Well! I’ve been busy gardening for the last week, and in the other parts of my time catching up on reading novels (mostly silly ones) and working on my current story, which was intended to be a novella but is likely to turn into a novel. These things happen; I’m blaming a sudden irruption of smugglers into the narrative.
Oh, and since I wrote last I also walked through three counties (Cumbria, Yorkshire, and Lancashire), and made it to a distance of something like 460km walked. That’s pretty much the distance between Ottawa and Toronto. It’s farther than from Kirkby Lonsdale and London.
I know this because there is a milestone in Kirkby Lonsdale which says that London is 250 miles away — that’s about 400 km. And I’m still in Cumbria — or rather, back in Cumbria, having gone in a big semi-circle around Kirby Lonsdale, over the fells of the Lake District and into the Yorkshire Dales.
When I left Carlisle I walked south along the river Calder to Caldbeck. I could see the first of the Lake District fells approaching as I walked; from the map I saw it was called High Pike. The route took me straight up and over High Pike, to the cairn at its summit. There was a bench there, so I sat and had an early lunch, called my sister as it was her birthday, and watched a kestrel hunting along the side of the hill.
I saw no one for four hours. But it was the Lake District, even if the most unfashionable and least-visited corner of it (well, I’m told there are little-visited parts in the west, too), and so when I came jauntily down the old packhorse trail from the Carrock to my left — shades of Tolkien; not for the last time! — and unexpectedly arrived at a little hut, I arrived at the same time as two men angling down from Skiddaw Old Man and the Knot ahead of me. The hut, it turned out, was called the Lingy Hut, and as we were chatting then and that evening (as they were also staying at the Skiddaw Youth Hostel), they seemed to assume writing novels meant mysteries, and joked about eing put in the book — “Murder at Lingy Hut.” Looking back at the hut from the valley below, to where it perched lonely on the ridge, I have to say story ideas proliferated. But really I don’t have much problem coming up with story ideas; it’s the writing of them that’s the hard part.
That valley was better-travelled, but mostly with day trippers it appeared, for once I turned up the next valley to the hostel I was left to just the wheatears and the sheep for company. Skiddaw House is not accessible by vehicles, run by a couple who have been wardens there for years, with a strange life, I should think — at once very lonely and very gregarious. Although a popular stopover for hikers, there can’t be much consistent social life, for alothough Keswick is only over the mountain, that is a fair hike — and although people do cycle it I can’t say I would. (It turned out they could, of recent years, bring a car in over the other pass, so although ordinary folk can’t drive in they are less isolated than I imagined at first.)
The next morning I went along the flank of the Lonsdale Crags. From the map I was rather concerned about what this trail would be like, as the contour lines indicated a rather steep slope above and below, and I wasn’t keen on a narrow path along, say, a scree slope. (I’ve walked such a path with my sisters, on the Crypt Lake hike in Waterton National Park, Alberta. It taught me several things about courage, and generosity; I made Nichola go up and back every sketchy part — and after the scree slope ledge there was a ladder with a 300-ft drop below it, and a tunnel, and then another angled ledge with a chain that the guidebooks warned was ‘for psychological support only’. Nichola didn’t like heights any more than I do; but she went up and back and up again to prove to me it could be done, because that’s the sort of person she was.)
Anyway, it was a pack horse trail, and about twice as wide as the Crypt Lake ledge, and although the slope was equally steep it was covered with heather, which gave me psychological support in the illusion that if I slipped, I might conceivably be able to break my fall, or at least have the opportunity to cry out ‘As you wish’ while tumbling head-over-heels.
I made it down to Keswick and abruptly back into the world of modern tourism — something which started in the Lakes shortly after Switzerland became an exciting destination — indeed, Keswick is the home of the British postcard industry. A couple of lucky people got sent postcards from the town.
As I was still in the heat wave at this point, after I bought a sandwich for lunch I took the ferry down Derwent Wate instead of walking all the way down the shore. I then had a nice amble down through Borrowdale, along with half of England it felt like after the isolation of the previous two days (there was some sort of convention going on in Keswick, and many of the attendees had decided to spend their Friday afternoon wandering between Rosthwaite and the ferry landing stages). This was the start of my being passed by absolutely eeveryone on the same routes as me, from elderly ladies with walking canes down to groups of enthusiastic teenagers with large backpacks aiming at completing the Duke of Edinburgh award.
I arrived at the Longthwaite Youth Hostel, a large bustling place that was quite pleasant but very different from the quiet cosiness of Skiddaw House. One of the women in my room, from the Netherlands, had been a guide in the Lake District in previous years, so I asked her opinion about the two routes that faced me. One, the official route of the Cumbria Way, went over something called the Strakes Pass at the bottom end of Borrowdale. I would follow the route down for about twelve miles, before cutting across to Rydal Water and Ambleside (my destination) for another six miles or so — something close to 30km, and in high temperatures (the 30s), with few opportunities for refilling water — or bailing — at that. I’d been advised, by one of the men at Skiddaw House, to instead follow a piece of the Coast to Coast Way, and go up and over the Greenup Edge to Grasmere and down to Ambleside from there. This would be shorter, I could stop in Grasmere if I wanted — it was only eight miles from Longthwaite — and there would be plenty of people on the route, it beign a Saturday in July and one of the most popular routes in the country.
The only problem with this plan was that there was a bit on the map leading up to the Greenup Edge that showed what looked rather like a cliff face to my eyes. Now, although I’ve been working on my fear of heights, I have neither skill nor interest in rock climbing. If this involved scrambling, I didn’t much want to do it, especially not with my backpack on.
Everyone brushed aside my concerns as being foolish, telling me not to worry, it would be easy. So the next morning I set off fairly early up the valley, past the sign pointing down the Cumbria Way branch of the valley, up and up an increasingly steep and narrow valley until I came to the properly steep bit, which looked like this:
You can see the path going up the grass slope. It then goes straight up the side of the rocky bit, heading up to the green ridge in the background.
IIt was as I sat contemplating this that I started being passed by people other than the fell runners I’d met earlier in the day, who were probably dancing across Helvellen by this point. I would like to point out that almost none of them were carrying full backpacks, which is true, but wouldn’t matter much; mine weighed about 25 lbs (a bit more than usual because of having an extra 1.5 litres of water, which is not too bad though I certainly felt it!).
I made it up the top to a view from the little rocky knoll and a sense of vindication in my map reading. While that route perhaps wouldn’t require ropes, if someone hadn’t built rough stairs up it it certainly would have been scrambling and using hands to get up it. I think British hikers must be so used to built trails that it didn’t occur to anyone that it might not.
Going down the other side into Grasmere took me hours. The ground was wet, rocky, steep, muddy in places, a stream in others, full of sheep droppings (as, really, is all of rural England that isn’t full of cow pats). I was passed by more people than I — well, I didn’t actually count, but probably than I’d seen on the St Oswald’s Way and the Cumbria Way combined, along with a goodly portion of the Hadrian’s Wall Path. I eventually got down into Grasmere with the important question of tea vs ice cream undecided, found a cafe selling both, and was just about finished my tea when a bus, destination Ambleside, pulled up across the street.
Enough was enough. It had taken me six hours do do six miles over the Greenup Edge, and I had hopes for the post office in Ambleside.
Of course, it was only open on a Saturday till noon, and by this time it was well on in the afternoon. It was, however, located inside the tourism information office, and when I explained my crestfallen appearance — that I was hoping for a letter post restante — the woman was sufficiently intrigued (I guess not that many people try for mail post restante any more, but it does work!) and went into the back to check for me.
So I ambled down the further mile to the Ambleside youth hostel with a letter from my sister in my hand, feeling deeply loved indeed, and spent a happy evening sitting watching the birds and boats on Windermere, as many another person has before me.