I’m awake from early on and it looks as if I’ve been sold a bill of goods. Instead of overcast skies, rain or even the threat of occasional showers, it’s bloody gorgeous, deep blue skies, whisks of white cloud and everything as sharp and clear as could be, except for Skiddaw of course, insisting on donning a fringe of cloud for its top.
There are two breakfast servings and I’m on the first, at 8.00am, orange juice, toast and jam, most of a Full English (I have declined the fried tomato and the black pudding), which is nicely filling but could have been better. A half hour of preparation, mainly paring down what I need to the minimum, includes jamming a sweatshirt into my bag, in case the day doesn’t stay suited to a short-sleeved polo shirt.
Once outside I almost immediately come to a contretemps with a local lady, who notices my facemask looped under my chin like hers, but who tells me gleefully that she’s looking forward to getting rid of her ‘beard’. I tell her I’m still going to be wearing mine. She interprets this as this as a challenge, because it is, and starts going on about how she hates it (do you think we’re having a barrel of laughs with these things on all the time?) but I cut her off with the plain statement that I’m going to keep wearing mine to avoid any risk of passing any symptoms I might have to other people. I wish this fucking Government and its sycophantic fucking rich man’s right wing press would point out even once that that is why we’re wearing them.
I’m in no hurry so I stroll through the town, picking up sandwiches and liquids at Greggs (my, how unimaginative), but there’s a Buttermere bus boarding when I get to the bus station, so I board it. It’s a single-decker, as is absolutely necessary for something going over Honister Pass, but that means it’s also full. There’s none of this stuff about social distancing or not sitting next to anyone you’re not already intimate with in one way or another, though we all wear masks. I haven’t had this experience for sixteen months and I’m lucky to get the only seat, back row, right hand side, where a one seat space exists. It’s an old bus and when it’s standing still it judders worse than a 405-line black and white television.
Despite it saying Honister Pass on the front, the bus leaves through north Keswick, as if bound for Cockermouth or Carlisle. But it turns off through Portinscale, towards Newlands and Grange, down twisting leafy lanes. There is Hindscarth, prominent, and how long is it since I saw that? Sudenly it hits me: It isn’t just Buttermere that’s the prize for today, but everything. Everywhere about me. It’s all an old land that I have not revisited in way too long. There are no memories in these tree-shrouded ways, all the memories associate with tops and ridges, but all about me the fells rise, their names as familiar as well-loved lyrics and as easy to recite. Hindscarth and Robinson. Red Pike over Newlands Hause. The back of Catbells. Swinging towards Grange and approaching via the high road, west of Derwentwater, looking down and across spectacularly. Grange Fell in its two parts, Castle Crag, Rosthwaite Fell, Glaramara. Crossing the Stonethwaite Valley and peering to Eagle Crag. The Seathwaite Valley and Great End.
The worst bit is that we’re going up Honister the ‘wrong way’, from Seatoller. I’ve only ever driven it from the other side, after horror stories about the steep descents here. The only time I went this way, I walked it. My stomach is still listening to old family tales, despite the awareness that these buses go up here half a dozen times a day. Can’t convince me. I’m not too good in a bus on the steep bit down off the top either.
But as the bus descends, the view opens out. Red Pike, High Stile – why couldn’t I have had a day like this when I climbed that ? – Mellbreak. Is that Hen Comb over the Scale Force gap? High Crag, and looking back to Haystacks. A brief glimpse of Crummock Water as we descend to Buttermere Village and I prepare to disembark. It’s scorching. I get a drink at the cafe and write up my draft thus far, disturbed by a bird shitting on my right wrist.
Let’s go walking.
Not, sadly, up any of these wonderful mountains, but across the fields and round to the foot of the Lake, and the people sitting around just as if this were Bowness Bay without the ice creams, and then the shore path along the southern side of Buttermere, under the high ridges of the High Stile Range.
I have time, lots of time, and well I need it, for I am slow, slow slow slow slow slow. I’ve no more reached the lakeshore path than I’m sitting down on a handy rock, joking with a passing pair that I am so far out of condition that you can’t see Condition from Jodrell Bank. Only I wish it was a joke.
It’s a busy path with parties passing by in opposite directions all the time. There’s a young couple with a very young child and a black dog that can’t get enough of the lake, racing forward and hurling itself down to the water-line at every opportunity. Our paths criss-cross and they see me with my notepad a couple of times, sat on one rock or another. Eventually, they ask me if I’m sketching (I would if I could), so I explain about the notes for this post. They’re intrigued and ask for the blog-name, so I give it them (never miss the chance of a new reader), so if they’ve found this and are reading it, hi there, and hope the rest of your day went well.
Apart from the crunch of boots and shoes and trainers from behind or ahead, which is not continuous I’m pleased to say, there’s a welcome stillness to things, broken sometimes by birdsong, by the breeze whispering the trees, the music of little gills rippling into the lake and the disruptive drone of what sounds like a helicopter at the head of the lake, though I can’t see one in the sky.
I’m stopping at every stop where there’s something I can sit upon, not just because I am genuinely tired but in order to spin this walk out. There’s not much to do in Buttermere if you’re not walking, or eating/drinking and I don’t want to be back at Keswick too soon. Besides, as I may have mentioned already, it’s bloody lovely everywhere.
For some reason, after my chat with the interested couple, I develop a second wind stronger than the first, and plough on semi-relentlessly until beneath High Crag, towering like a buttress concealing beyond the sky-line the kind of stronghold common to fantasy fiction.
I’m close enough now to the head of the lake to see that blasted helicopter, which seems to be whirling about aimlessly in Warnscale, or heading up to skim the face of Haystacks’ crags. As I got nearer, I could see something globular and black dangling from it. To cut a long story short, it was a National Trust helicopter relaying supplies of stone to path-layers up on Scarth Gap, though the pilot was giving a damned good impression of not knowing where the hell he was headed and the noise was only getting more irritating.
When I finally get to Gatesgarth, glad to lose the uneven stones underfoot, it’s 1.15pm. There’s the delightful sight of trestle tables which usually indicates the presence of some establishment ready to sell you food and drink to rest on such things but which, on this occasion, lets me down comprehensively. There’s a portable ice-cream shop all right, but it’s shut.
I’ve got those Greggs sandwiches, crusty baguettes, rather, but it’s too damned hot to eat, especially anything crusty, so I have a good long sit down until the next bus comes. There are more clouds in the air now, but they’re still only Joni Mitchell ice cream castles, and they don’t stay that way for long. I’m sat where I can see the bus coming down Honister Bottom in easy time to cross to the stop. I bought myself an All-Day Rider ticket: if I’m back in time, shouldn’t that cover me to pop to Cockermouth and back?
It’s not very often that I get to sit in the sun, breathing fresh air, and contentedly let my head fill with nothing. The bus isn’t due till 2.15pm so I’ve got ample time in which to do it. Damn that bloody helicopter, though.
I apparently can’t help it. There are still seven minutes before the bus is due, and it’s nearly ten minutes late but I am compelled to go over to the stop now. When it arrives there’s only one other passenger on it, until it fills up at Buttermere that is, so I get my choice of seats on the left. I also discover that somehow or other my All Day-Rider ticket has vanished from my wallet, but the bus driver’s a decent sort and lets me on anyway.
The views from this side, over Buttermere to High Stile and Burtness Comb, are phenomenal but incapable of capture from a moving bus with a digital camera, as will be the vista over the Vale of Lorton and the back of the high fells when we turn for Whinlatter Pass some time later. At least I get to enjoy the sparkle of Crummock Water, under the sun, although no matter how high the road rises I cannot squeeze out the merest glimpse of Loweswater, in its grassy bay.
Unlike Portsinscale and Newlands there are memories in these lanes, though not necessarily happy ones. Down off a high, hot day in the fells, I found myself called upon to play Samaritan to an older couple from Essex: he’d had a heart attack, she was lost and I raced them as fast as the roads allowed to High Lorton, where there was a police station (to no avail: he didn’t survive). Below Whiteside, again after a high, hot day in the fells, I went over badly on my ankle, on level grass a hundred yards from the car, ruining the rest of that holiday, and the chances of my ever playing squash again.
Whinlatter Pass, at least, is a more pleasant recollection. There was the day following the northern ridge of Aiken Beck where I started my favourite novel out of almost nothing. The kids having a wonderful time, playing at the Visitor Centre, late one Sunday afternoon, and following them through the human-sized badger sett that had too many convolutions inside for how big it was outside.
But Whinlatter is like a private possession, a Pass I chanced on my own that my family would never have dreamed of driving, only me, my own turf, so easy to drive, unlike Honister, or Newlands Hause.
By the time we were back at Keswick, my legs were aching to buggery. I wanted an ice cream, but it seems that these are next to impossible to find in Keswick, no newsagents with freezers full of lollies and ices. So I called in the Oddfellows again, this time just for a pint, for which I was put out in the beergarden at the back. Nice to see people still being sane. The very nice short-haired blonde shows me, to my surprise, that my debit card is also a contactless card: all this time and I never knew, fancy that.
I take my time then wander wearily back. I still want that ice cream so if the only place you can buy them is a back street Spar… There’s a United Utilities van in the back-street, ‘helping make things flow easily’ by blocking the way so I have to clamber over someone’s rockery…
It’s been a long day and I think you can tell it’s been a fantastic one. All the photos are my own. The break has been brief but rewarding, and once I’ve finished preparing this, I shall rock back and watch England’s Euro 2020 semi-final.
No interruptions, please.