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Coniston Trail Memories

Coniston Trail Memories

Last year we gave the Coniston Trail a rest. It was a very tough decision to make. We’d brought forward the big Dirty Double weekend into October in the hope of better weather, although a fat lot of good that did us! We found our autumn calendar much too busy to fit the Coniston event into our schedule. 

So the Coniston Trail is making a welcome return this year on the 22nd September and my thoughts turn to the very first event. 

Memories come flooding back of the surprise on peoples’ faces, finishing the 2005 Garburn Trail in June, having another event in Coniston already planned for them in September. Trail running in the UK was in it’s infancy back then and completely new to the Lake District. We soon filled up all 500 places on offer.

Coniston Trail

I hoped the Coniston Trail course would be a hit. The trail has a bit of everything, making a near perfect circuit. First going through the white-washed cottages of the honeypot village. Then climbing gradually on a good track, up past Coniston Coppermines and the Youth Hostel. Splashings of waterfalls and mountains rearing up vertically as a backdrop for company.

Once height has been gained, a contouring single track through slate mines and out onto the Walna Scar Road. Spectacular views of Coniston Water, the shining level below. A long, winding descent takes you through ancient, mature oak woodland, back to the lake, with a couple of kilometres through trees dappled in sunlight along the lake shore. 

Autumn has got to be one of my favourite times of year for running. The air is cool, the low light creating spectacular views in the early mornings and evenings. The mountains are quiet again after the busy school holidays. Peace descends to the Lake District.

Trees steal the show, their leaves changing colour daily through September, October and November. Combined with bright sunshine, there’s a sense of magic all around.

Magic mushrooms 

For me, this magic also gets sprinkled underneath the trees and for many, many years, I’ve enjoyed collecting wild mushrooms. This passion began when I was in my early twenties, living in Scandinavia. The thrill of the chase. Never knowing what you may find. I can smell the musty, rich autumn fallen leaves just thinking about those times.

Maybe apricot yellow chanterelles?

Or the spiny, almost white, hedgehog fungus?

The mature oak woodlands around the pretty village of Coniston usually come up trumps. I always have a back pack on when I’m running during these months. Dinner is often a surprise. A celebration of one type of fungus or another.

Back to the Coniston Trail

Which brings me back to the Coniston Trail. 

In late spring in 2005, I was in a meeting with the guys from Grizedale Arts at the Forestry Commission. One of the local farmers had told me about a big, new festival taking place in the village on the same weekend as the first Coniston Trail event. I needed to know if there was going to be any conflict with our event planning and logistics.

It turned out that the “Water Festival” was mainly orchestrated for TV, some much needed publicity for the region in the aftermath of the foot and mouth crisis. A conduit for the River Cottage team who were going to be filming an episode of their popular television series on Channel 4.

“If Hugh needs a mushroom guide, then please give him my number” were my parting words, meant as a joke.

Imagine my surprise when a couple of months later I get a call out of the blue and someone from the River Cottage team, a ‘fixer’, wants to meet up with me. I guess all the other mushroom experts in the area were too busy that September weekend. 

Filming for River Cottage in 2005

River Cottage TV

I’m a big fan of the River Cottage celebrity chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittenstall, so when I get asked if I could find him a cauliflower fungus, I agreed without really thinking. 

“If I find one though, would you please ask Hugh to come and start the Coniston Trail event?” I was trying desperately hard to think of ways to gain some additional publicity.

When I got home the enormity of the task hit me. I had only ever found two of these strange mushrooms before and never in the Lake District. I knew they favoured growing at the base of conifer trees, particularly Scots pine. I scoured my maps for new places to try, making up new running routes for myself. Inadvertently, these ‘mushroom runs’ gave me new ideas about future potential trails in Keswick and Hawkshead too. It had been a dry summer, and I spent many, many happy hours running through likely looking ‘hotspots’, coming back each time with lots of other mushrooms, albeit not the one I was searching for.

A perfect cauliflower fungus, with Hugh Fearnley-Whittenstall in 2005

Filming was due to take place the day before the Coniston Trail and I struck lucky with only one day left. A perfect cauliflower fungus, the biggest and best I’d ever found.

Mushroom run

I met the River Cottage film crew on the shores of Coniston Water, having already spent a few hours course marking most of the Coniston Trail. Hugh was charming, and intrigued by me wearing running gear. We got chatting, and when he heard this was how I go foraging for mushrooms, his eyes sparkled with ideas.

Filming for River Cottage TV in 2005

We spent the next couple of hours running around the woods, all for just a couple of minutes of TV. Once the filming was done, we shook hands, I shouldered my pack and continued with the course marking.

The following day the first Coniston Trail was a great success, the sun shone and the course was praised for being spectacular. Runnersworld magazine even gave the event the title “the most scenic race in Britain”. There was only one blip. Unfortunately in the morning, Hugh got held up filming on the lake, trying to catch Atlantic Char, so we missed out on having a celebrity start the event.

All these years later, I still get friends mentioning me being on repeat showings of that River Cottage programme on TV, running in the woods with Hugh chasing me. 

Looking back, what pleases me the most though, is all that time spent looking for potential mushroom sites back in 2005, increased my knowledge of new habitats no end. I now know where to find cauliflower fungus in many areas of the Lake District.

Even better, both Derwentwater and Hawkshead Trails were born and added to the Lakeland Trails the following year. 

Me and Hugh back in 2005

We’ve all got Hugh and a search for cauliflower fungus to thank for that.

See you in Coniston on 22nd September for this year’s event?

Graham Patten

30th August 2018


Marathon Dreams

All my best ideas come when I’m not thinking about anything in particular, often whilst I’m day dreaming, in a ‘running trance’. This one was no different. I was out for a long run, enjoying one of my favourite Lake District trails along the east side of Coniston Water. 

As I climbed out of the woods into bright sunshine, skylarks singing overhead, I stopped and admired the view. Blimey, I thought to myself, as I looked at the toy white yachts, way down below. Imagine an off road course going around the whole of the lake. I wondered how far that would be? Would it be a marathon distance if Tarn Hows were included somehow?

A decade ago

That was a decade ago, way back in 2008 and it took another three years of hard work to turn that dream of an idea into reality. First, I had to convince the National Trust, as most of the course was on their land. This included the ‘hallowed ground’ of the Tarn Hows beauty spot. 

Fortunately, I had the help of John Atkinson, who farms up and around Parkamoor and worked at the time for NT. I’d worked with John before with our Coniston Trail event, so we knew each other. He immediately saw the potential of the event and the advantages to Coniston village businesses and surrounding areas. He was a big help in making the first event happen. We even got permission to do a complete lap of Tarn Hows and by including Beacon Tarn, we made it up to the Marathon distance of 26.2 miles.

There were many more agencies and stakeholders to win over though and this took time. Natural England, Forestry Commission, Lake District National Park Authority, Bethecar Moor Commoners, Torver Back Commoners, Cumbria County Council. The list was endless. Meetings in dreary offices with some people who had never run a step in their lives.

June 2010

In June 2010, I walked the entire course with our nine month old son in a backpack, taking photos of my partner Claire, the ‘model’ for the slideshow of the course. It was another sunny day. The views were breathtaking. I knew immediately that the course was destined to become a classic. Maybe even one day becoming one of the World’s iconic marathons? 

I remember bumping into a couple of running friends that day. Myself and Claire must have looked guilty, as they asked me “You’re not planning another of your Lakeland Trails here are you?” We didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag with another year still to go, laughing it off. Towards the end of the route, we were both hot and tired, our son fast asleep, his head lolling to one side. Then, as an added bonus, we found a few big, fleshy cep mushrooms, a gastronomic treat to finish our day off perfectly.

The first Marathon Trail

So at 7am on a beautiful Sunday morning in 2011, the very first Trail Marathon in the Lake District set off from Coniston. History was in the making. We’d planned this early start with the National Trust, to avoid the busy crowds around Tarn Hows. It’s become a truly memorable way to start our Marathon. The air is cool even on those sweltering June days, the lake often steaming as inverted air tries to escape, still like a mill pond.

Almost a thousand runners started this inaugural event, shared between the Challenge and the Race, setting off two hours later. We gave a generous 8 hour time limit for the course, 6 hours for the Race, knowing that the underfoot conditions and relentless climbs would take their toll.

You can forget about your road times on this course! You have to earn those views with plain graft and hard work. This, the most beautiful marathon in the UK, could also be described as one of the toughest too!

Gradually the event has grown and now runners from all over the world come and take part. A couple of years ago we were even awarded the status of “one of the World’s iconic Marathons”. Another dream come true.

Half Marathon and Mini Marathon 10K added

We included a Half Marathon Trail in 2012, which takes in much of the first half of the Marathon course as far as Tarn Hows. Then in 2016, we added a Mini Marathon Trail Run 10K.

This year is the 8th anniversary of the event. So far, we’ve had six warm sunny days and one cool one when the rain poured down. That year, 2012, was also the year both course records were set – Ben Abdelnoor from Ambleside AC in 2hrs 53mins 50secs and Jo Zakrewski, Dumfries Road Runners, in 3hrs 21mins 34secs. I wonder if anyone will get close to them this year?

Finishing alongside the lake shore, through dappled sunlight, the trail amongst mature oak trees, the water shining silver, you’ll feel as though you’re in running heaven. You’re not going to ‘hit the wall’ either, as we take down the dry stone wall making it easier to enter the event arena.

Knowing once you cross the line, you only have another few steps before submerging in those cool waters to relieve your tired muscles. That will keep you going.

Then to bask in the warm sunshine. The afterglow, knowing you’ve really, really earned your finisher’s medal. And ice cream. And as much food as you can eat. And even more ice cream. 

Parkamoor cottage

Remember my friend John Atkinson who helped with that very first event? You’ll see John handing out drinks as you pass his beautiful holiday cottage at Parkamoor, just after half way. On Marathon day, one of you will win a fabulous weekend’s holiday to come back and stay here. Now, that would be a perfect way to round the day off, wouldn’t it?

Graham Patten

28th May 2018