Distant Destinations: Day Trips to the Lakes

I’m happy when I’m hiking,
Pack upon my back.
I’m happy when I’m hiking,
Off the beaten track.
Out in the open country,
Miles from anywhere,
With a real good friend,
To the journey’s end,
Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty miles a day.

A song Mum & Dad used to sing.

Happy though we were with our hiking and our Friday nights in the church hall, we raised the bar again: Neil arranged coach trips to take us further afield for a day’s hiking.

Mr Spencer worked for Samuel Ledgard, and he became our driver. I wish I had a clear recollection of dates, routes and participants, but what comes through the years is a confused mix of images of people and places in the Yorkshire Dales. Mary fondly remembers walking up Ingleborough, when John Parker encouraged them to sing an inspiring hymn to help them reach the summit, but all my memories are completely overshadowed by the drama of a trip to the Lake District in the spring of 1962.

Our busload, which was probably about forty strong, rolled happily along the A65 to Kendal and through Windermere. Mr Spencer threw us out at Skelwith Bridge and drove to Coniston to await our arrival. We began our march up Little Langdale, intending to branch left up the valley of Greenburn Beck, climb onto Swirl Howe, and continue along the ridge to Coniston Old Man. The bad weather alternative was to cross the ridge at Swirl Hawse and descend to Coniston via the Coppermines. This looked good on paper, but the sky was grey and bleak as our party strung out along its route.

Our oldest members were under twenty-one, but they included experienced hillwalkers and people of both genders with maturity beyond their years. What of the remaining thirty-six? There were the headstrong mid-teenagers – such as Chris Baldwin and me – who intended to prove how hard we were, regardless of the terrain and the weather. Some were competent hikers who came with us most Sundays. A few weren’t regular hikers at all and had little or no experience of the Lake District.

The rain had set in by the time we passed Little Langdale Tarn, and the track beyond that point swiftly deteriorated before disappearing altogether. Chris and I led the way up a steepening slope, vegetated by grass tussocks with squelches of sphagnum moss between. The wind was in our teeth, but we were competing against each other, forcing the pace as we climbed towards the swirling clouds that seemed to be descending to meet us. The rain turned to sleet and then to wet snow as we headed into the murk, and our legs and feet were quickly soaked, but we pressed on. Through our anorak hoods we heard a faint whistling, so we stopped and looked behind. Far below us, an agitated figure was waving and shouting angrily, but there were no others from our party to be seen through the blowing snowflakes.

We realised we’d have to turn back. Chris and I would probably have crossed Swirl Hawse, but far below us one of the girls was being evacuated due to breathing difficulties, and in the conditions the decision had been made that the whole party should retreat. When we regrouped, Chris and I were criticised for getting too far ahead. We countered with an immature protest that our expedition had been spoiled, but it was obvious the decision had been right. We stood and shivered as the cold penetrated our wet clothing, while Neil phoned the police to ask them to send our bus to meet us. Mr Spencer drove as close as he dared on the narrow and snowy roads, and we walked to meet him, climbing gratefully aboard to begin a cold wet journey home. The girls commandeered the back of the bus and hung a blanket screen so that they take off their wet trousers, and our steamy transport lumbered as far as the steep hill that leads out of Windermere, where we came to a halt.

A lorry had jack-knifed ahead of us. We’d lost momentum and couldn’t regain traction on the icy slush. There was investigation and consultation while most of us sat miserably damp and chilled. After a while those at the front shouted that we all had to get off, so I re-tied my boots and joined the throng, shivering in the sleet, struggling to keep my footing on the treacherous surface, and applying puny force to the seemingly futile task of pushing the old blue bus, its wheels spinning fruitlessly in the fading daylight.

Happily for us, the army was on hand. A gang of squaddies arrived, and they turned the tide in our favour. As soon as the bus started to make headway, we ran to catch up and jump aboard, thanking our saviours as we left.

The soldiers looked up and saw the girls smiling and waving through the back window. They shouted, ‘Hey! What are those women doing in there? Why weren’t they pushing?’
‘Sorry!’ we replied from the bus door. ‘They couldn’t come out. They hadn’t got any trousers on.’
‘**** me!’ yelled the squaddies in unison, and we slammed the door and headed for the A65, home, and hot baths.

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