I’d had time on the way home last night, to think about how today might go. Not that it was the only thing on my mind. Bea’s tragic news and obvious shock about her friend came first that evening.
That night, eyes wide open and unable to sleep, I worked my way through what may have been the oddest ‘to do’ list of my life.
I wasn’t going to cancel the school visit. It’d been the only school of fifteen that’d been hard to get into, and I wasn’t about to let it become the missing link in the 200 mile chain. And I hadn’t actually been back there, since they turned me down for a job interview several years earlier. I’d just need to be there first thing.
I’d also need to be back in the Lakes that afternoon, to help out with the royal visit. Perhaps I could walk some of today’s miles before heading north or going to the school? I’d probably end up sweaty, filthy or both, when I shouldn’t be though. There were lots of routes. Seasonal detours too.
The farm was expecting me in daylight hours – I’d planned to be there mid-afternoon when I booked. An easy day allowing time to explore that area, as I’d never been past the summit at Nine Standards before. I’d heard phone signals were hopeless once you did, so needed to stick to some sort of plan.
No way around it. I’d have to drive, which also meant getting the car back home somehow too.
It’d been planned as a short but steep day, starting from the school, just under ten miles to my bed for the night. A long drag of a climb, mainly on a road then a track, then peat, but not too far. Now it just felt like uphill all the way.
As I drove towards Kirkby Stephen, I saw a tree I’d seen a hundred times before. I’d often wondered about it. Boot-laden, not fruit-laden. I’d assumed the tree was on the Coast to Coast and people had hung their worn-out footwear up, before hobbling into town to buy replacements, but when planning the walk, I’d noticed the C2C doesn’t cross this particular fell.
Years earlier, in the Canadian Rockies, I’d seen a massive conifer alongside a chairlift decorated with colourful bras. I’d not looked into that too much as I figured it could either be a joyous ritual or a seedy trophy collection. Whichever it was, it took some doing (and elastic) to get all that underwear 50ft up into that tree.
The boot tree was a different thing altogether. And right now, held a very different, and personal meaning to me. Because now, I recognised one of the pairs.
So after a wonderful school assembly worth the effort (over 200 children! Glad I’d stuck to that part of my plan), I parked up awkwardly, off the 60mph road and picked my way round the usual verge litter, climbing up to the tree.
Just before I’d set off on the Coast to Coast I’d attended the happiest funeral I’ve ever been to. Family and friends had been invited to carry a pair of Margaret’s shoes here some days later, as part of her wishes and their tribute. I’d meant to go with them but had got the date wrong.
The vicar had only spoken briefly to explain that on their first arrival in town, Margaret had greeted them with the words “I’m the town’s token atheist. Do let me know if I can ever help you”. The vicar wisely handed the service over to everyone “who knew her best” for a series of incredible readings, poems and recollections. Trips to Iran, ‘wild swimming’ before the term was invented, exploring mines by candlelight, lifelong friends and people whose lives had been changed for knowing her (my own included).
At the end of the service, the packed church was asked to leave by ‘doing the Lambeth Walk’. I’d joined Irene, one of Margaret’s friends, the first to leap up, helping to break the nervous tension. We left the church with smiles on our faces.
It is definitely possible to have a really good funeral. A beautiful one even.
So I stood by the tree for a while. I’m not too sure what I did for the next hour or so, but I didn’t go walking.
Later, now back at Patterdale school, with the Head and some of the children I’d met only a few days earlier, when I’d walked from Helvellyn to Haweswater. To maintain the secrecy and low profile of the royal visit, no-one else had actually been told about it. The school was only now ringing some of the parents to explain who’d be staying behind that day. Including Noah – the woodcarving survival and nutrition expert who’d vetted my adventurer credentials, the week before.
Police arrived to check on security…“Anything we need to know?”.
“Yes” I stage-whispered, “that little lad with the red hair’s got a knife”.
“WHAT KIND OF KNIFE?”
“You know, for whittling and that.”
“Oh, OK. That’s fine. Good lad”.
I’d abandoned my plans to dress as a tree, mainly as we were heading into the fells. We took The Lost Words with us, looked at the illustrations and searched for some on their fell. Played games and explored our habitats. We’d been there a while when two formidable looking guys, dressed like 90s doormen walked towards us. One of them had quite a few shiny piercings.
“Hello kids! Jamie?” (I wasn’t expecting that). They were some of the royal security team. I hesitate to say undercover as they stood out on the fell, like a rambler stands out in Piccadilly Circus. Nice guys though. They were checking the route in advance of the (now pretty late) visitors, then headed off very quickly and quietly for a pair of brick outhouses wearing bomber jackets.
The children and I sat down among the bracken to duck the cool breeze that had built up. As we chatted I realised I’d no idea about protocol or who’s called what and when. I looked down and saw something black in the crook of my hand, on the skin between my right thumb and index finger. The bit of your hand that you offer and show, in a handshake…
I was due to shake the most famous hands I’d ever met. And this wasn’t just mud. If only. It was a tick. Latched well and truly on. I quickly folded my arms to hide it under my armpit. Last thing I needed was a chorus of savvy outdoor kids saying “He’s got ticks!” when the Duke and Duchess arrived.
And here they were, all smiles, arriving having clearly had a brilliant time with Beth & Steve Pipe and my boss, David. I couldn’t refuse to shake hands, could I? Like some weird anti-monarchist gesture? No, I couldn’t, because Princess Kate was striding towards me with her hand outstretched.
As she let go, I surreptitiously checked the tick was still mine. Phew! Still latched on. Perhaps I wouldn’t be getting sent to the Tower after all. Then suddenly, here’s Prince William, bloody hell, I’d have to risk it again. By now, my confidence had returned and for a split second, the mischief-maker in me thought of showing him my hand straight afterwards and saying “have you just given me this?”.
But I didn’t. I said “Welcome to Patterdale, children, would you like to tell our visitors what we’ve been doing?” whilst waving my arms about, so no-one could see my hands.
William and Kate were genuinely fabulous with the children and identified the Lost Words dandelion and fern. William asked about The Lost Words. “Who has done this terrible thing of taking these words away?”.
“The Oxford Dictionary” we said. “Well, they’ll be receiving a strongly-written letter about it soon” he said. He gets that from his Dad, I thought.
As we walked back towards the village, the young couple spoke with excitement to the children about wildlife. They’d clearly enjoyed the space Beth had planned for them, as well as their farm visit across the valley earlier. They asked me about my walk and I pointed over their shoulders to Helvellyn, telling them about meeting Reuben on the summit, fundraising for autism, thinking “how do they know about my walk?” (that’ll have been Beth, sharing the spotlight with others again, I bet).
I overheard William discussing the beauty of buzzard tail feathers with Noah. A genuine moment of connection and enjoyment of the outdoors, shared between two people from such different backgrounds but a love of wildlife in common.
As the school already had a copy of The Lost Words, the children presented the couple with their own book, to take back for George, his sister (?) and the little one. Don’t be mad at me. I’ve avoided what’s left of ‘the news’ like the plague for years. I hadn’t actually realised they had three children now. I’d only seen George on the calendar, stuck to Mum’s fridge with magnets.
Things got a little weird as we crossed the farm along the public footpath. Jaws dropped among those queuing for farm shop ice creams. Quietly strangled cries and half-pointing arms of “it’s you…!”. Surprising noises. Goodness knows what it must be like to have that effect on passers-by. It must never stop being unsettling, when people seem to quietly turn into jelly as you pass.
Patterdale’s children remained unfazed. Deep in animated conversation, Catherine had walked way, way past the awaiting security vehicles. I’m calling her Catherine because William does. I know that as he started shouting for her to ‘please come back!’. They’d clearly had a great day in the Lakes.
Moments after they departed in black car convoy, a previously unseen helicopter took off behind some trees, heading up and over Helvellyn’s summit. I wondered if William was the pilot.
Back in the car, I stared at the tick, the only reminder that any of this had actually happened. I still had to get the car back home and myself back to that day’s start in Kirkby Stephen. I’d spent six hours travelling in circles.
I’ve walked up to Nine Standards more than once. The tops have some really badly eroded tracks. Its also very wet and deep, if you’re daft enough to go off track. John and I had once gone looking for some hidden structures to practice map-reading and it had been like walking across a potholed sponge. I was also pretty tired and knew two seriously bad days of weather were ahead.
So I was glad to be dry for now. And decided to keep things that way for tonight. The whole day had pretty much passed by, so I asked to be dropped off on Nateby Road that evening where I could walk a mile or two across the moor. I’d be back to make up the few miles I’d missed later.
Helium balloon numbers were spinning, tangled alongside the narrow, winding road. Another birthday party set on killing something out in the countryside. I jumped out of the car to retrieve them, forgetting to put the handbrake on, in tiredness and in haste to save a farm animal. So the last thing Bea said was something like “save a cow but kill your wife, you idiot” just before I headed off into the light drizzle. I was sorry I’d had to drag her out with me (again). I’d planned to walk along Ney Gill but after that outburst, decided to use the fell road instead, to reassure Bea that I’d make it.
The sky bubbled with curlew calls as I walked into Yorkshire, towards Ravenseat. The switch of habitats around Kirkby Stephen is dramatic. Sun-drenched wildflowers on limestone were now swapped for sundews and dark heather. It’s often painted as a remote spot by the over-enthusiastic TV types drawn to this place by a myth of media’s own making. Although to be fair, it’s seven miles to the nearest village pub. The kids have it slightly worse, with school being ten miles and more away.
The remoteness is more relative. Miles of open fell views surround the spot. You’ve very few neighbours, who, judging by some of their gardens, I suspect are not often here. A woman I know used to ski down to school with her children. It’s a bit like that round here.
As a borderland, it probably suffers the usual disgruntled sense of identity. Neither one thing nor the other, I suspect people decide for themselves where they’re from, and am hardly surprised they have a strong sense of home as being their particular part of the dale. Or that county boundary signs are repeatedly vandalised. I live in a made-up place so can see why you’d hold on to something else.
I approached the farmhouse just before 9pm and was greeted by two friendly and surprisingly professional young lads. Parents were out working and they were running things. Bea had stashed a bag of jelly snakes in my backpack without me knowing, which fell out into the yard, undoing any explorer credibility I might have being trying to fake. Who was I kidding, these kids live here. They can probably do anything. With, or without, a supply of jelly snakes.
With arriving so late, I lent them the book to share with their family overnight. Said I’d see them at school tomorrow. They showed me down to my beautiful little hut complete with its own waterfall. Sidney took time to show me round like a concierge at the Savoy. “We lit the fire for you to make it warm. Here’s your umbrella, and your fire extinguisher. Oh, you’ll need some more forks!”. Blimey, this was posh. And pretty special.
“Where’s the loo” I asked, half-thinking it might be a shovel behind the hut, but the lads showed me into an old store – a bathroom posher than my own, back home. “This is lovely! I thought there’d just be a bucket and a flannel int’ yard!”. The young lads looked at me, clearly unsure of how rough things must be over the hill in Cumbria. “It’s alright. We got a builder to help with some of it. Here’s your towels and your toiletries”.
I picked my way back through a Tom & Jerry assault course of toys, memorising the whereabouts of anything with wheels that might see me skating down their yard in the middle of the night, or into the beck. It was clearly a place where kids got up to proper playing out. Like we used to do when I was little. What a marvellous place. I wished I was nine again.
“Here’s your water. Don’t worry about the brown colour. It’s just nice and peaty…Dad will bring you breakfast. Here’s the extra fork! Night!” said Sidney.
I sat down in the prettiest little cabin I’ve ever been in, anywhere. William Morris said ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’. Here, everything was one or the other. Or both. Stock books about bloodlines. Award rosettes. A mouse carved on a wooden stool far too pretty for a lump like me to sit on. A cracking little fire. I listened to the birdsong, as different to that of home as the rainforest. Young redshanks were piping away, curlews still bubbled and above all, the waterfall ran on.
As I finally took my boots off after 12 hours in them (yet so few C2C miles covered that day), I looked at my foot for the first time since last Wednesday. A new bubble, related to its ancestor, the MOAB, (Mother Of All Blisters) now peeped through a hairline gap between my foot and the dressing. I’d need to do something with that. Time for a shower first. (Mind the skateboard).
Back in the hut, I boiled some peaty water in the kettle then left one of Sidney’s forks to heat up in a glass of it, for a while. It was the only pointed thing I could find and made my foot surgery interesting. After dressing my foot with gauze and zinc tape it looked like something from a cartoon too. One of the dogs came down to see what was happening, inspected my room to make sure all was well.
I slept incredibly well.