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Macmillan Mighty Hike is a tough test for a marathon walk in the Lake District

By Chris Saunderson

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The hikers raised £700,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support.
The hikers raised £700,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support.

If you are going to put your body through the trials and tribulations of a marathon distance hike on a hot summer's day, then you are as well to ensure you have the most stunning of scenery to soothe your mind at the same time.

And while we have some spectacular scenery of our own in the north of Scotland, the Lake District is about as beautiful as it gets.

The Ullswater Way was the route for the Macmillan Mighty Hike last month – a journey of 26.1 miles circumnavigating one of the lakes at the heart of the national park.

More than 1500 people had signed up for the charity hike in support of Macmillan Cancer Support.

The initial idea to take part came from my brother Steven, who wanted to go 'Sightseeing for dad'. Our father, John Saunderson, died in January 2020, just before the pandemic, after a long battle with leukaemia.

In high spirits, Chris (front) and Steven Saunderson.
In high spirits, Chris (front) and Steven Saunderson.

Over the years he always enjoyed walking in the countryside with his wife and our mum, Helen, but a range of chronic health conditions limited his mobility later in life.

So, the walk was two-fold in its purpose – to help raise some money for a charity that supports people with cancer and to go sightseeing in a world renowned location.

We were in the first wave of hikers to depart just after 7am from the historic Dalemain House, near Penrith, which is famous for its marmalade – and having sampled it two days after the walk, I can concur that it is indeed a marvellous marmalade.

We were introduced gently to the route with lush green farmland and a forest trail that took us to Pooley Bridge, home of the Ullswater Steamers, tourist boats that offer trips around the lake, before heading higher into the hills.

The views over the lake were simply breathtaking. Plans to transform it into a reservoir were thwarted in 1962 when the Ullswater Preservation Society, with Norman Lord Birkett QC the chief mover, came into being and it is now a haven for locals and tourists alike, and its outstanding natural habitat is home to a diverse wildlife and bird population.

The lake is a magnet for watersports enthusiasts and hikers, surrounded as it is by some of the highest peaks in the Lake District, including Helvellyn, which stands at 950 metres and is the third highest mountain in England.

Canoeing, kayaking, sailing, jet skiing, paddle boarding, wild water swimming, fishing – the lake is an aquatic paradise.

And the narrow country roads that twist their way around the edge of the lake are a real draw for groups of cyclists, which makes for a congested scene with cars and a fair sprinkling of camper vans added into the mix.

The first half of the hike was relatively straightforward under foot and the pace was good. We arrived in Glenridding, which means 'glen overgrown with bracken', near the foot of Kirkstone Pass. Far from being overgrown with bracken, or anything else for that matter, Glenridding was a picturesque village, sandwiched between the mountains and the lake.

It was jam-packed with locals and visitors and we returned there 24 hours after the walk in full tourist mode, aboard one of the aforementioned Ullswater Steamers, enjoying a paddle in the lake and an afternoon coffee in a local café, before the hour-long boat trip back to Pooley Bridge.

Glenridding was also the halfway lunch stop for the Mighty Hike, and the end of the line for those doing the half marathon.

After a quick pasta lunch and obligatory pictures with the lake and mountains in the background, we were back on our way through nearby Patterdale and heading back down the other side of the lake.

We had completed the first 13 miles in around four-and-a-half hours, which was good going by my modest mountain hiking standards.

The beautiful setting of Ullswater.
The beautiful setting of Ullswater.

However, this was a hike of two halves, to use a well-worn footballing analogy, and it became clear very quickly that this was going to be a different kettle of fish.

My mis-spent youth, 20s, 30s and increasingly infrequent playing days in my 40s, have left me with glass ankles and dodgy knees, so the undulating rocky coastal path, with intermittent sections with protruding tree roots, started to take a heavy toll from miles 13 to 18.

It seemed relentless and after my brother had stopped a few times to wait on me, I then gave him the instruction to power on ahead, which he was happy to do as he was in desperate need of a comfort break at the final pit stop at the 18 mile mark!

I slipped into plodding mode, with frequent stops to let the hordes of green-shirted Macmillan hikers pass me on the narrower sections. It felt like I was in reverse at times and it became a bit disheartening.

The sun was beating down by this point and my level of perspiration was at its maximum. Never in my life had I felt more like admitting defeat.

The saving grace was the money we had raised (in excess of £1500 between us), so giving up was never an option and the fact I was in the middle of nowhere, so there was no easy option to 'walk-in'.

The final loo and refreshment stop at 18 miles provided fresh impetus and I was able to drag my weary frame across the rolling fields and rough paths to Lowther Castle, our finishing point.

This truly was a mighty hike, superbly organised by the team from Macmillan, and breathtaking in its sheer beauty.

This was my first visit to the Lake District in over 40 years but it won't be my last, and I will be back sooner rather than later.

With so-called staycationing becoming the holiday of choice for many people as we continue to plot our way through the coronavirus pandemic, I can think of few more idyllic and relaxing destinations than Ullswater.

Brothers in arms. Able to smile and relax at the end of their walk.
Brothers in arms. Able to smile and relax at the end of their walk.

Route details

Macmillan Mighty Hike

Start Dalemain House, Penrith

Finish Lowther Castle, Cumbria

Distance 26 miles / 42km

Ascent 1012 metres, with maximum elevation of 366 metres

Time 10 hrs 6 mins 41 secs

Heading off from Patterdale and back into the hills.
Heading off from Patterdale and back into the hills.

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