St Bees To Patterdale
The start of any long walk was full of apprehension. Will the body cope? Will my companions cope? Will my relationship with my companions cope? It rarely involved any sort of ‘will it be fun?’
I wasn’t being negative because I was sure the setting, the scenery would be fab. It was the peripheral stuff that could set things going in the wrong direction.
To get to the start of the walk, at St Bees Head meant a drive north collecting our designated drivers on the way. If that sounds arse about face, then, well, that was much a neat metaphor. You may already be thinking ‘cop out’ and, well, yes there’s a truth in this. But even though I was still in my thirties my walking companions, at least for the first week were well into their sixties and carrying their homes on their backs held little appeal. We hired a minibus, inveigled Stan (the van) and (Ferrying) Terry to be our support team and set off. Stan and Terry worked with the other member of our party, Ernie, an old friend of dad’s from way back. All of them had done a stint in the war or just after on His Majesty’s behalf and loved to tell those stories. Reminiscing was their default position and there was little in the landscape, the company, the settings, the politics of the day or pretty much anything that couldn’t trigger a memory and a story.
I think that’s why I went, those stories, which offset some of the trudgery that was entailed when in the mountainous areas of England.
So, St Bees. Basically it’s a cliff with a stony beach and a view, on a good day, of the Isle of Man. Nothing at all special, other than the place where we turned east, smiled at each other and waved the sea goodbye. The next time we’d see the sea would be on the other side of England.
Except you follow the coastal path for a bit before setting off inland. So much for romance.
Indeed the romance, such as it was, ended completely by ten o’clock. This was the longest walk we had done. I had done. I invested in two things. A new anorak with a breathable wick-away fabric that was state of the art and a thermos flask that was meant to survive the rigours of the walking we were to undertake.
Sucker. First, the anorak: while keeping out the occasional rain burst but it singularly failed when it really mattered on the North Yorkshire Moors, failing miserably to ‘wick away’ the sweat that thousands of feet of climbing induced.
But that wasn’t the worst. That sodding flask leaked which I found out at about ten o’clock when I wondered why I felt saturated with sweat already and we hadn’t encountered our first real climb. More to the point Dad had shown no signs of perspiration and he was an Olympic standard sweater.
Factoid: my father generated heat like an unregulated isotope. He was fission in human form. His hands were a great example of this phenomenon. Never did he wear gloves for his fingers would heat within moments of setting off. Moreover, within thirty minutes of climbing his fingers would swell to the size and shape of fleshy bananas, rending him incapable of bending them easily and, incidentally getting out of many and varied tasks involving any sort of dexterity. Such as removing his wallet from his back pocket in any pub we encountered. .
So how could I be soaked and him not? Easy. Coffee, warm as fresh sweat but with a better odour had soaked into my ironically named ‘sweat’ shirt. By this point Stan and Terry had left us: the daily routine adopted with Stan the previous year was for them to take us to our drop off spot, join us for maybe a mile and then let us go. They would then return to the van and spend the day seeking out the local sights before meeting us at lunch. In those days, pre mobiles the logistics of this required fairly careful planning but rarely were we more than thirty minutes early or late, so good was Ernie’s estimation of the effort needed to achieve our goals.
With only dad and Ernie to see my comeuppance I might have expected a modicum of sympathy. Sod it, did they? An early lesson in male banter: sympathy is for others. While I cussed and wrung out my shirt and top, they sat on a wall and drank their coffee making helpful suggestions about how good their’s was and why didn’t I have some of mine and, oh no, silly them, I couldn’t, could I? And maybe I should suck my clothes at least to get a flavour of how really special this coffee was.
Ha. Let them scoff. Revenge would be mine.
I suppose it was inevitable, after so much anticipation, that the initial mileage took us across fairly flat country, more reminiscent of the ubiquitous farms everywhere in England than the uniqueness of the Lakes. That first morning we climbed hardly at all. At one point we looked towards Whitehaven and were grateful to be in the countryside when Dad told us about some abortive sales trip there – he sold chemicals for a living – involving a light grey suit and some sort of wardrobe malfunction with his fly. Eventually we reached the grass mound called Dent which, at just over 1000 feet caught our breath and hinted at the effort to come as we eased our way further into the Lakes. We ended in Ennerdale, staying in Ennerdale Bridge at what I remember to be a rather good B&B. It was a good day, if slightly twee all told. Nothing rugged at all.
Boy did that end. The next morning there was a mist as we set off along side Ennerdale Water, a goodly lake that had a black calm typical of the Lakes. It was a mixed day weather wise, in that it went from cloudy to sunny and back, always hinting at rain that didn’t come. It was also oddly cold, this being earlyish May.
In the guidebook we were following – Alfred Wainwright’s A Coast To Coast Walk – the author identified an alternative route across the contours up to High Stile and beyond. He didn’t recommend it, (‘It is for supermen’) though I expressed a keenness. It was made clear I would be on my own if I wanted to be so foolhardy. And no one would wait for me either. Thanks. Another reason why walking with old geezers had its limitations.
So it was we climbed steadily alongside the lake and then the river Liza that led inexorably to Black Sail Hut and Great Gable our first real climb. To our left High Stile, the monumental High Crag and Haystacks loomed over us. At 2650 feet High Stile seemed impossible and its sides appeared sheer from our position below. But as we made progress even that slope appeared a gentle gradient to the bowl and amphitheatre that awaited us at the youth hostel at Black Sail Hut. ‘Up there?’ dad asked at one point. Ernie and I, both of whom had maps said nothing, the silence speaking volumes.
The other purchase I had made prior to the walk was something I hesitated over. A Sony Walkman. This early version took cassette tapes and had induced a fair amount of scoffing from the older men – i.e. everyone else. But at the bottom of Great Gable which we had to climb to cross the Honister Pass and reach our bed for the night in Rosthwaite, we all knew what would happen. We would set off together. In 100 yards I would begin to pull ahead – I had thirty years youth on them leaving aside how fit I was back then. Ernie would pull away from Dad who had damaged a lung through smoking as a youngster and found climbs a challenge. He did them, always and he rarely stopped for breath. He was just slow. And hated being told he was.
So of course I never mentioned it. Hardly at all. Once of twice. Perhaps. Ha. As I said, revenge. It’s a bit shit sometimes, but then that’s blokes for you. Maybe girls, too.
I love climbing hills, getting into a rhythm and just going on. It’s still the same today. Like him I just want to get my breathing right and keep going. It’ll be a bummer when I can no longer do that.
We had 2200 to go, pretty much straight up. I would be at the top, at the youth hostel on the Honister Pass for a while so I set my machine running and plugged in a tape.
Alan Bennett’s monologues for women: Talking Heads. The first one I still remember, which was a separate play. A Woman of No Importance, performed by Patrica Routledge. It was utterly engrossing, so much so that I was still listening when first Ernie and then dad caught me up. I sat waiting for the play to finish before I followed them. Sitting on a rock with the route we had just come, back towards Ennerdale laid out below me, the beauty of the Lakes there, at last for me to see, I have to say I was deeply moved. I took my time, letting them get ahead. I couldn’t explain why it seemed to matter. I can’t now. But that personal experience, one on one listening to that play of such poignancy, was eye opening – ear opening, I suppose. It was my intro to books on tape. I’d not listened to books in the car – I didn’t drive much back then and mostly listened to news or music or sport. So here was a new way of consuming stories.
Nowadays I’d be lost without my phone and its back catalogue of books and podcasts. This year I’ve maybe enjoyed thirty books and twenty I’ve listened to. What a brilliant way to find out that little truth.
We stayed in Rosthwaite, our second night and the first of feeling exhausted and grateful for a warm comfy bed. We ate too much and they drank too much – I was teetotal by then – and we kept the conversation light and the night early. After all we’d all found Great Gable tough and it was a babe compared to our next day.
Before that we had to reach Grasmere and to get there we had a ridge walk. Wainwright was a man of strong opinions not all of which I agreed with. But on the joys of climbing high and then following a ridge as the land falls away either side is a true joy (assuming there’s no cross wind trying to buffet you to your doom). On the way there were nodules, crags, on which we stopped and took in the views. The day had started cool, cold actually and with high cloud but already the sun was breaking through and on each slope, none of which were that strenuous we all worked up a head of steam, as it were.
One beautiful ‘crag’ is Helm, also the Lion and the Lamb. Ernie and Dad sat on top while I snapped away. Their faces were wreathed in smiles. This was an utter joy for them, partly because they both knew, I think, that they’d probably never do this walk again. Such is achievement and a bucket list even if they didn’t call it that back then.
We dropped down into Grasmere for a brief stop and looked North, across towards the ridge of Seat Sandal and the Grisedale Pass, nestled between. We had to reach the pass before we would see Helvellyn and to get there we needed to climb alongside the perfectly named Great Tongue. This grassy bank is like a Giant’s tongue laid out on the hillside. And the path even though it is only a steady climb seems somewhat inexorably, especially on what was becoming a hot sunny May day.
I remember waiting at the top, just before the path narrowed and skirted Seat Sandal to reach Grisedale Tarn, one of those strange high level lakes that sit, cold and still and full of foreboding. On the far side of the tarn, the path zigzagged up the slope. To our right another path fell away. Had we been short of time or the weather poor we could have taken that route to our resting stop for the night, via St Sunday Crag. But it was beautiful, we had plenty of time.
‘Helvellyn, boys?’ asked Ernie?
I looked at Dad and he grinned like he’d been offered his weight in chocolate. Another one of many ‘no need for words’ moments.
‘Off you go then, Geoff.’ They both stood, hands on hips watching me. They were still staring when I turned back having gone forward about twenty feet and up 200. When I caught then watching they both sighed a little and set off. We needed to reach the summit – all 3118 of it – and it would take then a little while.
The summit is pretty dull, actually, with good views to the east and Ullswater but otherwise the flattish top mitigates against breath taking vistas. There were still pockets of snow at the top and some young men in shorts and bare-chested sun bathing. A couple of screaming jets, training for some unimagined war screamed through the valley below the noise following the image of the plane in a rip-roaring clash that felt like the mountain itself was expressing its ire at their intrusion.
We sat and drank coffee – from the still dodgy flask – and wished we were alone. You want peace, not exuberant youth on these occasions. And then, all too soon we needed to get going.
‘It’s pretty much downhill,’ Ernie assured us. ‘Easy.’
Hmm. If you’ve been up Helvellyn you’ll know about Striding Edge, a ridge that is the way to Ullswater and our resting place in Patterdale. It is a fabulous water, occasionally terrifying as the path narrows. And no one in the right mind goes along it in high wind. The conditions were perfect; no need to worry….
Only to get onto to it you appear to have to jump down about six to ten feet with nothing between you and a 1000 foot fall if you get it wrong. It takes nerve, one of those moments when you have to talk to yourself, counsel yourself with the thought that many people have done this traverse with no apparent problem. But at the time, well, it seems to be quite something.
We made it; clearly or I wouldn’t be writing this and it was easy, if a little tiring on the knees. We walked together, exuberant, lapping up the fine weather and willing the end not to come.
Patterdale with Ullswater, one of the most beautiful of the Lakes is a truly gorgeous spot, with Alpine overtones. We stayed on the Youth hostel, dined in a pub
and slept the sleep of the preternaturally exhausted. We’d be leaving the Lakes tomorrow and that thought sat heavily in us. Could things get any better?