All the evidence seems to be that I’m the only football fan in England not over the moon or given to any other cliches about England reaching the Euro 2020 Final last night, which is odd when you consider how much I ranted at our blowing the last semi-final we reached three years ago. But I watched the game last night in slowly growing disinterest, some of it in reaction to the fact that ITV’s coverage is absolute crap, and in the years since I last had a television the standard of adverts has crashed through every floor you could possible imagine, some of it because pointless passing, where X passes the ball to Y who instantly passes it back to X, and so on ad nauseam, still annoys me intensely, and some of it because the commentary never made even the slightest pretense of neutrality and, by extra time, wouldn’t even have recognised it with an electron microscope. Just imagine: I’ve waited 55 years for something like this to come around again, and I can hardly be bothered.
The main factor is that I’d already had the nearly best day possible and by that token football was an intrusion, not to mention a reminder of why I haven’t had a television this past dozen years. But today’s the day for going back. I slept only fitfully, being too exhausted to sleep properly, and it’s grey skies above and for some way down too, so I definitely had the luck for it yesterday.
I’m still achey and intent on taking it slowly. My train out of Windermere isn’t due until 13.07 and I hadn’t planned on getting the bus until 10.30, which leaves a lot of morning to kill, carrying a heavy bag around, before I finally relinquish the Lakes on this visit. So I walk slow and stop frequently, just like yesterday. It’s Market Day in the Square but I was more convcerned about finding somewhere to buy drinks, which I end up doing at Booths.
All my instincts are to buy a book for the trsain home but all the books in Keswick offer me nothing: it used to be so easy. Once upon a time I never visited the New Bookshop in Cockermouth without buying three, some of whoich I still have.
But shortness of energy has its concomitant in shortness of temper. From the bus station onwards I am halfway back into the real world, and in the real world people are iritating. The bus driver who wanders off into Booths and doesn’t return until after the bus should have departed. The people who stand at the top of the stairs and peer hopefully into the distance, as if a free seat with suddenly, magically, slide towards them.
It’s grey all round now, with cloud on everything, not just Skiddaw. Nothing to look at. Yesterday was such a briliant day, the only thing that could have improved it was someomne to share it with and the bus would be a hundredfold better with someone to talk to and break social distancing with. I wonder what it would be like to kiss through twqo facemasks?
At Windermere, I take a break in the cafe, a bakewell slice and a flat white. There’s still an hour till my train and I can’t catch an earlier one (if there is one) because I’m on a specfic single for economy. And that’s when the day runs into a brick wall, as my train is abruptly cancelled. The next one’s not until 1.58 and that’s only to Oxenholme. I’m all right, or so I think at that point, but people with connections to make are milling around, panicking. But the delay is enormous and I’m sore and bored long before we even get away on a packed train on which the very idea of social distancing is ditched. Not by yours truly, mind. I make sure with my bags that no-one sits next to me.
It’s the start of a journey from hell. At Oxenholme I transfer to the Euston train, but that’s going through Wigan and Warrington, not Manchester, so I hop off at Preston. By now it’s a beautiful afternoon, much like yesterday, but I’m free-associating Bilbo Baggins, except it’s ‘The day Goes Ever On and On’. There are ten stops to Piccadilly and I count them all, and when I finally get off the train I think it’s nearly over, but it’s not. The bus journey is torture. I’m broiling, and panting, not breathing, and my stress levels are would up so high that when I finally get in, ready to brain someone, anyone, with a tire-iron, I am literally shaking and it takes nearly an hour to return to normal.
So, ok, it wasn’t the usual tedious return journey, the one with nothing to write about, but in the other hand, I could have done without it. It was as bad as yesterday was good, but it doesn’t balance out like that. Wednesday was still the best day I’ve had in a god’s age whilst shitty ones turn up pretty much every week. I look forward to sleeping.
I’m awake from early on and it looks as if I’ve been sold a bill of goods. Instead of overcast skies, rain or even the threat of occasional showers, it’s bloody gorgeous, deep blue skies, whisks of white cloud and everything as sharp and clear as could be, except for Skiddaw of course, insisting on donning a fringe of cloud for its top.
There are two breakfast servings and I’m on the first, at 8.00am, orange juice, toast and jam, most of a Full English (I have declined the fried tomato and the black pudding), which is nicely filling but could have been better. A half hour of preparation, mainly paring down what I need to the minimum, includes jamming a sweatshirt into my bag, in case the day doesnt stay suited to a short-sleeved polo shirt.
Once outside I almost immediately come to a contretemps with a local lady, who notices my facemask looped under my chin like hers, but who tells me gleefully that she’s looking forward to getting rid of her ‘beard’. I tell her I’m still going to be wearing mine. She interprets this as this as a challenge, because it is, and starts going on about how she hates it (do you think we’re having a barrel of laughs with these things on all the time?) but I cut her off with the plain statement that I’m going to keep wearing mine to avoid any risk of passing any symptoms I might have to other people. I wish this fucking Government and its sycophantic fucking rich man’s right wing press would point out even once that that is why we’re wearing them.
I’m in no hurry so I stroll through the town, picking up sandwiches and liquids at Greggs (my, how unimaginative), but there’s a Buttermere bus boarding when I get to the bus station, so I board it. It’s a single-decker, as is absolutely necessary for something going over Honister Pass, but that means it’s also full. There’s none of this stuff about social distancing or not sitting next to anyone you’re not already intimate with in one way or another, though we all wear masks. I haven’t had this experience for sixteen months and I’m lucky to get the only seat, back row, right hand side, where a one seat space exists. It’s an old bus and when it’s standing still it judders worse than a 405-line black and white television.
Despite it saying Honister Pass on the front, the bus leaves through north Keswick, as if bound for Cockermouth or Carlisle. But it turns off through Portinscale, towards Newlands and Grange, down twisting leafy lanes. There is Hindscarth, prominent, and how long is it since I saw that? Sudenly it hits me: It isn’t just Buttermere that’s the prize for today, but everything. Everywhere about me. It’s all an old land that I have not revisited in way too long. There are no memories in these tree-shrouded ways, all the memories associate with tops and ridges, but all about me the fells rise, their names as familiar as well-loved lyrics and as easy to recite. Hindscarth and Robinson. Red Pike over Newlands Hause. The back of Catbells. Swinging towards Grange and approaching via the high road, west of Derwentwater, looking down and across spectacularly. Grange Fell in its two parts, Castle Crag, Rosthwaite Fell, Glaramara. Crossing the Stonethwaite Valley and peering to Eagle Crag. The Seathwaite Valley and Great End.
The worst bit is that we’re going up Honister the ‘wrong way’, from Seatoller. I’ve only ever driven it from the other side, after horror stories about the steep descents here. The only time I went this way, I walked it. My stomach is still listening to old family tales, despite the awareness that these buses go up here half a dozen times a day. Can’t convince me. I’m not too good in a bus on the steep bit down off the top either.
But as the bus descends, the view opens out. Red Pike, High Stile – why couldn’t I have had a day like this when I climbed that ? – Mellbreak. Is that Hen Comb over the Scale Force gap? High Crag, and looking back to Haystacks. A brief glimpse of Crummock Water as we descend to Buttermere Village and I prepare to disembark. It’s scorching. I get a drink at the cafe and write up my draft thus far, disturbed by a bird shitting on my right wrist.
Let’s go walking.
Not, sadly, up any of these wonderful mountains, but across the fields and round to the foot of the Lake, and the people sitting around just as if this were Bowness Bay without the ice creams, and then the shore path along the southern side of Buttermere, under the high ridges of the High Stile Range.
I have time, lots of time, and well I need it, for I am slow, slow slow slow slow slow. I’ve no more reached the lakeshore path than I’m sitting down on a handy rock, joking with a passing pair that I am so far out of condition that you can’t see Condition from Jodrell Bank. Only I wish it was a joke.
It’s a busy path with parties passing by in opposite directions all the time. There’s a young couple with a very young child and a black dog that can’t get enough of the lake, racing forward and hurling itself down to the water-line at every opportunity. Our paths criss-cross and they see me with my notepad a couple of times, sat on one rock or another. Eventually, they ask me if I’m sketching (I would if I could), so I explain about the notes for this post. They’re intrigued and ask for the blog-name, so I give it them (never miss the chance of a new reader), so if they’ve found this and are reading it, hi there, and hope the rest of your day went well.
Apart from the crunch of boots and shoes and trainers from behind or ahead, which is not continuous I’m pleased to say, there’s a welcome stillness to things, broken sometimes by birdsong, by the breeze whispering the trees, the music of little gills rippling into the lake and the disruptive drone of what sounds like a helicopter at the head of the lake, though I can’t see one in the sky.
I’m stopping at every stop where there’s something I can sit upon, not just because I am genuinely tired but in order to spin this walk out. There’s not much to do in Buttermere if you’re not walking, or eating/drinking and I don’t want to be back at Keswick too soon. Besides, as I may have mentioned already, it’s bloody lovely everywhere.
For some reason, after my chat with the interested couple, I develop a second wind stronger than the first, and plough on semi-relentlessly until beneath High Crag, towering like a buttress concealing beyond the sky-line the kind of stronghold common to fantasy fiction.
I’m close enough now to the head of the lake to see that blasted helicopter, which seems to be whirling about aimlessly in Warnscale, or heading up to skim the face of Haystacks’ crags. As I got nearer, I could see something globular and black dangling from it. To cut a long story short, it was a National Trust helicopter relaying supplies of stone to path-layers up on Scarth Gap, though the pilot was giving a damned good impression of not knowing where the hell he was headed and the noise was only getting more irritating.
When I finally get to Gatesgarth, glad to lose the uneven stones underfoot, it’s 1.15pm. There’s the delightful sight of trestle tables which usually indicates the presence of some establishment ready to sell you food and drink to rest on such things but which, on this occasion, lets me down comprehensively. There’s a portable ice-cream shop all right, but it’s shut.
I’ve got those Greggs sandwiches, crusty baguettes, rather, but it’s too damned hot to eat, especially anything crusty, so I have a good long sit down until the next bus comes. There are more clouds in the air now, but they’re still only Joni Mitchell ice cream castles, and they don’t stay that way for long. I’m sat where I can see the bus coming down Honister Bottom in easy time to cross to the stop. I bought myself an All-Day Rider ticket: if I’m back in time, shouldn’t that cover me to pop to Cockermouth and back?
It’s not very often that I get to sit in the sun, breathing fresh air, and contentedly let my head fill with nothing. The bus isn’t due till 2.15pm so I’ve got ample time in which to do it. Damn that bloody helicopter, though.
I apparently can’t help it. There are still seven minutes before the bus is due, and it’s nearly ten minutes late but I am compelled to go over to the stop now. When it arrives there’s only one other passenger on it, until it fills up at Buttermere that is, so I get my choice of seats on the left. I also discover that somehow or other my All Day-Rider ticket has vanished from my wallet, but the bus driver’s a decent sort and lets me on anyway.
The views from this side, over Buttermere to High Stile and Burtness Comb, are phenomenal but incapable of capture from a moving bus with a digital camera, as will be the vista over the Vale of Lorton and the back of the high fells when we turn for Whinlatter Pass some time later. At least I get to enjoy the sparkle of Crummock Water, under the sun, although no matter how high the road rises I cannot squeeze out the merest glimpse of Loweswater, in its grassy bay.
Unlike Portsinscale and Newlands there are memories in these lanes, though not necessarily happy ones. Down off a high, hot day in the fells, I found myself called upon to play Samaritan to an older couple from Essex: he’d had a heart attack, she was lost and I raced them as fast as the roads allowed to High Lorton, where there was a police station (to no avail: he didn’t survive). Below Whiteside, again after a high, hot day in the fells, I went over badly on my ankle, on level grass a hundred yards from the car, ruining the rest of that holiday, and the chances of my ever playing squash again.
Whinlatter Pass, at least, is a more pleasant recollection. There was the day following the northern ridge of Aiken Beck where I started my favourite novel out of almost nothing. The kids having a winderful time, playing at the Visitor Centre, late one Sunday afternoon, and following them through the human-sized badger sett that had too many convolutions inside for how big it was outside.
But Whinlatter is like a private possession, a Pass I chanced on my own that my family would never have dreamed of driving, only me, my own turf, so easy to drive, unlike Honister, or Newlands Hause.
By the time we were back at Keswick, my legs were aching to buggery. I wanted an ice cream, but it seems that these are next to impossible to find in Keswick, no newsagents with freezers full of lollies and ices. So I called in the Oddfellows again, this time just for a pint, for which I was put out in the beergarden at the back. Nice to see people still being sane. The very nice short-haired blonde shows me, to my surprise, that my debit card is also a contactless card: all this time and I never knew, fancy that.
I take my time then wander wearily back. I still want that ice cream so if the only place you can buy them is a back street Spar… There’s a United Utilities van in the back-street, ‘helping make things flow easily’ by blocking the way so I have to clamber over someone’s rockery…
It’s been a long day and I think you can tell it’s been a fantastic one. All the photos are my own. The break has been brief but rewarding, and once I’ve finished preparing this, I shall rock back and watch England’s Euro 2020 semi-final.
Due to the eccentricities of my employers of the last decade in having their holiday year run from 1 July to 30 June, I’ve formed the habit of taking the first full week in July off as a by-then much needed break. Usually I do nothing, just stodge about relaxing, but this time I decided to take the opportunity to get away for a couple of days. Based on the evidence of my Portsmouth trip, which now seems so long ago, it doesnt kill my bank balance to stay two nights, travelling up on Tuesday and back on Thursday. The full day in the middle could let me get somewhere I haven’t been in a long time, like since before the year 2000. Such as the Buttermere Valley. Given the weather this morning, and what is forecast for the next couple of days, I suspect I might not get everything out of it that I’d hoped.
I’ve spent the last 24 hours fretting over what it is I’ve forgotten. I’m convinced it’s something critical but if it is I’m not going to find out what until I need it and it isn’t there.
I’m in Piccadilly Station for 11.04am which, given that my train leaves at 11.47, is cutting things preilously close for me. One thing I haven’t got on me is a big, thick book, to be read comfortably, without distractions, and th\at’s because I haven’t got anything which qualifies and that I haven’t already read. My alternative of choice is my Kindle, which contains a number of part-read books, some of them for a long time.
The train’s on time and I leap to the front of the front carriage to claim a table-seat on the side where the views will come, if there are any. The clouds are gunmetal grey and darker: we hit rain before Wigan, and though blue is mixed in, it’s mostly westwards, towards the sea.
Oxenholme offered me the first dim outlines of what might be fells. We crawl into the station with the screen of trees preventing further enlightenment. No doubt about it, it’s going to be grim today.
A Kindle is a lot harder to concentrate in sustainedly than a book, so I broke off to do some writing. My current novel is in an odd place. I finally caught up to a long-foreseen section in which two characters were to be killed off (no, it’s not a thriller). This went like a rocket, thousands of words in a flow, that is, until I hit an awkward spot. Sometimes I write at work, in quiet times between calls, and I now have the knack of building things up in individual paragraphs, or even lines, depending on what time I get, but this was a point n eeding concentration and continued composition and I didn’t have the time to give it the time it needed.
In the meantime I had been doing what I do, loking ahead, running scenarios and lines in my head, shaping and reshaping, until I came up with some unforseen twists and thought I’d beter write them down. One thing led to another and it poured out again, taking the book in directions I’d never foreseen and giving it a spine. Some notes? There’s easily two chapters here, maybe three, and pathways forward from there. It wouldn’t stop coming. But now I needed to bridge that gap, or at any rate start to, though wrirting with pen and notepad on a train racketing along and swaying all over the place is not the easiest thing to do.
At Windermere, things didn’t look as bad as I feared. Most of the major fells, including Bowfell, were visible, even if only as charcoal outlines. I visited Booths to relieve myself. The last time I found a copy of Lakeland Walker with an article by my fellow-blogger and all-round good guy Alan McFadyen who, sadly, I have to conclude is no longer with us. I leaf through the current isue and what do my wondering should appear? An article by my fellow-blogger and all-round good guy George Kitching who, thankfully, still is. I shall read that this evening.
I’m supposed to have a three quarter hour wait for the Keswick bus but one is there already so I hop aboard. Travelling north along the Lake, the sun has come out over the Conistons and the Langdales, turning the mountains and fells three-dimensional again. It’s an old view, but it never gets old.
With the exception of naturally, Skiddaw, all rthe fells north are clear and visible. Descending into the Vale of Keswick, I peer round at all the fells I can see. There isn’t one you could point to that I haven’t climbed, and several more than once, and for a few moments the knowledge that I will never see the summit of any of them again cuts through me, like a whaler flensing blubber, and I have to hold myself steady.
My guesthouse is down the other end of a very busy town, and it’s a long trek with my Dad’s old canvas bag dangling from my hand. There’s no problem about my checking in early in these COVID times and I take half an hour out to relax and draft the first part of this post before going for a wander.
I needed the break. I did a lot of walking yesterday and it’s going to catch up with me before I get back. I stroll down to the Market Square (no Market), having decided to take a chance on leaving my coat bnehind, which looks to have come off. First stop, the Oddfellows Arms, my favourite eating place in Keswick. It’s not yet 5.00pm so that’s early, but they’re shutting at 7.00pm and taking last orders at 5.45pm, so I decide to drop in straight away. I order my traditional Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding which is as gorgeous as ever, even if the Yorkshire is about the tenth of the size of the plate-sized ones they used to serve.
I also have a pint of lager and lime, and it’s one hell of a long time since I had one of them. So many things are a long time ago and drinking in pubs is one of them. Maybe the last one was in Portsmouth, down by the dockyards, it could easily have been so. And that too was wonderful.
When eventually I emerge it’s to walk up to the bookshop, see if I can justify getng a real book into my hands, but there’s nothing I particularly want to read once, let alone twice so, as I am now gettng very creaky, I walk back, Partly because I want a coke, and partly because it’s a legitimate reason to follow in the footsteps of a cornflower blonde, I divert into a back-street Spar where I decide that an ice cream would go down well. They haven’t much of a choice but I find myself eating an ice cream Mars Bar and that too was a very long time ago: I wasn’t even sure they still made them.
Now I’m back at the Guest House, relaxing, listening to my mp3 player on headphones and watching the first Euros 2020 semi-final on the little TV. I never expected, when I booked these two days away, that I could be watching England play…
So that’s part 1. Tune in tomorrow night to find out just what I got up to in the Buttermere Valley.
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.
At the time, it seemed propitious. I was in the Lake District yesterday, for the first time in almost two years. I’ve been waiting for the third part of Terry Abrahams’ ‘Life of a Mountain’ series, this time on Lakeland’s third highest and most popular fell, Helvellyn for ages. I knew it was done, I knew it had been put off premiering due to the COVID situation. I didn’t know that BBC4 had broadcast its traditional precised to one hour version as far back as January. I just saw it in a shop window and the lady behind the heavily protected till said it had not long since come out. Perfect for a Sunday morning.
But it was so utterly disappointing.
The full version is a sprawling two hours twenty-nine minutes long, an open invitation to call it bloated and an unavoidable one. Helvellyn sprawls, and yet insofar as its portrait of a year in the life of the mountain is concerned, it’s paradoxically extrememely limited. This is an entirely Patterdale-Ullswater biased portrait, without even the shadow of a pretence that the mountain has a western flank, that it towers about Thirlmere and can be ascended from that side.
Instead, every facet of the film, every view of Helvellyn we see, whether this be from the constantly low-motion aerial shots to those from the lake steamer, are of the mountain between Striding Edge and Swirral Edge, or they’te of Red Tarn between these two arms. Over and over again.
But then again such a small part of the film is about Helvellyn itself. This is a primarily polemic film, proclaiming the importance of conservation at every turn. It’s about things like the hill-farmers, the men on the steamers, poets, singers, one self-consciously eccentric writer is ridiculous clothing over-developing his every sentence. With very few exceptions, everyone talks modern day jargon, or bullshit. Environmentalists aren’t improving the landscape in any of the myriad ways they do, they’re upgrading it, the way I upgrade my customer’s ‘experience’ by selling them another package. Conservation, preservation, adaptation in a way in keeping with the natural life of the Lake District fells is very important but linguistically the battle is over and we lost.
Everybody’s out to push a viewpoint, but nobody had anything interesting to say about it. Those that are interested in their own personal fascinations cannot describe it as anything but a personal challenge that has emhanced their lives, which I’m sure it is and has. My own life, my walks in the hills, could be expressed in exactly the same fashion, but I hope that I have never sounded so pretentious when talking about them.
And endlessly we get another shot of Helvellyn’s face, between Striding Edge and Swirral Edge. Or a rolling vista of ridges. The film plods on. It’s about living and working around a particular mountain but it spends most of its time in the valleys. It’s generically about life in the Lakes without any sense that any part of it is specific to Helvellyn, is especially shaped by it. People love Helvellyn, love Patterdale, but they say why. It’s ‘special’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘brilliant’. The crap they spout has robbed them of the ability to actually express themselves.
And whereas Abrahams’ first venture, Scafell Pike, was comprehensive, and briliant, and focussed and properly obsessive, Helvellyn is far m,ore professional and has lost all ability to focus or to engage itself realistically with what Helvellyn is as a mountain, as a destination. The nadir comes in a section on the Ski Club, and their base on Raise, when we get the utterly sterile cliche of the skier sliding to a halt in front of the camera and sending a spray of snow over it.
Which is not to say the film doesn’t have its merit. Some, but not enough, people talk with quiet authority and eloquent simplicity about their specialised subject, feeling no need to over sell it, and there was one poignant sequence with a woman who described her spine as having collapsed five years ago, an active fellwalker who thought all of that lost, for good but who, in a top of the range electric wheelchair, with her husband alongside her, with her walking boots on despite the fact they were never going to touch the ground, had gotten as high on Helvellyn as she physically could. Her eyes said it all, the wonderment, the recognition of things she thought gone for good, the wonderful acceptance of being still able to be who she had been.
And her husband, talking into the camera, explaining that this was five years to the day since the operation, that very serious operation that his wife might well never have survived. The little brush away of something near the corner of his eye, the laconic ‘the longest day of my life’ in the tones that only one who has been through such a day and seen it come out can speak. The camera dropping behind as the pair stood overlooking a view, their arms around each other, her shoulders shaking and him gripping her like he still can’t entirely believe that he still gets to.
Too little, not enough. In the end, the intrusive music, the high-speed photopgraphy of coils boiling across the sky or sweeping up and down valleys, the early hours of indistinguishability from tides rolling in and out, became tedious, were padding. There wasn’t even enough of the fells for me to simply gape at in silent admiration, nothing onto which I could project my own memories of climbing Helvellyn.
Terry Abrahams is a very talented man and I envy him his skills. He’s gone from a life in the throws of despair and destruction to intetnationl recognition doimg something I would love to have been capable of myself. But he’s over-reached himself here, tried to make a statement a big statement and he’s blown it, big-time.
I haven’t written about the Lake District for a long time. Though there are quite a few walks I’ve never written about, the peg on which to hang a post hasn’t been there. I’d feel as if I were writing for the sake of writing. But a recent post by George Kitching on his continually excellent site (http://www.lakelandwalkingtales.co.uk/secrets-of-the-wastwater-screes/), evoked a few memories for me, going back a very long way indeed. I have told this story before, but not in as much detail as I will now. It’s as obvious as can be that I inherited my love of the Lakes, and of the fells. But in one way, I differed very greatly from the rest of the family. They – and I have reason to differentiate my Dad from this – were wedded to only one section of the Lakes. Apart from the near-statutory rainy-day visit to Keswick, no-one wanted to venture outside the arc from Ambleside (or Grasmere at a push) to Wasdale. I exempt Dad from this accusation of narrow-mindedness because he got us round as far as Buttermere, and to the top of Haystacks. But after his death, the only time we stepped outside the closed circuit, it caused ructions massive enough to have me swearing off family holidays in future inside the first 24 hours. Once I started going up alone, I had a glorious time going wherever I chose, leading eventually to completing the Wainwrights. It’s safe to say that I loved all the Lake District, all the fells, the valleys, the Lakes and Tarns. But it’s not entirely right to say that I love everywhere in the Lake District. Some places are less ‘lovable’ than others – Mungrisedale Common, I am thinking of you – but there isn’t really anywhere I actively do not like. With the possible exception of Burnmoor Tarn. I have visited the Tarn on four occasions throughout my life. To me, it’s a dull, boring, colourless stretch of flat water, set in the unpropitious surroundings of tedious grass slopes of no interest whatsoever. I don’t care that one of those slopes in Scafell, it is Scafell’s least interesting and totally unphotogenic side. It all goes back a very long way. Not before 1966, when I was first laced protestingly into a pair of walking boots, nor after 1968, when we reached our first summit. Somewhere between those two times, probably sooner rather than later. We decided to walk to Burnmoor Tarn, from Eskdale. Don’t ask me why, not even when I was in my late teens did I get consulted on our destination for the day. It would have simply been chosen as a destination within our early capacities, and especially those of my younger sister, who was four in July 1966. Couldn’t be too far, couldn’t be too steep. Burnmoor Tarn, out of Boot in Eskdale, looked perfect in that respect. I’ve been trying to remember whether we approached the walk by driving to Eskdale and parking at Dalegarth Station, or if we decided to fit it in as an informal Walk from Ratty, between trains from Ravenglass. Either way, it was a bit of a grey day, not that we expected that to be a difficulty since we weren’t going to be getting up to any great heights. We walked to Boot to start the walk, crossing the bridge over the Whillan Beck, and taking the steep, slanting path raking across the fellside ahead, from left to right. I remember the steepness most of all. I was still in that stage of whining whenever I was asked to walk uphill. I also can’t keep contrasting my attitude with the next time we crossed the bridge to go walking on that low flank of Eskdale, when we took the path straight up the fellside, onto the Boat How ridge, but not only was I a lot more enthusiastic by then, that was one of the very rare occasions when I had had some influence on where we were going for the day (don’t ask me how!) Up and up, on a narrow path on which we had to walk single file, Dad and Uncle Arthur in the van, Mam at the rear keeping an eye on my little sister and me in the middle where I could cause the least disruption. I’ve never taken that path since, though the year before last, when I took my Ravenglass Expedition, I slowly walked up the road on the other side of the Whillan Beck, into sight of the lip of the low, flat saddle of Burn Moor. So my memory is prompted, externally, of reaching the edge of the flatter land at last, the narrow confines ending, the route spreading out before us…
This was where all the real problems started. At some point, and I can’t remember whether this was in the valley or once we’d come off the steep ascent, it started to grey over, and a wind started to blow up. I remember struggling into something out of the lonesome wild, but that might very likely be a slightly later recollection as we shall see. The path was clear underfoot, so we set off towards the nearest horizon, a very low green ridge not far ahead. Beyond it was a dip, a shallow, indeed micro-valley across the way. We descended and ascended the far side, to find another, almost identical micro-valley. And on its further side, another. What we didn’t know was that we were entering into our own, private, family hell. We had none of us been to Burnmoor Tarn before and had no idea how far it was. With the sky growing increasingly grey above, and the threat of rain growing increasingly inevitable, spirits were lowering all the more every time we crested a rise, only to see yet another dip-and-rise before us. Dad began encouraging us. Come on, it’s only over the next rise. Come on, it’s only over the next rise. The years exaggerate the experience but it must have been close on a dozen times, and everybody’s belief and patience eroded into nothingness, before we finally topped one more identical rise and saw the wide, cold, pale, spreading sheet of water below us. It was not an adequate regard for our patience, having nothing of the pleasant to look at. And as for Scafell, only a low tranche of its green and empty slopes was visible before our eyes were lifted to the base of the cloud. I won’t say that there was a spring in our step now we’d finally arrived, nor that our pace increased as we descended to the tarn shore. The setting was best described as bleak. I can’t remember if I’d been introduced to the word bleak by this time, but I intuited bleak. The final straw was the great moment in which insult was added to injury. We were less than fifteen yards from the shore of the Tarn when it started to rain. And rain with a degree of effort. This was particularly personal to me because I wore glasses, even then. There was a scramble to get into waterproofs, with Mam helping first my sister, then me, because these were never easy things to put on over anoraks and walking boots, but eventually we were proofed against the rain. Without discussion, a quick consensus was formed that we would not hang around. We about-faced… and headed back towards Eskdale. Up a low ridge, across a micro-valley, up a low ridge, ad nauseam. Eventually, a long time later, with nobody doing any talking, especially me, because my Dad had a quick (but forgivably brief) temper and anything I said would have a deleterious effect, until at long last we reached the edge of Burnmoor and started downhill again, to Ratty or to Uncle Arthur’s car. I can remember the odd personal disappointment more intense than that afternoon but not a worse experience overall. Like I say, I’m prejudiced against Burnmoor Tarn. I think you can understand why. If that were the end of it, that would be fine by me, but unfortunately I have three other, widely-separated encounters to report. Two of these were of my own sole making, but would you believe that, after that horrible time, my family took us back there?
It was a different time, and a different day in all respects and, but for my resentful memories of the sodding place, it might have been a decent walk. This was in the early Seventies, after Dad had left us, and we continued on our twice-yearly Lakes holidays, just the four of us, my mother and my Uncle in joint command and even less prospect of seeing somewhere out of their circumscribed arc. I think this was a Friday afternoon, I’m almost certain of it, a last day before going home from which self-catering cottage we’d booked that time. It was a sunny day, and because we hadn’t been there yet that week, we had to go to Wasdale, Wastwater and Great Gable. It was sunny, a bright day, and it might even have been hot. Of all the walks we might have done out of Wasdale Head, the grown-ups selected… the Wasdale Corpse Road to Burnmoor Tarn. Oh deep and abiding joy. Maybe it was just too hot and, in the valley, stuffy, to countenance anything further or more strenuous. Or maybe it was just so hot it addled their brains. But we parked at the head of the Lake, rounded it towards Illgill Head and the track along the foot of the Screes, and when the Corpse road diverted off it, we turned uphill. Like the other end, there was an initial steep ascent, though I can’t remember which was worse. It was slow going for all of us, which didn’t matter that much because we didn’t have anything like as far to go. And the views were clear and sharp and, once we were above the valley floor, we were at a height when the mountains ringing the valley head looked massive, monumental and mammoth. For that alone the walk was justified, though none of the photos I took captured even a fraction of that dimension. Soon enough, we reached the lip of land at the top end of Burn Moor. There was the Tarn again, still and silver, in its shallow bowl. Sun burned down on it, but though the ground around it was green and not grey, it still had nothing that appealed to me. In an excess of energy, I strode out on the low, easy descent, first to the water’s edge by a good hundred yards at least. There was still nothing to do, and nothing to look at, not even anything to sit down on. Burnmoor Tarn just isn’t a place to go to, it’s a place to go past, preferably without stopping, on the way to somewhere better. The next time I saw Burnmoor Tarn, apart from the rare glimpse of it you can get in views, such as from the summit ridge of Yewbarrow, the Tarn being as shy in that respect as Floutern Tarn, was in the Eighties. It was a bit of an odd walk: by the time I started going to the Lakes on my own, every walk had the destination of at least one summit, but on this occasion, I’d set off to reach Miterdale Head. We’d been there once as a family, but I loved that secluded little valley and wanted to visit it again, with that perfect little bowl, the rim of crags surrounding the hidden head. What I was doing, aiming so low, I have no idea: the weather was good enough to exclude the possibility that walking had only been possible in the afternoon, limiting my ability to ascend to the heights, any heights. By then, I was much more familiar with Wainwright than I’d been. I knew of his comments of how geography had clearly intended Burnmoor Tarn to drain away into Miterdale, but for a low bar of land, no more than twenty feet or so of uplift, that shifted the Tarn’s outflow to the far end, immediately next to its inflow. I wanted to see that for myself. So I found a weakness in the encircling crags, scrambled up that, hauled myself over the lip and walked forward a dozen or so feet, and there it was. Good old, dull old Burnmoor, no different, except for the tantalising prospect of maybe some day the water finding a channel to here, creating a fine waterfall, dropping gracefully into the valley.
Three out of four. Another time, I decided it was time I climbed Illgill Head. before I’d declared myself out of the family’s holidays, we had climbed Whin Rigg, from the foot of Wastwater, but gone no more than a token distance further towards its partner. Obviously, I should make both into a single expedition and, given my love for Miterdale, I planned to begin and end the walk there, climbing through the trees onto the ridge above Irton Pike, following the spine of the Screes over Whin Rigg, and descending from Illgill Head to sweep round and down, and back through Miterdale. Things went well to begin with. I parker in Miterdale, walked back to the base of the path in the woods, set off uphill. The climbing was never strenuous, but the drawback was walking in woods. I had no sense of what progress I was making, and no views around me to enjoy. When I eventually reached the ridge, and encountered a wind that I had been sheltered from thus far, I also found that the sky had gone very grey. There was cloud across Nether Wasdale, a ceiling sweeping up the far side of the Lake, that I anticipated seeing when I turned right and started uphill towards my first target. I was not wrong. Beyond the great gash of Greathaw Gill (check?), I could see the grey cloud across my path. I walked cautiously under it, feeling the air go cold around me. I kept going, without any haste. After a while, in sight of a small outcrop, no more than twenty feet away, I squatted beside the path, prepared to give it chance to blow out. I sat there, huddled, for about fifteen minutes before admitting it would not blow itself out anytime soon if I just sat there, so I rose to my feet, walked up to the nearby outcrop – and discovered it was the bloody summit! I didn’t wait there long but descended the other side, making very sure I wasn’t getting too close to anything that might represent an uncontrolled descent to the Screes. Before long, I was on the broad back of the ridge, and staying in the middle. This was because the cloudbase was round about at the same height as me. The way ahead would become clearer for a time, then dissolve into greyness. Call me a coward, but I was going nowhere near any precipitate edges unless I could see very clearly all around me and especially under my feet. The path down the back of the ridge was clear and unmissable, I followed it onto the back of Illgill Head and up into the full cloud again, until i reached the summit. There was nothing to see, except in one quickly-passing moment when the cloud swirled away, leaving a clear view down into Wasdale Head, and the foot of Great Gable. Five seconds, no more, enough to tantalise with a view worth seeing. I’d gotten this far and I wasn’t going to turn round and go back over trodden ground, even though the route off Illgill Head wasn’t all that distinct. Given the shape of the fell, what risk could I be running even if I got off the path? And once I got below the cloud level, even any residual concerns along that line were dispelled. It was just a flat downhill trudge, under dark clouds, through dingy air. Of course, I was heading down towards Burnmoor Tarn, and this time I was seeing it from practically above, so that all its expanse lay below me. And no, it didn’t look any better than it had on any of the few occasions I had been anywhere near it. The descent lay to the north-west of the Tarn. It would join to the Corpse Road on its descent from the saddle into Wasdale Head, turn right to go across the joint head and foot of the Tarn, and I could see the track leading away from that, along the south-east side of the Tarn, towards the Miterdale edge. In short, it was asking me to walk round three sides of this bloody big, bloody boring Tarn. Not even in the best of conditions could you get me to do that. So I cut off the path to my right, across the blunt prow of the fell, on a gentle downwards trajectory, leaving Burnmoor Tarn to my left. It wasn’t an interesting walk, except as an exercise in avoidance: there were no paths, the ground was tussocky, it was at least twice as far as it looked like being on the ground, and if the rain had started in and my vision been impaired, it could have been sticky, but a long while later, I had left Burnmoor Tarn behind – for the last time to date – and was making for the slightly tricky because currently slippery descent into Miterdale Head from above. All that remained was the long walk down Miterdale to where I had parked my car. Years after that, I returned with my unexpected delight of a family, leading them to Miterdale Head, but not above to show them Burnmoor Tarn because the scramble was just a bit too much for them, and I wasn’t going to leave them. So this is my history with Burnmoor Tarn, and the reasons why I don’t love it as I love nearly all the rest of the Lake District. Our first visit burned into me a dislike for the spot and any effort to get to it that has remained strong and forceful for over half a century, and Burnmoor’s lack of the least attractive or even semi-photogenic feature seals a determination to never waste precious time on it again. There are so many better places in the Lakes to go to, even in distant memory.
It’s been a long time since I last gave myself the pleasure of recollecting a day out in the Lakes, at least, not one I haven’t written about before. Currently, I’m picking up the threads of a part-completed novel set in the Lake District. The place where I left the book the last time I worked on it is actually set somewhere I never actually walked. Nevertheless, there is a fell the scene’s associated with, and that’s triggered a recollection of one of my oddest days fellwalking.
Every year, from the Eighties to the Nineties, I would budget my holiday time for two weeks away, walking in the Lake District (the remainder of my allotment would be carved up by whatever days I wants for the cricket: the Roses Matches, the Old Trafford Test).
I would choose weeks in April and September, just before and just after the full-blown tourist season. These usually proved to be best for good walking conditions, and the fells were rarely so crowded that I couldn’t find convenient parking for my base for walks.
One year, for reasons I can’t remember, I managed to get enough time to go away a third week, in the last week of October. The hour hadn’t gone back so I wasn’t prejudiced by early darkness, but it was colder than I was used to, and darker overall, the skies greyer and more overcast, though not noticeably worse for cloud on tops.
I remember an excellent walk up Steel Fell from Grasmere, rounding the head of wet Greendale, all its little streams and becks backlit and looking like veins of quicksilver, before returning along Calf Crag, Gibson Knott and Helm Crag, a nice little low-level ridge round.
The next day, I moved on to Keswick. It was a dark day, the sky and the air mostly grey and overcast, though the cloudbase wasn’t actually hanging on the fells, not even Skiddaw, the cloud-magnet. There weren’t going to be any sparkling views wherever I walked, so I decided I’d repeat my visit to Latrigg.
There was no problem parking at the roadhead, where spaces abounded, and I let myself out the gate, crossed the slightly rushy region in the base of the hollow and set off up the back of the fell.
Climbing Latrigg this way is one of the dullest walks you can make. It’s literally nothing but an uphill trudge, without a glimmer of a view. You are confined between Latrigg’s sprawling slopes and the rising wall of Skiddaw behind. The only benefit of this approach, apart from conservation of time, is that the view only arrives with the last few steps. Even under that sky, it was a thing of beauty.
But once you reach Latrigg, you’ve nowhere to go but back, especially to a car at the roadhead. And it’s quicker downhill, so much so that it’s difficult to stretch the overall round trip out to an hour, and I still had much of the afternoon to go before nightfall. It was then that I hit upon a crazy idea.
With so little time used, why couldn’t I climb another fell? Another low fell, requiring not very much in time and effort? Another isolated fell upon which I wouldn’t to waste a better day? It didn’t even need to be in the same book of Wainwright.
So I set off down the Underskiddaw road without changing out of my walking boots, back to the big roundabout, and turned towards Penrith. I left the highway at the turn for Matterdale, but instead of wandering through that lovely reserved valley to Ullswater, I turned off left, onto narrow lanes and valley routes, until I pulled up at a corner and hopped out again, handily placed to start a walk up the back of Great Mell Fell.
I’ve always said that I retain memories of every fell I’ve climbed in the Lake District, but Great Mell Fell hasn’t troubled the memory banks by much. I remember that, instead of the direct and steep route from the south, where I was, I took a circular path round the west side and worked upwards gently, before using the direct route for descent. My one solid memory is disturbing three or four slightly shamefaced people, rooting around by the side of the path. They were searching for mushrooms, they told me, and one said, in pointed tones, ‘Magic mushrooms’.
Of course I’m now well aware what they meant, but back then I’d never heard of Psylocibin and, apart from guessing they were hinting at something pharmaceutically stimulating, had no idea what they were talking about. I’ve never met anyone else looking for natural highs in the Lakes, except from the scenery.
Overall, Great Mell Fell used up not much of an hour, and daylight was already checking its baggage and starting to consider moving on, but if you’re going to have to do both Mell Fells, why save the Little one for another day? I got behind the wheel, drove the short distance up onto the Hause and set off for my third fell of the afternoon.
Once more, the direct ascent from the Hause was a short and uninteresting uphill trudge, and the summit was less that two minutes walk from the ‘crest’. With a view over Ullswater, despite this being only the lowest reach, it at least offered better views that its higher neighbour, and the effort expended in ascending it was minimal (it was so easy that, two decades later, my then wife and I sent two small sons up the path on their own: they were only out of sight on the summit for five minutes, no longer and they had fun being independent).
After that, I got out of my boots, dumped them into the boot, and returned to Keswick, to contemplate what to do about an evening meal. As walking days, or half days go, it was nothing to write home about, but the weirdness of the experience of climbing three fells in the same afternoon, without any ridge routes between them, was great fun, and there are worse things to think about in these latter days.
As the day has worn on, it’s turned sunny and bright outside, with the clouds seeming to be collected over the far, Yorkshire side of the not-so-distant Pennines. Despite this, in the moments work allows my mind to wander, it is wandering to the Lakes, and to rainy days and setting out to walk.
With one exception, I never set out to walk in the rain, though there were occasions when, before I got back to the car, I ended up in various kinds of rain, most often pretty heavy.
For some reason, I can see myself setting off, out of Buttermere Village, on the low-level path bound for Sail Pass, though on the two previous occasions I’ve been that way, my destination has been Whiteless Pike and Wandope, with a diversion to Rannerdale Knotts. They was grey cloud and wind on the first occasion, and sun on the second, so I’ve never walked that route in the rain, but it’s impressing itself upon me as I write.
I’m projecting myself there, along that narrow track, deep in that steep-sided valley. There’s a fresh smell in the air, wet grass, wet bracken, wet leaves. The gentle drumming of the rain on my kagoul hood drowns out all other sounds, enhancing the feeling of solitude and isolation. The rain is steady and there is no wind so it’s falling without force as I move through it. The hood protects my face and my glasses from the worst of it.
I’m not just happy to be alone, and to feel alone, in the fells, I like it that way. Some routes you have to resign yourself to just being a part of the traffic, but there are other days when your isolation is so wonderfully complete that the appearance of another walker on the ridge on the far said of the valley arouses grumpy resentment and has you muttering, “Get out of my valley.”
Some of this is a reaction to sitting in work, away from those colleagues with whom I would usually swap friendly conversation. I’m mentally gravitating towards a welcome isolation, a self-sufficiency, walking in the rain unhindered in the dream of being in the fell-country again. Up above are the heights, even if, like Rannerdale Knotts or Whiteless Pike, they’re not extreme heights. But they’re still a world above and beyond the mundane one, and a world that I can enjoy as my own, my private world, reduced to the space around my head and my body and my legs as rain closes in and shrouds.
And there is a massive difference between isolation in the midst of other people and isolation in a place where you go to be the only one for miles.
There’s only a few minutes before I have to get moving and go to work. It’s been raining all morning, sometimes hard, but I feel as if my brain is finally starting to work properly again after a week of listlessness. So, after last week’s successful Patterdale Expedition, I’ve started thinking about where I might be able to get to next.
Do you know that it’s possible to get from Penrith to Buttermere village in just over two hours by bus, change at Keswick and via Borrowdale and Honister? And I already know it’s possible to get to Penrith by train early enough…
When you book rail tickets four weeks in advance, to get the cheapest prices, you play pot luck with the weather. According to the forecasts, I am going to come up snakes eyes, to mix a metaphor. Thunderstorms all day, England’s World Cup semi-final to be pushed into the reserve day, this is what is promised. Given the weather most of the time since I bought the tickets, sunny, dry, hot, it’s feeding my never very deep-lying paranoia.
Which, given that I am booked on the 7.26am train from Piccadilly, and I am relying on the 203 bus, the only bus to win a Booker Prize for its timetable, is always hyperactive at times like this.
Everything started well. I responded to the alarm at 5.30am. It had been raining until quite recently, for everything outside was wet, but when I got out, ahead of time, it was dry and getting drier, and there was a freshness in the airthat the suggested the grey skies would slowly peel back to reveal the blue beyond.
I’d barely gotten twenty yards when there was a ping in my left calf, suggesting not so much cramp as a pulled muscle. I walked it off gently but this was going to be a true omen for the day.
The 203 upset my model of the Universe by being on time. Indeed, I was inside Piccadily Station, in the ‘Departure Lounge’ for Platforms 13 & 14, by 7.02am, the only hitch being a minor and quickly resolved panic over whether my rail tickets were in my wallet. It was a long time wait but these are the marginsI prefer to work with.
The train was on time, my seat was by the window, albeit looking backwards, and no-one turned up to claim the reserved seat to Glasgow Central next to me so that was my shoulder bag sorted.
There was nothing I could do about the weather so I paid the cloud only occasional mind as we ploughed north, devoting myself to a second attempt to read The Illuminatus Trilogy without stopping, though still without understanding.
This was an express train, stopping only at Preston and Lancaster and due in Penrith after only ninety minutes. Once we reached the shores of MorecambeBay, I switched to scanning the Lakes skyline. It was unpromising: dark, wispy, fragile clouds with a base below 1,000′: not good.
I was hoping for better north of the equivalent of Dunmail Raise but there was a thicker, darker, more pregnant band of cloud, and then suddenly it seemed lighter. Skylines became clearer, sharper. The message was mixed: sunlight on the lower slopes of Mardale, pockets of low cloud around the valley head. Kidsty Pike stood proud but Rampsgill Head was deep-capped.
Out at Penrith for five to nine with an hour to kill, or so I thought. I walked down to the Town Centre. The main street was smaller than I remembered and all the touristy shops seemed to have left. There used to be a good bookshop somewhere round the back, where I spent a half hour on the morning of my wedding, having run my sister-in-law-to-be and my wife-to-be’s best friend in for last minute essentials. Where it is, if it still exists, I had no idea and I decided against searching for it, the air being an odd mixture of fresh and stuffy.
Thank Heaven I didn’t! I got back to the Rail Station in time to catch the slightly-delayed 9.20am bus, whose driver was in a chatty mood, and who told me tht thee 9.50am bus I intended to catch doesn’t run until theTimetable that comes into force on the 26th!
If I’d missed this bus, it wouldn’t have been fatal to my plans, but as the next bus was 11.20am, I’d have been stuck in Penrith for two hours. Then again, I do have a partly-completed novel with a scene in Penrith, so I could have spentthe time in research.
The sky was a fractal mixture of dark cloud, light cloud and blue spaces. The bus was riding between high hedgerows so it took a while before I could get some sense of the air in Patterdale. When I could see, it looked clear around Ullswater’s lowest reach but cloudy further back. Given the forecast, this was good going.
But when I got off the bus in Pooley Bridge, it was trying to rain, fine, light, sprinkly lane. The Steamer Shop in the Village was closed despite its advertised opening time of 9.15am.
There was nothing to do here either so I strolled on to the steamer landing. This took me across the temporary bridge that stands in the place of the beautiful stone arches destroyed forever by the floods of 2015/16. It’s an ugly, practical thing of steel cross-girders, an eyesore, where the old bridge was a thing of grace and beauty. It’s absence is a pang.
There’s a superb viewpoint just before the landings, by the Birkett Memorial. We came down here on the Saturday evening, for our first view of Ullswater, that holiday, and I took a photo of the lake, looking towards Hallin Fell, with the family at the forefront. I took another one now, in colour, but without anyone to grace it.
Ullswater is my favourite lake, its beautiful curves and bays, and this only the least-interesting reach of it. I haven’t seen it in, probably, about fifteen years and I felt a tremendous sense of contentment. All the visible hills remind me of walks gone past. PlaceFell was capped and dark, so it was Hallin Fell and Beda Head that stood out for me then. The lake chuckled and bubbled past me into the River Eamont.
I narrowed my eyes. Something long and white was crossing below Hallin Fell, turning into Howtown Bay. In a moment’s silence between the passing cars, I heard a distant bell. If I’m not mistaken, that’s my steamer from Glenridding.
This would be my fourth trip on the Ullswater Steamer but the first for this end of the Lake. My first was an impromptu decision on a rainy, cloudy afternoon, when walking was out of the question, Howtown and back. Twice since, I’d taken a one-way trip to Howtown and walked back, the first a solo over Place Fell, the second a family walk down the lakeshore path, which is as lovely as they say it is.
Eventually the steamer emerged and headed towards us. I paid for my ticket (which included 50% off the Ratty for the next twelve months, which gave mean idea…)
As soon as the Steamer docked, I was on to it and dodging through the saloon to the foredeck. The commemorative plaque confirmed this was Raven, and in five days time it would be 130 years to the day since it was first launched.
We seemed to race up the lake into the teeth of a flapping wind, Hallin Fell dead ahead, the zigzags of the Hause visible to its left. As we started curving into the Bay, Beda Head became our pointer and little flecks of rain started to flick against my face.
It wasn’t until we started to slow down for Howtown the the magnificent middle reach of the lake, and the fells at the end of it, appeared as if out of nowhere. Sheffield Pike stood proud and sunny but there wasn’t much to see behind it except dark cloud.
We drifted into the Pier, no-one waiting to board us, though two walkers appeared from the direction of the road, only to stand and watch us leave. Twenty-eight people, one baby carriage and two dogs disembark. I looked at Steel Knott’s steep prow and asked myself, did I really go up that? (yes, I did).
Off on the next leg. A massive convoy of ducks sat on the surface of the lake on our left bow as we headed outround Hallin Fell. This was the bit I’dreally come here for.
The taped message for the tourist informed us of what to look out for and only made two egregious mistakes in three facts. It places Birkett Crag (no, it’s Fell) on the wrong side of Ullswater and claims Helvellyn is the second highest mountain in England. I don’t dare look up what it said about Donald Campbell.
We took a rather more leisurely turn down the middle reach. Some part of the High Street range, still cloud-clagged, appeared in the gap between Hallin Fell and Place Fell, whilst on the other side, the Hellvellyn range was similar, but someqhat lighter, as if it might finally blow clear.
Approaching the turn into the upper reach, we passed Lady of the Lake on the port bow. Saint Sunday Crag and Dollywaggon Pike, either side of Grisedale, are firmly cloud-blocked, though there’s masses of blue sky above the lake itself. I’ve always felt these names to be strange and foreign-sounding to the Lakes, ever since I first heard my mother mentioning them, way back in the early Sixties. They’re just not Cumbrian to me. Things looked very dirty at the head of Patterdale, where we could see straight into Threshthwaite Glen.
Over to starboard, there was a big hotel on the lakeshore that I tried not to look too closely at. Under an older name than it currently bears, this was where I was married, and there are too many memories in that.
It was still not yet quite midday when I got off the steamerand walked round into Glenridding Village. My plans were flexible enough to give me either two hours or three and a half here, which would be fine if I felt in any way fit for a walk. Indeed, I’d half picked out Keldas, at the foot of Birkhouse Moor, and brought The Eastern Fells in my bag, but I’m achey and creaky and have been all day.
I was trepidatious about what Glenridding might look like, bearing in mind that the floods did a real number on the Vilaage, but the repairs here seemed more complete and nothing appeared to be out of place. I settled into a picnic table and got out my lunch.
The best plan seemed to be to kick back, relax, and enjoy just being here, but I did wander a bit in the direction of the path to Lanty’s Tarn, just to see how far I might get if I went at it slowly. All that got me was some spotty rain, a buzzy insect with an obsession with my right ear and some stomach cramps that suggested I might be better off keeping the Public Conveniences in closer proximity so, despite some increasingly encouraging blue skies, I strolled back.
Down in the valley, the soft breeze was very welcome, and I took root at another picnic table, enjoying the passing pedstrians and returning to my book. I could have dome some writing if the energy possessed me but overall this was not the day for creativity, so I socked up relaxing in Patterdale. Mind you, I noticed a lot of references to ‘The Ullswater Valley’: another Stickle Ghyll in the making?
There was another, slightly more serious spot of rain when I wandered back off to the Pier. We were on Raven again, though this time I headed for the stern for the best views. There was a ton of worrying grinding from the engine, turning to face back down Ullswater, but the mountainscape was at last wonderful, St Sunday Crag sunwashedand magnificent, Dollywaggon dark andslope-shouldered and even a glimpse of a cloud-free Helvellyn as we retreated.
Howtown was the beginning of the end. Everything after this was journeying back. Waiting in the sweltering heat for the bus in Pooley Bridge. Fifty-five minutes to kill at Penrith Station with nothing to do and nowhere to go, unless you count McDonald’s, so back to my book.
With the exception of the bus to Pooley Bridge, all the travelling’s gone smoothly, all day, but then I go and blow it. My travel notes have me catching the18.06 at Penrith, change at Preston. My ticket was for the 17.50 direct to Manchester Piccadilly, but I didn’t realise this until a mini-argument over who has reserved seat A11. On the 18.06. Oops.
That could have been very expensive, but the ticket inspector on the Virgin train was decent enough to stamp my ticket anyway so my only loss was to get stuck in an aisle seat on a gloriously sunny evening, and unable to see out of either window. And Northern Rail surprise me twice at Preston, first by being dead on time, and then by not coming to check my ticket at all. I was even blessed with sitting opposite a nice-looking young woman, with long brown hair almost the shade mine used to be, and a lovely smile.
I got back to Piccadilly nearly fifteen hours after the alarm woke me, and I didn’t half know it by then. One bus-ride later, and I got off in the only sustained rain I experienced all day, despite the forecasts, and the evening still sunny, offering up a full-arch rainbow above my flat. Mind you, everything that could ache did ache by then, and I’d missed England beating Australia to reach the Cricket World Cup Final. But I’d had a grand day, and I’d been back to Ullswater. Where can I go next?