When you book rail tickets four weeks in advance, to get the cheapest prices, you play pot luck with the weather. According to the forecasts, I am going to come up snakes eyes, to mix a metaphor. Thunderstorms all day, England’s World Cup semi-final to be pushed into the reserve day, this is what is promised. Given the weather most of the time since I bought the tickets, sunny, dry, hot, it’s feeding my never very deep-lying paranoia.
Which, given that I am booked on the 7.26am train from Piccadilly, and I am relying on the 203 bus, the only bus to win a Booker Prize for its timetable, is always hyperactive at times like this.
Everything started well. I responded to the alarm at 5.30am. It had been raining until quite recently, for everything outside was wet, but when I got out, ahead of time, it was dry and getting drier, and there was a freshness in the airthat the suggested the grey skies would slowly peel back to reveal the blue beyond.
I’d barely gotten twenty yards when there was a ping in my left calf, suggesting not so much cramp as a pulled muscle. I walked it off gently but this was going to be a true omen for the day.
The 203 upset my model of the Universe by being on time. Indeed, I was inside Piccadily Station, in the ‘Departure Lounge’ for Platforms 13 & 14, by 7.02am, the only hitch being a minor and quickly resolved panic over whether my rail tickets were in my wallet. It was a long time wait but these are the marginsI prefer to work with.
The train was on time, my seat was by the window, albeit looking backwards, and no-one turned up to claim the reserved seat to Glasgow Central next to me so that was my shoulder bag sorted.
There was nothing I could do about the weather so I paid the cloud only occasional mind as we ploughed north, devoting myself to a second attempt to read The Illuminatus Trilogy without stopping, though still without understanding.
This was an express train, stopping only at Preston and Lancaster and due in Penrith after only ninety minutes. Once we reached the shores of MorecambeBay, I switched to scanning the Lakes skyline. It was unpromising: dark, wispy, fragile clouds with a base below 1,000′: not good.
I was hoping for better north of the equivalent of Dunmail Raise but there was a thicker, darker, more pregnant band of cloud, and then suddenly it seemed lighter. Skylines became clearer, sharper. The message was mixed: sunlight on the lower slopes of Mardale, pockets of low cloud around the valley head. Kidsty Pike stood proud but Rampsgill Head was deep-capped.
Out at Penrith for five to nine with an hour to kill, or so I thought. I walked down to the Town Centre. The main street was smaller than I remembered and all the touristy shops seemed to have left. There used to be a good bookshop somewhere round the back, where I spent a half hour on the morning of my wedding, having run my sister-in-law-to-be and my wife-to-be’s best friend in for last minute essentials. Where it is, if it still exists, I had no idea and I decided against searching for it, the air being an odd mixture of fresh and stuffy.
Thank Heaven I didn’t! I got back to the Rail Station in time to catch the slightly-delayed 9.20am bus, whose driver was in a chatty mood, and who told me tht thee 9.50am bus I intended to catch doesn’t run until theTimetable that comes into force on the 26th!
If I’d missed this bus, it wouldn’t have been fatal to my plans, but as the next bus was 11.20am, I’d have been stuck in Penrith for two hours. Then again, I do have a partly-completed novel with a scene in Penrith, so I could have spentthe time in research.
The sky was a fractal mixture of dark cloud, light cloud and blue spaces. The bus was riding between high hedgerows so it took a while before I could get some sense of the air in Patterdale. When I could see, it looked clear around Ullswater’s lowest reach but cloudy further back. Given the forecast, this was good going.
But when I got off the bus in Pooley Bridge, it was trying to rain, fine, light, sprinkly lane. The Steamer Shop in the Village was closed despite its advertised opening time of 9.15am.
There was nothing to do here either so I strolled on to the steamer landing. This took me across the temporary bridge that stands in the place of the beautiful stone arches destroyed forever by the floods of 2015/16. It’s an ugly, practical thing of steel cross-girders, an eyesore, where the old bridge was a thing of grace and beauty. It’s absence is a pang.
There’s a superb viewpoint just before the landings, by the Birkett Memorial. We came down here on the Saturday evening, for our first view of Ullswater, that holiday, and I took a photo of the lake, looking towards Hallin Fell, with the family at the forefront. I took another one now, in colour, but without anyone to grace it.
Ullswater is my favourite lake, its beautiful curves and bays, and this only the least-interesting reach of it. I haven’t seen it in, probably, about fifteen years and I felt a tremendous sense of contentment. All the visible hills remind me of walks gone past. PlaceFell was capped and dark, so it was Hallin Fell and Beda Head that stood out for me then. The lake chuckled and bubbled past me into the River Eamont.
I narrowed my eyes. Something long and white was crossing below Hallin Fell, turning into Howtown Bay. In a moment’s silence between the passing cars, I heard a distant bell. If I’m not mistaken, that’s my steamer from Glenridding.
This would be my fourth trip on the Ullswater Steamer but the first for this end of the Lake. My first was an impromptu decision on a rainy, cloudy afternoon, when walking was out of the question, Howtown and back. Twice since, I’d taken a one-way trip to Howtown and walked back, the first a solo over Place Fell, the second a family walk down the lakeshore path, which is as lovely as they say it is.
Eventually the steamer emerged and headed towards us. I paid for my ticket (which included 50% off the Ratty for the next twelve months, which gave mean idea…)
As soon as the Steamer docked, I was on to it and dodging through the saloon to the foredeck. The commemorative plaque confirmed this was Raven, and in five days time it would be 130 years to the day since it was first launched.
We seemed to race up the lake into the teeth of a flapping wind, Hallin Fell dead ahead, the zigzags of the Hause visible to its left. As we started curving into the Bay, Beda Head became our pointer and little flecks of rain started to flick against my face.
It wasn’t until we started to slow down for Howtown the the magnificent middle reach of the lake, and the fells at the end of it, appeared as if out of nowhere. Sheffield Pike stood proud and sunny but there wasn’t much to see behind it except dark cloud.
We drifted into the Pier, no-one waiting to board us, though two walkers appeared from the direction of the road, only to stand and watch us leave. Twenty-eight people, one baby carriage and two dogs disembark. I looked at Steel Knott’s steep prow and asked myself, did I really go up that? (yes, I did).
Off on the next leg. A massive convoy of ducks sat on the surface of the lake on our left bow as we headed outround Hallin Fell. This was the bit I’dreally come here for.
The taped message for the tourist informed us of what to look out for and only made two egregious mistakes in three facts. It places Birkett Crag (no, it’s Fell) on the wrong side of Ullswater and claims Helvellyn is the second highest mountain in England. I don’t dare look up what it said about Donald Campbell.
We took a rather more leisurely turn down the middle reach. Some part of the High Street range, still cloud-clagged, appeared in the gap between Hallin Fell and Place Fell, whilst on the other side, the Hellvellyn range was similar, but someqhat lighter, as if it might finally blow clear.
Approaching the turn into the upper reach, we passed Lady of the Lake on the port bow. Saint Sunday Crag and Dollywaggon Pike, either side of Grisedale, are firmly cloud-blocked, though there’s masses of blue sky above the lake itself. I’ve always felt these names to be strange and foreign-sounding to the Lakes, ever since I first heard my mother mentioning them, way back in the early Sixties. They’re just not Cumbrian to me. Things looked very dirty at the head of Patterdale, where we could see straight into Threshthwaite Glen.
Over to starboard, there was a big hotel on the lakeshore that I tried not to look too closely at. Under an older name than it currently bears, this was where I was married, and there are too many memories in that.
It was still not yet quite midday when I got off the steamerand walked round into Glenridding Village. My plans were flexible enough to give me either two hours or three and a half here, which would be fine if I felt in any way fit for a walk. Indeed, I’d half picked out Keldas, at the foot of Birkhouse Moor, and brought The Eastern Fells in my bag, but I’m achey and creaky and have been all day.
I was trepidatious about what Glenridding might look like, bearing in mind that the floods did a real number on the Vilaage, but the repairs here seemed more complete and nothing appeared to be out of place. I settled into a picnic table and got out my lunch.
The best plan seemed to be to kick back, relax, and enjoy just being here, but I did wander a bit in the direction of the path to Lanty’s Tarn, just to see how far I might get if I went at it slowly. All that got me was some spotty rain, a buzzy insect with an obsession with my right ear and some stomach cramps that suggested I might be better off keeping the Public Conveniences in closer proximity so, despite some increasingly encouraging blue skies, I strolled back.
Down in the valley, the soft breeze was very welcome, and I took root at another picnic table, enjoying the passing pedstrians and returning to my book. I could have dome some writing if the energy possessed me but overall this was not the day for creativity, so I socked up relaxing in Patterdale. Mind you, I noticed a lot of references to ‘The Ullswater Valley’: another Stickle Ghyll in the making?
There was another, slightly more serious spot of rain when I wandered back off to the Pier. We were on Raven again, though this time I headed for the stern for the best views. There was a ton of worrying grinding from the engine, turning to face back down Ullswater, but the mountainscape was at last wonderful, St Sunday Crag sunwashedand magnificent, Dollywaggon dark andslope-shouldered and even a glimpse of a cloud-free Helvellyn as we retreated.
Howtown was the beginning of the end. Everything after this was journeying back. Waiting in the sweltering heat for the bus in Pooley Bridge. Fifty-five minutes to kill at Penrith Station with nothing to do and nowhere to go, unless you count McDonald’s, so back to my book.
With the exception of the bus to Pooley Bridge, all the travelling’s gone smoothly, all day, but then I go and blow it. My travel notes have me catching the18.06 at Penrith, change at Preston. My ticket was for the 17.50 direct to Manchester Piccadilly, but I didn’t realise this until a mini-argument over who has reserved seat A11. On the 18.06. Oops.
That could have been very expensive, but the ticket inspector on the Virgin train was decent enough to stamp my ticket anyway so my only loss was to get stuck in an aisle seat on a gloriously sunny evening, and unable to see out of either window. And Northern Rail surprise me twice at Preston, first by being dead on time, and then by not coming to check my ticket at all. I was even blessed with sitting opposite a nice-looking young woman, with long brown hair almost the shade mine used to be, and a lovely smile.
I got back to Piccadilly nearly fifteen hours after the alarm woke me, and I didn’t half know it by then. One bus-ride later, and I got off in the only sustained rain I experienced all day, despite the forecasts, and the evening still sunny, offering up a full-arch rainbow above my flat. Mind you, everything that could ache did ache by then, and I’d missed England beating Australia to reach the Cricket World Cup Final. But I’d had a grand day, and I’d been back to Ullswater. Where can I go next?