Bay Limestone Round – 27 December 2021
The only bad thing I could say about this round is that my shoes afterwards have never smelt worse. Perhaps some combination of the salty marshwater at the start, some agricultural land, and plenty of mud caused the especially pungent smell. It probably didn’t help that to avoid getting cold, I got straight into the car afterwards and drove for half an hour with the heaters on before stopping and changing out of my leggings and running shoes – cue a lengthy and ungainly struggle to put on a pair of jeans while suffocating from the warmed marsh/farm/mud combo.
Anyway, other than that, it was lovely. A spur of the moment decision to make use of a full day out, on a day of settled weather but low cloud that made this round easily the best option for the day. It had been on my radar for a year or so – always looking tempting, but I’d been put off by some of the logistics. It was almost certainly going to be solo and unsupported, and I wasn’t sure about water availability, or open shops. Also, as (mainly) a fell runner, I wasn’t sure how long this round would take – the profile of height gain and distance meant there was more actual running than I was comfortable with.
One of the advantages of a winter round is that water is less of a problem. I started with one litre, and that got me through to Levens Village Shop (which is excellent) at approximately the half-way point. Then after descending from Hutton Roof Crags, there were further resupply options – the Burton-in-Kendal village shop was unfortunately closed but shortly after comes the M6 service station very close to the route. This was a much less inspiring resupply point than the Levens shop, but it’ll always be open and I quite enjoyed the surreal experience of visiting a motorway service station ¾ of the way through an ultra challenge. Everybody else appeared to have arrived there by car, unsurprisingly.
Winter also had three main disadvantages. The mud definitely slowed things down, and made some of the descents fairly slippy. It made harder work of the canal section and meant it was slower than it felt like it should have been. I had toyed with wearing fell shoes to overcome the mud problem, but think trail shoes were the right call overall to give more comfort on the sections of lane or hard-packed trails. And overall the mud wasn’t that bad, after some quite wet weather even the valley field sections were mainly ok. It was these sections that (from looking at the map) I had expected not to enjoy, but they were all pleasant and varied. The views up to the limestone escarpments from the valleys were just as good as the views from the summits.
Fallen trees were the second winter hazard, in various places blocking paths and lanes after some fierce storms earlier in the month. At one point I had to crawl on hands and knees under a fallen trunk – most others could be climbed over – just one blocked the lane completely (but it also taken out the fence which enabled a diversion into the field).
And of course, in winter there is a lot of darkness. I caught the (slightly delayed) 7.21 from Arnside, so did the first mile or so by torchlight, and then eight hours later, darkness returned as I entered the woods below Cringlebarrow. It felt very Blair Witch Project trying the navigate the confusing spiral path to the spooky summit cairn, and then back again. Perhaps there is scope for a very niche ‘found footage’ horror film where the only trace of a missing runner is an abandoned Garmin showing that its owner had wandered in circles looking for a little pile of stones deep in the wood. And then you realise the lost runner is still in there somewhere, still circling…
Anyway, this was a great place for using a GPS. I’m normally very traditionally in favour of a map and compass, but here found the ViewRanger app to be excellent. A bearing would be pretty useless as the path spirals in – the direct line unappealing unless you’re training for the Barkley Marathons. The path itself was tricky to follow in the dark, especially with the fallen trees, so a GPS was reassuring. After one of the slowest miles of the round I made it out, having found the correct ancient cairn behind a trident-shaped silver birch.
After Cringlebarrow there were also some technical bits of ground – the initial descents from both Warton Crag and King William’s Hill. The path around Heald Brow was easy to lose and needed some care to stay on course. But there were rewards too from the darkness – having the more popular end of the round to myself on a tranquil night, fantastic night views south from Warton Crag, and the welcoming sight of Arnside’s waterfront with its Christmas lights. Tom and Penny were there to cheer me on at the finish which was great, and we had a chat afterwards about the round and how it had gone.
So, apart from the smelly mud, and passing similarities to horror films, it was excellent. There are stunning views throughout, of the bay itself, the Lakes and the Dales. There are some long joyful descents where the miles flow really easily – from Hampsfell, Whitbarrow, and Scout Scar especially. Levens Village Shop is everything you hope it to be. And if you escape the woods of Cringlebarrow, the last 10 miles or so are especially beautiful and interesting, even in the dark.