Imaginary Holidays – The Grand Return


I’m tired, I’m stressed, I’m jittery as f-u-c-k, what shall I do? I know – let’s go on an imaginary holiday.

Not yet…

Let’s go up to the Lakes again, in my imagination. Let’s pretend there was one more week, one more Sunday to Friday, divided between Ambleside and Keswick, on which the sun shines but the fells are cool, the atmosphere is clear and the views and the photographs are fantastic.
Let’s pretend that this holiday is the big one, the one that catches all the places I never got to go properly, the summits under cloud, the views unseen. All of them swept up in one go, in my prime of twenty odd years ago, before the knee became a problem.
So the car is packed, only because this is imagination I can cheat. Suitcase and rucksack, anorak, waterproofs and boots, but we don’t need the cassette player to provide me with music in the evenings, and instead I carry my mp3 player and headphones, and there’s a small space for my laptop, instead of a writing pad and spare pens.
And the alarm goes on a Sunday morning in North Reddish, Stockport. I’ve been to Old Trafford yesterday afternoon and United have won, won in the style we’ve lost, terrified the opposition into submission, reaffirming our position at the top of the Premier League. The tank is full of petrol, and here I go.
Romance is an essential component of the imagination, so let’s forego the latterday, get there as fast as I can route of motorways, and revert to that old AA ‘Manchester to the Lake District avoiding the A6’ route that my Uncle obtained in the Sixties, and which I still know by heart.
Leave through North Manchester, bypassing Bury on the M66, to Rossendale and that dual carriageway route that by-passes the drive over the moors to and through Burnley. Then it’s up through Pendle and Nelson and cross-country, briefly returning to civilisation by driving through Gisburn.
At Long Preston, I join the long A65, along the edge of the Limestone Country, through Settle where Dad would always settle for a doze in the car, under the massive presence of Ingleborough, one of a tiny handful of non-Lake District mountains I have climbed, towards Kirby Lonsdale and beyond, until I cross the M6 and make for Milnthorpe. In my imagination, the Flying Dutchman is still open, offering the sausage butties that I was never allowed at home, and just as all our three visits in 1966, ‘Strangers in the Night’ is playing as we walk in, because for a moment I am surrounded by people long gone.
Beyond Milnthorpe I head north for the long road across the foot of the Lakes. The full run would take me through such places as Haverthwaite, Lindale and Greenodd and to the moors from which there’s that glorious view of Dow Crag and Coniston Old Man, and along the Water.
But this time I regretfully turn off at Newby Bridge and follow Windermere all the way to Ambleside, because even in imagination time is not elastic. The hotel that overlooks the park has my old room available and they haven’t yet jacked up the price for singletons, so I unload my case and stuff, change into my walking trousers and boots and set off up the street.
My starter walk is Wansfell, for which I walk down the main street towards Windermere before diverting off along Old Lake Road and starting to gain height. This was a starter walk once, a sunny afternoon of the kind we have today and I ascended to the ridge via the first of Wainwright’s options from Blue Hill Road, which disappeared with Jesty. No wonder: it was a poor line that got tangled in rough fellside, leaving me no option but to traverse awkwardly over to the other path (now repaired), to emerge on Wansfell Pike above the most spectacular full-length view of Windermere, exactly the right distance below.


With my camera still in the hotel room.
So now I’ve got my camera, and the shot turns out to be perfect, of course. The problem with Wansfell is that Wansfell Pike is such a perfect summit in a perfect position, but Wansfell is higher and further back, involving a stroll along the ridge with the dull views directly ahead.
The descent is by the same route, save that I drop down further to cross Stock Ghyll, picking up the lane that leads directly into the heart of Ambleside.
A quiet evening, a nice dinner, a pint in the Ambleside Tavern and some music.
I sleep well and eat a cooked breakfast on Monday, complete with tea rather than coffee at the table. I am sensitive about the kinds of coffee you get in Lake District hotels and guesthouses. Today’s plan does not involve severe effort, so I have time to wander Ambleside and drink in the atmosphere.
Then off to Grasmere to do the same thing, and to pay my traditional visit to the Heaton Cooper Studio, which is as much a part of my Lakeland holidays as trips to Ravenglass and the Ratty were for family holidays. There isn’t room for a trip westwards this time, unless I retrospectively decide to extend the holiday backwards, travel up on Saturday, spend my first Saturday night in the Lakes since my Wedding Day, and go for a ride on Sunday.
Either way, this is Monday, I’ve had a hot tuna melt for lunch and it’s time to drive round to get as close as parking on the main road will place me to the Travellers Rest Hotel.
Seat Sandal was a walk on a rainy, cloudy day that offered no entertainment, but was on ground both familiar from previous a visit, and easy to follow. We’d ascended by Little Tongue Gill on a day that turned to rain, heading for Grisedale Pass, though we’d stopped at the hause above Grisedale Tarn, which is a little lower than the official head of the Pass.
They were rebuilding the path along Little Tongue Gill that day, had got about two-thirds of the way to the top. The contrast was striking: when I reached the end of the paved area, I stepped into a foot deep trench.
The cloud was down on the hause and the Tarn invisible, but today the sky is clear. Cloud dots the sky in clumps. I take another photo and turn to the steep slope to my left. There’s an initial scramble, to the right of the wall, which rapidly eases off. No need to guess where to cross the wall and stroll to the broad, flat cairn this time.

It’s a view I’ve never seen, not an extensive or brilliant one, even to the open west, but one of four denied by rain and cloud that I am ticking off. And under the sun, there is no need to return to the hause, to traverse across the top of Great Tongue and descend its length. To do so would bring back memories of that first visit: I took the lead descending, on my own, ten yards in front of everyone else, and so full of energy that I could have turned round at the bottom and done it all over again immediately.
But on such a day there’s no reason not to descend by the south western cairn and the slowly-narrowing ridge, with the Vale of Grasmere below and views all the way. There’s time to enjoy the return.
Tuesday is traditionally transition day. I check out of my first venue of the week and cross Dunmail Raise, this time northerly, to check in at Keswick. I have had a number of regular places here over the years, and my last place is my favourite, but this is taking place entirely within my own head, so once again a room in a hotel overlooking the park becomes available, and when I get back from my walks, a parking space within easy distance will also miraculously appear.
I have two small fells within easy reach of Keswick to reascend, on either side of Bassenthwaite Lake: the question is which to take first. I leave Keswick onto the A656, along the east shore of Bass, and when the road swings round in the direction of Cockermouth, I turn into the woods and the narrow, undulating roads to Wythop.
This was another Sunday afternoon starter walk, a long time ago. I made an afternoon out of it by taking in Ling Fell and Sale Fell together, the improbable ‘Sentinels of Wythop’
Ling Fell, on the far side of the village, deep in the narrow cleft of its valley and its mill-race, is round, unlovely and uninteresting. It’s not in my mind to return, but the only parking is on the high road, on that side of the valley, so I have to get close to it.
That’s not too bad, except for when it means coming back, because Sale Fell is on the other side of the valley and it’s accessible from the lower road. So I march up the valley, drop down via the cross road, deep in the woods of the lower Wythop Valley, and under the same sun as the day I walked here in reality, follow the road up to the farm, Kelswick, at the furthest extent of the valley.
A clear, well-angled path doubles back towards the cleft on the ridge, but this time, when I arrive at the top of the path, the weather doesn’t explode into a cloudburst. I am free to wander up my gentle green ridge, enjoying the vista across Bass Lake and the side-on view of Skiddaw, rising above the Long Side ridge. I say wander: last time, I was marching into the teeth of a howling wind, my head bowed, my glasses removed to my anorak pocket (there was nothing to see so it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see it).
But I’m constitutionally incapable of walking slowly unless the terrain won’t let me pass apace, so I stride out contentedly, contrasting the openness of this climb with the claustrophobia of my real visit. There’s a mixture of paths nowadays, whereas I remember just the open ridge – not that I was the most reliable witness that day!
Then, I reached the tiny cairn, walked round it and started heading back without a pause. I had not been beaten. Now, I can sit down on the springy turf, doff the rucksack, have a drink, admire the view at last.

Two down, two to go, and one within sight.
Down the ridge again. I don’t have to walk back to Kelswick, there’s a path dropping directly down, beside the wall, onto the lower road, down which I march to the village. Time for a sit on the bridge wall, admiring the mill race: perhaps this time the sky is bright enough to enable a decent picture to be taken of it.
An unwelcome stroll back uphill to the car, where I sit for half an hour, enjoying the sandwiches I bought in Keswick and then, without having removed my walking boots, I belt up, reverse out and drop back through Wythop to the main A656 again. But not to return to Keswick. Instead, I angle round the quiet roads beyond the foot of Bass Lake, aiming for the A56 Carlisle Road, and turn Keswick-wards there.
Just as Sale Fell is part of a pair with Ling Fell, separated by the Wythop Valley, it’s part of a pair with the third of my missing views, separated by Bass Lake itself. This is Dodd, that tree-clouded outlier of the Skiddaw Range, only not so tree-clouded now, after a mass-felling sometime prior to 1999. Like Seat Sandal, this was a walk for a wet day that otherwise gave me nothing to do: on a day with no views, what better fell to climb than one from which there were no views to begin with?
That was one of the few days on which Wainwright failed me, his ascent from Dancing Gate proving impossible to follow after less than a quarter-mile. I ended up struggling uphill through trees, never my favourite method of approach, until I emerged on a forest road, from where I threaded together a very heavy-legged approach to the little path onto the wooded top. There were pale glimpses of the Lake below, but nothing else.
Rather than return that way, I descended to Long Doors and began to march downhill. It came on to rain, but I had established a metronomic rhythm, left – right, left – right, without need to pause or halt, all down the simple gradient to the cafe, and all down the A56, using up little or no energy, until the car came in sight.
There’ll be none of that today. Downhill marches are one thing and regular movements are easily attainable on regular ground, but even at my most enduring peak, the same effect isn’t going to occur going uphill. Unless I manage that even, slow-measured tread I struck that time on the Long Side ridge, and that eats up both distance and time, because it’s slow.
Steadily, I gain height, in the tuck of land between the steep sides of Dodd and Carl Side, until Long Doors, when I can escape right and round, into the open. Now Dodd’s summit is clear and warm, and I can enjoy the view even Wainwright couldn’t, without even having to stretch up on my toes.

I’ve done this kind of split-walk expedition on only a couple of occasions before, once by design, the other on impulse. The second half of it is always a bit odd, psychologically, and is slower. Once back at the car the first time, both mind and body relax, automatically: the energetic stuff is over, time to kick-back. Then going out again, even with the reminder that these are walking boots pressing down upon the accelerator and clutch pedals, not the softness of trainers, is harder to do. Even on simple walks like this, where for once I have no more feasible plans than returning to the car by the identical route. Trodden ground indeed.
It’s an early return to the hotel so I slip out into the Park, hire a putter and tackle the Crazy Golf. With long practice, I got the round down to about 39 shots: I reckon that, letting a bit of realism creep in, the rust will be enough to push me back to about 45. Then Tuesday night in Keswick. Beef-filled Yorkshire Pudding and a pint at the Oddfellow’s Arms.
Wednesday is, in a sense, a free day. They’re all free days, really, but there is only one walk remaining to complete sweeping in those fells on my list. I can go anywhere I want, without compulsion. Shall it be flood-ravaged Cockermouth, restored in my memories, and a quiet half hour browsing in The New Bookshop before driving down Lorton and exploring the Buttermere Valley? Or Patterdale via Dockray and Matterdale, into the pre-flood Glenridding, where I was married? Or further east yet, out and round into Mardale and Haweswater?
In light of Thursday’s plan, east it shall be, and by this I mean the Far Eastern Fells, and distant Mardale. I’m going on a nostalgia trip. It’s not the Second Drought Summer that re-calls me, 1984 and walking through the remnants of Mardale Green. Let the lake be full, let all the bare strips, the untidy, ugly tidemarks be covered in good honest water. I m going back to 1975.
It was the first and only time the family had holidayed outside that rigid arc from Ambleside to Wasdale, and for my benefit. I had seen Ullswater and Patterdale only once, and at last Haweswater/Mardale wasn’t too far to drive. We came here on Wednesday. On Friday, we made an attempt on Helvellyn via Striding Edge that only I completed, symbolising the breach I’d made by announcing I would go on no more family holidays after this. The last summit I reached with them was Harter Fell, Mardale.
It’s a simple re-tracing of steps: the left-hand fork beyond the roadhead, the steepish zig-zags to where the corner turns into that green hanging valley beneath Gatescarth Pass, the meandering, silent ascent of relaid stone, the broad grass col. Gatescarth, for some reason, always feels a lonely place, further away from your fellow man than other spots in the Lakes.
From here, in 1975, I had the Wainwright, I had the lead. It wasn’t really needed: there was no path on this flank, but a wire fence led up to Adam-a-Seat, before turning across the fellside, tracking an old boundary to the summit ridge, just short of the third cairn and its fabled full-length view of Haweswater.

Now, and since before 1988, there’s been an already-eroded path, direct from Gatescarth to this wall-corner, even of gradient, easy of ascent. In sunlight, and free of the wind that brought the unnecessary warning not to go too near the edge to get my photo – as if I, with my vertigo, would ever get that close! – it’s the highlight of the walk. Then the long stroll over the flat summit to the distant main cairn.
In 1975, something amazing happened here, that I was in no way responsible for. My family, who had never yet reached a destination without walking back exactly the same way they’d come, decided to descend to Nan Bield Pass and return by Small Water!
Dark cloud massed over Ill Bell, Kentmere Reservoir was cold and still as steel. We descended to Mardale via Small Water, the first photo I had ever seen looking down towards Haweswater, spread out before us. It had become a cold afternoon, since Gatescarth onwards, and we were well wrapped up against rain that never came.
All my holidays alone built up to the Big Walk on Thursday, and the slow retreat home on Friday. There’s one walk, one summit left, from which the view was obscured by clouds (yes, that is a Pink Floyd reference: please do not hold it against me).
This is why I went east on Wednesday, not west. Today is the day to go to Buttermere because I’m going to climb High Stile.
To drive, I’d say my favourite Pass is Whinlatter, because of its ease and simple gradients, but if I’m heading for the Buttermere Valley itself, and an early start is mandated for a long walk, then the only way to go is Newlands. This side of the Pass is not too bad, until the very end: in any car I’ve driven I’ve tried to get up some speed on the straight section, to help me up the last, steep bit to the summit, but Newlands has a ninety degree right hand bend just below that bit, on which all momentum is lost, requiring a laboured limp to the top, in second gear if I’m lucky. Not even imagination can overcome that turn, and I have never reached Newlands Hause without pulling in to let the engine recover.
One of these days, perhaps in another imaginary holiday, I’ll leave the car here and take off up one of the paths from the Hause. Knott Rigg is easy walking, trainers and jeans stuff apparently, though I’d want the boots for the ridge to Ard Crags which would have to be part of the walk.
Once the engine has had time to cool down, it’s down to Buttermere Village, and this is the brake’s turn to take the strain. Because it’s downhill all the way, and it’s steep downhill, and I have never tried to come up this side and never will, not even in my head. At the Village, I’m going to need to park for the day, so let’s assume that the quarry just down the road towards Crummock Water is still operating, and I can get my gear on there.
This is a straight repeat, and it’s a repeat of a walk I’ve not that long ago written about, so let’s insert a link here  and not describe the route in the same detail. My memories glide through the long diagonal ascent across Red Pike’s foreground, the rocky ledges that lead to Bleaberry Tarn’s outlet, and scaling the path to Red Pike, only this time the light stays good, the sky is well above my head, there is nothing to darken the day, or enforce any gloom, and I can relish the view.
And there are no concerns about disappearing into the cloud on High Stile, no issues about where the path might lead and whether I’m getting too close to invisible cliffs. So I make it to the summit of High Stile for a second time and I can see all there is to see, and the purpose of this holiday is fulfilled.

I wander downhill to the vantage point that offers me dramatic, near vertical views of Buttermere Village, and take multiple photos. Then it’s time for the long retreat, the narrow ridge to High Crag, the steep continuation to Scarth Gap, the scramble downhill. This time, there’s no One Man and his Dog in the valley below, and I reach ground level and take my time strolling along the lakeshore path, Buttermere lapping gently beside me, until I turn across the fields, back to Buttermere Village, and the car.
This being my imagination, I have enough time to drive along beside Crummock Water, and through gentle, spacious Lorton, to Cockermouth. Like all things in this week, this is the Cockermouth of old, undamaged by floods, and The New Bookshop is what it was, and I have time to browse in the way I used to before I became used to instant access through Amazon and eBay.
And because this is my fantasy, and it can take in whatever I want, there are books that never existed, there for me to buy. I very rarely came out of The New Bookshop without three purchases. So, one at a time, I discover that there is a fourth Master Li and Number Ten Ox story from Barry Hughart, another Dortmunder Gang book from Donald E Westlake and, most precious of all, one final Sam Vimes and the City Watch book from dear old Terry Pratchett, written at the peak of his powers, before the first onset of the Alzheimers, and it’s written to incorporate the ending I had envisaged as a perfect Last Discworld Book, only Terry does so much more with my skeleton than I’d ever imagined possible. I know what I’m going to be doing this evening.
And it’s morning, and it’s time to go home. Register out, drive round Keswick. Take the Penrith road, but cut through Matterdale, through unravaged Glendridding, and over Kirkstone Pass. It’s far too early for the Inn to be open but I stop and wander around, making the goodbye as long as I can because I don’t know how long it will be before I can be here again.
Then down, through Troutbeck, without stopping, through Kendal, with one final stroll and one final bookshop because in my imagination the walls of my pokey little flat are elastic and I can bring in an infinite number of book, especially imaginary ones.
But at long last, it’s the M6, south and home. No drawing it out through Settle and Gisburn, just M6, M61, M602 and Salford and Manchester’s inner ring road, and Hyde Road, Reddish Lane.
And I am back to reality, to where I really live, not where I used to live, from which I departed on this Imaginary Holiday.
I think I’ll do this again.

Imaginary Holidays: Exile on a Side Street


Once upon a long time ago…

One of the running themes in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, especially those set in or around Ankh-Morpork, is that what most people mostly want is that tomorrow should be roughly similar to today. We respond to that with a wry smile because we recognise its essential truth.

For many years, I lived my life expecting that its parameters would continue to apply forever. My career, the income I made from it, the interests I pursued in my leisure time, these would, with the inevitable, minor changes brought about by the passing years, stay the same.

The Lake District, its fells and mountains, lakes and tarns, it’s lonely, high paths and ridges, would always be there for me. Yes, a day would come, in some unimaginable future that had no bearing upon me as yet, when increasing age would reduce stamina, flexibility, strength. Some walks, some scrambling would become progressively untenable. Scafell Pike from Seathwaite, ascending by Taylorgill Force, the Corridor Router and Lingmell, descending by the subsidiary Pikes, Great End, Esk Hause and Grains Gill, would one day become too much for me to manage, even if I tackled it without first driving up from Manchester.

But if certain walks would move beyond me, others would remain. The fells would always be there. They are still. The high and lonely places remain, though the loneliness diminishes each year. They are there for me, but I am not there for them

I never imagined a time might come when I would be exiled from the fells. That my life would change in unexpected ways that broke down almost every aspect of that same-every-day life I used to live. That my ultimately smug assumption that I could always escape into the hills would one day become nothing but a mocking memory.

My health has changed. I have an arthritic right knee and hip, the latter kept under mostly-pain free control by medication but the former a constant irritation. There are other medical matters, controlled by an array of medication. But given the opportunity to exercise, to retrain myself to a greater walking fitness, given time, I would not, I fancy, disgrace my past too outrageously.

But the fells may be there, but I cannot be. I do not have a car, and I do not have the means to acquire one or run it if I did. Drew Whitworth may be on a second round of climbing not only all the Pictorial Guide Wainwrights, but also all the Outlying Fells, but he’s a bit younger and a lot fitter and, at the end of the day, less strapped for cash: he shows it can be done, but not everyone can emulate him.

It’s hard to say this without it coming over like a whine. Trust me, I can whine if the circumstances require it, but I try to limit the whining until I’m alone and I can feel thoroughly sorry for myself. But even then, I’m far too conscious that too much of my present, and persistent circumstances are my own responsibility. I am where I am through my own fault, I accept my blame.

At the moment, I can afford occasional train trips to the Lakes, without overnight stays. That means I can get to Windermere, for Ambleside and even Grasmere, or Penrith, which is almost twice as much in train fare and requiring another hour on the bus if I want to penetrate as far as Keswick.

Several years ago, I calculated that it is possible to leave Manchester at not too outrageous an hour in the morning, and by changing trains and using the Ratty of beloved memory, I could spend a couple of hours in Eskdale, enough time to walk to Boot and the waterfalls of the Whillan Beck before I have to begin the carefully-planned journey home.

I haven’t checked in recent years to see in the logistics hold up but I never followed through on this plan because it wanted a fellow-traveller, someone preferably female and sympathetic, to enjoy the day alongside me. Which set up another and different kind of problem.

But without a car, without transport of my own, to go when and where I wish, without fear of train-times back, the list of places in the Lakes that I cannot see is horrible to contemplate. Wasdale, Great Gable, Ennerdale, Pillar, the Buttermere Valley, High Stile and Haystacks, Back o’Skiddaw. Perhaps from Penrith, I can get to Pooley Bridge, maybe take the round trip on the Ullswater steamer, but Mardale and Haweswater…

It’s one thing to accept that my knee and hip might restrict my ability to get out onto the fells, to remind myself of a world I used to assume was mine by right, and the authority of a pair of good boots, but without making myself independently mobile, I cannot even see the majority of those places that used to be so familiar.

What’s left is imagination and memory. I’ve told most of the good stories of walks past, here on this blog. But that doesn’t deny me the ability to take myself back in thoughts and words. I have a series on Imaginary Albums on here: maybe I should start to write about Imaginary Holidays as well…

A day in the Lakes 2017


Julian Cooper

It always begins with the Twitch. That’s the paranoid fear of missing a bus,  a train, a connection, the impossible-to-eradicate response to no longer being in control of my travel and my destiny, of being reliant on public transport. Last year’s debacle was the ultimate reinforcement.

So this year I’ve taken precautions. Not only am I going out an extra quarter hour early, I’ve booked a Day Return ticket: no being tied to specific trains.

Which is why the 8.00am bus turns up at 8.00am this year, not 8.25am as it did 52 weeks ago. True, at certain points in the journey progress is as turgid as it was then, but I am getting off at Piccadilly Station with twenty-five minutes to spare before my train is due: time to burn.

Not that I can afford to relax completely. The Glasgow train is due at 9.15am, but the 9.07am Liverpool train on the same platform is delayed to 9.14am, which will throw my train back, and I know from two years back just how tight the connection is at Oxenholme. Nothing I can do about it from here.

It’s grey and damp in Manchester, but what do I expect if I insist on doing this in November? I read two contradictory weather forecasts yesterday, one promising rain and cloud all day, the other a dry, sunny afternoon.

From Preston, little glimpses of blue start to emerge and the day grows brighter. I’m hemmed in at a table seat, with an Asian mother/daughter pair in the aisle seats and a young Chinese woman opposite me with an Apple Macbook and the urge to encroach on my part of the table. This leaves me very little room to move my arthritic right knee, which is serious, or to tackle the Guardian puzzle page, which isn’t but which is nevertheless irritating. I’m glad for my mp3 player and my old-fashioned, ear-covering headphones for blocking off Mum’s nonstop barrage of words.

Miraculously, two of them get off at Lancaster, leaving only daughter, diagonally opposite, in place. My knee is very glad.

Suddenly, we’re on the shore of Morecambe Bay and I’m twisting in my seat to look across the sparkling water to a south Lakeland skyline. I have to be quick, but I identify the bulk of Red Screes, looming over Kirkstone, and further back and further in there’s a glimpse of a shady Langdale Pike or two. It looks good here, but I suspect that by Ambleside that’s all going to change. On this point, I will be gloriously wrong.

By Oxenholme, it’s all auburn and gold. The Ill Bell range stands out proudly and the nearer foothills are sharp and precise. The connecting train is waiting for us, only a quick dart across the platform. Amusingly, daughter changes with me, though only as far as Kendal.

At least now I can look forward without cricking my neck, and it’s as clear and light as August. Oh to be arriving here by car, two hours ago, my boots waiting on the back seat! (Yeah, and a fresh knee and hip too). We sail past the mouth of Kentmere, with both ridges showing well, then the Wansfell Pike/Wansfell ridge crackles the nearer skyline. And then, as we come over that last brow, there’s the perfect skyline, from the Old Man, across all the Conistons, to Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and the Langdales, with the pale glitter of the lower reaches of Windermere away to the south.

There’s a bus at the stop outside Booths when I emerge but it’s bound for Dungeon Ghyll, and I want to get up to Grasmere. That’s only a quarter hour wait, and though it’s cold, it’s lovely, and the air is Cumbrian air. A lady, seeing me scribble down the original draft for this, thinks I’m an official and asks me when the Kendal bus is due.

A Grasmere return ticket enables me to see the most I can reasonably see in the time I have. I’d considered Coniston this year, but the buses are two hours apart, and Coniston’s too small for two hours if you’re not hitting the fells.

The driver recommends a Central Lakes Dayrider, which costs the same as a Grasmere return but is so much more flexible. I take a seat upstairs on a double-decker, which feels out of place up here, and doesn’t improve the views all that much, since the road is tree-lined nearly all the bloody way! Maybe next year, get the bus to Keswick: I haven;t been across Dunmail Raise or seen Thirlmere in years.

This is by far and away the best November weather I’ve ever had, and the Langdale Pikes are so well-seen that I could almost swear I can pick out the line of Jack’s Rake, across Pavey Ark. We descend to the lake-shore, where Windermere is blue and rich with whitecaps. I can see Jack’s Rake! There are streaks of white on its face, one at the crucial angle. What if I’d taken the bus down to Bowness instead, and the steamer to Waterhead? That would have been glorious.

Now the Fairfield Horseshore rises majestically over Ambleside. Fairfield itself is dark, suggesting it might not be so good Patterdale way, but I’m not in Patterdale, nor am I going there, so I can afford to say, so what? and anyway, by the time we’re at Ambleside Bus Station, even that’s gone.

Curiously, the fells looking so attractive doesn’t fill me with frustration. I’ll be in Grasmere early enough to tackle Helm Crag and be back for the train home, if I’d got my boots on, but I know my knee won’t take it, and I’m resigned to it.

Arrival at Rydal Water opens up the Grasmere skyline. Automatically, I look for Loughrigg cave, but the sun’s in my eyes over the ridge and I can’t make it out. Then it’s Grasmere and Helm Crag fronting it, with a bar of cloud turning the Lion and the Lamb into a silhouette.

And at last the Village, and I can leave the bus at the Golden Jubilee bus stop, and just luxuriate in being there. It’s still only a quarter to twelve: on a normal working day, I wouldn’t even have begun to prepare for work yet.

The first place I always go in Grasmere is the Silver Jubilee bus stop (nice of the Queen to last long enough for the Village to have a matching pair) to check the times of buses back. These are on the half hour: I can either burn round in forty five minutes or stroll and have my lunch here.

The second place I always go in Grasmere is the Heaton Cooper Studio. It’s been expanded sideways now, and includes a cafe, but it’s still the same. I can’t wander round without seeing so many prints I want to buy that I would lose sight of the walls of my pokey little flat if I did, followed rapidly by losing the flat itself when I couldn’t pay the rent. I’m delighted to see there’s been a reconciliation with Julian Cooper, the contemporary generation, and my absolute favourite: two years ago, there wasn’t even a card to be seen. I’m unable to resist a painting of Striding Edge, in card form.

Next on the obligatory list is Sam Read’s Bookshop. I’ve been coming in here for over fifty years, and indeed I bought my Lord of the Rings hardbacks here, at a discount, or rather the first two because the dustjacket on the third was badly scratched. I was prepared to pay full-price for a clean copy in Manchester, despite the booksellers’ offer of a generous discount to take the last one – virtually unsellable on its own – as well. Selfish little sod that I was, I stuck to my guns.

A bookshop like this always makes me want to buy something, even though I don’t have room for the books I’ve already got, and that includes three from my birthday pile I haven’t even read yet. There’s loads of fascinating paperbacks and I would buy one if I could find one I thought would fascinate me more than once.

After that, I walk down to the Tea Rooms on the beck, where I partake of coffee, a tuna melt pannini and a slice of Victoria Sponge that’s a hypoglycemic attack in itself and is bloody delicious. On of these days, I’ve got to get up here in summer, when the terrace overlooking the river is open, where my sister and I used to peer down, looking for tiny fish darting in the water below. There probably aren’t any today: there are a dozen ducks sunning themselves and splashing with the abandon of a bunch of Brits in Ibiza.

I may have been coming here for over fifty years but the Tea Rooms date back far longer. There are blown-up monochrome photos inside, one of Victorian customers sedately sipping, the men all in straw boaters and sensible hats, the maids in ankle-length pinafores. Though they’re not sat on the terrace either.

At the moment, it’s occupied by ambitious crows, swooping and perching. Or they may be ravens, or blackbirds, I dunno. Not magpies, anyway, which is a relief as now there’s no risk of a secret never to be told. But they feel like crows, which reminds me of Ted Hughes, the only writer I studied at school where I’ve voluntarily bought other books by him. I did him for ‘A-level, just when Crow was coming out. I’m full of the past today, aren’t I?

I set off back through the Village. The crows have gone and there’s now just a solitary duck, sedately paddling along under the far bank, below the church, steaming upstream until he is lost to sight. The party’s moved on.

The 599 is already there, nearly twenty minutes ahead of schedule, which gives me time to wander up to Ben’s Toybox, which claims to have more jigsaws than anywhere else in the world. That’s another if-only: the money, the time, the room. But I could tackle a 1,000 piece jigger just now.

The bus is one of those half-open topped double-deckers. Despite this beingthe back half of November, I sit in the open. The moment we’re under way, it starts to get proper cold, but Hell’s Bells, what am I here for if not this sort of thing?

The sun’s still at the back of Loughrigg Fell, so I still can’t see the cave. Sweet Rydal is a golden glitter. All too quickly, we’re at Ambleside, where I wander up the main street. I’m sorry to see that one of the two long-standing bookshops stands no longer: it had shrunk to half-size when I was here in 2015, ad now that half is something called Herby Jack’s: I do not enter. Thankfully, Fred Holdsworth’s bookshop is still there. The same compulsion grips me and this time I give in: another of John Sutherland’s Literary Puzzles books, this time focusing on Dracula.

I add it to my gently bulging shoulderbag and retreat to a bench on the track behind Bridge House to write up another tranche of my day. Whilst I do so, an incredibly fearless robin hops all around me, even perching on the arm of the bench, and eyeing me. He’s angling for a bit of bread or something, but all I have on me at present is an unopened bag of Fox’s Glacier Fruits, which I doubt will satisfy him. When I tell him that if i did walk all the way to a bun shop, I wouldn’t walk all the way back here anyway, he looks hurt and flies away. But hope springs eternal in the human breast, and it obviously animates redbreasts as well, because he’s back again before I’ve done.

By now, the warmth is starting to go out of the air, though I am sitting on the shady side of the beck. My robin chum flies off when I stand up. I stroll down past the Spar, where once worked an absolutely stunning young woman, who I privately nick-named The Sexiest Girl in the Lakes (there was also a Sexiest Woman, but she was over in Coniston, and that’s a different story).

I got down as far as Zeffirellis, which brought back memories of a two-night break and a meal/cinema deal for the two of us, involving Curse of the Heaving Bosoms (actually, it’s Golden Flower, but if you’ve seen the film, and I recommend it if you haven’t, you’ll get what we meant). That’s one memory too many so I come back and ensconce myself in the Ambleside Tavern, with a pint and a comfy chair in the window, and dig out Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which has been my long-distance train journey reading book for about three years now: it’s a long book, and I don’t make that many long journeys by train.

A long slow read, a long slow pint and some decent Motown on the sound system. Nice.

There’s usually some woman who catches my eye on these Lakes days, and she’s waiting for the bus. She has short, dark-reddish hair, and narrow, black-rimmed glasses that emphasise her eyes. She sits down immediately in front of me. She looks intelligent, someone you can have a conversation with, someone with strong opinions. She gets off outside the hotels on the lakeshore.

We go from light to dark in the space of the drive from Ambleside to Windermere. There’s time before my train, nearly ninety minutes. I can catch the one before it or I can go fora coffee in Booths‘ cafe. even though I know it will give me problems with the bus when I get to Piccadilly Station after 8.00pm, I go for the coffee.

It doesn’t last me that long, but I have the book to occupy me, and finally, not long after getting on the train to Preston, it is over. How many journeys has it taken me? Buggered if I know.

The ticket inspector advises me that if I change at Oxenholme, I can get on a quicker train to Preston, and an earlier one to Piccadilly.  It’s pitch-black, I have my music, I decide not to bother with the additional hassle. This proves to be a mistake: we sit motionless for nearly ten minutes at Oxenholme, and another five at Lancaster, meaning that I miss the connection at Preston. The next Manchester train’s twenty minutes: it’s delayed arriving and sits there for nearly ten minutes before leaving.

This is now a joke, made worse by having no idea of where we are or what progress, if any, the train is making.

At long last, we reach Piccadilly. There’s a further surprise at the bus stop: a 203, waiting and about to pull out. I am on it like the proverbial rat up a drainpipe. That’s one for me at least.

But this fragmented and seemingly interminable journey home is merely a minor blot on a day that was far better than I could have expected, which could hardly have been better save by fitting in a jaunt onto the fells, or a sympathetic companion. Maybe next year, eh?  Yeah, right after the Euromillions win… Home tired, back knacked, knee protesting, but content. That’ll do.

The Lakes in November


It’s officially Autumn now, and in keeping with that decree, the recent Indian summer of September seems to have done a runner, leaving grey skies, cloud and persistent if not heavy rain. And my thoughts turn to Cumbria and the Lake District.

In about six weeks time, I celebrate my birthday, though it takes an elastic definition of the word ‘celebrate’ to cover the situation. Nevertheless, it has now become a tradition that when my birthday comes up, I take a week off work and, on the Thursday, I catch the train north for a day in the Lakes.

It is, of course entirely the wrong time of year to visit the Lakes, especially if that visit has to be conducted by train from Manchester. I ought to start a parallel tradition of going to Cumbria in, say, May, when skies have a decent chance of being blue, and cloud-free and, at the very least, light until 6.00pm and longer.

But my parents were inconsiderate enough to have had me in November, condemning me to be a Scorpio (as if that nonsense means anything) and an annual reminder of where my spirit lives has to be made in my natal month, or what else is it worth?

Given the cost of train tickets, especially if you leave buyng them until the last minute, it’s time to start laying plans and crossing fingers that, this year perhaps, it might actually stay dry, and maybe clear enough to enable me to get out onto the fells and toil upwards a few hundred feet above valley level.

So, where will we go this year, and what will we plan?

Four times out of the past five years, I’ve set my aim for Windermere, and Ambleside, with or without a side-trip to Grasmere. The other occasion, I disembarked at Penrith and caught the bus over to Keswick, which was considerably less successful. For one thing, the additional stretch from Windermere to Penrith adds a disproportionate amount to the trainfare. For another, it takes a hell of a lot longer from Penrith to Keswick than it does from Windermere to even Grasmere.

And if you have ambitions to get into the fells in even the most minimal degree, it’s a bloody sight easier to do so from Ambleside and Grasmere than it is from Keswick.

So the pragmatics of the situation come down very heavily in favour of Windermere again.

In the hope of getting good Lake District grass, earth and rock under my feet again, and subject to the timetable for 2016, I’m thinking of reviving last year’s plan that was so badly buggered about by BT and others. This is to take an earlier train (but not so early that the fares start to escalate) so as to arrive in a) Windermere and b) Grasmere with a longer period of daylight ahead.

I will then, subject to the great unpredictable that is the British weather, set off with a view to climbing Helm Crag from Grasmere village. It’s not as if I’m spoilt for choice, given my circumstances. Black Fell and Holme Fell on either side of the Ambleside – Coniston road would be ideal, and the former has a view out of all proportion to the effort required to reach its summit, but that then means coordinating with another bus, to Coniston, finding bus stops and having to be very rigid about timing to make sure of being back in time for the return bus – and given my paranoia, that would put a serious crimp in the day.

What do I want in November? Sunshine? Sunshine would be nice, it would make the photographs I can take look much better if everything isn’t tending towards the same shade of grey. But this is November, and I’m not going in hoping for anything greater than clear, and dry. No clouds clinging to the fells on either side, and a clear run – or walk – down Easedale Road, to the bottom of that climb up Helm Crag.

And I’d maim to have the kind of early start I missed out on in 2015, because if I’m to stand any chance of getting to the Lion and the Lamb, I need the biggest allowance of time I can get. It’s already four years since the last time I actually got into the fells, that utterly wonderful day I scrambled up to Heron Crag, part of Loughrigg Fell, out of Ambleside. And I’m slower, and with less stamina than even then.

I need all the time in the world, which put a thought into my head that I neeeds to test out for viability (which, as it usually does, translates into how much it might cost.) Was there any reason why I could not travel up on Wednesday instead, stay overnight in, say, Ambleside, so as to be free first thing Thursday morning to either catch an early bus to Grasmere for the biggest allowance of daylight possible or, if it’s pissing down, take a bus trip to either Coniston or Keswick, with ample time for me to return to Windermere for the train home?

That was definitely a case of breaking out of tunnel thinking, but unfortunately, the price gradient is against me, not to mention availability. You’d think hotels and guests houses would be at least inclining in a backwards direction to attract visitor in mid-November, but if those are winter prices, I doubt I’ll ever get to stay in the Lake District again!

Maybe in 2017, I can plan a bit further ahead. At least I can do the trains dirt cheap if I pay now…

Joined-up Walking


Wetherlam Edge

I’d gone away in March, I’d got back into my boots for the first time in nearly a decade, and it hadn’t killed me. Let’s do this again.

I was enjoying myself at my new firm, settling into place. I’d started at a very busy time, too busy basically for anyone to properly speak to me that first week, or rather four days since it ran up to Good Friday. The firm’s principal client was the Housing Corporation and it had £7,000,000 to disburse on various Refurbishment and Newbuild schemes by Housing Associations in the North of England. It had to all be spent by Easter, or the budget for 1983/4 would be cut, and my new colleagues were working every hour God sent to get this done, and a newby who didn’t know the procedures couldn’t take any of the strain from them.

I had no interest in the conventional sun and sea holidays, I had no children restricting my holiday times to school holidays, I was happy to let my colleagues take the prime weeks as long as I got the days here and there for Roses Matches and the Old Trafford Test, and I booked my real holiday for the beginning of September, and went off once more to the Lakes, after the crowds had started to thin.

It was the same as before: set off on Monday for Ambleside, but this time I stayed two nights there, and two nights in Keswick. And from Ambleside on Tuesday, I set off to the Tilberthwaite Valley.

We’d visited once in the Seventies, the post-Dad family, changing into our boots, setting off into the gorge, heading for Tilberthwaite Gill falls. Which were about five minutes away. I can’t help but be amused by it: a complete failure of planning by my Uncle and Mother. Given the number of times I’d read the Wainwrights by then,I was far better prepared than anyone else to plan a walk in new country, but of course I was still part of the ‘children’, which meant that my voice counted for absolutely nothing.

We’d barely begun and here we were, sat around on the banks as if we were stopping for a much deserved drink, nothing to do and nowhere to go, since the gorge stopped there. Having not used up even the least amount of energy, I prowled around, discovered a path under the trees, scaling the flank of the gorge behind us and received official permission to see where it went. I scrambled uphill, under the trees, to where it debouched onto a wide, well-made track rising from right to left, just inviting exploration.

I descended, reported my discovery and, with a certain degree of resignation among the adults that seemed to be based on this being my idea and not their’s, led them up into the open air and along the track. Not far ahead, it would round to the right, into a shallow, upland valley, walled off by a green ridge at its further end.

The path – an old miner’s track to their mines – was beautifully graded. It skirted the edge of the valley to the old, abandoned mines, at the valley end, and we followed the track as it continued upwards, to the ridge, with Wetherlam rising majestically to the left.

I was all in favour of going for it. We hadn’t expended that much energy getting here, and we had ample time, but the adults were not in favour (I had gotten too much leeway today as it was). So we walked back, following the miner’s track all the way down, then round to the car parked at the foot of the Gill.

I walked ahead, all the way, separated from the rest of the family. I had begun to do that since my Peak Forest Canal sponsored walk in 1972. I didn’t go too far distant, but I was fitter and a faster walker than the rest, and I suppose that subconsciously I was demonstrating how I was continually straining at the leash.

As a family, we never went back to Tilberthwaite but I remembered the miner’s route and kept it in mind, and now I was in charge, it seemed a perfect opportunity to follow my interest, and not to stop at the foot of the ridge again. It was a sunny day, unlike my two expeditions in March, and after sweating a bit to get up the first climb out of Tilberthwaite – these miners really walked to work this way every morning? Cor! – I got into the upper valley and made good time round its rim and onto the ridge.

With the exception of my brief, rocket-fueled powering up Helvellyn from Striding Edge, Wetherlam Edge was the roughest thing I’d tackled thus far. It was a broken route, without a consistent path, and sometimes it took me to the literal edge. I was tense all the way, worrying about getting into a position from which I couldn’t retreat, but I negotiated my way to the summit, with its impressive views over towards the Scafells, and I had reached my first substantial, serious top on my own.

But it was the same as Helm Crag in the March: now I was here, what did I do next? Once again I hadn’t thought further than the summit I’d set out to attain and it was still far too early that day to just turn back and head for my car. It certainly wasn’t going to rain that afternoon.

So, because it was still early, not even 1.00pm, I ploughed on to the next obvious destination, Swirl How, across Swirl Hause. This meant facing the Prison Band or rather, at this early stage in my career, taking the path avoiding the crest and the scramble, to its right, until I was on the summit. I had completed my first ridge route, I had climbed two fells in the same day for the first time ever!

And from Swirl How’s summit, the ridge curved around the head of Greendale, to nearby Great Carrs, whose summit cairn was entirely too near for me to ignore it. A seven minute stroll, Wainwright called it, which was a challenge worth taking up. I didn’t exactly saunter, in fact I strode out enthusiastically rather than stroll, and I was at the cairn in exactly seven minutes.

Then it was another case of what next? Grey Friar was in sight, it was still only 2.30pm, what was to stop me? It was a consciousness of my inexperience, not in the sense of potential lack of competence, but a genuine lack of any understanding of my stamina. I could go on, but at what point was I going to start to flag? Thanks to my lack of foresight, every step forward was carrying me further away from my car, would be a step back I had to cover when I reach the limits of my stamina.

Reluctantly, because it was still a lovely afternoon, sunny and bright and hours of it to come, I turned back. Back round Greendale head to Swirl How – definitely not a seven minutes stroll that way – down beside the Prison Band and a somewhat wearing scramble back onto and towards Wetherlam.

The ascent of Wetherlam Edge had left me eager to avoid it on the way back, and the chance came when I was on the ridge, still climbing towards the summit. Grassy flanks opened up to my right, pathless but inviting. No need to climb any higher, I could detour across this flank, work my way onto the Lad Stones ridge, down towards the valley and, lower down, when the ridge began to bend west towards Coniston, and the path from Coppermines Valley to Tilberthwaite was visible in open country, I could divert eastwards to pick it up.

There were a couple of walkers camped on the path. It seemed churlish to aim to avoid them, though they were a pair of middle-aged women who’d stopped for a brew. And my inexperience had shown in my having carried insufficient liquid that I was dry and parched. Kindly, they poured out for me a cup of tea, though the milk was heading rapidly towards the turn and little bits of it floated in the cup, which made me feel a bit ill (which I tried to both ignore and not show).

And then it was the final leg, descending into Tilberthwaite Gorge, steeply beside the invisible falls, and out into the car park, approaching my car from the opposite side to that I had left six hours or so previously.

The next day, I moved on to Keswick, using the day to relax and move about. For some absurd reason that I wouldn’t grow out of for another couple of years, I had the impression that I wasn’t fit enough to go walking more than every other day, so I had no plans to do any more walking until Thursday.

As I’ve mentioned many times, my family was rooted in the southwest quarter of Lakeland, the Southern and Western Fells, with an expedition into the Central Fells, and I had dragged us into the Eastern and Far Eastern Fells on that final holiday near Ullswater. But none of us had done any walking in the North Western Fells, and Wainwright’s obvious love of that region had attracted my attention a hundred times when I had been reading the books.

Now was the time to break that duck, beginning with the attractive oddity of Causey Pike.

It looked seriously steep as I approached it from the road across the valley, parked in a corner of the road that didn’t obstruct anyone’s way. I was tossing over in my mind how to proceed, right up to the foot of the fell: did I take the narrow, exciting route over Rowling End, or did I play safe and take the boring, steady route to the base of the fell? Well, duh!

It was Rowling End, then a steep ascent, although I did bottle out on the short scramble over the final few feet of rock just below the cairn (this first time). And here I was.

And there was Scar Crags, further back, higher, much less distinctive, mind, so I set off in that direction. By the time I reached its whaleback top, the clouds were gathering and rain was no longer merely an option, so I passed straight on, there being nothing to detain me on the top, not even a decent cairn.

Down to the col and, the conditions being what they were, turning down on the right, into the narrow valley that would lead me back to the road and the car. Except that it didn’t come on to rain that quickly. It grew dim and grey, and there was a parallel ridge that wasn’t all that high above the valley, so I crossed over, across the damp, green-looking bed of what must once have been a tarn, and contoured my way awkwardly up to the top of Outerside.

I was now on a roll, down Outerside’s steep, long southern ridge, by-passing Stile End – it did not count as a Wainwright – and up to the top of Barrow: only two days and I had already exceeded my record number of fells in a single day. I had also, more by luck than good judgement, found the kind of walk I would specialise in in future. I had ascended by one ridge and descended by another, minimising to the point of almost obliteration, the ground I had to tread twice in a day (hence my use of the term ‘trodden ground’ for that part of the walk I had to tackle twice).

There being no direct way down from Barrow towards my car, I retreated to the col below Stile End and took the diagonal path heading back up the gill that would merge, further up, with the path descending it. Just where the two met, the heavens opened. I sat down and pulled on my waterproofs, and then walked back down the gill to the car.

Seven summits in two walks, but more importantly I had begun to accustom myself to the fells. To longer walks with more tops than my family had ever planned, to forward planning, so that I could arrange my walks to avoid repeating or retreading my steps. To realising that I didn’t need company on the fells, that solitude and autonomy were brilliant, and that I wasn’t maybe a liability to myself after all, who had to have someone around to tell me where to walk and get me out of the problems I’d inevitably stumble over if I was left to take responsibility for my clumsy, useless self.

I was already addicted to the fells. It hadn’t quite come to me that I could go on and climb all of them. The desire had been there, in every page of every Wainwright that I’d read and re-read, over and over. I needed to start to believe in my capacity for doing so. March had seen me get into my boots again, but September had start to build my never sturdy confidence that I could physically do it. The road to anywhere starts with a single step, but getting there requires understanding that you can indeed put one walking boot in front of another enough times to get to the end, and I was already looking forward to next year, and more places I’d never been, more paths I’d never followed, and more views that I would reach under my own steam.

The channge meant never going back to Throstlegarth from Brotherilkeld, or Goatswater from Torver again. It meant that climbing Mill Gill to Stickle Tarn was a means to an end, not a destination itself.

Why my mother,and my Uncle, weren’t interested, why they wanted only so many things and nothing more when there was the whole of the Lakes to be taken in and enjoyed, I never knew nor understood. My mother would enjoy the photos I brought back, but even if her slowly deteriorating health would have allowed her, she would never have dreamed of walking in those, to her, alien places (I do her one injustice: in the second Drought Summer, in 1984, she drove herself to Mardale, walked through the revealed Village of Mardale Green. But she wouldn’t even have considered little Latrigg, because it didn’t lie between Ambleside and Wasdale.)

We are all strangers to each other, no matter how close we are. I always imagine that my Dad would have followed ever footstep I made in the fells (except the stupid ones) if he’d had the opportunity. On Earth-2, I like to think that he did. Solitude and autonomy are one thing, but I’d have welcomed his company every single day.

How does it feel?


We had New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ on the radio yesterday, when it was tuned to an Absolute Eighties channel that, for the most part, seemed doggedly determined to ignore the fact that we did have good music in the Eighties as well. It brought back a memory of a specific play on Radio 1, in the days when I still listened to it, on the car radio heading north on the way to the Lakes.

It was 1983, of course. I had finished my first post-qualification job as a Solicitor on the Friday leaving unnoticed, and the following Monday I would take up my new job at a City Centre firm that would be a delight to work for for three of the next three and three-quarter years, but my last twelve months at my old firm had been stressful in the extreme, and the first signs of grey hairs were visible in amongst the dark brown, even though I was only 27, and I’d arranged to leave a week’s gap between jobs and take a few days out to go on holiday in the Lakes.

It wasn’t my first solo trip. Some eighteen months earlier, in October 1981, having not long since bought my first car, I had taken off for a couple of days in the late Autumn. It was cold, it was grey, I had my walking boots with me but had no real intention to use them, and I had spent a couple of days moving round, seeing places I had not seen since my last family holiday, six years previously, that had ended with my solo climb of Helvellyn.

A night in Ambleside, a night in Keswick, establishing bases that I would return to several times until their inflated prices for singles would make them prohibitive, and then home. Useful for refreshing memories, reawakening my attachment, and learning the technique of driving on narrow, winding, undulating roads and lanes, when they were all but empty.

That time I’d just gone straight up the A6, stopping off in a pub in Preston for some lunch and a dreary pint, Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ high in the chart and impressive on the radio. Jump forward eighteen months and I was determined to follow our old route northwards, Manchester to the Lake District avoiding the A6, as solicited long before from the AA.

There was a change, near Rawtenstall, a new, short motorway section, diverting me away from the town onto dual-carriageways across the moors, by-passing the road over the hill and into Burnley. As I came upon the choice whether to follow this new, previously untried route, or not, New Order stole out of the speakers, that precise, metronomic beat that was a world away from the Joy Division they’d been and who I had loved so much.

I took the motorway.

In Ambleside, I stopped at the same Hotel, overlooking the park, ate at the same old restaurant we’d patronised in the past, and which I would visit unfailingly on each holiday, until it was taken over and disappeared. I was still restless, and booked out the next day, heading north towards a night in Keswick, but I stopped in Grasmere and, with a sense of adventure, donned my boots and proceeded to walk out on my own for the very first time.

It was a few months short of eight years since I’d last walked, last worn these old boots, romped up the face of Helvellyn from the end of Striding Edge. I played squash every week, five a side football semi-regularly. I was nearing my physical prime and I was only setting out to climb Helm Crag, and I was ashamed and angry about how much I struggled getting up its steep prow, on that old path long since closed and relaid elsewhere.

But I got to the summit, climbed to the top of the official Lion and the Lamb, but not the rocks that are Helm Crag’s real highest point. I didn’t have the skills then, nor the nerve, and I never have had the nerve.

The ridge towards Gibson Knott stretched out before me and I contemplated it dubiously. It was windy, the weather was uncertain. I had made no plans beyond Helm Crag. Every step was further away from the way back, the car. It was early yet, not even midday. And this was the first time I’d been on the fells in eight years, and the first time I’d been completely alone, my own master, answerable to no-one in my course. And completely unprepared.

So I turned back to Grasmere, back at the car for about 12.30pm, stepping out of my boots and anorak and locking these in the boot just as the heavens opened and the rains came down: the right decision, then, by accident.

And it rained nonstop from then until Thursday morning.

I stayed two nights in Keswick, wandering around in the wet on Wednesday, driving from place to place, and coming back to the hotel I’d used before, which, like my choice in Ambleside, overlooked the Park.

Thursday dawned dry. I booked out, intent on moving on. It was dry and clear and I had another walk in mind, an intriguing fell, the Northern Fells outlier, Binsey, with its views south. Wainwright had praised its unique situation, the unexpected vista, and I followed his recommendation on a dull, unexciting ascent from small lanes and hamlets at the back, keeping the view to the last moment on crossing the crest of the hill.

It was dark in the interior, so I wandered back and removed my boots for the day, lunchtime again, so early. I motored off to Cockermouth, had lunch in a pub, a strong cheese and onion sandwich, with a strong, reddish cheese that I wasn’t entirely happy about, and then off, southwards down the coast.

Via Buttermere and Loweswater, the mouth of Ennerdale, the Cold Fell road, Nether Wasdale, gradually moving towards Ravenglass. I’d planned to stay there overnight, but there wasn’t a guest house that felt right, that didn’t look too costly or too comfortable.

Speaking of which, I wasn’t feeling too comfortable myself. My stomach was beginning to feel off, and it only got worse. Ravenglass didn’t feel right: I pressed on, growing weaker and more painful as I drove, set on Coniston, and when I got there I checked into the first Hotel I could find, went to my room, undressed and curled up in bed.

Unless it was the cheese, I don’t know what brought it on, but I was in pain all evening. I knew it couldn’t be the onset of appendicitis, because I’d had that, and my appendix removed, in the summer of 1977, but in all other respects it was a familiar sensation. I didn’t tell anyone, didn’t seek assistance, didn’t even have aspirin on me. I just suffered it through the night, barely slept, but reached the morning feeling weak and empty but free of my gastric difficulties.

The hotel were solicitous when I refused breakfast, just a cup of tea, and I went home quietly, the holiday marred by my experience – and my inexperience in dealing with it.

But I had gotten my boots on again, twice. I had walked out and reached two more summits, taken my collection of Wainwrights into double figures. I had walked alone and I had come back. I had begun.

‘Blue Monday’. How does it feel? Sick to my stomach, but bloody wonderful.

The Grand Tour of the Lakes: Stage Four: North to East


The final stage of the Grand Tour is the simplest and easiest, which is always the most befitting for the homeward run. Basically, it’s the Keswick-Ambleside road, with a single possible variant along the way.
Actually, this is the point where the circular Tour ceases to be circular for it’s a more or less straight line back, down the Central Rift throughout the centre of the Lakes.

Bassenthwaite Lake again

Before embarking on the route back to base, there may be some who, having decided against the ‘high road’ along the western side of Derwentwater, and who, having entered Keswick from Borrowdale, made a pit stop for loos and cups of tea or coffee. Those travellers have not yet seen Bassenthwaite Lake so, in order not to miss out, begin the final stage by heading north on the main street.

At the little roundabout, turn right as signposted for Carlisle, crossing the A66 at the big roundabout and continuing onwards through level, green country that, in older days, when the two Lakes were one major body of water, was submerged. Bass Lake is close at hand at its foot but the Carlisle road drifts further away, running under the shadow of tree-bound Dodd.

At the Castle Inn, turn left, follow the road around the foot of the Lake and shoot back down the A66, along Bass’s western shore, heading back to Keswick.
The road out of Keswick climbs to escape the Vale, before cutting through the valley of Naddle Beck, lying almost parallel to the Vale of St John. The Vale lies on the line of the rift, and the waters of Thirlmere used to drain along it in a perfectly logical, geographic manner, until the former Armboth Water and Leathes Water were submerged and its waters sent south over Dunmail Raise, for the benefit of the citizens of Manchester, myself among them.

                                                        Thirlmere
Thirlmere used to be incredibly difficult to see. It’s long been Forestry Commission territory, just as is Ennerdale, but the Commission were even more officious here, guarding its privacy by thick plantations along the eastern shore, so that even when the main road ran by the lake itself, only the briefest glimpses of water were visible between the screen.
It’s always been possible to circumvent this by talking the old, rough road round the western shore of the lake, and even though the Commission has long since mended its ways, this is still the best for views.
There are two approaches to the west shore, the first of which can only be accessed from the northbound carriage, this being a section where, in the Sixties or thereabouts, a new smooth section was laid, and the old, narrow carriageway retained for south-bound traffic. Southbound travelers emerge from the end of the dual carriageway in time to take the second approach, which has the added bonus of crossing the dam itself, though you shouldn’t try stopping to look on the way.
At the head of the Lake, the two routes join, at the foot of Dunmail Raise. This is a complete doddle to drive, and on a sunny day there’s a lovely picture of Grasmere, in its Vale, below.
The road follows Grasmere’s shores anyway, before descending through wooodlands to pass it’s little sister, Rydal Water. Rydal is the thirteenth and last lake of the Tour, and all that remains is the short, but no doubt busy run into Ambleside. You may wish to schedule a day of minimal or no driving for the morrow.

Grasmere and Rydal Water

For those not yet cramped out from all those hours behind the wheel, there is a slightly longer variation near the start of this leg, using the A66 to escape eastwards from Keswick in order to turn into and drive down the Vale of St John, instead of the main highway via Naddle Beck. Those who take this option should be aware that the St John’s road emerges south of the dam road to the west side of Thirlmere, requiring you to turn back on yourself if you plan on taking that route.
There’s bound to be those who will ask if it’s possible to tour all sixteen Lakes in a single day, but the geography is against it. East of the central rift, the valleys don’t fall into the spoke pattern of the west. Ullswater lies in Patterdale, on the far side of a ridge stretching to over 3,000′ high, and Haweswater can only be reached by car from the ‘outside’, coming in, and is as much of a cul-de-sac as Ennerdale Water and Wastwater.
It’s perfectly possible on the last leg to take a more circuitous route via Matterdale and Patterdale, arriving midway along Ullswater’s middle reach and returning to Ambleside via Kirkstone Pass and The Struggle, all of which cuts Thirlmere, Grasmere and Rydal Water out of the round, which rather defeats the object of the exercise. Of course, if you could somehow work out a way of starting the tour in Keswick and finishing in Ambleside of a second lap…
When time and personal motorised transport allow, this is the route I’m going to drive. In the meantime, the memories will have to satisfy me.

One Day Like This A Year


Next time...
Next time…

On the train up from Manchester, Elbow’s majestic, shambolic, anthemic ‘One Day Like This’ came on my mp3 player and I turned my face to the carriage window and strained to look at the beginnings of low, green fells and temporary lakes in low-lying fields, and silently bellowed along, trying to keep the tears from coming into my eyes. Guy Garvey sings about a day, and a night, with someone he loves, which comes along not often and which is so rich and wonderful that his gratitude leads him to ask for no more.

Much as I’d rather it be, the one day that has to see me right is my traditional trip to the Lakes, for it’s Thursday, and my birthday just gone (Wednesday, 60, in case you’re asking), and that’s the cue to head north by train and bus, not dwelling on what else the day used to mean.

My plan, this year, is one that has already been frustrated once, by weather. I have carefully (and cheaply) bought my tickets a month earlier, selecting an earlier train that might leave Manchester only twenty minutes before my usual departure but which will get me to Windermere almost fifty minutes earlier than usual.

A near hour’s gain on a day when light may be precious means Grasmere, and Helm Crag.

I climbed it once before from Grasmere, in absurdly quick time, scrambling into my boots at 10.30am, back to the car by 12.00. It was my first solo walk, on my first solo holiday, a few October days made possible by my first car: I shut the boot on my boots just before it set into rain for 48 hours solid.

I doubt I can manage those sort of times again, but the weather’s on my side for once, dry where it’s been wet all week, light where it’s been grey, even blue, and the low fells green and brown under sunlight.

But if the weather’s being cooperative, the transport’s not. That earlier train is five minutes late reaching Piccadilly, and even more leaving it, and it doesn’t make any of that back so, when I descend at Oxenholme, the connection is eight minutes gone and the fifty minutes gain follows it, waiting for the train I could have gotten direct from Piccadilly, like always.

The next Windermere train is late, and it gets later at each stop. The sun persists to the Village and throughout the twenty minute wait for the Grasmere bus (which is late). Beyond the Village, the near fellsides are bright, but the interior is not so encouraging. There’s cloud on the Langdales, the Conistons, Bowfell. Crinkle Crags shows its serrated edge briefly, and then is gone. The Fairfield Horseshoe disappears under the shadow of some grey kingdom, cloud poised as if planning a sneak, outflanking attack down Rydale.

But Helm Crag is clear, blessedly clear, when I step off the bus in Grasmere Village.

Except that: I don’t need the unfavourable forecast for this, I have been here too many times to be kidded. I can practically smell the rain and sure enough, forty minutes later as I polish off a very nice (but expensive) lemon chicken salad roll, it smashes down like a parachute brigade on offensive manoeuvres.

Grasmere (and the bus before it) seems to having nothing but old people wandering around it, though I am forced to admit that this is appropriate since the appellation belongs to me as well, now, even if the bus driver did address me as ‘young man’. One notable exception is a handsome blonde woman in no more than her  early forties, with a strong Canadian accent. She dogs my footsteps from the Heaton Cooper Studios to Sam Read’s Bookshop, though I doubt she’s following me with any conscious intent, considering she’s also dragging around with her an equally-Canadian ten year old daughter, plus two English parents, whose accents I can’t place but they’re not Cumbrian.

I don’t overstay my welcome in Grasmere: if I’m going to get stuck somewhere in the rain on a wet Thursday afternoon, Ambleside has more choice and better pubs. I do my usual bookshops: Wearings has shrunk to half the size it’s been since I first knew it and I converse about hard financial times and the second of Clive Hutchby’s Wainwrights, which has been published just last week, and which I buy as a gesture of solidarity.

Then it’s off to the Sportsman (I’m sorry, the Ambleside Tavern) for something hot to eat and something cold to drink.

The main problem – apart from my parent’s thoughtlessness all those years ago in not delivering me into a sunny and dry month of the year – is time. I can only go so far by train and bus, and I am prisoner of their times and tables. I hole up in the pub, sat in the window, eating burger and chips, drinking my third pint of lager and lime in twenty hours, I read something long and slow, but at every moment I an conscious of time building backwards. I must be at Windermere Station by such a time, so I must be at Ambleside Bus Station by such a time, so I must leave here by such a time and I am paranoid about being late, about being stranded, and though the first such a time is a long way off, the thought of getting engrossed, of losing track of time, haunts me.

After a while, the rain starts to really lash it down again. Inside the pub, a bearded guy in his late forties picks up the acoustic guitar leaning against the fireplace and launches into a quite pleasant version of that old folk ballad, Elvis Presley’s ‘The Wonder of You’ (six weeks a number 1 in 1970, immediately following seven weeks of Mungo Jerry and separated by a single Smokey Robinson week from six weeks of Freda Payne: try that on the kids of today and there’d be mass suicides).

A smattering of applause encourages him into another number, which I don’t recognise. The old couple by the fire promptly get up and leave but as he’s just about drowning out Phil Collins, I’m not complaining.

Time wore down. It got dark outside. The hour of the bus approached. The pub’s in-house MTV equivalent threw up Erasure’s ‘Sometimes’ and I sat it out, admiring the fact that it was raining on Andy and Vince’s rooftop as well, then headed out. I had conquered my paranoia so well that there were only eight minutes before the bus was due (it was late).

I’ve not been sleeping well this past week or so and on the dark-night bus to Windermere, the effect began to catch up on me. The Lake was invisible. I wandered into Booth’s Cafe for the usual wind-down flat white coffee, though I’m afraid to say that the usual sumptuous choice of cake was not as sumptuous as I am used to and I had to make do with a Bakewell Tart.

Not until I was on the train could I really begin to relax, knowing that everything was certain now from here to home. My headphones took over my ears again and I waited for the train to leave. It was late.

But the train being late, and getting later at every station, ended up a nightmare. There were delayed trains queuing to get into Piccadilly Station and by the time mine reached the subsidiary stations, our progress could be measured in phases of the moon. Having taken ages already just to reach Oxford Road, our train shut up shop, grimly determined not to move for an official six more minutes, at which point I got off and walked to Piccadilly, beating it hands down.

All of which farrago, which is nothing new, ensured that I finally got back to Piccadilly after the point when my bus home dramatically plummeted from every ten minutes to every thirty. I keep forgetting that it’s hell trying to get out of Central Manchester after 8.00pm.

I ended up catching a different bus, one that would take me to Stockport itself whereupon I can have the pleasure of turning back on myself and coming back. But as it was now getting late, I got off, cut through along Tiviot Way and started walking back from the top of Lancashire Hill. Naturally, before I could reach my stop, the bus I could have stood around in the rain and waited for shot past me, having on this occasion done a forty-five minute journey in just under thirty. It was the same last year: I am going to have to seriously rethink this before next year because it’s a lot of traveling and this bit at the end seriously pisses me off, because I can’t afford to pay for a taxi from Manchester to get home.

One day like this a year will see me right? Not this year.

The Grand Tour of the Lakes: Stage One – East to South


Windermere from a low level

Back in those dim, distant days when my only knowledge of the Lake District came from family holidays, we would occasionally be tripped up by rainy days. At first, these would only occur on Fridays, which meant the almost traditional drive north, over Dunmail Raise, to wander around Keswick, slickered up in raincoats, before it cleared after lunch and we would park for a couple of hours by the Derwent, down the valley.
A couple of times, however, the rains would come on other days of the week, and on one memorable occasion, my family gave way to my ceaseless clamour to see Lakes I had not previously visited, and we went driving. At first, it would be the old familiar route via the Wycham Valley to the coast, and Ravenglass, as if for Wasdale or Eskdale. But instead, we followed the coast further north, as far as Egremont, and then turned off towards Cold Fell, and the moors to Ennerdale, and beyond that to Loweswater and the Buttermere Valley and, to my astonishment, given how my Uncle guarded his car, over Honister Pass and down into Borrowdale.
I remember this for being my first sightings of Ennerdale Water, Loweswater, Crummock Water and Buttermere, and the efforts my Uncle made to find temporary stopping places that enabled me to take black and white photos of these new Lakes.
This was long ago, and in the years following, I have driven all these roads, and seen these Lakes and Valleys several times over. But I never did the Grand Tour for myself. The days were usually too good not to be walking, and those days when the fells were impossible were so bad for rain and cloud that the Tour would have been no more than driving for the sake of it, with little to see.
For the past six years I have not had access to a car, and once you are reliant on public transport to reach the Lakes, let alone navigate about it when you are there, the Western Lakes and these valleys that face the Irish Sea are far beyond the possibility of visit.
That doesn’t deprive me of the memories, and when fortunes and mobility change for the better, one of the first things I have promised myself is to spend a day doing the Grand Tour. I’ve thought about it many times, and I’ve devised it so that, in a single day, it’s possible to see thirteen of the traditionally Sixteen Lakes, without much backing, filling and contrivance.
I’ve mentioned before that my family used to confine themselves almost exclusively to the south west quarter of Lakeland, from Grasmere round to Wasdale. I’ve always been much more cosmopolitan, splitting my holidays between Ambleside and Keswick when it came to bases, and making sure of going everywhere I could. So many sights of which my family deprived themselves, and I don’t just mean the fells I’ve climbed.
Our tour, my Tour, goes round in a circle. The whole point of a circular tour is that you can join it at any point on its circumference, but my instincts always lead me to start and finish in Ambleside. On the other hand, whilst I tend to the opposite in horseshoe walks, the Grand Tour progresses gloriously clockwise.
Remember, there’s thirteen Lakes to be collected, and the first of these, Windermere, appears almost immediately. On the Coniston road, less than a half mile out of Ambleside, the trees thin to reveal a long vista down the Lake, almost to the islands opposite Bowness. I’ve never seen this view without a forest of white masts and sails.

Elterwater – the Lake that will one day vanish

I’ve probably travelled the Ambleside – Coniston road more often than any other in the Lakes, passenger and driver, enough to be familiar with every bend and bump in the road, enough to drive it in ten foot visibility fog if I needed to. So I know that when the road passes the mouth of Great Langdale, crosses Skelwith Bridge and begins to climb through the trees, that as soon as it emerges into the open, Elterwater is visible below in the lower valley. It’s hard to see, both because the lake has shrunk considerably in my lifetime, from a small, tarn sized lake with facing promontories, to three connected pools that, within the next fifty years, will no doubt seize up and disappear.
It’s also very difficult for a driver to see it, since it lies downhill at a backwards angle on the right, so it’s sensible to pull into the first layby on the other side of the road and get out for a proper look.
Next stop is Coniston, entering the Village from the north. It’s far too early in the day to stop, but at this point I want to backtrack and refer to an alternate start to the route, that sacrifices the distant glimpse of Elterwater for a much more up front encounter with pastoral Esthwaite Water.
Personally, Esthwaite Water has never done anything for me. It’s a secluded Lake that lies among fields and hedges rather than on the fringe of the hill country, and it is the hill country that always enthrals me. Whilst it’s not far away in miles, nor obscure of access, Esthwaite feels as if it is much further away from the fells than it actually is. Bringing it into the walk involves sidestepping the familiar Ambleside-Coniston road entirely, in favour of the road to Waterhead and Bowness.
This has its advantages in extended and more intimate views of the upper half of Windermere, including the classic view of the Langdale Pikes, always looking much closer than they are in real geography. On the other hand, this approach risks considerable delays, both in driving through Bowness Bay and crossing the Lake on the ferry. Especially if you pull up on the Bowness shore just in time to see the boat cranking away on its chains on the slow journey towards the western shore, with the return journey yet to come.

Esthwaite Water – a lake of trees and fields

Once across the Lake, the road winds through idyllic country lanes, the signposts to Near and Far Sawrey invoking the inevitable associations with the late Mrs Heelis – that’s Beatrix Potter to you – and eventually the alternate routes round Esthwaite Water itself, which is calm, peaceful and beautiful, but it’s a beauty that doesn’t below to the Lakes, a beauty from which ruggedness of any kind is absent. You might as well be down south.
Hawkshead lies at the head of the lake. It’s a very expensive place to visit as cars have been barred all my life, and the car and coach parks have set their prices on the exclusive rights basis, and to be honest, even if this is Midsummer’s day and you’ve set off at sparrowfart, there isn’t enough time to stop off and visit, so continue driving north.
This road leads back to the Ambleside-Coniston road, only a couple of miles outside the village. You could still include Elterwater by doing this, and increase the number of Lakes to fourteen, but it really does mean a bit too much faffing around for something that’s supposed to be a roughly circular tour, so let’s not. Instead, a mile or so north of the village, a road turns off towards Coniston, rising gently to cross the low ridge east of the Lake, and descending in steep bends to round the head of Coniston Water, whilst offering some spectacular views over the lake. From the lake head, follow the road on into the Village from the East, to rejoin the main route.
Which, despite the relatively short distance traveled, is a suitable point to say that Stage One, from East to South, has been completed.

Coniston Water in conditions of calm

Frustration and the Wet Dishrag Effect


Helm Crag as I didn't see it
Helm Crag as I didn’t see it

It’s four months after my visit to Ambleside, and the lower buttresses of Loughrigg Fell, and feeling more alive and happy than I’ve done in a long time. Having done it once, I could surely do it again, and with more ambition.

The great and gorgeous weather on Monday put the idea in my head, and the crappy morning I had at work on Tuesday cemented it there. The sky was clear, the sun was out and the forecast promised it would last until Friday, which I’d already booked off as holiday.

So I bought a return to Windermere and laid my plans. I would arrive about 11.40 am, catch the bus through to Grasmere and tackle Helm Crag, which would surely not be beyond the capability of my worn-out body and knackered knees. A few hours up and down – surely three would be enough? – and a free choice of trains back come the evening.

And a proper expedition this time, like the old days, no floundering around in trainers and coat, shoulder bag bumping all over the place. I dug out one of my rucksacks (I say ‘my’, but these are fifty years old, bought by and for my Dad and his elder brother: I am their inheritor). I even bought new (though cheap) boots, my last pair having been uncomfortably cramped when I wore them last, a decade ago.

I’ve only once before gone straight onto the fells in new boots, without having any chance to break them in first, having discovered on the morning of a drive to Ambleside for a week’s walking that the soles had caved in on my old pair, requiring me to book in and race round the climbing shops as soon as I arrived.

But the years have taken more than my stamina. First, I forgot to recharge my mp3 player (for the train) overnight, so I dug out my old portable MiniDisc player, scrabbled for a replacement battery and pushed it into a rucksack pocket, only to find, when we were pulling out of Piccadilly, that I had no headphones.

I’d already realised, halfway into Manchester, that I’ve forgotten to pack Wainwright’s Central Fells. Mind you, if I can’t get up and down Helm Crag without needing a guide, I really do have to give up on the idea of getting back to real walking again!

However, there are worse problems. One is that, almost as soon as I’d paid for the train tickets, a very familiar soreness had settled into the back of my throat and, over the last couple of days, it’s been building into a serious nuisance that hot Lemsip and paracetemol is doing nothing to shift. The other is that, between Tuesday and Thursday, the weather forecast for the Lakes has practically reversed itself.

But I’ve paid for the tickets, and surely just being in the Lakes again is worth it?

It was not too bad a start in Manchester, but as the train approached Preston, we ran into a land-fog that accompanies us all the rest of the way. There was no Black Combe over Morecambe Bay – there was no Morecambe Bay visible.  There was no Kentmere Horseshoe overlooking Kendal. Passing Staveley, the cloud lifted far enough to see 3 – 400 feet of lower slopes, but even that was gone by Windermere. When I got off the train, it wasn’t actually raining.

I bought a Dayrider, still determined to pursue my plans, and the bus headed north alongside the Lake. Things got a little better: just before Troutbeck, the dingy clinginess of the mist seemed to go out of the air, though nothing more was visible of the fells.

The first pale glitter of the Lake was visible at Brockholes, but despite a surprise of sun, there was no Black Fell, let alone the Langdale Pikes. The most I could see was Todd Crag, that part of Loughrigg that had given me so much pleasure last November.

The fact that Loughrigg’s flank overlooking Ambleside was free of cloud aroused a skein of hope in me that was dashed when we emerged by Rydal Water and the all-pervading insubstantiality returned. The tin hat was finally fixed on things on the first sight of Grasmere’s chill waters: No Lion, no Lamb, no climb.

In Grasmere Village, it’s not actually raining slightly harder. The Village is as I remember it for all my life. Sam Reid’s bookshop still sits on the corner of the Green, and whilst it’s now the Grasmere Tearooms, and correspondingly more expensive, there’s still the cafe on the other side of the beck, opposite the church, with the terrace we occupied many a time, for teas ‘n’ fizzy oranges, the adults smoking and talking, my sister and I watching minnows flick and dart in the contained bed of the beck.

The terrace was shut, so I ate inside, cheered by the accompaniment of a brief burst of Fleet Foxes, sounding as ever like ritual chanting by men of the deep woods, a sort of forest Beach Boys. Perfect for a tuna melt panini and an Americano (though as I drank it, I was already looking forward to a Gold Blend back home.)

Naturally the moment you abandon hope, the cloud starts messing with your head. The Lion and the Lamb slid into view beneath the cloud: not by much, a tall man on the Lion’s head might still be enveloped. All the time I was in the tearoom, it grew steadily lighter, though the sky never changed. Silver How and Stone Arthur, on opposite sides of the Rothay Valley, also slipped into view, suddenly restoring the planned walk to feasibility.

But the food suddenly started to weigh heavily on my stomach, and the head-cold chose to turn my head fuzzy and drain my legs. I’m not the 38 year old with a stubborn streak and a gaggle of Wainwrights to collect, who’ll put his head down and determine to walk it off, and I’m not in practice for struggling, and besides, Grasmere is as close to empty of visitors – walking visitors – as I’ve ever seen it. And I’m supposed to be back to work at 9.00am on Saturday.

I couldn’t leave Grasmere without paying a first visit in years to the Heaton Cooper Studio. I admired new copies of prints that hung on our walls for years, and which are in a cupboard right now, waiting for a place with enough walls to hang them upon. Looking round, I realised they were all William, not Alfred, though a colourful print by the latter caught my eye. But I’ve already spent enough this month, nor could I have fitted it into my rucksack without damaging it, and I don’t need any more things to not go on the walls.

What did surprise me was that there were no prints by, nor mention of Julian Cooper, the third generation, and ‘my’ Cooper, nor of his mother, Ophelia Gordon Bell, both of whom used to be featured here. My own, latter-day acquisitions from the Heaton Cooper Studio have almost exclusively been of his work, starting with my favourite, Reading the White Goddess above Windermere, whose setting must be at, or close to, you’ve guessed it, Todd Crag.

(c) Julian Cooper

With my head getting slowly worse, and feeling more and more like a wet dishrag every minute, I returned to Ambleside. The day was turning from frustration into a disaster. I joylessly tramped around my usual haunts, tentatively negotiated in Fred Houldsworth’s bookshop about the possibility of their taking my three Lake District novels on a Sale or Return basis (I’ll make a loss on them, but the exposure may be worth it, and I didn’t get into writing to make money off it – not that I wouldn’t rip your hands off if you offered it).

But I’d gotten so bad now that sitting in the Sportsman’s Arms over a pint was unwelcome. I just wanted to get home and lie down, and wrap the walls around me. Which I did, along with fish’n’chips, though it took nearly four hours to do so.

All in all, probably one of my worst days ever in the Lakes, the only real bright point being that I spent the best part of eleven hours tramping around in those new boots without feeling any discomfort at all, although their uphill capabilities were tested by nothing worse than Ambleside main street. The weather was frustrating, but it was the cold that really irritated me, coming along at this exact time, in beautiful weather, just when I’d planned something I meant to enjoy for a change. No wonder I have a certain paranoia about my relationship with the Universe.