A little bit of what it used to be like


Windermere from Todd Crag, by moi
Windermere from Todd Crag, by moi

A couple of years ago, I spent a weekend in Edinburgh, meeting a bunch of on-line friends. Paz had lived and worked in the city for years and showed us all sorts of places, before leading us up Arthur’s Seat, which was great stuff. I hadn’t done any serious uphill walking in years by that point, and whilst I got to the summit and found the vista incredible, the actual walk was a shameful struggle, my right calf threatening to go into a very painful cramp a couple of times, but my overall progress being slow and sluggish, holding everybody up.

Ok, I was the oldest member of the party, and by thirty-odd years on most of us, but that still didn’t make me feel better about how difficult it was to complete. And that wasn’t even over 1,000 feet.

Today, I went up to the Lake District: train to Windermere, bus to Ambleside. I did this last year, though it was dull and overcast then, and today was sunshine, blue skies and puffball clouds, though not without some higher, murkier stuff moving out of the central areas.

As soon as I hit Ambleside, it was through the churchyard and onto the lane to the park, across that to Miller’s Bridge – a good old packhorse bridge made of Lakeland slate – and from there to the private lane that winds up the side of Loughrigg Fell. I’ve climbed Loughrigg twice, once by this route. It’s not much more than 1,100 feet high, though I was aiming for something even more modest than that: Todd Crag, an outcrop at the southern end of the wedge-shaped landscape, that boasts a superb view of the head of Windermere that I’d once seen in a calendar. That wasn’t even as high as Arthur’s Seat.

But this is the first piece of serious uphill walking I’ve done since Edinburgh, and my knees are pretty knackered, and I’m overweight, have no stamina, and not even the proper gear: waterproof coat instead of anorak, shoulderbag, not rucksack, trainers not boots. So I’d scaled back my ambition pretty ruthlessly, unsure of what I could achieve.

As soon as I reached that private lane, I tried to drop into the fellwalker’s gait, the steady, almost metronomic, one-two, one-two pace that, if achieved, can eat up miles as easily as a kid can polish off a Big Mac (though he’s far better off on his hind legs). The Rothay valley and Ambleside was behind me, as was the Fairfield Horseshoe, circling empty Rydale, with Red Screes showing its long south ridge beyond the Morning Arm.

It didn’t take much height for my spirits to rise. I have spent so much time at ground level, I have been too much away from the Lakes. Just to be here, a hundred feet or so above the valley was to put a grin on my face that just kept getting wider. There were others of the lane, couples and parties, heading up, heading back, but at a bend I found a series of slate steps set into the wall, leading to an overhung, leaf-scattered path heading away south. Once I was on this path, I was alone: alone enough that in the next two hours I saw no-one except at some distance.

This is what walking is for me. Neither holding up nor being held up, just walking at my pace, in the air, among the fells, in silence and freedom. Grass and rock and bracken, no two steps alike, the wind striking whenever I crossed a skyline, further fells appearing as I moved from outcrop to outcrop. Ill Bell and Froswick, overlooking the Troutbeck Valley, Little Hart Crag above Scandale Head, Steel Fell and Tarn Crag, hovering over invisible Grasmere.

I was happy, as I haven’t been in a very long time, and I was back in my world, a world I’ve been displaced from, a world that I had begun to fear I would never come back to. But even in this limited expedition, this modest target, though its view was as stupendous as I hoped, I was one of them still, still a walker, not an exile. Let the wind blow, let a spurt of spots dampen the day, even as it created a perfect rainbow with ends in Ambleside and Grasmere. I was in my own again, and it felt good.

Of course, there was the matter of return, in which more caution was required, because descent is usually more tricky, and more painful when you have to put up with knees like mine. And wearing trainers too, which caused a few slips here and there, earning me the first time a dirty seat to my jeans, and on the other two occasions, abrupt foldings up of my left knee in a manner it really does not like.

Of course I took a different route back, striding out with ease wherever I could, following my nose and my experience, which wasn’t particularly clever. In spite of, or maybe because of the profusion of paths on this side, I got onto the wrong line, found myself descending, precipitously, beside a wall protecting a steep and bubbling beck. It was not a wise course, even correctly kitted out, and I am not too stupid to admit when I’ve gone wrong, even if it meant a retreat uphill that my waning energy could ill-afford.

But eventually I saw the lane, and a way across to it, and could make my way down in relaxed fashion. Well, not all that relaxed, really. Going downhill is worse for the knees than going up, and that lane certainly felt steeper on the way home than it did when I was trudging up it, two hours earlier.

And coming down, there were a couple in their thirties walking upwards, and as we passed, we did the fellwaker’s nod and greet, the recognition of who we were and what we shared, and I said, lacomically, “Bit of wind, up there,” and they said, “Thanks,” for warning and help acknowledged, and yes, I truly was in my own again.

I occupied the rest of my time looking at Ambleside’s familiar bookshops – one of which I’ve been visiting for over fifty years – and in a pint and a burger in the pub I will always think of as the Sportsman‘s, even though it is now apparently the Ambleside Tavern.

With it getting rapidly dark, I wandered achingly round to catch the bus back to Windermere and the train. Ahead of me at the stop, and in front of me when we sat down inside, was a woman who TV or film or newspapers would probably disregard, but who I found stunningly gorgeous. And not just gorgeous: she looked, indefinably, as if she would be as good to talk to, to spend time with, as she looked: someone with whom you would immediately feel relaxed, and at home: and these things are far better than looks.

The weird thing about it was that she was looking at me at the bus stop before I was looking at her, and I kept catching her glancing at me, even half-turning in her seat to catch me in her peripheral vision. That doesn’t happen often, often here being defined as even once, although it could perhaps have been a slutchy smell from the soggier of my rather dirty trainers that she was objecting to, but she didn’t have a look of distaste on her face, and believe me, I can spot them.

Sadly, she had an older woman with her, dependant upon a stick, who I assumed was her mother, so there was no opportunity to speak to her and discover if she was as nice as my instincts were telling me. Not that I would have, if she’d been alone, or maybe this time: I could have asked her about the bus whilst we were waiting to get on.

I got the impression she was not far into her forties, which would have been perfect as far as I was concerned: her face was unlined and her slim fingers free of rings, but then again she was someone who, when she reaches 65, I would have looked on with delight.

Nothing happened though. I got off at Windermere Railway Station and they stayed on the bus, which was heading down the hill to Bowness next.

Just the brief sight of her, on a day as happy as today has been, was delightful. I even got a good NaNoWriMo session done, two spells of writing on the train, one each way (though the latter had to be done in pencil when my pen abruptly packed up). It must be at least 1,000 words, but I’m not going to find out tonight because I’m not starting to type it up at this hour.

The photo is from this afternoon, about 1.00pm. My knees are killing me now, but it was so good to be there, and to know that I am still not an exile.

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