Series 2 – 18: 1986 and all that – Part 1

At the start of each holiday year, I would grab the cricket fixture list and count off how many days I would need for Roses Matches, home and away, Test Matches, One-Day Internationals etc. I could then plan my Lakes holidays around what was left: one before and one after the high season that would see the guesthouses and the fells ‘wick w’foak’, and that might clash with my colleagues.
There was a lot of cricket in 1986, and in order to claw back an extra day, I took my first break in April, over Easter – an early Easter from a late winter, with snow still enhancing the image of the fells, but not their accessibility: not when it was as low as 1,600′!
I managed one full walk, along the Forestry Commission valley of Aiken Beck, headed by Lord’s Seat, and returning along its northern skyline. Lord’s Seat was a matter of concern, clinging to snow for its final 200′, and me with no winter equipment.
This was more of a snag the following day, when I sought to climb Pavey Ark, of the Langdale Pikes, by the North Rake.
Don’t be mistaken: this is not the infamous Jack’s Rake, technically a rock climb, hung diagonally across the face of the Ark, but an unexpected straight grass breach in the rim of the cliffs, an easy way for walkers to approach. Not, however, in snow from about 400′ feet below the unseen summit.
I started up in confidence, which I determinedly displayed once I reached the snowline, progressing steadily, testing each step for what lay hidden beneath the white blanket. It all seemed familiar: it should: I’d been like this descending Brim Fell.
Oh yes, the same concentration, the same intense focus on every single step I took, the same awareness at every instant of the possible need to react at speed. Sure, I could reach the top, but whilst it was one thing to drain yourself of energy in Boulder Valley, with a level path and a downhill road to negotiate, it was entirely another to be drained on the summit of Pavey Ark, with 400′ of snow to get down through before reaching the steep and arduous way down Mill Gill.
I’d never done this before, because I’d never needed to but I had to accept that safety demanded I give up and turn back. It was a bitter disappointment, and one I fought against, but going on would have been foolhardy, and I couldn’t get myself to ignore that.
So I turned back, only to be met, within two minutes, by a party charging up the North Rake with a fine disregard for the conditions. As well they might, they being a group of soldiers, in battlegear. A little shamefacedly, I admitted I was turning back – better a coward who could come back another time, I said – and they did nothing to rub it in.
They reminded me of a long ago day in Langdale, back to the car in the New Hotel Car Park, when a truck pulled out, a platoon leapt out and proceeded to swarm straight up the fellside – not Mill Gill, not by any paths, just straight up – with a speed and stamina and agility that left all of us gaping in awe. They’re not like us, you know.
That was it for the week. The snow wasn’t going to just melt and vanish for my convenience, and there weren’t enough fells below 1,600′ to take up my time, not that could be strung together into expeditions that might last longer than a couple of hours at any rate.
But the week wasn’t a dead loss. One night I sat down with pen and paper and wrote maybe 1,000 – 1,500 words, cannibalising my experiences at the beginning of the week into a piece of fiction. I don’t recall the purpose, nor what it was meant to lead to, and I never came close to any workable idea about where to take it. The paper was lost, years ago, though the words stayed in my mind, available to be recited internally, whenever I felt like it, undeveloped and undeveloping.
Thirteen years later, in completely different conditions and completely different circumstances, I got back to Lord’s Seat from Aiken Beck. This time the words came out differently, from the first moment I began to roll them out in my head. Fifty-two days later, they were a 72,000 word novel.
The picture is of Aiken Beck, seen from the north ridge of the valley, showing the narrow break in the surrounding fells where the beck turns south to escape from its hidden fold.


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