Joined-up Walking


Wetherlam Edge

I’d gone away in March, I’d got back into my boots for the first time in nearly a decade, and it hadn’t killed me. Let’s do this again.

I was enjoying myself at my new firm, settling into place. I’d started at a very busy time, too busy basically for anyone to properly speak to me that first week, or rather four days since it ran up to Good Friday. The firm’s principal client was the Housing Corporation and it had £7,000,000 to disburse on various Refurbishment and Newbuild schemes by Housing Associations in the North of England. It had to all be spent by Easter, or the budget for 1983/4 would be cut, and my new colleagues were working every hour God sent to get this done, and a newby who didn’t know the procedures couldn’t take any of the strain from them.

I had no interest in the conventional sun and sea holidays, I had no children restricting my holiday times to school holidays, I was happy to let my colleagues take the prime weeks as long as I got the days here and there for Roses Matches and the Old Trafford Test, and I booked my real holiday for the beginning of September, and went off once more to the Lakes, after the crowds had started to thin.

It was the same as before: set off on Monday for Ambleside, but this time I stayed two nights there, and two nights in Keswick. And from Ambleside on Tuesday, I set off to the Tilberthwaite Valley.

We’d visited once in the Seventies, the post-Dad family, changing into our boots, setting off into the gorge, heading for Tilberthwaite Gill falls. Which were about five minutes away. I can’t help but be amused by it: a complete failure of planning by my Uncle and Mother. Given the number of times I’d read the Wainwrights by then,I was far better prepared than anyone else to plan a walk in new country, but of course I was still part of the ‘children’, which meant that my voice counted for absolutely nothing.

We’d barely begun and here we were, sat around on the banks as if we were stopping for a much deserved drink, nothing to do and nowhere to go, since the gorge stopped there. Having not used up even the least amount of energy, I prowled around, discovered a path under the trees, scaling the flank of the gorge behind us and received official permission to see where it went. I scrambled uphill, under the trees, to where it debouched onto a wide, well-made track rising from right to left, just inviting exploration.

I descended, reported my discovery and, with a certain degree of resignation among the adults that seemed to be based on this being my idea and not their’s, led them up into the open air and along the track. Not far ahead, it would round to the right, into a shallow, upland valley, walled off by a green ridge at its further end.

The path – an old miner’s track to their mines – was beautifully graded. It skirted the edge of the valley to the old, abandoned mines, at the valley end, and we followed the track as it continued upwards, to the ridge, with Wetherlam rising majestically to the left.

I was all in favour of going for it. We hadn’t expended that much energy getting here, and we had ample time, but the adults were not in favour (I had gotten too much leeway today as it was). So we walked back, following the miner’s track all the way down, then round to the car parked at the foot of the Gill.

I walked ahead, all the way, separated from the rest of the family. I had begun to do that since my Peak Forest Canal sponsored walk in 1972. I didn’t go too far distant, but I was fitter and a faster walker than the rest, and I suppose that subconsciously I was demonstrating how I was continually straining at the leash.

As a family, we never went back to Tilberthwaite but I remembered the miner’s route and kept it in mind, and now I was in charge, it seemed a perfect opportunity to follow my interest, and not to stop at the foot of the ridge again. It was a sunny day, unlike my two expeditions in March, and after sweating a bit to get up the first climb out of Tilberthwaite – these miners really walked to work this way every morning? Cor! – I got into the upper valley and made good time round its rim and onto the ridge.

With the exception of my brief, rocket-fueled powering up Helvellyn from Striding Edge, Wetherlam Edge was the roughest thing I’d tackled thus far. It was a broken route, without a consistent path, and sometimes it took me to the literal edge. I was tense all the way, worrying about getting into a position from which I couldn’t retreat, but I negotiated my way to the summit, with its impressive views over towards the Scafells, and I had reached my first substantial, serious top on my own.

But it was the same as Helm Crag in the March: now I was here, what did I do next? Once again I hadn’t thought further than the summit I’d set out to attain and it was still far too early that day to just turn back and head for my car. It certainly wasn’t going to rain that afternoon.

So, because it was still early, not even 1.00pm, I ploughed on to the next obvious destination, Swirl How, across Swirl Hause. This meant facing the Prison Band or rather, at this early stage in my career, taking the path avoiding the crest and the scramble, to its right, until I was on the summit. I had completed my first ridge route, I had climbed two fells in the same day for the first time ever!

And from Swirl How’s summit, the ridge curved around the head of Greendale, to nearby Great Carrs, whose summit cairn was entirely too near for me to ignore it. A seven minute stroll, Wainwright called it, which was a challenge worth taking up. I didn’t exactly saunter, in fact I strode out enthusiastically rather than stroll, and I was at the cairn in exactly seven minutes.

Then it was another case of what next? Grey Friar was in sight, it was still only 2.30pm, what was to stop me? It was a consciousness of my inexperience, not in the sense of potential lack of competence, but a genuine lack of any understanding of my stamina. I could go on, but at what point was I going to start to flag? Thanks to my lack of foresight, every step forward was carrying me further away from my car, would be a step back I had to cover when I reach the limits of my stamina.

Reluctantly, because it was still a lovely afternoon, sunny and bright and hours of it to come, I turned back. Back round Greendale head to Swirl How – definitely not a seven minutes stroll that way – down beside the Prison Band and a somewhat wearing scramble back onto and towards Wetherlam.

The ascent of Wetherlam Edge had left me eager to avoid it on the way back, and the chance came when I was on the ridge, still climbing towards the summit. Grassy flanks opened up to my right, pathless but inviting. No need to climb any higher, I could detour across this flank, work my way onto the Lad Stones ridge, down towards the valley and, lower down, when the ridge began to bend west towards Coniston, and the path from Coppermines Valley to Tilberthwaite was visible in open country, I could divert eastwards to pick it up.

There were a couple of walkers camped on the path. It seemed churlish to aim to avoid them, though they were a pair of middle-aged women who’d stopped for a brew. And my inexperience had shown in my having carried insufficient liquid that I was dry and parched. Kindly, they poured out for me a cup of tea, though the milk was heading rapidly towards the turn and little bits of it floated in the cup, which made me feel a bit ill (which I tried to both ignore and not show).

And then it was the final leg, descending into Tilberthwaite Gorge, steeply beside the invisible falls, and out into the car park, approaching my car from the opposite side to that I had left six hours or so previously.

The next day, I moved on to Keswick, using the day to relax and move about. For some absurd reason that I wouldn’t grow out of for another couple of years, I had the impression that I wasn’t fit enough to go walking more than every other day, so I had no plans to do any more walking until Thursday.

As I’ve mentioned many times, my family was rooted in the southwest quarter of Lakeland, the Southern and Western Fells, with an expedition into the Central Fells, and I had dragged us into the Eastern and Far Eastern Fells on that final holiday near Ullswater. But none of us had done any walking in the North Western Fells, and Wainwright’s obvious love of that region had attracted my attention a hundred times when I had been reading the books.

Now was the time to break that duck, beginning with the attractive oddity of Causey Pike.

It looked seriously steep as I approached it from the road across the valley, parked in a corner of the road that didn’t obstruct anyone’s way. I was tossing over in my mind how to proceed, right up to the foot of the fell: did I take the narrow, exciting route over Rowling End, or did I play safe and take the boring, steady route to the base of the fell? Well, duh!

It was Rowling End, then a steep ascent, although I did bottle out on the short scramble over the final few feet of rock just below the cairn (this first time). And here I was.

And there was Scar Crags, further back, higher, much less distinctive, mind, so I set off in that direction. By the time I reached its whaleback top, the clouds were gathering and rain was no longer merely an option, so I passed straight on, there being nothing to detain me on the top, not even a decent cairn.

Down to the col and, the conditions being what they were, turning down on the right, into the narrow valley that would lead me back to the road and the car. Except that it didn’t come on to rain that quickly. It grew dim and grey, and there was a parallel ridge that wasn’t all that high above the valley, so I crossed over, across the damp, green-looking bed of what must once have been a tarn, and contoured my way awkwardly up to the top of Outerside.

I was now on a roll, down Outerside’s steep, long southern ridge, by-passing Stile End – it did not count as a Wainwright – and up to the top of Barrow: only two days and I had already exceeded my record number of fells in a single day. I had also, more by luck than good judgement, found the kind of walk I would specialise in in future. I had ascended by one ridge and descended by another, minimising to the point of almost obliteration, the ground I had to tread twice in a day (hence my use of the term ‘trodden ground’ for that part of the walk I had to tackle twice).

There being no direct way down from Barrow towards my car, I retreated to the col below Stile End and took the diagonal path heading back up the gill that would merge, further up, with the path descending it. Just where the two met, the heavens opened. I sat down and pulled on my waterproofs, and then walked back down the gill to the car.

Seven summits in two walks, but more importantly I had begun to accustom myself to the fells. To longer walks with more tops than my family had ever planned, to forward planning, so that I could arrange my walks to avoid repeating or retreading my steps. To realising that I didn’t need company on the fells, that solitude and autonomy were brilliant, and that I wasn’t maybe a liability to myself after all, who had to have someone around to tell me where to walk and get me out of the problems I’d inevitably stumble over if I was left to take responsibility for my clumsy, useless self.

I was already addicted to the fells. It hadn’t quite come to me that I could go on and climb all of them. The desire had been there, in every page of every Wainwright that I’d read and re-read, over and over. I needed to start to believe in my capacity for doing so. March had seen me get into my boots again, but September had start to build my never sturdy confidence that I could physically do it. The road to anywhere starts with a single step, but getting there requires understanding that you can indeed put one walking boot in front of another enough times to get to the end, and I was already looking forward to next year, and more places I’d never been, more paths I’d never followed, and more views that I would reach under my own steam.

The channge meant never going back to Throstlegarth from Brotherilkeld, or Goatswater from Torver again. It meant that climbing Mill Gill to Stickle Tarn was a means to an end, not a destination itself.

Why my mother,and my Uncle, weren’t interested, why they wanted only so many things and nothing more when there was the whole of the Lakes to be taken in and enjoyed, I never knew nor understood. My mother would enjoy the photos I brought back, but even if her slowly deteriorating health would have allowed her, she would never have dreamed of walking in those, to her, alien places (I do her one injustice: in the second Drought Summer, in 1984, she drove herself to Mardale, walked through the revealed Village of Mardale Green. But she wouldn’t even have considered little Latrigg, because it didn’t lie between Ambleside and Wasdale.)

We are all strangers to each other, no matter how close we are. I always imagine that my Dad would have followed ever footstep I made in the fells (except the stupid ones) if he’d had the opportunity. On Earth-2, I like to think that he did. Solitude and autonomy are one thing, but I’d have welcomed his company every single day.

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