A life changing walk reveals a wonderland on my doorstep, I escape from the Scouts.
My lifelong love affair with the Lake District began inauspiciously. Wandering through a dripping forest in torrential rain collecting firewood, when we had some perfectly good primus stoves – although clearly meant to be character building – seemed pointless to me. The 3am evacuation of our tents as a result of the inept decision of our hapless scoutmaster to pitch camp by the rising waters of the river Duddon should also have made me vow never to return to those misty hills again. This woefully wet week at a Scout camp in Dunnerdale, said to be Wordsworth’s favourite valley, shouldn’t have captivated me, yet it did.
Two things brightened the gloom of a wet week spent under canvass cowering under the iron discipline of the Scouts.
Firstly, the lurid adolescent fantasies about just what our scoutmaster got up to with a guide leader camping on the same site, with whom he disappeared to the pub every night. We suspected a bit of “dyb dyb dybbing” was going on and possibly even some heavy “dobbing” too.
The second and in this case life changing highlight for me was a walk from Coniston back to Dunnerdale along the Walna Scar track. This old pathway contours the lower slopes of Coniston Old Man and passes close to Dow Crag, a place I would later get to know as a rock climber. It’s also not not a million miles away from Grey Friar, which I would finally climb over 50 years later to complete my “Wainwrights”: my aversion to “peak bagging” and just why it took me so long to tick off all of the great man’s fells will be explained in a later blog. This walk opened a window on a previously unknown world-a world where I immediately felt I belonged and one I wanted to get to know better.
As I fell in love with the Lakes, I fell out of love with the Scouts and soon escaped the discipline and militaristic ethos promoted by the first Chief Scout, Robert Baden-Powell. Baden-Powell seems to have been a pretty odious character: racist, homophobic and with well documented fascist tendencies, despite allegedly being a repressed homosexual himself – if some of his biographers are to be believed he was a man for whom “Scouting for Boys” was not just a classic instruction manual but also a lifestyle choice.
Continuing the military tradition, the current Chief Scout is former SAS (TA) soldier, Old Etonian and evangelical Christian, the hugely popular, but to me rather irritating, Bear Grylls, who always sounds less like a man and more an Alaskan fast food outlet.
The call of the wild, I get my kicks on route 555, lovely Langdale.
My first taste of the wild also saw me climbing Caw, my first Wainwright, though I didn’t know that at the time. This trip was such a contrast to my previous experiences of the Lakes, which had been confined to the odd visit to Bowness or, as a special treat, the “8 Lakes Tour” coach trip from Morecambe, where we, like thousands of trippers before us, were invited to gawp at the evocatively shaped “Lion and Lamb” (AKA Helm Crag) looming above Grasmere as the coach slowly wheezed its way up Dunmail Raise.
Mountains were not my parents’ first choice for a holiday or day out. Their idea of a good outing usually involved a trip to Blackpool, Llandudno, or some other seaside resort: the idea of walking up and down hills for pleasure was beyond their imagination. My dad eventually accepted my obsession with mountains and supported me in it, buying my first climbing rope and ice axe, but my mum never understood and even in her nineties would respond to my tales of a wet day on the fells with a curt and unsympathetic “you’re mad” or “stop moaning, no one’s forcing you to do it”. True enough.
Today, sitting in the cafe at Booths supermarket in Keswick, watching the long line of perambulating pensioners clutching their bus passes and queueing for the service down Borrowdale or the 555 towards the southern fells, I’m always reminded of my early trips to Lakeland. After I and a few mates had escaped from the Scouts our adventures were facilitated by the 555 (nearly the devil’s bus?). It took us to Keswick and the northern fells, dropped us off at Wythburn church, by Thirlmere, for the easy ascent of Helvellyn, or we changed at Ambleside for the Langdale service – a passport to a verdant valley which to me, 50 odd years later, is still a nirvana.
Langdale, stunning from any angle in any season;
One of my favourite and oft repeated walks is the classic circuit of Crinkle Crags and Bowfell, descending via the broad ridge known as the Band. If you’re feeling fit, the 7.7m circuit can be extended by adding Pike of Blisco. Much of the route can be seen in the main picture above, taken from below Side Pike, although my wife Pat is thoughtlessly obscuring the view. On the day that picture was taken we deemed it too icy for a safe passage of the Crinkles and stayed below the snow line.
Learning from the best, student ramblings, discovering pubs.
As I struck out alone on the hills I was fortunate to be encouraged by a school teacher who shared my enthusiasm and arranged for a few of us fell-fanciers to attend a series of “mountain craft” courses run by the Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA). These courses were held at various youth hostels, providing us with a good overview of the national park.
Another stroke of luck was that the courses were led by John Wyatt, the first Ranger to be appointed by the LDNPA and a man passionate about the conservation of Lakeland and its safe enjoyment. Wyatt went on to write a number of excellent guide books along with more personal memoirs of his experiences.
My dad’s ill health meant that I chose to stay close to home and attend Lancaster University. Although I moved out of the family home I possibly missed some of the benefits of living in a different town; although, against this I was still close to my beloved mountains. I also enjoyed introducing mates who’d never visited the Lakes to the object of my desire: some of them couldn’t see the point, but in others our Lakeland expeditions – covering many of the well-known “rounds” and ridges – triggered a lifelong affection.
Around this time I was inducted into another great Lakeland institution -its old pubs and fine ales. As Langdale tended to be my home valley, naturally the “Old Dungeon Ghyll”, situated at its head, became my “local”. The pub’s climbers’ bar is usually very busy, but I recall two remarkable occasions when I had it to myself. The first, after a very wet and desolate solo wild camp up at Sprinkling Tarn many years ago involved me sharing the cavernous bar with just one other camper, also drying out his clothes and tent by the open fire. As the beer flowed the steam rose along with our spirits and voices as the other guy played his guitar and we shared our repertoire of folk songs. As referred to above, more recently my wife and I ended up entirely alone in the same bar after choosing to stay off the snowy tops and take a lovely circular walk into Little Langdale (pictured above).
I’d first tried rock climbing on a crag in Longsledale, a valley just north of Kendal and the inspiration for Postman Pat’s home patch (John Cunliffe, the books’ author, having worked for a time as a teacher in Kendal). Despite this well documented literary connection I never once came across a black and white cat in the valley.
After enjoying climbing many undemanding routes in Langdale, Borrowdale and the Coniston fells, I accepted that I would never progress beyond “entry level” as a crag rat (more of a “mouse” given the grade I achieved) and after a few years decided mountain walking was more my thing.
A tenuous link with Wainwright, the Lakes remains my anchor, out to grass (and Grasmere).
After University a job as a graduate trainee in the glamorous, fun-filled world of local government finance took me to Merseyside and led to qualification as a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), the same institute ( then the Institute of Municipal Treasurers) that boasts one Alfred Wainwright as a former member.
My first boss in the District Audit Service (later the Audit Commission) used to tell tales of auditing Kendal Borough Council and how much he’d admired the wonderful pen and ink drawings adorning ledgers compiled by the “odd ball” Borough Treasurer: the “odd ball” in question being none other than that doyen of Lakeland fellwalkers, Alfred Wainwright. This was during the 13 years that “AW” was researching and writing his labour of love, the beautifully illustrated and frequently lyrical seven volume “A Pictorial Guide To The Lakeland Fells”. My boss spoke of AW’s eccentricity and elusiveness as he disappeared, missing in action on the fells, at every opportunity to research his mountain masterpiece.
Living on Merseyside was still handy for the Lakes and also opened up the possibility of adventures in the Peak District and Snowdonia. The camp site at Capel Curig became a home from home for a time as I explored the lofty peaks and crags around the Llanberis Pass and Ogwen Valley, but Snowdonia, or the less frequently visited Peak District, never came close to replacing the Lakes in my affections.
In my late twenties work took me from Merseyside to the far South West, where I have lived ever since. Despite the distance I rarely made one of the regular visits to my mum in Lancaster without escaping to the fells for at least a day.
I’ve now been retired for over 10 years and in that period have been an even more frequent visitor to Lakeland, thanks to buying a log cabin situated conveniently on the edge of Keswick in the shadow of Skiddaw, the mountain whose iconic profile looms above that delightful town.
While the cabin is very convenient for walking once we’re there, many would think that a 350 mile drive from home makes it anything but convenient. It is a long haul to our lodge on increasingly busy motorways, but it’s always worth it when I’m sat on the deck, sipping a Loweswater Gold and marvelling at the setting sun reflecting off the distant and at sunset, equally golden Helvellyn range. Our lodge is called ” Whiteside”, after the close neighbour of Helvellyn that is seen in the picture at the far right of the distant ridge.
Keeping it special, Wordsworth as both hero and villain.
We all want to protect what we love and the place I’ve loved all my life is under constant threat. The Lakes is our most highly populated national park and also the most visited. Tourism is the main industry and source of work, but the influx of around 50m visitors a year ( now almost certainly more with the invasion of “staycationers”) puts immense pressure on local services and landscape.
We are fortunate that the environmental movement, which was arguably started in the Lakes by Wordsworth and evolved through John Ruskin and the National Trust (founded in 1895 by Sir Robert Hunter, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Octavia Hill who had campaigned to protect the Lakes from industrial development), fiercely defends Lakeland. This movement now encompasses a range of public bodies and voluntary organisations, such as Friends of the Lake District, all committed to controlling development and protecting this special place: there are however tensions and differences of opinion on what’s good for the national park.
Recently, a concerted effort by conservation groups has prevented the implementation of a ludicrous scheme to string zip wires across tranquil Thirlmere, but a similarly high profile campaign opposing the LDNPA decision not to stop 4×4’s from using green lanes in Little Langdale and elsewhere has so far been less successful. The LDNPA were conspicuously ambivalent during the zip wire fiasco and many are surprised at their stance during the ongoing 4×4 controversy, with many observers wondering which side it is on. The Authority has a difficult job discharging its often conflicting responsibilities and balancing the interests of different stakeholders, but to many of us it appears these days to err too often towards putting business interests before the environment and to conveniently overlook or misinterpret some of its statutory responsibilities.
The LDNPA’s position in the debate around 4×4 safaris in Little Langdale is clearly explained on their website, where the authority sets out why they are not imposing Traffic Regulation Orders to control 4x4s. The websites of the National Trust and pressure group “Save the Lake District” explain why they are both seeking to persuade the authority to change its mind.
It is only right that Wordsworth should have felt moved to campaign against unwanted development since, ironically, he had done much to popularise modern tourism in his 1810 “Guide to The Lakes”. Wordsworth, along with his fellow Lakes Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge are, with some justification, often also said to have invented fell walking. Wordsworth’s journals and letters document many epic treks around the mountains and Coleridge described his adventures in his 1802 “Walking Tour of The Fells”, which includes a vivid description of a descent of Scafell via the perilous Broad Stand, considered by the Fell and Rock Club to be England’s first recreational rock climb;
“And now I had only two more to drop down – but of these two the first was tremendous. It was twice my own height, and the ledge at the bottom was so exceedingly narrow, that if I dropped down upon it I must of necessity have fallen backwards and of course killed myself. I was beginning according to my custom to laugh at myself for a madman, when the sight of the crags above me, and the impetuous clouds just over them, posting so luridly and so rapidly northward, overawed me… O God, I exclaimed aloud, how calm, how blessed am I now.”
Simply the best pick-me-up.
Lakeland has been with me through every phase of my life and I think it is simply the best place on earth. I’ve been lucky enough to walk in many of the worlds high places, but I’ve never found anywhere to beat it for scenic splendour: it just seems that, by some happy coincidence of weather and geology, everything is in “just the right place”. I’ve been challenged and sometimes ridiculed for expressing this opinion, but was encouraged a few years back when I heard eminent mountaineer Alan Hinkes make the same claim for the Lakes. As the only British climber to have summited all 14 of the world’s 8,000 metre peaks, I guess he speaks with some authority! I also find it reassuring to have confirmation that size isn’t everything.
The Lakes has provided some of my highest “highs”, but whenever I’ve felt low I’ve found that it’s rugged fells, placid tarns and meandering streams and rivers have always been there for me like a good friend to offer comfort and support and remind me that however bad things seem to be, there’s always a place to escape the madness and gain some perspective. I’ll leave the last word to Wainwright who typically captured perfectly what the Lakes means to so many of us;
“The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal. Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits. These are for the seeking, and those who seek and find while there is yet time will be blessed both in mind and body.’The Western Fells