As we’d walked, Rob suggested a scenic diversion across the Helvellyn massif. The weather seemed promising and my bandaged feet felt brand-new. Rob’s route took us towards one of Helvellyn’s infamous ridges. The only thing Bea had asked of me, was that I avoided Striding Edge. Which the official route does. But when we saw it, it looked good. And empty, which is rare.
The weather changed then changed again as we approached. Potential excuses came thick and fast. The sunny conditions were perfect…Rob’s a mountain leader…I’ve got new boots, and one good pacerpole… It would seem silly NOT to go that way, wouldn’t it? Bea will never know.
So, as we traversed the notoriously precipitous edge, we came to one of the few places with room to sit. One of us suggested we photograph ‘the book’ up there, (probably Rob, as I was trying to avoid leaving any evidence I’d been). It took a while to get it right, with some careful tango steps around the sharp rocks.
Whilst we danced about, a small group of southerners, dressed for winter, arrived from the other end of the ridge. They (understandably) asked what we – two middle-aged men with a picture book – were doing. So we showed them. They asked me to read them a poem. I said they should choose. “We’ve a bluebell wood back home, let’s have that one!”
So there I was, somewhere I’d promised Bea I wouldn’t go, reading the very poem you’ll remember she’d told me never to repeat, whilst Rob perched on pinnacles to take this photo, ensuring I’d NEVER be able to deny it had happened. He later said he was glad he’d not filmed the reading, as the woman sat next to me had seemed quite taken by it. The poem, I think.
As they climbed onwards, we heard them exclaiming “it’s crazy, all those words gone! Kingfisher…acorn!”…their voices carrying across the fell.
I was secretly glad to have this photo as walking alone meant I’d only a couple of me on my journey. And also because I’m not sure anyone would have believed what we’d got up to, that wonderful day.
The descent of Helvellyn after the edge is a marvellous stroll nowadays. This side of the mountain had been the centre of Victorian lead mining, becoming the UK’s largest mine within a hundred years. You follow the hardcore commute that miners once made, following the fast-flowing beck.
I’d walked to Red Tarn once before with someone who was writing a history of the mines and could point out what lay beneath the ground, reading the slight changes still seen on the surface. He confessed that he’d had to give up on the project, heartbroken by the evidence of poverty, child labour and fatalities.
We passed a young family, whose children had teddy bears peeping out from their backpacks.
The mine buildings, now include outdoor activity centres and my youth hostel for that night, chosen to prolong the enjoyment of a journey down this epic mountain. I was grateful for Rob’s company that day, and that we’d walked along the Edge. I was over the moon about my new boots and happy feet. There was just this jammed-up walking pole bugging me. The only thing Rob had forgotten, was to show me his knack of fixing them.
As I sat in the hostel bar, the backpacking teddybears came in. I lent the children ‘the book’ whilst they sat and drank their well-earned pop. When I turned back round to sit, I noticed a slip of paper on my seat. A message. Written by my wife. How on earth had that happened? Was the barman involved?
It took me a while to realise Bea had hidden notes in my kit and this one had fallen out with perfect timing, onto a barstool at Greenside Mine. A lovely reminder of home and the support she’d given me. The perfect mix of sweetness and ego-puncturing, just in case.
I sat and wondered what to do about this jammed pole. Walking another 150 miles without it was not a good idea. I asked the barman if he had anything I could use to grip and twist them better. “The woman next door is actually a walking pole guru” he replied. What? You’ve a neighbour up here?
I saw the car down the track. A good sign. I’d met Nic at a John Muir gathering that spring. She’s a Nordic walking pole fanatic. She greeted me with “Oh, pacerpoles…they’re not Nordic. But, I’ve a pair I can lend you! You can leave those here for now”. More kindness offered, up in the middle of nowhere.
At the hostel, I decided to have one last go at fixing Corrie’s pacerpole. I’m not practically-minded. But inspired by a tea-time pint, I’d turned into at least three-quarters of The A-Team. I looked at the minimal kit I carried. The zinc oxide tape which John had suggested, had indeed been a godsend in bandaging my feet. If I taped parts of the poles, it might just give me the grip I needed…
When it worked, I felt like McGyver. I’d finally sorted something out myself. I quite liked the look of the tape too. Made me look like I’d really travelled. Like elastoplast on a bookworm’s NHS glasses.
I left Nic’s poles by her door as I’d an extra-early start to get down to Patterdale school. A perfect morning encouraged an impulsive detour to find Lanty’s Tarn, the old hideout of a Lakeland bootlegger. Cuckoo and green woodpecker were making themselves heard in the ancient woods and fields below.
Juniper has a long history in the fells. Its wood’s constant burn made it useful for gunpowder production but also for the smokeless fires, beloved of moonshiners. Its berries are still used in the best local gin.
With the success of the mines, that part of Lakeland had gathered a great deal of history, much of it now seeming double-edged as we look back – the hunts and royal visits by Kaiser Bill, the half-German, half-English grandson of Queen Victoria, just before World War One erupted.
I heard what I assumed to be the Ullswater hound pack making a real racket, as I trespassed (blame Lanty Slee), high above some kennels and wondered what the point of retaining hounds was any more. There’s a delusion that the hunting ban will be repealed; ongoing criminal activity; a black market trade in fox urine (really!) and minorities intimidating communities, all linked to the ‘legal loophole’ of the trails that continue today.
It’s a false belief that there’s any cultural tradition worth saving. True traditions had focused on hunting boar and deer, a pastime of medieval nobility. Foxes were drafted in as a relatively poor substitute when larger game had run out, and enclosures changed the shape of the countryside.
It’s well-known locally, even documented under license, that trail hunts can result in the rooting out and killing of foxes. You can sometimes see the spectators, many with foreheads that resemble the oversized tailgates of their four wheel drive pickups, watching along the main tourist route of Kirkstone Pass.
Someone, maybe Mark Thomas summed it up best – we don’t encourage kids to chase pigeons with catapults, on their BMX bikes. The whole cruel exercise is just a remnant of someone’s privilege.
I’d attended a country fair near Coniston a few years ago, where towards the end of the day, the announcer, worse for wear and drink, had slurred aloud about his love of foxhunting, over the tannoy. These ideas are dying off, but young wildlife criminals lurk in the shadows, continuing to support all kinds of activity from illegal hunting to badger baiting and shooting birds of prey.
Child miners, wartime Kaisers, foxhunting…it was adding up to a very dark side of this ‘mountain of the mind’, as I walked down to the peaceful school in that morning’s sun.
One of the things I’d worked on years ago was a project to encourage wildlife in sacred places. Since then, I often called in at churches I’d not visited to see what I might find. Many have records of the flowers in their grounds, where I’ve seen slow worms basking on stone steps, or collected owl pellets under gravestone perches, for children to later dissect to find their prey’s bones. Churches tell stories.
In Patterdale, they also have a shocking record of Cumbria’s wartime air crashes. There’s many more than you’d think, not just the well-known one, revisited high on Great Gable each Remembrance Day. Crews of many nations died, often on nearby training exercises or supply runs. Over 500 people including those since the war ended. I’m glad they’re remembered but I was already in a bit of a black hole by now. I couldn’t be taking all that into the school with me.
I’d arranged to meet Isaac , one of the rangers for Helvellyn along with Beth & Steve Pipe ‘the nosey hikers’ to walk east and up from there. At some stage, the BBC had been in touch and a journalist called Sara had been lined up to attend my assembly too. It was all exciting stuff and definitely time to snap out of these dark thoughts, caused by my unexpected route down into the valley.
As I passed the old police station, its window display suggested a crime-free place with a village bobby. An antique roundabout in a field made me smile. And even the gate furniture too. Among the many enthusiasms you can find online, from birdwatching to steam trains, there is an aficionado of Lakeland’s stiles and snecks. There’s even someone who spots the traffic cones that all churches seem to have stowed away nowadays too. So I thought they’d appreciate a photo or two as I walked. Well, it cheered me up a bit.
There’s an excellent weekly round-up called #wildflowerhour where you can share pictures and be helped to identify flowers you’ve seen. It’d been set up by Isabel Hardman who seemed to have found solace in the outdoors, from the all-too-often toxic world of political media. People enjoy knowing what’s around them.
I’d been photographing flowers that connected to The Lost Words and shared them online, but this new hobby also encouraged me to notice the changes from day to day, and across habitats. Thistles created a great timeline of my journey, opening more each day and over time, as I walked east.
Patterdale school is one of the smaller schools, typical of Cumbria. A tradition well worth protecting, as it offers a community great cohesion, continuity and support. Secondary schools are often several miles away, and up to thirty times bigger – a heck of a culture shock after village existence. As cars have become more commonplace, some parents have chosen to drive their children into the countryside to provide them with these idyllic school environments.
They’re very tough places to work though, as their size and budgets mean that very small numbers of staff need to perform every task. Heads that teach, run the office, the accounts and drive the minibus. Manage the staff, the building and all the bureaucracy. And yet these small schools so very often attain outstanding reviews. Local house prices are now increasingly beyond the teachers’ reach. But, they’re a rural tradition well worth keeping.
I asked the head the usual, “I can talk about local wildlife, lost words and if you would like, autism, but I understand if you’d rather I didn’t”. She said “you MUST talk about autism! It’s part of our school and community. We’re so glad to think about it in our lives!”. I was learning a lot about people that completely upended my own preconceptions. Thank goodness.
The school’s thirty children could all fit into one classroom and filed in to the rainbow of chairs. Each sat with a book and read whilst they waited for others.
I noticed a lad walk in and assess the scene. He looked like a 4 foot stick of dynamite. Said it was his birthday that day. He came and sat on a chair but one next to me. A confident move in a room with a dozen options, further away. He pretended to read but was peering over his glasses at me.
“Happy birthday” I said. “Did you camp up by the tarn?” he asked.
“Err, no. I stayed at Helvellyn hostel”… I felt immediately exposed as a non-camping weakling…“erm, so I could have a proper tea last night. It’s hard to make a good tea when you camp” I bluffed.
“What did you have?” the half-pint inquisitor continued. Checking my alibi. He was thorough.
“Sausage and mash”. That bit was true.
“Good” he nodded. “You’ll need your protein”. He reopened his book and began to read.
“What? How…how do you know about protein then? “I’m a survival expert” he said, matter-of-factly.
“Have you had a birthday present this year?” You ask these questions carefully. You’ve no idea what situations at home are like. If there will even be presents.
“Yes. I got a knife.”
Me, trying to be poker-faced…“what kind of knife?!”
“For whittling. I’m a woodcarver too. I make figures and animals”.
I began the assembly, sat next to Noah, the knife-wielding survival expert, who helped me hold up ‘the book’. It passed in a blur that Sarah from the BBC crafted into a fabulously uplifting interview piece with several children afterwards. Fascinating to listen to. Her kindness and eyes had left me on the verge of a mid-life crisis too.
As I finally stopped blushing and made to leave, Sara said how much she’d enjoyed it and asked “Have you been on Newsround yet?”. (I would love to go on Newsround. That and C4 is the only TV news worth watching these days). She said she’d ‘make enquiries’ as she was moving on from the wilds of Cumbria to ‘Media City’, (the milltown formerly known as Salford).
I really wasn’t expecting any of this. It was shaping up to be a truly remarkable day.