Beth, Steve and Isaac were all waiting outside the school as I came out telling them about tiny ninjas with knives, BBC Newsround, autism, my new boots and those glasses I’d found. (They’re still waiting to be claimed at the John Muir office in Glenridding). I’d forgotten I’d been up for four hours. It was time to ‘set off’.
Isaac had recently started his dream job as a ranger on Helvellyn. I’d met him four years earlier on his school work experience week. He was extremely calm unless a horsefly came near him. Which happens a lot in July, in the Lakes. So he’d spent a bit of time leaping about doing kung-fu and star jumps.
He’d grown into his new job through a brilliant apprentice scheme run by the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust. On his work experience he’d helped me show a group of teenagers from Chorlton around Grizedale Forest. They were all bright but some had never walked on rough ground, had never been outside an urban environment and off pavement stones.
It was extremely hot that summer, yet all the boys had thick, quilted bodywarmers on, making me worry about them passing out from the heat. The girls mainly wore hot pants, crop tops and huge sunglasses, which made me worry about ticks. And worry even more about how to discuss the need for them to check their nooks and crannies in their hostel showers that night. So I delegated that job to Isaac.
Beth, Steve and I really benefitted from Isaac’s knowledge of the wildlife as he pointed out wheatear chicks hiding in the stones of a ruined sheepfold, skylarks and kestrels on the fells. We were all twice his age or more, but could still learn so much from the young ranger. He chose skylark as his Lost Word.
Once he’d headed off back down from Angle Tarn to his work, we three huddled to discuss a secret mission.I’d met Beth and Steve for the first time, just a couple of days before I set off. My original plan was to invite people I’d not met to walk with me, to help me look at different perspectives of the outdoors.
Separately to this, Beth had received a highly confidential request, out of the royal blue, from Kensington Palace. Beth assumed someone must have read her blog or their books and liked the “nosey hikers” quirky take on things.
In short, there was to be a royal visit very soon, but with none of the usual palaver. No details to be shared of the VIP visitors just yet. I think I’d only asked, (rather bizarrely, but you’ll know what I meant) “is it good ones who are coming?”. Beth had nodded.
She had her plate full, planning where to take them and what to show them. They have phenomenally packed schedules which gave Beth an inspired idea. I imagine a lot of people who are contacted at times like these, have the temptation to become quite egotistical and see what they can do for themselves.
What Beth & Steve did was the complete opposite of that. They decided to ask for help and to involve as many people as they could. Beth drew together a hamper of gifts made by local artisans, filled with goodies from twig-pens to Shed 1 local gin. She‘d also been asked to set up a school visit which was one thing she’d particularly like help with.
Naturally, I offered, partly because Beth is charming and partly as school visits were ‘my thing’. “I’ll dress up as a tree or something – it’ll be fine – if you’d like me to”. Schools were closed that week and due to reopen when I set off the following Monday, so I’d rung the only person I vaguely knew in that valley. Naturally, the local school head was her friend and within minutes, she’d got her to call me back.
“Is it about your Lost Words visit?” “No, I need to talk to you about something else, but it’s all very secret, exciting stuff. VVVVIPs” I said. “Oh. It’s not the royals again is it?” said the head, which made me laugh “we’ve already had Prince Charles this year”.
“No. not him. But yes, royals. Good ones .” I added to sweeten the deal. (Again, what was this thing I had about saying “good ones”?)…
I couldn’t reveal the date due to the strict security from the royal protection officers. “So long as it’s not on a Tuesday” said the Head. We’ve got cricket on Tuesdays”. (It was a Tuesday, I thought to myself, we’d come back to that another time)…
Whispering up at Angle Tarn just a few days after this call, the three of us conspired about the royal visit, due in four days’ time. It had all come together. Beth & Steve had found Queen Victoria’s jubilee bench on a forgotten part of the fell and would walk them towards it, then stop short to leave them to go on and enjoy just being a couple, sitting on a fell for while.
Beth had realised the one gift the couple rarely, if ever got, was time to just be together without the entourage, bodyguards, peevish press and general hysteria. Meanwhile, I’d be off playing in the fells with the schoolkids. That was all settled. I’d have walked about 30 miles in the wrong direction before this, but something would crop up, and I’d find some way back to Patterdale to help, I was sure…
The ‘nosey hikers’ turned back, now feeling their cunning plan was complete. Five minutes after that, the clouds became inky. The temperature dropped every few minutes. I was due in Haweswater to meet Lee, a local conservationist to talk about the valley’s innovative wild restoration, mountain meadows and hopefully, beavers.
Somewhere between waking up and meeting at the tarn, my timing had gone completely haywire. Between being hypnotised by a journalist, surprised by the mini-survivalist, birdwatching with Isaac and plotting with Beth and Steve I was now hours behind schedule. Then whilst crossing fells I’d never seen before, I became distracted by obvious signs of horrendous peat erosion. The old fell tops were being washed away by the rain, right before my eyes.
Misguided, old ideas to drain upland peat are finally being reversed as we’ve realised the incredible public benefits these unappreciated places offer: slowing the flow of water, reducing flood risks downstream; capturing carbon to combat our climate emergency; and of course, their habitat value. The natural homes for the native wildlife that thrives there, when we stop digging it up.
I’d wandered around for far too long, measuring and photographing areas I’d never visited. When I got back on track, surprisingly icy rain started to fall. It was bloody June, but I wished I had some gloves with me. I met one other couple who commiserated about this unforeseen weather “4 degrees on the top!” they’d exclaimed. I’d seen the forecast, and knew I had to be down in Haweswater and off the fells as quickly as I could. Very strong winds were due that afternoon.
I began to march in a John Cleese fashion, using my repaired poles to set a cracking pace. I didn’t feel like I was anywhere near where I should have been by then. I was at least ten miles away, even as the crow flies. As I looked at my map and the landscape around me, something caught my eye through the rain. Another distraction I hadn’t really got time for.
It resembled one of the bright red plastic ‘mineral lick’ buckets left out for livestock, but it looked wrong to me. I’d left my binoculars behind with my dressing gown, during “the great repacking” two days ago, so used my phone to take a photo I could then zoom into on-screen.
A long way. But I could now see it wasn’t red. It was bright orange. And much bigger than a bucket. I knew this orange could mean an emergency shelter. I looked at my map and the route. And then at the shelter. They were in totally different directions. But there’d been no one else up here other than that couple who’d not seen this and were now well away too.
I had no phone signal, and couldn’t check for a GPS reference, or let Lee know I was way behind schedule, or ask for help. I decided to carefully descend the extremely steep slope to where a ladder stile crossed one of the bafflingly endless ‘walls to nowhere’ found in the remote fells belonging to the old estates.
As I approached the shelter I saw two crossed walking poles, that reminded me of how ski poles are placed in an X to mark a casualty downhill. God, what was I going to find under the bright orange tarpaulin? There was no one in sight.
“Hello?” I called out, falling back on first aid training. “Is anyone there”, thinking “check for danger, keep yourself safe or how will you look after the casualty”. “Hello?” I repeated above the rising wind.
A noise from inside the shelter. Then an extremely red-faced and red-eyed man stuck his head out, appearing to be in partial shock from the now-freezing weather. “I forgot to pack my coat…I’d washed it and then forgot to repack it. Just grabbed my bag when I came out. It’s so cold today.”
I recalled my rubbish socks and leaky boots from just three long days ago, knew how such mistakes were made. ”Thank goodness you’d got a shelter – how can I help? Where exactly are we?”
“I’ve managed to call friends. They’re on their way and half an hour away now. We’re on The Nab above Martindale” (BLOODY HELL. I’M NOT JUST IN THE WRONG VALLEY, I’M IN THE WORST VALLEY I COULD HAVE CHOSEN, 7 MILES FROM THE NEAREST VILLAGE, 12 MILES FROM A TOWN, 15 MILES FROM WHERE I NEED TO BE” I thought).
But I smiled and said “oh, that’s good”. At which he rustled back under his tarpaulin, in lieu of saying an embarrassed goodbye. I suddenly felt knackered. I’d left Patterdale school five hours ago, my hostel two hours before that.
I looked back up at where I should be. And along the ridgeline where I needed to walk, thinking of the weather I knew that was coming in up there. I stood for quite a while in silence, not sure what to do. A few minutes passed.
“Are you still there?” the tarpaulin asked.
“Yes!”…“err, just making plans” I replied.
I felt caught between the devil and the deep blue sea here. A dozen miles of walking the wrong way out, or goodness knows what, back up on the tops. Perhaps I should wait for his friends to arrive?
I chose to climb back up, as I’d be able to keep an eye on the coat-less man and check that his friends found him before I was out of sight. From about half a mile back up, I saw them arrive and assist their tarpaulin-wrapped friend slowly off The Nab.
I had some options at the top. I chose ‘High Street’ a prehistoric stone axe trade route later used to connect Roman forts. This might seem foolhardy in the high winds but I knew High Street was wide, and figured that if I got blown over, (my weight’s OK up to gale force 6), at least I’d have room to roll about for a bit rather than plummeting straight off a ledge.
Before I started, John had told me that rain wouldn’t bother me as much as you’d think. As a stony-faced hiker had once told him. “You’ll miss the feel of rain on your face when you’re buried”. John had said that walking into wind was the most taxing weather of all, as it sapped your energy, making everything take longer and feel so much harder. It certainly did that day.
I recorded a short 10-second film on High Street realising as I did, I had nothing to say, beyond “June. High Street. Cumbria” as clouds swirled past and around me. It was hardly Captain Oates “I may be some time”… but things weren’t quite that bad, after all. They were only awful, by now.
This was another real slog, amazing but difficult, in equal measure. There was definitely no one else up here now. Having deviated from the route, I knew Lee wouldn’t know where I was or be able to come out to check on me. I really needed to get down.
For a brief moment I had enough of a phone signal to send a text to Bea. We’d planned to meet for a chippy tea at Shap’s renowned chip shop, as it wasn’t that far from our home. I was hours and miles away, so simply sent her a message “Late. Meet Haweswater car park please? Call Lee and say sorry”. After that, I’d be out of signal range for the rest of the day.
I headed down through Riggindale, Lakeland’s last eyrie of Golden Eagles to Haweswater, the reservoir that had drowned the village of Mardale almost a century before to quench Manchester’s thirst.
The dry weather that had run up to my departure from St Bees had left water levels low, with old field walls now poking through Haweswater’s surface. In previous times of drought, many of Mardale’s old stones had been taken away to be ‘recycled’ on local buildings and farms.
Mardale lingers on in poignant reminders, Pathé newsreels online, Sarah Hall’s novel and a haunting song by Anne-Marie Sanderson. One of her other book songs – ‘Holloway’ – looped in my head: “You hear voices from the village, where no buildings now stand, you hear the clinking of an anvil, worked by a phantom blacksmith’s hand, singing from a tavern that no-one can see, this is a communion of ghosts, and ghosts-to-be”…
Rather than walking north, towards Shap’s salt & vinegar and safety. I turned off the C2C route and way off my mapbook again , south towards the fellfoot end of Haweswater where I hoped Bea was heading for, not realising that the only road has started to flood.
I couldn’t help dragging my feet now. It wasn’t deliberate. Twelve hours since I’d set off, the pressure of the whole week, five mountains and fifty miles had caught up with me. I thought I could see a single vehicle in the far distance. I had no way of knowing if it was Bea or of signalling in a way that she’d recognise.
I was so tired when I took this final photo of the day and my week. I hadn’t the patience to find the footbridge that I had a vague memory of, from a previous visit. Perhaps it had been washed away?’
With my new boots and repaired poles, I waded straight through the river, determined to just get this day done.
The final few steps on this path stopped me in my tracks. For a moment, I couldn’t lift my feet high enough to climb them. But look at them. They’re nothing! But then, I had nothing left in my thighs.
That walk down and back up from the man under the tarpaulin had finished them off. I grunted up these small steps and reached the car park, leaning on the gate to try and catch my breath. Oblivious to the drenching, heavy rain. It’s never as romantic as Richard Curtis films make it seem.
But then I opened the car door, the courtesy light came on, and Bea said “I brought your chips with me”.