Late in my shift last night, we had notification of multiple exchange outages in Cumbria and Lancashire. I ran my eye down the list of exchanges affected, familiar names stretching from Penrith to Keswick, and a bit beyond that, as far as Braithwaite, and that brought back a memory.
Between 1987 and 1997, I was in a relationship with a woman a couple of years older than myself. We met at work, things were very intense for quite a time and then life’s complications began to get in the way. For the last half of our relationship, and perhaps more, things were permanently volatile, off and on and several stages between.
I’d taken the opportunity to introduce her to the Lake District in 1988, a day out in Patterdale, climbing Angletarn Pikes (which was on my list of Wainwrights to be done). We took things easy, took our time, had a brilliant day of it. I promised to take her up Catbells, the next time.
That time didn’t come for a long time. We were up and down with a vengeance, at one point not even having any contact for nearly six months. And things were decidedly on and off when we met up again.
I still hadn’t climbed Catbells. It remained on my ever-shrinking list, but I kept the faith and refused to ascend it, in the hope that we’d one day make that opportunity for ourselves.
Well, at long last, it came about. We were mostly friends, rather than anything deeper, though my feelings for her ran deep and had by no means been extinguished. And one summer, the opportunity came up, a day out to the Lakes, visiting Keswick and, no promises, maybe we’d have a go at Catbells.
Things were pretty fragile between us. I was not to press her over the walk, so I simply kept my mouth shut on it. We had a solid lunch in the Oddfellows Arms, where I always try to eat when I’m in Keswick, and then, slightly begrudgingly, as if I had pressured her into it, she agreed we’d do the walk.
I drove round into the Newlands Valley. It was a hot day, high sun and few clouds and I parked in a corner of the road where there was some shade from trees. It was quiet and cool among the trees.
It’s a fairly steep climb out of Newlands onto the ridge. It’s like that on either side, but Newlands gave us more peace and quiet: a summer Saturday afternoon on Catbells was going to be heaving. We took our time, far more time than I might alone, but there was nothing to rush for, and I was content to go at her pace. The more content she was, the nicer the day.
We reached the ridge without any major effort, and from there to Catbells was easy-peasy. And it was heaving, with very little space on which to sink and sit down. She took the initiative, led us a little downhill on the Derwentwater side. The ground quickly steepened away but we only ventured down about five or six yards, not out of hearing of the buzzing on the summit, but substantially out of sight. It was too angled to comfortably sit, so we stretched out, side-by-side.
And arms found their way around each other, kissing started, and she took one hand and slipped it under her shirt, where I was encouraged to confirm what sight had already told me about what she was wearing underneath.
We could do so much in our seclusion, but it wasn’t like Angletarn Pikes, when we’d been completely alone.
With a new feeling of contentment and connection between us, we slowly moved on, taking the tourist path towards Keswick before doubling back at a lower level, towards Newlands and my car. We headed back to Keswick, to get ourselves another drink. Before we did, she insisted on using a phonebox to call back home and speak to her daughter.
Keswick on Saturday night. I’d never been there at that time before. The pubs were crowded, and it took about three before we found one where there was actually a space we could slip into. She was bubbly, excited, uncontained. I had an inkling of the surprise she was planning to pull but I wanted her to have the fun. But when it came to our second round of drinks, I had to speak up, so I could decide what to order for myself. Were we staying tonight?
Her face fell, for which I was sorry. She was keeping it back, to spring on me as a surprise: let’s get a room and stay. But I knew her too well by then, and had read that surprise the moment she’d gone off on her own to call her daughter. There really was no other reason to have done so. But it was the difference between a Diet coke or another half of lager and lime for me.
However, there was a nearly fatal flaw in our plan. We weren’t just seeking an impromptu guesthouse vacancy in Keswick on a summer Saturday night, we were doing it on the weekend of a Jazz Festival in the town. There was literally no room at the Inn.
I hadn’t overindulged on the lager, so I was still within safe limits to drive. If push came to shove, we would go back to Manchester and my house, but a weekend in the Lakes, and a little more walking on Sunday was a preferable deal so I called upon my ingenuity and local knowledge and we headed off towards Cockermouth.
Whether they could have sorted us out became moot when my partner in fun spotted a Vacancies sign as we passed the edge of the village of Braithwaite. And that Vacancy turned out to be for a double room, with appropriate bed, which we took. The only other visitors to this heaven-sent little place were a pair of very shy, very young Japanese girls.
Our night secured, we went back to Keswick and completed our day with fish’n’chips from the Old Keswickian. Suitably greased up, we drove back to Braithwaite, at which point I am firmly drawing a curtain across the rest of the day.
Sunday was equally hot and sunny. Steeping into yesterday’s underpants and socks was a bit icky, especially as it had been such a hot day, but this was a small price to pay and we were both paying it. I’d only brought The North Western Fells with me, for Catbells, but there was an easy walk available that I’d done before, that involved little energy or time, but would give my companion her third summit. This was High Rigg.
The road up to the church on the saddle requires two gates to be opened to progress: it was a pleasant change to have a passenger to whom this could be delegated. We parked up just as the Morning Service was ending. Of all the coincidences, my partner was approached by a woman in her fifties: this was the mother of my lady’s next door neighbour!
We made a stroll of it, sitting on an outcrop off the top for ten minutes before visiting the actual summit. This was an affront to my fellwalker’s instincts, that I had to suppress, to my companion’s amusement. It was a perfect day.
But we had to get back to Manchester, and domestic chores that demanded attention, and there was a limit to how much time we could actually spend in each other’s company by that time without things starting to break down again. So we drove back, on good terms, and I dropped her off, and that was it.
So Braithwaite Exchange breaking down last night was the spur to remembering that unexpectedly sweet weekend. It’s not really my usual sort of walking story, since the walking turned out to be the least point of it, but I did tick off another Wainwright and Catbells is a lovely place to be, alone or in company.
We never climbed another fell together, and I doubt she added to her tally, unless after a slammed down phone one night in late summer 1997 she met someone else who took her walking in Lakeland. I doubt it would have mattered to her either way, but those walks we did together remain as cherished memories.