This is the third year now. The last two have seen me go to Windermere, Bowness and Ambleside, and last year i even got back onto the fells, in a small way, for a small time, to a small height, but enough to bring back to life all those wonderful years of spent with my boots on and to give me perhaps the only truly, unalloyedly happy day I’ve had in several years.
This year I wanted to be a bit more ambitious. I wanted to see Keswick again, Skiddaw and Blencathra, the North Lakes, to go down to the lakeshore at Derwentwater and gaze into the Jaws of Borrowdale.
Such things are not easy from Manchester by public transport, on a limited income. There’s a substantial leap in fares between Windermere and Penrith on the train, and the bus service to Keswick is by no means as aligned to the trains as it is at Windermere.
But if you start early enough, it can be done, if planned along the lines of a military operation. Piccadilly to Penrith. A half-hour wait for the bus to Keswick. To return by the same route would mean nearly two hours hanging around in Penrith for the economical train, but a bus to Windermere means only 40 minutes wait for an earlier – and cheaper! – train.
The problem with military operations is that they’re dependant upon being on time for each leg, and when the first of them involves the 203, Greater Manchester’s most consistently unreliable service, the day starts fraught. There were many moments on the rush hour ride that had me nervily checking my watch: miss the train at Piccadilly and the day would be fucked and my tickets wasted.
But speed picked up, stomach issues subsided and I was easily on time for my train, in which Coach A naturally proved to be the one at the back.
The weather of last week, or even yesterday afternoon, would have been ideal: cold, crisp, clear blue skies. But of course it had changed. It was overcast, a thick layer of dark cloud, louring. It didn’t look helpful. Mind you, the further north we travelled, the more this dark underlay dispersed, though it only revealed a higher level of white, flat sky.
There were no views of the fells until beyond Lancaster, looking across Morecambe Bay and trying to find the distant Black Combe. It looked dark further in, and it stayed that way. As we passed the periphery of Lakeland, our air was relatively clear, but all the glimpses inwards showed the clouds low and in command.
From Oxenholme, I abandoned my Crossword and Killer Sudokus in favour of what views I could: Longsleddale’s narrow slit, the looming Howgills above Tebay Gorge, the expansiveness of Wet Sleddale (which I’ve never visited). Kidsty Pike was visible over the line of Mardale, but High Street was consumed.
I left the train at Penrith. Nature called so I used the nearby MacDonalds for the only thing it’s useful for and waited for the bus opposite the ruins of Penrith Castle. It was the first time I’d ever seen it: my only other trip to Penrith Station was in the dark, to collect my shortly-to-be sister-in-law and her son.
When I got on the bus, I settled on the driver’s side, thinking to enjoy the views of Blencathra close up. From the east, the saddleback to Foule Crag that gives this fell its unwanted second name – pretty much its first name until Wainwright came along – is most obvious, and despite the scant difference in height, the top was hidden by cloud but Foule Crag stood clear.
The bus didn’t just barrel down the A66, but made side-trips to Stainton, Penruddock and Threlkeld en route. The first of these was the scene of the first holiday I persuaded my family to take on the eastern side of the Lakes, which turned out to be the last one I went on.
Still, the best views were inwards, not outwards, even if the air was lightening in the north. Inwards and forwards: when it came into view, the Vale of Keswick was majestic but satanic. The familiar fells crowded round but cloud hugged Eel Crag and Grisedale Pike, lending a threatening aspect to the scene that was all the more dramatic for discovering that Skiddaw, that perennial cloud magnet, was free and clear and bright.
Four hours after I left my flat, I touched down in Keswick. But the moment of arrival was also the onset of leaving: I only had four hours and twenty minutes to go. No time for excursions onto the fells, not unless I wanted to pay for a taxi to take me to the Latrigg roadhead and wait whilst I shuffled my way up and down it.
Food first: when in Keswick, I always eat at the Oddfellow’s Arms and I did not intend to make an exception today. Roast beef, unstinted, new potatoes, carrots and peas with gravy, all in a plate-sized Yorkshire Pudding, for only £5.95. Pity the lager and lime was nearly £4 on top of that.
Derwentwater was nearer – much nearer – than I remembered it. I wandered across Crow Park, finding the ideal place to look down the Lake. A sunny Saturday on this spot came into mind, when the fells were full of light and looked enormous, but I ruthlessly tuned that memory out. From here I could see fells that spread across five Wainwrights, all of which I’ve climbed and some more than once, and but for the interior cloud, I could have claimed the Southern Fells as well. Out of reach for now.
On the other hand, somewhere else famous was not. Maybe I was at last old enough to visit Friar’s Crag. So I strolled slowly along to this famous viewpoint, which was everything that has been said about it, conditions permitting (see the photo above), but on the other hand the essential me hasn’t changed one bit and there were too damned many people about for my liking, and none of us had put in the hard yards to deserve this.
On the way back, it started raining, whispering in the woods. I contemplated the Crazy Golf in Hope Park, trying to remember what my course record was: something in the low Thirties, I’d played it that often and regarded a three-shot hole as a personal insult. The Pitch-and-Putt course was something else. I’ve never been round it in less than 42 or more that 49 strokes.
But the rain was getting harder, I have a recalcitrant shoulder bag that refuses to stay on a shoulder unless nailed on (no thanks) and besides, the shop was shut.
Keswick’s changed. So many familiar places, most of which offered books, have closed and gone. So too has the Cars of the Stars Museum, removed to Miami in 2011. The building and sign are still there, just not the exhibits I wandered round with awe and amazement, telling myself I’d died and gone back to my childhood.
I decided upon a coffee. I’m a straightforward white Gold Blend with one sweetener sort of guy, but of course they don’t sell that kind of coffee anywhere. The filter coffee gad run out, and as they were closing at 4.00pm, they weren’t making any more. So I scanned the list and decided on Espresso, but that was because I’d forgotten how small the cups are and that I don’t actually like Espresso, so the stop wasn’t exactly a success.
By the time I started drifting towards the bus station (a mere layby: I remember when this place had a proper Bus Station), it was raining like no bugger’s business and Skiddaw had disappeared, along with the whole of his massif, and indeed every fell it’s possible to see from the streets of Keswick.
The bus wasn’t due for another twenty minutes, but instead of holing up in a warm pub with a cold half-pint, I sat outside Booths. It was the old military operation bit again, and these days I’m far too paranoid about being late to feel in the least bit comfortable at being anything other than awfully early.
When the 555 arrived, I led the general charge from shelter, but courteously stood back to let the Keswick-bound passengers stream off. There’s always one though, one who’d rather stand on the platform and natter to the driver, completely oblivious to how many people are being kept standing in gusting winds and sheeting rain whilst he’s dry and warm, but a concerted psychic blast hit him and he shifted out of the way.
The bus climbed out of Keswick, heading south. I looked back across the town but in that gloom, that rain, there wasn’t an earthly chance of glimpsing Bass Lake under Dodd, not without Superman’s powers of vision. For me, it then became a race south, losing the light rapidly, to reach Thirlmere whilst it was still possible to see the Lake, but that was a forlorn hope.
In the dark, we could have been anywhere. Indeed, it was only when I saw the Dual Carriageway sign in the bus headlights that I realised we’d climbed Dunmail Raise and were now heading down into the Vale of Grasmere.
A couple of walkers in their early Thirties got on in the village and sat in front of me. I mention them because she was having a brilliant day, one of those days that’s too good to be contained, and she was grinning and chatting, and snatching little kisses at the side of his face. For the time being, her world was everything it was possible to be and she was elevated, and I was envious of him and found myself hoping he could be what she saw him as being at that time. You didn’t want to think of that sort of delight being brought down. Thankfully, they got off at Ambleside, before I could no longer resist recollecting times when I was the lucky recipient of joy like that.
Grasmere and Rydal, and even with the lights at Waterhead, there was no more lakes to be seen. I got off a Windermere with time for a much more palatable coffee before waiting for the train home. What shall I do next year?