I made up for my lost day in May by a midsummer Saturday, bringing my love to the Lakes for the first time. Again, this story has already been told: standing guard as she whipped off her bra in order to breathe, summer afternoon naughties in a small and unobserved dell, her laughter captured as I balanced my camera on a handy rock, set the timer and hurtled myself into the frame beside her.
Angletarn Pikes was another tick on my list – trust me to maintain my concern for my own efforts – and I promised her Catbells, above Derwent Water, for her next summit. We got there, eventually, though not for some years yet. Our relationship, not that I realised, was heading towards a very prolonged and volatile period.
When I got away properly again, I had another concern: my walking boots were knackered. So, after booking in in Ambleside, before I could set out on my traditional leg-stretcher of a Sunday afternoon start, I needed to buy a new pair of boots.
This embarrassing task concluded, I headed for Stone Arthur, an outcrop on the Grasmere-facing flank of the Fairfield Horseshoe, deeply concerned with the newness of my footwear and the risk of developing blisters – from which I have, thankfully, very rarely suffered. I confessed my fears to a walker I met on the descent, and was given an unusual recommendation for breaking in new boots: Sunlight Soap Flakes.
There was a concept that went back to my East Manchester boyhood. Apparently, the first time you wear new boots, you should pack them with the Soap Flakes, insert feet, and find somewhere wet, and preferably rainy. Providing you can live through the embarrassment of foaming feet, you will emerge with leather softly moulded to the shape of your peculiar feet.
Even without soap flakes, I had no problems with my new boots. They took me on an expedition onto the southern rim of Great Langdale that took me to the beginnings of the royal road to Crinkle Crags and a glorious walk across the Langdale Skyline that, years later, would become one of my best days. The following day, I made myself another future promise, climbing the shapely Whiteless Pike in my lovely North Western Fells and discovering an enticing narrow ridge behind, positively demanding ascent, though not today, unfortunately.
Next came a gentle and peaceful day, “Back o’ Skidda’”.
The Northern Fells are, geographically, isolated from all the other fells of Lakeland. You cannot walk off them into another area at a high point, as you may traverse between Western and Southern at Sty Head, or Southern and Central at Stake Pass. And the Northern Fells are dominated by their two south-facing giants, Skiddaw and Blencathra.
But the region extends beyond, into lower, grassy fells, invisible to the tourists but also free from them. Those who want loneliness, who want to walk in peace, the world removed, may indulge themselves here. They will not die of excitement, but on the other hand they could break an ankle and still be able to get themselves back to the road running around its rim.
Excluding Binsey, I first came into this region driving blind. Skiddaw is a cloud magnet, frequently managing to hide its head behind a cloud when all the rest of the northern sky is blue, but this was a day of very low-hanging cloud, without risk of rain, but choking the fells off completely. To amuse myself, I set off to the east of Blencathra, circling around the back of this foreign region, via Caldbeck, and onto a road that felt as if it were an elevated causeway above a vast and empty plain. Nothing to see, and nothing to see.
It was northing like that this day: the sun hung uninterrupted. I strung the five fells of the Uldale group into a slightly awkward walk, easy walking, no rushing, five summits, and still back at the car after only four hours. It was the same again a decade later, when I repeated the walk: no matter what I did, I couldn’t stretch it out any longer than four hours!
Nor does it knock the fells to admit that the day’s best feature was not only not a summit but its first major feature, the natural railway cutting of Trusmadoor, a deep and steep sided channel between hills, from nowhere to nowhere, but a fascination nevertheless. And below it, an apron of land beside a meandering gill that immediately descends into a twisting gorge that was another day’s abiding memory.
The Fairfield Horseshoe had been a new record for me, but not a longstanding one, as I was to beat it on my last day, this time with a Big Walk of my own devising.
There’s no skill to devising Rounds: take any valley with fells on both sides and you have one. Some are more famous and popular, such as Fairfield or Coledale. I’d never heard anyone speak of a Hayeswater Round, so a walk that circled the narrow side-valley off Patterdale, that stretched deep into the highest fells of the Far Eastern area had its personal aspect, as well as another eight new summits.
The sun once again shone, too much so as the end of the day would prove, but the exposure of the tops was leavened by breezes for as long as I travelled above the valleys. I gained height quickly, and early, which is always best: get up above, stay above the world until the very end.
The centrepiece of the day was moving from west to east of Hayeswater, onto the High Street range, and onto High Street. The great Roman Road, from Ambleside to Penrith, the Legions striding through the fells in their armour, bearing their Eagles (Kidsty Pike, north of High Street itself, has long been home to England’s only pair of breeding Golden Eagles).
The Romans didn’t actually detour to High Street’s flat, wide top, but I did. So did others in history: the fell has the alternate name of Racecourse Hill, recognising centuries of summer meetings, the farmers of the surrounding valleys bringing their families and produce up here in summer, to met and greet, to talk, trade, wrestle and race in the only place all could reach.
I’d planned on eight fells, but as I reached my furthest point, I found myself a mile from High Raise, a fell distant from all valley bases. There was time, it was sunny, so I diverted there and back, celebrating my 100th Wainwright when I was there – only to learn of a miscount: that honour had gone ignored on Kidsty Pike.
It was downhill now, or so it seemed. The Knott (“ten minutes from the wall corner” said Wainwright, and again I could match him) was easy, but Rest Dodd, above the forbidden Martindale Deer Forest, was a steep descent and a tedious ascent. Then back to the Patterdale path until, in sight of Angle Tarn, where we’d sat in the late afternoon a few weeks back, I cut across rough ground to Brock Crags: the final summit and, thanks to my unplanned diversion, an unequalled ninth of the day.
Coming down, out of the breezes, the sun and sudden stuffiness gave me a splitting headache, one bad enough that, halfway back to Keswick, I had to pull in and dry heave at the roadside.
But it was a splendid year, my finest return, 36 summits, and to within a handful of the halfway point. I could call myself a serious walker now. Not that I ever realised that at the time.
The picture is, of course, of High Street, though it’s something of a cheat as it shows the fell’s much more interesting Mardale Face, outside the Round itself. It looks from the north east, showing something of the crags which are invisible from the expansive summit, and the descent to the Straits of Riggindale that led me into the latter half of the walk.