Series 2 – 12: Going It Alone

After Helvellyn, I didn’t climb another fell for eight years. The family continued to go on holidays without me, and without ever going near Ullswater again, whilst my time off was a week without them. I barely even saw the Lakes during those years: an alpine scene from the train to Carlisle for a job interview, a day trip with Mam, my sister and her future husband to Wasdale Head.
By that time, my sister’s defection had brought holiday’s to an end, although Mam kept pottering off to the Lakes, despite her deteriorating health, almost to her death. My Uncle, meanwhile, died in May 1982, a dozen years after his brother.
What held me back was the lack of transport. I did learn to drive in 1977, to enhance my chances of getting a start in my legal career, not that it helped. Nor did I acquire a car to go with the Licence until 1981, and that occasioned by my plan to attend the August 1981 Roses Match at Headingley: I was not prepared to pay three days bus and train fares to Leeds.
On impulse, in October, I took a short holiday on my own, back to the Lakes at last. My boots were in the boot but, between the late time of the year, and a restlessness on my part, I spent three days driving round, seeing different areas, and enjoying the priceless opportunity to learn the rhythm of country lane and fell road driving on almost empty roads.
For some reason, I didn’t go back for another eighteen months, a stolen week between the end of my first, crappy job and the start of my second, much much better one. Again, the key factor was restlessness, but on the second morning, en route from Ambleside to Keswick, I stopped in Grasmere, got out my boots and, with a strange trepidation, set out to climb the Lion and the Lamb.
It was only eight years since I’d last been on the fells, and I was in my prime at 27: a regular weekly squash player, a frequent five-a-side footballer. But it was a time of self-doubt, 27 and still unsure of myself in many ways, and uncertain about going out into the fells on my own: on my own from the start to the finish of the walk.
Helm Crag was not a difficult walk. A long walk, by road and country lane, out of the village, leading to a steep ascent up an eroding path to gain the ridge of the fell, with easy access to the summit. The steep section would be blocked off by the National Trust not many years later, to recover, and a new path was constructed but I walked it with difficulty, sweating and straining, and berating myself for struggling when, only eight years ago, I was charging up Helvellyn.
The summit ridge ran from the official summit – the head of the Lion visible from the Vale below – to the actual highest point, a black finger of rock known, for its appearance from afar, as the Howitzer. The Lion was easy to scale, though it needed care above a substantial drop but, like the noble Wainwright, I would never even try to climb the Howitzer. I would be hampered for years by a failure to realise my true abilities, but some limitations were not imposed by a lack of self-confidence.
Ahead lay a low ridge, and other summits in reasonable easy reach, but I had no plans, no food, and no route of return except to turn round and come back. So I came back, by the same route. It made for a ridiculously short expedition: by twelve-thirty I was lobbing my boots into the back and scrambling behind the wheel as the rains began to pour, unstoppably for the next day and a half.
I did manage another walk and another summit, a first trip into the alien pages of the Northern Fells. Binsey, a small, rounded outlier, north of Bassenthwaite Lake, was reputed to offer a superb view into Lakeland, that could be saved as a last moment surprise if approached from the back, a tiny little community that probably never saw visitors. It was a dull walk – there are better ways to approach Binsey as a walk – but the view made up for it, but once again I was back at the car with only the morning behind me.
A long, wide-ranging tour followed: lunch in a Cockermouth pub on strong red cheese sandwiches, a drive westwards, past Buttermere, Ennerdale and Wastwater with a thought of overnighting in Ravenglass. But I wasn’t keen on the cost of accommodation and drove on, relentlessly, to Coniston, with stomach pains starting, raging. In Coniston I booked myself into a small pub/hotel, got straight into bed and suffered a horrible night of nausea, sickness and sleeplessness. I blame it on the cheese.
A downbeat end to the holiday, But I’d survived by myself, I hadn’t been lonely, I’d gotten my boots back on at last, and a pattern was set for many years to come.
The picture is of the Howitzer, with people far more skilled and daring than I showing that it is possible to stand on the summit. I never will though.

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