Game for Gummer's How: Wild camping and fell racing on an epic Lakeland adventure

As Rob Cowen tries to convince his legs that he's a fell runner, he finds beauty in the Lakes' stark contrasts.

Ullswater shimmered in the late afternoon sun, silver flashing across its black depths. Ahead of our steamer's prow towered the mountains that would be my home for the next two nights. Slate-grey clouds gathered ominously around their snowy summits. It looked a tough training ground, but I needed to acclimatise. In 48 hours I was going to try to convince my legs that I was a fell runner.

The route of the annual Gummer's How Fell Race links the sort of extremes that make the Lake District landscape so special. The start and finish lines are drawn across the manicured lawns of the Lakeside Hotel and Spa in Windermere, but, in between, lies a physical challenge involving rowing boat and running shoe over 400m of cold lake and 321m of sheer fell.

With this year's race scheduled for 16 June, it seemed the perfect time to preview the contrasting worlds spanned by this Cumbrian tradition. My plan was to earn an evening of lavish pampering at the Lakeside by first blazing a more temperate trail: two nights of wild camping among the mountains, topped off with a dizzying attempt to master Gummer's How.

Blinking away the image of a post-race Jacuzzi and G&T, I turned my attention to matters in hand on the steamer's deck. A British ensign flapped on a brass pole, just like the start of some great Victorian expedition, a feeling enhanced in no small part by my army officer friend, Major Alex Price, double-checking his rucksack's contents. "GPS, waterproof layer, stove, thermals. Have you got the OS map?" I patted my pocket and busied myself with my own bag audit.

Wild camping is tolerated in the Lake District National Park provided walkers pitch above 500m, away from farmland, and abide by the etiquette of arriving late, leaving early, never lighting fires and leaving no trace. So, contrary to its name, wild camping is an ordered affair where food, waterproofing and warmth take packing priority. Nevertheless, the ratio of one pair of underpants to three cans of chicken curry troubled me.

Halfway down the lake, the steamer nudged Howtown's pier and I lifted what felt like a ton of equipment and food on to my back. Fusedale valley lay under a bruising sky and we set a good pace up its rapidly inclining side. At High Street, an 800m-high Roman road that once linked forts at Penrith and Ambleside, the track levelled. We watched in awe as the sun sank behind distant fells, before receiving a quick reminder of this region's wild mood swings. Cloud gathered in seconds and a driving snow shower had us throwing on extra layers.

Following in the footsteps of ancient centurions, we walked west along the summit path, with Ullswater below. The black mass of hills at night was like a rolling sea and after cresting High Raise we dived into it, dropping 200m in altitude until the light of our head torches picked out some flat, dry ground on the lee side of the aptly named Rest Dodd.

After a hot curry cooked in our tent's porch, sleep came quickly. Rain lashed us all night, but it was only the golden glow of dawn that flooded the tent.

Brewing up tea and porridge we enjoyed a full 360-degree panorama: Place Fell, Angletarn Pikes, Ramps Gill valley and the mirror-glass surface of Brotherswater were revealed as the morning mist lifted. Red deer trotted along a ridge behind us, the descendants of William the Conqueror's herd and a legacy of a Norman hunting ground stretching west to the foothills of Helvellyn, our next destination.

We clambered down into the Patterdale valley and wolfed bacon-and-egg butties at St Patrick's Boat Landing café in Glenridding. The excuse to gorge is a perk of testing yourself physically, and testing ourselves was next on the menu. Helvellyn is England's third-highest mountain. Crunching through snow at 945m, after heaving our tired knees up its eastern flank, our bodies coursing with endorphins, we were granted a rare perspective; the Lakeland landscape in all its glory under a cobalt sky. Traversing down Swirral Edge we chanced upon the perfect camping spot, among pines, high above Glenridding.

I woke ready to give Gummer's How my best. So we picked up the car at the village below and drove 30 minutes south to Windermere, and the Victorian grandeur of the Lakeside Hotel. Its wood-panelled lounges, log fires and deep sofas were instantly soporific. As if to tease us, the trip to our rooms took us past the glass walls of the spa where people wrapped in bathrobes wandered from pool to steam room.

After dumping our rucksacks, we jogged to the starting line. The staff must be well used to watching lunatics amassing on their lawns, for no one seemed concerned as we took our starting positions and dashed for the hotel rowing boat. Despite the odd dousing, we made good time over a choppy Windermere and began the climb up to the fell. But at 30 minutes, we still hadn't reached the top and were lagging a good four minutes behind the race record. It didn't matter. The views from Gummer's How were worth conceding time: the southern Lakeland fells and forested hills stretching all the way to the sea.

We crossed the finish line at 55 minutes, and as the sun set we were easing our aching muscles into the Lakeside's Jacuzzi. Our tired legs could barely navigate the hotel's lovely firelit nooks and crannies to find the restaurant, but the smell of roasted food and the sound of a piano led us to the dining room, where we feasted on sea bass, local pigeon and chateaubriand – without a can of curry in sight.

Travel essentials

Staying there

Lakeside Hotel and Spa (015395 30001; lakesidehotel.co.uk) has doubles from £199, including breakfast.

Visiting there

Ullswater Steamers (017684 82229; ullswater-steamers.co.uk) run between Glenridding, Howtown and Pooley Bridge.

Running there

The Gummer's How Fell Race is on 16 June 2012; for details, email dbi57@hotmail.com.

More information

golakes.co.uk

News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
news
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaning Manager - York and Bradford

    £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Drivers

    £18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...

    Day In a Page

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower