To Grasmere

Terry and Pauline are keen to get on the trail. They rush through breakfast as if they’ve got a bus to catch, but they’re hiking only as far as Grasmere. They obviously know which routine suits them best: having walked the six-hundred-mile South West Coast Path, they’ve had plenty of time to work it out.

My landlady tells me that accommodation is becoming a problem in Borrowdale: she is virtually booked solid until autumn, and she regularly has to disappoint would-be guests.

‘The young people in the valley don’t want to do B&B,’ she says. ‘They don’t want the work.’

The vendors of any Borrowdale property can doubtless name their price and still find themselves besieged by those with City bonuses. Well-heeled new owners won’t need to offer B&B – not the first generation, at least - so the prospects for hikers like me may well grow bleaker. There’s always Keswick, a bus-ride away, but a night in this beautiful valley really is something special. So I shouldn’t omit a passing reference to the continued presence of the Youth Hostel, despite my belief that YHA (England & Wales) is growing less relevant by the year to the needs of long distance walkers.

Within fifty yards of my digs Melvin and Winfield join me, refreshed after their night in that very hostel. We amble along the lane into Stonethwaite, passing the time of day with a mother and child cycling what must be England’s most scenic school run. Over the beck is the gravelled path that starts us on the long ascent beside Greenup Gill. The others pull away from me as I saunter steadily, enjoying sunbeams and birdsong in contrast to my most recent hike along this route, when squally snow showers blew me over the crest into Far Easedale. But my mind drifts back much further, to my first visit, on Easter Sunday 1962.

Our Youth Club ran a youth hostelling trip to the Lakes that weekend. Unable to book the beds we really wanted, we faced a long haul from Derwentwater to Hawkshead and, as luck would have it, in gruelling heat. Most of our previous experience was limited to the Yorkshire Dales, and we found the Lake District much tougher. One of our party was badly blistered, terrible for her and a strain on those who had to carry her rucksack. We were all whacked by the end of the day, and nobody went out in search of beer that evening.

Back in the present, my stroll is idyllic, apart from having to make running repairs to my knee support, re-stitching around the reinforcements. I catch up with Terry and Pauline below Lining Crag, taking a rest before the short, steep section that leads to the boggy summit. Far behind us, the wooded slopes of Borrowdale merge with the rough-sculpted fells, where bracken awaits its spring greening. The cool, dry mountain air fills my lungs, while the sun dries the sweat on my brow. If there is a God, he probably isn’t in his Heaven, because here would be better – if he could afford the house prices.

‘This beats Rotherham on a spring morning,’ I announce.
‘It’s all right, Rotherham,’ says Terry. ‘There’s some very nice parts, as well as the awful bits.’
‘But you wouldn’t rather be at work, instead of up here, would you?’
‘Ah, mebbe not, but I’ve no complaints. I worked right through ‘til I wa’ sixty, then I got a good leavin’ package.’

Wordsworthian declamations in praise of scenery seldom cut much ice with fellow travellers. Long distance walkers have standard topics of interest: the weather, the route, last night’s lodgings, today’s destination, and the state of their bodies. For some, that is more than enough. But for my age group, nothing comes close to the inexhaustible subjects of Complaints and Ailments. Blisters, sore spots, orthotics, insoles, joints, muscles, strapping, supports, backache, doctors, hospitals, scans, tests, consultants, operations: information, opinions and questions on all the above (not only our own, but also those of our family and friends) invade many an otherwise tranquil rest stop amidst the indescribable beauty of our National Parks.

After a few minutes I bid the two of them au revoir and press on into the keen wind that whips the wet top, and then it’s downhill across the headwaters of Wythburn Beck to the ridge that leads to Helm Crag and Grasmere.

The morning isn’t yet gone, so there’s no reason to rush, and near Calf Crag I glance to my right and spot a perfectly flat patch of grass. It looks just about big enough for a one-man tent. It’s almost hidden from the view of passing walkers, sheltered by rocks from the cool breeze, and exposed to the sun. There are views down Far Easedale and over the tourist honey pots. To the left are the Helvellyn range and Fairfield. This is the place for me! Off with the tee shirt, boots and socks, and on with the sunglasses! Who will believe my account of such a glorious April day?

After forty-five minutes I decide to potter along, taking it very steadily because I know that I’ll only finish up spending my money in Grasmere. I’m happy to stop and chat with the few walkers and dogs, if they share my inclination. Helm Crag brings back happy memories of leading the Scouts there from Thorney How Youth Hostel, and after soaking up the views I trot smartly down the hill, passing Melvin and Winfield and a young Welsh couple who are walking as far as Shap.

Grasmere quickly supplies me with a pot of tea, a slice of apple pie and cream, a couple of postcards and food for tomorrow’s lunch. I check into my digs, take a shower, sort my belongings and head up the main road to the Traveller’s Rest for thirst-quenching pints of Jennings bitter and an expensive but juicy dinner of Lakeland lamb.

The village attracts all sorts of people of many nationalities, but appearances suggest that few of those entering the Traveller’s Rest are here for the hiking. In downtown Grasmere the roads are deserted: everyone is indoors, eating and drinking the evening away. I stroll from end to end and back again, seeing no more than a couple of other pedestrians, before sauntering back to my bed. Memo to self: don’t stay by the noisy main road next time.

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