Winter Windermere

The snow is now laying on pavements and side-streets, but is vanishing from rooftops and ceasing to inconvenience us in Stockport. It’s still bringing back memories of other snowy periods: this one’s from the mid-Nineties, when I was still a Solicitor.

We were acting for a famous TV personality who also owned a Lake District Hotel famed for its food. I’d been assigned a case with an interesting and contentious legal point. There were, and I assume still are, very stringent, even draconian Health and Fire Safety regulations, about accommodation provided to Hotel staff. Our client had been summonsed in front of the Magistrate’s Court over the application of such regulations to another building, in a different part of Windermere, maintained for external staff accommodation.

Our client was disputing the applicability of the regulations to a property not physically attached to the Hotel: it was absurd to apply them to a distant building. My legal research suggested that the regulations were intended to be so draconian that they applied to external property, but we had taken Counsel’s Opinion, and were fighting the case. It was to be heard on Friday morning, at Windermere Magistrates Court, and I was to attend to sit behind our Barrister.

The problem was, this was taking place in January, and the Lakes were getting very badly hit for snow. I was to drive up on Friday morning, visit the Hotel first, then collect the Barrister from the Railway station and drive him to the Court. The owner would not be attending and the Hotel was to be represented by the Manager.

(Though it’s not relevant to this story, the outcome was that the Court found against our client. He was furious and we looked into an appeal, but I left the firm before learning the outcome of this. However, during once conference with the senior Partners, who were unhappy at the Barrister’s failure, I had the temporary pleasure of asking them to shut up whilst I re-read and got my head round a particular provision in the regulations, and came to the conclusion – which they eagerly supported – that our Barrister had misinterpreted and got 180 degrees wrong. They were talking of suing him for negligence, which you can’t really do with Barristers…)

I was looking forward to an extra visit to Cumbria, even if it was only Windermere. On the other hand, I was a bit cautious of the weather. The first sign came on the Thursday. I called the manager to confirm the following day’s arrangements. I asked him about the snow. I clearly remember his reply. “Well, I got in today without any problems,” he said, “but then I do have skis.” That did wonders for my confidence.

But Friday was clear and fine, in Manchester at least, and all the way north up the M61/M6, as far as Kendal, that is and the turning for Windermere. I had not gotten very far beyond the bypass before the snow started piling up in increasing piles. The foothills around the lower ends of Kentmere and Troutbeck were white, as were the higher fells visible in the interior, but the snow had been efficiently been swept to the verges. Where it was worryingly thick.

Carefully following my directions, I drove through Windermere to the mini-roundabout at the foot of Kirkstone Pass, turned back on the Bowness Road and then into the street where the Hotel was situated. It was a bit slushy, but nothing like the Hotel drive, up which I drove very cagily.

I’d allowed plenty of time, more than had proved necessary, so after being introduced to the manager and getting directions from him to the Magistrate’s Court, I backed out again, very carefully, and headed back to meet our Barrister at the station.

The Magistrate’s Court (which has been shut for years) was a big, detached building on the left side of the main road down from Windermere to Bowness Bay. Our Barrister wanted to get some things before the hearing so I drove him down to the edge of Bowness Village, the first shops, paid a token visit to a bookshop whilst waiting, and then found a parking place more or less opposite the Court.

I won’t bother you with proceedings within which, in any rate, would probably breach client confidentiality. The Court was a big, wide open, old-fashioned building, practically two-storeys high, with a skylight letting on to the mid-morning sky. I mention this in particular because once Court started, we sat there whilst theĀ  minor stuff was dealt with and then got on about 10.45.

About fifteen minutes later, I chanced to look up. There were big, swirling, ominous snowflakes falling onto the skylight. They didn’t cease for the rest of the morning.

So I’m trying to concentrate on the legal arguments, so that I can keep comprehensive and preferable accurate notes whilst every 45 – 90 seconds looking up nervously, trying to work out from that little rectangle of sky just how high it might be piled up outside.

The road was still clear when we emerged defeated, but the sky was iron and the snow was showing no signs of even easing off. I delivered our Barrister to the station to make his way back to Manchester and returned to the Hotel – which was even less firm under my wheels – to report back to the Manager.

I was raring to get going, before things got worse and I found myself up the Lakes without a paddle, but I’d been promised a lunch by the Hotel, not to mention the chance to get out of my suit and into comfortable clothes, as I was not expected to be back to the office that day. And even though I could have been back there for about 4.00pm without making any undue effort at it, I had no intention of returning to the office this side of the weekend.

The lunch was not typical of the Hotel’s justly famed cuisine, being a simple steak and kidney pie, but it was a really tasty steak and kidney, with gloriously flaky pastry and loads of gravy, but, what was more important at that moment, it was hot.

Still, I did not linger over it, and as soon as I was decently able, and sent on my way with an equally hot cup of coffee, I was out of there.

Of course, I needed to communicate the result to the office so, having had to take a wide circle round through Bowness again, just to get safely away from the Hotel, I stopped off at a public telephone box (this was prior to the age of my having a mobile phone) and rung Manchester.

To my secret delight, neither of our Senior Partners were available. In fact, there was a general shortage of people available to take a call, so I ended up speaking to another of our Partners who had nothing to do with the case, to pass on the outcome and confirm that I would deliver a full report on Monday. And, with the streets starting to get worryingly slushy, I settled thankfully into my driving seat, and headed for the Kendal road and the rapidly diminishing risk of being stuck up there.

I love the Lakes, and they look gorgeous under snow, but I have never rushed away from them with such eagerness. If I’m going to be staying there in conditions like that, it’ll going to be under my terms, not the weather’s. I got in alright, but then I do have skis: no thanks!

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

A little bit of what it used to be like

Windermere from Todd Crag, by moi
Windermere from Todd Crag, by moi

A couple of years ago, I spent a weekend in Edinburgh, meeting a bunch of on-line friends. Paz had lived and worked in the city for years and showed us all sorts of places, before leading us up Arthur’s Seat, which was great stuff. I hadn’t done any serious uphill walking in years by that point, and whilst I got to the summit and found the vista incredible, the actual walk was a shameful struggle, my right calf threatening to go into a very painful cramp a couple of times, but my overall progress being slow and sluggish, holding everybody up.

Ok, I was the oldest member of the party, and by thirty-odd years on most of us, but that still didn’t make me feel better about how difficult it was to complete. And that wasn’t even over 1,000 feet.

Today, I went up to the Lake District: train to Windermere, bus to Ambleside. I did this last year, though it was dull and overcast then, and today was sunshine, blue skies and puffball clouds, though not without some higher, murkier stuff moving out of the central areas.

As soon as I hit Ambleside, it was through the churchyard and onto the lane to the park, across that to Miller’s Bridge – a good old packhorse bridge made of Lakeland slate – and from there to the private lane that winds up the side of Loughrigg Fell. I’ve climbed Loughrigg twice, once by this route. It’s not much more than 1,100 feet high, though I was aiming for something even more modest than that: Todd Crag, an outcrop at the southern end of the wedge-shaped landscape, that boasts a superb view of the head of Windermere that I’d once seen in a calendar. That wasn’t even as high as Arthur’s Seat.

But this is the first piece of serious uphill walking I’ve done since Edinburgh, and my knees are pretty knackered, and I’m overweight, have no stamina, and not even the proper gear: waterproof coat instead of anorak, shoulderbag, not rucksack, trainers not boots. So I’d scaled back my ambition pretty ruthlessly, unsure of what I could achieve.

As soon as I reached that private lane, I tried to drop into the fellwalker’s gait, the steady, almost metronomic, one-two, one-two pace that, if achieved, can eat up miles as easily as a kid can polish off a Big Mac (though he’s far better off on his hind legs). The Rothay valley and Ambleside was behind me, as was the Fairfield Horseshoe, circling empty Rydale, with Red Screes showing its long south ridge beyond the Morning Arm.

It didn’t take much height for my spirits to rise. I have spent so much time at ground level, I have been too much away from the Lakes. Just to be here, a hundred feet or so above the valley was to put a grin on my face that just kept getting wider. There were others of the lane, couples and parties, heading up, heading back, but at a bend I found a series of slate steps set into the wall, leading to an overhung, leaf-scattered path heading away south. Once I was on this path, I was alone: alone enough that in the next two hours I saw no-one except at some distance.

This is what walking is for me. Neither holding up nor being held up, just walking at my pace, in the air, among the fells, in silence and freedom. Grass and rock and bracken, no two steps alike, the wind striking whenever I crossed a skyline, further fells appearing as I moved from outcrop to outcrop. Ill Bell and Froswick, overlooking the Troutbeck Valley, Little Hart Crag above Scandale Head, Steel Fell and Tarn Crag, hovering over invisible Grasmere.

I was happy, as I haven’t been in a very long time, and I was back in my world, a world I’ve been displaced from, a world that I had begun to fear I would never come back to. But even in this limited expedition, this modest target, though its view was as stupendous as I hoped, I was one of them still, still a walker, not an exile. Let the wind blow, let a spurt of spots dampen the day, even as it created a perfect rainbow with ends in Ambleside and Grasmere. I was in my own again, and it felt good.

Of course, there was the matter of return, in which more caution was required, because descent is usually more tricky, and more painful when you have to put up with knees like mine. And wearing trainers too, which caused a few slips here and there, earning me the first time a dirty seat to my jeans, and on the other two occasions, abrupt foldings up of my left knee in a manner it really does not like.

Of course I took a different route back, striding out with ease wherever I could, following my nose and my experience, which wasn’t particularly clever. In spite of, or maybe because of the profusion of paths on this side, I got onto the wrong line, found myself descending, precipitously, beside a wall protecting a steep and bubbling beck. It was not a wise course, even correctly kitted out, and I am not too stupid to admit when I’ve gone wrong, even if it meant a retreat uphill that my waning energy could ill-afford.

But eventually I saw the lane, and a way across to it, and could make my way down in relaxed fashion. Well, not all that relaxed, really. Going downhill is worse for the knees than going up, and that lane certainly felt steeper on the way home than it did when I was trudging up it, two hours earlier.

And coming down, there were a couple in their thirties walking upwards, and as we passed, we did the fellwaker’s nod and greet, the recognition of who we were and what we shared, and I said, lacomically, “Bit of wind, up there,” and they said, “Thanks,” for warning and help acknowledged, and yes, I truly was in my own again.

I occupied the rest of my time looking at Ambleside’s familiar bookshops – one of which I’ve been visiting for over fifty years – and in a pint and a burger in the pub I will always think of as the Sportsman‘s, even though it is now apparently the Ambleside Tavern.

With it getting rapidly dark, I wandered achingly round to catch the bus back to Windermere and the train. Ahead of me at the stop, and in front of me when we sat down inside, was a woman who TV or film or newspapers would probably disregard, but who I found stunningly gorgeous. And not just gorgeous: she looked, indefinably, as if she would be as good to talk to, to spend time with, as she looked: someone with whom you would immediately feel relaxed, and at home: and these things are far better than looks.

The weird thing about it was that she was looking at me at the bus stop before I was looking at her, and I kept catching her glancing at me, even half-turning in her seat to catch me in her peripheral vision. That doesn’t happen often, often here being defined as even once, although it could perhaps have been a slutchy smell from the soggier of my rather dirty trainers that she was objecting to, but she didn’t have a look of distaste on her face, and believe me, I can spot them.

Sadly, she had an older woman with her, dependant upon a stick, who I assumed was her mother, so there was no opportunity to speak to her and discover if she was as nice as my instincts were telling me. Not that I would have, if she’d been alone, or maybe this time: I could have asked her about the bus whilst we were waiting to get on.

I got the impression she was not far into her forties, which would have been perfect as far as I was concerned: her face was unlined and her slim fingers free of rings, but then again she was someone who, when she reaches 65, I would have looked on with delight.

Nothing happened though. I got off at Windermere Railway Station and they stayed on the bus, which was heading down the hill to Bowness next.

Just the brief sight of her, on a day as happy as today has been, was delightful. I even got a good NaNoWriMo session done, two spells of writing on the train, one each way (though the latter had to be done in pencil when my pen abruptly packed up). It must be at least 1,000 words, but I’m not going to find out tonight because I’m not starting to type it up at this hour.

The photo is from this afternoon, about 1.00pm. My knees are killing me now, but it was so good to be there, and to know that I am still not an exile.