Black of Beyond

                                                                                                                                                                                      

I have always had a strange relationship with Black Combe. It was an ever-present part of my childhood. Its looming, aptly named presence was part of family life. You could literally see it from the front door. In winter, my sister and I would crane our necks to see how far down the snowline had crept –  anything more than an inch from our vantage point might mean a snow day. Growing up so close to the sea this (literally) never happened but it was Black Combe that was our barometer of the seasons. Black it might be but when you know it well there are tens of shades. Not just the striking Christmas pud effect of snow in winter but the hints of lilac shadow that emerge from the charcoal dips in summer, the hard darkness that stands in such contrast to the first blue days of spring and the disorientating days of Autumn where the hill wears a constant cap of steel grey. ‘Combe’s got his hat on’ was the familiar refrain in our house for years.

Yet until recently I had not climbed this hill in living memory.

Despite its reassuring outline never disappearing, its shoulders sloping away to the sea and the neighbouring White Combe as if in touching distance, in reality I grew up on the Furness Peninsula and Black Combe was the sentry to West Cumbria proper across the tides and shifting sands of the Duddon Estuary. It was so much easier to make the Lake District our playground and if we wanted the sea then we were surrounded by the innumerable, endless stretches of perfect beach and sand dune.  Years later, post university and a spell living in the city, I returned to live in Cumbria, yet Black Combe has not the fame of a Scafell nor does it earn you a Wainwright tick (unless you are doing the full set including outliers).

I confess to being inordinately excited when I got an unexpected call from my ‘playing out’ buddy.

‘Conditions for sunset and sunrise photos look perfect – fancy a Black Combe bivvy?’

It was after 5pm when we parked in a layby near Silecroft, shouldered wonderfully light packs and mused if we needed sun cream. Up close Black Combe looks far more imposing than its reputation and my childhood remembered. I hadn’t been very well and I was worried I might have been over-ambitious, even with such a small hill. In the event it was a leisurely stroll up a moderate slope. Ange took picture after picture of the remarkable vista as it opened up. The sun forced its way between the criss cross of waves until a swathe of light danced in a single snaking flash across the bay between us and the forest of the Walney Array windfarm as it spread inexorably across the horizon. I have had mixed feelings about that windfarm for years. I watched it grow from an idea into the dominant presence in Morecambe Bay. As a woolly, liberal, leftie I am all for sustainable power and I can attest that Walney Channel is impressively breezy even on the most still of days. However, I have also watched my home town slowly die (aware that people like me who move away are part of the problem) and I still feel a little resentful that the windfarm robbed Barrow of a real jewel in its crown when the windfarm stopped the uninterrupted view of the sun slipping behind the western horizon and that the project created no employment for a town desperate for jobs. At any one time there are rarely more than a few of the turbines spinning (ironically it turns out that it is often too windy to have them running) and any maintenance that is taking place is being carried out by Danish or Norwegian firms. It doesn’t seem entirely fair on a town and population that had no say in becoming the ‘energy coast.’

I strongly recommend that you take a stroll up Black Combe. That evening, even in the dazzling approach of dusk, Scotland lay across the Solway, a patchwork of purple hills and flashes of green forestry land and the Isle of Man nestled in the Irish Sea, beyond the windfarm, Snaefell distinct and inviting. I told Ange about the often repeated mantra of meteorological optimism Barrovians use: If you can see the Isle of Man, it’s going to rain, if you can’t, it’s already raining. There was no threat of inclemency that evening though the sky was broad and clear of cloud, the late sun still held significant warmth despite the fact it was only early May. Behind us the curve and swell of Morecambe Bay – the fascinating industrial grid of Barrow-in-Furness opening into farmland and various hidden villages and hamlets until the more obvious landmarks settled into their proper places – Arnside Knott, the squat cubes at Heysham, the majestic (even at distance) sweep of Morecambe prom to Kents Bank and Silverdale. It was cinematic in its vast beauty, accompanied by a chorus of wheatears and skylarks. Unbidden the line from Flanders Fields – ‘above the larks still bravely singing fly’ – pushed its way into my consciousness and I was suddenly awash with tears; the beauty, a sense of place and gratitude for the fact that I led a life where I could so easily enjoy and engage with this landscape flooded over me.

I’m not sure Ange noticed; if she did she maintained a respectful silence. By the time we rounded the bend that climbs to the trig I was again in control of my emotions and it was a good job given the view that the summit affords. The fells of the western Lake District chased each other to the coast, their tops still bathed in a warm light, below in the bottle green valley the dark snake of the Duddon glinted here and there, for all the world as if silver scales were reflecting the fading sunlight.

We ran about for a little while, like children, taking pictures, pointing gleefully at the mountains we recognised and had climbed, describing the surprisingly steep gullies and ridges of the eastern flank in fairy-tale terms – dragon’s back, fairy glen and forbidding. There was not another living soul in sight – no people, no sheep and whilst the birds were still in fine voice they were buried amongst the heather and scrub.

I busied myself making a brew whilst Ange scurried around the summit like a wheatear, taking pictures and examining angles as the sun began to race towards its rest behind the inky black of the horizon. It was a grainy monochrome dusk as we ate our very simple rations (vegetable chipotle and a handful of haribo since you ask) and watched the pinpricks of light emerge around the bay. The effect was spectacular. Scotland, Isle of Man, Sellafield, Lakeland farms, the uniform rows of orange streetlamps in Barrow, Heysham, the Ribble, north Wales and the endless spread of reds and greens that was obviously the windfarms but that looked and felt quite magical in the gloaming. We spent a happy couple of hours identifying specific places – Blackpool Tower, obvious and impressively reflected in the water, the winking lights of Douglas, the circus at Sandy Gap brighter than all else. We talked about belonging. About how other’s sense of your history can skew your own perceptions. I have spent as long living away from Barrow as I did living there. I have spent that second lifetime listening to a litany of jokes, some amusing, some plain offensive, about my background. I have been openly laughed at for claiming that Barrow is beautiful. But it is. I suspect those people who tell me that coming from the biggest cul-de-sac in the world isn’t something to be proud of haven’t been. The ‘cul-de-sac’ is made up of a plethora of stunning beaches – the golden beaches at Sandscale with their natural playground of dunes are unparalleled in England, swimming from Biggar is lovely, the nature reserves of rare natterjacks and sunbathing seals are almost unique and at the very tip lies the ‘kingdom’ of Piel with its ruined castle of local sandstone. Add to that one of the most talented engineering workforces in the entire world and a shipbuilding tradition that has shaped British history and I’ll fight to my last breath to say I am a proud Barrovian. Go, you might be very surprised.

Remarkably for May bank holiday it was still light as we crawled inside our bivvy bags, behind the wall that acts as a odd defence for the tall white trig of Black Combe. We talked for a while and watched as the stars came out one by one in a light show theme parks would make you pay to see. Eventually we fell silent and as I drifted off with a great grin on my face I noticed the milky way, its creamy swathe – exactly like milk curling through water – spreading across the now ebony sky.

I was woken by Ange’s metatarsal making firm but careful contact with my kidneys.

‘Get up – it’s amazing.’

And it was.

I sat up. It was just before 6am. The Lake District was a forbidding black outline, the far eastern horizon was a baby pink, a line of warm orange tracing the line of hills as if drawn by a careful artist. Then the pink reached higher into the pale grey above, the orange line grew and faded to yellow to be replaced with a firmer, bolder orange. And then, in a moment that both raced and hung suspended the first perfect halo of sun. The horizon was aflame. A light pink hue flowed along the tops of the fells and across the bay below the huge industrial submarine sheds of Devonshire Dock Hall glowed the kind of colour that my three year old niece would choose for her best party dress. It took a matter of minutes for the entire eastern sky to be on fire and the great, perfect circle of sun was now blurred at the edges by its own light and it wasn’t safe to sit and gaze and longer. Ange was once again flitting and darting around the hillsides, camera aloft. I slithered from my sleeping bag, made a brew  and climbed atop the trig point, by shifting myself around from side to side I enjoyed some of the most remarkable views I have had from a Cumbrian hill.

Though she be but little, she is fierce.

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Further All About Ullswater (Part Two)

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It was a leisurely day two start on another warm and sunny morning as we emerged from our tents and made use of the superb cooking facilities at Patterdale YHA. Cheerful blackboards around the place asked if we were planning on taking the steamer, visiting Aira Force or climbing Gowbarrow. The joy of the Ullswater Way is that you (can) do all three. (There were other messages suggesting Helvllyn but the last time I was up there it was via Striding Edge on a baking hot day and I wasn’t keen to repeat the experience with the loveable but excitable Toby the Springer in tow).

 

We slung our camping kit into the car, filled our camelbacks and laced our boots before we were joined by Laura, another of my friends, who hadn’t been able to make the first day but was keen to make the best of the unseasonably glorious weather. The view as Ullswater rose into sight at Glenridding was remarkable. The sky, even in early morning was a cornflower blue and a silver grey inversion swam in ethereal curls over the glassy surface of the lake. As we followed the undulations of the path away from the village, occasional islands and fells would emerge from the mist and Swallows and Amazon sailboats tacked and darted in and out of visibility. Kelda and Laura were discovering that they had a surprising shared geographical history but I was (unusually) silent. I have spent so many years clambering up fells for ‘ticks’ that perhaps I had forgotten the sheer joy that a valley level walk can provide. I felt like I was stumbling along as we reached the area around the Glencoyne car park – too drunk on the view and too unwilling to drag my eyes away from the unfolding day as the sun burnt away the thinning cloud to focus on where my feet were.

 

After not seeing a single other walker Aira Force was a shock. The steamer sliced through the mirror of the lake and disgorged its contents into the toilets and cafes at the foot of the short climb to the waterfall just as we also reached the car park. We edged our way through and spent a brief few seconds admiring the thundering force of the waterfall, musing that the Vikings were pretty astute when it came to the naming of outdoor things (I know it was ‘foss’ but that’s exactly what my very Cumbrian grandad would have said to denote anything that needed a bit of effort too so I am sticking with my belief that the two words are linked!). Keen to escape the crowds (and wow were there crowds) we climbed a little further upstream through fairy-glen type scenery to find some flat rocks and enjoy a picnic. Toby was in his element with three women from whom to charm sandwiches and it was a welcome respite from walking in what was turning into a real scorcher of a day.

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Gowbarrow was the next target and I found my fitness called into serious question on what I remembered as being a really easy Wainwright the first time around. My original ascent had been in a violent hail storm in March 2016 and it was a pain-staking slippery mudfest. That had clearly allowed me to take my time and on this occasion, ,faced with a slight but unremitting slope, I found myself pausing to admire the view. It’s a worthwhile activity though – the whole Helvellyn range was thrusting out from the vivid blue of the sky and a great swath of winter white still lay on the northern slopes of Raise (presumably where the ski tow is though it was impossible to definitively pick out from that distance). It seemed impossible under that spring sky that only nine days earlier I had summited Hardknott in a snow storm. Weather-wise, it seemed 2018 was a generous mistress.

We paused a while on the top, perching in the emerging heather and admiring the remarkable 360 degree vista that such a little hill affords. We had seen one other group since leaving the honeypot of the waterfall and though farms and villages were visible it was a quiet and reflective time. This was my third Wainwight on ’round two’ (I hadn’t, and still haven’t, decided if I want to embark on a round two) after finishing a week earlier and it was a special feeling to be able to spin on one’s heel and remember the various highs and lows (literal and metaphorical) that had happened on each of the fells in view.

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The descent from Gowbarrow is glorious – the views of Ullswater and the surrounding area are stunning and still the weather was treating us to open skies and warm sunshine. Heading through forest land towards Pooley Bridge we enjoyed a dancing common lizard, pebble art and some entertaining attempts to stay upright on some seriously clarty sections of downhill. When we reached the sign informing us that the next section was muddy and did we want to take the slightly longer but not muddy diversion we barely consulted each other before heading up the tarmac road.

 

This section was the least inspiring of the entire trip. Even without the diversion there is quite a lot of road work and although the walk through what felt like a country estate (but was actually holiday homes near Waterfoot and the Quiet Site) really appealed to the history geek in me I was ready to end the hard pounding on my tired feet. When I realised we still had several miles to go I felt my heart sink a little but as we doubled back away from the lake and headed off up into open farmland again my disquiet faded into more of a resigned satisfaction.

 

As the metal of the temporary bridge at Pooley shuddered under our feet and Toby yanked his lead hopefully towards a family having a BBQ on the shores of the Eamont just before it flows into the lake we allowed ourselves a moment of congratulation. I confess that I hadn’t really spent anytime in Pooley Bridge; as child growing up in Cumbria my parents were resolute in avoiding all tourist hotspots (we were only allowed into Ambleside in the depths of winter!) and even as an adult it isn’t an obvious spot for beginning walks – not least because the carparking is so expensive! However, after the hideous events of Desmond I was resolute (as I said in part one of this blog) that I would visit and spend some money in this part of the world. I’m glad I did. Pooley Bridge is a collection of tearooms, pubs, and ‘boutique’ shops that scream tourist but it’s a lovely collection nonetheless.

 

The original plan had been to get the bus back to Glenridding but we had made good time and there were still several steamers left to sail. Like proper tourists we bought our tickets, indulged in a cold drink and then sailed back the length of the lake we had just walked. I can thoroughly recommend traveling it either way. We might have only climbed one hill and the entire route could comfortably be done in a day by a reasonable walker but I am glad that we turned it into an overnight adventure. We hadn’t just walked the Ullswater Way, we had thoroughly revelled in it.

All About Ullswater

IMG_8458I read about the Ullswater Way a couple of years ago but I was so heavily ensconced in finishing my Wainwrights that I didn’t pay the idea much heed. However, the seed had been planted and exactly one week after completing my first round as dictated by AW I found myself booking YHA Patterdale for a leisurely two day explore of the shores of the most interesting (and bendy) lake in this national park. I had intended this to be a solo trip but it turns out other friends were interested.

I am the foster mum of an adorable, needy, spaniel called Toby. His human is an old friend of mine. Generally, despite being good friends, the time Kelda and I spend together is restricted to dog drop offs where conversation is limited to poo-bags, dentastix and Toby’s latest toy. It is a shame. We once ran the full gamut from political reform to Stephen Fry’s dress sense. Imagine my delight then when Kelda asked if she and Toby could both join me on my Ullswater Way adventure.

Having asked prior permission as guests that night, we parked at YHA Patterdale and got the bus to Pooley Bridge. We headed up to a stone circle and took in the view the length of Ullswater. Having just completed my Wainwrights I ‘treated’ Kelda to a full run down of all the fells we could see and my experiences of climbing them. It is testament to her strength of character, our friendship and possibly the fact that she is military trained in what to do in an awful situation that she seemed quite chipper about my narcissistic stories. We headed under glowering crags of Arthur’s Pike and Bonscale to Wainwright’s stone. The great, miserable, man himself might have had nothing to do with the lovely flat rock on which to sit and absorb Ullswater but it is a cracking place to sit, eat jelly babies and contemplate a really special part of the Lakes.

Gelatine levels restored we set off again; the going on this side of the lake is extremely good, broad tracks, consistently good views and the occasional Herdwick smiling beneficently as you pass. Ullswater is not a lake I have visited often, it is in an odd position when you live in the south Lakes – a big day out will see me heading to Keswick or the Western Lakes for an epic but I tend to think of popping over Kirkstone too far for a half day or an evening jaunt when so much splendid playing out ground is more accessible. However, by the time we reached our picnic spot at Howtown I was seriously enamoured of the whole crooked expanse of blue.

As we sat and ate we watched as the elegant steamer glided into view and disgorged its passengers, a swarming mass of colour swamped in fleeces, rucksacks and wholly unnecessary waterproofs (clearly some people were taking no chances with the legendary status of Lake District as precipitation capital of the world!). There was excited chatter about walking to Patterdale, climbing Hallin Fell or messing about in the lake and Toby’s wildly carefree swimming antics were earning him a good number of approving stares and ‘awwwws.’ It was all rather wholesome, in an Enid Blyton meets Arthur Ransome sort of a way and it made my very proud of my little (okay, big) county and its ability to constantly reinvent itself as a tourist destination.

The day was growing hotter and hotter – far more than I could have predicted for the 8th of April – and I was sizing up my own wild swimming opportunities at literally every turn but the task in hand was diverting enough as the scenery constantly shifted. Gowbarrow, solidly imposing on the other side of the lake, looked far larger than its actual diminutive stature depending on what angle you were looking at it from and the water itself shifted its colours as the sun beat down or hurried behind passing clouds. We were making quite excellent time until we came across a scene rather like something from a low-rent sitcom.

A man was gazing forlornly at his car as it teetered rather alarmingly on the edge of a steep ravine edge. It was clear from the sizeable muddy divets behind his wheel that he had attempted to reverse out of his parking space and discovered that inclines, large cars and Lake District mud are unhappy bedfellows. I looked expectantly at Kelda. I consider myself pretty adept in a crisis but Kelda puts the proverbial cucumber to deep shame. She had been in the army. She used to teach Physics. I felt this made her eminently qualified to rescue this man and his car. We pushed one way and then the other, considered various methods of trying to roll the car away from the edge, stood around thinking deeply. Sadly however, despite several really valiant efforts, we had to leave the man to his miserable fate and pointed out it wasn’t too far now to walk to Patterdale to get some help. With that in mind we headed off on our final stretch.

We didn’t get very far. We stumbled across a tearoom run by Beckside Farm and enjoyed a coffee and a chat about why famers can’t help men who park their cars pointing into ravines – depressingly and rather predictably – it seems that drivers are wont to threaten and take legal action against locals who try to help them out if something goes wrong. Noting that we were making incredibly slow progress and we were meeting my playing out buddy for a swim we tried to pick up the pace. It really is tricky to do so though despite the undulating terrain. Around every corner is a new vista; the landscape is truly varied mixing woodland, tiny but fierce lakeside rocky outcrops and open views across the water to Glenridding and the rising fells leading to the unseen treats of Helvellyn behind.

By the time Ange met us strolling up the farm path from Patterdale we were significantly overdue and more hot and tired than anticipated. Ange gently pointed out the time and we, selflessly, decided to abandon the swim idea and head to the pub instead.

I admit that when Storm Desmond swept through Glenridding that I wept; the sheer brutality of the nature that I love so much, the futile attempts to prevent the inevitable rise of the water and the stoic bravery and spirit of that community moved me intensely. I remember watching on my tiny phone screen the grey, brown rain-soaked views from around my county and being unsure where the blurring of the image ended and my tears began, even now I find recalling the specifics difficult. For me Desmond meant a slightly surreal few days where all of the roads out of our little market town were underwater and I found myself with a rag-tag array of lodgers belonging to the school cross-country team who had found themselves washed up and stranded after a highly unusual meet! The villages of Glenridding and Pooley Bridge were hit much harder, indeed harder than most and this was the genesis for the very forming of the path I had decided to walk those sunny two days. It was a deeply satisfying experience to walk into the Fellside Bar that evening and order a pint knowing that this was regeneration in action.

The YHA in Patterdale is one of those hostels where you are allowed to camp but make use of their superb facilities. I feel almost reluctant to praise this set up too much lest too many people take advantage! Research of campsites in Pooley Bridge had me wincing and grasping my purse but here we were with a wide, flat(ish) field and bathrooms, kitchens and even a bar available for £9 per tent. After a final brew in the continental style lounge we wandered to our tents and looked forward to another day exploring the other side of the Ullswater Way.

 

Back to the Future

Depressingly, it is a very long time since my A-levels.  Yet I have recently been unexpectedly thrown back to that time of freedom, and thinking about nothing but books, having had the chance to revisit two of my exam texts with new productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, and my favourite Shakespeare, the peerless, Much Ado About Nothing.
There is surely no greater spot for a theatre than the shores of Derwent Water. There are times when it is a wrench to leave the sunlight dancing on the water as it stretches towards the grassy slopes of Catbells and head inside to the intimate setting of the Theatre by the Lake. However, it is so rare for me to be anything other than transported by the superb material on offer that any regret soon dissipates.
Streetcar is a favourite play of mine and I was excited to see a new production. It didn’t disappoint. The set was dominated by a large imposing structure that held the two room apartment of Stella and Stanley in the ironically named Elysian Fields. Its steel frame as stark and simple as the existence within – and offering a hint of the prison that the place would become for Stella’s visiting sister. The lighting and music were low key and all sultry New Orleans – there were times where I was sure I could literally feel the oppressive heat of the southern states.
Kelly Gough captured Blanche’s fantastical ego-trip superbly, flitting wildly about the stage and through the script at speed until her final agonising stillness and muted acceptance; she was once again to depend on the kindness of strangers. Her desperation around Dexter Flander’s highly endearing Mitch, was painfully, palpably ,writ large in every ostentatious attempt at the coquettish and most cruelly when Stanley (literally) pricks her balloon of hope.
Patrick Knowles appeared to relish every brutish moment of his Stanley and there was no room for even a moment’s softness; there was a bluntness and lack of emotional depth that made for an interesting reflection on what it is to be male and how to cope (or not) with anything that might exist beyond the narrow confines of work, bowling or sex. This Stanley was no ‘bad lad’ with a heart of gold. I’m not sure he had any heart at all. Yet oddly, disconcertingly, I ended up feeling something for him. Perhaps pity, perhaps a glimmer of sympathy, as he and the audience saw in the wreckage of Banche Du Bois that his time was done. The world was shifting and Stanley was left behind. That this #metoo message resonated so clearly, six decades after writing, was utterly sobering.
For me though it was Amber James as Stella who delivered the standout performance. Stella could easily become a bit part, an outsider beyond the awful, tragic battle of wills in which Stanley and Blanche engage. Under Chelsea Walker’s direction however, Stella is front and centre. Moving from an awkward, deliberate naivete to futile acceptance of reality, she is on the stage even before the lights come up and the final tragedy, for me, rested with her awful, dawning realisation that her life can never be as it was. She knows what Stanley has done but there is no escape. Blanche’s sanity has been (literally, in this production) dismantled, Stanley with all the arrogance of male privilege believes he is unaffected (though one senses that is not the case) but Stella is left in a black hole of complicity. In that final, desperate scene and the almost imperceptible rejection of Stanley, James conveys the pained horror of a thousand silent women, the futility of the female situation and the absolute power of theatre in our multi-modal world.
It is a bleak play; Williams was a tragic man ahead of his time in many ways and I am profoundly grateful to Theatre by the Lake for giving me the chance to reconnect with him.
Rather more cheerful but with some surprising parallels was Kingston’s Rose Theatre’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. You have to go some to make me hate this play. The dialogue is so delightfully contemporary that only the most weird, avant-garde production could ruin it for me. Thankfully the recent Simon Dormandy production seized upon the modernity and not so much ran with it as turned it into an Olympic rely team.
The concept was self-consciously clever. Don Pedro comes this night to Messina but more specifically to a fabulous spa hotel, befitting of a Mafioso boss with his entourage in tow. Characters were established early; Mel Giedroyc seized with relish Beatrice’s initial sparring with John Hopkins’ Benedick to demonstrate her acting chops whilst Hopkins did not put a foot wrong throughout, it’s a real feat to make the Bard sound like it’s the language you were speaking since you were in nappies but Hopkins is entirely natural. Peter Guinness’ Don Pedro exuded arrogance (his dominance over Claudio extending to a creepy chancing of his arm with the reluctantly compliant Hero, by then engaged to his young protégé). Peter Bray played Don John as a snarling, scarred bastard brother and that his resentment felt entirely real was a refreshing change whilst Kate Lamb made everything she could out of Hero’s rather limited lines and she was more prominent than any previous Hero I have seen. But it was Calam Lynch’s Claudio who was the real revelation. It was with his character that the Mafia conceit really shone and it seems almost inconceivable that this was his first theatre role (let alone his first Shakespeare). So often Claudio is a simpering weakling and, with a distinct odour of sixteenth century misogyny about him, he and Hero feel like a poor imitation of the real love story between Benedick and Beatrice. Lynch though owns the stage as the cocky ‘young upstart’ strutting and preening – recreating him in the masked ball scene as Batman, the superhero with no superpowers, was a stroke of directorial genius. Desperate for Don Pedro’s approbation it seems, for once, highly probable that he would place male ego and honour over the word of the woman he claims to love. He is not an easy character to like but after two decades of loathing ‘Lord Lackbeard’ I left the theatre having reformed my opinion.
The huge stage at the Rose Theatre is hard to fill but this set managed it with the use of a clever split level construction that also allowed the funniest gag of the night that sits outside Shakespeare’s script as Margaret and Borachio became swept up in a gloriously post-modern pastiche of Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene. The constantly moving stage scenery could have been a distraction but it allowed for the genuine comedy of this play to shine through. The moments where Benedick and Beatrice were tricked into loving each other were very funny, relying on both the language and the comedy talents of the two protagonists. If I have a criticism it is that Beatrice didn’t really soften after Benedick’s very moving declaration that he loves nothing in the world so well as her – Giedroyc’s Beatrice is unrelentingly spiky, though that does give the final scene some tension as it seems highly possible that she might still allow her pride to overwhelm her love.
From its very first outing Much Ado was lauded as Benedick and Beatrice’s play but this is where Dormandy’s production was pleasingly divergent – this was an ensemble piece and the final minutes of the play really demonstrated that. The build up to the double wedding can often seem long winded and Claudio’s forgiveness far too easily won but this production did it differently. Claudio’s acceptance that Hero was ‘done to death by slanderous tongues’ felt suitably redemptive and Hero’s angry defiance that she died only whilst her shame lived – delivered to Don Pedro, not Claudio – almost found me breaking into spontaneous applause in its strikingly modern appreciation that unthinking ‘lad’ culture can have dire consequences.
I thought twenty years ago that I knew all I could about these two plays, with their two very different outcomes, but these two productions both gave me something new, proving to me once again that in terms of entertainment nothing comes close to the profundity of live theatre.

 

NB: Not my usual kind of adventure but I tasked two of my classes with writing a review so I thought I’d offer them one of my own – this is the result – so I thought I would pop it on here as well as showing them!

Oh, I Do Like to Be…

A day out at the seaside is a great British tradition and it was with the promise of fish and chips, sea breezes and swooping gulls that I agreed to explore an area of Cumbria I had simply never been near – the north west coast. The thing that was perhaps most unusual about this planned seaside excursion was that this was in the depths of a winter characterised by storms with friendly names and the less amiable sounding Beast from the East. My knobbly knees were staying firmly swaddled in walking trousers.

We began in Gretna; overcast grey skies and rather a lot of incredulity at the sheer number of places you can marry in this small, unassuming town were perhaps not the foundations for the most auspicious of starts, but as we turned the car around and headed away from the M6, closer to the stretches where green met sea, my mood lifted. The first few villages were remote, picture postcard sandstone enclaves scattered in ragtag fashion between farms, salt marsh and inlets. Some were models of well-kept rurality, others betraying the signs of decline and the death of smaller industries.

We meandered in and out of endless inlets of the Esk, Eden and Wampool, each one revealing a slightly different vista. At times the distance between road and sea could be measured in feet and inches of salt marsh; signage that proclaimed dire warnings about venturing onto deadly sands and somewhat paltry looking Perry buoys slung limply over nails in rustic wooden posts made me glad we were being relentlessly followed by a steel grey sky and nobody was about to suggest an impromptu paddle. At other times we climbed above the coast line proper, dipping in and out of places with names that ranged from the faintly amusing (Cargo or Knockupworth anybody?) to a sublime that touched the Romantic in my soul (Beaumont, Burgh by Sands and Drumburgh).

I admit to feeling a frisson of childish excitement about our arrival in Bowness-on-Solway. This was partly to do with the several cups of tea and non-stop supply of Diet Coke that had been consumed and was now making its presence felt via my bladder’s insistent nag after every pothole neglected by the county council since Storm Desmond. It was also, in part, due to the fact that it was somewhere I had heard of. When I was at school in South Cumbria friends had holidayed in Bowness-on-Solway, Silloth, Silecroft and Silverdale (perhaps there was some unspoken rule about Barrovians only visiting sibilant seaside locations) but until this day I had reached just Silverdale of the four and that was only as a result of getting lost trying to find Arnside. In many ways Bowness was everything I had hoped; it is pretty, the vast expanse of sea is impressive – managing to be both surly and breathtaking as it hurls itself up the channel –  and the people are almost uncannily welcoming. My latter observation is the result of a truly surreal experience. I’d like to refer you back to the state of my urinary tract as we approached the centre of the village – I was scanning signs hoping in futility for public toilets like a vegan looking for tofu in a farm shop. There was every facility you could imagine for the tourist – a bunkhouse, the start of Hadrian’s Wall, a campsite, a cheerful scrawled notice for a mobile butcher. In desperation we parked and launched ourselves into the pub, the Kings Arms. It was about two minutes past twelve. It is reasonable to say that the landlady and her family looked somewhat surprised to see us. Their look of disbelief was thoroughly bettered by mine however, as I realised that THE BACK OF THE PUB WAS COMPLETELY MISSING. There was a bar, some tables, a large flat screen television silently advertising some sporting event, even a dart board. But no back wall. I simply stood and gaped – kidney infection be damned. Ange had far more presence of mind and politely asked if we could use their facilities. Dragging my eyes away from the ragged brickwork hole I heard the incredible response that the pub toilets had been demolished but we were welcome to venture upstairs to their own, private living quarters! After picking our way through the debris there and back, we settled down to a fascinating chat about life in the publican trade on the west coast of Cumbria. The building work was leading up to a refurb that would lead to guest accommodation and a bigger and better pub – if you’re ever in Bowness-on-Solway (and I would happily recommend it) drop in at the Kings Arms. The drive, ambition and pure enthusiasm for Cumbria are all to their credit but more pertinent the ability to run a three sided pub deserves to be rewarded with a couple of pints after a few hours walking the coast.

We didn’t stop in Silloth but I am rather sad about the fact. I want to go back. Wide streets, sometimes cobbled, and a distinct air of Georgian grandeur made me want to linger and explore. The sun was beginning to shine and the shoreline looked a magical contrast of golden sand, inky sea and azure sky. The main street was knowingly attractive; symmetrical Georgian and Victorian buildings smartly painted and offering an array of modern and vintage shops, indeed more facilities than we had seen since Gretna. We ploughed on, our original plan to explore as much of this unknown land as we possibly could still in the forefront of our minds. The sight of the sea at Mawbrey Banks was just too much though. We parked up and spent a reverent thirty minutes appreciating up close the power and beauty of the sea we had spent the day looking at through the window of an aging Polo. The sand was soft and pockmarked by the tell tale razorfish mounds, the tideline a glorious mix of pungent, verdant seaweed and the kind of driftwood Cornish tourist shops require a second mortgage to purchase. The horizon didn’t quite stretch into eternity because there in the distance was Scotland, purple-grey and mountainous. My heart soared.

I was pleased to see that Allonby seems to be making the most of its charms; the car park was full, the little ‘front’ of shops and pubs seemed to be thriving and there was a second sea of green beyond the Irish one lapping at the shore that was entirely made up of static caravans. Our drive through Maryport made me wish we had more time, the village was picturesque and reminded me of several places on the east coast that have capitalised on their advantages (Staithes and Whitby I am looking at you) but we ploughed on to Workington where the interest was provided by a rather different coastal outlook. The feel is distinctly more industrial but it is not without interest and charm – it might be the result of having grown up within spitting distance of a huge shipyard but there is a strange beauty for me in the long, rusting crisscross necks of cranes, the symmetry of shipping containers in their perfect jigsaw and a heartfelt tragedy in the decaying industry of a town full of skill and potential that is left behind as the world changes.

We made short work of the next section of coast largely because we had walked it a few weeks previously (see ‘The Undiscovered Country’). As a rule I have simple wants and needs; as we approached Egremont I was craving a cup of tea. I might have predicted it but it turned out that Ange felt the same so as we pulled up in the heart of what looked like an historic market town we looked around expectantly. The only obvious café was closed so we weighed up the available pubs and lighted on the most amenable looking. We were literally the only two women in the whole  – impressively busy – place save for the lovely pair of barmaids who responded to our request for a brew in spectacular fashion. This pub didn’t do hot drinks. In fact if it wasn’t fizzy, amber and faux Australian I am not sure it even existed in those four walls. (This pub managed the full compliment of masonry if not beverages). The two women behind the bar sprung into impressive action. They dragged out and polished two mulled wine glasses, opened a ‘secret’ cupboard containing the staff kettle which they plugged in to a socket at ground level and then had a furtive discussion about a) what to charge us for such an unusual request and b) where to get milk. What resulted was a perfectly good cuppa at an obscenely reasonable price where the milk had quite obviously been liberated from a neighbour’s fridge.

As the day began to fade we arrived in Seascale. An intense orange light seared across a limitless horizon. I practically fell out of the car in my haste to scramble onto the rocks that separate the sea and the attractive collection of houses, shops and hotels that make up the shore. I am a sentimental soul and I grew up by the sea. Moving away at eighteen I didn’t think twice about it but having returned to live a hairsbreadth away, the sight of the sun disappearing as I am surrounded by Cumbrian mountains does things to that sentimental soul that I am unsure I have the words to articulate. A huge lump had risen to my throat. I was standing on the edge of a vast expanse of level, golden sands, the sea claiming and reclaiming the shoreline with persistent, rhythmic beauty as an enormous semi-circle of pure orange made the world a simple contrast of blaze and black silhouette. I wasn’t far off full blown ugly weeping when Ange suggested we call an end to the day and find somewhere to eat. We headed for Ravenglass via Drigg. If you do one thing on any visit to Cumbria stop at Drigg at sunset. We were moments too late for the full show but trust me when I say that the lilac light slipping off the Wasdale fells delivered a strike to my core.  

IMG_8155IMG_8156When we reached Ravenglass the gloaming was rapidly becoming night and we made a hasty decision to head to the Ratty Arms. The last time I was in this pub it was a gloriously tacky mixture of 1970’s carpet and fluorescent, multi-point stars to advertise the latest drinks’ offers. Impressively, remarkably, it had retained its charm but managed to clamber upmarket. We sat in a private booth, wonderfully, and presumably deliberately, resonant of a railway carriage, mere feet away from the actual station platform and ate a delicious meal. Ange offered to drive home and I sank several beers as we chatted about the very full day we had experienced. There is a project afoot to open the whole of that coastline to hikers in the next two years and I, for one, cannot wait to play out on foot to cover the stretch of the new England Coast Path where we had enjoyed our day beside the seaside.

The Undiscovered Country

 

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Fleswick Bay

I am not quoting Hamlet in the title because I thought I was going to die in West Cumbria, I fully intended to be a traveller who returned from this particular bourne. Everything was set fair for a January day trying out a little of the new England Coastal Path when I set my alarm for the ungodly ten minutes to six o’clock. I went to bed at a sensible, reasonable hour. I was packed and ready, all I needed to do was assemble my sarnies. I felt supremely smug. I was woken however, by a series of text messages from my walking buddy, Ange. A quick, half comatose check revealed I had managed to set my alarm for just before six in the evening. The resulting leap from bed and frantic scurrying meant I arrived nearly an hour late at the chosen starting point and without any lunch. Thankfully the beach café at St Bees is second to none.

 

 

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Starting point: St Bees

After Ange patiently allowed me time to buy some provisions and we’d browsed the coast to coast map and guidebook section of the shop we headed onto St Bees’ beach. It’s stunning. If you listen to the critics west Cumbria is a provincial backwater with all the charm of, well, a nuclear power station. Don’t believe everything you hear. St Bees is an amazing place. The beach is picture postcard; cliffs, expansive sands, pretty cottages behind and a rolling tide of crystal clear (if rather chilly) water. We didn’t stay long however, as we were there to check out the path; our section began as a short, steep climb out of St Bees, a clear track occasionally laid with impressive recessed steps backed by railway sleepers.
The early part of this route from the beach is calf-sapping mud. The Cumbrian word for such conditions underfoot is clarty and in certain coastal dialects it also means lucky. Never has a term been so appropriate. It was hard work sliding and slipping along but the vista was worth a slog ten times more difficult. I felt absolutely blessed as we paused. There was nobody else around. The Isle of Man was a vague purple outline in one direction across the blue grey mass of the Irish Sea, the Lake District resplendent as we glanced behind, the great mountains snow-capped and nestled against a sky of azure blue, looking ahead a whitewashed lighthouse peeped from behind a patchwork of green fields that stretched to the ragged cliff edge. Hardly a post-industrial wasteland.
Passing through livestock fields we suddenly began to descend and we were in a channel that flowed into the sea. Fleswick Bay. We decided to go and explore the beach. The hilarity that ensued as we realised just how greasy the sandstone slabs that led to the beach really were, was rather tempered by the awareness of the sheer quantity of plastic lying battered – and quite clearly not decaying – between rocks and resting on the cliff sides. There is something really gut wrenching about deflated helium balloons declaring messages of huge congratulations strewn so incongruously across a natural landscape. In a moment that stilled my ungainly clambering across the rocks I noted a giant Santa tucked beneath a huge boulder; I resolved I would never buy one of these things and discourage others from doing the same. So blog readers – don’t buy balloons!
Deflated inflatables aside, Fleswick Bay is one of the most arresting sights I have ever had the joy to behold. Deep red sandstone cliffs have been eaten away by the relentless Irish sea and wind to produce magnificent, smooth overhangs of layered rock interlaced with emerald green seaside flora. Stood on black sand, dwarfed beneath a red cliff sculpted as if by a warm ice-cream scoop I felt incredibly small – and grateful for the chance to experience such a moment. I turned to the waves, I watched a gull swoop and steal a herring as the tide raced between the curves and dimples of the huge flat rocks that lay at the sea edge. Looking up the water-levelled beach I felt we might be the only people ever to have stood on that glorious spot. Everything was smooth, untouched and other wordly. I have been to some stunning places around the world but, and I don’t say it lightly, this was a truly magical lunch spot.

 

 
I didn’t really want to leave but the tide was racing in and we had a good distance to go. We climbed out of the channel and back up onto the cliff tops; admiring the hides that the RSPB have installed to watch cormorants, the kest bank walls, the mixture of nature’s power and manmade efforts to manage the erosion, the moments where industry and landscape merge or compete such as the sci-fi esque quarry at Salton Bay or the magnificent remains of the Haig Pit whose tunnels once stretched out beneath the tiny waves which belie the immense power of the sea evident all around on this stretch of coast. The approach into Whitehaven was slowed by our being stopped by a very friendly cocker spaniel puppy and his human who must have had some sort of historygeekradar as she launched immediately into a long, fascinating account of the area’s mining past. I have only very vague memories of the miner’s strike and my dad’s hatred for Thatcher, it all seems rather a long time ago for me as I happily toil away in a public sector job in the week and play out at the weekend. It was incredibly humbling to hear such a straightforward and yet visceral account of what life was life for the men who worked so far underground and who lost everything. This was starkly reinforced as we descended into the harbour at Whitehaven and noticed the humbling carved epithets. Names and accounts of those who had given their lives, sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically, to the pursuit of profit for the Lowther family and power for us all.


A brief hiatus followed as we both agreed that a walk on top of the sea wall was a perfect way to view Whitehaven and the coast beyond. It was a little bracing and the sea that had looked a rather picture postcard blue in St Bees was now a threatening, tumultuous, broiling grey. We took refuge (alright we used the toilets) in the Beacon Museum, before heading along the harbour and out of the town. It is a fascinating place – fading Georgian grandeur jostles for attention with art deco lines and there appears to be a recent trend for rather anachronistic chrome and black glass. We decided that we’d like to go back, not least because everybody we met was so incredibly friendly and positive about their town. But that was for another day as the final stretch of the trip lay ahead and the sun was beginning to blaze red on the far horizon.
The leg of the English Coastal Path from Whitehaven to Parton is fairly unremarkable but the feel of tarmac under boot was rather welcome after the endless slippery mud. The ‘road’ travelled was an old mining tramway and it made the going rapid and allowed for easier admiration of the views in the sunset light, and then the gloaming, as dusk chased away any warmth in the air. The train track snakes alongside the path at this point and I felt a childish glee watching a slow moving two carriage ‘Pacer’ rattle alongside the crashing waves on its journey south; it felt distinctly like being part of a child’s train set.

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Whitehaven Harbour from the path at sunset

The title of this blog refers to the whole of this section of coast which so few people seem to have heard of and even fewer appear to visit. However, Parton really did feel like the undiscovered country. A detailed information board on the outskirts outlined a thriving village which had held on to the wealth and status of a vibrant fishing village and former colliery. The truth was painfully contrary. Parton appears to be dying. The OS map showed the promising stamp of a blue tankard alongside the spread of houses and railway station and we were looking forward to a drink before we caught the train back to St Bees. There was no such luck. We noted ‘The Ship’ in ghost lettering beneath the paint on a house as we entered the village, saw the obvious decay of a large building on the front (once ‘The Beachcomber’ dance hall apparently) and the forlorn ‘Sold’ sign nailed to the back of a whitewashed shell whose door still declared it was ‘The Station’ and had once sold Carlsberg – rather ironically given their advertising strapline. It was very clear that the pub trade, apparently like any sign of life had long since departed Parton. Stood for a train that was half an hour late I reflected on the tragic demise of the west coast. It was evident, standing staring back at the village, that there was still pride in the place. The buildings (save the wreck that stood closest to the beach) were all well-kept, the war memorial, on its postage stamp of manicured lawn and hemmed in by painted wrought iron, was immaculate and the playground looked modern and exciting. Yet the whole area was empty and silent.
It feels a little like this stretch of coastline has been forgotten, the halcyon days of trade by sea, of fishing and of mining all passed. Yet it has so much to offer. The views of the sea, the wildlife, the history, are all intensely fascinating in their own way and as we stuck out a hand to hail the tiny train as it wound around the headland, its headlamps like unblinking eyes in the darkness, we resolved that we would come back soon and discover more of this extraordinary coastline.

A New Whole (Part Two)

 

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The Needles from the Isle of Wight coastal path

For elimination of doubt, just in case you were idly wondering, over nine miles in a hired, sit on top kayak on a roasting June day, is a bloody long way. In general I have no desire to collect the accoutrements of competitions. Especially when you are last. Quite notably and definitely last. But I wanted a medal, I really, truly wanted a medal when after more than four hours my friend Jess and I fell out of the plastic bath toys in which we had just battled down Windermere. It was a fascinating experience in many ways and I saw more of the ‘hidden’ Western side of Windermere during that Solstice race and the various training missions we completed than I thought possible. (If you have ever wondered how the other half live, it’s here, in large mansions with boathouses that are possibly bigger and better furnished than your actual house). I discovered in training that failing to take off your thumb ring and then paddling 5miles takes more layers of epidermis than you knew you had – when the day came I got wise, took off my rings and unashamedly wore cycling gloves with zinc oxide tape underneath. I found out that I had far more core strength than my rather flabby frame gives me credit for and that wearing a race tee-shirt over a buoyancy aid over a wetsuit is, quite possibly, the most unflattering combination of garments known to humankind. No, you aren’t getting a photo of that one, Michelin called, they want their tyre back. I am also fairly certain that it isn’t something I am likely to repeat. Been there, done that, didn’t even get to keep the tee-shirt. However, kayaking and paddle-boarding on Windermere – everybody should do that. The views of Fairfield and the Langdales are even better from the middle of the lake; it’s the longest in England you know? I certainly do.

 

I spent July enjoying a variety of wildcamps and not so wild camps in the Howgills and Lakes, feeling like I was reconnecting with old friends with whom I had lost touch. I got impressively lost in thick clag somewhere near Burnmoor Tarn and had to painstakingly reverse my clearly ropey compass readings. When I returned to pitch my tent I discovered that I had left my tent pegs in the car (with a flash of realisation that was more despairing than blinding I remembered laying them out on the parcel shelf that morning in the hope that the clinging mud might dry and fall off – nice work Maid, nice work). In driving rain that not only laughed in the face of my goretex but gave it a thorough slapping I guiltily dismantled part of a cairn and pinned my flapping canvas down as best I could. I was reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain at the time and she was in my rucksack that day; while I had to occasionally shoo rivulets of water out of the tent and had to scuttle out to get some sort of tension in the tent, learning about winter in the isolated, majestic Cairngorms certainly put a sense of perspective on my situation. It was damp, not dangerous, and I ended up having a rather lovely afternoon. (Please note no actual cairns were destroyed in the making of this camp, I meticulously put all my saviour stones back!).

A few days later, in rather contrasting weather, I rolled up my trousers and splashed about in the sea at St Bees after walking a little stretch of the coastal path and promised myself that one day – with only nine Wainwrights left – that I would follow again in the great man’s footsteps and do the coast to coast. I know he would have disapproved, he didn’t much like the idea of women tramping about outside, enjoying themselves, but sorry Alfred, it’s not a battle you’re going to win with me. With each new week I was feeling a greater sense of renewal and a true sense that pretty much anything was going to be possible if I wanted it to be. The things that had previously stopped me doing things in the outdoors were beginning to fall away. I was too inexperienced, it was too risky, I might not have the right kit, people might laugh at me, I might not have the correct technique, I’m not the right age, gender, body type, background and so on and so on ad infinitum. For the first time those nagging doubts were being answered with a small but insistent ‘so what?’ and I rather liked the feeling of freedom it gave me.

Since this subtle move towards self-belief (or rather the understanding that pride is a ridiculous concept) I have done several other brilliant things. I wildcamped in the far eastern fells bringing my Wainwright tally to 210 and speaking only to one other solo wanderer the entire trip. I flew to Europe and made new friends. I rediscovered the joy of road biking, bought a SUP and took up wild swimming (the latter is not directly linked to my ability on the SUP). I reconnected with an old friend who thinks I am a fit foster human for her incredibly lovable spaniel and he and I are now firmly in doggo love. I found a walking buddy who is as moved by landscape as I am and who has introduced me to both the joys of the Yorkshire Dales and a hundred and one new topics of adventuring to discuss. I stayed in a bothy for the first time, watched a seal give birth as I lugged my wetsuit towards a chilly October swim in Pembrokeshire, I scrambled up Goredale Scar in idiotically icy conditions, rediscovered climbing and spent New Year’s Eve in a tent in the heart of my beloved Lakes. I have begun to feel that my life might not look like everybody else’s but that there are no proper rules for this stuff and that when I am playing out, even right on my own doorstep, I’m truly content. Yet possibly the most important moment of the year happened when I was completely on my own, far away, in temporary exile from Lakeland.

The first week of my summer holidays I packed my rucksack and caught the train to the south coast, hopped on a ferry and sailed to the Isle of Wight. I had an idea that I might be able to walk round the whole thing. I had reawakened my love for solo walking. Being alone had shifted from something uncomfortable to something wonderful. My close friend, her husband and their daughter, my Goddaughter, were holidaying on the island and the plan was to meet them at some point on the trip but the walking (and intention to take advantage of the warm(ish) sea) were solitary pursuits.

Parts of the Isle of Wight are stunning. The white cliffs of the Tennyson Way as they stretch away to the grandeur of the Needles is an unforgettable sight and surprisingly few people use the well marked coastal path that runs around the island, leaving much time for private reflection on life, love and fading 1950s holiday camps as they slide inexorably into decline, and in some cases, the sea. As I walked towards one particularly pretty village replete with white sailed yachts and multi-coloured seaside cottages I came across an establishment clearly catering for those with a spiritual bent and a huge bank balance. Lumps of different coloured rocks sat in the window with eye-watering prices, dream-catchers dangled from the porch and dusty books with black and purple covers were piled in crates outside the door. It wasn’t, ostensibly, my kind of place but one tray in the window display caught my eye. I am not at all convinced that the proprietor was that pleased to see me, or more specifically, Al my trusty rucksack. She broke off from a conversation about runes or dreams or something in order to visibly wince as I edged into the tiny shop. I was interested in the rather unusual range of earrings that all represented a hobby or interest of some description. There were trowels, pianos, knitting needles, tiny fishes on lines and I really wanted to find a pair of walking boots but was thwarted. What I did find was a pair of perfectly formed sterling silver bicycles. After unexpectedly parting with my lunch money I went and sat in a beer garden. I felt my ear lobes. My ex had hated earrings, they created a real sense of stomach turning revulsion and so, happily, dutifully and lovingly I had one not-so-remarkable day taken out my studs and, in time, a new skin had grown. I could feel the tiny lumps of scar tissue beneath my finger tips as I rested the new earrings against the familiar place where the old holes had been and pushed. There was a bit of blood, a bit of swearing and possibly a momentary whimper but there was something literally and metaphorically wonderful about the pain of creating that new (w)hole.

 

 

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Precarious camp at Burnmoor Tarn

 

 

 

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Rediscovering old Lakeland friends

 

 

A New Whole (Part One)

This time last year I was in a difficult place. Emotionally, I mean, rather than, say, stuck half way on Fat Man’s Agony. I was experiencing the final, inevitable, twitching convulsions of my relationship’s death throes and was, quite frankly, at a loss. As the inevitable became my new reality and I was once again single it was time to take proper stock. What had happened to me over the previous two years, who had I become and where was the person I had once been?
Except I didn’t take stock. Not really. I just carried on. One day after the next until the fug began to lift. I didn’t make any conscious decision to change things but gradually, almost imperceptibly things did begin to shift. Shift, as they say, happens. I started to agree to things that hadn’t been possible with a partner and a three year old – neither of whom particularly liked the outdoors. At the end of January 2017 my best friend and her husband came to see me. They brought their new puppy Jasper. It doesn’t matter how miserable I am, how much my life is a maelstrom of anguished, soap opera proportions, a dog will cheer me up. Pretty much any dog. Except possibly those Chinese Crested things – they give me the heebie-jeebies.
Jasper was ready for his first ever Lake District walk. We climbed Yewbarrow. It was my first Wainwright in almost a year and on reaching the top and crouching for a photo in the patches of snow that lay like jigsaw pieces on the rocky summit I felt a huge lump rush from my stomach and settle in my throat. It isn’t a huge hill, the ascent is short and steep straight from the tiny bit of ground where the car was left. The views should have been spectacular, I am sure, but it was January and looking towards where Scafell’s pike should have been was the tell-tale grey/white shroud of Lakeland drizzle, the coast was only intermittently visible and as we shared a flask of hot chocolate a wind with serious bite sank its pearly whites into any available fleshy part of my body. I am sure many would have found the entire experience somewhat underwhelming but I was close to tears – and not because of the vicious wind. The immediate surrounding fells were iced with a smooth white, the sky in the valley was azure over the various inversions and Jasper was skipping joyously on his first ever fell – I know how you feel little fella, I know exactly how you feel.
This was the start. A day later, in conditions that sometimes reeked of the ridiculous, we invented an entirely new way of getting to Easedale Tarn. The traditional route of strolling up Easedale Beck was an absolute no go, the entire valley bottom was a flooded torrent. We had to wade up the right hand side of the hanging valley until we climbed high enough to escape the endless water. We joked, voices perhaps a little tight, about Storm Desmond. It was appallingly, horrifically, comedically sodden. I realised, eventually crouched beside the tarn, under a battered emergency shelter, just how much I had missed the unique feelings of having to be resilient against the elements. It was wonderful.
As the months rolled on I said that little affirmative word more and more. I camped on the local fells at Hutton Roof during an impressive thunder snow storm in March. I grinned into the dark in the Langdales as a Herdy snuffled around outside my tent as spring arrived. (No, it wasn’t a rat. Herdwick. Definitely a sheep snuffle). In a moment of total insanity I agreed to kayak the length of Windermere in the Summer Solstice event and did a first, tentative practice paddle in April. In May I restarted my Wainwright quest and managed to get my remaining fells to single figures. Given that it was my attempt to get up Tarn Crag that had led me to Easedale in January where the weather had so thoroughly defeated any idea of going high, it was quite special to top out on that one – little as it is. As that month faded I bought my mate’s mountain bike (people who have new babies sell the best things at the best prices so they can buy baby things!) and whooped with delight as I let rip down Garburn Pass and used Facebook communities to cycle with other women who wanted to get muddy and test the quality of their helmets. I remembered the sheer, childish joy of playing out. I relished the fact that I had an awesome and totally free playground right on my doorstep and revelled in every weekend adventure and after work peddle. My grin got wider and wider as the half way point of the year approached.

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Best friend (Jeanie), me and Jasper on Yewbarrow

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Meeting Jasper for the first time

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Me, best friend’s husband (Tom) and Jasper arriving at Priest Hole

Then at the start of June came another milestone. A night in Priest Hole, on Dove Crag. Once again, my best mate, her husband and Jasper were in tow. Jasper now considerably bigger and happy to snuggle inside a doggo sleeping bag (we’ll skate over the arrival of a mouse in the middle of the night and Jasper’s insistence on dealing with the uninvited guest). At around 5am something truly magical happened. The Lake District mountains may not be large. They aren’t the Dolomites or the Alps. They don’t even boast the remoteness of many parts of Scotland. You are never far from civilisation on even the most ‘isolated’ of Lakeland days. Yet at daybreak on that day in June I woke up to see a perfect mountain vista bathed in a pink glow so subtle, so exactly matched to the scene before me that Instagram execs would have paid thousands for such a filter. I hauled myself to a sitting position out of my bivvy bag and gazed across towards the hills near Ullswater. The furthest fell tops were still indistinct silhouettes, the velvet green of the woods and fields around Brother’s Water a remarkable contrast. There was no sound. Nothing. Absolute, complete silence and a view that landed a sucker punch to the soul. I was struck that I was, in that moment, the only person experiencing that perfect storm of peace and it made my stomach flip. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I was happy.