I don’t usually come to Keswick. In the Easdale valley, my usual destination, I know where I am. Paths are dear and familiar; even in the snow I have a reasonable idea of my location. But this year I travel to the northern fells, rarely visited as adult or child. To continue on the train after Oxenholme is strange; I fizz with nerves and excitement. Fells rise steeply around the track. Unknown. Unexplored. And there’s snow! Snow on the peaks! They are grander, scarier – holier for it. I think of snow under my boots, crisp or soft, or creaking, of walking through a snowing sky of millions. My tummy quivers, and I reach for my case, though we are still minutes away from Penrith. This will be polar exploration!
The Lake District is my best place, but most of the time I walk somewhere else. Most of the walks in this blog will be on chalk. But the Lakes are the right place for me to start.
I think often of my attachment to particular landscapes and try to mine the feeling. There are obvious answers for me. In a part time family, it is where I spent most time with my dad. It is full of childhood memories: of first summits, and cold swims followed by baked beans heated on a primus; of camps, and igloos, and sledging on carrier bags. More than enough to make them beloved. But it’s more than that. I like the rugged terrain, the mountains, the emptiness. It is wild, and I fit there.
Establishing a relationship with my local chalk Downs has not been so easy. Chalk – this sedimentary stuff; as if something which gathered for centuries at the bottom of a sea is just too peaceful under my feet. Also too soft, too neat, too smooth; definitely too low.
But I have walked the Downs for more than a year, attentively, carefully, trying to learn; occasionally now, I feel more than a visitor. I have had moments of grace and beauty and tearful love on the Downs. They are not my passion, but I read with fascination and gratitude books by those for whom it is: the chalk writers. One stands out, a book on Downland flowers, by W N Macleod, a man who moved from Scotland to the Downs (and I have not yet stifled the exclamation inside – you chose to move from Scotland to the Downs?!) His love for the chalk and its flowers fills his book; he helps me to see and understand.
I am staying at a B and B in Portinscale, and get out of the taxi to the smell of growing – spring opening out. I take a huge breath in; for me this is arrival in Eden garden! My room is at the top of the house, windows jutting out into the sky, outside a part of in. Almost an observatory, I think with pleasure, knowing I will be happy to return there, and settle down with maps and forecast to decide the next day. The weather’s a mixed bag, but I decide on Skiddaw. It will be hard to go badly wrong on the path from Keswick, even in cloud – and I long to be high. I live, absurdly, at sea level, craving height; seek relief by day, head back, with the gulls; by night leaning backwards out of the window, up with the stars. (My eleven year old daughter will cruelly and accurately ‘do mum’ doing these things…)
Long before breakfast time I wake, and stare out at the clear dawn light. It’s fine, better than forecast. I turn, and start to line up the things I need across the bedroom floor. The must haves, the just in cases; feeling the twitchy excitement which always fills me before a new walk.
In the early steps when I’ve hardly gone anywhere, I can see Skiddaw, a wedge of purple cloud hiding its summit. It is another world, and I swallow a little, feeling my impudence at seeking it.
I walk into Keswick, then out behind the swimming pool. Crossing the old railway line, I glance over to the station, with its platform onto nothing; remember suddenly a warm summer’s day, playing waiting for a train which would never come with my brother; remember the delicious enchantment of suitcases and goodbyes and journeys under our feet.
I look away; turn my mind up and away from the past and start through the woods; feel the smooth locomotion of my body as I start to climb, stomach and leg muscles engaging, necessary muscles now. I love this feeling: no longer a flimsy seated human: a working body.
Bird song flows in streamers from the trees and my ears are full of them, but my eyes look, absorbed, across the valley to the unfamiliar fells; it seems to take a long while for these shapes to settle in my head. I realise how differently I look at the fells I know – with loving detailed attention, as I look at my family. These strangers I regard with wide eyes. I can’t look away; it is the absorbed stare of new love.
Leaving the woods, the fells open wide before me. A young couple pause uncertainly at the bottom of the path, looking around. A guide, bearded and competent, approaches them. Far ahead, a slight figure moves with a sure swing. Otherwise, there is no one.
I climb fast at first, as I always do, on a surge of desire: for the joy of a fast beating heart and the sweat and the effort of it; to find the bottom of my lungs; to feel this edge of my life.
Soon the path zig zags steeply, but it’s easy underfoot, and I keep a reasonable pace. Snow starts in patches, and I scoop up a handful. Crisp and rounded, like ball bearings, I pour it from hand to hand for the rattle, and think of the snow down south the week before: the softest snow I have experienced; too fluffy for good snowballs or snowmen, but ah, blissful under barefoot! Not that I was intending a barefoot walk, I just stuck a foot into the snow before swimming to see how it felt, but was stunned by its softness. It was gentle – almost warm, and I walked back and forth in amazement! This tough crispy snow was a different beast, and I thought how inadequate the word ‘snow’ is for all its varieties. There must be many more words for those who need them, and checking this, find that indeed there are. Graupel is the word for the granular snow pellets I shook between my hands (not, apparently, the same as hail, which has an icy structure); and blenk is probably best to describe the ash light snow in which I paddled my feet before swimming. I love the precision of these words, and graupel seems just right for those ball bearings, but blenk does not quite hold the beauty of soft snow. There must be a better word…
Pausing, I look back and down. Snow is caught in the paths on the lower fells, turning them to chalk roads. My mind is moving serenely along one; I jump at a sudden pump of bellows – waa waa – over my shoulder. A press of black wings, then I see the crows moving fast and away. I stand in their slip stream watching them out of sight; then I climb on. Gradually the inside of my head starts to melt to runny, life with its bundle of complications lifts away from me. This feeling of lift off, flight with feet on the ground, only comes properly when I climb. I am all lightness; wholly, zanily, happy alive!
The snow increases. Perspective changes: the lake stands on end; Skiddaw leans towards me. Mountains, all in white, change their contours. They’re not lost, but subtle.
Cloud swirls, then drops tight around me. My world is white; two steps forward, two steps back. It is footprints, shallow and grey. There’s only me, and I am nothing at all – but everything that is left. What is left of me? My head has emptied out to white. I feel shallow, paper thin, self written out on a side of A4. I must make my decisions in this white cloud box that is all that is left of the world. Is this the original position; the beginning state, or the end?
I begin to obsess about the footprints. The fresh ones. The competent knowing stride of the person who went before me. They must be right. I reach a stile, and am distracted by the ice cradling the posts, which I bend forwards to examine, then look up. Nothing. But the cloud opens briefly to reveal the climber who knows, who has set off left – west ish, I think, which seems right, although sooner than expected; but this is unfamiliar ground. At this point, of course, I should have carefully examined the map. But I am spooked by snow and cloud loneliness: I follow.
It is a steep path, steep and snowy. I stop, put on crampons, and continue. The cloud is close about me again, and I concentrate hard on keeping to the path. A cairn appears suddenly out of the white, not just the usual pile of stones, but a bizarre metal sculpture, stranger for its snow fangs and feathers. A proper you’re at the top cairn.
Surely not already? Oh. A glance at the map confirms it. A deviation up Skiddaw Little Man. But not far out of my way. I step on a little, then turn back, sit on the cairn and open my co-op sandwich. Chewing on boiled egg and salmon, I consider my options. I don’t mind climbing in cloud if there is some prospect of seeing something at some point. I’m not wild about doing it when there isn’t. But the forecast had been encouraging. I decide to go on, and take advantage of momentary visibility to yomp in big snowy strides towards the main path. Smiling at the satisfying crunch under my feet, I glance down, and stop abruptly. I am ploughing through sculptures: exquisite blades of snow have formed along the slender stalks at my feet. I lift one with the utmost care; snow combed to delicate strands of beauty.
Suddenly the world comes back into focus, even the summit is visible for a moment. Two men on the way down smile and say hello as if we were passing on the promenade. Derwent Water is wind brushed to gloss and matt, pussy soft, cat’s paws of wind – pirr I think, moving across it; wind I could see, but not feel or hear. Days later, on the tube, I make eye contact with a stranger, see his insides exposed and drop my gaze, embarrassed at my violation, knowing something he had no intention of saying; then I think back to those moments staring down at Derwent Water, saying everything without flinching.
I continue to climb. Cloud descends; wind increases, and snow hisses and rattles over the ground, lifting and removing my footprints. There is no trace of me; I am gone within with a step. The summit is over there somewhere, I think – a shape – a person appears briefly in the cloud. Over there.
The wind is against me now; it moves from west to east over the top, wind racer, heading somewhere and hauling cloud with it; trying to rip me off; wind in its element. The world has turned bright black and white; it is the savage edge of this world- or of another. When I remove a glove to take photos, the wind tries to take my hand; the chill is quickly painful, fingers dispossessed. Taking photos – any taking from this place – comes at a cost.
For moments I blaze in this freezing world, lift my arms to its harsh hard beauty. It is exhilaration mixed with a strange high hooooo of loneliness. My eyes are whipped to tears by the wind. They would have been there anyway.
The guide and his couple are huddled up against a wall in the in the cold, eating their summit sandwiches. The view towards the sea is simple sun and blue, the mountains rising suddenly from flat. I turn and walk away.
Later, lower down, away from the fury, someone plays in the wind on a red parachute, lifting and drifting on the thermals like thistledown on a summer breeze. I stare, then close my eyes to remember the enormous weightless silence of it: 20 years ago now, skiing off a mountain attached to someone who knew what he was doing and a parachute, but I will always remember the wonder of those moments: the feeling that this then, was flight.
Everything is clear now, things once more full of their colours. I return to Little Man, eyes on the footprints before me, the deep blue shadows in each, tiny cliffs – miniature worlds. I reach the scrap metal cairn, and put the fells, magically conjured, back into place around them, then soodle down a little more to a sheltered spot. The snow seems crisp and dry, and I sprawl in the sun, body relaxed and careless, dozing in its warmth. Minutes later I became aware of dampness underneath, and hop up to get out rain trousers to sit on. A gentle dent is the only sign of my body on the snow. Such slight evidence of my being! I wonder if I can pass so gently through the world that I barely dent it.
Properly awake, I sit staring out, still trying to comprehend this new place, looking over Mungrisdale common, purple brown, and tucked in against the surrounding fells, like a neatly made bed. I dream of walking across it, or somewhere bigger, playing with how this would feel, the space around me and stillness of the mountains around; their huge peace placing me more surely in mine.
‘Looking at the view?’, said a man going past.
I smile and nod, and think of the people I sometimes meet on the beach as I come out of the winter sea. ‘Cold?’, they say. Humans, it seems, have a real gift for asking the blinding obvious. Then I smile again, thinking that I have an equal gift for missing it, and remember a walk a few weeks back. I was running late on my walk, so started running in fact and discomfort, in walking boots and bumping backpack, down to Southease to make my train. I zipped across the track with one minute to spare – and found the gate to the platform locked. I pushed desperately and fruitlessly at it as the train appeared down the line.
‘Pull it’, suggested a man on the platform, glancing over at me. Oh. Yes. I uttered my flushed thanks as the train drew in, and he kindly said he had often done the same thing himself. It didn’t seem terribly likely, but I appreciated his generosity in saying so, missing, as I had, the blinding obvious.
I walk on, my pace slowing. I had the feeling of walk end, and I was sad. I didn’t want to leave; even staying in a village amongst them felt like leaving. I wondered if I stopped, curled up here, in this spot, I would be ok; or perhaps if I had a tiny cottage on the side of a fell, I wouldn’t feel the tugging sadness of departure. I moved slowly, stopping frequently to try and capture the moment, bookmark it, keep it somehow; watching a shaft of light on the other side of the valley, light in my darkness.
Stopped and staring, I became aware of movement at my feet. A dog, and a woman, also absorbed in the shaft of light. Her dog, supremely satisfied to being himself, a busy trot with tail aloft; her face, lit and full of her day. We strolled down to Keswick together, talking walks. This day, with its cloud and light and half light was, we agreed, much more satisfying than any day of blue sky sunshine. She knew the area well, was full of paths and views and difficult scrambles, and was I doing my Wainwrights? I thought, almost guiltily, of my annual return to the same fells, my love affair with the Easedale valley. I couldn’t quite admit to years of swooning over the same places, and was shy of saying what I love: that I know where the blackberries are, and where you can sometimes find raspberries; that I know the feel of the gate which is always padlocked, where you can lean over into the cool of the pine wood on a hot day; that I know the tree with roots which seem like a mermaid’s tail, and the gatepost which is as smooth as the inside of a thigh: that I love the slow intimacy of these things. In this unfamiliar terrain I was bowled over by new shapes, eyes sweeping continually to try and make sense of it, absorb it. It was exciting and strange – but it would take me years to know it. Truly, I am not one for doing my Wainwrights.
I asked how she started walking, and she said her in laws had wanted to climb Helvellyn on their 60th birthday, and, determined not to make fools of themselves, she and her husband had set off on a test mission. ‘I knew within 10 minutes that I loved it’, she said. Truly, 10 minutes is all some loves need, and I walked back to Portinscale, thinking of her happiness climbing the fells with her little dog, and looking up at the snow, blue in the evening light.