If you’re a fan of parkrun tourism, it’s likely that Forestry England’s Whinlatter will be on your radar. Its claim to fame is that it hosts the UK’s hilliest parkrun, with 205m of ascent over five kilometres. But it’s also a hidden gem for trail runners with a sense of adventure.
Set in the heart of the Lake District and surrounded by a dramatic landscape of lakes, fells and mountains, Whinlatter is England’s only true mountain forest. No need to travel to the Alps with this on our doorstep. And, as an added bonus, you can relax and refuel in the reasonably priced café afterwards, rather than remortgage your house for an espresso and piece of myrtille tart in a mountain hut.
Whinlatter has long been known as a hub for mountain biking, with marked trails for both novices and those looking for a bigger adventure. But it’s less well known as a destination for runners.
I have to say that, as an experienced runner who is happy to plan my own routes in the fells, I was initially a little sceptical about what this sort of trail centre could offer me.
Meeting up with some of the team from Forestry England who work at Whinlatter, I found out more about how they cater for us runners. Firstly, why run in the forest when you’ve acres of fells all around you? Sonia Dryden, Whinlatter’s Active Forest Coordinator, said: “The feedback we get is that spending time in nature is really important for people. As well as getting the physical benefits from running, you get all the positive mental benefits.”
In Whinlatter you’ve forest, stunning views at every turn, and wildlife such as red squirrels, deer and even alpacas (in an enclosure). From April to September, it is possible that you could see an osprey, but you’ll almost certainly see a crossbill or a siskin. It’s an oasis for nature and, once you’re a short distance away from the visitor centre (uphill, of course) on your run, you really do feel like you’re miles from civilisation.
On the question of what runners could expect from Whinlatter, Sonia tells us: “There’s really something for everybody here. Whether you want to really challenge yourself on one of our hilly routes, or if you’re looking for something a bit easier and flatter, there are routes for all abilities.” This is obviously evidenced by the success of Whinlatter parkrun. While it is undeniably hilly, it’s on dreamily good hard-packed trails, making it suitable for those just venturing into trail running. One participant even pushed a wheelchair round the course.
Whinlatter has waymarked running trails which have been supported by Sport England using National Lottery funding (there are currently marked 5k and 10k routes with plans for more over the next year). So if you want to have a lovely run in the Lakes but don’t feel confident in your navigation skills or you’re not familiar with the area, it’s a dream. Likewise, if you’re a confident fell runner but you just want to switch off and run a faster 5km or 10km and enjoy the stunning views rather than think up a route, it’s a perfect way to do it. And it can be a stepping stone on to much bigger adventures. Because Whinlatter is right in the heart of the northern fells, there are a huge number of routes of varying difficulty right on their doorstep. So you can use Whinlatter as your start and finish point and go and explore.
Dan Mills, who works at Whinlatter as the Forest Works supervisor, is a keen fell runner who excitedly points out to us the classic fell running routes which touch upon the areas in and around the forest. The Grisedale Grind, Lord’s Seat and Coledale Horseshoe fell races skirt the area. Dan is also enthusiastic about how his forest management work complements the work that’s done to help us enjoy the forest. It’s a working forest, so they grow, harvest and restock timber. In order to export the timber they put ‘roads’ (or hard-packed, wide rocky trails) into the forest and those roads are now the backbone of the running and biking trails. Dan calls this ‘multi-purpose forestry’ and the working forest really does rub shoulders happily with the recreational uses of the forest. They even think about forest management partly in terms of ‘what would make for the nicest view?’
The income from forestry work is one way in which Forestry England is able to maintain the trails for us. The other is, well... us! Sarah Bruce, marketing and communications manager at Whinlatter, tells me that the income from car parking, the café and memberships goes back into trail management, so by running at Whinlatter you’ll actually be supporting the management of the existing running trails and the development of new ones. And looking at the success of parkrun and other active initiatives here, you may well be supporting future generations getting into trail running.
There are evidently huge benefits to making some of your #Run1000Miles forest miles. The lovely firm ground underfoot (after months of boggy running), the peacefulness, the views, and even the smells of the forest make it a blissful experience. And you can tailor it to whatever you want it to be – parkrun with friends, leisurely 10k, start in the forest and then freestyle to make a longer route – so it’s suitable for all. The fact that you’re also actively supporting sustainable running trails with coffee and cake afterwards is a bonus.
Routes for everyone
Short and sharp: A challenging circular 5k route which has an additional mini loop at the top. You’ll find yourself running mainly on wide forest roads with one short section on a forest path. As you climb your way to Bob’s Seat, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views to Derwentwater, Keswick, Skiddaw and the surrounding mountain ranges, and you may even catch a glimpse of a red squirrel or roe deer. After all that climbing you will be rewarded with a long, gentle descent all the way to the finish. This route is used by the Parkrun each Saturday and has been dubbed ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for the amount of climbing runners do, and the views they’re rewarded with.
Go longer: This even more challenging circular 10k route takes you through the quieter parts of Whinlatter Forest. Starting on the north side and running on forest roads, you’ll soon warm up as you climb towards Seat How. You will be rewarded with a fun downhill section where Derwentwater comes into view, and as your legs recover you will venture into the south side of the forest. A second big climb passes through mature conifers, eventually heading downhill towards Revelin Moss. You will then complete a gentle uphill section alongside Grisedale Gill eventually leading you back to the visitor centre.
■ Find out more about Forestry England trails near you: forestryengland.uk