It’s been nearly two years since I last saw anything of the Lakes, the Patterdale Expedition, the round trip on the Ullswater steamer. Last year’s plans had to be set aside, hopefully to be revisited before very long, but at last it’s possible to travel there in approved safety. The simplest of all trips: to Windermere by train, to see mountains and fells and Lakes long familiar, but not so recently. It’s going back home for me. And I’m doing it for less than £20 on the train.
I’m stocked up with the usual accoutrements for any successful day out: a fully-charged mp3 player with 1,150 songs on it, plus headphones, a book of substance, waiting to be read in circumstances of peace and quiet and neither distraction nor interruption – my selection on this occasion being Mark Helprin’s Refiner’s Fire, a Christmas self-treat in 2019.
What am I going to do when I get there for the first time in nearly two years? I have options. Options, options, options. The first, and most steady and reliable of these, is to buy a Grasmere Dayrider at the bus station and head off to there, to walk round the village, check the Heaton Cooper Studios, visit Sam Read’s Bookshop, lift mine eyes to the hills and generally revel in the air and ambience of things. Then back to Ambleside to do the same things there, and nurse a pint in the Ambleside Tavern. Safe, reliable, done before, more than once.
A bit more esoteric option is to make that a Keswick Dayrider. Head into the Northern Lakes, do the wandering around, see twice as many Lakes and mountains, maybe time for a stroll round Ambleside coming back, we’d have to see. Same thing though, done that.
But there’s a third option, though one only available if the weather is good, dry and clear, and the train is on time. I’m supposed to be at Windermere for 10.38. If I can walk from there to Bowness in half an hour, and it’s downhill all the way, I can catch the Windermere Steamer to Waterhead at 11.10. For once I can be very specific: I last travelled on the Windermere Steamer in August 1975, which is enough of a gap to call it ‘new’.
The drawback with this is, first of all, the walk to Bowness, under the self-set pressure of working to a deadline, and then the arrival at Waterhead with – unless I am incredibly lucky with a bus – a mile’s walk from there to Ambleside. And what do I do then?
Unfortunately, weather or not, option three looks like being a non-starter on medical grounds. Unexpectedly, I started a headache at work on Wednesday that is proving resistant to dispersal. To my great disgust, it incorporates an element of light-headedness when I’m upright, making me feel that my head is not quite in the same plane as the rest of me: Not strictly conducive to marches downhill against the clock.
I leave excessive time to get to the Station: psychologically I have to. The alarm is set for 6.30am, though I awake an hour before that. Shower and dress and walk to the bus stop (eight minutes) to catch a 7.15am bus to Piccadilly (thirty minutes) for a train that leaves at 8.48 am. I’m not crazy: the bus has form for interference. There’s a paucity of passengers on the Reddish leg and a plethora through Gorton. I arrive at Poiccadilly Station with seventy minutes to spare: W.H.Smith’s isn’t even open yet. Excess, excess, toujours l’excess! I get food and drink and sit down to read and wait.
I don’t really stop being twitchy until the train arrives. I’m fast enough to claim a table seat, facing forwards, in anticipation of the first views. Unlike the past few days of early morning clear skies greying out to varying degrees of rain, this one’s started dull and is turning sunbright, with a touch of gold in the air more suggestive of the first hour after dawn. As Guy Garvey put it, it’s looking like a beautiful day.
It’s an oddly divided beautiful day, however. At Preston the sky westwards, towards the coast, is an even, rich blue but on the other side it’s paler and patchier, knitted up with white clouds, drawing colour out of the sky. That way lies hills, of course.
There’s an irritating woman in the carriage, talking incessantly in an over-emphatic, self-satisfied voice. I’m not the only one who doesn’t like this, and then I’m suddenly annoyed with myself for not remembering my mp3 player until we’re rolling into Lancaster. Music, vigorous, mostly obscure Sixties music envelops me happily.
To tell the truth, the book is not gripping me. I put it away and turn my attention to the window, getting an immediate reward because oh yes indeed it is a beautiful day. A long skyline stretches across the drained sands of Morecambe Bay, an actual, genuine, gorgeous skyline of familiar ridges and shapes: the Old Man and dour Dow Crag, Red Screes above Kirkstone, the Fairfield Horseshoe, and even the tops of the Langdale Pikes. It doesn’t last long before local low rises intervene but it’s all still there, just as it was, and I’m thrilled. Crinkle Crags and Bowfell curve into view.
Clouds scud above them, white bumbles across a narrow band of the sky, decoration not threat. Against this vista, the line of the Howgill Fells, on the other side, doesn’t stand an earthly. Slowing into Oxenholme, there’s a beautiful angle into Kentmere, with Ill Bell prominent, framed by stolid Yoke before and almost imperceptible Froswick behind. All of which decides me: Keswick it is, I want to see all of this that I can.
For a moment, that seems to be in doubt. There’s neither bus stop nor timetable. The Grasmere driver reassures me, and then I see stop and timetable, sawn off at the base, on its back by the wall of Booths. It’s half an hour and lots of milling around before we can get out of Windermere, by which time clouds are attracting one another and the blue bands are narrowing.
Just as the bus pulls out I get the most horrible shock: my former wedding ring is missing! I’ve worn it on my right hand since the Decree Absolute, though it’s slowly getting looser. Though it symbolises nothing but the past, it’s significance to me is immeasureable and I am in shock and almost tears at losing it. I’m desperately combing through both bags in the vain hope it’s dropped in there, and then something else drops, and I claw through my constricted jeans pocket and find it. The relief is incredible: to me it is literally priceless. It slides into my finger again. It will be a very long time before I take its presence for granted again.
Once the shock has subsided I can concentrate on Mountains, valleys and Lakes: all familiar, no new sights or surprises, just recognition. Familiarity does not breed comtempt, not here, not ever. These skylines, these flanks, lovely little Rydal with its ever-widening outflow, are encoded in me like a string of DNA. Everywhere I look, no matter how near or far, I see fells that I have climbed, many more than once. Once climbed, they became part of me. I seized them as I conquered them. I own them, me and millions of others.
North of Dunmail Raise, the sun illuminates everything. Thirlmere gleams from end to end. I will never lose the awe of seeing it so clearly, remembering the Sixties and beyond when the only way you even knew that was a Lake there was because your parents had told you. Blencathra looks magnificent, even by Blencathra’s standards, the old cloud-magnet Skiddaw has his head in the free air, though dark-shadowed, and we drop into the Vale of Keswick with Bassenthwaite Lake a flat, silver-steel expanse straight ahead and Derwent Water sunny and lit.
Keswick is full of people. Well, it is a Saturday, the weather is good and we have been released on our own recognizance. Passing the bookshop, I spot the long-awaited Terry Abrahams: Life of a Mountain: Helvellyn, not long since out. But plans to eat at the Oddfellows Arms were clearly delusional. Everywhere has long queues and nowhere free to sit. So I amble towards Hope Park, the miniature Golf, the Crazy Golf, not that I’m going to play, but I scoff that ice cream I promised a friend I was going to eat at Easter, to cheer me up, and if you ever read this, Liz, here’s to you.
But I’m restless, very restless. This isn’t to do with Keswick being ‘wick wi’ foak’ but rather a feeling of not wanting to confine myself to one place. So I ankle back to the Bus Station in time to catch my breath before I catch the 555 back to Grasmere. Climbing out of the town the roles are reversed: now it is Bass Lake that sits blue and Derwent Water that is grey.
Grasmere isn’t exactly empty but it’s a lot easier to cope with than Keswick. Then again I don’t wander far, barely off the Village Green: for the loo, for Sam Read’s Bookshop and the Heaton Cooper Studio, which still has too many lovely prints for the wallspace I have. The next bus is not supposed to be due until 3.30pm but I hop onto a Grasmere Sightseer and take myself upstairs to enjoy the open top section, and the 555 goes past whilst I’m on the bus anyway.
Year by year it’s getting harder to see the mouth of Ambleside Cave – called Rydal Cave on the announcement tape – as the fringe of trees below that section of Loughrigg Terrace reach for the heavens. Back in Ambleside, it’s sunny once more. In Fred’s Bookshop they’re playing Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues. They are just one more place to have copies of the first volume of Lakeland Views. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire the author for publishing a hand-written, hand-drawn book devoted to the Lakeland Fells, but judging by the cover that is really all you can admire.
I solve my hot food urges with a burger from the Old Smithy chippy that takes so long to cook that I can only assume that they’ve had to slaughter a new cow to get the meat. It arrives neither particularly hot nor with any particular taste. Eating it leaves me with the best part of three hours to kill before my train at Windermere, so I stroll down to Loughrigg Park. Much of it is now covered with playground contraptions, themselves covered in children, so I settle down, drop the headphones into place again and try to look as if I am not looking at the young children but rather at their mothers (which I am, one or two in particular).
With an irony that I cannot help but appreciate, I return to Windermere Station with exactly the same excessive lead time I manufactured for myself at Piccadilly. Having so much time in hand, I wander down into Windermere Vilage, to see if there’s somewhere I can get something to eat without having to queue for a galactic eon, but of course this means I have gone mad. Normally, I’d have dived into Booths for coffee and cake but their cafe is still closed. I only just make it back there to reach the loos before that too becomes out of bounds.
If you’ve followed this so far you will surely be asking yourself, what have I been doing? Well, nothing really. I’ve been being, not doing, and being in as many places as I could, touching bases, refreshing connections. Everything’s still here and still in it’s place and there’s still room in all that for me, and that is what I have been doing.
Precisely at 6.00pm it starts to rain and I bolt inside the Station. It’s still sunny, and it’s isolated drops but they’re big isolated drops.
Forty dull minutes later and fifteen minutes before it’s due to depart, the train arrives. I spring aboard the last carriage, the one that will be nearest to the exit at Piccadilly, and secure myself a table seat again. I’m ready for home, to switch on the laptop for the first time that day, check that the rest of the world is still there. Bring in a Chinese takeaway tea., yes, I’d be up for that. Chicken in lemon sauce, fried rice and prawn crackers.
For some fucking annoying reason we sit and wait and wait and wait at Preston, exactly as we did this morning. I rapidly get sick of the high-pitched beeping signalling that the train doors are closing preparatory to setting off and we just sit there. I’m getting tired by now, fifteen straight hours on the go, and my ears are getting sore too, so I take off the headphones and then discover it’s from wearing my facemask for thirteen and a half hours solid, and there goes the beeping for about the dozenth time and CAN WE GO, PLEASE?
And eventually we do. Piccadilly Station. The 203 bus. Realising that the Takeaway’s out because by the time it’s cooked and I’ve got it home it’s too bloody late for me to eat something like that without the near certainty of acid reflux. Tired, achey, legs, hips, back, arms, shoulders sore.
Can I do it again on Sunday?