Imaginary Holidays 2

It’s freezing cold, cloudless and blue skies: why not slip off to the Lake District for another Imaginary Holiday.
This time, we’re definitely heading for Keswick for the start of the week, the early Sunday drive up the Penrith section of the M6, Blencathra’s profile overlooking the A656. I’ve had my return to the hotel overlooking the park, let’s update my nostalgia and rebook for two nights on good old Bridgedale, on the main street, just past the mini-roundabout.
The name of the game is to not use the same book of Wainwright twice in the same week, and to try to go to as many different areas as I can from last time. So, since I didn’t actually do any Patterdale walking last time out, let’s do that.
I’ve climbed Gowbarrow Fell a couple of times in the past, from the Hause, below Little Mell Fell. It’s a lovely, low, rural fell, of gentle gradients. The first time I did it, I parked at the Hause on a Sunday afternoon of gentle sun. There was a wide path leading directly from that spot that Wainwright didn’t mention. I strolled along it, checking my position by his map, curling round a low, green bump and picking up a path onto the summit from behind. Then I returned by the same route.
When I came back with an old friend, recently separated from her husband and children and in need of distraction, we had a Sunday out. I thought of Gowbarrow, but in the meantime, the landowner had padlocked the gate and put up signs very fiercely forbidding access. Instead, we took the car down a bit further towards Patterdale, parking near Watermillock Church.
There was a mostly level path along the flank of the fell, overlooking Ullswater, and we wandered along, chatting. There’s only been a few times since I broke with my family that I’ve gone walking with a companion, and Linda wasn’t a girlfriend (or wife). Indeed, given her current frame of mind with her husband, I was sternly warned about making a pass!

Ullswater from Gowbarrow Fell

At the ruins of the former refreshment hut we sideslipped up towards the broad back of the fell, and made our way up its back, from a different angle than before.
I could choose an ascent from a direction I’ve not walked before, via Aira Force and Yew Crag, but I’m in the mood for a lazy and undemanding stroll, and the route from Watermillock Church will remind me of older times and a long friendship long broken.
So I’ll stroll along the flank of the fell, through the increasing plantations, until the route via Yew Crag joins from the left and then turn uphill, through an easy tuck, and those who have chosen to assert their rights to roam under the Countryside Rights of Way Act would arrive here over untracked ground, having passed behind the hummock of Great Meldrum, and nothing left but the easy ascent up the back of the summit.
There are three ways back: by the same route, by the farmer’s route, or the longest way round, by descending towards Dockray and following a path above the intake wall, until it reaches a quiet road leading back to just below the Hause. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t give myself so much road walking, but this quiet hinterland behind Gowbarrow Fell is beautiful, perfect for a Lazy Sunday afternoon stroll (‘ere, mustn’t grumble…), when the exercise is minimal and the atmosphere is the point of the day.
Of course, I’ve still got to get up and over the Hause. but it’s neither high, nor steep, nor far before I’m trotting downhill again. I think I’ll sit in the car with the door open and all the windows down for a while before driving off.
There should be time for another stroll, back in Keswick, though the town and down towards Derwent Water, turning into the Park and finding a little hummock from which to gaze down the lake towards the Jaws.
But let’s do some serious walking on Monday. My pursuit of the missing views kept me out of the North Western Fells, but there’s a matter I’d like to clear up just to the west of Newlands that should make for an entertaining day using the leg muscles seriously.
I finished off one holiday with an extended Newlands Round – Maiden Moor, Dale Head, Robinson, Hindscarth – in which I rather over-extended myself. I started a nasty headache, under the sun, struggling up the final slopes onto Robinson’s top, and by the time I’d circuited Little Dale to Hindscarth, I was completely drained. The long descent over Scope End was wasted on me as all my focus was on not falling over.
So let’s go back. But rather than repeat the walk, let’s just restrict it to those last two fells, for I wasn’t in the best state to take in Robinson by the time I got there. Call it a circuit of Little Dale, about which Wainwright was so negative, though it looked alright to me on the day. Ridges run in parallel from Newlands. Well supplied with barms and liquid, I’ll hunt out an offroad space close to the lane to Newlands Church, convenient for both.
Re-imagining what it’s like to go up (or down) a ridge I’ve never walked is far from easy. Studying Wainwright, or internet walking sites, or photos of the ground cannot make up for grass and rock under your boots, nor can it tell me what views I will enjoy along the way.
And which way do I walk? Surely Scope End demands ascending? It may be familiar territory, though by the time I descended it I was blurred by headache and exhaustion. But the thought of a new ridge, and one that Wainwright recommends as the best way up Robinson (as well as being anti-clockwise) is almost irresistible, and the thought of having to repeat that tedious, draining slog to the summit off the ridge from Hindscarth settles it.

Robinson the hard way

There’s an easy, pedestrian route into Little Dale, and a trackless climb onto the ridge beyond High Snab Bank, but I have never been inclined to soft ways round, so once I reach the end of the road past Low High Snab, I take to the open fellside, cutting upwards steeply on a well-defined path. This is the way of the North Western Fells: short, steep ascents on grass to gain long, airy ridges, and I curve leftwards into High Snab Bank itself, where the gradient is gentle and the walking can be brisk, until I near the edge of Blea Crags.
Here are three rock steps in succession, across the path, each twenty to thirty feet in height and requiring my scrambling head to get up. I wonder what real-life exertions they’d require, but I think of Stirrup Crag and Lining Crag, and the fun I had on these, and get up them.
Above lies the meat of the ridge, following the edge of Robinson Crags, overlooking the neighbouring valley of Keskadale Beck, where care is needed with an unfenced edge. There’s a rock step on this, just below 1,800 feet, but I think I’d do what I tended to do when I could, and hove a little ‘inland’, far enough not to let my incipient vertigo turn me into a bag of nerves.
As the ground eases, the prominent cairn that suggests it’s the summit is revealed to be a third of a gentle mile off the actual, somewhat sprawling top. This time, I arrive in the same kind of sunshine but without the grinding headache that marred my visit.
It’s a fell-filled view, if the wide top shuts off valley sights, and Floutern Tarn is visible just beyond Hen Comb, but apart from the eating of those barm cakes, this isn’t a summit to inspire an extended stay. Hindscarth is the nearest thing, just across Little Dale, and once refreshed, I am back on actual trodden ground, crossing the top towards the Littledale Edge fence, and following it around east, to the choice of paths: whether to bear left and shortcut across the depression, or continue to the highest point on the ridge to Dale Head and approaching Hindscarth from behind with the benefit of being a purist.
This time, I’ll take it easy, take the ‘shortcut’, avoiding the unnecessary regaining and losing of height.
Let me imagine now that Hindscarth, reached much earlier in the afternoon than before, has other walkers in its summit. Usually, I refer my summits in solitude, when I can get them, but I had that last time, and it felt unwelcome and frightening. No necessity for conversations, perhaps, but a bit of company would restore a psychic balance.
Then off, downhill, on a clear, almost grooved path, with Newlands to the right and below. I can take my time, walk with ease and regularity, enjoy the view rather than concentrate ferociously on where my feet fall, until I cross Scope End and turn downhill, remembering how relieved I was to have gotten here safely.
At the very foot of the ridge, I have a choice: a long contour back left into the valley of Scope Beck, to cross and regain the lane past Low High Snab, or the lane ahead from Low Snab to Newlands Church and, somewhere close by, my car. I think I’ll do it the easy way.
Tuesday begins by packing the car and heading south over Dunmail Raise to lodge in Ambleside until the week ends: where to today?
I’ve already used The Eastern Fells, so how about somewhere Central? I park at somewhere like the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, in the little car park on the opposite side of the Great Langdale Road. The black wood of the Hotel stands out away from the road and behind it, Mill Gill tumbles joyously down the fellside. I know they call it Stickle Ghyll these days, but we are walking inside my head now. The sun sparkles down from above, I change into my trusty boots, tuck my walking jeans into my socks and shrug my Dad’s old rucksack onto my back.
I couldn’t begin to work out the number of times I have been up and down Mill Gill, above the New Hotel, Dungeon Ghyll. The first time goes back to the middle Sixties, when we used the path to the west of the Gill, before it was closed due to erosion, and the last would have been somewhere during the Nineties, maybe even for the original walk of which this imaginary ascent is an extended repeat.
The only highest fell in any of the Wainwright books that I never visited a second time is the Central Fells’ High Raise. Most of the available routes are from the top of Greenup Edge Pass, reached from three different valleys, but no-one wants to go up Greenup Edge if they can help it. When the time came to collect High Raise, I approached from Great Langdale and I propose to do that again.
From the New Hotel, that means crossing the beck by the footbridge to gain access to the east bank of Mill Gill. This is the route I have taken more often than I can remember, but on that last visit, knowing the congested stony stair ahead of me, I was intrigued to see a narrow path head away to the right that was not in Wainwright. Out of curiosity, I followed it.
It proved to be another path, running in parallel to the main drag, about ten yards up the hill. It was narrow and unspoiled and I was completely alone. The walking was a little easier, because the ground had not been broken by overuse, and instead of the walking in this section being a grind, I felt refreshed and cheerful.
The path’s now marked in Hutchby’s Third Edition Wainwright, and it may no longer be the quiet alternative it was when I found it for myself, nor as discrete underfoot, but that’s the route I plan to tread, away from the numbers, as Mr Weller once put it, in his youth.
Given that I’m not aiming for the Langdale Pikes in any way, it would be completely legitimate to take the short cut zigzag route to the east of Tarn Crag (not the one beneath Sergeant Man), but that would be to do myself out of the supreme purpose of climbing to Stickle Tarn: the sight of Pavey Ark rising gradually but majestically over the lip of the final channel, and providing the glorious backdrop to the Tarn itself. No amount of climbing saved can justify passing this sight by.
For High Raise, it’s necessary to follow the shore of the tarn round, paralleling the great cliff-face, and following its feeder, Bright Beck, around the end of Pavey Ark. The crossing to the North Rake on the Ark is passed, and any first time visitor here will mark where it diverges, as did I.

Sergeant Man – my forgotten Wainwright

But we are bound for ahead. Wainwright is not impressed by the ascent after Stickle Tarn, but before too long the route drops into the channel of Bright Beck, and there is a long straight scramble beside the water. I can’t recall, but this may have been my first extended scramble, and I had a whale of a time, hauling myself along by hand and foot.
Ahead, at the top of the channel, was a strange white thing. I was climbing in either late April or early May, a bright, sunny day, but it was clear from a long way down that this was some deposit of snow, sheltered from the spring sun. When I finally got to it, the snow was extensive in depth, at least some ten feet and nearly six feet wide, and it was supported by a mass of long grasses. It looked like a natural ice igloo, that you could wriggle under, though I wasn’t about to try that, because it looked easily fatal if the damned thing collapsed on me.
Actually, the worst part of the walk was getting out of the gully on trackless grass. This brought me out into the open, onto the wide plateau that stands behind the front of the Langdale Pikes, filling the horizon from Grasmere to Langstrath. The sun was high and there was nothing left but an uphill walk to the bare top of High Raise.
In terms of the sheer extent of the flatlands, there isn’t another place in the Lakes that feels so exposed and yet so secure. The views are limited so far as valleys are concerned, but there is nothing for a long way around that overshadows High Raise and diminishes its isolation.
Sergeant Man, a rocky outcrop on the edge of High Raise’s top, is not geographically a separate fell, any more than is Pavey Ark, but on the same basis that Wainwright separated the Ark from Thunacar Knott, he divorces the Man to make it a separate destination, though it would be odd for anyone climbing either fell to ignore the other. The crossing is nothing but a downhill walk, without features, and indeed Sergeant Man is one of the very few Wainwrights about which I have no easily available mental image to call upon when I think of it.
From here, it’s a cross-country walk, downhill all the way, to the edge of the basin that contains Stickle Tarn, and that’s the way I retreated, because I was still bagging Wainwrights and I had already added all those around. But the point of these imaginary holidays is not to simply repeat what I’ve done.
So, instead of bearing off for Stickle Tarn, I shall turn my steps towards the broad ridge between Langdale and Easedale, until I reach the walkers crossroads on the moderate skyline, where the path beyond Easedale Tarn crossed the watershed. I came this way from Easedale once, gaining the ridge here aware that I was actually higher than the next summit along, Blea Rigg.
There’s nothing particularly exciting either at Blea Rigg or on the way to it, but it’s a variation on a walk done, and a change is always welcome. Blea Rigg then, and a slow stroll back, until paths start to lead down towards the Tarn, and then the short cut that doesn’t matter on the return journey, into the channel of Mill Gill, and back along the old familiar path, where twice I was headachey and sick in the same place, on the day of my O-Level results, and the day of the O-Level results two years later, when I’d already had my A-Level results.
For Wednesday, I want to head east, into the lonely country that’s as far away as Lakeland gets. This isn’t going to be an exciting walk, and neither will Thursday’s be, but there’s a thematic continuity between the two that link them. And these are places I have only been once, and thus are territory I want to revisit.
I’m planning a trip to Longsleddale, rounding from Kendal onto the Shap Road, and slipping off into that narrow road along that long, straight, unspoiled valley, as far as Sadgill. Once, there used to be a small parking space, easily filled on a busy day, but the last time I looked into Longsleddale, it looked as if this has swelled into a full-scale car park. Convenient though that would be, I’d rather I was wrong.
Walks along one ridge of a valley have the drawback of ending a long way from where they start. Revisiting Grey Crag and Tarn Crag means a long walk, either way, from the Head of Longsleddale to Sadgill, unless I want the walk to take place in a very small compass. Given the attraction of the Head of Longsleddale, I’d rather not.

Grey Crag – far east

This time, in the peace and quiet, I’m putting the long valley walk first. The farm lane rolls on, between drystone walls, level and straight, with the narrowing jaws of the valley and the rising packhorse track visible all the way. Up cobbled steps, where the horses hauled carts to the quarries, the steepening way into that quiet hinterland, that indefinite country where Gatescarth Pass continues to its summit, and the Mosedale valley opens up on the right, suggesting a country far removed from human habitation.
This is the way to go. Not into Mosedale itself, which on my one visit here struck me as a place where the miles are far longer than a mile and where people could disappear forever, melting into the landscape. For Tarn Crag, take the Mosedale path, with an eye to where the ascent of Branstree, left, begins alongside a mounting fence, and instead turn right, over featureless slopes, increasingly pitted with peat-bogs, through which the path threads until it reaches the lonely cairn.
There is only one site in Lakeland, as defined by Wainwright, that lies east of here, and that summit it a half hour on, at best, along a dull, damp, peaty ridge, before we reach Grey Crag.
There is no other distinction to this fell that its geographical position. It’s a flat, grassy top, with good views down into Longsleddale, but insufficient height to look at fells beyond the valley rim. Eastwards, the ground dissolves into rounded ridges, where at some point the Lake District comes to an end and indeterminate ground separates the walker who braves this isolation from the Howgill Fells, on the other side of Tebay Gorge. There is no real looking out, only the knowledge that you are looking out, out and away where nothing stirs the eye or the mind.
Descent to Longsleddale is marked by a patchy path, first west across the summit on a slow gradient to find the fence and the stile that permits progress, then a turn almost due south on a clear line descending the shallow green ridge to Great Howe, with its survey pillar off-route to the left, and its Longsleddale views, up and down. The escape off Great Howe isn’t worth risking in mist, with scarps and rock to thread through, as the ground gets steeper and the path a little less clear. But I should be able to safely get to the second stile, where wall and fence meet, and follow the wall towards the valley head until the path breaks and descends the easy gully that leaves you in the upper field. One more stile, and just the lower field to cross to the gate opposite the Sadgill parking facilities.
There was one curiosity I observed, ascending here long ago that should be clear to see in descent. Across the valley, on the flank of Shipman Knotts, I saw an intriguing path, a thing of zigzags, angles and reversals, snaking up the fellside, about halfway between the Kentmere ‘pass’ and Kentmere Pike’s Goat Crag. I instantly wanted to walk it, test it underfoot, but I couldn’t see where it went, up or down. I don’t believe so defined a route can only exist halfway up a fell, but neither Jesty nor Hutchby have teased it out, so either I suffered a sustained optical delusion or it’s a purely private farm path. This one attracts but frustrates the imagination.
From Longsleddale in the east to the furthest west. For the final day of this imaginary holiday, I’ve selected for myself a long walk, of the kind I used to reserve.
It’s long-distance in two senses, first in the drive from Ambleside to reach the starting point, on the crossing of Cold Fell, from Calder Bridge to Ennerdale Bridge, and in the walk itself, twelve miles, there and back. I’ve done longer walks, even on days when I’ve driven from Manchester first, and been returning the same day, but Wainwright warns that the miles are long on this ascent, long and empty. This is more of an endurance test than a walk for pleasure, because I intend to climb Caw Fell.

Caw Fell – far west

Six miles there, on the skyline south of Ennerdale, and six miles back, a long way from anywhere else. My only previous visit to Caw Fell was as an adjunct to ascending Haycock from Nether Beck, Wasdale, the nearest point involving the shortest incursion onto this unloved, wide-spreading fell.
And I’ve walked the beginning of this route, when I set out to collect the westerly group of Grike, Crag Fell and Lank Rigg, parking on the Cold Fell road and setting off along the old miner’s road through the forests. That was easy underfoot, although badly slutchy in at least one point, and if I’m going for the big one, there’s no need to waste time and effort on visiting those first two summits again.
So I can make good time over the first two to three miles of the exercise, on easy gradients that end up dipping to the bottom of the first serious rise. This is where the real walking starts.
And as with Robinson, I can’t recreate a walk never walked. I can only look at Wainwright’s map, and his contours. The dip at the end of the mine road, after passing beside Crag Fell, can’t realistically be called a col, but this is the first of two depressions to be passed as a Ridge Route from the fell. At this point, I’d be about halfway to my destination, with little or no difficulty walking to date.
From here though, I’ll be passing into the unoccupied open, the bare, grassy, unfrequented ridges that prompted me to class this region, from Nether Wasdale to the Loweswater fells, as the Western Margins. From the depression, the path starts to climb, initially quite steeply but then merely inexorably, as I start to scale Iron Crag.
The path is broad, and if it were needed, there’s a wall to the left that runs all the way to Caw Fell and beyond. It’s not a near neighbour as you grind out the ascent onto Iron Crag’s bareback top. I saw that part of the route from Caw Fell, Iron Crag running pretty much south to north, wide and empty. It looked lonely, and paradoxically something that might trigger my incipient vertigo. It’s the building roof/aircraft carrier syndrome, wide flat places with no walls or fences guarding their edges, leaving me uneasy about going over them, no matter how distant I am from anything I can fall over.
Across Iron Crag, there is another dip, a depression to cross, with streams descending westwards towards the grasslands of Whoap and Lank Rigg. Above that, the ridge is gained, and Caw Fell’s final bulk, lying on an east – west axis, the wall still the guide to the flat and exposed highest point. Where exactly that is is a matter of trusting the cairn builders: the cairn is north of the wall, which can be easily crossed to touch it. One half of the job is done.
All that remains is to return. Six miles have got me there, six more will get me back. On peak form, which is always the case in Imaginary Holidays, I’ve a couple of miles and a bit more in reserve, and a couple of thousand feet of untried, and this is not the kind of demanding walking as is involved in Scafell Pike from Seathwaite ascending via Sty Head and the Corridor Route and returning over the other two Pikes, Esk Hause and Grains Gill. Just stride out, ignore the monotony of the walking and the scenery, and who knows: by the time I’m back at the foot of the ascent to Crag Fell, I’ll have enough energy left to vary the return by traversing Crag Fell and Grike again, or maybe even Whoap and Lank Rigg.
Or maybe I’ll just maintain the purity of the only kind of walk I went out of my way to avoid, the pure There and Back Again, where every step of retreat is over the ground crossed in ascent. Back to the Cold Fell road, back to the long drive home by dying sunlight, and into Ambleside. Chicken and chips, eaten out of the paper on a bench beside the Park? It’s been a brilliant week.


Re-Planning Another Lake District Expedition

Maybe not…

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?

A Day in the Lakes: 2018

I’m sitting in a railway station.

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.


Yewbarrow in October

Deep blue sky from visible horizon to visible horizon. A glowing yellow sun. Diamond sharp air. Hard edged sun-cast shadows.

Today’s weather takes me back over twenty years to a similar week in a mid-Nineties October. Day after day it was cold and blue and crystal clear, and I was anxiously eyeing the sky for signs of it changing before I could get to the Lakes on Sunday for a day’s walking (United were at home on Saturday).

With the night drawing in from about 4.30pm, I couldn’t plan a long expedition, and I’d already been frustrated at Yewbarrow on a rainy, cloudy Saturday in the summer, so that former my plan. I was away up the motorway, crossing the south of the Lakes and cutting out the corner behind Black Combe on the Corney Fell Road. This gave me my first surprise.

I breasted the ridge, about 900′ or so, and saw the Irish Sea appear before me. It was amazing.

The sea spread out from side to side, and was a deep turquoise blue that I have never seen before or since. The Isle of Man lay in the middle of this, looking bigger and nearer than I have ever seen, before or since, as if the sea on the western side of the island were also visible. Further along the coast, there was a white circle, like a silver coin laid down on the turquoise, which puzzled me until I realised, from its position, that this was the estuary at Ravenglass, and that the white had to be the fresh water, pouring out into the sea, a different colour from the seawater and not yet merging.

It was stunning to see, but the first thought I had was frustration, at not having foreseen just how clear the air would be. Had I realised it would be, could be like this, I would have set the alarm a couple of hours earlier, and aimed to be at Wasdale Head in time to get up Scafell Pike: they say that it is possible from there to see the mountains of Ireland, and if they weren’t visible in those conditions, they never would be!

I motored on to Wasdale Head, parked at Down-in-the-Dale, and headed for the Hotel, cutting through its grounds and across the Packhorse Bridge for the path into Mosedale.

On my previous visit, kit had been a grey day, with cloud swirling about all the Wasdale tops, but I had set off with my usual grim determination optimism, banking on it clearing by the time I got that high. It didn’t. What was worse was that I had taken the broad green ride that rose from the Mosedale path, meeting the Dore Head scree run about halfway up, only to find when I got there that the scree-run had been dug into a scree-less rough channel, with ten foot overhangs guarding it, and no possible way across to the path on its further side.

I could have descended four to five hundred feet to the valley floor, and tried going up the far side, but I was not prepared to make that kind of retreat. This side of the channel was pathless, but studying what lay above, I figured I could get up that, especially if I angles over left, towards the base of the crags. Since I’m still here to write this, it obviously worked, but I’d not take that decision again.

I climbed carefully, a few steps at a time, studying the ground immediately ahead, and once I had got to the cliffbase, clinging on to it for comfort and support. It was slow progress, a couple of steps at a time where needed, working my way back towards the scree run at the centre.

The worst part was discovering there was no way onto the safety of the ridge on that side, not without climbing the base of Stirrup Crag itself. To get onto ground from which I could complete the ascent, I had to contour across the top of the trench, deep, scraped bare, no support under foot. It wasn’t as bad at Sharp Crag, but only Sharp Crag was a worse moment.

I’d reached the ridge safely, but the cloud hadn’t departed in the meantime. It was swirling around Stirruip Crag: no going on, no going back. My only option was to retreat down Over Beck, to circumnavigate Yewbarrow instead of climb it. And I hadn’t gone more than about four hundred yards before it started raining.

It rained hard. I’d gotten into my waterproofs as soon as it started but after a certain point, when it sluices down like it did then, waterproofs become waterlogs: I tramped back to Down-in-the-Dale, got behind the wheel and drove as close to the Hotel as I could and sprinted for the gents. By some incredible chance, I’d brought a change of clothes with me. I never did that, but I had that day, so I could get into dry things even if I wasn’t perfectly dry.

The only drawback was that I had not thought to bring replacement underwear. I was not prepared to go commando, though I really wish I had: my wet y-fronts immediately soaked through my jeans and I spent the rest of the day, returning via Cockermouth and Keswick, looking like a superhero around the loins.

But there would be no such occurrences this October Sunday. All well calm and crystal clear, bright and dry.

I passed under the broad green ride, and beneath the debouchment of the old scree-chute, after which I started looking for a path bearing upwards. The first I found was a narrow trod, on grass, gaining height through a sequence of minor dells, in which the grass underfoot sparkled with  miniature frost.

This played out after about three hundred feet and I contoured left, across the top of a prominent bluff, to reach a more firmly defined, but still narrow path near the edge of the trench. This was one of those superb, will-o’-the-wisp paths, never heading in the same direction for more than about six or seven steps at a time, zig-zagging to and fro, gaining height comfortable, before emerging in a little dell, dominated by a boulder in its centre/ I rounded the boulder, pulled myself up to the top and found myself on the ridge, about ten yards north of Dore Head.

Stirrup Crag was black against the sun. I tackled the scramble, hands and feet, twisting backwards and forwards and having a glorious time of it. It could have lasted at least twice as long as far as I was concerned, I was enjoying myself massively and sorry to come out on top of the Crag, on the rooftree of Yewbarrow, with an easy stroll to the summit rocks.

Many years ago, with my Dad and Uncle Arthur, we’d gotten close to here, leaving my mother and sister behind at Great Door and going ahead enough to look across and see Burnmoor Tarn on its boring moor. The western wall of the Scafell range looked magnificent: I usually gravitate to the eastern aspect, above Eskdale but this day the Wasdale front was worth every atom of daylight.

And then a slow descent, via Great Door, and down into Over Beck and, for the third time, the long slow walk back along the lake road. It was not as good as the first time I’d finished a walk that way, completing the Mosedale Horseshoe on a brilliant day, not being prepared to descend Dore Head, sight unseen, and coming this long way round, tramping the road at a September 6.30pm, the Pike and Scafell looking close enough across Wastwater that I felt as if I could reach out and touch them.

There was a long drive back, and it was dark before I was in Manchester, but the preternatural clarity of the weather had made it a magical experience for me. Today has brought it back, and I have wallowed in it!

My Family, My Lake District

I’m snapping myself out of a very low mood at the moment and the key to doing so is by writing, and what better subject to lift my spirits than by writing about my beloved Lake District? Forgive me if you’ve heard bits of this before.

My family is part Cumbrian on my Dad’s side, his father being the youngest of nine children born to Robert Crookall, station master at Ravenglass in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. When I was young, at least three of Grandad’s brother’s and sisters were still alive and living in the Lakes. There were Uncle Frank, Uncle Alf and Aunty Lily Bunting, with whom my parents had been very close in their courting days.

I don’t remember ever meeting her. I do remember, very faintly, going up to the Lakes when I was very young, before my sister was born, for something to do with her death. I don’t think it was the funeral, but rather I think it was something to do with the will and distributing her personal possessions among the family. We ended up with a lovely pair of brass covered bellows that hung on our wall at home, and which in later years I would polish, along with all the other brass, every December in the week before Xmas.

The only real memories I have of that day are of laying claim to something in the house I wanted us to have (what it was I can’t remember but we didn’t get it) and of being woken very early in the morning for the drive from Manchester. It gave me the opportunity to use a line I’d found funny in a Pixie and Dixie cartoon I’d just watched, where the meeces had hypnotised Mr Jinks to sleep and then woken him almost immediately. He’d said, and I repeated, “Sheesh, what a short nap.” But as Dad hadn’t watched the cartoon, it didn’t register with him.

This has the feel of an old memory, of the first memory, but it can’t have been. Twice we’d been up to stay with Uncle Frank, in Dalton-in-Furness, from where we’d been to the southern Lakes. I remember Windermere and Bowness Bay and I’ve no doubt we visited Coniston as well. But years later I learned that there’d been a rift in the family over the administration of Aunty Lily Bunting’s Will by Grandad and Uncle Alf (his immediately older brother), as a result of which the rest of the family wouldn’t speak to them again. We never saw Uncle Frank again and he died in the mid-Sixties, sometime, whilst we still lived in Brigham Street.

I don’t doubt that it was this rift that sent us on our first farmhouse holiday, to Low Bleansley and the Troughtons in the Lickle Valley. Bed, breakfast and evening meal, meaning that wherever we went we had to be back for six o’clock, which meant an early departure on days we went to Ravenglass or Wasdale.

Those holidays at Low Bleansley are golden memories for me. There was my Mam and Dad, my little sister (born in 1962), and Uncle Arthur, Dad’s elder brother, who did the driving. The B&B was Mrs Troughton’s side of things, but we’d chat with her husband and their son David, who worked on the farm. The first time we went, Grandad told me, on the Saturday before we came back, to ask Mr Troughton for “A lile bit o’ streer”, which he made me pronounce in the proper Cumbrian dialect, if not the accent. He wouldn’t tell me what it was, not even when I correctly identified it as “A little bit of straw”, which the amused farmer duly handed to me after I stumbled it out.

But we rapidly became friends who were welcomed back each year, not least because we always brought the sun in August. I remember my sister naming two lambs Sunny and Snowdrop (girls, what can you do?) and being able to identify them as sheep, I remember my first act of patience, making friends with the wilder of the two sheepdogs, I remember Dad and I climbing the fellside behind the farm one evening, and caching a film canister in the roots of a tree growing out of an outcrop of rock, with a thruppenny bit in it and at least one other thing I can’t remember.

At first, we did the things a family with two young kids could do. Steamer rides on Windermere. Sat by the Lake at Coniston. Trips on the Ratty. Wasdale Head, ‘don’t drive too near the water’ and strolls towards Sty Head. But at least one of the adults had their eyes on more.

I attribute it to my Dad. I’m always going to do that, whether I’m right or wrong about this, but I credit him for steering us into the fells the first time my sister was old enough, on an extra week away in April 1966, just the four of us.

That first walk was Hard Knott Pass, out of Eskdale, across the fellside. There were no paths, just Dad and his compass, identifying a point ahead on the right bearing and leading us there before taking another sighting. And me, complaining every step of the way, or if not every step, because they quickly got fed up with me, as many steps as I could get away with.

It took until our third walk, Sty Head from Wasdale, to get me up something with practically no whingeing, and that was because I desperately wanted to see Green Gable. And though I wasn’t aware of it then, that was also a Boy and his Dad: Mam wouldn’t let my little sister cross the scree-field so they went back to paddle in the beck and we went on alone, and what boy doesn’t want the good opinion of his Dad?

Fellwalking added another string to our bow and changed or holidays permanently. I vividly remember another day, with Dad and our car, where we set-off up one of those public footpaths on the Coniston/Broughton road, which vanished and left us wandering and coming down beside the former station and into the Village. It was bright sun and Dad set off alone to fetch the car, and we hung around on the corner and a group of lads came walking up the road from the Lake, singing what a day for a Daydream.

Even the Ratty, which was practically compulsory, was the basis for short walks: Boot and beyond, up the Whillan Beck and that one memorable (for all the wrong reasons) expedition to Burnmoor Tarn, and very carefully over the last stages to Stanley Ghyll Force.

We’d have carried on going to Low Bleansley for ever but it was not to be. One August Saturday, we cleared out after another lovely week, and then came the terrible news that on the Thursday following, Mrs Troughton had suffered a stroke and died. Such a lovely lady, such a terrible loss for her family and her friends, who must have included everybody who ever stayed there.

So the following year we had to adapt to self-catering cottages. On the one hand, that wasn’t much of a holiday for Mam, but on the other we were no longer tied to being back for a fixed time. Although I expect it was merely a coincidence that 1968 saw us reach our first summit(s). Middle fell, in Nether Wasdale, never identified as a target, just carrying on a but further until there was no further to go. Lingmell, led by Dad, which started off as a wander along the Valley Route to Sty Head and then a bit of climbing that went on and on, because I don’t think Dad would have got Mam to agree in advance to climbing up alongside Piers Ghyll (I mean, I was only 12 at the time, and I was the older one). Then Haystacks, which failed to impress Dad as much as it had the Blessed Wainwright.

In October, or maybe even as late as November, we got away for a long weekend in a small cottage (one bedroom, with bunk beds for us kids) at Force Forge. Apart from a last day visit to the Grizedale Forest Trail, I don’t remember where we went or what we did, but I have a poignant memory of lying in the top bunk with Mam and Dad talking below. It’s my last innocent memory. Back in Manchester, Dad went to the doctor, complaining of pains in his shoulder. They were the first indications of the cancer that killed him twenty-one months later, three months before my fifteenth birthday.

There were no holidays between Force Forge and the month after his death. About a month before he died, Granny and Grandad booked on a coach trip to the Lakes, to Penrith and back via Ullswater and Patterdale, the former a Lake I had never seen before, bright blue under a summer sun. I was the only one of us to see the Lakes in those months.

After Dad died, even though the school year had started, and it would be my O-Level year, Mam and Uncle Arthur took us on a holiday to the Lakes, staying in a farm a mile or two along the Coniston road from the Broughton Mills turning that led us to Low Bleansley, a break to let all of us get our heads something like straight. I remember rain in Ulverston, pouring rain, soaking plastic raincoats, and hiding out from the downpour in the covered market, where I bought what I thought would be the last American comic of my life (Justice League of America 75, incidentally). I remember a trip on the Ratty on the Sunday and wandering on the foothills below Eel Tarn and Stony Tarn, my mother complaining because I was now into pop music and had my transistor radio in my anorak pocket, to listen to Pick of the Pops, something she firmly stated Dad would never have allowed. I remember being allowed into the farmer’s lounge on Thursday night, to watch the first few seconds of Top of the Pops and rapidly scribble down the new Top 30 (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles number 1 for one week with ‘Tears of a Clown’. after six weeks of Elvis Presley and ahead of six weeks of Freda Payne. But nothing else.

Normal service, as normal as it was ever going to get after that, began the following year. We went back to the old routine of two weeks holiday each year, self-catering cottages in various places, fellwallking and the odd summit. Between 1971 and 1975, we added another six summits to our record (not counting Coniston Old Man, where we turned back in cloud less than one hundred yards from the cairn, and not counting Black Combe or Muncaster Fell either, because there wasn’t an Outlying Fells then, and also not counting Flat Fell, near Cleator Moor, because even though this did use the Outlying Fells, everybody slagged me off for suggesting it) and counting three tops in the last week, the only one we spent based near Ullswater, which aroused my mother’s anger at being dragged away from that only quarter of the Lakes they wanted to see, and which led to the behaviour towards me in Pooley Bridge that had me telling her, less than twenty four hours after we had arrived, that I was never going on holiday with them again.

My last day was momentous: we reached the end of Striding Edge, where my mother refused to let my sister tackle the chimney down off it, but I was sent on alone. Released from all constraint, I shot up the rest of Helvellyn in about ten minutes, without a break or even breathing hard.

I didn’t visit the Lakes again for six years. There was a snowy February morning in 1977 when I had a job interview at Cumbria County Council in Carlisle, involving a 7.00am start from Victoria Station and a glorious white vista from Oxenholme but I was not to set foot inside the national Parks boundary until the summer of 1981, a day out with my mother, sister and her future husband, to a dusty Wasdale Head, with Department S’s ‘Is Vic There?’ on the radio.

That visit can only have been a short time before I bought my first car, which I bought in time to use to get to Headingley in Leeds to see the August Roses Match (which is a story in itself). In October, I took a week off work and decided to go away to the Lakes, by myself, for a few days. I set off north, up the A6, for my first extended drive, headed for Ambleside and booked into a nice hotel overlooking the park. I stayed a night, moved on to Keswick for Wednesday night, to another nice hotel overlooking the park, and came home on Thursday.

It doesn’t sound like much and it wasn’t much, not really. But it was October, and dark, and though I’d chucked my old boots in the boot of the car, I’d no real intention of doing any walking. It was a practice, more than anything, at being responsible for myself, at driving the Lakeland roads, at the ideal time for it, with minimal traffic allowing me to get used to the bends and dips and rises and narrowness without the pressure of other traffic. To practice being able to go where I wanted to, without being restricted to other people’s intentions and, let’s say it, limitations. I even came back over Kirkstone Pass, despite the warnings about the Patterdale side.

I didn’t repeat the exercise in 1982, but the following year, in a week’s grace between changing from my first to my second job, I headed for Cumbria again, four nights this time, the last in Coniston enduring the agonies of a bout of food poisoning, which I put down to the cheese and onion sandwiches I’d had at lunch in Cockermouth.

But on the Tuesday morning, on the way from Ambleside to Keswick, I stopped off in Grasmere and climbed Helm Crag, by the old, long-since fenced off route. I set of at 10.00am, was back at the car for 12.00, just ahead of thirty six hours of solid rain. And before I set off from Cockermouth and the coast road on Thursday morning, I climbed Binsey from the back, dull as ditchwater as a walk but withholding the view until the last minute.

Small beginnings, literally. These two fells brought my personal tally of Wainwrights to eleven. Twelve years later, on a sunny spring morning in Nether Wasdale, I set off to climb my last Wainwright, the unlovely Seatallan, on a day of such heat haze the Scafells on the other side of Wastwater were invisible. From there, I crossed to Middle Fell, ending to beginning. I arrived on the summit, from behind, just as a party left, and I was alone for half an hour. Of those who had climbed there in 1968, only my sister was left, and she would never return. I talked to ghosts and let the words I spoke fly away on the wind.

In those years, and for far too few afterwards, fellwalking was an absolute passion. I would never have thought of any other holiday. The chance to get out into the fells, the mountains, the high and lonely places, the views that can’t be had without the effort being made, without the test of strength and stamina and stability and agility. Some of it was done in proxy for my father, who would have done all these things and been all these places if he hadn’t been cheated out of the years he should have had, if I hadn’t been cheated of his company of the fells, sharing what I did. Some of it was done because I was my father’s son and I inherited his love of these places.

All of it was done because I loved being in the fells, because that part of me that is Cumbrian rather than Lancastrian took me there, made me look at fells and ridges and crags and paths that twisted and turned and made me want to walk them. My family makes me what I am: once again, I honour them for what they gave me.

And being in the Lakes, even when it’s only in my head, and connecting to the thread of a lifelong love that will never fade, is a sovereign remedy for the downers of time and circumstances. Nothing can take away having been all the places I have been.

Planning Another Lake District Expedition

I’m coming back…

Having successfully managed to get myself a round trip on the Ratty and eighty minutes in Central Eskdale all by public transport in a single day, last month, I am now emboldened to plan another expedition to a part of the Lakes that I thought was more or less barred to me by distance and communication.

As some of you may now, for several years I’ve been in the habit of taking a week off in November, around my birthday, and treating myself to a day in the Lakes on the Thursday. Usually, these are pretty staid affairs: train to Windermere, bus to Grasmere, wander round Ambleside, blah de blah. There’s not much margin for variation.

But Eskdale has shown that maybe I’ve got more options that I dismissively thought, and another quick planning session has made it clear I can do something a bit less ordinary for 2018. I’m planning a Patterdale Expedition.

Credit for this must go to Drew Whitworth, whose splendid blog ‘The 214 Wainwright Fells without a car’ covers his determination not only to climb all 214 Wainwrights but complete a second round that includes every summit in the Outlying Fells as well, all via public transport (it’s in the Blogroll on the Home Page, and if you haven’t tried it, do so). His most recent walk included a trip on the Ullswater steamer from Howtown to Glenridding and a return from Patterdale on the 508 bus to Windermere. As Wally (Thhe Flash) West used to say, when Mark Waid was scripting his comic, Bing Bing, Bing Bing, Bing Bing.

So: by catching the 8.30am train from Manchester on the relevant date, and waiting 45 minutes for the 508, I can get to and from Glenridding (where I was married) and back for the 5.40pm train, returning to Manchester for 7.25pm. And, having safely arrived at Glenridding, I will have time for the complete round trip on the Ullswater Steamer, Glenridding to Pooley Bridge, calling in at Howtown both ways.

Of course, it’s not perfect. There’ll be no getting off at Pooley Bridge, just there and back, non-stop. And I’ve a 75 minute layover at Glenridding before I can catch the Steamer in the first place, not all of which I can fill by getting a hot meal. But I’m going to have two glorious hours travelling up and down Ullswater, my favourite Lake, the Queen of the Lakes, and I can say that even if it chucks it down the whole time I’m out there.

But if this comes out as well as Eskdale did, there’s all of next summer to play with, and with more sailings, who knows? Time to be a bit ambitious, methinks. Make this one work and we’ll see if I can contrive some quality time at Buttermere for 2019…

Eskdale Expedition

Once upon a time, going to Eskdale for the day would have been simple. It would have been alarm at 6.00am, behind the wheel at 7.00am, cross the Cumbria border at 8.00am and, depending on which of the many short cuts available that I chose, Eskdale for about 10.00am, early enough to climb Scafell, if that was my thing for the day.

But let’s not pretend that’s my option now. Public transport won’t do that sort of thing for me. Today’s expedition is going to cost a lot in terms of traveling time, the best part of ten hours on trains, or waiting for connections. And that’s not counting the Ratty.

Given that, at the very best, I’ll only get two and a half hours in Eskdale itself, some have asked if it’s going to be worth it? That’s before we throw in factors like being on a week’s leave, which means that this year’s extraordinary heatwave has vanished out the window, leaving cool, cloud-laden and frequently wet conditions all round, or that I’ve been feeling drained and dozy all week, the wet weather has brought out my arthritic knee and hip, not to mention that I’ve been finding sleep as elusive as the point to Boris Johnson, and I’m asking myself the same question.

It’s not merely tradition that sees me keep too the 6.00am alarm, which has to drag me awake. I’m booked on the 8.30am train from Piccadilly but I intend to catch the bus at 7.00am: it’s a 203, remember, and my paranoia about that service is entirely justifiable. I then excel myself by painfully half-jogging to catch the 6.50am bus which, with a clearly energised driver charging through traffic lights instead of slowing down in a bid to get them to turn red, drops me off with over an hour to spare.

Of course, if I had taken even half of that hour for additional sleep, I would not have been here for 8.45am.

Northern Rock at Ravenglass

My bag is full of all the wants and requirements for the day – scotch egg barms, water bottle, mp3 player with old-style ear-covering headphones and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, which I want to read in readiness for the English publication of The Labyrinth of the Spirits next month – except for cold drinks. I acquire two small bottles of Diet Coke and take up position in Platform 14’s ‘Departure Lounge’ by 7.50am, wondering how I’m going to get to Lancaster on a train bound for Blackpool North.

The mystery is solved when this is fully announced as one of those split services: from Preston the rear two carriages will detach and head for the seaside and the front two carry on for, ultimately, Windermere via my first change. Needless to say, Piccadilly announce that the other way round and we’ve reached Bolton (hack, plew!) before the conductor interrupts my musical reverie to tell me I’m in the wrong half of the train. I’d snagged myself a nice window/table seat too, but then I get another one further up, albeit with the surface sticky from spilt juices.

The day’s early tension faded out once I was on the train and everything was out of my hands, but the relaxation didn’t last.

There were some hints of blue streaks in the sky, pale from a hundred washings, and they grow a bit until, by Horwich Parkway the forward sky looks very promising.

We’re six minutes late at Preston and by the time the carriages are separated, we’ve eaten up fifteen of the twenty-five minutes I have between connections at Lancaster, enough to set the butterflies off again. The sky’s getting better and hotter, though there’s still enough cloud ahead of us to leave it all balanced.

I leave the train at Lancaster with that ten minutes still preserved, debouching onto the same platform the Barrow-in-Furness train will arrive at, but I relax only for moments. The Edinburgh train immediately before it is running late, enough that it will inevitably delay mine. For which I have a five minute connection at Barrow…

The Edinburgh train is processed out quickly, but next on the board is the bloody Glasgow train, which, as an express, takes precedence. A friendly porter confirms the Barrow train will follow it, about ten minutes late: they do try to hold the Coast train connection.

What can I do? Nothing but play it as it lays. I’ve been on a hot streak with the pen all the way so far, and I’m loving the music. So what if the bloody Glasgow train is itself five minutes late? My careful plans didn’t factor in checking alternatives, so until I get to Barrow, I won’t know when the next Coast train is. Every hour? Every two hours? Even if all I can do is turn straight round at Dalegarth, I’ll get my Ratty trip if it kills me.

At last, no more than seventeen minutes late, we move off. I’ve grabbed another window/table seat, from which I’ll be able to see the hills inland, once we’re around Morecambe Bay, but until then the views are through the other windows.

Irton Pike and Whin Rigg

At Arnside, we begin the crossing of the Bay, wide, flat expanses of water to both sides, long horizons. Kent’s Bank, where (Great-) Uncle Alfand Aunty Marion used to live, is an isolated platform in the middle of nowhere. I detect we’re approaching Ulverston (where I was once offered a job I declined) by the sight of the monument we only knew as Hoad (pronounced in a deep and serious tone not unlike Hoder), and this is where I get my first serious views of the fells. I have to puzzle out exactly what I’m looking at before I realise it’s the Conistons – this is an unusual angle to see them at – with the Old Man and Dow Crag cloud-bound.

Dalton, where we holidayed with Uncle Frank a couple of times before the bust-up over Aunty Lily Bunting’s Will that split the family, is much more extensive than I ever remember it. It’s alsowhen my connection should be leaving Barrow.

The train eventually crawls into Barrow, not that that matters when the conductor announces that the next Coast train leaves from Platform 2 at 12.06. So much for the 12.10 or 12.45 Ratty. So much for two hours in Eskdale.

If I have to sit around for half an hour in Cumbria, I wouldn’t choose Barrow Station (or anywhere in Barrow, come to that). It’s now bright, breezy and sunny and I’m filling in page after page in my Notepad with almost manic determination, swapping from the first draft of this post to a vital scene in my current novel, to another ‘Infinite Jukebox’ blogpost, inspired by one of the songs on my new, extended playlist.

The train arrives and the station announcer reels off a list of stops that takes almost as long to read as we were late in getting here. The driver wanders off for a cup of tea, leaving us standing on the platform, listening to the recitation over and over, until a couple of minutes before departure, when we are finally allowed to board. I score my fourth window/table seat of the day but I’m planning from here to spend more time gaping at Black Combe than writing.

At first, the Combe’s on my left as we swing north to cross the Duddon Estuary. A long line of rounded fells extends beyond it, and the predatory cloud keeps picking it its summit as I try to work out just what I’m looking at in the darker distance, but I’m unable to orient the angles to my satisfaction. On my side, the shrouded Conistons reappear.

I’m seeing the Duddon Fells again. It’s been a while. Proud and shapely little Stickle Pike, so easy to access from the top of the Broughton Mills road. Caw, beyond it, that I wanted to desperately to have been included in Wainwright and which I finally climbed from ‘The Outlying Fells’.

Next stop Foxfield (‘all change for Broughton and Coniston’, at least until Dr Beeching swung the axe that had so recently cut off that branch line when first I sailed past here). Shy red deer, a long long way from Martindale, peer at our train from an overgrown field, startled into stillness.

Millom, where one Friday teatime of a cottage holiday we went for fish’n’chips, stunned at the silence, the emptiness of the streets, as if we were in a ghost town, and indeed we were for though we didn’t know it then, this was the day they closed the Ironworks, throwing practically the whole town out of work without a word of warning.

This land is full of memories and the train just a line on which to peg them out.

River Irt at Dalegarth

Now we’re properly in the shadow of Black Combe, the cloud still snatching and retreating, and I can see the line of the path from Wicham by which we climbed it, without fuss or bother, in 1974, was it, when the haze was too great for the extensive view from the top, and then Silecroft but not its beach of stones, so perfect for two kids to try to hurl back into the sea. Rolling grass undulations keep us from seeing the sea.

Bootle, where Uncle Alf and Aunty Marion moved to, and to which I drove, in two successive Aprils, for their funerals. Some of the lower Eskdale Fells are now visible as we finally pass the Combe’s mammoth footprint, Muncaster Fell (which we climbed one morning before paying a duty visit to our elder relatives), a denuded Irton Pike, cloud behind.

I see more when we cross the Esk estuary. I see the gates into Eskdale, I see the shape of reclusive Miterdale, where last I reached its head I took my then-wife and her children. I see Scafell is cloud-choked.

And then it’s Ravenglass, and I may be way behind on my carefully planned schedule, but I am nevertheless here. Because this is where I come from, in whatever an atheist has for a spirit. Great Grandad Robert, who I never knew, was Station Master here. Grandad Arthur was born here in 1894. This is where the Crookalls are from, for all that the rest of my lineage is pure Manchester.

Do I recognise the Ratty? Not a bit of it.

It’s changed and grown, and I’ve seen too little of that, and nothing for the last fifteen years or so and everything of the ramshackle little organisation with the two trains, run by Volunteers from a Preservation Society, the members of which included my Dad, descending to me after his death, is gone. Only the lines and the turntable remain. I’m booked on the 1.30pm from Platform 3 (Platform 3!). There’s a green steam train hooked up to it.

I hasten down to see it (and take a photo), though it’s ‘Northern Rock’ and not the familiar and very old faithful, ‘River Irt’. The surroundings may have changed, but the small of coal and steam is instantly recognisable.

There are a variety of carriages: open, closed, roofed. I stake a claim in an open carriage with ages to go. I am going to see everything the clouds will allow me to see. And this really is how it used to be: I remember roofed carriages first being introduced. I remember ‘Northern Rock’ being introduced to the line, and the debate about what to name it: it was suggested that, to harmonise with the three steam trains already operating, it be called ‘River Bleng’, and wondering where the heck the Bleng was.

Water Mill at Boot

How long is it since I actually rode on the Ratty? It isn’t this century, but Hell’s Bells, it could be as long ago as the Eighties! It was a cold, frequently wet day, with the fells out of the question and I made up my mind on the spur of the moment, killing time with a there-and-back-again to Dalegarth that I remember for getting chatty across two carriages with an attractive young blonde (wearing a wedding ring) who was up from Lancaster for the day. At Irton Rose, she invited me to sit with her in her carriage to continue the conversation, an enthusiasm for my company I wasn’t used to. Alas, to my everlasting regret, I took the ring pretty seriously, and let her go off wandering from Dalegarth instead of volunteering to accompany her: what else  was I doing with my time anyway? Frequently, the kindest word I can say for my younger self is ‘chump’. Absolute chump.

There are no blondes today, attractive or otherwise, and the conductor reckons it will rain before we get to Eskdale. So what? If it rain, it rains. (And it doesn’t).

Steam starts to be produced up top amidst a regular noise more like clicking than chuffing. I’d worried about getting a train in mid-August, even on a midweek day, remembering crowded carriages and sharing compartments but we’re not much more than half-full. It never used to be like that on the Ratty in August.

We’re only waiting for the line to clear, for ‘River Mite’  all handsome in gleaming maroon, to draw in the down train. Oh God, I remember ‘River Mite’ being introduced, and the shock of seeing it not being in green livery, before the decision to repaint ‘River Esk’ in black.

Then we’re really off and outside the station everything is as it was fifty years ago, and if you think I’ve waxed nostalgic this far, now I’m mainlining times that were. Parents and Uncle and kid sister crowd me into the corner of this little compartment and for a moment, several moments, eyes sting and my cheeks are wet.

Irton Road (where I am shocked to find we don’t stop) means we have swung away from the line of the Mite and the miniature crags and cliffs of Muncaster Fell, and are entering Middle Eskdale. Harter Fell stands proud, taller than its real height, and Green Crag’s Cullin-like ridge commands the eye. Eskdale Green has, shockingly, been renamed ‘The Green’ (and we don’t stop there either, what is this place coming to?) But we do stop at a station that never existed in my time, Fisherground Halt, because these intermediate stations are now only request stops.

Next is Gilbert’s Cutting, which flabbergasts me by being so green, moss and fern having softened the bare rocks of its creation in 1963. And Beckfoot Crossing, where the line of ‘Owd Raty’ runs parallel for a stretch before diverging to Boot village, a section deemed too steep for ‘Laal Ratty’ when it was rescued from oblivion.

At last I’m in Dalegarth, for 2.10pm, giving me only eighty minutes among hills and fells, rock and grass and woods not seen in like forever, that I’d honestly given up hope of seeing again, and I was wrong about that, and glory be, ‘River Irt’ is sat here, bright as ever, waiting to pull the next down train.

Green Crag and Birker Force across Eskdale

Where our walks to Boot tended to be more of an amble, I haven’t the time now to be anything but brisk. I cross to the right hand side to face the oncoming traffic, little of it that there is, but nobody else does. Boot has been heavily re-developed, and they’re still knocking it about now, scaffolding over the bridge: tourism. I don’t recognise much.

But the path I want, up beside the Whillan Beck (we always called it ‘the’: I wonder why) has to be the only one on the right. The cascades and torrents, the rushing, milk-white water crashing down over broken rock is immediately familiar, but it’s inaccessible now, and I’m sure there used to be a monkey-puzzle tree along here. And surely this wasn’t a tarmaced lane? Often steep, it leads me almost to Gill Head Farm (National Trust) and the real footpath, to Eel Tarn and Scafell. A half day scrambling around here, that forlorn week of going away after Dad died, me with my little transistor radio in my anorak front pocket, my mother disgusted.

From here I should have the perfect view of Scafell’s least interesting side but for that bloody cloud. It’s not much, it’s not far, it’s maybe 500′ at the very best, but it’s all I can do in the time I have.

So, down to Dalegarth again. The steep bits of the lane are worse for my knees than in ascending, but its still quicker downhill. The Whillan Beck cascades are too screened by trees for a decent photo but I take one anyway. Back in Boot, there’s a big pub with a big beer garden, full of benches and tables full of people, with parasols advertising Robinson’s Bitter (our Robinson’s Bitter? Robbie’s from Stockport?) and that’s just wrong, completely wrong. My parents would have had a fit.

The first thing I do back at the station is to leave a little liquid reminder that I’ve been here (TMD, I hear you cry but I couldn’t resist the alliteration). I’ve just finished buying replenishments when my train steams in: this time it’s ‘River Mite’, to my disappointment, having hoped to see the old holy trinity of trains (‘River Esk’s driver is off ill, I later hear). Three rivers three trains, three memories.

I transfer the contents of a bottle of cold Harrogate Spring Water (what’s wrong with Buxton, then?) to my water bottle and drain the cold can. As I recycle plastic bottles and cans fervently, I have to take these home. I’m now accumulating quite a stock.

As we pull out, the first fine spatters of rain hit us, but we quickly outrun them. So much for showers in Eskdale.

Whillan Beck cascades

I sit with my back to the engine, looking back at where I’ve been, at Eskdale for the longest possible time. At the end of the line, bordering the Mite estuary, there behind me is Nether Wasdale, free from cloud at last. Seatallan, where it ended, and Middle Fell, where it started, side by side. Unseen, all the other Wainwrights crowd between them.

As I cross the the mainline station that Great Grandad would probably still recognise, I’m gratified by one last reminder that not everything has changed: ‘River Mite’ has edged onto the turntable, and the driver still has to turn it round by applying his shoulder and pushing!

It’s all about going home now and retreat is never as interesting as advance. It should be straightforward as I have only the one change, at Lancaster, ahead of me, with a forty-six minute connection to sit out. Of course, that depends on the 4.25pm train turning up on time and it doesn’t. A clearly disgruntled customer with a smartphone reports it is running twenty-five minutes late. Still, if i have to hang around a railway station, Ravenglass is my preference.

Once the train arrives, correctly late, it’s chocker with homebound workers from Sellafield. There’s not a seat to be had and I’m bloody lucky that I only have to stand until Silecroft. It’s now a beautiful evening, glorious traveling weather: beyond Bootle, I can catch glimpses of the sea from my ‘extra’ height, sparkling and light, but we’re both too low and too far south for there to be the remotest possible chance of glimpsing the Isle of Man.

Coming this way, I remember a Sixties holiday when we all drove up as usual in Uncle Arthur’s car on Saturday, but he had work commitments and couldn’t stay the week, so on the Tuesday morning after the Bank Holiday Monday we saw him off from Silecroft to Manchester on the ancestor of this train, and he left his car keys for Dad to drive the rest of the week.

At long last, my non-stop writing is slowing down, not that it stops for a very long time yet. But this is Barrow again, and it’s now nearly twelve hours since that alarm dragged me awake. And still hours to go before I get home.

After Barrow the train becomes an express, stopping only at Carnforth, which I’m sure it wasn’t originally. We flash through empty station after empty station, chasing the sun and the glitter on the Bay towards a mainland dark with cloud that we nevertheless brush away. The train was originally scheduled to reach Lancaster for 6.26pm, then forecast for 6.44pm, and it pretty near exactly splits the difference when it does arrive. Which means another thirty minutes hanging around before I grab my last window/table seat of the day.

Even with all the stops we have to make, I’m not sure why it’s supposed to take us more than ninety minutes to Piccadilly, but I get my explanation at Preston, where we arrive at 7.30pm. In a symmetrical moment I would normally appreciate if it hadn’t been so long a day already, we are to be joined by a Blackpool North train and depart at 7.44pm. Trains, eh?

River Mite

I’m still writing away, though the energy level has dipped. A quick check at the end of the day confirms I have covered fourteen and a half two-sided sheets of the Reporters Notepad, which is going to make for a lot of typing up and redrafting over the next couple of days. Not looking forward to that.

Sunset is now advancing like a Roman Army conquering Gaul, and will coincide with my arrival at Piccadilly. There’s Rivington Pike and the Winter Hill transmission mast to the right, and to the right are the last sunlit clouds, the ice cream castles of Joni Mitchell’s words and Judy Collins’ voice, earlier in the day, massive vanilla ramparts. When I worked for Bolton Council, one of our Chief Surveyors took me up our private road to Winter Hill. It’s bloody flat up there, no place to be on foot in cloud.

Finally, it’s Manchester. I’m lucky enough to drop onto a 203 bus after only a couple of minutes and now I’m really tired and glad to get in for more or less 9.30pm.

Could it have been better? Of course it could. Would I have preferred to have had a companion? Yes, I would. Was it worth it? Course it bloody was, and I’ll do it again, and there’s the full Coast train run to Carlisle to try.

Because it’s possible. And because when life hands you lemons you make lemonade, even if it takes you ages to work out the recipe. I’ve been back to the Ratty, I’ve been back to Eskdale. What’s next?