Friday, 19 June 2015

Across Lakeland in a day: With a little help from my friends


One hears tales of the balmy days of the British presence in India, when walks in the Himalayas were done hands in pockets unencumbered by camping equipment, since the bulk of one's retinue had gone ahead to set the camp up, unfold the armchairs and brew the tea. Alpine literature too gives evidence of ample entertainment in the high mountains. The English milord had not only a guide but porters as well, laden with hams, roast fowl and bottles of wine. W. T. Kirkpatrick, writing about the Alps at the turn of the century, commented that 'the number of bottles that mark the route up many well-known mountains would almost suggest that some persons climb for the sake of drinking.

Even in Scotland a ghillie would arrange for hampers to be taken to the hill on the backs of ponies, so there was no need to pack sandwiches and waterproofs and spare clothing; and the revolting convenience foods which afflict the outdoor life today were unknown. But those expansive days are not wholly passed away. They have their modern counterpart in the supported walk. The first example of the modern supported walk that I came across was as long ago as 1954, when Crosby Fox, George Spenceley and I were doing the Cuillin Ridge. Our pleasure in the excursion was tempered by having to carry a rope, quantities of water and a good deal of food, including a jar containing eleven eggs sloshing about in half a pound of sugar. At two or three points such as the Bhasteir Tooth we met Alpine Club members whose mission was to provide food and drink and a rope for some of the recently successful Everest climbers who were taking a celebratory romp over the Cuillin Ridge. The supported walk par excellence!

The simplest form of supported walk is where you prevail upon someone to drive you to the start and pick you up again at the end. But for the true hedonist in the hills that is hardly enough. A friend of mine once described seeing a well-known Greek shipping millionaire step out of a helicopter at the top of a ski-run in St Moritz. A valet placed his skis on the snow. He stepped into them. The valet adjusted the bindings, handed him the sticks and scurried back into the helicopter, his next duty being to take them off at the bottom. Something akin to that is what we are after. The snag with supported walks is that one can hardly justify support unless one is undertaking something pretty demanding. The support party will play only if sufficiently impressed by the exploit in question. I have the good fortune to know the non-pareil of walk-supporters, Mike Harvey. He will not only support your walk: he will put the idea into your head and then carefully fan the feeble flame of interest into a fire of enthusiasm.

Ever since I drew attention to it in the book 'Big Walks', Mike Harvey had been offering to support the Shap to Ravenglass walk, and he now proposed an actual date, May 2nd. My character is such that I will agree to almost anything if the date is sufficiently far away, so I did not demur. In fact, so long as the whole thing remained comfortably in the future it formed an attractive and absorbing topic of conversation. It is a curious thing that long walks appear to be more attractive than short ones. People who would normally get out the car rather than walk one mile nevertheless flock in hundreds to do the Lyke Wake walk of forty. As Ronnie Faux pointed out in the Times a month or two ago, walking is really rather a pedestrian business, and it needs the spur of inordinate length to goad the imagination a bit.

So several people are now expressing an interest in walking from Shap to Ravenglass and it begins to look as if we are actually going to have to do it. As the date approaches and what has been a pleasing idea becomes an alarming reality my health, never robust, begins to decline perceptibly. I even try to defer the whole thing, but without success because supported walks have a juggernaut effect; once set in motion they take a lot of stopping. However, I have devised a training schedule for events from which escape proves impossible, which I have found most effective. I work up by easy stages to a stern regime of complete and determined inactivity, with long spells of prone and supine lying. This I have found leads to an excess of nervous energy on the day which can carry one through whatever one has let oneself in for.

The final party turns out to be quite small and also quite disparate. The average age is forty-seven years. There is my son, Mike Harvey's son, and Etsu Peascod,* a young Japanese lady who combines a fragile flower-like beauty with the heart of a Samurai. A dream of pastoral bliss with bells in the distance turns into the shrilling of an alarm clock. It is the hour. I wake Etsu and my son Trevor and we head for Shap. The only other car on the old A6 turns out to be Mike Harvey and his son Matty. Well met. We park the cars at Keld, and set off walking at ten past three. To give myself every possible advantage I wear my ancient suede desert boots (known to veterans of the Western desert as brothel-creepers). Down at heel though they now are, and paper-thin in the soles, they weigh only eleven ounces each. I am relieved to note that the young and energetic Matty is wearing stout boots which will hold him in check a little I hope.

I am quite familiar with the footpath that takes one past Tailbert into Swindale, but in the dark it eludes me. Within twenty minutes of starting, my feet are soaked and we are lost among waterlogged tussocks. With forty miles still to go this is discouraging. We give up looking for the path, go through the Tailbert farm buildings and make for Swindale on a compass course. We can see a dark gulf ahead with a pale gleam of water in it that might be a nearby puddle or a more distant river. Before long we come to the Swindale Beck and crossing it at a shallows get at last on to the road.
Our progress on up the dale is marked by the furious barking of dogs at each farm, and we work it out that should a sash window be thrown up and a shotgun appear we will lie down on the ground until both barrels have been discharged before attempting to explain what we are doing. We take the old corpse road and by the time we reach the grassy upland between Swindale and Mardale it is broad daylight. A cuckoo starts calling; it is the first I have heard this year. It is a good experience to walk from darkness into daylight and we know what the man meant who wrote: ' A solemn glee possessed my mind at this gradual and lovely coming in of day' . Furthermore we appear to have picked a winner. The sun is a little obscured by clouds, but they are dispersing. Skylarks ascend, carried upwards by the sheer volume of their song. It is cool and crisp, High Street and Kidsty Pike standing hard-edged against a clear sky. The zenith is already becoming blue. We descend the zig-zags into Mardale and hit the road. Half a mile along it is our support car. ' You're twenty minutes late', says Mike Harvey, serving tea and biscuits. Handing in our torches we go round the head of the reservoir and up towards Blea Water. About level with the tarn there is a right fork in the path and this slants up to the ridge of Caspel Gate.

We go slowly up to the little col and then up the ridge looking down into the deep trough of Riggindale. Soon we are treading the long high back of High Street. There is no simpler and more innocent way of feeling superior than to be out walking on the hill-tops while the rest of the world is rubbing its eyes, groping for a cigarette, or dragging the bed-clothes rebelliously over its head for another ten minutes. We ramble on down the five-mile descent to Patterdale, one of the most enjoyable ways down a hill that I know. The going is easy, some of it level or even mildly up-hill, yet one is traversing steep slopes and enjoying views into the grand side of the Helvellyn range. Angle Tarn is beautiful. As we finally descend into Patterdale the valley lies below, calm and dreamy in the clear morning air, except for a man running urgently across a field. This is Mike Harvey, caught napping by our early arrival, dashing to put breakfast on.

He and his other son, Benny, have the car parked in a tastefully appointed lay-by, with seats, at the point where the footpath debouches on to the road. There is fruit juice, a choice of cereals, porridge, king-size bacon butties, rolls and marmalade, and coffee. The sun beams down upon us, his chosen. We drink to Al Fresco. Our way now leads up Grisdale, the young fellows so charged with calories that they keep disappearing ahead despite their big boots. It is a very pleasant valley, Grisedale, its pastoral charm eventually giving way to more craggy terrain, until it ends suddenly and dramatically at Grisedale Tarn. We trip daintily across the wet ground north of the tarn and drop down through a slot towards Dunmail Raise. The path is muddy and ruinous, and the two lads pull a fast one by going out on the flank of Seat

Sandal and finding a long tongue of snow to glissade down. Our supporting party is drawn up on the grass verge, kettle boiling, luncheon all ready. It is midday and we have come half the distance. From Dunmail we go straight up the side of Steel Fell, and so, at the expense of one stiff pull, gain access to that long upland that carries you right across the centre of the Lake District.

It is a little wet underfoot, with odd patches of old snow, but fortunately skin is a kind of super Gore-tex and our feet remain dry on the inside. For the rest, it is a bright and invigorating day with a few white cumulus clouds. We drift up over High White Stones, that second broad, airy upland on this walk, and slant down on to the top of the Stake, assisted by one or two snow patches. The next section, round the side of Rosset Pike, begins to feel a little long. It is tea-time, and in the natural order of things we should be taking a cup of choice Assam to see us through until we can decently think in terms of gin and tonic. We flag a little, there is no denying it. But we have two things to look forward to in the immediate future; one is reaching our second Angle Tarn of the day and the other is making our final col, Ore Gap.

At Angle Tarn we sit down for five minutes, the two lads having already been there about ten, gathering a little head of steam for the last ascent. It is very pleasant here in this familiar spot and we are in good shape, all moving parts functioning satisfactorily. There is no real urgency about getting on the move again . . . But then we think of our support waiting on the road, and we get somewhat listlessly to our feet. From Ore Gap we can see the sea, and the Isle of Man, and, as like as not, Craig yr Isfa. The sea is still a long way off but it is manifest that there are no hills in our way, and we take heart and even get ahead of the lads for a few minutes in our plunge down into Eskdale. I have spent many a day and night in Green Hole and never found it a dry place, but we stride heedlessly through the luxuriant heavy-contract deep-pile carpet of moss, straight down the valley. We turn aside to look down the waterfalls and into the pot-holes of Lingcove Beck. This is my old home valley and I seem already to  have reached our destination.

We pass the pack horse bridge, the bathing dub at Throstlegarth, Heron Crag, and Brotherilkeld Farm, and come out on to the road at the foot of Hardknott. At the gate are Etsu's own special support party. We hear a sharp report like the popping of a champagne cork. It is the popping of a champagne cork. 'But we've another ten miles to go' , I expostulate, the words impeded somewhat by the passage of bubbly down my throat. Champagne is not to my knowledge much used in the hills, but it certainly has a future. Along the road, in another tastefully-selected lay-by, Mike is ready with delicious viands spread out upon the herbage. It is a splendid calm evening with plenty of day-light still left, just the occasion for a post-prandial riverside stroll. Leaving the road at Doctor's Bridge we walk the delectable footpath along the side of the Esk. It turns out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole walk. Just above Boot Church two iron girders span the river, all that remains of a railway bridge, and we cross here in preference to the stepping stones further down, in case they are under water.

The way now leads through tall woods, and we notice for the first time the decline of the daylight. The woods are delightful after so much time on the open fells. There is no question of going over Muncaster Fell, I am happy to report. We take the entirely satisfactory private road down the side of it, appreciating the evening light on the meadows between us and the Esk. For a mile or more someone has been inconsiderate enough to mend the road, with the result that not only is the ' way strewn with cutting flints' but Trevor, with the infra-red vision of the historian, finds two large examples of Roman brick in a drainage ditch, and we have to carry them in our hands for the rest of the way. It is now quite dark and we lose slightly the sense of time and distance, but we walk buoyantly on, the bit between our teeth and the smell of the sea in our nostrils. The last mile or so is on the road but at last we come to the Ravenglass turning and break into a stately canter. The village street ends in the waters of the estuary. The tide is right up. We let it wash over our toes.

Tom Price and Etsu Peascod's champagne celebration

Tom Price: First published in Climber Oct 81 

* Wife of Climber/Artist Bill Peascod