A Comparison of Cumbrian Crime


I rarely visit the library these days, having too many of my own books that need reading to need to borrow others. Usually, I only drop in at the library if I happen to be passing, with time to spare. Last week, on the way back from the dentist, with no work to go to, I stopped for a browse. Gravitating to the Crime Fiction shelves I came out with ‘new’ books by Martin Edwards and Rebecca Tope.

As crime fiction writers, the pair have very little in common. Edwards writes about Cold Case DCI Hannah Scarlett, usually aided by former TV Historian, Daniel Kind, whilst Tope, a very prolific writer with three multi-book series, focuses upon Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown, a florist.

Straightaway, you can see the difference. Edwards is about police procedure and grittiness, crimes of anger and violence. Tope is a writer of ‘cozy’ crime fiction, in which violence is kept at a safe, non-threatening distance. A florist who’s a crime-solver versus an experienced Police Inspector: no comparison.

What the two series do have in common is their setting. They are, so far as I am aware, the only crime fiction series set in the Lake District.

I’ve reviewed previous books in both series, and not very favourably, either. Edwards writes out of love of the Lakes, but he’s got an appallingly tin ear when it comes to representing it. No-one in his books sound remotely Cumbrian (I don’t mind writers preferring not to phonenticly reproduce the accent, but you should at least use the local dialect and take a stab at the rythm of speech: you know, sound authentic), his made up names are unimaginative and have no Cumbrian roots and apart from the odd token mention, you’d barely know there were such things as fells and lakes strewn about all over the place.

I’ve read and blogged the six books of the series at different times, but when nothing new appeared, assumed Edwards had come to a conclusion, having finally resolved the by-then tepid sexual tension between Hannah and Daniel by having them finally snog and lay plans for a very forthcoming shagging weekend. I was mildly surprised by the appearance of book seven, The Dungeon House, and even more surprised to discover it’s been out since 2015, and this was the first time I’d seen it.

Tope is a different case. I’d read The Coniston Case, attracted by the name, but not been overly impressed. ‘Cosy’ crime is not my thing, but apart from a couple of errors based on inadequate research, the book, and the other one I read after it, was fairly authentic. Tope confines her stories to within flower-delivering range of Windermere Village and uses real locations with their correct names. Like Edwards, however, she makes no effort to make anybody, no matter how local theey and their roots are, sound remotely Cumbrian, though honesty requries me to state that all her books thus far are set in what was once vanished Westmorland, or Furness Lancashire.

I’d picked up two more of Tope’s books on a recent previous visit. The series now extends to four after The Coniston Case, itself the third book. By chance, I’d picked out books five and seven so in each of them I was having to adjust to background changes that had taken place in the intermediate books. This visit saw me borrow The Troutbeck Testimony (all the books have alliterative titles: Tope’s running out of localities, so I’m eagerly awaiting how she manages to incorporate Kentmere into her running theme).

Back to Edwards and The Dungeon House. Although he’s followed his usual formula of starting with the cold case, twenty years ago (insanely posssessive booze-sodden husband, convinced his seriously attractive MILF wife, is having it off behind his back, candidates multiplying exponentially in his paranoid head, blasts her in the face with a shotgun), Edwards takes a different angle on the contemporary investigation, making this book into almost a Hannah Scarlett solo. Daniel’s there and abouts but he’s mainly a background character, though he does provide a vital clue as the demouement approaches.

Instead, Edwards splits the viewpoint between Hannah and one Joanna Footit, a minor character in the twenty-years-ago prelude who, after two miserable decades away, returns to the area on impulse, aiming to be more positive, whilst still holding a torch for Nigel Whiteley, her ex-boyfriend, the nephew of the murderous Malcolm, who killed his wife, his sixteen year old spoilt brat daughter whom he worshipped and himself.

Nigel’s in the news. His sixteen year old daughter has disappeared. Hannah’s team are involved because three years earlier another young girl, daughter of a local Accountant, also went missing, never found or solved.

By the time the book is over, practically every character named – and everyone is in each other’s business and/or pockets to an almost incestuous degree – is found to be guilty of something. But the truth is out, including the truth about the old crime, and what Joanna Footit, with her long, attractive legs and her tits like thimbles, saw that she’s kept secret for twenty years. Both the missing girls are found alive, though yoou can’t say that their futures are going to be free of rocks and shoals after their completely contrasting experiences.

In short, it’s typical of Edwards. It has the same virtues and failings of the earlier books in the series, even down to trying to keep the will-they-won’t-they-oh-who-cares-any-more? tension between Hannah and Daniel alive. She’s living wuith him at Tarn Cottage, beneath Tarn Fell (see what I mean about imagination?) in fictional Brackdale, enjoying herself and getting good sex out of it, but contiinuallyworrying about whether the relationship’s going to be long-term, will he get bored with her? You know, the usual weak and feeble stuff meant to keep things tottering still, but here just annoying. Having brought thetwo together, Edwards should really be about creating a new dynamic appropriate to the changed situation rather than prolonged a clapped-out one no longer fitting the changed emotional environment.

Noticeably, we never get Daniel’s take on this, except that he wants her to stay instead of move out to her own place.

The setting, this time, is West Cumbria, where Edwards has never seen fit to tread before. More specifically, it’s Ravenglass and its local villages, like Seascale and Drigg. Now I’m precious about the Lake District, but that’s nothing to my being precious about Ravenglass, because that’s where my roots spring from. And Edwards presentsa picture of Ravenglass that is superficially accurate but in every important respect doesn’t feel remotely like Ravenglass. He misdescribes the estuary, the triune of the rivers Esk, Mite and Irt, he makes everywhere sound much bigger and busier than it really is (which is colossally stupid in the case of Santon Bridge) and whilst having one of his characters be a landscape painter means he has to recognise more of the fells, all they are are names. Not places. Not places he can evoke the way anyone who sets a story in the Lake District really has to do.

Rebecca Tope’s Simmy Brown (and that is such an awful name on so many levels) is not an amateur detective. The basis of the series is that, as a Windermere-based florist, her flower-delivering brings her to places where murder has either taken place or takes place shortly afterwards. Simmy doesn’t want to know about crime, but keeps getting dragged into it, by constant chance, and by pressure from her two ‘team’-mates, Melanie Brown, her assistant in the shop, and eager, intelligent schoolboy Ben Harkness. Simmy is 38 to their 20 and 17 respectively. The fourth recurring character is DI Nolan Moxon of the Windermere Police, who appears to fancy Simmy, an attraction not reciprocated by the florist, who has come back to Windermere following the end of her marriage in the wake of a stillbirth.

The Troutbeck Testimony is set post-Easter, a year after Simmy opened her shop and several months after both she and Moxon were badly hurt in the previous book. There’s change in the background. Simmy’s having the occasional night in with the unreliable and extremely passive potter, Ninian, Melanie’s job-hunting to further her career and suggests the anorexic Bonnie Lawson to replace her in the shop but, most serious of all, Simmy’s father Russell is sddenlt getting paranoid and fearful, as a consequences of Simmy’s adventures.

Throw in Russell overhearing what appears to be a planned burglary, he and Simmy finding a dead dog on Wansfell Pike, and a man having his throat cut in Troutbeck, the villages in which Simmy lives, and there’s a new complication that, despite all her efforts to remain uninvolved, the florist finds herself once again caught up in.

There’s a lot going on, a lot of new people being introduced and some quite complex background elements to be sorted out, whilst Simmy would rather concentrate on the extensive funeral flowers ordered to commemorate a prominent local citizen, with a wedding hard on its heels, her difficulty in getting to grips with the initislly confusing Bonnie and her Dad’s fears.

It’s a different approach. Melanie’s backing off – the hyper-inteelligent Bonnie is her replacement in more ways than one – and Ben’s being pushed away from the murder, which seems to be at the centre of things but which turns out to be incidental to everything. It’s Simmy who works out who the murderer is, just ahead of the woman coming to give herself up: the closest thing to horror in this mannered version of crime is that the killer made more or less the same mistake everyone’s made, and killed an innocent man.

Knowing changes that are to follow in more recent books, I can be appreciative of how Tope doesn’t let her backgrounds go static, and I realise I’ll probably follow this series to keep up with the quasi-soap opera background because I’m engaged at this refreshening. That, for me, puts Tope ahead of Edwards.

The Dungeon House is the most recent to date of Martin Edwards’ Lake District series, and the lapse of time is the longest gap between books, assuming he has plans for more. Rebecca Tope’s series seems too be coming out roughly every eleven to twelve months, so that suggests another in March this year.

They’re neither of them what I want to see in a Lake District crime series, but for that I think you’re going to need a born and bred Cumbrian, someone who will treat the Lakes as more than just a coloured backcloth, and make it integral to the story without being overwhelming. Doesn’t look like anyone on the horizon, yet.

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.

Bastards.

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…

Winter Windermere


The snow is now laying on pavements and side-streets, but is vanishing from rooftops and ceasing to inconvenience us in Stockport. It’s still bringing back memories of other snowy periods: this one’s from the mid-Nineties, when I was still a Solicitor.

We were acting for a famous TV personality who also owned a Lake District Hotel famed for its food. I’d been assigned a case with an interesting and contentious legal point. There were, and I assume still are, very stringent, even draconian Health and Fire Safety regulations, about accommodation provided to Hotel staff. Our client had been summonsed in front of the Magistrate’s Court over the application of such regulations to another building, in a different part of Windermere, maintained for external staff accommodation.

Our client was disputing the applicability of the regulations to a property not physically attached to the Hotel: it was absurd to apply them to a distant building. My legal research suggested that the regulations were intended to be so draconian that they applied to external property, but we had taken Counsel’s Opinion, and were fighting the case. It was to be heard on Friday morning, at Windermere Magistrates Court, and I was to attend to sit behind our Barrister.

The problem was, this was taking place in January, and the Lakes were getting very badly hit for snow. I was to drive up on Friday morning, visit the Hotel first, then collect the Barrister from the Railway station and drive him to the Court. The owner would not be attending and the Hotel was to be represented by the Manager.

(Though it’s not relevant to this story, the outcome was that the Court found against our client. He was furious and we looked into an appeal, but I left the firm before learning the outcome of this. However, during once conference with the senior Partners, who were unhappy at the Barrister’s failure, I had the temporary pleasure of asking them to shut up whilst I re-read and got my head round a particular provision in the regulations, and came to the conclusion – which they eagerly supported – that our Barrister had misinterpreted and got 180 degrees wrong. They were talking of suing him for negligence, which you can’t really do with Barristers…)

I was looking forward to an extra visit to Cumbria, even if it was only Windermere. On the other hand, I was a bit cautious of the weather. The first sign came on the Thursday. I called the manager to confirm the following day’s arrangements. I asked him about the snow. I clearly remember his reply. “Well, I got in today without any problems,” he said, “but then I do have skis.” That did wonders for my confidence.

But Friday was clear and fine, in Manchester at least, and all the way north up the M61/M6, as far as Kendal, that is and the turning for Windermere. I had not gotten very far beyond the bypass before the snow started piling up in increasing piles. The foothills around the lower ends of Kentmere and Troutbeck were white, as were the higher fells visible in the interior, but the snow had been efficiently been swept to the verges. Where it was worryingly thick.

Carefully following my directions, I drove through Windermere to the mini-roundabout at the foot of Kirkstone Pass, turned back on the Bowness Road and then into the street where the Hotel was situated. It was a bit slushy, but nothing like the Hotel drive, up which I drove very cagily.

I’d allowed plenty of time, more than had proved necessary, so after being introduced to the manager and getting directions from him to the Magistrate’s Court, I backed out again, very carefully, and headed back to meet our Barrister at the station.

The Magistrate’s Court (which has been shut for years) was a big, detached building on the left side of the main road down from Windermere to Bowness Bay. Our Barrister wanted to get some things before the hearing so I drove him down to the edge of Bowness Village, the first shops, paid a token visit to a bookshop whilst waiting, and then found a parking place more or less opposite the Court.

I won’t bother you with proceedings within which, in any rate, would probably breach client confidentiality. The Court was a big, wide open, old-fashioned building, practically two-storeys high, with a skylight letting on to the mid-morning sky. I mention this in particular because once Court started, we sat there whilst the  minor stuff was dealt with and then got on about 10.45.

About fifteen minutes later, I chanced to look up. There were big, swirling, ominous snowflakes falling onto the skylight. They didn’t cease for the rest of the morning.

So I’m trying to concentrate on the legal arguments, so that I can keep comprehensive and preferable accurate notes whilst every 45 – 90 seconds looking up nervously, trying to work out from that little rectangle of sky just how high it might be piled up outside.

The road was still clear when we emerged defeated, but the sky was iron and the snow was showing no signs of even easing off. I delivered our Barrister to the station to make his way back to Manchester and returned to the Hotel – which was even less firm under my wheels – to report back to the Manager.

I was raring to get going, before things got worse and I found myself up the Lakes without a paddle, but I’d been promised a lunch by the Hotel, not to mention the chance to get out of my suit and into comfortable clothes, as I was not expected to be back to the office that day. And even though I could have been back there for about 4.00pm without making any undue effort at it, I had no intention of returning to the office this side of the weekend.

The lunch was not typical of the Hotel’s justly famed cuisine, being a simple steak and kidney pie, but it was a really tasty steak and kidney, with gloriously flaky pastry and loads of gravy, but, what was more important at that moment, it was hot.

Still, I did not linger over it, and as soon as I was decently able, and sent on my way with an equally hot cup of coffee, I was out of there.

Of course, I needed to communicate the result to the office so, having had to take a wide circle round through Bowness again, just to get safely away from the Hotel, I stopped off at a public telephone box (this was prior to the age of my having a mobile phone) and rung Manchester.

To my secret delight, neither of our Senior Partners were available. In fact, there was a general shortage of people available to take a call, so I ended up speaking to another of our Partners who had nothing to do with the case, to pass on the outcome and confirm that I would deliver a full report on Monday. And, with the streets starting to get worryingly slushy, I settled thankfully into my driving seat, and headed for the Kendal road and the rapidly diminishing risk of being stuck up there.

I love the Lakes, and they look gorgeous under snow, but I have never rushed away from them with such eagerness. If I’m going to be staying there in conditions like that, it’ll going to be under my terms, not the weather’s. I got in alright, but then I do have skis: no thanks!

Imaginary Holidays: Exile on a Side Street


Once upon a long time ago…

One of the running themes in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, especially those set in or around Ankh-Morpork, is that what most people mostly want is that tomorrow should be roughly similar to today. We respond to that with a wry smile because we recognise its essential truth.

For many years, I lived my life expecting that its parameters would continue to apply forever. My career, the income I made from it, the interests I pursued in my leisure time, these would, with the inevitable, minor changes brought about by the passing years, stay the same.

The Lake District, its fells and mountains, lakes and tarns, it’s lonely, high paths and ridges, would always be there for me. Yes, a day would come, in some unimaginable future that had no bearing upon me as yet, when increasing age would reduce stamina, flexibility, strength. Some walks, some scrambling would become progressively untenable. Scafell Pike from Seathwaite, ascending by Taylorgill Force, the Corridor Router and Lingmell, descending by the subsidiary Pikes, Great End, Esk Hause and Grains Gill, would one day become too much for me to manage, even if I tackled it without first driving up from Manchester.

But if certain walks would move beyond me, others would remain. The fells would always be there. They are still. The high and lonely places remain, though the loneliness diminishes each year. They are there for me, but I am not there for them

I never imagined a time might come when I would be exiled from the fells. That my life would change in unexpected ways that broke down almost every aspect of that same-every-day life I used to live. That my ultimately smug assumption that I could always escape into the hills would one day become nothing but a mocking memory.

My health has changed. I have an arthritic right knee and hip, the latter kept under mostly-pain free control by medication but the former a constant irritation. There are other medical matters, controlled by an array of medication. But given the opportunity to exercise, to retrain myself to a greater walking fitness, given time, I would not, I fancy, disgrace my past too outrageously.

But the fells may be there, but I cannot be. I do not have a car, and I do not have the means to acquire one or run it if I did. Drew Whitworth may be on a second round of climbing not only all the Pictorial Guide Wainwrights, but also all the Outlying Fells, but he’s a bit younger and a lot fitter and, at the end of the day, less strapped for cash: he shows it can be done, but not everyone can emulate him.

It’s hard to say this without it coming over like a whine. Trust me, I can whine if the circumstances require it, but I try to limit the whining until I’m alone and I can feel thoroughly sorry for myself. But even then, I’m far too conscious that too much of my present, and persistent circumstances are my own responsibility. I am where I am through my own fault, I accept my blame.

At the moment, I can afford occasional train trips to the Lakes, without overnight stays. That means I can get to Windermere, for Ambleside and even Grasmere, or Penrith, which is almost twice as much in train fare and requiring another hour on the bus if I want to penetrate as far as Keswick.

Several years ago, I calculated that it is possible to leave Manchester at not too outrageous an hour in the morning, and by changing trains and using the Ratty of beloved memory, I could spend a couple of hours in Eskdale, enough time to walk to Boot and the waterfalls of the Whillan Beck before I have to begin the carefully-planned journey home.

I haven’t checked in recent years to see in the logistics hold up but I never followed through on this plan because it wanted a fellow-traveller, someone preferably female and sympathetic, to enjoy the day alongside me. Which set up another and different kind of problem.

But without a car, without transport of my own, to go when and where I wish, without fear of train-times back, the list of places in the Lakes that I cannot see is horrible to contemplate. Wasdale, Great Gable, Ennerdale, Pillar, the Buttermere Valley, High Stile and Haystacks, Back o’Skiddaw. Perhaps from Penrith, I can get to Pooley Bridge, maybe take the round trip on the Ullswater steamer, but Mardale and Haweswater…

It’s one thing to accept that my knee and hip might restrict my ability to get out onto the fells, to remind myself of a world I used to assume was mine by right, and the authority of a pair of good boots, but without making myself independently mobile, I cannot even see the majority of those places that used to be so familiar.

What’s left is imagination and memory. I’ve told most of the good stories of walks past, here on this blog. But that doesn’t deny me the ability to take myself back in thoughts and words. I have a series on Imaginary Albums on here: maybe I should start to write about Imaginary Holidays as well…

A day in the Lakes 2017


Julian Cooper

It always begins with the Twitch. That’s the paranoid fear of missing a bus,  a train, a connection, the impossible-to-eradicate response to no longer being in control of my travel and my destiny, of being reliant on public transport. Last year’s debacle was the ultimate reinforcement.

So this year I’ve taken precautions. Not only am I going out an extra quarter hour early, I’ve booked a Day Return ticket: no being tied to specific trains.

Which is why the 8.00am bus turns up at 8.00am this year, not 8.25am as it did 52 weeks ago. True, at certain points in the journey progress is as turgid as it was then, but I am getting off at Piccadilly Station with twenty-five minutes to spare before my train is due: time to burn.

Not that I can afford to relax completely. The Glasgow train is due at 9.15am, but the 9.07am Liverpool train on the same platform is delayed to 9.14am, which will throw my train back, and I know from two years back just how tight the connection is at Oxenholme. Nothing I can do about it from here.

It’s grey and damp in Manchester, but what do I expect if I insist on doing this in November? I read two contradictory weather forecasts yesterday, one promising rain and cloud all day, the other a dry, sunny afternoon.

From Preston, little glimpses of blue start to emerge and the day grows brighter. I’m hemmed in at a table seat, with an Asian mother/daughter pair in the aisle seats and a young Chinese woman opposite me with an Apple Macbook and the urge to encroach on my part of the table. This leaves me very little room to move my arthritic right knee, which is serious, or to tackle the Guardian puzzle page, which isn’t but which is nevertheless irritating. I’m glad for my mp3 player and my old-fashioned, ear-covering headphones for blocking off Mum’s nonstop barrage of words.

Miraculously, two of them get off at Lancaster, leaving only daughter, diagonally opposite, in place. My knee is very glad.

Suddenly, we’re on the shore of Morecambe Bay and I’m twisting in my seat to look across the sparkling water to a south Lakeland skyline. I have to be quick, but I identify the bulk of Red Screes, looming over Kirkstone, and further back and further in there’s a glimpse of a shady Langdale Pike or two. It looks good here, but I suspect that by Ambleside that’s all going to change. On this point, I will be gloriously wrong.

By Oxenholme, it’s all auburn and gold. The Ill Bell range stands out proudly and the nearer foothills are sharp and precise. The connecting train is waiting for us, only a quick dart across the platform. Amusingly, daughter changes with me, though only as far as Kendal.

At least now I can look forward without cricking my neck, and it’s as clear and light as August. Oh to be arriving here by car, two hours ago, my boots waiting on the back seat! (Yeah, and a fresh knee and hip too). We sail past the mouth of Kentmere, with both ridges showing well, then the Wansfell Pike/Wansfell ridge crackles the nearer skyline. And then, as we come over that last brow, there’s the perfect skyline, from the Old Man, across all the Conistons, to Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and the Langdales, with the pale glitter of the lower reaches of Windermere away to the south.

There’s a bus at the stop outside Booths when I emerge but it’s bound for Dungeon Ghyll, and I want to get up to Grasmere. That’s only a quarter hour wait, and though it’s cold, it’s lovely, and the air is Cumbrian air. A lady, seeing me scribble down the original draft for this, thinks I’m an official and asks me when the Kendal bus is due.

A Grasmere return ticket enables me to see the most I can reasonably see in the time I have. I’d considered Coniston this year, but the buses are two hours apart, and Coniston’s too small for two hours if you’re not hitting the fells.

The driver recommends a Central Lakes Dayrider, which costs the same as a Grasmere return but is so much more flexible. I take a seat upstairs on a double-decker, which feels out of place up here, and doesn’t improve the views all that much, since the road is tree-lined nearly all the bloody way! Maybe next year, get the bus to Keswick: I haven;t been across Dunmail Raise or seen Thirlmere in years.

This is by far and away the best November weather I’ve ever had, and the Langdale Pikes are so well-seen that I could almost swear I can pick out the line of Jack’s Rake, across Pavey Ark. We descend to the lake-shore, where Windermere is blue and rich with whitecaps. I can see Jack’s Rake! There are streaks of white on its face, one at the crucial angle. What if I’d taken the bus down to Bowness instead, and the steamer to Waterhead? That would have been glorious.

Now the Fairfield Horseshore rises majestically over Ambleside. Fairfield itself is dark, suggesting it might not be so good Patterdale way, but I’m not in Patterdale, nor am I going there, so I can afford to say, so what? and anyway, by the time we’re at Ambleside Bus Station, even that’s gone.

Curiously, the fells looking so attractive doesn’t fill me with frustration. I’ll be in Grasmere early enough to tackle Helm Crag and be back for the train home, if I’d got my boots on, but I know my knee won’t take it, and I’m resigned to it.

Arrival at Rydal Water opens up the Grasmere skyline. Automatically, I look for Loughrigg cave, but the sun’s in my eyes over the ridge and I can’t make it out. Then it’s Grasmere and Helm Crag fronting it, with a bar of cloud turning the Lion and the Lamb into a silhouette.

And at last the Village, and I can leave the bus at the Golden Jubilee bus stop, and just luxuriate in being there. It’s still only a quarter to twelve: on a normal working day, I wouldn’t even have begun to prepare for work yet.

The first place I always go in Grasmere is the Silver Jubilee bus stop (nice of the Queen to last long enough for the Village to have a matching pair) to check the times of buses back. These are on the half hour: I can either burn round in forty five minutes or stroll and have my lunch here.

The second place I always go in Grasmere is the Heaton Cooper Studio. It’s been expanded sideways now, and includes a cafe, but it’s still the same. I can’t wander round without seeing so many prints I want to buy that I would lose sight of the walls of my pokey little flat if I did, followed rapidly by losing the flat itself when I couldn’t pay the rent. I’m delighted to see there’s been a reconciliation with Julian Cooper, the contemporary generation, and my absolute favourite: two years ago, there wasn’t even a card to be seen. I’m unable to resist a painting of Striding Edge, in card form.

Next on the obligatory list is Sam Read’s Bookshop. I’ve been coming in here for over fifty years, and indeed I bought my Lord of the Rings hardbacks here, at a discount, or rather the first two because the dustjacket on the third was badly scratched. I was prepared to pay full-price for a clean copy in Manchester, despite the booksellers’ offer of a generous discount to take the last one – virtually unsellable on its own – as well. Selfish little sod that I was, I stuck to my guns.

A bookshop like this always makes me want to buy something, even though I don’t have room for the books I’ve already got, and that includes three from my birthday pile I haven’t even read yet. There’s loads of fascinating paperbacks and I would buy one if I could find one I thought would fascinate me more than once.

After that, I walk down to the Tea Rooms on the beck, where I partake of coffee, a tuna melt pannini and a slice of Victoria Sponge that’s a hypoglycemic attack in itself and is bloody delicious. On of these days, I’ve got to get up here in summer, when the terrace overlooking the river is open, where my sister and I used to peer down, looking for tiny fish darting in the water below. There probably aren’t any today: there are a dozen ducks sunning themselves and splashing with the abandon of a bunch of Brits in Ibiza.

I may have been coming here for over fifty years but the Tea Rooms date back far longer. There are blown-up monochrome photos inside, one of Victorian customers sedately sipping, the men all in straw boaters and sensible hats, the maids in ankle-length pinafores. Though they’re not sat on the terrace either.

At the moment, it’s occupied by ambitious crows, swooping and perching. Or they may be ravens, or blackbirds, I dunno. Not magpies, anyway, which is a relief as now there’s no risk of a secret never to be told. But they feel like crows, which reminds me of Ted Hughes, the only writer I studied at school where I’ve voluntarily bought other books by him. I did him for ‘A-level, just when Crow was coming out. I’m full of the past today, aren’t I?

I set off back through the Village. The crows have gone and there’s now just a solitary duck, sedately paddling along under the far bank, below the church, steaming upstream until he is lost to sight. The party’s moved on.

The 599 is already there, nearly twenty minutes ahead of schedule, which gives me time to wander up to Ben’s Toybox, which claims to have more jigsaws than anywhere else in the world. That’s another if-only: the money, the time, the room. But I could tackle a 1,000 piece jigger just now.

The bus is one of those half-open topped double-deckers. Despite this beingthe back half of November, I sit in the open. The moment we’re under way, it starts to get proper cold, but Hell’s Bells, what am I here for if not this sort of thing?

The sun’s still at the back of Loughrigg Fell, so I still can’t see the cave. Sweet Rydal is a golden glitter. All too quickly, we’re at Ambleside, where I wander up the main street. I’m sorry to see that one of the two long-standing bookshops stands no longer: it had shrunk to half-size when I was here in 2015, ad now that half is something called Herby Jack’s: I do not enter. Thankfully, Fred Holdsworth’s bookshop is still there. The same compulsion grips me and this time I give in: another of John Sutherland’s Literary Puzzles books, this time focusing on Dracula.

I add it to my gently bulging shoulderbag and retreat to a bench on the track behind Bridge House to write up another tranche of my day. Whilst I do so, an incredibly fearless robin hops all around me, even perching on the arm of the bench, and eyeing me. He’s angling for a bit of bread or something, but all I have on me at present is an unopened bag of Fox’s Glacier Fruits, which I doubt will satisfy him. When I tell him that if i did walk all the way to a bun shop, I wouldn’t walk all the way back here anyway, he looks hurt and flies away. But hope springs eternal in the human breast, and it obviously animates redbreasts as well, because he’s back again before I’ve done.

By now, the warmth is starting to go out of the air, though I am sitting on the shady side of the beck. My robin chum flies off when I stand up. I stroll down past the Spar, where once worked an absolutely stunning young woman, who I privately nick-named The Sexiest Girl in the Lakes (there was also a Sexiest Woman, but she was over in Coniston, and that’s a different story).

I got down as far as Zeffirellis, which brought back memories of a two-night break and a meal/cinema deal for the two of us, involving Curse of the Heaving Bosoms (actually, it’s Golden Flower, but if you’ve seen the film, and I recommend it if you haven’t, you’ll get what we meant). That’s one memory too many so I come back and ensconce myself in the Ambleside Tavern, with a pint and a comfy chair in the window, and dig out Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which has been my long-distance train journey reading book for about three years now: it’s a long book, and I don’t make that many long journeys by train.

A long slow read, a long slow pint and some decent Motown on the sound system. Nice.

There’s usually some woman who catches my eye on these Lakes days, and she’s waiting for the bus. She has short, dark-reddish hair, and narrow, black-rimmed glasses that emphasise her eyes. She sits down immediately in front of me. She looks intelligent, someone you can have a conversation with, someone with strong opinions. She gets off outside the hotels on the lakeshore.

We go from light to dark in the space of the drive from Ambleside to Windermere. There’s time before my train, nearly ninety minutes. I can catch the one before it or I can go fora coffee in Booths‘ cafe. even though I know it will give me problems with the bus when I get to Piccadilly Station after 8.00pm, I go for the coffee.

It doesn’t last me that long, but I have the book to occupy me, and finally, not long after getting on the train to Preston, it is over. How many journeys has it taken me? Buggered if I know.

The ticket inspector advises me that if I change at Oxenholme, I can get on a quicker train to Preston, and an earlier one to Piccadilly.  It’s pitch-black, I have my music, I decide not to bother with the additional hassle. This proves to be a mistake: we sit motionless for nearly ten minutes at Oxenholme, and another five at Lancaster, meaning that I miss the connection at Preston. The next Manchester train’s twenty minutes: it’s delayed arriving and sits there for nearly ten minutes before leaving.

This is now a joke, made worse by having no idea of where we are or what progress, if any, the train is making.

At long last, we reach Piccadilly. There’s a further surprise at the bus stop: a 203, waiting and about to pull out. I am on it like the proverbial rat up a drainpipe. That’s one for me at least.

But this fragmented and seemingly interminable journey home is merely a minor blot on a day that was far better than I could have expected, which could hardly have been better save by fitting in a jaunt onto the fells, or a sympathetic companion. Maybe next year, eh?  Yeah, right after the Euromillions win… Home tired, back knacked, knee protesting, but content. That’ll do.

The Lakes in November


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…

One Day Like This A Year


Next time...
Next time…

On the train up from Manchester, Elbow’s majestic, shambolic, anthemic ‘One Day Like This’ came on my mp3 player and I turned my face to the carriage window and strained to look at the beginnings of low, green fells and temporary lakes in low-lying fields, and silently bellowed along, trying to keep the tears from coming into my eyes. Guy Garvey sings about a day, and a night, with someone he loves, which comes along not often and which is so rich and wonderful that his gratitude leads him to ask for no more.

Much as I’d rather it be, the one day that has to see me right is my traditional trip to the Lakes, for it’s Thursday, and my birthday just gone (Wednesday, 60, in case you’re asking), and that’s the cue to head north by train and bus, not dwelling on what else the day used to mean.

My plan, this year, is one that has already been frustrated once, by weather. I have carefully (and cheaply) bought my tickets a month earlier, selecting an earlier train that might leave Manchester only twenty minutes before my usual departure but which will get me to Windermere almost fifty minutes earlier than usual.

A near hour’s gain on a day when light may be precious means Grasmere, and Helm Crag.

I climbed it once before from Grasmere, in absurdly quick time, scrambling into my boots at 10.30am, back to the car by 12.00. It was my first solo walk, on my first solo holiday, a few October days made possible by my first car: I shut the boot on my boots just before it set into rain for 48 hours solid.

I doubt I can manage those sort of times again, but the weather’s on my side for once, dry where it’s been wet all week, light where it’s been grey, even blue, and the low fells green and brown under sunlight.

But if the weather’s being cooperative, the transport’s not. That earlier train is five minutes late reaching Piccadilly, and even more leaving it, and it doesn’t make any of that back so, when I descend at Oxenholme, the connection is eight minutes gone and the fifty minutes gain follows it, waiting for the train I could have gotten direct from Piccadilly, like always.

The next Windermere train is late, and it gets later at each stop. The sun persists to the Village and throughout the twenty minute wait for the Grasmere bus (which is late). Beyond the Village, the near fellsides are bright, but the interior is not so encouraging. There’s cloud on the Langdales, the Conistons, Bowfell. Crinkle Crags shows its serrated edge briefly, and then is gone. The Fairfield Horseshoe disappears under the shadow of some grey kingdom, cloud poised as if planning a sneak, outflanking attack down Rydale.

But Helm Crag is clear, blessedly clear, when I step off the bus in Grasmere Village.

Except that: I don’t need the unfavourable forecast for this, I have been here too many times to be kidded. I can practically smell the rain and sure enough, forty minutes later as I polish off a very nice (but expensive) lemon chicken salad roll, it smashes down like a parachute brigade on offensive manoeuvres.

Grasmere (and the bus before it) seems to having nothing but old people wandering around it, though I am forced to admit that this is appropriate since the appellation belongs to me as well, now, even if the bus driver did address me as ‘young man’. One notable exception is a handsome blonde woman in no more than her  early forties, with a strong Canadian accent. She dogs my footsteps from the Heaton Cooper Studios to Sam Read’s Bookshop, though I doubt she’s following me with any conscious intent, considering she’s also dragging around with her an equally-Canadian ten year old daughter, plus two English parents, whose accents I can’t place but they’re not Cumbrian.

I don’t overstay my welcome in Grasmere: if I’m going to get stuck somewhere in the rain on a wet Thursday afternoon, Ambleside has more choice and better pubs. I do my usual bookshops: Wearings has shrunk to half the size it’s been since I first knew it and I converse about hard financial times and the second of Clive Hutchby’s Wainwrights, which has been published just last week, and which I buy as a gesture of solidarity.

Then it’s off to the Sportsman (I’m sorry, the Ambleside Tavern) for something hot to eat and something cold to drink.

The main problem – apart from my parent’s thoughtlessness all those years ago in not delivering me into a sunny and dry month of the year – is time. I can only go so far by train and bus, and I am prisoner of their times and tables. I hole up in the pub, sat in the window, eating burger and chips, drinking my third pint of lager and lime in twenty hours, I read something long and slow, but at every moment I an conscious of time building backwards. I must be at Windermere Station by such a time, so I must be at Ambleside Bus Station by such a time, so I must leave here by such a time and I am paranoid about being late, about being stranded, and though the first such a time is a long way off, the thought of getting engrossed, of losing track of time, haunts me.

After a while, the rain starts to really lash it down again. Inside the pub, a bearded guy in his late forties picks up the acoustic guitar leaning against the fireplace and launches into a quite pleasant version of that old folk ballad, Elvis Presley’s ‘The Wonder of You’ (six weeks a number 1 in 1970, immediately following seven weeks of Mungo Jerry and separated by a single Smokey Robinson week from six weeks of Freda Payne: try that on the kids of today and there’d be mass suicides).

A smattering of applause encourages him into another number, which I don’t recognise. The old couple by the fire promptly get up and leave but as he’s just about drowning out Phil Collins, I’m not complaining.

Time wore down. It got dark outside. The hour of the bus approached. The pub’s in-house MTV equivalent threw up Erasure’s ‘Sometimes’ and I sat it out, admiring the fact that it was raining on Andy and Vince’s rooftop as well, then headed out. I had conquered my paranoia so well that there were only eight minutes before the bus was due (it was late).

I’ve not been sleeping well this past week or so and on the dark-night bus to Windermere, the effect began to catch up on me. The Lake was invisible. I wandered into Booth’s Cafe for the usual wind-down flat white coffee, though I’m afraid to say that the usual sumptuous choice of cake was not as sumptuous as I am used to and I had to make do with a Bakewell Tart.

Not until I was on the train could I really begin to relax, knowing that everything was certain now from here to home. My headphones took over my ears again and I waited for the train to leave. It was late.

But the train being late, and getting later at every station, ended up a nightmare. There were delayed trains queuing to get into Piccadilly Station and by the time mine reached the subsidiary stations, our progress could be measured in phases of the moon. Having taken ages already just to reach Oxford Road, our train shut up shop, grimly determined not to move for an official six more minutes, at which point I got off and walked to Piccadilly, beating it hands down.

All of which farrago, which is nothing new, ensured that I finally got back to Piccadilly after the point when my bus home dramatically plummeted from every ten minutes to every thirty. I keep forgetting that it’s hell trying to get out of Central Manchester after 8.00pm.

I ended up catching a different bus, one that would take me to Stockport itself whereupon I can have the pleasure of turning back on myself and coming back. But as it was now getting late, I got off, cut through along Tiviot Way and started walking back from the top of Lancashire Hill. Naturally, before I could reach my stop, the bus I could have stood around in the rain and waited for shot past me, having on this occasion done a forty-five minute journey in just under thirty. It was the same last year: I am going to have to seriously rethink this before next year because it’s a lot of traveling and this bit at the end seriously pisses me off, because I can’t afford to pay for a taxi from Manchester to get home.

One day like this a year will see me right? Not this year.

The Grand Tour of the Lakes: Stage One – East to South


Windermere from a low level

Back in those dim, distant days when my only knowledge of the Lake District came from family holidays, we would occasionally be tripped up by rainy days. At first, these would only occur on Fridays, which meant the almost traditional drive north, over Dunmail Raise, to wander around Keswick, slickered up in raincoats, before it cleared after lunch and we would park for a couple of hours by the Derwent, down the valley.
A couple of times, however, the rains would come on other days of the week, and on one memorable occasion, my family gave way to my ceaseless clamour to see Lakes I had not previously visited, and we went driving. At first, it would be the old familiar route via the Wycham Valley to the coast, and Ravenglass, as if for Wasdale or Eskdale. But instead, we followed the coast further north, as far as Egremont, and then turned off towards Cold Fell, and the moors to Ennerdale, and beyond that to Loweswater and the Buttermere Valley and, to my astonishment, given how my Uncle guarded his car, over Honister Pass and down into Borrowdale.
I remember this for being my first sightings of Ennerdale Water, Loweswater, Crummock Water and Buttermere, and the efforts my Uncle made to find temporary stopping places that enabled me to take black and white photos of these new Lakes.
This was long ago, and in the years following, I have driven all these roads, and seen these Lakes and Valleys several times over. But I never did the Grand Tour for myself. The days were usually too good not to be walking, and those days when the fells were impossible were so bad for rain and cloud that the Tour would have been no more than driving for the sake of it, with little to see.
For the past six years I have not had access to a car, and once you are reliant on public transport to reach the Lakes, let alone navigate about it when you are there, the Western Lakes and these valleys that face the Irish Sea are far beyond the possibility of visit.
That doesn’t deprive me of the memories, and when fortunes and mobility change for the better, one of the first things I have promised myself is to spend a day doing the Grand Tour. I’ve thought about it many times, and I’ve devised it so that, in a single day, it’s possible to see thirteen of the traditionally Sixteen Lakes, without much backing, filling and contrivance.
I’ve mentioned before that my family used to confine themselves almost exclusively to the south west quarter of Lakeland, from Grasmere round to Wasdale. I’ve always been much more cosmopolitan, splitting my holidays between Ambleside and Keswick when it came to bases, and making sure of going everywhere I could. So many sights of which my family deprived themselves, and I don’t just mean the fells I’ve climbed.
Our tour, my Tour, goes round in a circle. The whole point of a circular tour is that you can join it at any point on its circumference, but my instincts always lead me to start and finish in Ambleside. On the other hand, whilst I tend to the opposite in horseshoe walks, the Grand Tour progresses gloriously clockwise.
Remember, there’s thirteen Lakes to be collected, and the first of these, Windermere, appears almost immediately. On the Coniston road, less than a half mile out of Ambleside, the trees thin to reveal a long vista down the Lake, almost to the islands opposite Bowness. I’ve never seen this view without a forest of white masts and sails.

Elterwater – the Lake that will one day vanish

I’ve probably travelled the Ambleside – Coniston road more often than any other in the Lakes, passenger and driver, enough to be familiar with every bend and bump in the road, enough to drive it in ten foot visibility fog if I needed to. So I know that when the road passes the mouth of Great Langdale, crosses Skelwith Bridge and begins to climb through the trees, that as soon as it emerges into the open, Elterwater is visible below in the lower valley. It’s hard to see, both because the lake has shrunk considerably in my lifetime, from a small, tarn sized lake with facing promontories, to three connected pools that, within the next fifty years, will no doubt seize up and disappear.
It’s also very difficult for a driver to see it, since it lies downhill at a backwards angle on the right, so it’s sensible to pull into the first layby on the other side of the road and get out for a proper look.
Next stop is Coniston, entering the Village from the north. It’s far too early in the day to stop, but at this point I want to backtrack and refer to an alternate start to the route, that sacrifices the distant glimpse of Elterwater for a much more up front encounter with pastoral Esthwaite Water.
Personally, Esthwaite Water has never done anything for me. It’s a secluded Lake that lies among fields and hedges rather than on the fringe of the hill country, and it is the hill country that always enthrals me. Whilst it’s not far away in miles, nor obscure of access, Esthwaite feels as if it is much further away from the fells than it actually is. Bringing it into the walk involves sidestepping the familiar Ambleside-Coniston road entirely, in favour of the road to Waterhead and Bowness.
This has its advantages in extended and more intimate views of the upper half of Windermere, including the classic view of the Langdale Pikes, always looking much closer than they are in real geography. On the other hand, this approach risks considerable delays, both in driving through Bowness Bay and crossing the Lake on the ferry. Especially if you pull up on the Bowness shore just in time to see the boat cranking away on its chains on the slow journey towards the western shore, with the return journey yet to come.

Esthwaite Water – a lake of trees and fields

Once across the Lake, the road winds through idyllic country lanes, the signposts to Near and Far Sawrey invoking the inevitable associations with the late Mrs Heelis – that’s Beatrix Potter to you – and eventually the alternate routes round Esthwaite Water itself, which is calm, peaceful and beautiful, but it’s a beauty that doesn’t below to the Lakes, a beauty from which ruggedness of any kind is absent. You might as well be down south.
Hawkshead lies at the head of the lake. It’s a very expensive place to visit as cars have been barred all my life, and the car and coach parks have set their prices on the exclusive rights basis, and to be honest, even if this is Midsummer’s day and you’ve set off at sparrowfart, there isn’t enough time to stop off and visit, so continue driving north.
This road leads back to the Ambleside-Coniston road, only a couple of miles outside the village. You could still include Elterwater by doing this, and increase the number of Lakes to fourteen, but it really does mean a bit too much faffing around for something that’s supposed to be a roughly circular tour, so let’s not. Instead, a mile or so north of the village, a road turns off towards Coniston, rising gently to cross the low ridge east of the Lake, and descending in steep bends to round the head of Coniston Water, whilst offering some spectacular views over the lake. From the lake head, follow the road on into the Village from the East, to rejoin the main route.
Which, despite the relatively short distance traveled, is a suitable point to say that Stage One, from East to South, has been completed.

Coniston Water in conditions of calm

A Day in the Lakes – 2014


016It’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?