The Guardian ‘Country Diary’ used to be completely reliable, a fortnight cycle, with the late Harry Griffin every alternate Monday. Since the last reshuffle, it’s impossible to anticipate when Tony Greenbank will appear. It’s certainly not once a fortnight, that’s all I’m sure of.
He was in the paper yesterday, on a bus ride from Keswick to Grasmere, via Thirlmere and Dunmail Raise. Since the storms of December washed half the road away, there’s been no direct route north, but now, three months on, the service has been restored. Not the main road, but the roundabout route via Thirlmere Dam and the rougher road down the western shore.
It reminded me that, in December, I wrote a piece for this blog, inspired by the rains and the floods, about rain days of the fells. But the sheer, awful devastation of the storms made such a piece inappropriate, and I put it by. Now it can appear.
Reports of floods in Cumbria, and especially at Cockermouth, which suffered so severely only a little more than half a decade ago, inevitably bring up recollections of rain days on the fells, so long ago.
I’ve written about most of the significant occasions when I’ve been caught out in the rain: the long long ago trek to Burnmoor Tarn, coming down by Sour Milk Ghyll after conquering Great Gable, circumnavigating Yewbarrow, and the long, slow retreat along Langstrath.
These aren’t the only times I’ve been out alone on the fells when the rain has closed in, in enveloping form, and I have found myself a long way from the car, with a silent trek broken only by the thrum of the rain on my kagoul hood, and a sense of complete loneliness. Time elongates, even as I stride on, confident and untroubled. However far I have to go, time resolved into a perpetual now, a moment in which I walk, shrouded, attempting to remove myself from the effects of the universe around me.
There was a Sunday afternoon starter walk one year, Manchester to Keswick in the morning, park at the northern mouth of the Vale of St John, the steep climb out of the valley towards Clough Head, the convex slope above the crags and the ever receding skyline, with rain closing in, and time closing in too. United were on Sky, playing the 4.00pm kick-off at Leeds, I think, and I had plans to be back in Keswick, find a pub showing the game and sink myself in the despised Murdochian debasement of our culture.
I had no intention of descending the direct route back. As the rain grew closer, I walked north over easy ground to White Pike, the very end of the Helvellyn range, and down to the old Coach Road, wandering the northern edge of the high lands, and I tramped in rain-silence home to the car and Keswick, and the ironic frustration that debasement had not yet penetrated so far as nowhere with a Sky TV was open at that hour of Sunday afternoon!
But I remember the sodden tramp along the coach road more clearly than I do Clough Head’s top, or the long vista along the drenched grassy ridge back to Great Dodd. Rain, and the cold, hemming me in.
There was another Sunday starter, this time from Ambleside, where I booked in in the village and set off to stretch my legs on a climb up Loughrigg Fell. This wasn’t on my ‘Wainwrights’ list, as I’d climbed the fell, from Rydal, many years earlier with my family, descending to and returning along Loughrigg Terrace and exploring the famous cave. No such treats on an ascent directly from Ambleside Village, starting by crossing the park, and no difficulties in the walk, and things were still clear on the summit, but as I began to descend, repeating my outbound route, the sky began to close in very rapidly from the east. I was still some ways above the old golf course, and it was already clear that this was not a case of whether I would get back ahead of the rain, but how soon it would hit me. And it hit hard, drenching me through my waterproofs, which were so wet that they and my outer clothes beneath had to be hung over the shower rail to drain into the bath to be of any use to me the following day.
Rain in Ambleside also brings back recollections of a brief two day break my wife and I spent there, some years ago. We woke on our last day to drenching rain, pouring down ceaselessly on the Village. By the time we had enjoyed our breakfast and wandered out it had taken on epic proportions. The streets were running with rain, the walls were running with rain, there were gutter waterfalls everywhere, the beck was swollen, Bridge House looked as if it could be in serious danger if it went on like that. We covered ourselves up well, enjoying the unusual spectacle in a crazy way, happy.
Where else have I been in the Lakes when it has been so wet? There was a midweek day when I was based at Keswick and it was so rainy that serious walking was out of the question, but I still had little, tree-choked Dodd on my list. It was the ideal fell for such a day, the trees preventing a view from the summit in even the best of conditions, so I fought my way up a very indistinct path that must have changed a lot since Wainwright’s days, happy to break out of the trees and into the rain because at least I could see where the hell I was.
So I wandered across the face of Dodd on shallow-angled forest roads, the rain coming down steadily, until I got to the path that led to the little summit. Then back to the roads and down to the col beneath the high side of Carl Side, from where I marched home, all the way down to the road at the northern end of the fell, and all the way back down the road to my car at the southern end. Hardly what you would call fellwalking, but oddly enjoyable in its lone, wet way.
But Dodd was a rare case of setting off in the rain, knowing my enjoyment of the day was going to be limited from the start and determined to make the minimal most of out conditions. There was an occasion, on the other side of Bassenthwaite Lake, on Sunday afternoon starter where expectations were drastically different.
It was a fine, indeed sunny September afternoon, and I’d booked in for the first half of my week in Keswick. My plans involved me going ’round the corner’, following the Cockermouth road on the way past the foot of Bass Lake, and cutting into the narrow little roads among the trees, to cross the foot of the Wythop valley. I was planning on climbing one of the two small _Wainwrights_ that stand as outliers to the mouth of the valley.
Which of the two it would be was to be determined by the availability of parking. Space in Wythop village being tighter than the proverbial duck’s arse, I wound up on the upper road into the valley, on the flanks of Ling Fell. At this point it was sunny.
Ling Fell is an unlovely fell and an unlovely climb, an upturned pudding without ridges or shape. One path circles its lower flanks, but you have to strike out uphill to reach its summit. There are no special features, no special views and no special reason ever to go back there again.
All of which meant I was back at the car far too early to take my boots off so, the weather still being sunny and hot, I took the road up the valley, crossed over to the lower road on the Sale Fell flank and took a gently angled green ride back to the wall that crossed the ridge north of Sale Fell’s summit. There were only the broad rudiments of a path so I set off uphill, confident that the fell was too small and the ridge too innocuous to pose any problems.
This was only too true, until, no more than a third of the way up, I was overtaken by a storm, a ferocious, lashing, wind-bestrewn storm, right in my face. Visibility was rapidly reduced to no more than five yards, not counting that I had to drag off my glasses and stick them into a waterproof pocket. It was an incredible reversal, but I was mulishly determined not to be beaten on a fell as small as this one, so I kept ploughing on uphill.
The wisdom of this course was exemplified by the news that, several miles to the south, in this same storm, a walker on Great Rigg was struck by lightning and killed.
I’ve never seen anything like it, the speed and ferocity of the storm, the complete obliteration of any view, and out of almost nowhere. Ahead of me, the ground eased, the small cairn appeared. I approached it at a brisk march, walked round the far side and started downhill the way I’d come without breaking stride. By the time I was back at the ridge, the rain had gone and I walked down to the village and studied the mill race in its centre in sunshine again.
Rain days in the Lakes. Given that I’m only getting up there one day in November every year, that seems to be my lot. But some of those days were memorable, and being out alone with the rain on the fells was an experience I wouldn’t sacrifice for anything.