Thursday 22 November 2012

The strange case of the growing male appendage

When I was little, my father was 5’ 8” tall.  Now I am big (6’ 3”) he is several inches shorter than he used to be.   People get shorter as they get older.  I don’t know why.  For me this will have a plus point.  By the time I am in my late 90s I reckon I will be able to sit up in my Hilleberg Akto tent when I am heating up the water for the Ready Brek in the morning.  Nor will I have to contort myself into a hideous, hunched up shape when performing in the tent that function which most middle aged men  undertake in the middle of the night, sometimes several times.   It may also mean that I will not constantly brush the condensation dripping sides of the over rated Trailstar.  That shelter, incidentally, is to be the subject of another blog at another time, now that my prolonged field research (3 nights in it) is complete.

So whilst we get shorter, it is also, empirically at least, a fact that certain male appendages actually get longer with age.  Just look at the ears of old men.  They often appear to be of an enormous length.  Having done some extensive research on this subject,  which involved typing into Google the question “do men’s ears get longer with age?”, I find that Italian scientists have now proved that this is, indeed true.  They have discovered that the male ear will grow by about one inch in one hundred years.  Now this raises two important questions.  Firstly, why were Italian scientists working in imperial units rather than metric? And secondly, have Italian scientists nothing better to do with their time?
This brings me on to the matter of other male appendages which also appear to get longer with age.  I am, of course, writing about feet.  Being tall, and perfectly proportioned (apart from my nose being too big and my head too small), I have always had larger than average sized feet.  However, recent purchases of footwear for my hill walking activities have proved disconcerting.  30+ years ago, when I was in my early 20s, I used to buy shoes sized 44 and walking boots sized 45.  For any Italian scientists reading this I should explain that this means size 10 or 10 and a half.  Over the last 3 years I have purchased 3 pairs of expensive, size 45 trail shoes that I have given away to impoverished student sons  (I suspect they binned them once I had gone home)  as they had proved to be too small for me.  A year ago I bought a pair of Scarpa walking boots and ended up purchasing size 47 (that means size 12, Mr Italian).  They are a perfect fit.  Yesterday my new trail shoes, the discreetly coloured La Sportiva Raptors arrived, courtesy of the Royal Mail.  These, too, were in size 47 and seem to be a good fit.  This can only mean one of two things.  Either shoe manufacturers have altered their lasts and sizing policies; or my feet have got bigger.

Now any reader with a forensic mind will be seeing some linkages here. Scientists involved – Italian. La Sportiva Shoes – Italian. Scarpa boots – Italian.  If I was paranoid or a racist I might form a hypothesis that the Italians were playing mind games with British hill walkers.  This could be some Latin inspired plot to lower our self-esteem and make us think that we have over large and unstylish feet to go with our ill-fitting Next and Marks and Spencer clothes, and our poor personal hygiene.  But my first ever proper mountain boots, those size 45s, purchased when the old Tuff Workboots were no longer deemed up-to-the-job, were made by the then popular boot manufacturer Dolomite.  Also Italian.  So I can only conclude that my feet, as well as my ears, are growing with time.  I feel an experiment coming on.  I am off to measure and record the length of my fingers.
(I am sure that all readers will be gratified that I did not use any personal photographs to illustrate this post)

Tuesday 30 October 2012

A walk on the Mynd - and a view to the Urals -honest!

Having gawped at my old haunts in the Shropshire Hills from the Berwyn Mountains (see previous blog) in mid-Wales a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity, and a good excuse, to get out on them last Tuesday.  I had the car booked in for a service in the dealers in Shrewsbury.  The garage being 20 miles from home, and having a few hours to kill, I went off in the courtesy car to Church Stretton, that unspoilt lovely large village, or a small town if you are an optimist, at the foot of the Long Mynd.  Stretton is well worth a mooch if you get the chance.

The weather was pretty dire. Mild - good. No wind - good. Clag, clag, clag, clag - not good. But after wandering round the fabulous antiques markety - shopy type thing, and after finding the most brilliantest cafe hidden down an alleyway, for coffee and cake, I headed off to the closest thing that the area has to a honeypot attraction, Carding Mill Valley, to park the car and start my walk.

If you don't know it, and you have children and you are in the area, Carding Mill Valley is the place to go. It's brilliant for children in wellies. A gentle mountain stream to splash about in; sheep; a ford to wade through; the Lightspout waterfall just up the valley; and a good National Trust tea shop. And it is the start of a range of walks in great countryside which can be made as gentle and short as you like or, as much as the geography will allow, as challenging as you could want with children.

Carding Mill Valley above the touristy bits

So I set off in the clag up this lovely V shaped valley, following the good path, towards the moorland plateau that makes the top of the Long Mynd. I stopped to watch a couple of parties of school students doing fieldwork, measuring the stream and valley sides. Which took me back a bit to my very distant days as a geography student and to my almost as distant days as a geography teacher.  One of the most memorable fieldwork sessions I ever led, in about 1981 I think, saw one of my O level students, Alison Hall, disappear backwards into a five foot pot hole in the stream bed on a bitterly cold Easter day.  Oh how we all laughed, including Alison herself, who took the mishap in excellent heart.  These days I suspect the responsible teacher would have ended up with a writ for damages at worst; and a thump from an angry father at best.  And possibly both.

After just 40 minutes of gentle climbing I reached the top of the valley and emerged onto the plateau; 5 minutes later I reached the ancient Portway, a pre-historic track that runs across the top.

I photographed these sheep on the summit plateau as I couldn't see anything else

Following the Portway for 25 minutes saw me at Pole Bank, the summit of the Long Mynd. 516m above seal level if you are interested. The "seal level" bit in that last sentence was a typo, but I actually rather like it as a descriptor, so I am going to leave it in rather than correct it. Indeed, from now on " above seal level" will be my wording of choice when referring to the heights of mountains and hills. So much more poetic and accurate too.  The clag was even thicker on the summit, and there was nothing to see except the trig point. The views from here can be superb. On a clear day to the north you can see across the Shropshire - Cheshire Plain, right to the Pennines in Lancashire; the whole of mid-Wales is also on view, beyond the Stiperstones and Corndon Hill, as far as Cader Idris on a good day. Cader must be 40 miles away.  One day I  may blog about a walk up Cader I did at the age of 13 led, if I remember correctly, by one Chris Woodhead, who later became the notorious Chief Inspector of Schools, and scourge of teachers across the land.  Chris taught me at the Priory in Shrewsbury when he was a young and trendy English teacher.  That trip wouldn't have passed today's Health and Safety regimes either!  And to the east?   Well beyond the Shropshire Hills of Caradoc, Ragleth, Lawley, Wenlock Edge, the Wrekin and the Clee Hills you can, I have often been told, see the Urals in Russia.

Pole Bank, the top of the Long Mynd - not a seal in sight, for they are 516m lower down.  Of course they could be hiding in the heather.

Now there is the tiniest bit of poetic licence in this claim. But apparantly if you travel east from the Long Mynd there is no higher ground until you reach the Urals as you pass over the English Midlands, Eastern England, the North Sea and the North European Plain. So if it wasn't for the curvature of the earth, and weak eye sight, you could indeed see the Urals from this lovely little summit in Shropshire. And as a Salopian I am sticking to that story whatever anyone tells me. It's one to bore the kids with after they have walked up to the top. And goodness knows, I bored my two boys with that tale often enough when they were little.

Trying to spot the Urals through the clag at Pole Bank

The return was even quicker. I went down by the same route, although there are so many possible variations, the east side of the Mynd being bisected by a number of delightfully pretty valleys, separated by broad, heather and winberry covered ridges.  But today I had to get back to pick up the car and this was enough for me.  What better way to spend a couple of hours in the fog and drizzle if some fresh air is needed?  None that I can think of.  If you haven't visited Church Stretton and the surrounding area of South Shropshire do so.  You will not have any epics, but will not be disappointed.


Sunday 21 October 2012

What were those blue remembered hills?

The Top of Pistyll Rhaedr

Into my heart on air that kills

From yon far country blows
What are those blue remembered hills
What spire, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

From A Shropshire Lad by AE Housman 

Shropshire is one of the loveliest and most unspoilt counties in England.  Some will dispute that but it is my home county, if a nomad who has lived all over the country can claim to have a home county.  I was brought up for much of my childhood and teenage years in Shrewsbury, only leaving when I went away to university in Wales, and so it would be hard to convince me otherwise.  It was the beautiful Shropshire hills where I broke in my first walking boots.  The Shropshire Hills rise to about 1800 feet.  This is no great height but it does not detract from their beauty, and there is still relative solitude to be found.
A short distance beyond the county lies much higher ground.  When as a schoolboy I was able to travel further afield I would occasionally walk in Wales.  A favourite range of hills just outside Shropshire was the Berwyns.  I last walked there as a youngster on 19 October 1975 with my old school friend Rob, just a couple of weeks after we had started at university.
Last week saw me back in the Berwyns, almost 37 years to the day since I had last walked there.  In the intervening years most of my walking has been done in Snowdonia and in the Lakes.   Now, a relocation to the Shropshire – Welsh border area has moved the hills of mid-Wales back into my line of sight, both literally and metaphorically.
Memories flooded back as I drove up the valley to Tan y Pistyll, and one of the “Seven Wonders of Wales”, the waterfall of Pistyll Rhaedr.  And in case you speak Welsh I hasten to add that I know that what I have just written is tautologous, ‘pistyll’ being Welsh for waterfall.  What I had half forgotten, though, was just how lovely the scenery is in this part of Wales and how wild and remote some of it can feel.  Parts still have something of the wilderness about them.  The Lake District it is not.
My original plan was just to have a wander up to Llyn Lluncaws at about 600m above sea level, a corrie lake just below Moel Sych (827m).  I was interested in checking out whether the lake would make a good site for a wild camp at some stage in the future.  However, for the first time in ages the weather was not only dry but there was also more than a hint of sun, and the air was sharp and clear, if quite breezy.  So instead of going straight to the lake, I headed up the path to have a look at the top of the waterfall, and after which I could head up the south “ridge” of Moel Sych and on to the tops.  The waterfall is pretty spectacular and is well worth a visit.  It is best seen from below.  Indeed, from the top you cannot see the fall itself, as the stream plunges over a vertical cliff.  But just standing near the top and seeing the stream disappear so thunderously over the edge is breath taking.
Looking back to those Blue Remembered Hills
So I headed up the broad grassy ridge of the hill.  The long forgotten scenery triggered my memories.  This strange mixture of distant familiarity and seeming newness was heightened by the gear I was wearing and carrying.  Most of my current hill walking stuff was up in Cumbria, so I was kitted out mainly with things I had not worn or carried for quite some time.  The Berghaus Freeflow rucksack I had not used for 6 or 7 years; a pair of old walking poles, replaced by my Pacer Poles two years ago; a pair of Inov8 Roclite 400 lightweight boots, almost forgotten in the back of a cupboard, discounted in favour of some rather sturdier Scarpa boots and some rather thinner Inov8 trail shoes; and my “Smelly Helly” base layer, not worn since I realised you could buy base layers that fit properly, were comfortable and didn’t offend the rest of the family on arrival home.  And the oldest bit of kit was a Karrimor windshirt, bought in the mid-1990s and probably not worn this century.   It was interesting using this stuff again.   What had I abandoned for unnecessary new gear that still stood the test of time?  Well certainly not the rucksack which felt awkward and poorly balanced.  Not the old Brasher poles – nothing can beat the handle design of Pacer Poles for walking efficiency.  And certainly not the ill-fitting, too tight, too scratchy Helly base layer.  But the windshirt was just great.  Very light weight, minimalist and functional.  And the boots, which I had stopped using because they seemed to be ruining my heels and ankles were also good – they were advertised as the lightest leather boots in the world when they came out and are, I think, lighter than my trail shoes by a fair margin.

But that’s enough about gear.  We don’t go out in the hills because of the gear.  Do we? No we do not.  It is a means to an end.  And today the end was fabulous.  As was the beginning. And the middle. And all parts in between.

The fence to the summit

The south ridge is very broad, and marshy in places.  Half way you pick up a fence that runs arrow straight to the top.  Gradients are mainly kind.  The bogs were a minor inconvenience.  I did that self-questioning bit, wondering which side of the fence it would be driest.  It was the other side, of course.  It always is, isn’t it?   I am tall and have long legs.  I could, with a clear conscience, step across the fence with no risk of damage.  Or so I thought.  The fence, indeed, remained undamaged. But as I stepped across I caught my foot in wire at the bottom and slipped as I was half over.  So damage was done.  Not to the fence, but to what I can only politely describe as “my person”.  Male readers will know what I mean.  Of course, on the new side of the fence it was just as boggy; it’s just that the bog was better at hiding itself under a lurid green camouflage.  But it was not a proper bog.  Not the sort of thing you get in the peat of the Pennines or the Scottish Highlands. It was a Welsh excuse of a bog.
Summit of Moel Sych
I was soon at the top of Moel Sych, and including my gawp at the top of the falls, several gawps at the views, and a chat with a couple from Lancashire and a solo walker from Shropshire, it had only taken 1 hour and 5 minutes.  The views were absolutely magnificent from the top.  It was a perfect day to be there.  My frustration was the failings of my own memory about the views.  That was certainly Llyn Tegid.  But was that Cadair Idris?  Were those the Rhinogs?  I could not sort out Welsh mountain from Welsh mountain. Even more surprising to me was that my old acquaintances over the Shropshire border appeared unfamiliar today.  “Those blue remembered hills…That land of lost content…The happy highways where I went”.  The Stiperstones?  The Long Mynd?  That guy from Shropshire had pointed out Caradoc and the Lawley but surely they would be behind the Mynd?  Corndon Hill?  Pontesford Hill?  They all had to be there but which was which?   No matter really.  It was magnificent.  Even the flat Shropshire and Cheshire Plain.  And the bright white water tower near my parents’ house in Shrewsbury, a pin prick landmark also visible from so many of the hills of Shropshire and the borders.

The Aran Mountains in Mid Wales

The wind was biting cold.  That was ok with me for it gave me the chance try out the one new bit of kit I was carrying without looking a complete poseur.  My new PhD Dryshell Minimus down jacket.  Brilliant piece of kit in the weather of today.
From Moel Sych to Cadair Berwyn

And then it was onwards along the edge of the magnificent corrie headwall to Cadair Berwyn, also 827 metres high.  I passed the mother of all cairn wind shelters above the headwall and the views down the very steep cliffs to the lake were stunning.  The short 15 minutes between the two hills was a delight.
Llyn Lluncaws from the cliffs
Then I retraced my steps back towards Moel Sych, cutting off down the sidewall of the corrie on a steep, but easy grassy path towards Llyn Lluncaws.  The lake seemed to have a covering of some form of algae and the ground here-abouts did not look promising for wild camps – either marshy or very hummocky and uneven.  And then on along the valley side above the Afon Iwrch and back to the car park at Tan y Pistyll.
Above the Afon Iwrch

Retrospective view of the walk
The whole walk took me 3 hours 10 minutes.  Short, but highly enjoyable and recommended.

Pistyll Rhaedr

Friday 24 August 2012

Merciless Attack on Scottish Virgin

Glen Tilt Near Blair Atholl

Is it possible to be ‘almost’ a virgin?  Well if it is, in terms of Scotland, I am almost a virgin.

Semi-retirement arrived for me this month.  One of the long anticipated advantages of this is the prospect of having more time to spend in the hills before my body finally rebels and tells me I am too old.  I have formulated various plans and goals about how I may make the most of this opportunity, keeping in mind that as the amount of time I will have available to enjoy myself has increased, there has been a corresponding fall in the financial resources I have to benefit from this time.   I think that is Catch 22, not that I have ever read Catch 22.

One of the things I want to do with this time is the TGO Challenge (TGOC), the unsupported annual coast-to-coast walk across Scotland.  Whilst I have masses of day hill walking experience I have never done any long backpacking trips - 4 days being the most I have ever done.  I also have limited experience of Scotland, despite having walked and climbed a great deal in Wales, the Lakes, and the Alps and over the years done various mountain leadership training courses.  The TGOC seems a great opportunity to rectify this limitation in my CV.

My understanding is that places on the TGOC are hard to come by.  In particular, I have been conscious that the entry form requires potential participants to set out their Scottish experience and I need to increase mine.  Thus, I recently set off on what was to be a gentle introduction to backpacking in Scotland and one that would also allow me to test out some new gear ie my MLD Trailstar, Oook Tub and MLD Superlite Bivi, which Martin Rye (@Rye1966) had recommended as a great combo of gear.  In addition I also had with me a new Neoair XLite sleeping mat, one of my leaving presents from work.  I found later that this had been designed by the devil, but more of that anon.

So at the back end of last week I landed in Blair Atoll at the southern edge of the Cairngorms, found a good spot in the village to abandon my car, and then sat there in the driver’s seat waiting.  It was heaving down.  And I mean heaving down.  Muggy, very warm, no wind but as much water as you ever did see.  I am aware that many backpackers have a sort of fatal acceptance and belief that they take bad weather with them.  I am starting to think like this.  It’s like watching England play at football.  The only way to get them to score is to stop watching.  Irrational but true.  If I watch, they always concede a goal.

Anyway, after killing time eating my sarnies in the car, the rain eased and I donned the old Paclites and in the middle of the afternoon I set off up Glen Tilt.  This was to be no epic.  No navigation challenges, very little height.  Just me, a rather too heavy pack, some new scenery and a fabulous low level walk.

The River Tilt was a bit of a revelation.  You just do not get rivers like that in Cumbria, my regular stomping ground.  In the Lakes the streams always look crystal clear, and they gurgle at you like a contented baby.  If it rains hard they sound a bit like a baby crying for its dinner.  Lah, lah, lah.  In contrast, the Tilt was a brown seething mass that would challenge and, I suspect, defeat the most talented of white water canoe specialists.  At first I wasn’t certain if this was its “normal” state.  However, I began to notice that trees that must usually be well above its banks were in the water.  It was very much in spate.

River Tilt

And so I made my way along the track up the glen, passing on the way a few delightfully isolated cottages, some the haunt of holiday makers, others those of estate workers.  Forest Lodge was supposedly 8 miles from the road.  It felt a long 8 miles.  To someone less used to the Scottish terrain the notion that you can walk 8 miles along a valley without gaining much height is quite foreign.  But Forest Lodge was reached and passed.  I had now been walking for about 3 hours, and about 30 or so minutes after the Lodge there was a wide expanse of flat, if hummocky ground alongside the river.  There were already 4 tents here, but it was easy enough in this spacious environment to find a spot to camp without spoiling the peace of others.  Within 5 minutes the Trail Star was up, the practice pitching in the garden having paid off.  And a few minutes later it began.

I had heard about the Scottish highland midge.  But nothing had forewarned me as to just how terrible it is.  I was going to say that it hunts in swarms.  But “swarm” doesn’t do it justice.  The attack started slowly enough.  I started to notice the occasional irritating bite on my hands and along my lower back where my shirt wasn’t tucked in properly.  Nothing to bother about really.  I had even prepared myself with a midge head net and some of the legendary Avon Skin So Soft, allegedly used by the Royal Marines to keep the wee beasties at bay.  I spread this over my hands, face and arms and sure enough I soon started to notice the tiny creatures dying, stuck to my oily skin.

I started to prepare my dinner.  The swarms became multitudinous.  I leapt around, waving punching and slapping the air.  I cursed, alternately, the midges and the midge net, the latter because it seemed to make the heat rise to sub-tropical levels.  The attacks continued.  My face, my scalp my arms, my ankles, my back.  Nowhere was safe.

I retreated to the Trailstar.  This of course, was a complete waste of time being a single skin, door less shelter.  At this point I cursed, very mildly, because he seems such a nice chap, @bryanwaddington for his tweet to me at the end of May “My advice would be to use the Trailstar a bit before ordering an Oookstar…”  Bryan wasn’t to know he was advising a moron.  I now know that an Oookstar nest or similar is essential in Scotland in the midge season.  The inside walls of the TS were almost completely black as hundreds of thousands of the devil’s spawn made themselves comfortable, waiting for me to climb into my sleeping bag.

Ah, but I could defeat them.  I had the Superlite bivi.  I zipped myself in and peered through the midge net.  And got hotter.  And hotter.  I couldn’t breathe.  I opened the net.  They launched themselves at me.  Whilst I tried to fend them off the Neoair attacked me from below, bending and wrapping itself around me like the most amorous of boa constrictors.

The next 8 hours are now a blurred memory, a wakeful, prolonged nightmare.  I didn’t sleep for more than an hour the whole night.  I had naively thought that the midges would need their sleep too.  They didn’t, or they fed on me in shifts.  I will not describe the indignity of an attempted early morning ablute, save to say that the midges showed no respect.

The weather was still but the skies dark.  I was packed early and I headed off back down the glen.  After an hour or so the heavens opened again and I spent the next two trudging wearily back to the car.  As I got to the end of the estate road the sun came out.  I had long since decided I was a complete whimp to allow a few insects to spoil my two days.  Getting home again and seeing myself in a mirror, made me realise just how tasty I had been.  The dreaded lurgy itself never made a man’s body look so red, spotty and blotchy.  I counted over 100 bites just where my watch strap had been.  The Scots and all lovers of Scottish hills must be far hardier than I ever imagined.  Next time I will be more aware and better prepared….

Sunday 22 July 2012

Stake In My Heart: Day 3 on the Cumbria Way

The Afternoon Before the Morning After
 I like the view of the sky line hence again using this photo from the day before!
This was the third and last day of my walk along the southern half of the Cumbria Way.   Following the essential mug of tea whilst lying in my sleeping bag, without which I can never get started, I had what I regard as the ultimate lightweight backpacking comfort breakfast – good old Ready Brek.  Before I set out on trips I usually make up daily individual portions in plastic food bags – the oats, mixed with some dried milk and sugar.  If I am feeling particularly Jamie Oliverish I also bung in some dried fruit flakes.  Then it’s just add hot water.  There are two draw backs.  The first is that you do have a pot to rinse out, unless you are happy just to let the gunge boil off and add body to your next brew; and the dry oats do get everywhere when you open the bag – in your sleeping bag, trail shoes, socks, underpants, the lot.  A small price to pay.
I was walking by 6.30am.  The weather, true to the forecast, was dry, but rain was supposed to be heading over for later in the morning.
The walk from Baysbrown Campsite to the old Dungeon Ghyll is very straightforward, with the classic view of the Langdale Pikes in view for much of the time.  My heart did sink, however, as I dropped down to the farm at Side House, when I saw that yet again I was in cattle country (see my account of Day 1 for details of my abject cowardice / phobia when in the presence of bovines and equines).  Slow deep breath.  Another slow deep breath.  And another.  Spin the fear.  Yes they are right across the bloody path.  Yes that it is a bull standing right next to the path.  No there isn’t an alternative route.  Yes they have calves with them.  Yes they do seem to be ignoring me.  No the bull hasn’t looked up.  There is the gate out of the field.  No they aren’t following me.  Yes I am out of the field and there is the New Dungeon Ghyll.  Piece of piss, what was the fuss about?

Back down Mickleden

I have walked many times between the Old and New Dungeon Ghyll Hotels and usually do this along the road.  Today I followed the Way proper that runs parallel to the road but higher up behind the NDG and along the northern valley side.  I was mildly surprised at how rough this track was in places and it involved a reasonable height gain, the road being along the flat valley floor.  But I was soon beyond the ODG and into Mickleden.  I have walked along Mickleden many, many times.  Never before have I encountered a bull or cattle.  Today I had both.  Sod them.  I just marched passed.  Memories of the first time I walked this valley came back.  It was Easter 1974 and I was 16.  I was carrying a very heavy pack from the National Trust camp site near the ODG over to Borrowdale via Styhead and we toiled on a hot day up Mickleden and then up by Rossett Gill to Angle Tarn.  In those days, if you didn’t know about the old pack horse zig zags, and we didn’t, you had an hour of purgatory following the stream bed and the most appalling river of scree you could ever try walking in.  These days the zig zags have been re-engineered and are very evident.

Looking up Mickleden
Today, though, I forked right for Stake Pass before Rossett Gill and trudged up one of the few long climbs on the Cumbria Way.  The views ahead are initially relatively restricted; those behind back towards Langdale, and across towards The Band and Bow Fell are just magnificent.  At the top of the Pass is a short moraine filled plateau, Langdale Combe, with some wild camp possibilities.

The Stake Pass.  Steeper than it looks in this photo!

Mickleden from Stake Pass Path
A Geography Teacher's Heavenly Example of a Glaciated Trough

And now the rain came.  Just a fine drizzle at first.  And as the wind increased in strength so did the rain.  By the time I was descending into Langstrath I was into heavy clag, and boy did it tip it down.  The drop down into Langstrath is pretty steep.  There is a heavily engineered path for much of the way.  I hate most of these man made aberrations and the bends and zig zags in this were unnaturally symmetrical, and the surface looked as if it had been prepared for a final top layer of tarmac.  To me it was further evidence of the insensitive approach of Fix the Fells to what is, admittedly, a difficult problem.  But I have to admit it certainly made the going easier and quicker, not that that should be the point of such paths.

Langstrath from Stake Pass
Those skies were far more menacing than they appear in this photo!

By the time I had reached the valley floor the downpour appeared to be over and I sat on a boulder near Tray Dub to take off my waterproofs.  A walker coming up the valley gave me a cheery hello and then made a joke about me removing my waterproofs.  “Please don’t do that”, he said “you know what happens when you take waterproofs off.  It always starts to rain again”.  I smiled but as I set off I muttered something to myself about superstitious old cynics.
Five minutes later it was heaving down, and I was half soaked by the time I had got my cag and overtrousers back on.  I hared down the valley towards Stonethwaite.  Head down, hood up I took in little of the view, and certainly took no photographs, although I paused to look up to Sergeant Crags Slab.  This isn’t marked on the map but was the scene for me of a super day’s climbing in 1994 when Al Davis led, and then coaxed me up, an HVS and then a “soft touch” E1.  The crag had only recently been discovered by climbers and the rock was perfect, lots of friction, and so different to many of the polished climbs on the more popular crags of Borrowdale.  I had taken up climbing far too late in life and was remarkably inept at it, but the bug held me for 5 or 6 years and it gave me many an adrenalin and fear filled after work evening or weekend whenever the sun shone.
I had considered walking as far as Rosthwaite to catch the Keswick bus but this was no fun in what was now the most horrendous rain.  By a forced march I made the bus stop just beyond Stonethwaite with a couple of minutes to spare before the bus arrived.  Keswick beckoned.  So did the café in Booths, possibly the nicest supermarket in the world, and lashings of tea and an all day breakfast while waiting for the Penrith bus, and then the faff of getting tent, gear and clothes dry.  The tedium of unpacking and drying out always takes the gloss off a walk –for about 10 minutes – after which the good bits get better and the bad bits fade and die.  

Monday 16 July 2012

A Dead Sheep Never Hurt Nobody: Day 2 on the Cumbria Way

First View of Coniston Water

Many years ago I watched a drama on television about a group of teenagers on a school trip who were walking and camping in the mountains with their teacher.  One of the boys, who was a bit nerdy, was full of “interesting” facts.  At one point he spent a good few minutes explaining to the long suffering and cynical teacher that if a stream in the mountains was fast flowing the rapid oxygenation of the water would mean that it would be safe to drink just six feet downstream from a dead sheep.  The teacher looked at him witheringly for a few moments and replied “Jones, if you were at a stream, wanting a drink, and there was a stinking, festering, rotting, maggot filled dead sheep in the water, would you take a drink from six feet below it?  Or would you, instead, walk 12 feet up stream so that you were six feet above the carcase and take a drink from there?”  Good point.
In outdoor blogs when the subject of safe water comes up there is frequently advice given not to drink from a stream without checking that there aren’t dead animals in it.  I have to say that whilst dead sheep are not an uncommon sight in the hills seeing them in streams is reasonably rare and I have never really spent much time checking water sources if they are fast flowing.  I would be more concerned about the lingering effects of Chernobyl, or even Sellafield.  But my stomach did turn at least 90 degrees just after I had packed up and started Day 2 of my “Southern Half of the Cumbria Way” walk when I saw the stereotypical rotting sheep in the stream I had camped near, and taken water from, just a few yards upstream from where I had camped.  Still I live to tell the tale, so that lad in the drama was correct – either that or my Travel Tap is as effective as claimed at purifying water.
I do not use the adjective “charming” very often.  However, it seems just the right word to describe my second day on the Way.  I covered the section from Mere Beck on Torver Low Common to Baysbrown Camp Site at Chapel Stile in Great Langdale.  I took my time over the walk, about 7 hours or so, including stopping for a full English in Coniston, for an ice cream at Tarn Hows, and for tea and cake at High Park, and with innumerable stops to put on or take off waterproofs in a warm, humid day of incessant torrential showers.  Can a shower be incessant or is that an oxymoron?
So, having packed up in light drizzle, I found it was just 15 minutes down to the main road and five more to Coniston Water, with stunning views whenever the clag lifted.  The walk now follows the lake shore, or just above it, and is absolutely fabulous.  I had reckoned that from camping spot to Coniston was 3.5 miles.  In reality the distance and time felt longer but was none the worse for that.   I was at the camp site at Coniston Old Hall just as most of the bedraggled campers there were having breakfast, filled my water bottle from one of the camp site taps, conveniently located next to the public path  (is that stealing?) and wondered at and about the rather bleak looking Hall itself.  I also tried to work out the actual building that was used as the climbing hut set up in the 1920s by the late and very great AH Griffin, my favourite of all the army of Lakeland writers, which had been home to the “Coniston Tigers”** as they explored the gullies and buttresses of Dow Crag in the golden years of Lakeland climbing.

A Proud Mum

I have always loved the village of Coniston.  As you enter the village you pass the wonderfully located John Ruskin Secondary School, a place I frequently used to visit for work purposes.  Can pupils anywhere in England have better views from their school playing field?  Coniston feels like a real place, yes full of tourists, but not self-consciously touristy like certain other Lakeland villages.  And you can get a mean, if pricey, all day breakfast in the Green Housekeeper.  As I did.  Alas, it was far too early for the Black Bull.  A cracking pub the Black Bull, with its own brewery attached.
Then it was off on the long, slow climb through the fields and woods to Tarn Hows.  Did it rain?  Yes it did.  Torrentially. Did it dry up?  Yes it did. Occasionally.  Then it rained again. Then it dried up again and that was the pattern for the rest of the morning.  Paramo is superb clothing in these conditions.  You can wear it all the time without condensation building up, and the dry spells mean that it never wets out.  Unfortunately, I had left mine at home and was wearing Gore Tex so I had to stop time and time again to remove and replace it.  I once found myself racing to get my sack off, and waterproofs out, in the most sudden and torrential of downpours, which had stopped before I had even got my jacket on.

Tarn Hows
Tarn Hows is too Edwardian twee for me but it often boasts an ice cream van.  The stretch of the Way from here to Elterwater is sublime. There is no single highlight in terms of landscape.  It is just perfection throughout.  Also, this stretch of the walk at High Park can boast one of the best non-alcoholic refreshments stops ever known to tea shop man.  Here the cottage serves superb refreshments.  I paid £1.00 for a pot of tea and just £1.00 more for a massive slice of superbly baked chocolate cake.
 “Tremendous value and lovely cake” I said to the lady of the house. “Other places would charge far more”.
“Well I don’t want holiday makers to go home feeling they have been ripped off” she replied.
From someone in a location where few customers will be regulars, or able to repeat visit, this was such a superb attitude compared to what the multi-nationals and chains call “the customer experience” as they serve you mass produced, cellophane wrapped muffins with a bland cup of froth and no change from a fiver.  On the subject of fivers, Stuart Maconie tells the tale in one of his books*** that a bloke in Bolton was once bragging to his mate from Wigan that in Bolton on an evening you can get a pint, a pie and a woman for a fiver.  “Aye, but what make is the pie” retorted the guy from Wigan.

Towards Langdale on the Way to High Park

The Brathay nr Skelwith Bridge

The walk along the Brathay is picture postcard perfect. The sun was out by now and the combination brought out the crowds, but all was well with my world and I condescended to tolerate them, despite my now tiring legs as I headed to Baysbrown camp site at Chapel Stile.  Passing Langdale CE Primary School took me back a good few years.  As with the schools at Coniston, I frequently used to have to visit Langdale Primary in the early 1990s for work purposes.  It took the Headteacher of the time, Nigel, a good few visits before he cottoned on that I always came on a Friday morning.  I never used to tell him when I left at lunchtime that there wasn’t time to get back to the office in Carlisle, so giving me the perfect excuse to start the weekend early with a walk up onto the Langdale Pikes before heading home for tea.

Baysbrown and the Langdales
I highly recommend the camp site at Baysbrown.  Flat, and it all feels less chavvy than the NT site at the ODG higher up the valley.  And it’s only a fiver for one person on foot.  But watch out for the lack of taps and the very long trek for water and amenities if you do not camp up by the farmhouse.  Or, of course, camp well away from the site amenities but at the end of the site nearer the pub, if you are of that mind.

If you want water or the toilet block you have to walk to that farm - a full day's hike!
  This had been a wonderful day’s walk.  There had been little in the way of excitement, but everything in the way of contentment.

** If you haven’t read AH Griffin’s stuff you really must!   My favourites are his Lakeland Mountain Diaries.  But the Coniston Tigers is also a lovely read of youthful adventures in another age.
***Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie.  Another great read from another lover of Lakeland

Sunday 15 July 2012

A Load of Old Bull: Day 1 on the Cumbria Way. Fighting Fear and Phobia

Fear is the mind killer.  Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.  I will face my fear.  I will permit it to pass over me and through me.  And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear’s path.  Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.  Only I will remain.
From “Dune” by Frank Herbert

My route finding error led to a bit of an inauspicious start to my planned three day trek in Jubilee week last month.  I was intending to walk the southern half of the Cumbria Way from Ulverston to Borrowdale, or possibly to Keswick if time and energy permitted.  I had taken the train from Penrith to Ulverston.  The weather forecast was dire, as it has been for most of this dreadful summer, but the rain held off until I swung the train door open as we pulled in to the station.  It then started.  It was already mid afternoon and I had to get moving.  The plan was to get beyond Beacon Tarn by 8 ish for a wild camp. I reckoned this would be about 13 or 14 miles.  I shouldered my pack and headed for the start of the Way.
Because it was raining, and I was in the middle of a town, I left my map and guide book in my pack and relied on instinct.  How could instinct enable me to find my way across a town I had not visited for over 15 years? Well it couldn’t and didn’t. So I managed to get lost before I even started the walk proper, in the middle of a small town, by turning down the wrong side street.  I then did that nonchalant thing you do when there are a fair number of people about and you are lost.  This is usually on the hill, not in an urban setting but the principle is the same.  You know.  The “I have no intention of appearing to be a prat” thing.  But of course it actually makes you appear even more of a prat.  You pretend to know exactly what you are doing, that you are peering at the map and guidebook purely out of interest, and that the reason you have turned round was not because you had taken the wrong path or gone up the wrong street, but rather because you had fulfilled that very important task of, for example, looking at a particular view or stopping at an unusual shop that you had always wanted to visit that just happened to be a little off your intended route.  In my case it was a closed antique shop but it had a nice window display.
At least the shower had now passed and I then found the start of the Way and stopped to take a photograph or two.

                                    The start (or finish) of the Cumbria Way, Ulverston

My walking is almost entirely done in the hills, especially the hills of Cumbria.  The next 8 miles or so until I reached the open fell were to be a challenge for me.  Not because of the nature of the terrain, although I do find navigation over agricultural land more difficult than on the fell.  No, the challenge was not physical or navigational.  It was more in the mind.  It is to do with my entirely irrational** fear of large animals.  It really is a phobia, although some would simply call it pathetic cowardice.  Writing this blog post is, I hope, part of the cure - exposing the irrationality of my own fears in black and white to me and to others may help me combat it further in the future.
Since I was a small child I have been terrified of large animals with horns, teeth or hooves.  On the fells these can largely be avoided, although I sometimes reckon that certain sheep are looking pretty aggressively at me.  Those Herdwicks can be vicious little sods you know.  But the thought that there is no sturdy fence or high wall between me and bovines, equines, dragons or whatever can be enough to reduce me to a quivering, pathetic excuse of a man.  Indeed, a wall or fence does not always calm my fears.  They never look sufficiently strong or high to stop cows, bulls or horses getting to me.  Why, if a cow can jump over the moon, as I know for a fact that one once did, egged on by a cat with a fiddle, hey diddle diddle,  then a bit of barbed wire or dry stone is no real obstacle to prevent a determined attempt to bite / kick / stamp / trample / gore / eat me.  It is a well known fact that cows often jump fences to get to us walkers.
Yes, it is pathetic, but this fear of mine has ruined many a walk for many a year.  It has led me to changing my route, retreating from routes, embarrassing myself in front of small children and, worst of all, it has led to me avoiding completely walking in some wonderful places because of the high perceived risk of death or GBH being inflicted on me by a domesticated, four hoofed monster.
So doing this walk was partly about a middle aged bloke getting a grip, saying enough is enough, get real, get rational, take a deep breath, just do it and stop this phobia ruining your enjoyment of something you generally love doing.  That is why I chose this walk.  I knew that I would have several miles of farmers’ fields to pass through.  And in May in lowland Cumbria this would mean cows.  And possibly worse.  Bullocks.  And even scarier, the biggest, baddest, meanest of them all.  Bulls.  So I wanted to spin all my fears and phobias out of mind and body.

Looking back to Ulverston - it rained so much after this the camera had to be confined to my rucksack

The walk out of Ulverston is pretty straightforward and uncomplicated, but this did not stop me getting lost again at the very first stile, but that was soon sorted.  It was a mile or so in, just after Old Hall Farm, when I first had to confront my fears.  The largest, most ferocious looking cow you ever did see was lying down with its head right next to the path. Slowly chewing its cud.  Just like they do when they are about to attack.  It was all big and black and white and watching me with a menacing stare, but masking this as semi-disinterest.  A cunning specimen, this one.  My heart raced, my mouth went dry.  My pace perceptibly quickened.  I clocked the nearest gate; the height of the wall I would need to jump over to escape.  But I did not divert.  I forced myself to stay on the path.  I could have reached down and touched her if I had been brave enough.
I can only think that this particular cow was blind.  For I did not get bitten, gored, chased, butted or eaten. She did not call over all her mates to surround me and trample me to a bloody pulp. She just ignored me.  A poor excuse for an intimidating beast if ever there was one.
This was easy now.  I marched through field after field, through farm yards and on to Broughton Beck.  Doubts came on near this hamlet.  It was pouring down now; my map showed me that the next few miles were still through fields. There was a simple alternative route I could take, cheating by following roads to Gawthwaite, and thus with no chance of meeting cattle or horses.  No worry and no stress.  I took another deep breath and stuck to the plan and the way proper.
The feared attack happened somewhere between Broughton Beck and Knapperthaw.  As I crossed a field full of cows one pranced up to me, followed by her pals.   She danced around me, just a couple of feet away, literally running around me in circles, snorting.  I waved my trekking poles each time she advanced and made what I hoped were suitably scary comments in a manly voice.  I can’t write them down in a family blog but a lot of the words began with B and ended with ger or tard or itch and she kept her distance.  I edged backwards across the field, watching her whilst sticking determinedly to my route.  There was a line of stones crossing the field, the remnants of a long broken down dry stone wall.  It couldn’t stop her following me I thought, but it might be a psychological barrier she would not cross.  I made it over the stones, not taking my own eyes off her whilst avoiding her gaze.  She stopped. I let out my breath in relief and turned round and faced the right direction once more.  And there, right in front of me, not 6 feet away, was her husband.  The biggest, blackest bull you ever did see.
I could have cried.  I wanted to just lie down in the wet grass and let it do its worst, to get it over with quickly but painfully.  But I didn’t.  I walked passed it.  I walked on and climbed calmly over the stile and out of the field.  I continued on, through lots more fields of cows.  I got stalked by a herd of bullocks at one stage.  I also had to walk right next to the biggest horse in the world, far bigger than that Trojan thing ever was, and she had her foal with her and it’s a well known fact that animals turn into killers when they have their young with them.  Finally, I got to the open fell near Blawith.  I arrived at Beacon Tarn, tired and drained but pleased with myself.  I couldn’t care by then that the ground near the Tarn was far too marshy to find a decent camp spot.  I trekked on, shattered, more from nervous exhaustion, to a semi decent spot near the disused Torver reservoir and finally got the Akto up.  I was too stressed to eat the disgusting pretence for food that is a Travellunch dehydrated meal which was “cooked” and then largely discarded.  And I slept well knowing that for the next couple of days I was on known, familiar ground and there wouldn’t be a cow or horse in sight.  Or so I thought.

        This is possibly the worst example of pitching an Akto ever seen, but I was past caring

To be continued……
** Irrational fear?  A few days after getting back from the Cumbria Way my local paper reported that a walker had been trampled to death by cattle in Teesdale, County Durham.  And just as I thought I was conquering my phobia.