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…
When you book rail tickets four weeks in advance, to get the cheapest prices, you play pot luck with the weather. According to the forecasts, I am going to come up snakes eyes, to mix a metaphor. Thunderstorms all day, England’s World Cup semi-final to be pushed into the reserve day, this is what is promised. Given the weather most of the time since I bought the tickets, sunny, dry, hot, it’s feeding my never very deep-lying paranoia.
Which, given that I am booked on the 7.26am train from Piccadilly, and I am relying on the 203 bus, the only bus to win a Booker Prize for its timetable, is always hyperactive at times like this.
Everything started well. I responded to the alarm at 5.30am. It had been raining until quite recently, for everything outside was wet, but when I got out, ahead of time, it was dry and getting drier, and there was a freshness in the airthat the suggested the grey skies would slowly peel back to reveal the blue beyond.
I’d barely gotten twenty yards when there was a ping in my left calf, suggesting not so much cramp as a pulled muscle. I walked it off gently but this was going to be a true omen for the day.
The 203 upset my model of the Universe by being on time. Indeed, I was inside Piccadily Station, in the ‘Departure Lounge’ for Platforms 13 & 14, by 7.02am, the only hitch being a minor and quickly resolved panic over whether my rail tickets were in my wallet. It was a long time wait but these are the marginsI prefer to work with.
The train was on time, my seat was by the window, albeit looking backwards, and no-one turned up to claim the reserved seat to Glasgow Central next to me so that was my shoulder bag sorted.
There was nothing I could do about the weather so I paid the cloud only occasional mind as we ploughed north, devoting myself to a second attempt to read The Illuminatus Trilogy without stopping, though still without understanding.
This was an express train, stopping only at Preston and Lancaster and due in Penrith after only ninety minutes. Once we reached the shores of MorecambeBay, I switched to scanning the Lakes skyline. It was unpromising: dark, wispy, fragile clouds with a base below 1,000′: not good.
I was hoping for better north of the equivalent of Dunmail Raise but there was a thicker, darker, more pregnant band of cloud, and then suddenly it seemed lighter. Skylines became clearer, sharper. The message was mixed: sunlight on the lower slopes of Mardale, pockets of low cloud around the valley head. Kidsty Pike stood proud but Rampsgill Head was deep-capped.
Out at Penrith for five to nine with an hour to kill, or so I thought. I walked down to the Town Centre. The main street was smaller than I remembered and all the touristy shops seemed to have left. There used to be a good bookshop somewhere round the back, where I spent a half hour on the morning of my wedding, having run my sister-in-law-to-be and my wife-to-be’s best friend in for last minute essentials. Where it is, if it still exists, I had no idea and I decided against searching for it, the air being an odd mixture of fresh and stuffy.
Thank Heaven I didn’t! I got back to the Rail Station in time to catch the slightly-delayed 9.20am bus, whose driver was in a chatty mood, and who told me tht thee 9.50am bus I intended to catch doesn’t run until theTimetable that comes into force on the 26th!
If I’d missed this bus, it wouldn’t have been fatal to my plans, but as the next bus was 11.20am, I’d have been stuck in Penrith for two hours. Then again, I do have a partly-completed novel with a scene in Penrith, so I could have spentthe time in research.
The sky was a fractal mixture of dark cloud, light cloud and blue spaces. The bus was riding between high hedgerows so it took a while before I could get some sense of the air in Patterdale. When I could see, it looked clear around Ullswater’s lowest reach but cloudy further back. Given the forecast, this was good going.
But when I got off the bus in Pooley Bridge, it was trying to rain, fine, light, sprinkly lane. The Steamer Shop in the Village was closed despite its advertised opening time of 9.15am.
There was nothing to do here either so I strolled on to the steamer landing. This took me across the temporary bridge that stands in the place of the beautiful stone arches destroyed forever by the floods of 2015/16. It’s an ugly, practical thing of steel cross-girders, an eyesore, where the old bridge was a thing of grace and beauty. It’s absence is a pang.
There’s a superb viewpoint just before the landings, by the Birkett Memorial. We came down here on the Saturday evening, for our first view of Ullswater, that holiday, and I took a photo of the lake, looking towards Hallin Fell, with the family at the forefront. I took another one now, in colour, but without anyone to grace it.
Ullswater is my favourite lake, its beautiful curves and bays, and this only the least-interesting reach of it. I haven’t seen it in, probably, about fifteen years and I felt a tremendous sense of contentment. All the visible hills remind me of walks gone past. PlaceFell was capped and dark, so it was Hallin Fell and Beda Head that stood out for me then. The lake chuckled and bubbled past me into the River Eamont.
I narrowed my eyes. Something long and white was crossing below Hallin Fell, turning into Howtown Bay. In a moment’s silence between the passing cars, I heard a distant bell. If I’m not mistaken, that’s my steamer from Glenridding.
This would be my fourth trip on the Ullswater Steamer but the first for this end of the Lake. My first was an impromptu decision on a rainy, cloudy afternoon, when walking was out of the question, Howtown and back. Twice since, I’d taken a one-way trip to Howtown and walked back, the first a solo over Place Fell, the second a family walk down the lakeshore path, which is as lovely as they say it is.
Eventually the steamer emerged and headed towards us. I paid for my ticket (which included 50% off the Ratty for the next twelve months, which gave mean idea…)
As soon as the Steamer docked, I was on to it and dodging through the saloon to the foredeck. The commemorative plaque confirmed this was Raven, and in five days time it would be 130 years to the day since it was first launched.
We seemed to race up the lake into the teeth of a flapping wind, Hallin Fell dead ahead, the zigzags of the Hause visible to its left. As we started curving into the Bay, Beda Head became our pointer and little flecks of rain started to flick against my face.
It wasn’t until we started to slow down for Howtown the the magnificent middle reach of the lake, and the fells at the end of it, appeared as if out of nowhere. Sheffield Pike stood proud and sunny but there wasn’t much to see behind it except dark cloud.
We drifted into the Pier, no-one waiting to board us, though two walkers appeared from the direction of the road, only to stand and watch us leave. Twenty-eight people, one baby carriage and two dogs disembark. I looked at Steel Knott’s steep prow and asked myself, did I really go up that? (yes, I did).
Off on the next leg. A massive convoy of ducks sat on the surface of the lake on our left bow as we headed outround Hallin Fell. This was the bit I’dreally come here for.
The taped message for the tourist informed us of what to look out for and only made two egregious mistakes in three facts. It places Birkett Crag (no, it’s Fell) on the wrong side of Ullswater and claims Helvellyn is the second highest mountain in England. I don’t dare look up what it said about Donald Campbell.
We took a rather more leisurely turn down the middle reach. Some part of the High Street range, still cloud-clagged, appeared in the gap between Hallin Fell and Place Fell, whilst on the other side, the Hellvellyn range was similar, but someqhat lighter, as if it might finally blow clear.
Approaching the turn into the upper reach, we passed Lady of the Lake on the port bow. Saint Sunday Crag and Dollywaggon Pike, either side of Grisedale, are firmly cloud-blocked, though there’s masses of blue sky above the lake itself. I’ve always felt these names to be strange and foreign-sounding to the Lakes, ever since I first heard my mother mentioning them, way back in the early Sixties. They’re just not Cumbrian to me. Things looked very dirty at the head of Patterdale, where we could see straight into Threshthwaite Glen.
Over to starboard, there was a big hotel on the lakeshore that I tried not to look too closely at. Under an older name than it currently bears, this was where I was married, and there are too many memories in that.
It was still not yet quite midday when I got off the steamerand walked round into Glenridding Village. My plans were flexible enough to give me either two hours or three and a half here, which would be fine if I felt in any way fit for a walk. Indeed, I’d half picked out Keldas, at the foot of Birkhouse Moor, and brought The Eastern Fells in my bag, but I’m achey and creaky and have been all day.
I was trepidatious about what Glenridding might look like, bearing in mind that the floods did a real number on the Vilaage, but the repairs here seemed more complete and nothing appeared to be out of place. I settled into a picnic table and got out my lunch.
The best plan seemed to be to kick back, relax, and enjoy just being here, but I did wander a bit in the direction of the path to Lanty’s Tarn, just to see how far I might get if I went at it slowly. All that got me was some spotty rain, a buzzy insect with an obsession with my right ear and some stomach cramps that suggested I might be better off keeping the Public Conveniences in closer proximity so, despite some increasingly encouraging blue skies, I strolled back.
Down in the valley, the soft breeze was very welcome, and I took root at another picnic table, enjoying the passing pedstrians and returning to my book. I could have dome some writing if the energy possessed me but overall this was not the day for creativity, so I socked up relaxing in Patterdale. Mind you, I noticed a lot of references to ‘The Ullswater Valley’: another Stickle Ghyll in the making?
There was another, slightly more serious spot of rain when I wandered back off to the Pier. We were on Raven again, though this time I headed for the stern for the best views. There was a ton of worrying grinding from the engine, turning to face back down Ullswater, but the mountainscape was at last wonderful, St Sunday Crag sunwashedand magnificent, Dollywaggon dark andslope-shouldered and even a glimpse of a cloud-free Helvellyn as we retreated.
Howtown was the beginning of the end. Everything after this was journeying back. Waiting in the sweltering heat for the bus in Pooley Bridge. Fifty-five minutes to kill at Penrith Station with nothing to do and nowhere to go, unless you count McDonald’s, so back to my book.
With the exception of the bus to Pooley Bridge, all the travelling’s gone smoothly, all day, but then I go and blow it. My travel notes have me catching the18.06 at Penrith, change at Preston. My ticket was for the 17.50 direct to Manchester Piccadilly, but I didn’t realise this until a mini-argument over who has reserved seat A11. On the 18.06. Oops.
That could have been very expensive, but the ticket inspector on the Virgin train was decent enough to stamp my ticket anyway so my only loss was to get stuck in an aisle seat on a gloriously sunny evening, and unable to see out of either window. And Northern Rail surprise me twice at Preston, first by being dead on time, and then by not coming to check my ticket at all. I was even blessed with sitting opposite a nice-looking young woman, with long brown hair almost the shade mine used to be, and a lovely smile.
I got back to Piccadilly nearly fifteen hours after the alarm woke me, and I didn’t half know it by then. One bus-ride later, and I got off in the only sustained rain I experienced all day, despite the forecasts, and the evening still sunny, offering up a full-arch rainbow above my flat. Mind you, everything that could ache did ache by then, and I’d missed England beating Australia to reach the Cricket World Cup Final. But I’d had a grand day, and I’d been back to Ullswater. Where can I go next?
Perhaps I should apologise to Northern Rail, not that I have any intention of doing so, not after the farce they made of my Patterdale Expedition last month. However, I did comment that I couldn’t see any timetable for the 508 bus from Windermere to Patterdale once I finally arrived at the former, and the reason for this is that the 508 doesn’t run after the end of October.
So even if everything had worked like the proverbial clockwork, I wasn’t going to get to the Ullswater Steamer anyway.
I’m going to bear things like that in mind for my annual November visit but now I have to remake my plans for the Patterdale Expedition, 2019 version.
The first change is that I am not going to try and do that via Windermere again. Not unless there is a drastic improvement in Northern Rail’s services of a kind that no-one in their right mind currently anticipates. So that automatically means an increase in travelling costs, because the other way to Ullswater by train from Manchester means Penrith, and Penrith means at least half as much again in fares.
But from Patterdale there appears to be a year-round bus service to Pooley Bridge, and the steamer itself is a year-round thing. And I must admit, I like the idea of a Pooley Bridge to Glenridding first leg, getting the head of Ullswater in my sights for the full daylight leg of the journey.
As it happens, I have arranged my holidays for the back half of the work year to give me a four day break every month, in the wake of my Working Sundays, so if we get, say, a cool, crisp February, I might target the Thursday as a putative Patterdale Expedition date.
How does that work? The short answer is, it doesn’t. It’s physically impossible. Assuming the February timetable to be the same as January, it not having been published online yet, and bearing in mind that the Ullswater steamer is based at Glenridding, not Pooley Bridge, there are only three sailings all day, one of them only to Howtown. Therefore the only sailing from Pooley Bridge that returns there, all day, is the 10.35am.
But the bus from Penrith leaves the railway station at 10.20am and takes thirty minutes to the Crown Hotel, not the steamer landings. And the only reasonably priced train from Manchester, everything else being three and a half times dearer, arrives at Penrith at 10.58.
So, unless I travel Wednesday evening and stay overnight in Penrith, Patterdale in February is in practical terms impossible. Let’s revisit that one after Easter, shall we?
So, can I spend any time in Buttermere on a day’s public transport expedition from Manchester?
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…
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 suppose I’d better get down to this. After all, I did stick a (part 1) on yesterday’s description of the journey North, and so I’d better fulfill the unwritten contract with my public (Hi, how are ya? Did you get the card I sent? How’s work?) and come up with a (part 2) to cover the rest of the experience. Actually, it’s not as interesting, but there you go.
When I left off, it was to wander round the corner to the bus stop outside Penrith Station to catch the bus to the Rheged Centre (pronounced Regg-ed, not Ruh-gged, as I’d previously imagined). There were absolutely no problems on this leg of the journey, which got me there with nearly ninety minutes to spare, but this was the Sunday timetable.
After I collected my ticket, I looked fora bite to eat. The Cafe was somewhat on the expensive side, especially for the filled rolls which were a bit on the upmarket side (i.e., more health, less common filling) for my tastes, so I treated myself to a roast beef in the Restaurant instead.
That made my second roast beef meal in three days, and boy they were generous with the beef. There was a genuine risk that I’d run out of other things to eat between hacking off large portions of beef, but it was superb. There was still time to kill, so I wandered around a bit and discovered that I have been maligning Clive Bratby slightly over his Third Edition Wainwrights.
You will recall that I have taken serious umbrage at his updated volumes being sold as Walkers Editions, but this has to be tempered somewhat by the discovery that the original versions – which have been maintained in the original, dust-jacketed format – have been rebranded as Readers Editions. It’s still a diabolical liberty, but it’s an arguably logical diabolical liberty.
For the second Sunday running, not only was I at the cinema but I was first one in, though Life of a Mountain – Blencathra filled up a lot more, and faster, than Captain America. The seating was one immense, tall bank, and I was in row G, practically central. This put my eyeline pretty much halfway up the massive screen, but the climb to get up there was almost as strenuous as getting to the top of Blencathra itself.
The audience was interesting (with the exception of the boring boor beside me). I’m not saying it was old but it was doubtful whether I actually got into the upper fifty percentile.
The Rheged Centra was an interesting place overall. It’s semi-underground, built downwards into the landscape, with a grassy roof that makes it as unobtrusive in the beautiful landscape as possible. It also had a brilliant wooden Children’s Adventure Playground that had me regretting I couldn’t drop fifty years and have a go on it myself. But what it didn’t have was a sign anywhere saying that it closed at 5.30pm.
Which was next to immediately after the Q&A with Terry Abraham, which made everything suddenly all of a rush. I wandered down to the bus stop and checked the timetable. There was a Keswick-bound bus due almost immediately but, thankfully, a Penrith service at 18.00. It meant a nearly thirty minute wait but so what? I wasn’t going anywhere.
And I nearly wasn’t going anywhere. It was still only 5.45pm when the lady came to shut the gate that the bus would need to go through to get out. There was no last bus, she assured me: they always shut the gate at 5.45pm. There was a rising tide in my voice as I protested this, drew attention to the timetable (‘extra services from 1 May to 30 October’). But they’re shutting the bus gate on the way in, she patiently explained.
I should explain that the Rheged Centre may only be two miles from Penrith, but at least half of that distance is a very busy dual carriageway withno pavements, and that this was nearly 6.00pm on a very sunny and hot day with my knees and it now being almost twelve hours exactly since my alarm went off and I was already awake…
And the lady was being politely unsympathetic to the nth degree and no doubt thinking why didn’t I just come in a car like normal people when my point was proven by the bloody bus turning up.
Except that it wasn’t, since the driver told me he’d only come in because he could see me at the stop from the main road at the top (thank Cthulhu I hadn’t still been sitting on that rock, below his eyeline) and he’d been told not to come in on the way back. And in case I hadn’t grasped what, after all, was a very simple and straightforward explanation, he told me this all over again. You only get it once.
All of which goes to explain why, when I got back to my Hotel, I didn’t head for the bar, with its Sky Sports TV, or the beer garden, backing onto Castle Park and the remnants of Penrith Castle, I hauled myself upstairs, lay down on the bed and basically didn’t shift from there all evening.
I was not totally idle. I constantly fought with the horribly unreliable wi-fi to catch up on the final day of this year’s Premier League (didn’t realise the significance of the date when I bought the ticket last November). Thankfully, all the issues were decided, so it didn’t matter, and United’s end-of-season was an even damper squib, thanks to the farce of the abandonment due to the discovery of an explosive device – which turned out to be a fake, left behind from the last security test.
I slept well and long overnight, but I’d overlooked that I needed to order breakfast, so I wandered over to Morrison’s Cafe and made do with a succulent apple tart wit fresh, local cream and a white coffee. My train was still not due for more than an hour so I pottered about, trying to avoid going back to sleep, and took up station at the Station in ample time.
Since the service had been on the move since one of Edinburgh or Glasgow, and was ultimately bound for Manchester Airport, there was a bit of a push for seats. I ended up on the wrong side of the carriage for the last views of the Lakes and a bit cramped from having to have my case in with my seat.
Consolation was to be had, sparingly, in the form of a young lady (thirtyish) sat on the other side of the coach. She was wearing a calf-length, dove grey midi-dress, with a slit to mid-thigh on the side facing me and, although she had rapped the fabric modestly about herself, as she shifted in her seat, and stretched out her legs between those of her husband, opposite, the lower part of the fabric kept falling away. Nothing untoward was revealed, but she had superb, long, slim legs that were a delight to glance at from time to time. Brought back a memory or two, actually.
The train was slow to pull out, and there were several sections where it moved leisurely or even halted, to the frequent consternation and apologies of its staff. By the time we reached Wigan Northwest, they were open in confirming that we would reach Manchester 31 minutes late, and thus be entitled to a refund on our tickets. They even handed claim forms out, though as I had nowhere to go but home and noting to do but nothing when I got in, I doubt I’ll bother claiming.
So finally it was Piccadilly (even though my ticket said Oxford Road, for some inexplicable reason). It not being after 8.00pm, my bus home was still running every ten minutes, not that I had to wait more than one.
And here I am, holed up and comfortable and already discussing the next day out, and meeting up with a mate in London to visit another Exhibition.
I’m writing this not from my usual base but from the Lake District, Penrith to be exact, and I’m here not just for the day but the night: sleeping over and going home tomorrow, leisurely.
I’m here for Life of a Mountain: Blencathra at the Rheged Centre, a report on which will follow later in the day. This is my first visit to Cumbria this year, and since the dreadful floods of the turn of the year, and it’s the best weather I’ve seen in all my previous visits. From the 6.00 am alarm, it’s been blue sky and cotton wool clouds, though they did sort of amass at one point en route, suggesting less dry weather ahead, which so far has not only failed to materialise, but also to look likely.
The travel has, as usual, been the torture. It usually is but today’s programme has been particularly fraught with traps for my usual paranoia: bus to Piccadilly Gardens, walk to Victoria Railway Station, train to Preston and Rail Replacement Coach, all to arrive four hours earlier than I need, but this is the only way into Penrith by public transport from Manchester today, hence the insanely early start.
The last changeover was the one giving my nerves most to work on but it was smooth as butter: four of us on a single-decker coach, bound for Penrith. Actually, it’s all gone well, with the only hitch being right at the start: the bus was five minutes late. Of course it was: it’s only the first bus of the day, four stops out of the bus station, 7.19am, what on Earth made me think it might be on time?
I was feeling a bit frazzled then, and a lot more now as yesterday didn’t go well. Between the dreadful news about Darwyn Cooke and an unexpected exchange of texts in the evening, the implications of which I’m still trying to analyse (private stuff, people, not unrelated to a recent post), I lost it last night, couldn’t even summon up the energy to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, or even the voting (I haven’t missed that in over a quarter century and I still don’t even know the answer as I write), and of course fretted about waking up in time today.
As a result of which I beat the alarm by at least fifteen minutes, hence the feeling a bit fuzzy round the edges by now.
But the drive up was greatly enjoyable. From Lancaster, Morecambe Bay and the southernmost fells came into view, and from a coach you can see much further than the near ground level of a car. I could soon see from friendly old Black Combe through to Dow Crag and the Old Man, whilst north of Lancaster, more and more fells and valleys became visible, until I could see the whole panoply of ridges across South and East Lakeland from Dow Crag to the fells east of Longsleddale. Not all of it all at once (bloody trees fringing the M6) but it’s the longest and widest panorama of the fells that I’ve been in much too young.
North of the M6 summit there was another vista to survey (not that I am denigrating anything east of Tebay Gorge, which was looking very attractive as well, but it’s not the Lakes, is it?) Again, it’s a long time since I’ve seen these fells so clearly and so well lit. I quickly identified Swindale and Mardale (always a breeze when Kidsty Pike is visible), only to realise that I couldn’t properly see the former from the south and that what I was looking at was Wet Sleddale, which I have never visited. It looked good from this angle for once.
The cloud was high enough that not of the tops were obscured, yet the air made everything look pale, low and distant. Glad as I was to see so much after so much time, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sadness. There was no intimacy to the views, and that is what I’ve lost. The fells and I are no longer intimate friends but former neighbours, mindful of our past closeness, but gone our separate ways.
Enough of that! I’m here now, and in fifteen minutes time I’m out to the bus to the Rheged Centre. Time to find out what really happened to Stuart Maconie and Edd Byrnes on Sharp Edge…
It’s becoming a bit of a ritual. I take this week off each year, for my birthday, and on the Thursday I go up to the Lakes for the day.
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?
If you find yourself in the Penrith area, with an afternoon to kill, on a sunny day, you don’t even need to have walking boots with you to enjoy the ascent of Hallin Fell, another little gem that offers views out of all proportion to the effort required to reach its square summit, dominated by an obelisk cairn. For those actually starting from Penrith, a roundabout approach should be taken. Rather than head straight for Pooley Bridge, at the foot of Ullswater, take the main A66 west towards Keswick, and at the big roundabout, a mile outside Penrith, take the exit left for Ullswater and enjoy a leisurely, country approach, with the rolling hills accompanying the lower reach of the Lake inviting you forward. The road ends with the first glimpse of Ullswater, which, many years ago, was my first sighting of the Lake. It’s a view down the length of the lower reach, to Howtown Bay and the first dogleg. Hallin Fell, on the far side of the Lake, lies directly ahead, its 12′ obelisk of a cairn clearly visible from this distance. Turn left towards Pooley Bridge, and, at the far end of the village, right and right again, signposted Howtown to locate the narrow road snaking along the eastern shore of the Lake. Howtown itself is sheltered in its bay, under the foot of Hallin Fell. Once past the boat landings, where the Ullswater steamer pulls in, the road bears left, into open country for the first time, and starts climbing towards the Hause, which links Hallin Fell to the outlying ridges of the High Street range, to the east. It’s a lovely, narrow, quasi-Alpine road, swinging back and forth and is a joy to drive (as long as someone isn’t trying to come down it at the same time). There is offroad parking for about twenty cars on the Hause. Like Latrigg, there is a direct approach, up the back of the fell, which is undistinguished but keeps the lovely view as a surprise, or there is a gentler, much more entertaining, roundabout route that gives a more enjoyable ascent at the expense of revealing the view on the way. The direct route is obvious, a broad swath through the bracken, leading uphill, and completely safe in trainers (unless it has been raining and is still wet, in which case purchase underfoot may be dodgy). Fifteen to twenty minutes of none too rushed walking should bring you out on top. Alternatively, a narrower path leaves the further end of the Hause, using a gate to gain access to the open fellside. It continues in a gentle circuit around the southern flank of the fell, gradually gaining in height. Ullswater’s middle reach is immediately in view below, and as the walk takes you further round towards the western flank, above the Lake. Place Fell rises invitingly to the left, Gowbarrow fell’s green ridge undulates across the Lake, and the further you progress, the wider the views towards the Helvellyn range, south west, expand. The route eventually peters about above bluffs above the Lake, which are a perfect place to just sit, watch and enjoy the sun, especially as you will be alone. However, the summit must not be ignored. This is only some two hundred feet higher and the absence of paths is no bar to an easy stroll to join the (relative) crowds. The summit occupies a broad, rocky platform with superb views along the middle and lower reaches of Ullswater. It is doubtful that you will get the experience I had on my first visit here: we saw an RAF helicopter hovering only a hundred feet or so above the lake, under the shelter of Hallin Fell which, almost the moment we detected it, started up the flank of the fell, soaring over our heads on the summit by no more than fifty feet. If time permits, some exploration can be indulged in on the way back to the car. A path leaves the summit towards the north and progresses in a remarkably straight line downhill, until the slope gets too steep for comfort. Several cross paths will have been traversed on the northern flank: take the last of these and turn right, towards the eastern flank, above the road to the Hause. This provides easy walking through the bracken until it joins the direct descent to the Hause and the car. For such a small fell, a surprising amount of walking can go into a single half-day expedition, all of it delightful.
Latrigg is the Little Gem of Little Gems, an easy to ascend, grassy and gentle fell with views of such beauty that they are almost obscene in the reward they give for such little effort.
Latrigg is the cub of Skiddaw, a low, sprawling, rounded fell overlooking Keswick, a Sunday afternoon fell par excellence, free from risk or difficulty, and blessed with a car park at 1,200 feet that usually serves as a massive leg-up on the Tourist Route to Skiddaw itself, but which turns Latrigg into a veritable pussycat.
Leave Keswick on the main road north through the Village, but turn right at a mini-roundabout, following signposts for Carlisle. Go straight across the A66 at a major roundabout, and immediately turn right onto a side road signposted Underskiddaw and Latrigg. Follow this for a mile, before turning sharply back right, onto a narrow fell road leading uphill at a steep angle.
This is a route for cars with good suspension, although it may have been upgraded since I last passed this way (it needed it!). The road is narrow, and steep, uphill through trees, juddering and shaking and trying to avoid the worst of the potholes. It emerges from the woods into a narrow valley between the adjoining swells of Skiddaw and Latrigg.
The car park is at the head of the road, with room for about 15-20 cars, depending on the courtesy or selfishness with which they have been parked. If there is no room, turn round carefully and start back to find an off-road place where you can leave your car without blocking anyone’s passage.
There are two routes from here. The simplest and most direct is from the further end of the car park: leave via the gate, skirt some reedy and slightly soft ground in the bed of the depression, and bear towards the broad green path rising above the immediate skyline.
This route of approach has nothing to recommend it from a walking point of view. It is enclosed between two grassy convex slopes, and feels a touch claustrophobic as a consequence. There is nothing of interest on the way and the walk is nothing but a monotonous trudge, but the great appeal of this approach is that the stunning and expansive view from Latrigg’s miniature crest comes in the last couple of steps, as an enormous revelation, sudden and enthralling.
A much better walking alternative, longer but infinitely more entertaining, does show its hands over the view from a relatively early stage. At the bottom end of the car park, on the right as you arrive, a gate gives access to a broad path heading downhill and curving away quickly out of sight around the corner of Latrigg.
The path gently descends and it would be easy to develop a fast walking pace, but instead keep an eye open for a grassy ride descending from the left to join the path. Turn back upon yourself, gaining height in a series of gentle zig-zags on the side of Mallin Dodd, until the path levels out, turning south and contouring around the broad swell of the fell. Bassenthwaite Lake, below and behind, is already in view, and the vista is opening up towards the Newlands Valley, and as you progress, further east towards Derwent Water as well.
This high level terrace curves into and out of a sweep of land before rising to a small platform about 100′ below the, now-visible, crest of the fell. A park bench has been placed here, in the perfect position on the corner of the fell, where the view towards the lake and Borrowdale first opens out. It only accommodates two people, or three if they’re friendly, and most walkers, knowing how close they are to the summit, will not feel the urge to stop, but this route is for the leisurely at heart.
When ready, follow the path up the surprisingly steep edge to the crest for the fullest effect of the view.
After this, the direct route is a simple, easy, downhill march, back to the car.