On the train up from Manchester, Elbow’s majestic, shambolic, anthemic ‘One Day Like This’ came on my mp3 player and I turned my face to the carriage window and strained to look at the beginnings of low, green fells and temporary lakes in low-lying fields, and silently bellowed along, trying to keep the tears from coming into my eyes. Guy Garvey sings about a day, and a night, with someone he loves, which comes along not often and which is so rich and wonderful that his gratitude leads him to ask for no more.
Much as I’d rather it be, the one day that has to see me right is my traditional trip to the Lakes, for it’s Thursday, and my birthday just gone (Wednesday, 60, in case you’re asking), and that’s the cue to head north by train and bus, not dwelling on what else the day used to mean.
My plan, this year, is one that has already been frustrated once, by weather. I have carefully (and cheaply) bought my tickets a month earlier, selecting an earlier train that might leave Manchester only twenty minutes before my usual departure but which will get me to Windermere almost fifty minutes earlier than usual.
A near hour’s gain on a day when light may be precious means Grasmere, and Helm Crag.
I climbed it once before from Grasmere, in absurdly quick time, scrambling into my boots at 10.30am, back to the car by 12.00. It was my first solo walk, on my first solo holiday, a few October days made possible by my first car: I shut the boot on my boots just before it set into rain for 48 hours solid.
I doubt I can manage those sort of times again, but the weather’s on my side for once, dry where it’s been wet all week, light where it’s been grey, even blue, and the low fells green and brown under sunlight.
But if the weather’s being cooperative, the transport’s not. That earlier train is five minutes late reaching Piccadilly, and even more leaving it, and it doesn’t make any of that back so, when I descend at Oxenholme, the connection is eight minutes gone and the fifty minutes gain follows it, waiting for the train I could have gotten direct from Piccadilly, like always.
The next Windermere train is late, and it gets later at each stop. The sun persists to the Village and throughout the twenty minute wait for the Grasmere bus (which is late). Beyond the Village, the near fellsides are bright, but the interior is not so encouraging. There’s cloud on the Langdales, the Conistons, Bowfell. Crinkle Crags shows its serrated edge briefly, and then is gone. The Fairfield Horseshoe disappears under the shadow of some grey kingdom, cloud poised as if planning a sneak, outflanking attack down Rydale.
But Helm Crag is clear, blessedly clear, when I step off the bus in Grasmere Village.
Except that: I don’t need the unfavourable forecast for this, I have been here too many times to be kidded. I can practically smell the rain and sure enough, forty minutes later as I polish off a very nice (but expensive) lemon chicken salad roll, it smashes down like a parachute brigade on offensive manoeuvres.
Grasmere (and the bus before it) seems to having nothing but old people wandering around it, though I am forced to admit that this is appropriate since the appellation belongs to me as well, now, even if the bus driver did address me as ‘young man’. One notable exception is a handsome blonde woman in no more than her early forties, with a strong Canadian accent. She dogs my footsteps from the Heaton Cooper Studios to Sam Read’s Bookshop, though I doubt she’s following me with any conscious intent, considering she’s also dragging around with her an equally-Canadian ten year old daughter, plus two English parents, whose accents I can’t place but they’re not Cumbrian.
I don’t overstay my welcome in Grasmere: if I’m going to get stuck somewhere in the rain on a wet Thursday afternoon, Ambleside has more choice and better pubs. I do my usual bookshops: Wearings has shrunk to half the size it’s been since I first knew it and I converse about hard financial times and the second of Clive Hutchby’s Wainwrights, which has been published just last week, and which I buy as a gesture of solidarity.
Then it’s off to the Sportsman (I’m sorry, the Ambleside Tavern) for something hot to eat and something cold to drink.
The main problem – apart from my parent’s thoughtlessness all those years ago in not delivering me into a sunny and dry month of the year – is time. I can only go so far by train and bus, and I am prisoner of their times and tables. I hole up in the pub, sat in the window, eating burger and chips, drinking my third pint of lager and lime in twenty hours, I read something long and slow, but at every moment I an conscious of time building backwards. I must be at Windermere Station by such a time, so I must be at Ambleside Bus Station by such a time, so I must leave here by such a time and I am paranoid about being late, about being stranded, and though the first such a time is a long way off, the thought of getting engrossed, of losing track of time, haunts me.
After a while, the rain starts to really lash it down again. Inside the pub, a bearded guy in his late forties picks up the acoustic guitar leaning against the fireplace and launches into a quite pleasant version of that old folk ballad, Elvis Presley’s ‘The Wonder of You’ (six weeks a number 1 in 1970, immediately following seven weeks of Mungo Jerry and separated by a single Smokey Robinson week from six weeks of Freda Payne: try that on the kids of today and there’d be mass suicides).
A smattering of applause encourages him into another number, which I don’t recognise. The old couple by the fire promptly get up and leave but as he’s just about drowning out Phil Collins, I’m not complaining.
Time wore down. It got dark outside. The hour of the bus approached. The pub’s in-house MTV equivalent threw up Erasure’s ‘Sometimes’ and I sat it out, admiring the fact that it was raining on Andy and Vince’s rooftop as well, then headed out. I had conquered my paranoia so well that there were only eight minutes before the bus was due (it was late).
I’ve not been sleeping well this past week or so and on the dark-night bus to Windermere, the effect began to catch up on me. The Lake was invisible. I wandered into Booth’s Cafe for the usual wind-down flat white coffee, though I’m afraid to say that the usual sumptuous choice of cake was not as sumptuous as I am used to and I had to make do with a Bakewell Tart.
Not until I was on the train could I really begin to relax, knowing that everything was certain now from here to home. My headphones took over my ears again and I waited for the train to leave. It was late.
But the train being late, and getting later at every station, ended up a nightmare. There were delayed trains queuing to get into Piccadilly Station and by the time mine reached the subsidiary stations, our progress could be measured in phases of the moon. Having taken ages already just to reach Oxford Road, our train shut up shop, grimly determined not to move for an official six more minutes, at which point I got off and walked to Piccadilly, beating it hands down.
All of which farrago, which is nothing new, ensured that I finally got back to Piccadilly after the point when my bus home dramatically plummeted from every ten minutes to every thirty. I keep forgetting that it’s hell trying to get out of Central Manchester after 8.00pm.
I ended up catching a different bus, one that would take me to Stockport itself whereupon I can have the pleasure of turning back on myself and coming back. But as it was now getting late, I got off, cut through along Tiviot Way and started walking back from the top of Lancashire Hill. Naturally, before I could reach my stop, the bus I could have stood around in the rain and waited for shot past me, having on this occasion done a forty-five minute journey in just under thirty. It was the same last year: I am going to have to seriously rethink this before next year because it’s a lot of traveling and this bit at the end seriously pisses me off, because I can’t afford to pay for a taxi from Manchester to get home.
One day like this a year will see me right? Not this year.