Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Mad dogs and Englishmen....hiking in the Lake District

I believe the expression is “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” however I would like to suggest that it works equally well as “only mad dogs and Englishmen climb hills in the pouring rain.” When I first moved to England, I found a pamphlet advertising walking holidays. I spent months mocking the idea. Walking holidays? Are you serious? So you go somewhere and just walk round…and it being England, most likely in the rain? You can’t be serious???? Never, ever, ever, I vowed. What is that other popular expression, “from your mouth to God’s ears…” Nine years later, challenge #8…a walking holiday. With Lucinda and Philippa, of Kili fame.

The Lake District is a stunning part of the UK with lakes and mountains and no phone reception. Rich, green landscape round the lakes, barren and rocky as the mountains lift. Poet William Wordsworth wrote Daffodils about the Lake District, and they certainly blossom there in abundance (my favourite flower, btw). Specifically we are hiking Scafell Pike. 

Officially as training for the Cumbria Challenge, in June, unofficially because we have a great time together, and we love doing things other people think bonkers.  For those of you not familiar with English geography, the Lake District in no where near London. It is way up north….close to Scotland, we keep saying to ourselves. Close enough to Scotland that I can’t understand a word any of the hotel staff of the otherwise delightful Scafell Hotel utter. I just stare blankly at the sounds coming from their throats as Lucinda and Philippa giggle at my bafflement. And even not so close to Scotland it is a long, long drive from London, especially on a Friday afternoon when all roads out are undergoing road works. Two hours in we are only near Milton Keynes. What should be a six hour drive comes in closer to 8, the last bit along pitch black, winding, narrow roads. But we make it, thanks to Lucinda’s superb driving. We are too late for food, but bar still open. Solving of all world problems part 1 takes place on comfy couches in front of a fire, as rain lashes the windows.

We wake to rain. Hard rain. Kili clothes and waterproofs I have borrowed from my 13 year old son on. Camera, tissues, water and out we go. We find the farmhouse as instructed and follow the arrow marked “footpath” to a bridge over a fast river that ends at no discernible path. An older couple are on the bridge as well. We ask them to take our photo. “Climbing Scafell?” the man asks. We tell him that is our plan. “Oooh God no, not today in all this fog,” he responds. He sees we are determined. “Do you have a map and compass?” We say no. What we don’t say is that as none of us can read a map or compass they would be pointless extra weight in our packs. The man huffs in disdain. We do have written instructions that quite plainly state the path is well marked. And we see nothing. We ask if he would be so kind as to at least tell us in which direction to head off. He waves his hands in a general direction and with a haughty “good luck to you then,” marches away, his wife behind. We assume they are locals with a good knowledge of the area, so we decide the best plan of action is to follow them until we find the actual path. So after them we go. It is very wet and the peaks are hidden in fog. The ground is soggy and muddy and we seem to just be walking across farmland with absolutely no suggestion of a path. We start climbing up and up, scrambling over increasingly slippery boulders. And we are getting closer and closer to the edge of a serious cliff. With a powerful waterfall. This is treacherous stuff. And scary. Very scary. What the hell are we doing?? We find out later what we have climbed is Taylor Gill Force (force being the local word for waterfall), and it certainly isn’t part of the usual trek. 
This is a stock photo of Taylor Gill Force on a warm, sunny day

The couple we have been very foolishly following are somewhat higher up the cliff, and they seem to have stopped. Lucinda scrabbles up to them, pokes her beautiful face round an enormous boulder and chirps “is this the right way?” to which the man barks, “no it bloody isn’t,” with a face like thunder. 

Philippa on Taylor Gill Force in the rain
She gets back down to us….oh fuck, we have to get out of here. But how???? Slowly, very slowly, much of it in a semi-sitting position. The rocks are so so slippery and the edge is only inches away. “Don’t look, don’t look” I tell Philippa over and over. Finally we are back in the field….we look across the wide, wide river and see lots and lots and lots of people skipping along a gentle path. Dammit. We feel like the ridiculous family who go on that bear hunt….back down the cliff (slip slide, slip slide), back across the scree (crunch, crunch), back across the swampy fields (squelch, squelch), back over the stile (clomp, clomp), back through the mud (squish, squash), back across the bridge (tip, tap), back through the farm yard (baa, baa), and straight on to the path (plod, plod). This adventure has taken an hour and a half….and it is raining harder. Peaks even foggier. Off we go. Again.

It is only then that Lucinda mentions that the before mentioned wife seemed to be “stuck” precariously close to the edge and the husband was standing behind as if about to give her a little push…..we burst out laughing and shout “we thwarted a murder!!!” Ha ha ha “We stopped that man from killing his wife!!!!”….and that is our narrative for the day…imaging all the scenes before and after…..his fingers about to administer the deathly thrust when Lucinda’s cheerful voice calls out “is this the way?”…..his fury when he realizes he is going to have to devise another plan to get her to the top…..the mistress sitting in the rental in the car park, money already transferred to Spain…..her shock when she sees them both hiking back down….and we laugh and laugh and laugh. It is freezing cold, rain pounding down, wind whipping, waterproofs failing, boots waterlogged, hands icy, fog so heavy as if it is dusk and the path keeps disappearing into the raging river. But we are together and have a hilarious story to share. Always laughter in adversity for us. After hours of this jolliness we lose the path again and decided to just climb straight up to a peak. We aren’t lost so much as simply directionless. Rain is lashing, visibility is poor and I worry that the heather beneath our feet is hiding rabbit holes and other leg breakers. If one of us gets injured up here, it will be very serious indeed.
On the top

So having made it to the top of something we snap a photo of ourselves and clamber back down, eventually finding a path, which is slick as ice. A charming man and his girlfriend, who seem to be running (!!!!!) the route, agree to take our photo in front of one of the pounding forces, a perfect description for all that rushing water.
Unfortunately, just after the photo is snapped, Lucinda slips in. It doesn’t seem possible for her to get wetter…but she does. Time to get down. As quickly as possible. 

We get back to the car shivering, wet to the skin, and dreaming of hot tea, steaming baths and that roaring fire. We don’t get the fire but we do have tea, baths, naps…and later delicious dinner and lots and lots and lots of wine. Talking, laughing, more laughing, even more talking. Solving world problems part 2. 

My thoughts on walking holidays now?  Brilliant. Bloody brilliant. Can’t wait for the next one!!!!

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