Day 2…and 3: Danger! UXT! (Unexploded toes)

Recap (read by Sean Bean or Ian McMillan, take your pick to suit your mood):

“We left our ‘hero’ up above Honister, not far from Innomimate Tarn, Alfred Wainwright’s final summit of rest. He’d been lost but now was found due to a line of little mountain cairns, a burst of Abba (not his favourite track, he preferred their earlier work) and in the pouring rain, a panorama of fifty shades of grey. It’s not sexy. It’s just damp.”

Having spent hours walking without seeing a soul other than the few Black Sail hostellers, it was odd to see a distant trio of drenched walkers and instinctively, quietly curse to myself… “What are THEY doing here! Thought I had the hill to myself”. But in truth, for once, I was glad to see someone. I’d not been lost, but I had certainly felt lost for a while. They were walking a track at ninety degrees to mine, so probably doing different things.

Our paths met via the disused miners’ tramway. Two men and a woman, in varying moods and states of decay. They’d used their much-earlier school-free start and the relatively better, earlier weather to go up top, aiming to include Red Pike above Buttermere. The changing weather had stolen their views and from what they looked like, most of their energy.

I recognised the worst of the three. The Dutchman I’d met at the seaside start line on Monday. He’d made it, but only just. He looked undead and was becoming uncommunicative, which sounded my internal first aider alarm. They’d met enroute and told me how awful their day had been, so I felt a bit better. If I hadn’t been meeting Cain, I might have been tempted to have tried the same highline route. The couple were also worried about him, whispering “he’s got no map!”.

As we came off Fleetwith Pike, down past the slate mine we suggested he ask for shelter at Honister hostel. Or a place to wrap himself in his tent at least. We waited outside to see the outcome. He was in! And off our watch, if we were being brutally honest about it. We still had two steep downhill miles to go, to an old place with three names.

At the bottom of the hills, near Borrowdale, famously beautiful Lakeland names overlap. We’d pass Seatoller, to reach Rosthwaite hostel, itself once known as Longthwaite and now repackaged by “marketing managers” into being YHA Borrowdale. Once we’d ironed out that map-readers nightmare, the three of us squelched on.

I suggested a river path I knew, where a chain is fixed to the rocks to help you avoid the river, when in flood below. That route introduced me to some words I’d not heard before, from the woman I’m going to name Claire. She worked down south as a special educational needs worker. Claire’s friend was a conservationist due to meet his wife, waiting in a warm camper van somewhere in the valley.

When Claire and I arrived at the deceptively functional-looking hostel (actually a pretty hip one due to the staff), we stood whilst the rain we’d carried, percolated down and formed tarns around our boots. A stern-looking North American woman was unusually annoyed about something. To the point that she couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) see the absolute state we two arrivals were in.

I’m not an attention-seeker but I started to take my clothes off, mainly to see what might happen.

Whilst one of the staff dealt with the American’s URGENT need of wi-fi, a perfect bundle of power arrived behind the bar and smiled. “We’re staying tonight please but have missed dinner…it’s alright…but please could I just have a very cold beer?”. I drank the whole bottle in less than the seconds it took her to ring it up on the till. Which frightened us both a bit.

It also told me I must have got in a right state too. “Please can I have another? I promise I won’t do this all night”. Moving between the crispy drying room and the bar for the next hour or so, I remembered the surplus sandwich I’d picked up 13 hours of rain ago. Heston would call it something like ‘pane bagnato’ and charge you £30. It felt like a pizza which had been in a warm wash. But by god, it was tasty. The dynamo behind the bar was called Charlotte. She does amazing things with a hula-hoop.

That night in the shared shower I looked down at my feet. I thought I’d stepped in an opaque gloop of someone else’s shower gel or something worse. Perhaps it was just a blob of wet toilet paper? The front and edges of my toes were all mis-shapen. When I bent down to check, I realised it was even grimmer than that.

Both pairs of boots had leaked badly that day. My feet had been wet for hours. I looked at my sock. The ball of my foot had worn straight through it that day. Effectively sockless for miles. This explained the new shape of my feet and the largest of the coin-sized blisters. But not those on the ends of, and between most of my toes.

If you’ve a favourite pair of socks, it probably means you’ve had them far too long. My trusty hiking boots had obviously worn out their inner waterproof layers too. My back-up boots were what I did the shopping in. Not serious boots at all. My sodden feet must have munched right through the socks and insoles.

I thought I’d wait until morning to see what happened to my feet. I don’t know why or what I thought might happen overnight. A visit from the foot fairy? I looked up NHS Direct online and texted a couple of walkers for opinions. One sent me a ‘gif’ film clip of a water-filled pink balloon being popped by a hatpin. (The NHS said do not do this under any circumstances…).

The next morning, day 3. After thirty miles and hours of mountain rain my feet seemed salvageable but I’d definitely need to make some major changes. I saw the wi-fi obsessed American come into breakfast so decided to think about this elsewhere. Went out into the drizzle with ‘the book’, to think.

It’s an empowering place of beauty, Borrowdale. Millican Dalton the self-styled ‘professor of adventure’ lived in a cave here for decades. A Victorian vegetarian and teetotal pacifist, he secretly coached women in rock climbing in a time it would have been frowned upon. He led parties in rafting and “hair’s-breadth escapes”, creating a legacy that lives on through Wainwright and today’s adventurers, women such as Phoebe Smith. He’d have loved ‘the book’. No question.

As I left the hostel, two gardening volunteers working outside in the rain greeted me and pointed out a mossy gem of a nest. A dipper! That sight helped me on my careful, toe-squeezing walk to Borrowdale school, which sits right on the Coast to Coast route.

We had a great assembly there. They were all going to the seaside soon, so I played ‘Selkie Boy’ from the new Spell Songs album and we talked about Cumbria’s rare grey seals.

I told them how a young female scientist called Jade Chenery had tired of commando-crawling across poo-coated shingle and pioneered disturbance-free surveying of the seal colony by drone camera. Jade discovered there were twice as many seals as once thought. Contrary to years of ‘expert opinions’, Jade’s colleagues had found that the seals had started to breed there too.

This video was made during my walk, maybe when I told the Borrowdale children of Selkies.
And one of the children told me all about boys…

“Why didn’t they use to have babies then, mister?” one child asked. “Because there were only a hundred boys living there for many years” I said. An older boy near the back put up his hand. “You do know, don’t you…that if they want…two men can have a kid now. Get married too. Why don’t the seals just sort themselves out?”.

“That’s great you know that” I replied.

I could sense the school staff twitching in my peripheral vision. There’s a few farm children at that school and the oldest ones at the back clearly knew the answer. “Oh, my time’s up! I’ve got to go now – but let’s listen to ‘The Blessing’ before I do”. Goldfinch song followed by Julie Fowlis and Karine Polwart’s voices restored peace and left blissful expressions on the teachers’ faces. It’s a rather special song.

The teacher saw me out. “That was really beautiful. Thank you. Where are you headed now?”. I sheepishly admitted I was actually in a rush to catch the only morning bus. I had boots to buy at the other end of the lake in town. And a handful of foot plasters. “Please don’t tell the children. I feel like a fraud! I’ll be back!”

I stood at the bus stop next to a Lost Word cottage, I felt like its paintwork, but was glad that I’d chosen to find a bootshop. I didn’t see any other sensible option. To continue would have risked the next two weeks of the journey. I would definitely let everyone down. And it would have been my fault, for having old boots, for packing holey socks, for weighing too much.

I wondered what I’d do with the two now-useless pairs of boots I had. Was it do-able, to get brand-new boots and come back for the eight miles over the top to my next stop in Grasmere? The rain continued to pour as I saw the bus. It was the very definition of optimism. An open-top bus service in Borrowdale, the rainiest place I know.

May as well sit upstairs, I thought. I was already soaked and could kid myself I was still out on the trail. I looked back at where I’d walked from, over the last 48 hours. Those yellow warning signs I had to stand up to read, say ‘Sit down! Low tree branches’…

Some people actually walk a third long day of fifteen miles all the way to Patterdale, but as there was a school in Grasmere, I’d always planned to stop there before heading to my nearby home for the night, to save on accommodation costs, and pick up anything I’d forgotten. Good job too, now I had a new pair of boots to buy and two pairs to ditch.

You can’t rush buying boots. That’s it. That’s the only rule. Especially when you’ve got UXT (unexploded toes) to deal with. At least three had blisters that made my feet look like I’d spilt porridge on them. I’d left them silently bubbling and growing in line with the online NHS advice…

I try to shop local so I first went to what had once been Keswick’s historic bootfitter. Not good. I was told later that the management had changed. Recruiting and keeping good staff in the lakes is phenomenally difficult. It’s why pub meals are rarely the same twice too. And why, if you find a good cafe, shop, or cook, you stick with them as long as they stay around.

Limping now, around the high street, I saw a shop I knew that offered my workplace a discount. It was their unexpectedly brilliant service that saved my feet, and ultimately, my walk. Ben, the assistant didn’t judge my leprous feet, my wild-eyed manner as I lurched around the shop (think John Laurie in Dad’s Army) and listened to me ramble frantically on about my walk.

I made a point of telling Ben’s boss (a shopkeeper with a Lost Word for a surname) about him. The boots Ben sold me are still the best I’ve ever had in my life. I walked the next 150 miles in them straight out of the box without a single problem. Could have saved the money I’d just spent, moments before, on the (still-never-used) plasters.

By now, it was past lunchtime. My schedule was starting to look tricky and buses aren’t very helpful round here. Taxis were out of the question with the pricey new boots I’d bought. I noticed a bus was due for Kendal, but not back down to Borrowdale. As I waited for a bus which never came (I’d mis-read the hieroglyphs on the timetable too, along with the rest of the queue), a new plan emerged.

I was trying to be inconspicuous whilst wearing my last dry top, my bright purple autism t-shirt. A man in the queue asked me about it. He was a retired London bobby, now volunteering for a charity in Camden called WAC Arts. He said it was the best thing he’d ever done. We talked mainly about access, ability and understanding. (I looked WAC Arts up later. They use the arts to unleash the potential of all young people. Their alumni include Oscar nominees, BAFTA winners. And Danny Dyer).

As we chatted, and enough time passed, I was hit by not one, but two strokes of luck. Firstly, I remembered the school I was due at tomorrow in Grasmere was actually closed due to their extended St Swithin’s holidays. They’d overlooked this when I called to book my visit a few weeks earlier. When they’d realised the very next day and called me back, I’d already set up the following schools so left it on the schedule as was.

It was the only day in three weeks of school visits that any of the schools would be closed. To cover this, we’d re-arranged the visit for the very last day of their term, catching them just before I set off from St Bees, so they (and me) wouldn’t miss out. So the walk would still be ‘complete’. This seemed very important at the time and even more, now.

And now I had forgotten this. How? I’d actually taken my mum with me as she’d been staying with us for her birthday. We’d spent the night badger-watching, then been into the school the very next day, with a VIP tour of their wildlife pond, garden and the birds nesting in the school walls.

We’d noticed campaign posters in the school windows, so I had to ask – who won? “We ran our own general election and during campaign hustings, discovered all our parties had the environment in common so we cancelled the votes and formed a rainbow coalition” they said. “Imagine that!” I smiled, in genuine admiration.

After our visit, my mum was very proud. Said she wanted to buy a copy of The Lost Words. I assumed for her youngest grandchildren, Connor and Chloe. “No, just for me”. We’d gone to Sam Read’s, the village bookshop and asked if they had a copy. “Yes, but I’m afraid it’s been in the window, and…oh dear, it seems to have been signed. Will that be OK?” the lady apologised. “Does it cost extra?” the Yorkshire shoppers asked. “No, but not everyone likes that kind of thing” she replied.

We somehow managed to buy it, taking a photo to celebrate as the whole morning had made us laugh so much. (Mum got a free ‘magpie’ bookmark too).

The second piece of luck was that as I’d chosen to visit schools, I’d planned to use the weekends as rest days when the schools would be closed. Lots of end-to-end walkers charge along the C2C and emerge all the worse at the other side. Some walkers choose to take even longer than me. Rest days are vital. The school being closed and my rest days were the two things that had now completely reversed my bad luck.

I decided to ride the Kendal bus with the Londoners, and head home. I’d use what was left of this day for rest instead of Saturday and restart tomorrow in my new boots, in Grasmere, on schedule. I’d just need to find a way to double back to Borrowdale, and make today’s planned hike from there to Grasmere on Saturday. But was this right? Was it honest? Was it the real thing?

Well, I’d have still walked the entire 75 miles in five stages over five days, visited all five schools and have had the two rest days at home. The only difference was that those elusive eight miles across the Borrowdale fells & Grasmere Common would now be completed out of sync. All the right miles but not necessarily in the right order.

91% as planned, 9% out of sync. Bit like having sorbet (clearly a pudding) between courses of a meal. Or trifle for starters. I wasn’t sure if this was right. I was determined not to miss a mile. I wouldn’t be able to settle for less. I certainly wasn’t going to pretend like some kind of bus-riding marathon runner. And I wouldn’t be at ease until I’d done them all.

Weighing this up during the hour-long bus ride, whilst barely noticing we were on one of the country’s most scenic roads, my moral compass eventually said that was OK, so that’s exactly what I did.