We had New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ on the radio yesterday, when it was tuned to an Absolute Eighties channel that, for the most part, seemed doggedly determined to ignore the fact that we did have good music in the Eighties as well. It brought back a memory of a specific play on Radio 1, in the days when I still listened to it, on the car radio heading north on the way to the Lakes.
It was 1983, of course. I had finished my first post-qualification job as a Solicitor on the Friday leaving unnoticed, and the following Monday I would take up my new job at a City Centre firm that would be a delight to work for for three of the next three and three-quarter years, but my last twelve months at my old firm had been stressful in the extreme, and the first signs of grey hairs were visible in amongst the dark brown, even though I was only 27, and I’d arranged to leave a week’s gap between jobs and take a few days out to go on holiday in the Lakes.
It wasn’t my first solo trip. Some eighteen months earlier, in October 1981, having not long since bought my first car, I had taken off for a couple of days in the late Autumn. It was cold, it was grey, I had my walking boots with me but had no real intention to use them, and I had spent a couple of days moving round, seeing places I had not seen since my last family holiday, six years previously, that had ended with my solo climb of Helvellyn.
A night in Ambleside, a night in Keswick, establishing bases that I would return to several times until their inflated prices for singles would make them prohibitive, and then home. Useful for refreshing memories, reawakening my attachment, and learning the technique of driving on narrow, winding, undulating roads and lanes, when they were all but empty.
That time I’d just gone straight up the A6, stopping off in a pub in Preston for some lunch and a dreary pint, Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ high in the chart and impressive on the radio. Jump forward eighteen months and I was determined to follow our old route northwards, Manchester to the Lake District avoiding the A6, as solicited long before from the AA.
There was a change, near Rawtenstall, a new, short motorway section, diverting me away from the town onto dual-carriageways across the moors, by-passing the road over the hill and into Burnley. As I came upon the choice whether to follow this new, previously untried route, or not, New Order stole out of the speakers, that precise, metronomic beat that was a world away from the Joy Division they’d been and who I had loved so much.
I took the motorway.
In Ambleside, I stopped at the same Hotel, overlooking the park, ate at the same old restaurant we’d patronised in the past, and which I would visit unfailingly on each holiday, until it was taken over and disappeared. I was still restless, and booked out the next day, heading north towards a night in Keswick, but I stopped in Grasmere and, with a sense of adventure, donned my boots and proceeded to walk out on my own for the very first time.
It was a few months short of eight years since I’d last walked, last worn these old boots, romped up the face of Helvellyn from the end of Striding Edge. I played squash every week, five a side football semi-regularly. I was nearing my physical prime and I was only setting out to climb Helm Crag, and I was ashamed and angry about how much I struggled getting up its steep prow, on that old path long since closed and relaid elsewhere.
But I got to the summit, climbed to the top of the official Lion and the Lamb, but not the rocks that are Helm Crag’s real highest point. I didn’t have the skills then, nor the nerve, and I never have had the nerve.
The ridge towards Gibson Knott stretched out before me and I contemplated it dubiously. It was windy, the weather was uncertain. I had made no plans beyond Helm Crag. Every step was further away from the way back, the car. It was early yet, not even midday. And this was the first time I’d been on the fells in eight years, and the first time I’d been completely alone, my own master, answerable to no-one in my course. And completely unprepared.
So I turned back to Grasmere, back at the car for about 12.30pm, stepping out of my boots and anorak and locking these in the boot just as the heavens opened and the rains came down: the right decision, then, by accident.
And it rained nonstop from then until Thursday morning.
I stayed two nights in Keswick, wandering around in the wet on Wednesday, driving from place to place, and coming back to the hotel I’d used before, which, like my choice in Ambleside, overlooked the Park.
Thursday dawned dry. I booked out, intent on moving on. It was dry and clear and I had another walk in mind, an intriguing fell, the Northern Fells outlier, Binsey, with its views south. Wainwright had praised its unique situation, the unexpected vista, and I followed his recommendation on a dull, unexciting ascent from small lanes and hamlets at the back, keeping the view to the last moment on crossing the crest of the hill.
It was dark in the interior, so I wandered back and removed my boots for the day, lunchtime again, so early. I motored off to Cockermouth, had lunch in a pub, a strong cheese and onion sandwich, with a strong, reddish cheese that I wasn’t entirely happy about, and then off, southwards down the coast.
Via Buttermere and Loweswater, the mouth of Ennerdale, the Cold Fell road, Nether Wasdale, gradually moving towards Ravenglass. I’d planned to stay there overnight, but there wasn’t a guest house that felt right, that didn’t look too costly or too comfortable.
Speaking of which, I wasn’t feeling too comfortable myself. My stomach was beginning to feel off, and it only got worse. Ravenglass didn’t feel right: I pressed on, growing weaker and more painful as I drove, set on Coniston, and when I got there I checked into the first Hotel I could find, went to my room, undressed and curled up in bed.
Unless it was the cheese, I don’t know what brought it on, but I was in pain all evening. I knew it couldn’t be the onset of appendicitis, because I’d had that, and my appendix removed, in the summer of 1977, but in all other respects it was a familiar sensation. I didn’t tell anyone, didn’t seek assistance, didn’t even have aspirin on me. I just suffered it through the night, barely slept, but reached the morning feeling weak and empty but free of my gastric difficulties.
The hotel were solicitous when I refused breakfast, just a cup of tea, and I went home quietly, the holiday marred by my experience – and my inexperience in dealing with it.
But I had gotten my boots on again, twice. I had walked out and reached two more summits, taken my collection of Wainwrights into double figures. I had walked alone and I had come back. I had begun.
‘Blue Monday’. How does it feel? Sick to my stomach, but bloody wonderful.