Day 2 (part 2)… The Cairn

The ‘great unzipping’ (and strap-adjusting) was to become a ritual at the start and end of every day for the next three weeks. You carry very little, but seem to need EVERY bit of it, EVERY blooming day.

I’d packed three books, a spare pair of walking boots and a dressing gown (intended as a kindness to hostellers I might meet enroute to the shared showers). We’ll come back to each of these later today.

The evening before, the younger of the two brothers I’d speed-walked with had confessed to me. He’d realised he’d failed to clean his backpack’s water bladder before they set off and as he’d drunk it down on day one, discovered it was full of gruesome mould at the bottom. So he was sneakily stashing the hotel’s little bottles in his day bag when he could. He daren’t tell his big brother what he’d done (they were both old enough to be grandparents, but the ‘sibling rules’ stay strong).

He wasn’t sure what to do – they hadn’t got time to divert for shopping. “Grasmere might be your first chance…in 2 days’ time though” I said. I started to wonder if I’d got my kit choices right too.

As Cain, James and I walked along Ennerdale Water’s edge, we looked at insectivorous flowers like butterwort and admired the beetles and birds. Wainwright had written and sketched the incredibly-detailed walking guides for the Lakes back in the 1950s & 60s. His comments are often personal, and sometimes incredibly prescient. Of Ennerdale and elsewhere he bemoaned the fact that fells had been hidden behind forestry crops of conifers, and that broadleaved woodland had become rare.

As we walked I pointed out huge, bleached out stripes across the forest. Hundreds of dead larch trees stricken with a new, unavoidable disease and now potentially financially worthless as the timber market had been flooded with so many larches being removed, before this disease caught them.

The future deadwood had grown very pale. Deadwood can be a useful habitat. Here, it’s a also a crash-lesson in biosecurity and preparing our future environment for both the climate emergency and the wilder future we’ve been promised. Gareth Browning at the Forestry Commission and his Wild Ennerdale colleagues are working hard to manage this ongoing challenge and doing some great things. But it’s a stark reminder of increasingly global diseases.

Larches dying in swathes in Ennerdale. Photo from :

I’d be a continuity person’s nightmare. Today’s weather was changeable and I was trying not to overheat. I’d lifted my rain trousers out, to accommodate the sandwich I didn’t need after my massive breakfast at The Cloggers.

I only had 4 extra things to wear but managed to combine most of them that morning. I’d forgotten a top tip from my friend, John – take 3-4 pairs of socks and change them during each day of your walk. Boots off, insoles out and bare toes wiggling in the open air, whenever you can. If you can.

John knows about feet. He’d been laid up once in Scotland on a month-long walk after sharing his sleeping bag with a woodlouse-eating spider which bit through his foot. (Don’t let pub bores tell you spiders in the UK can’t bite through human skin).

The bite became infected and he’d been stuck in the Great Glen with a tent, a dog and a massive red foot that no longer fitted his boot. The unparallelled wildlife artist Richard Lewington once showed me his beautiful drawing of this spider. I bought his book. John showed me photos of his foot. Ouch.

Cain & James were going to walk to the end of Ennerdale Water with me and circle back on the forestry track. We watched grey wagtails skimming and continued on the tricky, eroded route. I spotted something odd. Not litter but perhaps lost? A sturdy handbrush, with red tape that meant something to someone. It was at least two miles from the nearest house. What was that about? Who was sweeping a mountain path in the middle of nowhere? Took a photo. (I don’t know why).

I found some bizarre lost property on my walk. Each object held a tale. The C2C is recommended as a west – east walk but people walk in either direction or just parts of it. Someone I knew called Jack Ellerby had walked there (and back!) just before I set off. I tried not to think about Jack – he made my 200 miles sound too far easy. Anyway, when you find stuff, you don’t know if it needs to go on with you, or back to find its owner. Best just leave it there? Lost forever?

I found the lower half of one trouser leg somewhere on the way. I imagined someone reaching Robin Hood’s Bay to paddle in the sea, with one milky-white leg and one prawn-pink one. A hat, seven(!) foot up a tree. And a rather odd ‘strap’ on a rock, which reminded me of the local fetish shop window, near where I’d lived in Brighton.

Meanwhile back in Ennerdale…a couple of miles later, we met a group resting against a wall, eating lunch. A man who looked like a carved-stone lion was their leader. They were volunteering to maintain the path. I saw some other red-taped tools. Aha! “Who’s lost a brush then?” I asked, like a goretex-clad Sherlock on the trail. I think they all looked at ‘Bill’…

We chatted about the challenges of maintaining access on his patch which included Scafell. I’d been up there on my training walk with a full backpack and ‘the book’. It’d been an awful day in May, needing winter gear to be safe. But it showed me the backpack wouldn’t be sufficient to keep the book dry, so it’d hadn’t been a complete waste of time.

Scafell had struck me as being covered in the most diverse group of mountain walkers (and dogs) I’d ever seen. Spliff-smokers on the summit. Multipacks of beer drinkers. Many carried pedigree accessories, like French bulldogs and pugs. It was a rough day. Couldn’t see a thing.

The ranger agreed about Scafell’s visitors. He’d had to go and collect all the summit empties and clean off some bizarre red graffiti about a lost Welsh village, submerged by a reservoir like Cumbria’s own Mardale.

I admired Scafell for its diversity but it was not a happy walk and secretly I didn’t think I’d bother again. (Though I did, on a promise to carry Eliza Carthy MBE’s backpack, with the Goathland Plough Stots, one night. I’ll maybe tell you about that another time).

Cain and James headed back, taking the sunshine with them. I decided to walk to Black Sail hostel, through the forest rather than along the historic cart track. Black Sail and me had history. A run-in the year before.

Whilst working out west, I’d stayed in some superb youth hostels to avoid commuting, but never Black Sail. It’s miles from anywhere. I’d read about Black Sail on joining the Youth Hostel Association 30 years earlier. You had to carry everything you needed back then, linen and towels. Just a big, basic bothy.

So when I‘d once stayed at Ennerdale Youth Hostel, (they allow you to drive up way beyond the no entry signs), I’d then walked up to Black Sail from there, with the idea to read a book and drink a bottle of cider in the sunset. About five miles round. With little to carry, I put the bottle in a carrier bag to try and look less like a wino and off I went.

On arrival at Black Sail, a group of young women were stood outside drying their hair. They’d just finished their A levels and were celebrating, regardless of results. The hostel was remarkably swish with a FULLY STOCKED bar! Not at all what I’d expected.

I didn’t think I could get my own booze out. But I’d brought no money. Hadn’t known there was anything to buy. A family arrived at the hostel and asked if I was alright. They’d been very worried about me, whilst walking way behind me, having spotted me with their binoculars, a guy with just a Co-op carrier bag, wandering several miles from the nearest shop.

 As the sun set, I decided to discreetly go and sit across the valley, drink my pint and head back. As I walked, I realised my leg was wet but wasn’t sure why. I lifted the large bottle from my bag… it seemed really light. It had quietly cracked across the bottom and completely dribbled away. The e-book reader I’d put in the bag with it had fared worse than a proper book would have.

So sat alone on a cold rock, with a broken bottle and my soggy e-book reader. That’d had been Black Sail for me. Surely it’d be better this time?

God, it rained hard that afternoon. Got cold and misty. I’d seen no-one for hours for the first time on my walk. Whilst the first day’s walk had taken me three hours less than expected, I now seemed to be three hours behind. And I had a proper, hard-faced mountain to climb before I’d be able to see Borrowdale.

You don’t really see Black Sail until you’re there. I tried to shelter under a little porch and read a fantastic memorial plaque for Chris Brasher. There’s a great radio documentary about him and the London Marathon. He sounded like a bully who’d redeemed himself by doing some seriously good things.

I hadn’t realised the hostel was open, with an honesty box for refreshments. And I’m not sure how I found out, or whether they chose just then to open the door. I flowed inside, mainly made entirely of water by then. You take wet gear off before you make the room wet, so I took my time, sorting myself out whilst a group of three professionally miserable men studiously avoided noticing me from just six feet away.

The men were intensely reading paperbacks and avoiding all conversation between each other too. Across the room, two women had cheerily said “hello!” which was more than enough for me. I sat and steamed for a while. I’d brought a particular book with me ‘Common People’. I’d been in touch with a red-hatted writer called Anita Sethi who’d written a piece for it, full of her heart and memories. We’d not met but I’d told Anita I’d take her there one day if she’d like, as she doesn’t drive and I know exactly what that deprives people of, in this county with expensive public transport that only runs when it likes.

I re-read Anita’s story then photographed it at Black Sail to show her it had made it there. The two women watched. Gave me the idea to do the same with ‘the book’ at which point, the women asked me what was going on. I explained, then we talked about willow and wood warblers for a while. Some man (of course) had been berating them earlier about birdsong in the valley, but hadn’t bothered to explain why.

As I mentioned fundraising, the grumpy guys in the corner sunk even deeper into their surroundings, their brows furrowing even more. The two women thought it was all wonderful. Which really helped. You see, despite working for a charity, I wasn’t sure at all how to talk about fundraising. How do you shake a tin? (I’d tried to bring one but it hadn’t fit my bag).

How do you ask a stranger for money?

As always, my friend John knew. He’d suggested making ‘business cards’ with my details on. He’d once walked for charity and found they kept embarrassment to a minimum. And led to unexpectedly kind donations. A chap he’d briefly chatted to had donated a huge sum, maybe £150, long after he’d returned home. So, I’d quickly knocked some cards up before I left, packing heavy handfuls in a freezer bag.

The main concern I’d had other than the lower half of my body conking out, had been what people might make of me. I’m not talking about vanity, bad hair, musky cagoules. What would they think about my charity idea?

I’d originally worried that no-one would care, once I passed half-way and crossed into Yorkshire. If the books were only for Cumbria why would they care, across the Pennines? Amy-Jane Beer’s successful crowdfunder had already sent the book into Yorkshire’s schools.

The month before I set off, my little nephew Connor had his special educational support taken away. Schools had to make cutbacks. Again. And Connor had started to read. Boy, had he started to read. He went from pretty much not reading at all, to suddenly getting stuck into Harry Potter books.

But there’s more to life and growing up than reading. He wasn’t always sure when to use the toilet then. Years of pressure take their toll on families, making parents and carers, ill with worry.

I’d decided to do something if I could. I added a second charity to my fundraising target. Doubling the total I’d now need to raise, as I’d split it 50/50.

Connor has autism. Lots of people do. It’s known to have been around for almost a century. I know nothing about it. The schools try their best but the endless austerity cuts, move further up the scales of need each time and children lose out. Key milestones that might have seen them remain in mainstream education are missed.

I asked my brother and his wife if it would be OK for me to fundraise for autism. It might mean me mentioning Connor to explain my reasons. I’m not sure, as we were on the phone, but I think my brother might have welled up. He certainly said some really nice things, that brothers don’t normally bother to.

I emailed a few ‘people-who-knew’ to see what they thought of the autism-linked charities. There’s more than one. I chose the National Autistic Society as they seemed to help people everywhere and locally. They were great when I rang them to buy a t-shirt I’ve never worn (it’s a bit see-through), and a bright purple one (their old, classic design) which I now absolutely love.

Autism is a well-known issue but one very few seem to fundraise for. I was painfully aware each time I rang the society’s office that their opening hours had been reduced again. I thought people might not be kind about it. Well, it’s not cancer is it? Or an earthquake. Or even an orangutan. But every day I walked, I met people who knew autism personally and had experienced it deeply.

Having stayed far too long, trying to dry out socks, shirts, and body parts, I swapped back to yesterday’s boots before heading up the vertical mountain pass. The hostel manager kindly explained where everyone goes the wrong way, as I left. That end of the dale is an extreme version of Teletubbies land. There’s barely a flat edge anywhere other than rocks that become treacherous in this constant, mizzling rain.

On the other side of the fell is Seathwaite, officially the wettest inhabited place in England, it suffers 3.5 metres of rain per year. (That’s twice my height). Each step of ascent had become pretty tough. I pretended to study the flora each time I stopped to catch my breath. It took me ages to climb, maybe three times longer than I’d expected. Than usual. I had some serious ‘words’ with myself as I climbed.

At the ‘top’ it was too wet to read my map and what was left of the views made almost no sense to me. I could see for miles, but almost all of it was beyond the margins of my map book. It must have been approaching 6pm, and becoming dark due to low cloud. And pretty disorienting.

I followed the most obvious path assuming it’d be the busiest surely? There was a very new-looking gate. I’ve come to think that people get lost mainly because they stop being calm. But it’s bloody hard not to lose it, when you’re tired, can’t see, and don’t know when it might end.

The mists shifted and I saw a cairn. Pebbles stacked to mark a route. Somewhere, on my phone I have a recording of that Damascene moment, when everything became beautiful again. I started to sing loudly, improvising to Abba:

“Thank you for the cairns

The stones I’m seeing,

Thank you for the jo-o-o-y-y they’re bringing,

Who could live without them?

Not me, in all honesty, what would life be?

Without a rock, a stone or a caaa-irn!

So I say thank you for the cairns,

For all they mean to me”

(reprise optional)

The sheep looked unimpressed.

But I’d found the way to Borrowdale.