Frustration and the Wet Dishrag Effect

Helm Crag as I didn't see it
Helm Crag as I didn’t see it

It’s four months after my visit to Ambleside, and the lower buttresses of Loughrigg Fell, and feeling more alive and happy than I’ve done in a long time. Having done it once, I could surely do it again, and with more ambition.

The great and gorgeous weather on Monday put the idea in my head, and the crappy morning I had at work on Tuesday cemented it there. The sky was clear, the sun was out and the forecast promised it would last until Friday, which I’d already booked off as holiday.

So I bought a return to Windermere and laid my plans. I would arrive about 11.40 am, catch the bus through to Grasmere and tackle Helm Crag, which would surely not be beyond the capability of my worn-out body and knackered knees. A few hours up and down – surely three would be enough? – and a free choice of trains back come the evening.

And a proper expedition this time, like the old days, no floundering around in trainers and coat, shoulder bag bumping all over the place. I dug out one of my rucksacks (I say ‘my’, but these are fifty years old, bought by and for my Dad and his elder brother: I am their inheritor). I even bought new (though cheap) boots, my last pair having been uncomfortably cramped when I wore them last, a decade ago.

I’ve only once before gone straight onto the fells in new boots, without having any chance to break them in first, having discovered on the morning of a drive to Ambleside for a week’s walking that the soles had caved in on my old pair, requiring me to book in and race round the climbing shops as soon as I arrived.

But the years have taken more than my stamina. First, I forgot to recharge my mp3 player (for the train) overnight, so I dug out my old portable MiniDisc player, scrabbled for a replacement battery and pushed it into a rucksack pocket, only to find, when we were pulling out of Piccadilly, that I had no headphones.

I’d already realised, halfway into Manchester, that I’ve forgotten to pack Wainwright’s Central Fells. Mind you, if I can’t get up and down Helm Crag without needing a guide, I really do have to give up on the idea of getting back to real walking again!

However, there are worse problems. One is that, almost as soon as I’d paid for the train tickets, a very familiar soreness had settled into the back of my throat and, over the last couple of days, it’s been building into a serious nuisance that hot Lemsip and paracetemol is doing nothing to shift. The other is that, between Tuesday and Thursday, the weather forecast for the Lakes has practically reversed itself.

But I’ve paid for the tickets, and surely just being in the Lakes again is worth it?

It was not too bad a start in Manchester, but as the train approached Preston, we ran into a land-fog that accompanies us all the rest of the way. There was no Black Combe over Morecambe Bay – there was no Morecambe Bay visible.  There was no Kentmere Horseshoe overlooking Kendal. Passing Staveley, the cloud lifted far enough to see 3 – 400 feet of lower slopes, but even that was gone by Windermere. When I got off the train, it wasn’t actually raining.

I bought a Dayrider, still determined to pursue my plans, and the bus headed north alongside the Lake. Things got a little better: just before Troutbeck, the dingy clinginess of the mist seemed to go out of the air, though nothing more was visible of the fells.

The first pale glitter of the Lake was visible at Brockholes, but despite a surprise of sun, there was no Black Fell, let alone the Langdale Pikes. The most I could see was Todd Crag, that part of Loughrigg that had given me so much pleasure last November.

The fact that Loughrigg’s flank overlooking Ambleside was free of cloud aroused a skein of hope in me that was dashed when we emerged by Rydal Water and the all-pervading insubstantiality returned. The tin hat was finally fixed on things on the first sight of Grasmere’s chill waters: No Lion, no Lamb, no climb.

In Grasmere Village, it’s not actually raining slightly harder. The Village is as I remember it for all my life. Sam Reid’s bookshop still sits on the corner of the Green, and whilst it’s now the Grasmere Tearooms, and correspondingly more expensive, there’s still the cafe on the other side of the beck, opposite the church, with the terrace we occupied many a time, for teas ‘n’ fizzy oranges, the adults smoking and talking, my sister and I watching minnows flick and dart in the contained bed of the beck.

The terrace was shut, so I ate inside, cheered by the accompaniment of a brief burst of Fleet Foxes, sounding as ever like ritual chanting by men of the deep woods, a sort of forest Beach Boys. Perfect for a tuna melt panini and an Americano (though as I drank it, I was already looking forward to a Gold Blend back home.)

Naturally the moment you abandon hope, the cloud starts messing with your head. The Lion and the Lamb slid into view beneath the cloud: not by much, a tall man on the Lion’s head might still be enveloped. All the time I was in the tearoom, it grew steadily lighter, though the sky never changed. Silver How and Stone Arthur, on opposite sides of the Rothay Valley, also slipped into view, suddenly restoring the planned walk to feasibility.

But the food suddenly started to weigh heavily on my stomach, and the head-cold chose to turn my head fuzzy and drain my legs. I’m not the 38 year old with a stubborn streak and a gaggle of Wainwrights to collect, who’ll put his head down and determine to walk it off, and I’m not in practice for struggling, and besides, Grasmere is as close to empty of visitors – walking visitors – as I’ve ever seen it. And I’m supposed to be back to work at 9.00am on Saturday.

I couldn’t leave Grasmere without paying a first visit in years to the Heaton Cooper Studio. I admired new copies of prints that hung on our walls for years, and which are in a cupboard right now, waiting for a place with enough walls to hang them upon. Looking round, I realised they were all William, not Alfred, though a colourful print by the latter caught my eye. But I’ve already spent enough this month, nor could I have fitted it into my rucksack without damaging it, and I don’t need any more things to not go on the walls.

What did surprise me was that there were no prints by, nor mention of Julian Cooper, the third generation, and ‘my’ Cooper, nor of his mother, Ophelia Gordon Bell, both of whom used to be featured here. My own, latter-day acquisitions from the Heaton Cooper Studio have almost exclusively been of his work, starting with my favourite, Reading the White Goddess above Windermere, whose setting must be at, or close to, you’ve guessed it, Todd Crag.

(c) Julian Cooper

With my head getting slowly worse, and feeling more and more like a wet dishrag every minute, I returned to Ambleside. The day was turning from frustration into a disaster. I joylessly tramped around my usual haunts, tentatively negotiated in Fred Houldsworth’s bookshop about the possibility of their taking my three Lake District novels on a Sale or Return basis (I’ll make a loss on them, but the exposure may be worth it, and I didn’t get into writing to make money off it – not that I wouldn’t rip your hands off if you offered it).

But I’d gotten so bad now that sitting in the Sportsman’s Arms over a pint was unwelcome. I just wanted to get home and lie down, and wrap the walls around me. Which I did, along with fish’n’chips, though it took nearly four hours to do so.

All in all, probably one of my worst days ever in the Lakes, the only real bright point being that I spent the best part of eleven hours tramping around in those new boots without feeling any discomfort at all, although their uphill capabilities were tested by nothing worse than Ambleside main street. The weather was frustrating, but it was the cold that really irritated me, coming along at this exact time, in beautiful weather, just when I’d planned something I meant to enjoy for a change. No wonder I have a certain paranoia about my relationship with the Universe.


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