I'd had a fantastic night's sleep and after we'd eaten our fill of Tony's amazing American style pancakes, we relaxed with a coffee whilst he talked us through some of the main points of interest for the day ahead. He also suggested a couple of worthwhile diversions from the route. One of his recommendations was a cafe in the nearby village of Staveley. Wilf's Cafe, he told us, was a favourite haunt of the Lakeland mountain community including, on occasion, well known names such as Sir Chris Bonnington.
"You'll see lots of people wearing lycra," he chuckled, "and the food's pretty good too."
We took our leave of Lakeland Hills at the same time as the other couple of Dales Way walkers who we'd shared an enjoyable evening meal with the night before. Normally this could have been awkward, seeing as we were all heading in the same direction, our destination being the trail's conclusion. Thankfully though they clearly shared our preference for walking alone.
"It's been nice to meet you," they said, "and no doubt we'll run into you again at some point in the day".
And with that they were gone, striding out ahead of us to rejoin the trail. We followed them slowly through the streets of Burneside, allowing them to get well ahead of us before turning to follow the first of Tony's recommended diversions which followed the River Kent on the opposite side of the bank to the official Dales Way route.
The day was overcast but pleasantly warm as we strolled through a series of meadows by the side of the fast-flowing Kent before eventually reaching the prestigious development of Cowan Head. Here an eighteenth century paper mill has been converted into luxury apartments. Very expensive luxury apartments I'm given to understand. And, looking at the location, it was easy to see why they would command a high price.
From Cowan Head we continued to follow the River Kent, skirting around the edge of a golf course and then crossing over the river to rejoin the official Dales Way route. At some point along this stretch we had entered into the Lake District National Park, although there were no signs to announce this fact.
Suddenly I spotted a pair of ducks on a rock in the middle of the river ahead of us. I zoomed in with my camera to get a closer shot, realising that these must be Goosanders, the saw-billed ducks we'd been told about the previous day at Crook of Lune. I have to admit that until then I had never heard of the Goosander, so it was nice to actually see and positively identify a pair of them.
The sun began to shine as we ambled along the side of the river in the direction of Staveley. It was very tranquil and our pace was deliberately slow. This was our last day on the Dales Way and, although neither of us said as much, we were in no hurry to finish, savouring every footstep.
We decided to follow Tony's recommendation and visit Wilf's Cafe in Staveley, which added a short detour of about half a mile (each way) to our day's route. Walking along the village's main street took us past St Margaret's Tower which, I discovered, is the only surviving part of the fourteenth century St Margaret's Church that once stood on this site.
Wilf's Cafe can be found in Staveley Mill Yard, once the site of Low Mill which was constructed in 1825 to manufacture bobbins for the cotton industry. Today it is home not only to Wilf's but also various other businesses including the Hawkshead Brewery. We briefly considered paying a visit to the brewery but then spotted the other couple of walkers from Lakeland Hills who had just finished their coffees and were about to set off on their way again. It was rather busy and so we gratefully accepted their table. As we sat in the sunshine I looked around to see if I could spot any of the lycra-clad climbing community Tony had mentioned, but everyone I saw looked more like garden centre customers than participants in extreme sports. The coffee and walnut cake was very nice though!
The sky began to cloud over as we continued on our way once more, passing through fields of cattle. Rather ominously they were mostly lying down, a customary sign of imminent rain, but at least it meant we could pass them by without concern.
The landscape through which we were now walking was becoming gradually more undulating in character, almost like a prelude to the Lakeland fells to which we were drawing ever closer. Behind us the Howgill Fells were still clearly visible on the horizon.
Before setting out I'd had no idea what kind of terrain we would be walking through on this, the final section of the Dales Way. To me it had almost seemed like a kind of no-man's-land; a hinterland between the Dales and the Lakes - unknown territory where, ordinarily, I wouldn't even have considered taking a walk. I was pleasantly surprised, although in many ways it seemed to perfectly match the transitional role of smoothly merging the two otherwise distinct National Parks. There were the drystone walls, the sheep and the hills both areas are well-known for, and yet, somehow, it felt markedly different.
As we passed through a farmyard though, we were left in no doubt that we were now not only most definitely in Cumbria, but also officially within the boundaries of the Lake District National Park. It wasn't just that the sign told us so, but also the stones used for the walls and buildings were that unmistakeable Lakeland shade of slate grey.
The terrain became ever more rugged as we drew closer to Windermere and the walking along this particular stretch was very enjoyable indeed. We slowed our pace to a virtual crawl, savouring these final few miles of the trail and it seems we weren't the only ones doing this as we soon caught up with our fellow guests from Lakeland Hills, sitting on a low section of wall. Like us, they were clearly in no hurry to finish the walk and, after a quick final chat, we left them behind to enjoy their break in peace.
At Hag End, just a couple of miles from our final destination, we were treated to a magnificent Lakeland view of the distant Langdale Pikes. Now it truly felt as if we were in the Lake District proper and, in spite of the distance we'd covered over the past few days, I was longing to continue. To venture into the heart of Lakeland and to climb some of those distant peaks. But that would have to wait for another day.
The route now took us along a series of little lanes and tracks, descending all the while as we approached Bowness-on-Windermere.
It had been a remarkably peaceful day's walking, given that we were now well and truly within the Lake District. Apart from the other couple, we hadn't passed any other walkers on the entirety of our route from Burneside. This changed, however, as we reached the outskirts of Bowness, where there were quite a few people strolling around by the very pretty pond at Home Farm, their voices drifting towards us across the water.
As we crossed a little lane and passed through a gate the path before us led gently downhill. And there, in the shade of a tree, almost as if it had appeared by magic, I recognised our goal. With a backdrop of Windermere visible above the rooftops of Bowness, in an otherwise inauspicious little field, there sat the stone bench that marked, for most, the conclusion of the Dales Way. For some, of course, it marks the starting point and I have to admit that in that moment I could have joyfully turned around and set off to walk it all again in reverse!
But, for us, this marked the end of the way. A very convenient bench upon which to park our rucksacks and crack open the two small bottles of red wine we'd purchased from our wardrobe "tuck shop" at Lakeland Hills. I was both surprised and delighted to find that we had this landmark place all to ourselves and we sat here for a while, sipping our wine straight out of the bottles, posing for the almost obligatory selfies and generally basking in the glory of a mission accomplished.
The day wasn't quite over yet though, and eventually we headed downhill all the way into the centre of a very busy Bowness-on-Windermere, firstly to find ourselves some lunch. The decision of where to eat was made somewhat easy for us by virtue of a pub, conveniently positioned at the end of the lane we had followed into the town. We found the Royal Oak's cleverly worded sign impossible to resist. I expect that's why they put it there!
Having relaxed with a couple of pints of beer and a tasty selection of sandwiches we crossed the road to visit the Hawkshead outdoor clothing store where Dales Way walkers can receive a free completer's certificate. For me there remained one final ritual to observe. In true Wainwright Coast to Coast fashion I wanted to wet my booths in the waters of Windermere and so I did just that, proudly holding aloft my Hawkshead certificate.
Bowness-on-Windermere itself was something of a shock to the system. It was crowded with tourists and I was all too quickly reminded why I seldom visit this part of the Lake District. Unlike my favourite Lakeland town of Keswick, this felt almost like a seaside resort. I didn't particularly care for it and was pleased that I'd booked us a room for the night at a pub in the nearby village of Ings. Over a drink in a very crowded pub Tom and I pondered over how we were going to get there. I suggested a taxi but somehow that just didn't feel right. And so it was, a couple of hours after arriving in Bowness, we set off again, climbing up the hill out of town to walk the three miles to Ings.
My choice of accommodation for the final night hadn't been solely based on its quiet location. When arranging the walk I had discovered that all the accommodation providers in Bowness insisted upon a minimum stay of two nights. The Watermill Inn at Ings, however, allowed a one night stay to be booked. Not only that, but the pub has its very own brewery, producing an excellent range of award winning ales. We thus spent a very happy evening's celebration, sampling the beers along with a highly enjoyable meal.
All that remained for us to do the following day was to find our way home. This, it turned out, was easily achievable as a regular bus service passed right by the Watermill Inn and a ten minute bus journey delivered us to the railway station at Windermere where, after a short wait of around 15 minutes, we were on a train and homeward bound.
On the train I updated my personal Facebook status along the lines of "We've done it. We've finished the Dales Way". A friend quickly responded with "Well done. Now walk back again". If only I could, I thought as the countryside flashed by way too quickly. It had been an amazing experience. If only I could....
Total distance walked: 11 miles on the Dales Way (including diversion into Staveley) plus an extra 3 miles to Ings at the end of the day.
Total walking time: 4 hours 28 minutes (Dales Way only)
Next time...I've got several other walks to write about which we undertook prior to our completion of the Dales Way. However, first of all I'm itching to write about our Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge!