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.



  1. A tricky one, that.
    I'm not too keen on big black/brown muscular dogs racing towards me with saliva and huge teeth.
    Well done - but don't get blasé about the cows with calves - they *can* be a problem.

    1. Thanks for the warning Alan!

      On an associated matter, can I have some advice from the greatest living TGOC guru (that's you by the way)? My imminent early retirement means that I could for the first time contemplate the TGOC next year. I haven't done much in Scotland other than the odd day walk. I do recall havng to sneak around cattle on Ben Lomond once. Is the place full of marauding bovines or might it be possible to make a crossing without having to be constantly on my guard?

      In the meantime I will continue to win silent victories by eating steak at every opportunity.

    2. Scotland's not too bad for cattle and they are generally a pretty docile lot. IN the west it's all Highland cattle, that look fierce but are in fact old softies.
      When you get to the east you'll meet the herds of Aberdeen Angus - but they are well looked after and nicely contained in their fields. They are worth a bit.
      Lovely steaks from them
      The entrance form comes out in the October edition of TGO, which bizarrely comes out in mid September.
      One of the requirements for first-timers is to give a brief overview of their experience - including walking in Scotland. It wouldn't be a bad idea to have a weekend or two backpacking up there to bolster that section.
      (When I first applied in '93 I was declined through 'lack of Scottish' experience, having only done the West Highland Way.)

    3. Thanks again Alan.

      "Having only done the West Highland Way"? Sounds like a decent enough start to me, although I suppose it is much tamer than a TGOC crossing.

      I had reckoned that Mr Manning might question my Scottish credentials, despite very substantial hill experience in Cumbria, Wales the Alps etc. Thus, I am already planning a trip or two to Scotland - which I need to get in before the entry forms are due back. Had thought of trying Oban or Taynuilt along Loch Etive, then up Glen Kinlass to Loch Tulla, and if time on up the WHW to Glencoe and back via Glen Etive as a starter.

  2. I reckon this is a worse pitch. :)

    In the meantime I shall see how your walk goes on.
    Cumbria Way, and Cambrian Way are both on my list of walks to do.

    1. Ha! I did see that photo on the blog when it was first published. Are those your boots sticking out? If so you should have paid more attention when you were in the scouts.

      Actually, I am not certain I have ever got my Akto up with the flysheet looking taut, toned and strong. Perhaps tents, like dogs, look like their owners. So mine is looking saggier, more wrinkled and less fit for purpose by the day. Just hope it will last a few more seasons, before it gives up the ghost. :)

  3. Cumbria Way is a fine walk bar the last few tarmac miles at the end. I don't recall any cows bothering us, then we were moving fast and had long days on the trail.

  4. So you don't fancy a job on a hill farm then! I have seen a fully grown cow jump over a normal fence, say 4ft 6" high. It cleared it by feet.

    1. Now you are having me on Alan. You'll be telling me they can pole vault next.