This piece was originally written for Sidetracked Magazine, in partnership with Merrell and Blacks. Photos: Ben Read, Film: Dan Wildey
Wind lashed against our tent, but the early morning light grew brighter and lured me from the comforting burrow of my sleeping bag. I unzipped the door and clambered out to meet Alex, pausing for a moment to take in our camp next to the choppy waters of Styhead Tarn. Dark skies threatened in the distance.
Looking down towards the valley, I stood at the headwaters of our journey ahead, which would eventually lead us from this classic Lakeland honeypot to an estuary on Cumbria’s west coast. Exposed to the elements, we packed up beneath the lurking cloud, enticed by talk of freshly brewed coffee back at our Borrowdale base.
Alex, a local guide allured by the beauty of the Lakes, is familiar with these parts. My friend and accomplice, he agreed to join me on this ambitious route from source to sea.
Hardy Herdwick sheep plodded past us on the fellside as we descended the narrow path towards Derwentwater. Carefully, we picked our way down into the shadowy jaws below. As moody skies transformed to flashes of vibrant green, Alex and I took shelter from the intermittent rain. In awe, we watched the sequence of waterfalls bite down with power and persistence, swallowing boulders and scraggy branches that toothpicked between the rocks. Steep, sharp edges called for careful footing – a welcome excuse for much-needed caffeine.
The cosy bolthole of Borrowdale Youth Hostel beckoned. Warming fingers and toes, we ate a deliciously cooked breakfast and sipped steaming cups of coffee before armouring ourselves against the showers drumming down outside. Looming gorges closed in further down the track. We meandered past fantastical caves and quarries, the expanse of Lakeland pastures finally exposed as we reached the waterside transition.
Lacing together our adventure from tarn to coast required some assistance from willing friends. Briefly, Alex and I reunited with them at the east end of Derwentwater and wasted little time in assembling our boards. With a swift shift to chilly waters, we paddled towards the boathouse jetty on the opposite shore. Alex’s endless jokes kept smiles on our faces; laughter drowned out any fear of falling in.
Stroke after stroke, we skirted its edges. Thick trees softened the banks, whilst Cat Bells lay like a sleeping, razor-backed beast to the west. Gathering distance, we tried to shy away from the gusts as they grew in frequency and ferocity. Side winds gave the white-capped waves reason to overturn us, and our only waterborne companion was a ferry sending its threatening wake towards us. The nose of my board wallowed under its turbulence, but our Merrell Choprock’s came into their own for this water-based section of the journey.
Soaked and seeking solace, Alex and I found shelter on one of the many islands. We took the chance to explore its intricate pockets – a tiny slice of the Lakes that has inspired many a legend. We hid beneath the trees and lit the stove and soon a welcome brew brought frozen fingers back to life. As the storm abated, we made our final push. Our original plan was an evening camp atop Skiddaw, but thick, saturated cloud masked its dominant force against the skyline. We decided instead to stay low. Adventures often attest to an incalculable end; our wild camp would have to wait.
Rainwater continued to pour down from above our heads and lap beneath our feet.
Over the other side and safely sheltered by the marina, we retreated back to our Borrowdale hideout. Sharing a beer or two, we studied the map and pondered the following day’s fate.
The next morning, reacquainted with our boards at the jetty, April showers coalesced with slivers of sunshine as we readied ourselves to paddle. Bridging Bassenthwaite Lake and Derwentwater, the middle river was our direct means of passage, lined with low-hanging trees and an abundance of wildlife. Its rocky shallows grabbed at us as we negotiated the fast-moving flow. Herons fed happily to the side, and the call of a kingfisher caused some excitement – but eyes were forced to the front in order to stay afloat. Once again, the rain was biblical.
Our moment of calm came from under an overlying bridge; a chance to hide out, refuel, and ready ourselves against the bracing weather. As we neared the mouth, we willed our paddles to push us forward. Exposure to the wind sucked the energy from our arms as we reached a small bank for a rest. Gusts howled and rain raged down in sheets, drenching every inch of the landscape around us. Blue skies in the distance offered up some hope of it subsiding, and with hoods tightly closed over our heads, we waited patiently – cold, soaked, and shivering, but loving the intensity and the challenge.
Bassenthwaite is under strict regulation due to its rich biodiversity. We’d duly sought permission to cross the lake. With our permit tucked safely in my bag – and as the wind eased – we braved the choppy waters, stealing momentary looks towards Skiddaw. The fell’s gravitas was now apparent as the sun snuck through, but our attention was drawn to the search for otters and osprey nesting nearby. Waves crashed against our boards, engulfing our bags and feet. In this vast expanse of water there were few places to hide.
We reached the other side where the shallow water funnelled into the flow of the Lower Derwent. After dismounting, we passed boards once again back to trusted friends who’d followed our progress; now it was time to travel by foot past lowland pastures and bridleways to our next transition.
Miles in our legs, we reached Isel Bridge and made our way back to the watery channel. As we continued the route, calm waters collided with fords and fallen trees, forcing us to wade sections of the river. Manoeuvring our feet from board to riverbed, rocks would snatch at the fins from time to time, reducing us to our knees.
With spring surrounding us, bleats from new-born lambs chorused as we made our way downstream. We wove between freshly sown fields and segments of forest until finally we turned the last corner to see Cockermouth Castle, marking the end of our day’s endeavour.Ready for our final strokes, our third and final day would lead us to the harbour mouth at Workington. The meandering flow of the river now passed by towns and villages – a sharp contrast to the previous day’s unruly wildness. As the watercourse grew ever wider and deeper, we edged ever closer.
A weir forced us to portage – a chance to switch our attention and rhythmic efforts from arms to feet. Laden with gear, we skirted the river’s edge by footpath, then retreated back to paddle the final stretch towards the sea.Industrial architecture dominated as we passed under road bridges and bypassed the railway line. Clambering out one final time, we celebrated the last stretch, made with soggy, tired feet. Fishing boats scattered the sound and a slack tide made lighter work of our closing strokes. Faced with the Irish Sea only metres ahead, the gaping mouth marked the end. Now it was time to settle on the sinking, sandy edges, clumsily carrying our boards and slipping over seaweed, which popped beneath our feet.A cheer and a wide smile marked the end of our crusade. As the sun won its place in the sky, we sat together on the shingle, reflecting on our very wet – and at times wild – west-coast journey from source to sea.