Lakes, Rivers & Walls Part II

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Fully rested, the following morning we went down for our inclusive breakfast. I don’t know about you, but for me, the difference between a good hotel and a great one can rest on the quality of the breakfast they serve, and in this respect, they did not disappoint. In addition to the extensive buffet range of cereals, museli and granola, they also supplied pastries, croissants and jams galore. There was a supplementary (and in my view superfluous) table for – I’m guessing – Germans, on which cheeses, hams and pickles were available but the real action was on the menu – a cooked to order breakfast with a list of items fit to gladden (and fur) the heart of any committed fry-up fan. I opted for poached eggs, Cumberland sausages, bacon and black pudding; I could have added mushrooms, grilled tomato, beans and hash browns but declined those on the basis that I wanted to be able to walk out unaided and stay awake for the day.

We drove into Keswick with met office warnings of imminent torrential rain ringing in our ears, but decided that presumably they couldn’t see the blue sky visible to us and parked up near the old railway station and got the bikes off the roof. Here there’s an excellent bike path which follows the route of the old railway line up the River Greta valley back towards Penrith. There are some excellent views of the river and at one point the path goes onto a boardwalk suspended out, high above the water below. We’d gone about a mile and half before we came to a stop as our way was barred by a large metal fence, this was rather disappointing as had not gone very far, but closer inspection revealed that there was fair reason for blocking the path – there was no longer a bridge across the river.

A signboard close by revealed that during the winter of 2015, Storm Desmond had raged through the area and dumped so much rain that two of the Victorian railway bridges which had stood for 150 odd years on this stretch had been destroyed. It added that they were in the process of rebuilding and restoring the path, but that for now, this was as far as you could go. We cycled back a short distance and looked again at the river bank and all along you could make out the damage that had been caused – at one bend you can see where the raging waters had scoured everything away to a height of 20 feet above normal water levels. Somewhat humbled by these thoughts we locked the bikes and struck off along a path up into the woods, which wound its way along the northern side of the river. It took us through glades of mixed broad leaf and evergreen trees, offering occasional glimpses of the river and valley bottom far below and all this with the sun glinting through the leaves, a lovely summer’s morning.

Back in Keswick, the bikes went back on the roof of the car and we walked through the town to the lake. Derwentwater is one of the most picturesque of the Lakeland lakes, surrounded as it is by some of its highest mountains – from Blencathra with its six fell summits and Skiddaw the highest mountain in the Lakes at just over 3000 ft at the northern end and Helvellyn and Grizedale Pike on its eastern and western flanks. The pleasure steamers were packed with day trippers and some of the more adventurous were hiring rowing boats; this was not something I considered, having made that mistake before – it may look like fun, but it’s bloody hard work. Instead we opted for a stroll and an ice cream, followed by look round the market then tea and scones with butter and jam, much more civilised. Our day in Keswick done, it was away back to the hotel to read the papers and a quick pre-dinner dip in the pool.

Breakfast the next morning was another standing ovation affair and on check-out were pleased to receive a £30 discount to the bill due to the loud music the night before from the wedding disco in the function room – always adds a smile when it costs less than you expect.

Rather than head straight back up the road, we decided that as we were relatively close, we should visit Hadrian’s Wall. I’d previously been to the barracks of Housesteads which is very impressive and so decided this time we should go to the fort and town of Vindolanda, which is pretty much halfway between Carlisle and Newcastle and situated about a mile south of the Wall. I’d last been with my folks when I was about 8 or 9 and so did not have much recollection of it, but it’s a real sight worth seeing. Built in circa 85AD, it was occupied for roughly 300 years until the Romans left and it became the principle town along the wall, housing up to 2000 people at its peak and including all of the facilities and amenities of towns throughout the empire – soldiers barracks, governor’s lodging, temples, bath house, granaries, inn, butcher’s shop etc… It’s particularly famous for its Vindolanda Tablets, which are thin pieces of wood about the size of a modern postcard and were used as writing paper by the Roman garrison. Written in ink, they are amongst the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain and provide a rich source of information about life on the furthest (and coldest, brrr!) frontier of the Roman Empire.

To date, they have excavated the whole of the walled fort and some of the external town, but it’s thought that there is as much again still buried beneath the Cumbrian soil just waiting to be discovered. Much of the stone from Vindolanda can be seen in the buildings and field walls of the surrounding area as it’s documented that much of the site was quite intact up until the Enclosure Act of 1604. This is when landowners and farmers were legally obliged to pen their animals into fields and so they made free use of the readily available carved stones to build the walls and barns needed. Our visit was concluded by a trip to café for a refreshing cuppa and a mooch round the gift store, where I purchased one of the following items of tat, a roman helmet fridge magnet bottle opener or a charming but rather rude roman fertility charm – I’ll leave it to your imagination which one I plumped for. 😊