There’s only a few minutes before I have to get moving and go to work. It’s been raining all morning, sometimes hard, but I feel as if my brain is finally starting to work properly again after a week of listlessness. So, after last week’s successful Patterdale Expedition, I’ve started thinking about where I might be able to get to next.
Do you know that it’s possible to get from Penrith to Buttermere village in just over two hours by bus, change at Keswick and via Borrowdale and Honister? And I already know it’s possible to get to Penrith by train early enough…
No, this is not a late attempt to become Paul Simon, though if someone offered me the chance to turn into the man who wrote and arrange “Bridge over Troubled Water”, I would, in the traditional manner, snatch your hand off.
I’m here at Piccadilly Station for my annual day out in the Lakes, full of carefully calculated plans and forty-five minutes ahead of departure time because, as you know, I am paranoid about public transport and, long before the day is over, that paranoia will again be proven justified.
The plan is foolproof: train to Windermere, bus to Glenridding, steamer to Pooley Bridge and back, reversing the route. Massive turnaround margins at all points, and the sun’s a clear, pale blue, promising ideal conditions. Admittedly, there are tannoy announcements about delays and cancellations, but I’ve got things under control.I’m going to Ullswater, my favourite of the Lakes, and one where my memories are very much my own, with little intrusion from my family.
There’s a lovely surprise as, nose in my book, I am greeted by my name being spoken with surprise and delight. It’s a former team-mate, who left my employers to go into Nursing Training, oh my god is is fifteen months ago already? She’s on her way to Salford University and is really pleased to see me, which gives me a boost. She’s really enthusiastic, absolutely loving it, and as lovely as ever. As usual, I wish I was half my age.
Her train leaves before mine but we have time for a good chat and, when hers is delayed I catch up with her on the platform and we resume nattering. Ironically, she’s commenting about hos the Government want us to save the environment by using public transport more, and just how bad it is: you can tell what’s coming, can’t you?
Her train delays mine a handful of minutes, and there are fits and starts as we escape Manchester. I haave my headphones on, my book open and as far as I’m concerned, the day starts now.
This stage of the journey is too familiar by now to demand attention until we reach Lancaster at least, and come into sight of the high country. I’m reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Labyrinth of the Spirits”, the final part of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Quartet, bought as soon as published in English but saved for an occasion such as this because it is just over 800 pages long. But eminently readable@ I an a quarter of the way through it by Preston, where the train splits. The sky is unchanged, as empty as a Tory’s heart.
The two back carriages are to go on to Blackpool North, the front two to Windermere. That’s what they announced at Piccadilly, and that’s how I’m sat but I listen alertly for confirmation, because I am, as I say, paranoid.
Despite this being the mid-point of November, there’s a softer edge to this pellucid sky that’s suggestive of a heat-haze. The perfect clarity of distant vistas looks improbable. As we nar Lancaster, I’m looking north more and more, eager for that first hillside.
We’ve made up all but a minute of the delays by now, but we generously give it another six or seven minutes headstart before moving on. I’m still not concerned: I have forty-five minutes at Windermere before the Patterdale bus. I see cows in a field, standing in a patient line at an open gate, like ticket holders awaiting an invisible doorman’s permission to enter the theatre.
But paranoia never sleeps but fitfully. On the approach to Oxenholme, it’s announced that the service will terminate there. Passengers for Windermere will have to wait for the next train, at 11.18.
And at that moment, the Patterdale expedition is, if you’ll pardon my French, fucked. There’s enough leeway built into the schedule to cope if the Patterdale bus is an hourly service but whilst I can’t be categoric, I’m pretty bloody sure it’s two-hourly. So the connection to the Steamer is irretrievably lost. I’m not even there yet and the day is ruined.
I can’t even improvise because, according to the guard, the bus from Oxenholme will arrive at Windermere after the next train. For every good omen it seems there is a bad step.
I can’t begin to plan an alternative day until I do reach Windermere, and when i get there I can’t even find a timetable for a Patterdale service.
I’ve done Gfrasmere/Ambleside too often now for that combination to hold much appeal in the circumstances but, given that my reurn train isn’t until 6.30pm, I figure that gives me time to hit Keswick.
There’s a second good omen in Booth’s to which I repair for a cardboard ham sandwich, as I investigate the November/December issue of Lakeland Walker and discover an article by Alan McFadzean about a walk from Wet Sleddale to Gatescarth Pass and back, via Mosedale. Alan’s blog Awkward Roads is linked to here but he hasn’t posted there since February, and I’d begun to fear the worst, so this is an encouraging discovery.
Heading towards Ambleside, the usual sights parade themselves in the usual order, enhanced by my being upstairs on a double-decker. But cloud rests on the shoulders of the Langdale Pikes and, despite it being perfect at valley level all along the Lake, by Ambleside it’s clear that the interior is going to be cloud-hooded.
The best of today is now going to be Dunmail Raise and Thirlmere. I came this way as recently as 2014, when I visited Keswick, but that was a return journey, after dark, in which the lake was invisible and I couldn’t even tell we’d started climbing Dunmail Raise until we were actually crossing its summit.
The ‘No Vacancies’ signs are in full flower as we navigate our way out of Ambleside, and the streams and becks are in spate. The Brathay outflowing serene Rydal Water is wider than I’ve ever seen it.
It’s odd not to be getting out at Grasmere Village, where the sun has broken through in patches, lighting up the northern wall of Far Easedale, with Helm Crag for once standing clear of the cloud.
The rains that have left the roads wet have made Thirlmere as full as I ever remember seeing it, without a trace of the ugly stripped-bare tidemark. It dreams alone, heedless of the traffic that can only race past, with precious few places to stop. I remember the Thirlmere of the Sixties, when the roadside trees were planted so thickly that it was next to impossible to see the Lake, no matter how close the road came. North of the invisible dam, the sun is once more out. The Vale of St John is illuminated by a celestial lighting director, its backcloth a sunlit Blencathra with an isolated cloud-cap I’m more used to seeing on Skiddaw. Ironically, the great cloud magnet is proud of all but a few wisps on Lonscale Fell. Bassenthwaite Lake lies placidly beneath Dodd.
By the time I’ve ‘done’ the town, the sky has collapsed and Skiddaw resumed its usual aspect, with only Latrigg visible. The Market’s busy: I inspect half of it going down towards Lake Road, leaving the other half for the way back. There’s still some light over Newlands, but nothing for Borrowdale, making the camera a waste of space.
There isn’t much left to do until 4.30pm when I’ll catch the bus back, so I decide to find a pub and hole up with a pint and my book.
Frankly, I know I’m sour, but I’m glad to get off the street, and out of the way of people who seem oblivious to this being a public place, with other people around them, and who are continually stepping out in random directions, all of then directly in front of me. I appear to be the only person in Keswick paying attention to where folk are heading and trying to avoid them.
A pub in Keswick means the Oddfellows Arms, where I order hot food. Haddock, chips and peas, garden not mushy, arrives with almost supernatural speed, or am I just used to shitty service? There’s background music by Fleetwood Mac, all of it from Rumours but not Rumours: the playing order’s wrong and ‘Silver Spring’ wasn’t on the album, it was b-side to ‘Go Your Own Way’: it may be forty-one years ago but I remember these things.
And then there’s nothing left but to wander back to Booth’s and the bus stop.
The light’s failing as we climb out of Keswick but it says long enough for me to catch sight of Thirlmere on the way back, but no other Lakes. Then a coffee in Booth’s Windermere, and a most unsatisfying square of Victoria Sponge – I thought home-made was supposed to be best – and then the train and the dark and the slow return.
On a train to Manchester Piccadilly that, suddenly, becomes a train to Preston. This is too much. The guard reassures me that we’re merely being attached to another train at Preston, but I’m right and he’s wrong and he’s marvelling at how I knew. We really are being terminated in mid-journey. Very decently, he writes on my ticket that I should be allowed onto the next Manchester train free of charge. It’s being run by Transpennine, and the guard diesn’t even demur when I explain. “I’m used to Northern” he says. I have no intention of getting used to Northern.
The only upside is that this train gets me back to Piccadilly fifteen minutes earlier than I otherwise expected and I only have five minutes to wait for a 203 home.
It’s been a day in the Lakes, for which I ought to have been happy, but the plain fact is that I wasn’t. I was shafted. But that’s what you get when you have to rely on public transport in a third-rate country that’s spent the day I’ve been cut off from all news descending into a fourth-rate country.
Of course, I can try again, in 2019, when it’s lighter and things like buses and steamers might ply a bit more often. But dare I? How can I trust Northern Rail not to fuck it up for me a second time? Or actually a third, because they got me going and coming.
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.
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.
Late in my shift last night, we had notification of multiple exchange outages in Cumbria and Lancashire. I ran my eye down the list of exchanges affected, familiar names stretching from Penrith to Keswick, and a bit beyond that, as far as Braithwaite, and that brought back a memory.
Between 1987 and 1997, I was in a relationship with a woman a couple of years older than myself. We met at work, things were very intense for quite a time and then life’s complications began to get in the way. For the last half of our relationship, and perhaps more, things were permanently volatile, off and on and several stages between.
I’d taken the opportunity to introduce her to the Lake District in 1988, a day out in Patterdale, climbing Angletarn Pikes (which was on my list of Wainwrights to be done). We took things easy, took our time, had a brilliant day of it. I promised to take her up Catbells, the next time.
That time didn’t come for a long time. We were up and down with a vengeance, at one point not even having any contact for nearly six months. And things were decidedly on and off when we met up again.
I still hadn’t climbed Catbells. It remained on my ever-shrinking list, but I kept the faith and refused to ascend it, in the hope that we’d one day make that opportunity for ourselves.
Well, at long last, it came about. We were mostly friends, rather than anything deeper, though my feelings for her ran deep and had by no means been extinguished. And one summer, the opportunity came up, a day out to the Lakes, visiting Keswick and, no promises, maybe we’d have a go at Catbells.
Things were pretty fragile between us. I was not to press her over the walk, so I simply kept my mouth shut on it. We had a solid lunch in the Oddfellows Arms, where I always try to eat when I’m in Keswick, and then, slightly begrudgingly, as if I had pressured her into it, she agreed we’d do the walk.
I drove round into the Newlands Valley. It was a hot day, high sun and few clouds and I parked in a corner of the road where there was some shade from trees. It was quiet and cool among the trees.
It’s a fairly steep climb out of Newlands onto the ridge. It’s like that on either side, but Newlands gave us more peace and quiet: a summer Saturday afternoon on Catbells was going to be heaving. We took our time, far more time than I might alone, but there was nothing to rush for, and I was content to go at her pace. The more content she was, the nicer the day.
We reached the ridge without any major effort, and from there to Catbells was easy-peasy. And it was heaving, with very little space on which to sink and sit down. She took the initiative, led us a little downhill on the Derwentwater side. The ground quickly steepened away but we only ventured down about five or six yards, not out of hearing of the buzzing on the summit, but substantially out of sight. It was too angled to comfortably sit, so we stretched out, side-by-side.
And arms found their way around each other, kissing started, and she took one hand and slipped it under her shirt, where I was encouraged to confirm what sight had already told me about what she was wearing underneath.
We could do so much in our seclusion, but it wasn’t like Angletarn Pikes, when we’d been completely alone.
With a new feeling of contentment and connection between us, we slowly moved on, taking the tourist path towards Keswick before doubling back at a lower level, towards Newlands and my car. We headed back to Keswick, to get ourselves another drink. Before we did, she insisted on using a phonebox to call back home and speak to her daughter.
Keswick on Saturday night. I’d never been there at that time before. The pubs were crowded, and it took about three before we found one where there was actually a space we could slip into. She was bubbly, excited, uncontained. I had an inkling of the surprise she was planning to pull but I wanted her to have the fun. But when it came to our second round of drinks, I had to speak up, so I could decide what to order for myself. Were we staying tonight?
Her face fell, for which I was sorry. She was keeping it back, to spring on me as a surprise: let’s get a room and stay. But I knew her too well by then, and had read that surprise the moment she’d gone off on her own to call her daughter. There really was no other reason to have done so. But it was the difference between a Diet coke or another half of lager and lime for me.
However, there was a nearly fatal flaw in our plan. We weren’t just seeking an impromptu guesthouse vacancy in Keswick on a summer Saturday night, we were doing it on the weekend of a Jazz Festival in the town. There was literally no room at the Inn.
I hadn’t overindulged on the lager, so I was still within safe limits to drive. If push came to shove, we would go back to Manchester and my house, but a weekend in the Lakes, and a little more walking on Sunday was a preferable deal so I called upon my ingenuity and local knowledge and we headed off towards Cockermouth.
Whether they could have sorted us out became moot when my partner in fun spotted a Vacancies sign as we passed the edge of the village of Braithwaite. And that Vacancy turned out to be for a double room, with appropriate bed, which we took. The only other visitors to this heaven-sent little place were a pair of very shy, very young Japanese girls.
Our night secured, we went back to Keswick and completed our day with fish’n’chips from the Old Keswickian. Suitably greased up, we drove back to Braithwaite, at which point I am firmly drawing a curtain across the rest of the day.
Sunday was equally hot and sunny. Steeping into yesterday’s underpants and socks was a bit icky, especially as it had been such a hot day, but this was a small price to pay and we were both paying it. I’d only brought The North Western Fells with me, for Catbells, but there was an easy walk available that I’d done before, that involved little energy or time, but would give my companion her third summit. This was High Rigg.
The road up to the church on the saddle requires two gates to be opened to progress: it was a pleasant change to have a passenger to whom this could be delegated. We parked up just as the Morning Service was ending. Of all the coincidences, my partner was approached by a woman in her fifties: this was the mother of my lady’s next door neighbour!
We made a stroll of it, sitting on an outcrop off the top for ten minutes before visiting the actual summit. This was an affront to my fellwalker’s instincts, that I had to suppress, to my companion’s amusement. It was a perfect day.
But we had to get back to Manchester, and domestic chores that demanded attention, and there was a limit to how much time we could actually spend in each other’s company by that time without things starting to break down again. So we drove back, on good terms, and I dropped her off, and that was it.
So Braithwaite Exchange breaking down last night was the spur to remembering that unexpectedly sweet weekend. It’s not really my usual sort of walking story, since the walking turned out to be the least point of it, but I did tick off another Wainwright and Catbells is a lovely place to be, alone or in company.
We never climbed another fell together, and I doubt she added to her tally, unless after a slammed down phone one night in late summer 1997 she met someone else who took her walking in Lakeland. I doubt it would have mattered to her either way, but those walks we did together remain as cherished memories.
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 couple of my workmates have, very recently, treated themselves to virtual reality headsets, which they’ve been showing off at work. I had no idea the technology had become so cheap, but then I don’t keep up with such things because I am economically challenged as to technological advancement.
When the chance came for me to try one of these headsets on, I politely declined, remembering one of my most embarrassing experiences out walking in the Lakes, which took place on, of all fells, Latrigg. Let me explain.
It was a lovely, dry, sunny afternoon. It was probably the first time I climbed Latrigg, which suggests either that I’d spent the morning lazily transferring from Ambleside to Keswick or else that this was so far back that I still believed I didn’t have the stamina to go walking every day on holiday.
Whatever the circumstances, I had parked at the Latrigg roadhead and, for the only time, I had walked directly up from the back, saving the glorious views for the last minute, as I reached the gentle crest of the summit. That’s the only advantage of that route: it’s simple, direct and easy, but it’s deadly dull, and you feel confined, between the featureless green slope rising before you, and the vast green slopes towering behind you.
For once, and precisely because this was such a gentle walk, and a gentle fell, I was carrying with me my Dad’s old binoculars. He’d carry them around when we were walking. I remember him and his elder brother taking turns from the weir at Stickle Tarn, to focus on climbers on Pavey Ark, and especially Jack’s Rake. Or studying the climbers on Dow Crag after we’d fetched up at Goatswater again. Or trying to get me to focus on the Napes Ridges from Down in the Dale in Wasdale, failing to pick out Napes Needle.
So here I am, stood on Latrigg’s gentle crest, pushing my glasses up to my forehead, and putting the binoculars to my eyes. And within five seconds, having to drag them away from my eyes, because I was struck with the most awful vertigo. I felt like I was falling forward, through the binoculars, my stomach was going, my balance, I literally could not keep the binoculars up for a second longer.
This was already upsetting, but I decided that it was the absence of any foreground that was responsible, making me feel that I had nothing under my feet. So I retreated a couple of steps, backing off the crest without impairing my binocular vision and leaving myself a couple of uphill feet between me and the foreground falling away.
It was just as bad. I couldn’t force myself to look for more than, at most five seconds, even though the reality was that I couldn’t fall forward, nor damage myself if I did.
I took another step or two back and lay down. On my stomach. My body lying flat on an uphill slope, with my elbows on the crest and focussed upon Keswick below and I brought them to my eyes and, arrrgghhh! I was lying uphill, I was in the most comprehensively unfallable forward from position that could physically be contrived and I still couldn’t stand looking through those binoculars for literally more than a handful of seconds, because I was falling, falling through them, falling from height, nothing beneath or below me, faaallliiinggggg.
On Latrigg. Bloody Latrigg, of which there are no more than half a dozen fells in the whole of Wainwright that are lower and certainly none as innocuous, and I am scared to the point of quivering and cannot, cannot, simply CAN NOT do this.
I mean, it’s very simple. Despite the fact I’ve climbed all the _Wainwrights_, and some of them by the sporting routes, I have done this with incipient vertigo, which I have been able to master at all times, as long as I have been able to see ground underneath my feet. Put binoculars to my eyes, remove the sight of the ground, and my eyes override all other physical sensations and start screaming. I cannot look down through binoculars. I have never carried them into the fells since.
And the same goes for a VR headset. Take away my ability to see the ground beneath my feet and the feel of the ground beneath my feet, or of the reclining chair beneath my bum, and I cannot cope. It’s embarrassing. But not as much as it is to have a panic attack on Latrigg…
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…
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 WesternFells, 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.
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.
A couple of days ago, the outline news of the storm that has caused so much destruction and devastation to my beloved Cumbria prompted me to write a post that reminisced about those of my experiences of being caught in rain on the fells that I haven’t already spoken of previously on this blog.
That post isn’t going to appear for a while yet, because I’ve read more about the awful things that have been happening, and I’ve seen photos that fill me with a mixture of awe and horror, and lightweight tales of walking in the rain are wildly inappropriate right now.
News that Pooley Bridge, that lovely old bridge over the outflow of Ullswater, my favourite Lake, has been swept away. Stockley Bridge, in the Seathwaite Valley, was washed away by torrential floods in the great storm of 1966, which happened on the Saturday as we drove home after a week’s holiday (I remember the darkness and the thunderous rain on Buckhaw Brow, just before Settle). It was rebuilt, and eyes like mine who never saw it before would not be able to tell had I not known. But that was the Sixties, and a time of prosperity: from where will come the money to reconstruct Pooley Bridge in these times of austerity, depravation and criminally incompetent doctrinaire Government. It has to be rebuilt: it’s a 32 mile round trip to avoid it. But will something other than a functional bridge be built? Can it be afforded?
News too that, for a couple of days, Glenridding Village has been cut off, that Mountain Rescue have only today got through. Glenridding’s more than just my beloved Ullswater again. There’s a story of a woman whose husband is stranded there, gone to a stag do at the Inn on the Lake for the weekend and unable to return. Giving up his bed to elderly people who would otherwise have had to sleep on sofas.
The Inn on the Lake used to be a more old-fashioned kind of hotel. They closed it for refurbishment and rebranding in November 2000. The last function there before it closed was a wedding. It was my wedding.
I’ve seen photos today. One is of the Vale of Keswick, seen long-distance through a wide-angled lens. Once upon a time, in a younger era of the world, there was no Derwent Water and Bassenthwaite Lake, just one uber-lake, stretching from the Jaws of Borrowdale to the beginnings of the North Cumbrian Plain. That uber-lake is all but with us again.
And I’ve seen a photo of the A591, the ‘Kendal-Keswick’ road, below Dunmail Raise, where the road is narrow at the head of the Thirlmere Valley, and almost half that road is washed away, a great, jagged ripping away of the western side of the carriageway, replaced by a massive earthen ditch along which water roils. This is not CGI. This is a road I have driven hundreds of times, north and south, the main central road through the Lakes and in that section it’s impassable.
Record amounts of rain have fallen, literally. The record has been broken, on, of all places, Honister Pass, not even Seathwaite, traditionally the wettest place in England. Seathwaite, out-rained! What is this world now?
I’m nowhere near and I could be of no help if I were. I’m in no danger, to life and limb and property and possessions. But my heart breaks along with those people to whom I am in spirit a brother, and this is no time for words that celebrate rain and rainfall.