IT’S 7.45am on Friday morning and I’m standing on the flight deck of HMS Invincible, watching the sun rise over a scarlet Morecambe Bay. I shouldn’t be up here; I should be down in the aircraft carrier’s aft engine room banding cables with a gang of itinerant Glaswegian and Geordie electricians. But it’s such a beautiful dawn that I feel drawn to it like a moth to a lamp. So I stand motionless, cold but thrilled, as seagulls wheel between shipyard cranes and the sky turns gold above 1970s Barrow . . .
To the north, behind the town hall clock, there’s a scattering of snow on the Lakeland fells. Not much. Just the faintest of dustings. Black Combe is bathed in rose light streaming from the Pennines. But, by God, the air is chill. I can feel the iron deck sucking heat from my body through the soles of my boots.
“You off up the fells this weekend?” he says as we peer into the sun.
“I’d planned to camp in the paddock at the Wasdale Head Hotel and have a couple of days up there,” I answer. “Do the South Traverse on Great Gable. But I’m full of cold so I might just give it a miss.”
“Nay lad,” he says in his Bolton accent. “Get yourself up there. It’ll do you good. Blow that cold right out of yer system.”
I’m warming to the subject. I like the idea of blowing a cold from my lungs with fresh Lakeland air.
“If I’m going,” I say, “Then I need to take advantage of this perfect day and bugger off through that shipyard gate before I can change my mind. Sod a day’s wage. What do you think?”
“That’s the spirit,” says Frank. “Money in the bank of health, my lad. Money in the bank of health.”
So I clatter down the gangplank with my bass bag slung over my shoulder, chuck some gear in the Mini Estate, hare up to Wasdale Head and spend a weekend in the fells. I return home on Sunday night with acute bronchitis. Money in the bank of health, my arse.
HOW much can a world change in the space of 34 years? A shipyard that used to employ about 14,000 people now employs 5,000 – thankfully not me, because I’m long gone. The EETPU, which during the Thatcher years and under the leadership of Frank Chapple became more unpopular in trade union circles than the Falange, has been subsumed by greater things. And HMS Invincible was towed away to a Turkish breaker’s yard last February. It is no more.
That’s something to make a bloke stand still and count the years, I’ll tell you. The last time I saw the Invincible was when I returned from Bilbao to Portsmouth by ferry three or four years ago. It had been decommissioned and was tied up opposite the ferry terminal – not a light shining from a door or a pennant flying from a mast. I’m the sort of bloke who feels young at heart and eternally optimistic. But when you see a ship that you once helped build, one of the mightiest ships of the Royal Navy, floating worthless, redundant, and nothing more than an old hulk waiting for the scrapheap, by God that brings you down to earth with a thump. That’s a leveller.
Frank Blackburn still smokes roll-ups, or he did the last time I called on him at his cottage in Lowick about 18 months ago. The sun still rises over Morecambe Bay. And, most importantly, the South Traverse is still the best route to climb Great Gable. And that’s where I am today – up in the wind to complete the traverse, continue to Green Gable then drop down to Seathwaite in Borrowdale.
Bloody hell it’s cold. I’ve walked the traverse on warm sunny days with my parent’s dog in tow; I’ve jumped off halfway along and reached the summit via Great Hell Gate, which is not recommended; I’ve been up there in the early morning with my old schoolmate Peter Frith to take half-decent pictures of Napes Needle; and I’ve completed the traverse with my son, Fergus, when he was eleven.
Today the South Traverse is a stroll down memory lane, albeit a stroll where I discover I have to use my hands occasionally, especially when I decide to “thread the Needle” – clamber up the spine of rock that separates Napes Needle from the mountain, throw my legs inelegantly over the arête, and swamble down the other side. I’m sure it used to be easier than this. Has there been some sort of geological upheaval since Fergus and I did it in 1995?
But more than that, the South Traverse is sheer joy and will remain so. From the mountain rescue box above Styhead Tarn to the col between Great Gable and Kirk Fell, the traverse slices almost horizontally across some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the Lake District, skirting crags, crossing gullies, clinging to ledges and visiting places immortalised in the monochrome photographs of the famous Abraham brothers.
It is a classic Lakeland route. It should be walked in hobnail boots, club tie and flat cap set at a jaunty angle. Walkers should pause half way, sit on a warm slab to squint across the void towards the bulk of the Scafell range, and be obliged to enjoy a Senior Service or Passing Cloud. Tea should be taken from a tartan Thermos flask. Sandwiches should be filled with English cheese and absolutely nothing else except, perhaps, Marmite. Soft drinks should be limited to Marsh’s sass or dandelion and burdock. And the talk – the talk should be of mountain days, Hartleys beer, the superiority of canvas tents and the unparalleled skills of Willie Horne. That’s how it should be done. With a jovial whistle, a flush in the cheeks and a spring in the step. A classic route demands classic style.
Today, though, there is no warming sun or uninterrupted view. There’s an icy wind blowing off the Irish Sea and the mist hangs low on the fells. I make my way across crags that were once familiar but now appear slightly unknown to the col at Beck Head, then veer up Gable’s flank and arrive on its gloomy summit in a dispiriting gale.
The last time I was up here, which was with Fergus, we had intended to continue to Green Gable – but one of us chose the wrong route in the mist and we ended up back at Styhead Tarn. Okay, it was me. I can’t really blame an eleven-year-old. Anyone can make a mistake. No one’s perfect.
I smile about this as I clatter down the scree, following cairns with the wind whipping my waterproofs. Ten minutes later the mist clears and I see Styhead Tarn directly below me. Bugger. I’ve done it again.
Time for the breaker’s yard, perhaps.
- Whaddya mean, you’ve never heard of Willie Horne? Click here to complete your education
- I am indebted to Andrew Denholm for allowing me to use his picture of HMS Invincible being fitted out in Buccleuch Dock, Vickers Shipyard, Barrow. Click here for Andrew’s Aviation, Maritime and Transport Photographs website
- A nice site for more information about the Abraham brothers