My Family, My Lake District

I’m snapping myself out of a very low mood at the moment and the key to doing so is by writing, and what better subject to lift my spirits than by writing about my beloved Lake District? Forgive me if you’ve heard bits of this before.

My family is part Cumbrian on my Dad’s side, his father being the youngest of nine children born to Robert Crookall, station master at Ravenglass in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. When I was young, at least three of Grandad’s brother’s and sisters were still alive and living in the Lakes. There were Uncle Frank, Uncle Alf and Aunty Lily Bunting, with whom my parents had been very close in their courting days.

I don’t remember ever meeting her. I do remember, very faintly, going up to the Lakes when I was very young, before my sister was born, for something to do with her death. I don’t think it was the funeral, but rather I think it was something to do with the will and distributing her personal possessions among the family. We ended up with a lovely pair of brass covered bellows that hung on our wall at home, and which in later years I would polish, along with all the other brass, every December in the week before Xmas.

The only real memories I have of that day are of laying claim to something in the house I wanted us to have (what it was I can’t remember but we didn’t get it) and of being woken very early in the morning for the drive from Manchester. It gave me the opportunity to use a line I’d found funny in a Pixie and Dixie cartoon I’d just watched, where the meeces had hypnotised Mr Jinks to sleep and then woken him almost immediately. He’d said, and I repeated, “Sheesh, what a short nap.” But as Dad hadn’t watched the cartoon, it didn’t register with him.

This has the feel of an old memory, of the first memory, but it can’t have been. Twice we’d been up to stay with Uncle Frank, in Dalton-in-Furness, from where we’d been to the southern Lakes. I remember Windermere and Bowness Bay and I’ve no doubt we visited Coniston as well. But years later I learned that there’d been a rift in the family over the administration of Aunty Lily Bunting’s Will by Grandad and Uncle Alf (his immediately older brother), as a result of which the rest of the family wouldn’t speak to them again. We never saw Uncle Frank again and he died in the mid-Sixties, sometime, whilst we still lived in Brigham Street.

I don’t doubt that it was this rift that sent us on our first farmhouse holiday, to Low Bleansley and the Troughtons in the Lickle Valley. Bed, breakfast and evening meal, meaning that wherever we went we had to be back for six o’clock, which meant an early departure on days we went to Ravenglass or Wasdale.

Those holidays at Low Bleansley are golden memories for me. There was my Mam and Dad, my little sister (born in 1962), and Uncle Arthur, Dad’s elder brother, who did the driving. The B&B was Mrs Troughton’s side of things, but we’d chat with her husband and their son David, who worked on the farm. The first time we went, Grandad told me, on the Saturday before we came back, to ask Mr Troughton for “A lile bit o’ streer”, which he made me pronounce in the proper Cumbrian dialect, if not the accent. He wouldn’t tell me what it was, not even when I correctly identified it as “A little bit of straw”, which the amused farmer duly handed to me after I stumbled it out.

But we rapidly became friends who were welcomed back each year, not least because we always brought the sun in August. I remember my sister naming two lambs Sunny and Snowdrop (girls, what can you do?) and being able to identify them as sheep, I remember my first act of patience, making friends with the wilder of the two sheepdogs, I remember Dad and I climbing the fellside behind the farm one evening, and caching a film canister in the roots of a tree growing out of an outcrop of rock, with a thruppenny bit in it and at least one other thing I can’t remember.

At first, we did the things a family with two young kids could do. Steamer rides on Windermere. Sat by the Lake at Coniston. Trips on the Ratty. Wasdale Head, ‘don’t drive too near the water’ and strolls towards Sty Head. But at least one of the adults had their eyes on more.

I attribute it to my Dad. I’m always going to do that, whether I’m right or wrong about this, but I credit him for steering us into the fells the first time my sister was old enough, on an extra week away in April 1966, just the four of us.

That first walk was Hard Knott Pass, out of Eskdale, across the fellside. There were no paths, just Dad and his compass, identifying a point ahead on the right bearing and leading us there before taking another sighting. And me, complaining every step of the way, or if not every step, because they quickly got fed up with me, as many steps as I could get away with.

It took until our third walk, Sty Head from Wasdale, to get me up something with practically no whingeing, and that was because I desperately wanted to see Green Gable. And though I wasn’t aware of it then, that was also a Boy and his Dad: Mam wouldn’t let my little sister cross the scree-field so they went back to paddle in the beck and we went on alone, and what boy doesn’t want the good opinion of his Dad?

Fellwalking added another string to our bow and changed or holidays permanently. I vividly remember another day, with Dad and our car, where we set-off up one of those public footpaths on the Coniston/Broughton road, which vanished and left us wandering and coming down beside the former station and into the Village. It was bright sun and Dad set off alone to fetch the car, and we hung around on the corner and a group of lads came walking up the road from the Lake, singing what a day for a Daydream.

Even the Ratty, which was practically compulsory, was the basis for short walks: Boot and beyond, up the Whillan Beck and that one memorable (for all the wrong reasons) expedition to Burnmoor Tarn, and very carefully over the last stages to Stanley Ghyll Force.

We’d have carried on going to Low Bleansley for ever but it was not to be. One August Saturday, we cleared out after another lovely week, and then came the terrible news that on the Thursday following, Mrs Troughton had suffered a stroke and died. Such a lovely lady, such a terrible loss for her family and her friends, who must have included everybody who ever stayed there.

So the following year we had to adapt to self-catering cottages. On the one hand, that wasn’t much of a holiday for Mam, but on the other we were no longer tied to being back for a fixed time. Although I expect it was merely a coincidence that 1968 saw us reach our first summit(s). Middle fell, in Nether Wasdale, never identified as a target, just carrying on a but further until there was no further to go. Lingmell, led by Dad, which started off as a wander along the Valley Route to Sty Head and then a bit of climbing that went on and on, because I don’t think Dad would have got Mam to agree in advance to climbing up alongside Piers Ghyll (I mean, I was only 12 at the time, and I was the older one). Then Haystacks, which failed to impress Dad as much as it had the Blessed Wainwright.

In October, or maybe even as late as November, we got away for a long weekend in a small cottage (one bedroom, with bunk beds for us kids) at Force Forge. Apart from a last day visit to the Grizedale Forest Trail, I don’t remember where we went or what we did, but I have a poignant memory of lying in the top bunk with Mam and Dad talking below. It’s my last innocent memory. Back in Manchester, Dad went to the doctor, complaining of pains in his shoulder. They were the first indications of the cancer that killed him twenty-one months later, three months before my fifteenth birthday.

There were no holidays between Force Forge and the month after his death. About a month before he died, Granny and Grandad booked on a coach trip to the Lakes, to Penrith and back via Ullswater and Patterdale, the former a Lake I had never seen before, bright blue under a summer sun. I was the only one of us to see the Lakes in those months.

After Dad died, even though the school year had started, and it would be my O-Level year, Mam and Uncle Arthur took us on a holiday to the Lakes, staying in a farm a mile or two along the Coniston road from the Broughton Mills turning that led us to Low Bleansley, a break to let all of us get our heads something like straight. I remember rain in Ulverston, pouring rain, soaking plastic raincoats, and hiding out from the downpour in the covered market, where I bought what I thought would be the last American comic of my life (Justice League of America 75, incidentally). I remember a trip on the Ratty on the Sunday and wandering on the foothills below Eel Tarn and Stony Tarn, my mother complaining because I was now into pop music and had my transistor radio in my anorak pocket, to listen to Pick of the Pops, something she firmly stated Dad would never have allowed. I remember being allowed into the farmer’s lounge on Thursday night, to watch the first few seconds of Top of the Pops and rapidly scribble down the new Top 30 (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles number 1 for one week with ‘Tears of a Clown’. after six weeks of Elvis Presley and ahead of six weeks of Freda Payne. But nothing else.

Normal service, as normal as it was ever going to get after that, began the following year. We went back to the old routine of two weeks holiday each year, self-catering cottages in various places, fellwallking and the odd summit. Between 1971 and 1975, we added another six summits to our record (not counting Coniston Old Man, where we turned back in cloud less than one hundred yards from the cairn, and not counting Black Combe or Muncaster Fell either, because there wasn’t an Outlying Fells then, and also not counting Flat Fell, near Cleator Moor, because even though this did use the Outlying Fells, everybody slagged me off for suggesting it) and counting three tops in the last week, the only one we spent based near Ullswater, which aroused my mother’s anger at being dragged away from that only quarter of the Lakes they wanted to see, and which led to the behaviour towards me in Pooley Bridge that had me telling her, less than twenty four hours after we had arrived, that I was never going on holiday with them again.

My last day was momentous: we reached the end of Striding Edge, where my mother refused to let my sister tackle the chimney down off it, but I was sent on alone. Released from all constraint, I shot up the rest of Helvellyn in about ten minutes, without a break or even breathing hard.

I didn’t visit the Lakes again for six years. There was a snowy February morning in 1977 when I had a job interview at Cumbria County Council in Carlisle, involving a 7.00am start from Victoria Station and a glorious white vista from Oxenholme but I was not to set foot inside the national Parks boundary until the summer of 1981, a day out with my mother, sister and her future husband, to a dusty Wasdale Head, with Department S’s ‘Is Vic There?’ on the radio.

That visit can only have been a short time before I bought my first car, which I bought in time to use to get to Headingley in Leeds to see the August Roses Match (which is a story in itself). In October, I took a week off work and decided to go away to the Lakes, by myself, for a few days. I set off north, up the A6, for my first extended drive, headed for Ambleside and booked into a nice hotel overlooking the park. I stayed a night, moved on to Keswick for Wednesday night, to another nice hotel overlooking the park, and came home on Thursday.

It doesn’t sound like much and it wasn’t much, not really. But it was October, and dark, and though I’d chucked my old boots in the boot of the car, I’d no real intention of doing any walking. It was a practice, more than anything, at being responsible for myself, at driving the Lakeland roads, at the ideal time for it, with minimal traffic allowing me to get used to the bends and dips and rises and narrowness without the pressure of other traffic. To practice being able to go where I wanted to, without being restricted to other people’s intentions and, let’s say it, limitations. I even came back over Kirkstone Pass, despite the warnings about the Patterdale side.

I didn’t repeat the exercise in 1982, but the following year, in a week’s grace between changing from my first to my second job, I headed for Cumbria again, four nights this time, the last in Coniston enduring the agonies of a bout of food poisoning, which I put down to the cheese and onion sandwiches I’d had at lunch in Cockermouth.

But on the Tuesday morning, on the way from Ambleside to Keswick, I stopped off in Grasmere and climbed Helm Crag, by the old, long-since fenced off route. I set of at 10.00am, was back at the car for 12.00, just ahead of thirty six hours of solid rain. And before I set off from Cockermouth and the coast road on Thursday morning, I climbed Binsey from the back, dull as ditchwater as a walk but withholding the view until the last minute.

Small beginnings, literally. These two fells brought my personal tally of Wainwrights to eleven. Twelve years later, on a sunny spring morning in Nether Wasdale, I set off to climb my last Wainwright, the unlovely Seatallan, on a day of such heat haze the Scafells on the other side of Wastwater were invisible. From there, I crossed to Middle Fell, ending to beginning. I arrived on the summit, from behind, just as a party left, and I was alone for half an hour. Of those who had climbed there in 1968, only my sister was left, and she would never return. I talked to ghosts and let the words I spoke fly away on the wind.

In those years, and for far too few afterwards, fellwalking was an absolute passion. I would never have thought of any other holiday. The chance to get out into the fells, the mountains, the high and lonely places, the views that can’t be had without the effort being made, without the test of strength and stamina and stability and agility. Some of it was done in proxy for my father, who would have done all these things and been all these places if he hadn’t been cheated out of the years he should have had, if I hadn’t been cheated of his company of the fells, sharing what I did. Some of it was done because I was my father’s son and I inherited his love of these places.

All of it was done because I loved being in the fells, because that part of me that is Cumbrian rather than Lancastrian took me there, made me look at fells and ridges and crags and paths that twisted and turned and made me want to walk them. My family makes me what I am: once again, I honour them for what they gave me.

And being in the Lakes, even when it’s only in my head, and connecting to the thread of a lifelong love that will never fade, is a sovereign remedy for the downers of time and circumstances. Nothing can take away having been all the places I have been.

4 thoughts on “My Family, My Lake District

  1. A beguiling and poignant journey through your formative years and your love affair with the hills. Thank you for sharing. I really enjoyed that.

  2. Love and anger. After nearly fifty years, I am still angry at the loss of everything Dad and I might have shared. The Thursday night phonecall to say that if the weather stays like this, I’m going to the Lakes on Saturday, fancy a crack at St Sunday Crag? that could have come from me or him. I am part of a continuum with a major strand missing. Why could I have all that and he didn’t?

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