Pow! Feel the power of new socks. And boots. Early on Thursday morning, as Bea returned me to Grasmere before starting work, the first thing I saw was a mussel shell on the roadside. In the middle of the Lakes. Which seemed a weird start to the day. I was feeling sky-high after sorting out new footwear, bandaging my feet and being back on track. I’d be able to tackle those eight missed miles soon enough.
Today, I had a date with someone I’d never met, 700m up Helvellyn – Rob Bushby, who‘d talked to my friend Kate about The Lost Words, during their John Muir course. Despite feeling defeated 24 hours earlier, that morning I sprang up the mountain like an old terrier dreaming of chasing rabbits.
As I walked, I tried to adjust the “Pacerpoles” my friend Corrie had lent me. I’d always shunned walking poles. Seemed like a guaranteed way to trip yourself up. Or have someone’s eye out. John had shown me how to use them whilst we looked for alpine flowers on April summits, introducing me to them with the kind words “you’re quite heavy now. You’ll need these if you want to keep going”.
John uses them as part of his plan to hill-walk his whole life. “Start now, so you’ll always be able to go on” he’d said. They revolutionised my hillwalking. Safer, faster, stronger. These particular ones had been invented by Heather Rhodes, who lives just a few miles downstream. Heather’s a Lost Word too, by the way. But Heather would have only had strong words with me that morning.
You’re supposed to dissemble pacerpoles after rain (or falling into bogs) and let them dry. Honister’s weather had struck again. One pole was completely jammed, telescoped down to two foot tall. I saw a man with big hands walking down towards me and asked if he could help. He’d been wild camping overnight and was now off to drive a train.
He couldn’t unscrew the pole either. He saw ‘the book’ and admired Jackie’s art and the idea of returning these words to children. He was in a great mood until the book fell open on Dandelion.
“I bloody hate Dandelions” he said, furrowing his brow. As I started to say, “oh, you mustn’t, they’re a vital early flower, a queen bumblebee’s breakfast after hibernation”…an ACTUAL bumblebee landed on the page, right on Jackie’s watercolour flower. It must have been confused. It had landed dead centre on the petals of the tallest one. (I thought bees used ultraviolet to see?)…
“No, I hate them!” he turned to leave then stopped. “You say nature words were taken out of the dictionary…and new words put in?”… “Yeah, new words like broadband and selfie” I replied brightly. “Hmm. I bet they put ‘transgender’ in too!” he harrumphed. I think dandelions had undone all that natural relaxation he’d enjoyed, during his night of wild camping.
I, on the other hand, continued without a care in the world, except for this jammed walking pole.
When you walk the Coast to Coast, deviations are encouraged, but you’ll occasionally meet some other C2C-ers more than once, as you’re all roughly on the same schedule. This was the only day I’d started before 9am as I’d no school assembly, and seemed to mean there were a few more people around – hardly rush hour, but certainly a dozen more than I was used to seeing.
It also means that the people who had set off from St Bees on the same day as you, will be somewhere along the same day’s route as you, days later. From where I stood I could see the four American women I’d first seen two days earlier at Borrowdale and a new, large group moving quickly.
I asked the dozen-strong group if they could help unscrew my pole whilst they passed. They were a local rambling group with a wide ranging mix of ages, fitness and moods. On the whole, I could tell their leaders really hadn’t got time for ‘delays’, like helping a non-member with a pole. They certainly sped up, when I mentioned I was walking for charity.
None managed to unscrew the pole. Some accused me of tricking them with it. Using superglue. As you climb, you tend to swap your ‘race’ positions, as others rest and you continue on at different intervals, which can help to avoid any ‘awkwardness’. Or grumpy folk. I let them go. Too rushed for a photograph.
Three of the four Americans arrived, having left one trailing behind. They were nicer than I’d thought and we chatted about our walks whilst waiting for their friend. They had a tough schedule, completely dictated by having to catch a plane from Newcastle at the end of their walk.
They’d not had the chance to rest yesterday like me. And of course, they had walked yesterday whilst I’d had the chance to rest. Those eight miles felt like a guilty secret. I wouldn’t relax about them until they were done. Which needed to be as soon as possible, but would still have to wait for another couple of days.
They commented on how downbeat and terse they’d found the rambling group and asked me “what’s their story?” pulling faces of surprise. “They’re not unhappy” I said. “They’re just from Kendal”. The women couldn’t sort my pole out either.
I felt a bit sorry for their friend and waited back for her when they moved on. It’s no fun being the one that everyone leaves behind, even worse when your group sets off the moment you catch them up, having clearly had their rest first. I knew how that felt.
As we walked on, with one long pole on the path to my left and one very short pole on my right well up the slope, I recalled the old joke about the haggis being a mythical creature with similarly mismatched legs, to help it run round mountains safely.
This climb towards Helvellyn was a new way for me, one I’d somehow never noticed when driving through the Lakes. It was a beautiful route just off the main road but you were soon up by The Cascades which were particularly pretty after that week’s rain. As I arrived Kendal’s Ramblers took it as their signal to scarper which suited me. I decided to take some photos for a mission I’d accepted from Jackie Morris.
I’ve mentioned before how Jackie was interested in my Lost Words walk idea. As well as an otter, Jackie had an idea to send me a stone to carry along the way. Which was ideal, as people usually carry a stone, taken from St Bees beach to Robin Hood’s Bay. It was a riverstone, incredibly smooth and had been gilded by Jackie, sent to me from Wales.
St Bees has an exceptional shingle beach, with granite pebbles from Scotland and Lakeland mixing with coastal cobbles and sandstone from summits and streams. I’d decided to photograph the riverstone in various places along the way, to show people where it had got to, and to leave it somewhere along the route, for others to seek in the future.
The fourth American finally caught up again. I thought a rift may have been emerging between her and the others. We chatted about ‘the book’ whilst I packed up my stone and I asked her to choose her favourite picture. This was to become a theme, sparked off by the train-driving dandelion-phobe. To focus on what the people I met liked the most, instead of what might upset them.
As we climbed across and round the Cascades, I saw a pair of spectacles freshly dropped on the ground. Which gave me an idea for later.
I met Rob. He’d slept on the mountain and come down to meet me, planning to walk with me for the rest of the day. We had a great time getting to know each other through sharing our Lost Words stories. Rob had been involved with the very first campaign, to present books to Scottish schools and to also provide free educational resources via the John Muir Trust. A capable fellow. I asked him about my jammed pole. Naturally, he said “I know what to do about that, but we’ll need something from my rucksack which I’ve left up top. I’ll show you the trick for that!”. Rob looks like a Swiss Army knife, so I wasn’t surprised.
As we reached the tarn, Kendal’s ramblers were glumly eating snacks. I remembered the spectacles I’d found and loudly announced – “Ramblers! I’ve got your glasses. You can have them back in return for a DONATION!”…
My confidence had soared as we’d climbed, partly through sharing my story with Rob but mainly through realising that my new boots and bandaged feet were coping perfectly. My walk was back on track! I felt unstoppable.
The group chuntered a bit. A tall man mooched over, discreetly pressed some money into my hand and said quietly, so his friends wouldn’t hear – “Well done. Good luck. Here’s a donation. They’re not my glasses though” and walked away. I didn’t try and extort further donations. (Kept the specs, mind).
As Rob shared his chocolate with me, we watched ravens gliding by. I realised ravens had appeared each day I’d walked, from the coastal cliffs, past a quarry, through Ennerdale and now here was one ‘kronking’ high above Grasmere.
Just before I set off, a legal case had come about when the Scottish government had been quite rightly challenged for the shocking decision to continue allowing the killing of hundreds of ravens in Strathbaan, (a notorious wildlife crime hotspot and driven grouse shooting estate), on the grounds of the ‘experiment’ having absolutely no scientific justification, at all.
The routine killing of birds had received an overdue spotlight, as the wider public were made aware of some of the more questionable decisions being made. The killing of ravens in the interest of other birds that were destined to be shot for ‘fun’, spelt out how wrong things had gone up there.
Birds have some fabulous collective names. A ‘charm’ of goldfinches features in The Lost Words and has been exquisitely turned into music by Beth Porter for Spell Songs. A gaggle of geese. A parliament of owls. A murder of crows. An unkindness of ravens. Wait a minute, what? These collective nouns reveal our feelings of romance but also of the curses, that folklore has attached to certain creatures. Tradition creates rural myths. Odd practices and beliefs that persist.
I’ve met Lloyd & Rose Buck. They care for birds and produce the best films about them. The ones you’ll have seen on proper telly. How ravens solve puzzles and play tricks on humans. How geese learn to fly in formation, with Rose bombing along in a 2CV whilst Lloyd hangs out of the sunroof, with his camera. We’ve started to see that birds are phenomenally intelligent, that it’s not about brain size but brain activity levels, the number of neurons firing at once. If you’ve got two minutes – just look how one of raven’s fellow corvids elegantly refines this solution here.
I’m glad scientists and lawyers formed Wild Justice, and for authors like Gill Lewis, artists like Jeremy Deller and for many others who continue to fight for birds. Just as Etta Lemon and the women who started it all in protest at the Victorian hat trade’s insanely unsustainable appetite for decorative bird feathers, we’ve realised things are still not right in our skies. I’d like us to swap things round. Perhaps we should start with some renaming – a ‘kindness’ or perhaps, an ‘intelligence of ravens’ would be better..?
Incidentally, I once asked a class of children why they thought ospreys had gone extinct in the UK a century ago. One boy said “Did Queen Victoria eat them all?”.
When we reached the summit plateau of Helvellyn, we poked around as people do up there. It’s an odd place, brimful of history. Forgot to re-visit the Gough memorial about a ‘seeker of nature’ who fell to his death on Striding Edge in sudden April snow. And his dog ‘Foxie’ who’d remained with him, chasing away carrion feeders for three months, until they were found by a returning shepherd in June.
We went to the cross fold, to shelter for a break. A young lad with a face like thunder was sat with his mum. I gestured to ask – is he OK? as another family arrived, lifting a toddler from a backpack who began to tumble around exploring the mountain. “He’s slept all the way up, but always toddles about on the top. He’s done about 30 Wainwrights now” they laughed.
I asked if I could take a photo. The reason they’re smiling so much is I’d also carefully asked if there were two or three generations of family in the picture. (There was three). But it made them laugh, trying to work out what I’d been getting at. A mountain-fit Grandad, Mum and little one out for the day from nearby Penrith.
The lady with the noticeably less-smiley son asked if I’d take their picture too. Rob had been discussing my fundraising walk, for the Lost Words and for Autism with her.
“Really? My son is autistic. That’s why we’re up here on a school day. His school’s on a field trip to Ambleside which wouldn’t have worked for him at all. Far too hectic. We got permission to come here as he asked if he could run up Helvellyn instead”.
“RUN?!” I said. (Now I realised partly why he’d looked so withdrawn. He’d just RUN up one of England’s highest mountains). “Would you like to look at my book whilst you have a rest?”. His Dad joined us. Turned out he knew my neighbour. (Lots of people do, she’s very memorable. We’re bound to come back to her another time).
I asked if I could take their photo, not wanting to be thought of as exploiting this coincidence.
“Yes, provided you tell people he’s called Reuben, he’s 11 and from Kendal, and why he’s here, because he couldn’t join in with his school today”. Sounded fine to me. I couldn’t believe the chances of meeting this family, of talking openly and helpfully about autism, more than half a mile up in the sky.
I asked Reuben which Lost Word he liked the most. Autism is a spectrum. You can’t be sure how it will go with someone you’ve just met. But usually, communication can be minimal. Here though, on top of the mountain he’d run up, Reuben simply said, “Otter”. “There’s two pictures of otter” I said, “one on gold and a pair swimming. Which do you prefer?” “These”, he replied.
As we prepared to leave, Reuben walked over to me and Rob. “Would you like a Jaffa cake?” he said. “I would LOVE a jaffa cake, thank you”. And I meant it. I mean, come on, jaffa cakes?! I don’t know, but I suspect that was quite a big deal for him and for his parents too, to see him to do that for someone he’d only just met.
It certainly felt like a big deal to me.