LATE Sunday afternoon. Autumn sun warming dry-stone walls; silent roads; golden leaves and golden bracken; the distant bleat of sheep; a wisp of cirrus cloud; cool grass under tired feet.
Borrowdale possesses a unique charm. When the crowds and the cars have departed at the end of the day it becomes a timeless place. Hugh Walpole might be ambling along the road towards Derwentwater; WT Palmer might be returning from Eagle Crag with a hemp rope coiled over his shoulder. If the silence was suddenly fractured by a scratchy rendition of The Very Thought of You emanating from the vicarage window, this would not seem out of place.
None of the other Lakeland valleys possesses this endearing quality, this between-the-wars ambience that settles in the early evening like mist forming on the surface of a tarn. Wasdale, perhaps, comes closest, with its fine lineage of pioneering climbers, hob-nailed boots, grainy pictures of men in flat caps and britches, and legendary nights in the hotel bar.
But Borrowdale has a magic all of its own. And to appreciate this magic you have to sit quietly in its fragrant air – dusty feet in the grass, pan of tea – while the sky turns from blue to white to gold.
And that’s me right now. I’m sitting in the late afternoon with the sun on my back writing this. A pan of steaming tea simmers on my petrol stove, my boots and socks are strewn about on the grass, and I’m going to sit here for an hour and soak up the atmosphere before packing the tent and heading home.
This morning was very wet. Borrowdale is famous for being the wettest place in England, so to wake at 7am with rain clattering on the flysheet is only to be expected. But the air was warm, that sort of clammy, heavy, close, humid warm that makes life uncomfortable but can be ideal for walking.
Today’s walk is an old favourite. Not too strenuous; not too high; the sort of walk where you can amble along with the wind in your hair and not a care in the world. What makes it special is that – like the first time I did it in the early 1980s – there’s a good cup of tea near the end. And a bit of cake and a bit of Hugh Walpole. And that makes life worthwhile.
So I’m away from the Rosthwaite campsite for 9am, following a path along Greenup Gill to Greenup Edge. I once walked this route one warm September day when the rowan berries were ripe and leaves were turning gold. Today the rain is very heavy – it is falling straight down, but the air is still and warm. It is curiously pleasant rain to walk in, and although I wear my waterproof top, I don’t bother with leggings. It just seems sort of pleasant to get wet for a change.
Up on the Edge – which I have to myself – the rain ceases but the cloud comes down. On the summit of Ullscarf there is a cold wind as well as mist, and I am obliged to wrap up a bit.
I descend to Blea Tarn. The last time I was here I had a quick swim. Not today though. Not even the quickest of quick dips. Instead, I head down the fell to Watendlath.
Watendlath is a place to visit in dreams. If someone said picture Hugh Walpole sitting at a table in front of a Lakeland cottage writing a book, with swallows skimming under the eaves, sheep grazing on the fellside, a gentle breeze rustling the trees and sunlight burning silver on the ripples of a tarn, that picture would be Watendlath.
I sit at a shoggly table in the tea garden, scattering cake crumbs for chaffinches and sparrows that gather round my boots. This, really, is what Lakeland is all about. It’s not just the walking, it’s the bits that go with it – the bells and tassels, the knobs that stick on the end, the fancy bits that take a memory and burnish it until it shines.
What is a sweaty day on Great Gable and Pillar without a couple of pints in the Wasdale Bar to round it off? What is a slog up Striding Edge and over Helvellyn to Sticks Pass without a couple more pints and a bar meal in the Travellers Rest? Or fish and chips on a rainy night in Keswick? Or a pot of Darjeeling and rock buns in any number of tea shops? Or even a billy of home-made soup warmed on a camping stove in a lay-by while the moon rises over Skiddaw and stars shine in a frosty sky?
So here I am at the end of the day, sitting on my folding stool in an empty campsite, pen in my hand and trying to remember – for the life of me – just what Hugh Walpole’s connection with Watendlath is. Soon the sun will settle behind the mountains and I’ll have to pack up my gear and head for home. And I still don’t have the answer.
No worries. I’ll come back in another twenty years or so and do the walk again. See if that’ll jog my memory.
Borrowdale. A pretty timeless place. Don’t rush it. Sit there and savour it. And drink lots of tea.