)
Navigation: Moderate – lakeshore paths are easy to follow but take care across the commons and Beacon Tarn
Terrain: Soggy underfoot in parts
Facilities: Lots of options in Coniston
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.