Going Solo: Getting Away to the Lake District

‘Well. I think you’re awfully brave,’ Beryl tells her, ‘climbing up mountains all alone.’
‘Brave or foolhardy,’ Verushka agrees. ‘Depends on one’s definition. Frankly, I’d admit to selfish.’

(Iain Banks, The Steep Approach to Garbadale)

In the summer of 1987, while Dad was declining, I had taken on a new role at work. It satisfied me, but I found that I needed better opportunities to wind down. The precious days on the Derbyshire moors helped, but I craved something further. That December, with Anne’s understanding, I grabbed a few days in the Lake District.

I drove up to Buttermere and booked in at the Youth Hostel. Next morning I set off up Robinson with the intention of hiking round the Buttermere valley via Dale Head, Haystacks and Red Pike, but I found I’d greatly overestimated my fitness. I couldn’t face the horribly loose and steep ascent of Gamlin End, so I cut the walk short at Scarth Gap and stumbled down to the lakeside for a wimp’s finish.

I think the emotional turmoil of the autumn, and the reduction in exercise consequent upon family priorities, had weakened me. Turning my attention to the Brackenthwaite Fells, I spent the next three days painfully building up my strength. On the steep ascents, I counted off fifty steps and then took a few seconds’ rest. I gradually improved on this laborious rate of progress and recovered some of my self esteem, returning home with the sense of refreshment that the Lake District always gives me.

At Easter 1988 I was in the Lakes again, this time with the Scouts. We completed five days of increasing toughness, starting with a half-day up Catbells, followed by an ascent of Hindscarth and Dale Head, the Coledale horseshoe, the conquest of Skiddaw, and a rugged transit of the Langdale Pikes.

Apart from a couple of Midnight Hikes I did little else with the Scouts: my four-year warrant as a leader was coming to an end; that year I took on another demanding job with more travelling and less free time; and David was losing interest. Something had to give, and that was Scouting.

Just before starting the new job, I grabbed a few days for myself in Torridon. On Friday 8th July I left home at 1845h and drove up the A1 and A68. I slept for about three hours at Jedburgh before driving over the Forth Road Bridge, and I was waiting on the doorstep of the northernmost Little Chef, just south of Inverness, when it opened at 0700h. After an Olympic breakfast I drove west to Torridon and pitched my tent, and by 1100h I was on my way up Liathach, where I visited all the individual summits before finding a way down beside a cool and refreshing stream.

Next day I climbed Ben Alligin, another superb walk with interesting scrambles, followed by days on Ben Eighe and Slioch. With all the Torridon Munros ticked off, I wasn’t too disappointed by the torrential rain next morning, so I packed the tent and headed back to the flat lands.

Solo hiking was very different from what I’d experienced in the Scouts and the Youth Club. On the one hand, it was wonderfully cathartic and released me from work concerns. On the other hand, during a walk I sometimes experienced an insight, about a project or about my role, that previously had been invisible but suddenly seemed penetratingly obvious.

I explained to Anne how, when I was at work, I often visualised a different me, standing on top of a hill, gazing into the distance. In my vision, successive ranges of hills receded into the haze, and it was my decision, mine alone, whether to cross one or more of those distant watersheds before stopping for the night. I suppose that in my mind I was back on the Chevin with Dad, extending a child’s dream. Or maybe I’d returned to 1963, somewhere between Edale and Kirk Yetholm, possibly even on the correct route. Whatever its origin, that daydream helped me through some tedious office days.

Back to the grind at work! We were going through the painful and at times disputatious process of splitting Anglian Water into the National Rivers Authority and a privatised water and sewage company. People who had worked together for decades found themselves on opposing sides, and acrimony became the flavour of the day. While we were falling out at a personal level, we had to keep the essential services running without affecting our customers.

Taking leave in those circumstances wasn’t easy, but I kept my diary clear for a few precious days. On Wednesday 8th March 1989 I finished work at lunchtime and drove up the A1, up Wensleydale, into the darkness and rain through Sedbergh, Kendal and Ambleside, and finally to the Youth Hostel at Holly How, Coniston, where we’d finished the 1963 Youth Club tour.

Next morning the rain was still pouring, but I’d set my mind on walking to Eskdale Youth Hostel.

‘Are you risking it, then?’ the Assistant Warden asked me after breakfast.
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘I’ll stick to the Walna Scar Road and then decide about Harter Fell when I get there.’
‘It’s set to continue all day,’ he said gloomily, ‘with serious flooding in the Lake District and North Wales.’
The Warden joined in.
‘Never seen so much water on that field,’ he said. ‘Been raining all night and going to go on all day.’

Undismayed, I set off. Water cascaded down the hillsides. Walna Scar Road was a torrent, and by the time I reached the Duddon valley all the fields and the highway were awash.

At 1300h I had to decide whether to climb Harter Fell. The rain had eased, but the clouds were low. I had a route card, map and compass, and I had time in hand. As I hadn’t done it before, I decided to go for it.

The path started with a clear signpost that pointed into a swamp. I made my way up the hill to the next sign, which read ‘Harter Fell 2140 feet. Waymarking stops here.’

‘Thanks a lot!’ I thought, and splashed on through the evergreens.

The path soon disappeared, and the ascent became a hard grind up a steep gradient under low branches that caught on my rucksack, but eventually I emerged onto the wind-whipped fell. I looked around and thought I saw a trace of a path to the left, and it proved to be the correct one, taking me to the summit rocks. The wind was too strong for me to linger, so I headed down towards Eskdale as the rain resumed. There was no track, and the ground was not only steep but also broken by discontinuous cliffs. My instinct was to bear right, but luckily, I ignored my instinct and let the route card and compass show me the way. After a couple of tricky encounters with vertical drops that necessitated retreats and diversions, I came out of the cloud and was able to cross-check my position. All that remained was one difficult stream crossing, and I was safely at the foot of Hardknott Pass and only a few minutes from the drying room of Eskdale Youth Hostel. Among the items I placed to dry was the route card that had kept me straight, and I preserved it in the hiking archives.

The only others in the hostel that night were two nurses from Nottingham, one of whom had been engaged to a doctor at Otley Hospital. It’s a small world!

I spent the rest of the week filling in gaps in my Lake District ‘tick list’. I had a day on the Scafells and a trip around Illgill Head and Boot; I hiked over Esk Hause and Glaramara to Longthwaite Youth Hostel, then over Greenup Edge to Thorney How at Grasmere. I finished as I’d begun: heavy rain kept me to a low level route back to Coniston, where the car started first time. I’d enjoyed a great return to the wonderful scenery of the Lake District and a refreshing change from dealing with the drought in Eastern England.

I sneaked another few days in the Lakes early in December 1989. Based at Ambleside, I set myself challenging walks on the south-eastern fells and relished the hard graft and the peace of the high places. As a lone walker I made my own choice of routes, variations and rest stops. Solitude allowed my subconscious to sort out all manner of mental filing without interruption. In the evenings, the Youth Hostels and the pubs provided company, and I returned home renewed.

At Easter 1990 I made an unexpected return to Lake District Youth Hostels. David, then going on fifteen, was planning a trip with three of his fellow Scouts. The planning was looking good, but just before they were due to make the bookings his best mate said he couldn’t afford it. The trip fell apart, and David was disconsolate.

Anne and I felt sorry that his good work had come to nothing. I did a bit of diary juggling at work, while David rejigged the trip so that the two of us could go, and for me it was a great experience. We started up Sharp Edge onto Blencathra and down Hall’s Fell Ridge, then we drove to Honister and left the car at the Youth Hostel. Next day in perfect conditions we walked over Great Gable and stayed at Black Sail Youth Hostel, followed by a misty and sleety traverse of Pillar and the other Mosedale peaks, ending at Wastwater Youth Hostel. Across into Eskdale and a ride on the Ravenglass Railway, a night at the Youth Hostel, then via Three Tarns and The Band to Elterwater Youth Hostel, and a grand finale back over Bow Fell, Esk Pike, Allen Crags and Glaramara to Longthwaite Youth Hostel. David’s route plan and navigation worked well, and he showed great mental and physical resolve when the going was tough.

Over the following two years I fitted in short breaks in the Lakes, some with David and some alone. On every occasion, as soon as I stepped out of the car I felt relieved from the pressures of work, and I gratefully absorbed the views and soaked up the peace of the hills. The only snag was the travelling from Peterborough.

The Dark Peak was much closer to home. In June 1992 I decided to have a bash at the Derwent Watershed walk. It’s about forty-two miles, starting and ending at the confluence of the River Derwent and the River Noe at Shatton.

I began at lunchtime with a huge fry-up at the now defunct Marquis of Granby at Bamford and headed off for Win Hill, Hope Cross and Kinder Scout. The day was hot, and the first and only chance to fill my water bottles came that evening at Hern Clough on the way up to Bleaklow Head. As I strode eastwards on Bleaklow’s peaty ridge, the light began to fade, and I dropped down the hill to find a comfortable spot for my sleeping bag.

I caught two or three hours of sleep, and as the light improved I set off again across Howden Moors, Margery Hill, Back Tor and finally reached Bamford village. There I realised a thirst-quenching fantasy that had invaded my mind four hours earlier: a pint of milk. The shop was selling Sunday newspapers; it had just one pint of milk in the fridge; that was mine. As soon as I was outside I drained the bottle, then I skipped – well, actually, I hobbled – to my car and drove home. Yes, I had sore feet, but I also had my victory over the Derbyshire moors, and it was a good one.

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