May 2016

St Bees to Kirkby Stephen

I’d planned to recce the first ~85 miles of the Northern Traverse, from St. Bees to Kirkby Stephen over the early May bank holiday weekend 4 weeks before the race. At which point I should have recovered from the Viking Way and ramped up hill training. In fact I’d done very little training, in an attempt to get my knees to stop aching. And Fruitbat (one of our pet rabbits) put a further spanner in the works by suddenly becoming very ill. He needed syringe feeding and several different types of medicine, which was a 2 person job (I catch & hold, the OH administers the medicine). I initially postponed the recce by a week. But, while Fruitbat was recovering, he was refusing to eat properly and still on the medicine. 85 miles in 2 (rather than 3) days, 2 weeks out is far from ideal. But if I wanted to see the first ‘half’ of the route I didn’t have any choice, and it would be useful to see how my knees held up.

I couldn’t leave work early enough to get to St. Bees on the Friday night, so instead I stayed in Whitehaven, in a Wetherspoons hotel which was cheap and (to my surprise) quiet and surprisingly poncy. I got the 1st train to St. Bees and set off in gorgeous sunshine. I was carrying a big pack with sleeping gear and, given my dodgy knees, the plan was to walk the whole way. I wasn’t moving much faster than some walkers (and on the rocky descent to Honister mine slower even). But, apart from the occasional twinge, the knees were OK so I was happy.

I stopped at a phonebox in Seathwaite to call home, and check on Fruitbat, before heading up Greenup edge. It was a gorgeous evening to be out in the hills. As darkness came my heading started pounding though (I’m prone to migraines in/after times of stress, and the last few months have been pretty bad). I took some painkillers but they didn’t do anything, so I decided to stop for the night, sooner than planned after Grassmere. I was using a new lightweight bivvy bag for the first time. I’d checked out how the poles worked when I’d bought it. But that was 6 months ago and, with my head feeling like it was in a vice, I couldn’t figure it out now. So I just crawled into the bag in my sleeping bag and zipped it most of the way up. A couple of hours later I woke up soaking wet and gasping for breath. I initially thought it had rained and the bag had (like the one it was replacing...) turned out not to be waterproof. However on sticking my head out I discovered the grass was dry and it was the condensation from my own breath. Evidently the bag wasn’t as breathable as my heavier weight one, and I hadn’t left a big enough ventilation gap. Looking on the bright side (after the sleepless night I spent in a soaking wet down sleeping bag a couple of years ago) I was using a synthetic sleeping bag and was just about warm enough to get back to sleep.

I set off again at dawn, wearing all of the clothes I was carrying. I still wasn’t feeling great (having not eaten properly the night before) and was thinking about the easiest way to bale out and get to a train station (back to Grassmere or onwards to Patterdale or Shap?). I quickly warmed up and as the Sun came up properly started feeling better. On the decent from Grisedale tarn (where I briefly felt jealous of the people still sleeping in tents) I made a silly nav error crossing what I later discovered the guidebook called a ‘tempting bridge’ over the river and following a parallel path.

I stopped at the Post Office in Patterdale (alongside walkers who were setting off for the day) and attempted to stock up on food, but the only thing they had that I fancied was chocolate coated Kendal mint cake. The slog up to Kidsty Pike wasn’t too bad, but the decent was too steep for my liking (even without dodgy knees) and I crawled along Derwentwater (even getting over-taken by a walker) feeling sleepy. It had become clear that I didn’t have a hope of getting to Kirkby Stephen for the last train home. Buses run through Shap, but not it turned out on Sundays.

I stopped at the chip shop in Shap and had a proper sit down meal, which made me feel much better, and (after phoning the other half) decided to press on through the night. The next ~20 miles, through flat-ish fields, went slowly but smoothly. However I did (without realising it at the time) manage an interesting variation on the route at one point. A case of never being more than ~20 metres from where I was supposed to be, but on the wrong side of a wall. On the final climb before Kirkby Stephen I saw, for the first time, what I’m fairly sure were shooting stars.

I eventually arrived at Kirkby Stephen at ~2am, only 8 hours after the last train! One of the waiting rooms was open, and heated, so I settled down for ~4 hours of fairly cosy sleep before the 1st train home. Where I snoozed some more and felt sorry for the commuter who had to sit next to (not particularly fragrant) me.