Backpacking Series

Walking the Cumbria Way... With a Monkey on Your Back

Inspired to take on something big and meaningful, Richard Holdsworth decided to carry his toddler son Benjamin along the 120km Cumbria Way. With a bit of help from friends, family and complete strangers, the unlikely father-and-son duo managed it this summer. Here's how it went...

Click. That was it. I was committed. Two months earlier I'd voiced a half-baked idea to my ever supportive but quietly incredulous wife, her half smile and reply of "Riiiight…" feeling all too familiar. With the decision that I would do it for charity, the idea crystalised; it was going to happen. All I had to do now was actually do it.

Richard and Benjamin above Langstrath  © Richard Holdsworth
Richard and Benjamin above Langstrath
© Richard Holdsworth

Before our little boy, Benjamin, was born we discovered that he may have a developmental heart condition. We were given incredible support by both Guy's & St Thomas' and the Evelina Children's Hospital. The birth was a bit of a marathon. We'd been in the hospital for seven days, I'd been sleeping in the bedside chair for 6 nights and my wife had gone through a pretty gruelling time herself… We had felt the full range of emotions through that sleep-deprived, crazy, hazy time, but stepping out in to the sunshine, on the banks of the Thames with the news that he had been given the all clear was when my emotions overtook and I cried for the first time in a long while.

Our relief at being able to leave the Evelina after such a relatively short time, was in vivid contrast to the many other families and children we saw in that beautiful, sad, joyful, hopeful and sometimes desperate place. I felt I could not just walk away without trying to express our thanks to the staff and some sense of solidarity with the families whose news was not so good and whose journeys were going to be longer and far more painful than the one I had planned: I was going to backpack the Cumbria Way. Carrying my baby boy.

The Cumbria Way is a 120km trek through the heart of the Lake District. South to North, it begins in the historic market town of Ulverston, winds its way over the outlying fells and along the lake-shore towards Coniston. It snakes its way through the Coppermine Valleys and sneaks, via Elterwater, into Langdale. It grinds over Stake Pass and freewheels down Langstrath to Stonethwaite, along the western shore of Derwent Water to Keswick. It then strikes out into that lonely sweep of purple moorland north of Skiddaw, over High Pike and down to the village of Caldbeck. Caldbeck to the finish at Carlisle, and particularly the last 8km from Dalston, feel a bit bloody-minded. A fractured linkup of riverbank, trainline, factory and field.

Both clearly loving it...  © Richard Holdsworth
Both clearly loving it...
© Richard Holdsworth

My plan was to be independent, self-sufficient; father and son striding out together. I relished the challenge. I know my limitations and my strengths, how far I can push myself and what I'm willing to endure. I'd also categorically decided that Benjamin would not suffer at all. At just over 13 months, he had no concept of 'digging deep' or 'hanging in there': if at any point I felt he was struggling, I would pull the plug. I pushed aside the feelings that there just might be a big, resounding, well-deserved "I told you so" coming my way.

So, click. My JustGiving page stared back at me: "Benjamin and Daddy – 'Riding my Daddy for 6 days along the Cumbria Way'". It was done and I went to bed. As I lay there I began to think: A bit cutesy? I wondered. Is it ridiculous? Is it reckless? Is it genuinely irresponsible? I suddenly had visions of cold calls from Childline or the Social Services. Bugger, what had I done!? First thing in the morning, I went back to my computer wondering how to retract my page. What had I been thinking!?!

"Good luck, Richard and Benjamin! Very honourable cause. Emma xxx". The message was from an old family friend whom I had not seen for years. I couldn't believe it. But there was another, from Jess whom I'd met on my gap year, and hadn't seen in 15 years. These people had reached out to me across the divisions of time and personal circumstance; they'd given me a resounding slap on the back and a firm push in the right direction. Now I was committed.

I chose a week in the middle of my school summer holiday, August 5th-10th: visions of long, warm, sunny days mild nights. We trained a little: weekends camping in Dorset walks on the coast and in the countryside; I acquired the extra kit we would need. Benjamin's training seemed to consist mainly of gaining weight and developing hazardously erratic mobility, neither of which I was certain would come in handy on the walk. As the weeks ticked by, my initially aspirational financial target of £1000 got closer. We passed it, passed £1250 and with two weeks to go, we passed £1500. I was truly humbled by the generosity and the faith that my family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances showed in me.

My plan was to be independent, self-sufficient; father and son striding out together. I relished the challenge. I'd also categorically decided that Benjamin would not suffer at all...

I was very conscious of the weight I would carry. Twenty years of climbing trips has beaten lightweight thinking into me. I planned to take no sleeping bag for me, just bed down in a silk liner and my jacket. I carried the lightest cooking/eating set-up I could construct – a mixture of lightweight gas burner and Trangia pan – and resigned myself to the bare minimum of clothing. Benjamin's clothing items were more numerous, but given their size, no more voluminous. He had agreed to go superlight on the toys: just his concentric coloured cups, a mini cuddly owl and two books he'd been working through recently, real page-turners apparently. His sleepsuit supplemented with my down gilet (he needed the extra-insulation because he just wouldn't stay on the sleeping mat) and the requisite ointments and medicines that little ones need.

Then there were the 'supplies'. High energy breakfast, lunch and dinners for us both, plenty of snacks to keep up morale, plenty of fruit to keep him healthy, milk, hot drinks, nappies, wipes, spare gas. I arranged it all on the dining table: it looked monstrous. The plan, however, had never been to carry all this, but to do drop-offs along the route. I'd deliberately chosen the Cumbria Way because of its proximity to civilisation. I'd carry what I needed for the day, replenishing stocks of nappies, wipes, underwear and snacks each evening, then donate anything I didn't use as I left camp each morning and in this way keep the weight down. Even so, with all this and Benjamin, I was carrying a load that varied between 22-28kg.

The smaller the child, the more you've got to carry...  © Richard Holdsworth
The smaller the child, the more you've got to carry...
© Richard Holdsworth

Alighting from the train in Ulverston I immediately suspected I wasn't the only person there to do the walk. Several heavy looking bags bobbed along the platform, tentative nods lead to cautiously friendly conversations. We seemed to appreciate the camaraderie of a shared adventure ahead, but were wary of sharing it too closely. I knew that sticking to my own pace was going to be important for both me and Benjamin and I suspect the others were unconvinced by the prospect of a 13-month-old accompanying them. We wished each other luck with a, "Maybe see you en route!" and drifted apart.

The first stage is the most intricate. Content that I had enough to think about, my map was tucked in my bag and I navigated with the Viewranger app, which is superb. This allowed us to just enjoy walking together, never really worrying about route-finding. We climbed through farm and pasture, woodland and hedgerow; the glinting estuary sands behind us, the glowering hills ahead. Stopping for lunch by the stream at Gawthwaite, I felt a real sense of entering the Lake District: the road here is the last 'A' road till you're north of Keswick. Benjamin played and paddled in the sunshine. Two of the groups we'd met at Ulverston passed us - it was nice to see that our pace was comparable.

In the early afternoon, we came to Beacon Tarn. This is a quiet, secluded place. Water lilies adorn the still depths and the air hums with damsel flies and the heady scent of heather. At its southern tip, the tarn-bed planes off gently, inviting you in: it is irresistible. Benjamin dozed, and though I'd recently passed some fellow "Way" walkers, I stripped off and swam. It was for these quiet moments of perfection that I'd wanted to bring Benjamin here. My mind telescoped on through the route, excited to lay another stone on my memory-cairns of these places.

In the evening my sister, Kate, met us. She'd taken my supplies to Coniston and walked back along the route with her dogs. We were all in good spirits and spent a weary, happy evening at the campsite chatting to fellow campers (who were in various states of inebriation). Everything seemed to be working, the carrier, the routine - short breaks for him every hour, an hour's break every four - the rations, the nappy changes, my body. That night Benjamin slept soundly. Just keep this up for another 5 days and hey presto: success.

What was that? I awoke the next morning to what sounded like someone steamrollering bubble-wrap outside. The tent walls bowed, it dawned on me: rain! But not rain like, "Oh, it's raining", rain like End Of Days rain. Diluvian; Torrential; Cats and Dogs; Stair-rods. It was like Coniston Water itself had gone up to roost the night before, slept in, and now, realising the time, was furiously trying to get back down for the day's first pleasure cruise. The peaks, the fells, the intake walls, the pastures, the town, all wiped out by grey nothingness. Packing up a tent in this kind of weather is miserable; doing so whilst trying to keep a 1-year-old dry is desperate. Kate was a superstar: she entertained Benji in the deluge whilst I packed down. My boots were getting sodden, the prospect of another 100km suddenly seemed awfully daunting. I said a quiet prayer of thanks for my waterproof 'sealskinz' socks.

Made it to Borrowdale...  © Richard Holdsworth
Made it to Borrowdale...
© Richard Holdsworth

Hunkering down in Herdwicks café, we took stock. 20km at 4km/h plus extras: I reckoned 6 ½ hours. Kate had taken my camping kit to try and dry it off and return it to me at the Old Dungeon Ghyll that evening. My poor tent was reduced to a sod of beached kelp; an enormous glob of whale snot. Benjamin was raring to go, doing laps around the café (the staff were as patient as saints). My dad's mantra of, "I think it's lifting", ran through my mind, but it was desperately, comically hopeful. Nothing to it; we just had to go. In warm, dry clothes, inside his dry-suit, under the waterproof canopy of the carrier, I knew Benjamin would be ok. My 'go light' waterproof and non-existent waterproof trousers did not promise the same for me.

We'd found that perfect peace I'd sought, alone together on the mountain... And it was at this moment that I looked down and saw that Benjamin was gleefully wringing the biggest, squishiest sheep turd I've ever seen

Selcouth (adj. Origin. English) Unfamiliar, rare, strange, and yet marvellous: the area between Coniston and Elterwater has something magical about it, a tapestry of ancient woodland, ramparts of rock sculpted by cascading force, winding paths and hollow ways. Your horizon folds in, views are fleeting, sounds muted. The rain makes a roaring inferno of the tree canopy; white noise, white water. At Tarn Hows we stop to rest, the water's surface rain-blasted into a mini cityscape: six-inch skyscrapers rise and fall in a mesmerising display. Two groups of Japanese tourists shuffle through, hopelessly taking shelter under sodden, dripping trees. I feel a little sorry for them, sad that this is their Lakes experience. In a storm lull I let Benjamin down. Oblivious to the weather he lurches straight for the water's edge shrieking at the water-birds and paddling to his ankles. I'm mindful of Wainwright's musing that "There is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing". The tourists catch my eye: I'm not convinced.

Over an exhausting lunch stop at The Britannia Inn at Elterwater (after a morning in the carrier, breaks rain-rationed, Benji was ready to run, I was fit to flop – thank you to their very understanding staff and very friendly clientele!) athe rain abated and we enjoyed a stroll down Langdale in the mizzle. Reaching the Old Dungeon Ghyll, I put Benji-and-bag down, my feet up and nursed a pint. I started to think about the evening's challenges. Kate arrived with my miraculously dry kit just in time for the heavens to re-open. As the rain thrummed on the tarpaulin and plumed over the sides, I started to feel rather despairing. I couldn't spend the night like this, keep Benji cooped up in the tent, pack up our bedraggled, heaving mess and carry it all the next day. It wasn't fair; it wasn't why we were here. I tried the hotel, I called some hostels, all fully booked. I started to consider jacking it in – I'd planned for rain, but this was ridiculous. It was at this moment that a gentleman sitting nearby, asked us what we were doing (good question). He said he was meeting some friends of his in the pub and that they had a place nearby where they might be able to put me up. Armed with baby in hand and my most endearing 'pity me' demeanour, we went to knock on the door…

Lone tree in the northern fells  © Richard Holdsworth
Lone tree in the northern fells
© Richard Holdsworth

…What is it they say about the kindness of strangers. That evening we were given our own room, means to dry our kit (again) and warm comfortable beds. They cooked me steak, fed me wine and kindled the fire of faith in my fellow man to a roar. They wanted to remain anonymous, but gents, if you read this, thank you, undoubtedly you rescued our journey.

It was whilst I was being hosted that I got the chance to check the forecast for the rest of the week. The next two days were looking respectable – isolated showers sunny spells – Friday, on the other hand looked very different: amber weather warnings across the region, lightning storms, risk of flooding. Not good. Friday was the longest day, Keswick to Caldbeck, almost 30km. It was also the highest day, the most exposed and the least escapable. The carrier has a metal frame, I was carrying two metal walking poles; I simply couldn't expose us to lightning storms for so long. The options were to take a rest day on the Friday, but I was reluctant to be out for longer than the 6 days I'd already planned, or to try get ahead of the weather by combining the next two days' walk in to one. I decided it had to be done. Langdale to Keswick, 25 km including climbing over Stake Pass. This hurt a little, not because of the distance but because I'd really looked forward to luxuriating in this part. The plan had been to finish walking in the early afternoon each day and give Benjamin opportunity to explore and enjoy this beautiful area.

The next day dawned bright - high clouds dappled the blue sky and the air sparkled, jet-washed clean. Heartfelt thanks and farewells exchanged, Benjamin and I set out into the upper reaches of Langdale. At our backs, the valley shimmered; ahead, Stake Pass reared. Head down, plod on, a familiar rhythm took over. Steadily we rose above the valley floor. A pit stop: nappy change, poke ants' nest, quick snack, waterproofs off, sit in, then eat mud - clothes changed, lesson learned. The steepness gave way to a rumpled, tussocked plateau. The myopic view of the climb exploded into the panoramic of the col, our way ahead no longer piled on top of us but running away to the north. Stake Pass is a watershed, a natural dividing line of land, weather, people, history. From this point the waterflow is no longer against you but with you. It is a subtle but profound shift, heading down in to Langstrath, I felt carried along on the current.

From conception to reflection this journey evolved. What began as my attempt to teach Benjamin about the landscape and about independence became an education for me about community and support

At the top of Langstrath there is a tree, an age-old coppiced birch whose massive moss-thatched trunk is hollowed out, and gnarled wood weather-worn iron hard. The huge canopy was in full leaf, a pageant of green. An ancient galleon cresting a sea of rock and upland pasture, the tree's dual nature of ephemeral and shiftless, green and grey, projected onto and resounded by the close-gathered fells. Time is measured by different means here, by season and by nature's ebb. The modern obsession to 'use your time' evaporates and we immerse ourselves in timelessness. Again, we found that perfect peace I'd sought, alone together on the mountain. It was at this moment, the peak of my dewy-eyed poetic philosophising, that I looked down and saw that Benjamin was gleefully wringing the biggest, squishiest sheep turd I've ever seen. My bucolic bubble burst leaving behind a coating of sticky green slime.

The valley was as beautiful as ever. We jealously strode past people playing in the river, on through the treeline, on past the campsite and the pub, jaw set, beneath the crenulations of Castle Crag and into Borrowdale. We passed the route's halfway point, an innocuous by-lane that just about warranted a photograph. Along Derwent Water's edge, I shunned the siren call of the ferry. However, my day's efforts began to take their toll - my feet and shoulders ached and it was getting late – Benjamin's patience was wearing thin. Unsure where I was going to stay that night (my booking was for the following day – apparently immovable), I decided to call the cavalry and see if a friend's house in Portinscale was free. Incredibly it was. I shrugged off feelings of copping out as soon as I realised that at 7.30pm and still an hour out I had to think of Benjamin. Arriving into Portinscale, my brother, Chris, met us with our supplies and consolation beer.

Made it to the summit of High Pike. It's mostly downhill from here...  © Richard Holdsworth
Made it to the summit of High Pike. It's mostly downhill from here...
© Richard Holdsworth

I've always loved Keswick, but the following morning it was a termite's nest of tourists, a jostling, indifferent hubbub which I was glad to leave. We slogged up to Latrigg, contoured the rounded flank of Lonscale Fell with spectacular views behind us - St John's in the Vale round to the Newlands - and turned north on an eyrie-path over Glenderaterra Beck, our perspective flipping on its end. The river rushes up to meet you at an expanse of high plateau swathed in heather, a hanging valley presided over by the austere Skiddaw House. This one-time hunting lodge turned farmstead is now England's highest hostel. We took refuge in the stout stone building and ate lunch. The interior is reminiscent of the black and white photos of Scott's Antarctic hut: lonely on an August afternoon; midwinter here must feel like the end of the earth.

The moorland is otherworldly: a roiling ocean of purple and green that fizzes and boils with life. Uncountable insects and furtive birds flit soundlessly over the close-cropped heather, it is a carnival of hush, a riot of quiet. Walking through this stillness frees you. For every mile I covered, my mind wandered twice as far. You become a connoisseur of thoughts, the curator of your own consciousness selecting ideas to experience at leisure. Even Benjamin's constant giggles, raspberries and calls of "Baa!!!" at every sheep we see (not rare round these parts) fall reverently still. We tiptoe past a stone stell and beneath a Scot's Pine, constructions of man and nature which echo the dual nature of this landscape.

The route cuts sharply leftward up Grains Gill past the disused Carrock Wolfram Mines. The path here is the worst of the entire route, broken, rocky, muddy. I fought up this midge-infested obstacle course, legs burning from the toil, eyes burning from my salty sweat and the shards of evening sun. I experienced my own Captain Ahab moment, cursing violently at a passing butterfly that fluttered too close and was mightily relieved to reach the whale-back crest beneath Great Lingy Hill. Even with spectacles so rose-tinted as to make Elton John's toes curl, I cannot confess to having enjoyed this climb. The ridge itself though: what a joy! The upland grass burnished gold in the evening light. We paused at the Lingy Hut, then headed on to the route's high point and the last of the Lakeland hills: High Pike. Your eye wheels through the changes in landscape: Skiddaw in the near distance, the Eden Valley to the east, the floodplains of the Caldew to the north. Downhill from there on in at least one sense!

I won't dwell on the journey from here, the final 30km. Suffice it to say that there are moments where it is lovely: Caldbeck itself, Dentonside Wood, the river round Rose Castle, the little town of Dalston. But there is too much tarmac, too much charmless industry and too much dog poo along the final approach to Carlisle. We were lucky that the forecast weather, which made such an impact on our journey, didn't make it past the northern fells and the final day was interspersed sun and showers. We made the train with literally seconds to spare (desperately speed-waddling down the platform was not really how I, or my tired legs, had wanted this adventure to end) The journey back to Millom round the coast was extremely beautiful especially so as the Lakeland fells were crowned for most of it with a spectacular double rainbow.

From conception to reflection this journey evolved. What began as my attempt to teach Benjamin about the landscape and about independence became an education for me about community and support: my sister Kate, my brother Chris and his partner Kat, the gents in Langdale, Dave and his parents, everyone who encouraged and supported us – I don't know if I could have done it without them but the truth is I don't mind. We were reminded that we are surrounded by kindness, from strangers, from family and from everyone in between. A visit to the Lake District became as much a visit to myself, which from the hubbub of London can feel all the more distant, and to my relationship with my son. We raised £1638 but perhaps, above all, we learned this is just the beginning…

  • If you feel inspired to donate, see Richard's page on Justgiving

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