THIS morning I catch the 6.30am train from Askam-in-Furness to Barrow, jump on a connection to Lancaster, board an inter-city express to Penrith, and walk blinking into the daylight of a fine spring morning to embark on my second back-packing trip in the space of three weeks. I have Jim Callaghan to thank for this dollop of good fortune. Uncle Jim. I’ll tell you why later . . .
This is a retro post for Because They’re There. It’s a letter from the past featuring a memorable walk and the contemporary events surrounding it . . .
It is my intention to cross the Lake District National Park from Penrith, in the north-east, to Ravenglass, in the south-west. My meticulously-planned route stretches about 48 miles (77km) over mountains and through valleys. I have three days in which to complete the walk. It will be tough.
I hit the road to Eamont Bridge, pause for breath amid the prehistoric earthworks of King Arthur’s Round Table and Mayburgh Henge, pace country lanes to Yanwath then take to the fells, heading in the direction of the High Street range. This is grand walking country – wide skies, rolling hills, distant blue mountains, a glittering Ullswater, and a hint of summer on the breeze.
Hey, a couple of things to mention. This is 1978 and England’s on a different planet. Punk is in its prime and Boney M’s at No 1 with Rivers of Babylon. The weather is blisteringly glorious and everyone on the felltops is wearing very short cut-down jeans – with the exception of grumpy middle-aged blokes in corduroy and a few tourists sporting the smart-casual Jim Rockford look. Granted, there’s still some traditional tweed about and the occasional malcontent in Crimplene can be observed – but cut-down denim is pretty damn cool. And that’s official.
Loadpot Hill passes beneath the tread of my Famous Army and Navy Store boots. The course of a Roman road takes me over Wether Hill, Red Crag, Raven How, High Raise and Rampsgill Head. But in late afternoon, near the barren summit of High Street, I veer east and descend the slender rock spine of Riggindale Crag to the shores of Blea Water. The first day is drawing to a close and I need to prepare for the onset of night.
On the banks of this rock-girdled Lakeland tarn I pitch my faithful canvas André Jamet tent, with its clattering iron poles, and cook dinner – or tea, as we innocent Northern folk are accustomed to calling our frugal evening meal. On the menu tonight is Vesta Beef Curry with extra currants, boiled vigorously on a bright blue Campingaz stove that topples over if not positioned securely. Dinner is a balancing act. But so is life.
Vesta Beef Curry, eh? Sophistication in a box. Us Lancashire lads know how to live life to the full. Campers aren’t condemned to the old staple of baked beans and blackened sausages these days. We’re living in a changing world. Horizons are rolling back. We use our imagination. Extra currants from my grandmother’s kitchen cabinet. Nice touch, or what?
The sun sinks behind High Street and the air cools dramatically. I push my feet into the Blacks of Greenock sleeping bag I purchased in Ambleside following a £25 win on the Premium Bonds, only to discover that the fluffy down filling – like the birds which provided it – has migrated to places unknown. It’s going to be a cold night.
DAY TWO: Some people argue that politics and the great outdoors should never be allowed to mix. Generally, they are the same people who believe that bank holidays are showered upon us by benevolent industrialists whose dark hearts are occasionally gladdened by the site of grateful workers streaming from the mills and mines of England to indulge in a spot of morris dancing and traditional though vaguely embarrassing fertility rites.
But last year, and the year before that and the year before that, the May Day Bank Holiday did not exist. May Day Bank Holiday has its roots very firmly embedded in 1978, not some misty bygone era of St George and the Dragon, green men, and fol-de-dol-day-o with silver bells. Prime Minister James Callaghan bestowed it upon the nation in recognition of International Workers’ Day. Yes he damned well did.
And that is why, comrades, I am able to embark on my second back-packing trip of the month – the first during May Day Bank Holiday and this second during Spring Bank Holiday. Good old Uncle Jim. He’ll get my vote next year. But so would a monkey if it sported a red rosette.
Bacon and eggs for breakfast, washed down with Co-op 99 tea and a spoon of Marvel. I make a tidy job of cleaning the lard from the billycan with a fistful of coarse grass and warm water, pack my gear, and prepare to clamber back up Riggindale Crag to regain my path across the summit of High Street. I’m in good spirits.
Had my legs not been as stiff as maypoles I would have marched to the top singing The Internationale. But I struggle up at an unusually erratic pace and limping slightly. Still, this is all character-building stuff for a carefree young chap like me.
The air is hot and still on the summit of High Street. Another hard day lies before me. I plod over Thornthwaite Crag and Stony Cove Pike, then cut down the curiously-named John Bell’s Banner to the top of Kirkstone Pass before following a pleasant path down into Ambleside. My legs are more than amply sunburnt by this time and beginning to feel uncomfortable. They have acquired that pinkish sheen which only English legs acquire.
After a quick pint in the Golden Rule I slog, somewhat half-heartedly, over Loughrigg Fell to the village of Chapel Stile, and then, beneath a blazing afternoon sun, limp along Langdale to the campsite opposite the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. I’m feeling pretty exhausted. Even the prospect of a billycan of Batchelors Savoury Rice with little red and green cubes of exotic vegetable fails to raise much enthusiasm.
I don’t even possess sufficient energy to get angry over William Wordsworth’s spelling of the Norse word “gill”, which he shamelessly corrupted to make his poems appear more ethereal, unwittingly dooming generations of cartographers to chose between the popular and the authentic. Dungeon “Ghyll”, I ask you. The man was a vandal. However, this blatant assault on our Lakeland heritage doesn’t stop me sauntering in for a pint of ale. Or should that be a pynte of ayle?
DAY THREE: I awake early with a sore head. The sun’s heat is already penetrating the bright orange flysheet, making the Blacks of Greenock sleeping bag uncharacteristically warm. More bacon and eggs for breakfast. More Co-op 99 tea. Another fistful of grass and warm water to transform a greasy billycan into the polished shield of Perseus. I’m ready for the toughest challenge yet.
I wander blithely along pastoral Langdale before forsaking the pleasant fields of the valley bottom – where sheep bleat and cuckoos call – for the steep and sweaty haul to Red Tarn. This gets the leg muscles burning. After a short descent I reach the Three Shire Stone on the top or Wrynose Pass, then follow the road to Cockley Beck and climb all the way – on melting tarmac – to the crown of neighbouring Hardknott Pass. This is hard and thirsty work.
On the western flank of Hardknott, just below the ruins of the Roman fort, a footpath crosses a stream before wriggling down into Eskdale. A family picnic is taking place on the banks of the stream. As I wander past this gathering of friendly folk an old chap dips a hand into a pool and plucks out a can of shandy. “Fancy a drink, mate?” he says. “You look like you need one.”
I croak an appreciative reply as he punches two triangular holes in the can with a silver tool he takes from his pocket. And oh, that ice cold liquid. Never has shandy tasted so good. Never has shandy been more gratefully received.
Heartened by this act of humanity I march down into Eskdale with an unburdened spirit and rekindled energy. I follow cool paths beneath leafy woodland and pass deep dark pools in rippling streams. And as afternoon fades into early evening I reach Ravenglass and the Pennington Arms.
The quest is over. Time for a pint or two before catching the last train back to Askam. I have my dreams, my memories, and a chance to reflect on a wealth of experiences. But better ring home first and tell them to get the chip pan on. I’ve had enough exotic food for one week.
Walking from Penrith to Ravenglass, late May 1978.