It’s pouring with rain outside as I write, a Saturday morning shift without customers ringing in to solicit my assistance. On the over head screens, Grand Prix practice has been suspended because it’s pouring with rain on the track, and I joke about not having realised the GP was taking place in Manchester. My boss nods, and claims they’re heading down Deansgate at this very moment.
Rain of this kind, deep, sustaining, always triggers a degree of melancholy in me, that goes back to summer holiday afternoons in my bedroom in Burnage, staring out of the condensation streaked window at puddles goring in corners of the back garden, or earlier, sat in the lobby of our terraced house in Openshaw, playing with the front door open as it sluices down on the Croft opposite, a playground of higgledy-piggledy lock-up garages that sustained a thousand hide-and-seek games.
I’ve written before of rain in the Lake District, holidays affected by the endless draining of grey, absorbent skies, no fells to be seen, no walking permitted, traipse round the shops instead.
But I’ve been out on the fells when it’s rained, been caught in the midst of things, hood pulled up, kagoul and waterproof walking pants struggled into, cold, with the light faded and the clouds down above, and nothing to do but head back to the car.
Sometimes, as when I climbed Great Gable, from Honister, on the last day of the holiday the rain was some kind of obscure valediction, coming on as I reached the edge of Gillercomb and began the steep, spiralling descent alongside Sour Milk Gill, my hood thrown back deliberately, letting the rain soak my hair, my head, trickle in cold moments down my neck. Or that desperate scramble under the cliffs of Stirrup Crag, to reach the top of Dore Head on Yewbarrow: unable to climb the fell itself, one of those few failures of objective that I experienced, and the long, slow descent down Over Beck and back along the Wasdale Road.
I have always loved the solitude on the Lakes, the freedom to move at a pace and in a direction of my choosing. Times when the rain closes in only emphasise that feeling: I am completely alone, wrapped in myself, enclosed. No-one else is stupid enough to be out here doing this. And the rain turns that solitude into something with an edge: if I slip, I fall, I injure myself, the chances being increased with the rocks and the fellsides so slick underneath my boots, it will be a much longer, more unpleasant time before someone comes to help me.
Yes I still love the memories of those days in the wet. Gable and Yewbarrow I’ve written about, but there were other days. I set out to climb Eagle Crag, in the junction of Greenup Gill/the Stonethwaite valley and Langstrath, by the adventurous, direct route that Wainwright depicts. It was a dull day, though the clouds were high enough that Eagle Crag would be able to slip under them, and I ascended by an increasingly thrilling and risky way that did much to convince me that my years of caution about tricky routes had not been as necessary as I had believed.
Once on the ridge, I could not resist the chance to follow the same to Sergeant’s Crag, the other, higher rampart of this long and uncharacteristic shoulder of High Raise. The further I worked my way along the ridge, however, the more the clouds closed in, until rain and the little summit I searched for, and found almost by accident, came almost together.
Short of turning round and going back – and there was no way I was going to descend from Eagle Crag by that route, no matter how fresh it was in my memory – I’d had no fixed plans about descending from Sergeant’s Crag. As far as paths go, there are none: the ridge turns upwards, flat and dull, rising a long way to High Raise, and the only routed descent into Langstrath at this point is from Stake Pass. But I wasn’t going to start wandering in indefinite country, with the rain coming down and the clouds following it. So I negotiated a way down the front of the Crag, avoiding its rockier face, and picking my way down, carefully, on slippery and steep grass. There were no paths to guide me, but I kept my concentration, scanning the slopes before me for gathering steepness that might lead me to downfalls too sheer to negotiate.
The floor of Langstrath, in its glacial width and flatness, was clear below, and I could watch the distance above level ground steadily diminish, until the ground under my feet began to ease, and I was crossing to join the broad, secure path back towards Stonethwaite.
It was the first time, and the only time to date that I had walked in Langstrath. I had seen Bowfell at the head of Langdale, at the head of Eskdale, but never in its third aspect, from this wide and lonely place, and I was denied again, the clouds curling down the fellsides and rendering the mountains invisible.
There was still a long walk back: Langstrath, or Long Valley, is not named such without a reason. The rain was steady now, and my hood was drawn about my head, and I had removed my glasses so my vision was blurred. What might have been tedious in the sun and the dry was, instead, purposeful in the rain: I was walking to get out of the wet. When the chance came, I crossed the beck and completed my walk through woods, descending towards Stonethwaite, still carrying my glasses. There was a flash in the branches, a red blur, gone long before I could jam them back on my nose, never to return. That was my first sighting of a red squirrel.
It had rained so hard on me that, when I returned to my Keswick guesthouse, I hung my waterproofs in the bath/shower, to drain and dry.
Saturday morning thoughts on a quiet shift: I’d rather be in the Lakes when it rains than be anywhere else, but I’m a long way away right now, and that silence where the only sound is the rain pattering on your kagoul hood is denied to me still.