All the evidence seems to be that I’m the only football fan in England not over the moon or given to any other cliches about England reaching the Euro 2020 Final last night, which is odd when you consider how much I ranted at our blowing the last semi-final we reached three years ago. But I watched the game last night in slowly growing disinterest, some of it in reaction to the fact that ITV’s coverage is absolute crap, and in the years since I last had a television the standard of adverts has crashed through every floor you could possible imagine, some of it because pointless passing, where X passes the ball to Y who instantly passes it back to X, and so on ad nauseam, still annoys me intensely, and some of it because the commentary never made even the slightest pretense of neutrality and, by extra time, wouldn’t even have recognised it with an electron microscope. Just imagine: I’ve waited 55 years for something like this to come around again, and I can hardly be bothered.
The main factor is that I’d already had the nearly best day possible and by that token football was an intrusion, not to mention a reminder of why I haven’t had a television this past dozen years. But today’s the day for going back. I slept only fitfully, being too exhausted to sleep properly, and it’s grey skies above and for some way down too, so I definitely had the luck for it yesterday.
I’m still achey and intent on taking it slowly. My train out of Windermere isn’t due until 13.07 and I hadn’t planned on getting the bus until 10.30, which leaves a lot of morning to kill, carrying a heavy bag around, before I finally relinquish the Lakes on this visit. So I walk slow and stop frequently, just like yesterday. It’s Market Day in the Square but I was more convcerned about finding somewhere to buy drinks, which I end up doing at Booths.
All my instincts are to buy a book for the trsain home but all the books in Keswick offer me nothing: it used to be so easy. Once upon a time I never visited the New Bookshop in Cockermouth without buying three, some of whoich I still have.
But shortness of energy has its concomitant in shortness of temper. From the bus station onwards I am halfway back into the real world, and in the real world people are iritating. The bus driver who wanders off into Booths and doesn’t return until after the bus should have departed. The people who stand at the top of the stairs and peer hopefully into the distance, as if a free seat with suddenly, magically, slide towards them.
It’s grey all round now, with cloud on everything, not just Skiddaw. Nothing to look at. Yesterday was such a briliant day, the only thing that could have improved it was someomne to share it with and the bus would be a hundredfold better with someone to talk to and break social distancing with. I wonder what it would be like to kiss through twqo facemasks?
At Windermere, I take a break in the cafe, a bakewell slice and a flat white. There’s still an hour till my train and I can’t catch an earlier one (if there is one) because I’m on a specfic single for economy. And that’s when the day runs into a brick wall, as my train is abruptly cancelled. The next one’s not until 1.58 and that’s only to Oxenholme. I’m all right, or so I think at that point, but people with connections to make are milling around, panicking. But the delay is enormous and I’m sore and bored long before we even get away on a packed train on which the very idea of social distancing is ditched. Not by yours truly, mind. I make sure with my bags that no-one sits next to me.
It’s the start of a journey from hell. At Oxenholme I transfer to the Euston train, but that’s going through Wigan and Warrington, not Manchester, so I hop off at Preston. By now it’s a beautiful afternoon, much like yesterday, but I’m free-associating Bilbo Baggins, except it’s ‘The day Goes Ever On and On’. There are ten stops to Piccadilly and I count them all, and when I finally get off the train I think it’s nearly over, but it’s not. The bus journey is torture. I’m broiling, and panting, not breathing, and my stress levels are would up so high that when I finally get in, ready to brain someone, anyone, with a tire-iron, I am literally shaking and it takes nearly an hour to return to normal.
So, ok, it wasn’t the usual tedious return journey, the one with nothing to write about, but in the other hand, I could have done without it. It was as bad as yesterday was good, but it doesn’t balance out like that. Wednesday was still the best day I’ve had in a god’s age whilst shitty ones turn up pretty much every week. I look forward to sleeping.
It’s been nearly two years since I last saw anything of the Lakes, the Patterdale Expedition, the round trip on the Ullswater steamer. Last year’s plans had to be set aside, hopefully to be revisited before very long, but at last it’s possible to travel there in approved safety. The simplest of all trips: to Windermere by train, to see mountains and fells and Lakes long familiar, but not so recently. It’s going back home for me. And I’m doing it for less than £20 on the train. I’m stocked up with the usual accoutrements for any successful day out: a fully-charged mp3 player with 1,150 songs on it, plus headphones, a book of substance, waiting to be read in circumstances of peace and quiet and neither distraction nor interruption – my selection on this occasion being Mark Helprin’s Refiner’s Fire, a Christmas self-treat in 2019. What am I going to do when I get there for the first time in nearly two years? I have options. Options, options, options. The first, and most steady and reliable of these, is to buy a Grasmere Dayrider at the bus station and head off to there, to walk round the village, check the Heaton Cooper Studios, visit Sam Read’s Bookshop, lift mine eyes to the hills and generally revel in the air and ambience of things. Then back to Ambleside to do the same things there, and nurse a pint in the Ambleside Tavern. Safe, reliable, done before, more than once. A bit more esoteric option is to make that a Keswick Dayrider. Head into the Northern Lakes, do the wandering around, see twice as many Lakes and mountains, maybe time for a stroll round Ambleside coming back, we’d have to see. Same thing though, done that. But there’s a third option, though one only available if the weather is good, dry and clear, and the train is on time. I’m supposed to be at Windermere for 10.38. If I can walk from there to Bowness in half an hour, and it’s downhill all the way, I can catch the Windermere Steamer to Waterhead at 11.10. For once I can be very specific: I last travelled on the Windermere Steamer in August 1975, which is enough of a gap to call it ‘new’. The drawback with this is, first of all, the walk to Bowness, under the self-set pressure of working to a deadline, and then the arrival at Waterhead with – unless I am incredibly lucky with a bus – a mile’s walk from there to Ambleside. And what do I do then? Unfortunately, weather or not, option three looks like being a non-starter on medical grounds. Unexpectedly, I started a headache at work on Wednesday that is proving resistant to dispersal. To my great disgust, it incorporates an element of light-headedness when I’m upright, making me feel that my head is not quite in the same plane as the rest of me: Not strictly conducive to marches downhill against the clock.
I leave excessive time to get to the Station: psychologically I have to. The alarm is set for 6.30am, though I awake an hour before that. Shower and dress and walk to the bus stop (eight minutes) to catch a 7.15am bus to Piccadilly (thirty minutes) for a train that leaves at 8.48 am. I’m not crazy: the bus has form for interference. There’s a paucity of passengers on the Reddish leg and a plethora through Gorton. I arrive at Poiccadilly Station with seventy minutes to spare: W.H.Smith’s isn’t even open yet. Excess, excess, toujours l’excess! I get food and drink and sit down to read and wait.
I don’t really stop being twitchy until the train arrives. I’m fast enough to claim a table seat, facing forwards, in anticipation of the first views. Unlike the past few days of early morning clear skies greying out to varying degrees of rain, this one’s started dull and is turning sunbright, with a touch of gold in the air more suggestive of the first hour after dawn. As Guy Garvey put it, it’s looking like a beautiful day.
It’s an oddly divided beautiful day, however. At Preston the sky westwards, towards the coast, is an even, rich blue but on the other side it’s paler and patchier, knitted up with white clouds, drawing colour out of the sky. That way lies hills, of course.
There’s an irritating woman in the carriage, talking incessantly in an over-emphatic, self-satisfied voice. I’m not the only one who doesn’t like this, and then I’m suddenly annoyed with myself for not remembering my mp3 player until we’re rolling into Lancaster. Music, vigorous, mostly obscure Sixties music envelops me happily.
To tell the truth, the book is not gripping me. I put it away and turn my attention to the window, getting an immediate reward because oh yes indeed it is a beautiful day. A long skyline stretches across the drained sands of Morecambe Bay, an actual, genuine, gorgeous skyline of familiar ridges and shapes: the Old Man and dour Dow Crag, Red Screes above Kirkstone, the Fairfield Horseshoe, and even the tops of the Langdale Pikes. It doesn’t last long before local low rises intervene but it’s all still there, just as it was, and I’m thrilled. Crinkle Crags and Bowfell curve into view.
Clouds scud above them, white bumbles across a narrow band of the sky, decoration not threat. Against this vista, the line of the Howgill Fells, on the other side, doesn’t stand an earthly. Slowing into Oxenholme, there’s a beautiful angle into Kentmere, with Ill Bell prominent, framed by stolid Yoke before and almost imperceptible Froswick behind. All of which decides me: Keswick it is, I want to see all of this that I can.
For a moment, that seems to be in doubt. There’s neither bus stop nor timetable. The Grasmere driver reassures me, and then I see stop and timetable, sawn off at the base, on its back by the wall of Booths. It’s half an hour and lots of milling around before we can get out of Windermere, by which time clouds are attracting one another and the blue bands are narrowing.
Just as the bus pulls out I get the most horrible shock: my former wedding ring is missing! I’ve worn it on my right hand since the Decree Absolute, though it’s slowly getting looser. Though it symbolises nothing but the past, it’s significance to me is immeasureable and I am in shock and almost tears at losing it. I’m desperately combing through both bags in the vain hope it’s dropped in there, and then something else drops, and I claw through my constricted jeans pocket and find it. The relief is incredible: to me it is literally priceless. It slides into my finger again. It will be a very long time before I take its presence for granted again.
Once the shock has subsided I can concentrate on Mountains, valleys and Lakes: all familiar, no new sights or surprises, just recognition. Familiarity does not breed comtempt, not here, not ever. These skylines, these flanks, lovely little Rydal with its ever-widening outflow, are encoded in me like a string of DNA. Everywhere I look, no matter how near or far, I see fells that I have climbed, many more than once. Once climbed, they became part of me. I seized them as I conquered them. I own them, me and millions of others.
North of Dunmail Raise, the sun illuminates everything. Thirlmere gleams from end to end. I will never lose the awe of seeing it so clearly, remembering the Sixties and beyond when the only way you even knew that was a Lake there was because your parents had told you. Blencathra looks magnificent, even by Blencathra’s standards, the old cloud-magnet Skiddaw has his head in the free air, though dark-shadowed, and we drop into the Vale of Keswick with Bassenthwaite Lake a flat, silver-steel expanse straight ahead and Derwent Water sunny and lit.
Keswick is full of people. Well, it is a Saturday, the weather is good and we have been released on our own recognizance. Passing the bookshop, I spot the long-awaited Terry Abrahams: Life of a Mountain: Helvellyn, not long since out. But plans to eat at the Oddfellows Arms were clearly delusional. Everywhere has long queues and nowhere free to sit. So I amble towards Hope Park, the miniature Golf, the Crazy Golf, not that I’m going to play, but I scoff that ice cream I promised a friend I was going to eat at Easter, to cheer me up, and if you ever read this, Liz, here’s to you.
But I’m restless, very restless. This isn’t to do with Keswick being ‘wick wi’ foak’ but rather a feeling of not wanting to confine myself to one place. So I ankle back to the Bus Station in time to catch my breath before I catch the 555 back to Grasmere. Climbing out of the town the roles are reversed: now it is Bass Lake that sits blue and Derwent Water that is grey.
Grasmere isn’t exactly empty but it’s a lot easier to cope with than Keswick. Then again I don’t wander far, barely off the Village Green: for the loo, for Sam Read’s Bookshop and the Heaton Cooper Studio, which still has too many lovely prints for the wallspace I have. The next bus is not supposed to be due until 3.30pm but I hop onto a Grasmere Sightseer and take myself upstairs to enjoy the open top section, and the 555 goes past whilst I’m on the bus anyway.
Year by year it’s getting harder to see the mouth of Ambleside Cave – called Rydal Cave on the announcement tape – as the fringe of trees below that section of Loughrigg Terrace reach for the heavens. Back in Ambleside, it’s sunny once more. In Fred’s Bookshop they’re playing Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues. They are just one more place to have copies of the first volume of Lakeland Views. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire the author for publishing a hand-written, hand-drawn book devoted to the Lakeland Fells, but judging by the cover that is really all you can admire.
I solve my hot food urges with a burger from the Old Smithy chippy that takes so long to cook that I can only assume that they’ve had to slaughter a new cow to get the meat. It arrives neither particularly hot nor with any particular taste. Eating it leaves me with the best part of three hours to kill before my train at Windermere, so I stroll down to Loughrigg Park. Much of it is now covered with playground contraptions, themselves covered in children, so I settle down, drop the headphones into place again and try to look as if I am not looking at the young children but rather at their mothers (which I am, one or two in particular).
With an irony that I cannot help but appreciate, I return to Windermere Station with exactly the same excessive lead time I manufactured for myself at Piccadilly. Having so much time in hand, I wander down into Windermere Vilage, to see if there’s somewhere I can get something to eat without having to queue for a galactic eon, but of course this means I have gone mad. Normally, I’d have dived into Booths for coffee and cake but their cafe is still closed. I only just make it back there to reach the loos before that too becomes out of bounds.
If you’ve followed this so far you will surely be asking yourself, what have I been doing? Well, nothing really. I’ve been being, not doing, and being in as many places as I could, touching bases, refreshing connections. Everything’s still here and still in it’s place and there’s still room in all that for me, and that is what I have been doing.
Precisely at 6.00pm it starts to rain and I bolt inside the Station. It’s still sunny, and it’s isolated drops but they’re big isolated drops.
Forty dull minutes later and fifteen minutes before it’s due to depart, the train arrives. I spring aboard the last carriage, the one that will be nearest to the exit at Piccadilly, and secure myself a table seat again. I’m ready for home, to switch on the laptop for the first time that day, check that the rest of the world is still there. Bring in a Chinese takeaway tea., yes, I’d be up for that. Chicken in lemon sauce, fried rice and prawn crackers.
For some fucking annoying reason we sit and wait and wait and wait at Preston, exactly as we did this morning. I rapidly get sick of the high-pitched beeping signalling that the train doors are closing preparatory to setting off and we just sit there. I’m getting tired by now, fifteen straight hours on the go, and my ears are getting sore too, so I take off the headphones and then discover it’s from wearing my facemask for thirteen and a half hours solid, and there goes the beeping for about the dozenth time and CAN WE GO, PLEASE?
And eventually we do. Piccadilly Station. The 203 bus. Realising that the Takeaway’s out because by the time it’s cooked and I’ve got it home it’s too bloody late for me to eat something like that without the near certainty of acid reflux. Tired, achey, legs, hips, back, arms, shoulders sore.
The relaxation of lockdown conditions opens up a number of possibilities for the stir-crazy, including the ability to get on a train and go somewhere for no more reason than to come back again. I have been having a play on British Rail’s Journey Planner, looking at prices and timetables and things that are clearly affordable. Days out to places like Stafford or Lancaster. I could do York for just over £30 or London for £94… well, maybe not that. Then there’s the obvious destinations: Windermere for £16.20 on two singles, Penrith on the same basis for only £18.60 if I set off from Piccadilly at 06.26am (and £25.40 if I wait till 8.00am). To put it plainly, I have options. In the past fourteen months I have only once gone further than Manchester City Centre. Anywhere that is not Manchester City Centre, or more confiningly Stockport, suddenly takes on a massive appeal. Just to be somewhere else, see something else. Especially if it happens to be a Lake, and mountains. Naturally, the major question is, should !? I haven’t gone through the past year in complete safety without being sensible from day zero. Before I take off to look at the grass on the other side of the fence, I should wait and see the impact of the new conditions. Knowing the lot out there, stupidity is going to play an important part in the reaction to even limited relaxation of the rules. I’m expecting infections to go up again. And given that I have my second COVID-19 vaccination booked for Saturday coming, it’s going to be the 24th before I could even consider going anywhere. Time enough…
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.
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.
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…
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!
One of the running themes in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, especially those set in or around Ankh-Morpork, is that what most people mostly want is that tomorrow should be roughly similar to today. We respond to that with a wry smile because we recognise its essential truth.
For many years, I lived my life expecting that its parameters would continue to apply forever. My career, the income I made from it, the interests I pursued in my leisure time, these would, with the inevitable, minor changes brought about by the passing years, stay the same.
The Lake District, its fells and mountains, lakes and tarns, it’s lonely, high paths and ridges, would always be there for me. Yes, a day would come, in some unimaginable future that had no bearing upon me as yet, when increasing age would reduce stamina, flexibility, strength. Some walks, some scrambling would become progressively untenable. Scafell Pike from Seathwaite, ascending by Taylorgill Force, the Corridor Router and Lingmell, descending by the subsidiary Pikes, Great End, Esk Hause and Grains Gill, would one day become too much for me to manage, even if I tackled it without first driving up from Manchester.
But if certain walks would move beyond me, others would remain. The fells would always be there. They are still. The high and lonely places remain, though the loneliness diminishes each year. They are there for me, but I am not there for them
I never imagined a time might come when I would be exiled from the fells. That my life would change in unexpected ways that broke down almost every aspect of that same-every-day life I used to live. That my ultimately smug assumption that I could always escape into the hills would one day become nothing but a mocking memory.
My health has changed. I have an arthritic right knee and hip, the latter kept under mostly-pain free control by medication but the former a constant irritation. There are other medical matters, controlled by an array of medication. But given the opportunity to exercise, to retrain myself to a greater walking fitness, given time, I would not, I fancy, disgrace my past too outrageously.
But the fells may be there, but I cannot be. I do not have a car, and I do not have the means to acquire one or run it if I did. Drew Whitworth may be on a second round of climbing not only all the Pictorial Guide Wainwrights, but also all the Outlying Fells, but he’s a bit younger and a lot fitter and, at the end of the day, less strapped for cash: he shows it can be done, but not everyone can emulate him.
It’s hard to say this without it coming over like a whine. Trust me, I can whine if the circumstances require it, but I try to limit the whining until I’m alone and I can feel thoroughly sorry for myself. But even then, I’m far too conscious that too much of my present, and persistent circumstances are my own responsibility. I am where I am through my own fault, I accept my blame.
At the moment, I can afford occasional train trips to the Lakes, without overnight stays. That means I can get to Windermere, for Ambleside and even Grasmere, or Penrith, which is almost twice as much in train fare and requiring another hour on the bus if I want to penetrate as far as Keswick.
Several years ago, I calculated that it is possible to leave Manchester at not too outrageous an hour in the morning, and by changing trains and using the Ratty of beloved memory, I could spend a couple of hours in Eskdale, enough time to walk to Boot and the waterfalls of the Whillan Beck before I have to begin the carefully-planned journey home.
I haven’t checked in recent years to see in the logistics hold up but I never followed through on this plan because it wanted a fellow-traveller, someone preferably female and sympathetic, to enjoy the day alongside me. Which set up another and different kind of problem.
But without a car, without transport of my own, to go when and where I wish, without fear of train-times back, the list of places in the Lakes that I cannot see is horrible to contemplate. Wasdale, Great Gable, Ennerdale, Pillar, the Buttermere Valley, High Stile and Haystacks, Back o’Skiddaw. Perhaps from Penrith, I can get to Pooley Bridge, maybe take the round trip on the Ullswater steamer, but Mardale and Haweswater…
It’s one thing to accept that my knee and hip might restrict my ability to get out onto the fells, to remind myself of a world I used to assume was mine by right, and the authority of a pair of good boots, but without making myself independently mobile, I cannot even see the majority of those places that used to be so familiar.
What’s left is imagination and memory. I’ve told most of the good stories of walks past, here on this blog. But that doesn’t deny me the ability to take myself back in thoughts and words. I have a series on Imaginary Albums on here: maybe I should start to write about Imaginary Holidays as well…
It 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.
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…