Fear and Loathing in Pooley Bridge

The time comes, in everyone’s life, when you have to decide to break away from holidays with the family. Since the early-Sixties, we had gone away twice a year, sometimes three, to the Lake District, to spend the week walking. At first this was at Low Bleansley Farm, with our hostess, Mrs Troughton, of lovely memory, and then, after the interruption of Dad’s illness and eventual death, at self-catering cottages.

As I’ve had cause to mention before, my family took a very restrictive approach to the Lakes, refusing to go outside the south-west quarter, from Langdale round to Wasdale, except for the wet-day visit to Keswick. I, who had fallen enthusiastically upon Dad’s Wainwrights, was eager to see all the places, and especially all the Lakes where we would never go.

I had neither authority nor influence over where we went and what we did, but I could still make suggestions and, one day, like water dripping upon stone, my mother and Uncle decided to shut me up by booking a self-catering cottage near Pooley Bridge, and Ullswater.

I was delighted, but the omens were not good. To begin with, the Lakes would be my second week away in three weeks. I was 19, and me and my mates had decided on a holiday of our own, to Blackpool. We had two cars (thanks to John passing his Driving Test on the Thursday before), and we shot off together for what was a real fun week, up on the North Shore. This is of relevance because I had a brilliant time not being told what to do or where to go, or what to eat. It was the very first time I was allowed to take responsibility for myself, and I loved it.

Back one Saturday, off to the Lakes the next. There were some immediate difficulties. My Uncle hated motorway driving but wouldn’t go over Shap (having crossed it myself a dozen times or more, I can’t understand why), so we went up the new M6 extension, through Tebay Gorge. And we were held up for over half an hour, crawling along that section, my mother already complaining. It was apparently my fault that traffic north was heavy. This was a sign of what was to come.

The ‘cottage’, in the village of Stainton, was more spacious, more modern, more upmarket (and consequently more expensive) than those we were used to. After settling in and unpacking, we went over to Pooley Bridge, parking in the car park down near the Steamer landings and walked down to the lakeside, looking along the lowest reach towards Howtown Bay, on the eastern shore, and little Hallin Fell in the middle of the view. I insisted on a photo.

I was enjoying myself, full of life and eager to see everything we could see now we were in a different part of the District. The possibilities were endless, relatively at least. I had been virtually guaranteed a trip to Mardale, to Haweswater, the only Lake I had not yet set eyes upon, now it was no longer ‘too far to drive’.

Ullswater from Hallin Fell

On Sunday, we took the road to Howtown, along the east side of Ullswater, onto and to the top of the Hause, that miniature alpine ascent with the steep slopes and tight bends and the fervent hope that nobody is trying to come down at the same time you’re struggling up.

From the Hause, we set off to climb Hallin Fell by the direct route. It was direct, with no difficulties except steepness and no advantages in ascent except directness. The summit, however, was a lovely low platform with views along the lower two reaches of Ullswater and the Helvellyns half-opposite. There was an RAF helicopter below, stooging along the surface of the lake, and no sooner did one of us point it out than it started ascending rapidly, directly at us and passing about fifty feet over our heads with me struggling to grab a photo of the machine at its nearest.

There is a way of making a much longer, more enjoyable and less steep expedition out of Hallin Fell, and decades later I discovered this on a whim, but otherwise there’s not much you can do other than have an extended sit down on the top then walk back, nor much entertainment available once you’re on the Hause again.

So we took our boots off and drove back to Pooley Bridge for a cup of tea and some ice cream. Which was where it all happened.

I can’t remember what caused it, and whether it was something I had said or done though at the time I didn’t feel as if I done anything out of order (despite being nineteen). Perhaps I had chafed, so soon after a holiday without authority, of being an adult myself for once, but my mother suddenly flared up at me, in the street, in front of everyone around, in real anger, in anger at being here, which as far as she was concerned was not really the Lake District. That they would not come over this side ever again was made plain.

I was shocked. That’s not why I didn’t say anything in response, that was because you didn’t talk back to my mother. But I burned at the way I’d been treated. I was nineteen. I’d voted (twice) the previous year. And I’d been shouted at in the street as if I was younger than my sister, just turned thirteen. I kept my counsel, trailed round behind the adults in silence. Long before we went back to the car, I had made my decision and, at the cottage, after tea, when I could get her on her own in the kitchen I told my mother plainly that this was the last time I was coming on holiday with the family. I didn’t give any explanation and she didn’t ask for any. That I was angry was clear to see, though I kept a lid on my fuming temper. And it was never discussed again in the whole of that week.

I can’t remember where we went the next couple of days, but on the Wednesday I was finally given the day I wanted: round Pooley Bridge and into the Lowther valley, and from there into Mardale and Haweswater. We stopped at the dam, to look at that, and for me to take a commemorative photo, then we followed the road all the way to the head of the Valley, where we parked and got into our boots.

Haweswater from the third cairn

As we were out of our normal country, I was given the Wainwright and sent out in front to lead. This didn’t involve much by way of direction finding: we zig-zagged up from the head of the lake, made a ninety degree turn into the upper valley and, without treading on rock at any point, got to the head of Gatescarth Pass.

There was no path on the Harter Fell flank of the Pass, just a wire fence heading directly uphill to the subsidiary point of Adam a Seat, and from there meandering across the fellside, following the fence, until it joined up with the wall along the summit ridge, just short of the third cairn with its legendary full-length view of Haweswater.

There was a bit of a wind blowing, so whilst everyone else hung back at the wall corner, I was allowed to advance, under strict injunctions about taking care, to the cairn itself and to take a photo. It was blowy enough, and in the direction of Harter’s face, for the instructions not to be necessary, but my mother lived her whole life without ever accepting that I had the nous to be careful without having to have it rubbed into me. I was never trusted to cross Kingsway without being told to take care with the traffic, and this at a traffic light junction.

It was then just a simple, but surprisingly long walk along the wall to the actual summit.

Harter was something of a landmark for us. It was the first time, ever, that we had reached two summits in a single week, and it was the highest top we’d reached since Lingmell, back in 1968. And, to my astonishment, instead of our turning back and descending towards Gatescarth Pass, we wandered across the wide summit to the edge above Nan Bield, to see if we could see Kentmere Reservoir from there, which we could, and then we decided to descend that way.

Only one time before, on Lingmell, had we ever descended by a different route to that by which we had ascended.

Small Water from Nan Bield

Deep cloud was amassing over the Ill Bell range, and we were all well-covered and ready for rain, but none arrived. The route down from Nan Bield took us along another classic Haweswater view, and past the jewel of Small Water, and down to the car.

Though Thursday was a much brighter and sunnier day, we didn’t do any more walking. Instead, we went down to Glenridding, and lazed around in the park at the head of the lake, around the route to the steamer landings. It was all very peaceful and quiet. I was wearing my Piccadilly Radio t-shirt with the 261 logo (my, that’s going back a long way) and there’s a photo of me in it (in black and white) somewhere, but I’m not going to post it even if I can find it.

Friday was our last day, and we were going for the big one, to climb Helvellyn by Striding Edge. That far back, you could take your cars to the end of the road in Grisedale, then it was cross the valley and, where the road doubled back on itself, through a gate and up a grass slope. My mother complained at me again, because this was the kind of walking she really disliked, going straight up, but I was less than sympathetic: this was the very first bit and I was full of energy.

Once again, I was allowed to lead, Wainwright in hand, on the long, slow diagonal across the flank of Birkhouse Moor, until the ‘Hole in the Wall’ (which I put in inverted commas because it was still only an informal name that far back) came in sight, and beyond it Red Tarn, Swirral Edge and the face of Helvellyn and its long flat top.

After an appropriate rest, we set off towards the Edge. I admit to a certain amount of trepidation, given its reputation, though the weather conditions couldn’t have been better for a trouble-free traverse. We followed the path and didn’t dare attempt the crest, though I have a vivid memory of a couple of guys strolling along talking to each other and paying no attention to what was, or might not have been, beneath their boots.

And then we came to the end of the Edge and discovered that the final escape from it was down a 10′ long rock chimney. My mother took one look and decreed that my sister was not going down there. My Uncle was only too ready to turn round: in recent years he had developed a stomach complaint that left him unable to manage any kind of strenuous walking after he had eaten lunch, which put a further limit on our walking, which could only go on as long as he could without eating.

That was it. The walk was over.

I didn’t say anything. What could I say that anyone would have listened to? The only positive thing I could think of was the negative that I would never have to put up with this frustration again. But it was a sickener. And though I said nothing, I am pretty sure my feelings must have shown on my face, because my mother turned to me and said, “But you can go on on your own, if you want?”

I wasn’t going to turn down a chance like that. They would make their leisurely way back to the Hole in the Wall, and I would head for the summit and come back. In my head, I was going to take the chance to come down via Swirral Edge, make a tour of it. First, however, I had to get down that little chimney, and whilst it was easy, even for such a limited scrambler as myself, my mother was insistent I be roped up for the descent. I must have looked a right nana, being lowered on a taut rope to protect me against a fall. As soon as I was down, I fumbled the knots open as fast as I could, turned towards the slope above, and made a beeline for it over a shallow depression, my eyes flickering across the multiple routes and channels before me. I was freeeeeee!

But you should see it from the fell…

All sorts of routes criss-crossed the slope. I made for the bottom of the one that looked to give me the easiest start. I would charge up about ten to twelve feet, scan ahead for the next easiest ten to twelve feet, scan ahead for the next easiest, etc., etc., etc. I did not plan anything. I just charged up, and that is the most accurate term, whatever was the easiest looking line directly in front of me, with all the energy at my command and with no concern for anything but the very next bit of the climb.

I had no idea of time’s passing, I was in a little world of motion, but probably ten minutes or so had passed before I started to develop the first minor gasps of strenuous breathing. These were not serious. I guessed I had gotten about half way up, but I was still flying, so I decided to keep pushing on and, when I found I really needed a breather, I’d pull up and have a look round to see exactly where I was.

Before I was remotely near that stage, I was in for one hell of a shock. The ground abruptly levelled out underneath my feet, revealing an easy, stony slope uphill. I turned round and looked down. Beneath me was Striding Edge, the classic sickle shape of a million postcards, not one of which could ever show the grandeur of the ridge as seen with the naked eye. Below me, an ant’s trail of people were perspiring upwards in sweaty toil (some of them female in open-neck t-shirts that, from this particular viewpoint were very much a viewpoint: I was nineteen, remember), not one of them moving with the speed I had just employed to tear up that slope in at most fifteen minutes, non-stop. Even then, I couldn’t believe it.

From there to the cairn, to the summit of my first 3,000 footer, felt to be longer underfoot than the scramble up from the Edge, but it was no more than a ramble. The summit was crowded. I wandered back and forth, looking in all directions, without getting within vertiginous range of the cliffs to Red Tarn. And I strolled over to the top of Swirral Edge, to check out my planned descent.

This is where the plan was disrupted. Swirral Edge began with a steep, scrambling descent towards rocks I couldn’t see. A couple of decades later, when I stood at that point for the second time, having ascended Swirral Edge, I found it terribly difficult to start down, even knowing there was nothing insuperable to face. On my own for the first time, I just didn’t have the nerve. I went back to above Striding Edge, stared down thoughtfully again, then descended in a more leisurely manner.

I didn’t fancy going back along Striding Edge, not in the face of the traffic (I may have been slightly more concerned about the rock chimney than I gave the impression earlier on). There was only one other alternative, which I took, edging carefully down steep grass until I reached the shore of Red Tarn, then following the water’s edge – no comfortable walk given I was crossing a still angled slope with no path – until the Hole in the Wall came into sight over rising grasses to my right, and my solo was over.

I would, after all, go on holiday again with my family, though this would only be to North Wales, with my mother and my sister. I would never go walking with them again.  There would only be a handful of times when I went walking with other people and you may call me selfish, but I loved the freedom to go the ways of my own choosing, at my own pace. I would never again move so quickly on the fells as in that first quarter hour of release, but at my peak I could negotiate walks of up to fourteen miles and 4,500′ of climbing in the same day, with the latter the more crucial factor.

But that fifteen minutes of release…

2 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing in Pooley Bridge

  1. We always walk miles on family holidays none of us likes sunbathing, I miss family holidays now it’s been two years since we went together and not just with my work. For a social person I like alone time too must be a Scorpio thing.

  2. At least you’ve never had to tell your family you’re never going away with them again, Scorpio buddy, nor do I think you’ll ever come to that. Once I got on my own, I loved walking holidays, would never dream of anything else, could go wherever I wanted, as fast or as slow as I wanted. Those were the days, alright. I hope you get that family holiday again soon.

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