It is the last few days of the summer term. A spare moment in my classroom, and I fantasise over the wonderfully obscure job opportunities online on Gumtree. Do I fancy earning money delivering and collecting catalogues in Canterbury? How about a fantastic opportunity home working as a ‘Beauty Rep’ in Bedfordshire? I try not to dwell on what the expectations of ‘Cleaner’ wanted for a retired ‘gentleman’ are, where the key personal requirements are to be fun-loving, open minded, and relaxed, and allow my stomach to turn slightly on the request of only ‘young and female‘ applicants. Alas! I shall offer my services elsewhere.
An advert catches my eye, ‘Restaurant Assistant needed near Keswick. Lake District’. The prospect of a job which begins and stops as you enter the building appeals after two years of tackling the never ending treadmill of work that come with being a secondary school music teacher. A life without the dreaded DJ! button on the keyboards. Where the pupils were served a dish of music, the customers could now be served food. Where the pupils were often reluctantly force fed a dressed up slant a la curriculum, the public will select their favourite choice of dish from a hand crafted menu. Where the children asked ‘what’s the point’? The customer will enquire ‘what is the soup?’
I decide to apply.
After carefully constructing a CV and covering letter that shows off all of my lumps and bumps in the right places, I press send.
Almost immediately I get a positive reply.
We would really like to speak to you.
Can you please give us a call?
Suddenly I am struck with a double pronged sword of excitement and uncertainty. How much have I really thought this through? Am I really ready to uproot my life from one end of the country and replant it at the other? How would Lucinda feel about the prospect of a long distant relationship? How have I come to heading back into restaurant work? It would be amazing to live in the Lake District, wouldn’t it?
A short phone call later, and impulsively.
‘… can’t wait to get started. Thank you, and see you soon!’
At the start line a hoard of multi-coloured vests, horse-like thighs, and twiglet arms bump and slide in the torrential downpour and ooze of anticipation. IT Consultants, Builders, Nurse, Bar Men, Electricians are amongst some of t the 44 foolish and/or fool-hardy who have chosen to pit themselves against the 7 miles and 2000 feet of climbing that this year’s Fellside Fell Race will tackle. A typical Cumbrian summer evening, man/woman and mountain, with lashings of both wind and rain, clashing dread and excitement into a whipped up sense of delirium.
Cramped into my sister’s overheating white Fiat Panda we pick up her two friends Carl and Jen at 6pm. ‘All hair and tights,’ as I later her another runner describe Carl, the couple squeeze their wiry athletic frames and mops of hair into the back two seats. I briefly lament my unshaven locks and wonder how they may have helped smoothen my transition into the Cumbrian community.
‘Ooo dun’ worry… A’ down’t kna’ where am goo-in’ either,’ a carefree Jane Horrock’s-like voice reassures from the backseat.
‘Ai, ya went proper wrong up ‘ere uva year dint ya!?’ Chips in Carl. Remarkably relaxed.
In the abhorrent storm of sideways rain and tree-aching wind, this does little to reassure my recently confessed apprehension at running into an unknown extreme landscape. Victoria says if I get lost I must make sure to get back to the race HQ, in this case a tarpaulin strapped to the side of a transit van, and tell them that I am OK.
‘But, if I’m lost how can I do that?’
‘You have to, else Mountain Rescue will be called out.’
‘Yeh. If I am lost though…. I would like to encourage Mountain Rescue out. To rescue me. Off of the mountain!’
She looks a confusion of annoyance and concern. ‘We looked at the map. I have marked on the checkpoints, you have a compass, you will be fine,’ said with an attempt at a conclusion.
‘Hmm… Yeh..‘ I wipe the steamed up passenger side window with my jumper sleeve, and look up towards the surrounding dark lumps of earth, which are now completely veiled in an opaque cloak. I desperately attempt to recall some basic compass and map reading skills I failed to learn as a disinterested Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award adolescent drop out.
The anorak clad and disgustingly healthy looking shorted, bald bloke announces as I pass through the old stone gate posts of a farm yard. Before I know it he is fore arm deep in my high spec, top of the range, special running bum bag. He plunges crotchwards.
‘Are you not even going to offer to take me for a drink first?!’ He declines to comment, but jubilantly ticks of the Fell Racing Associations kit requirements:
– A sealed seamed waterproof top
– A pair of sealed seamed waterproof trousers
– Emergency food – a chocolate flapjack in my case.
– A pair of sealed seamed waterproof trousers
– Emergency food – a chocolate flapjack in my case.
Wander off track, lose your way down, break your tibia and get stuck in the clouds, whatever, it is your job to make sure you have this stuff to give you some chance of surviving until you can make it down, or until help does or doesn’t find you in time.
Ceremoniously, I pull on the yellow and banded green of the legendary Keswick AC for the first time, a proud moment. Borrowdale, Bingley, Horwich RMI, Ellenborough, Dark Peak, some of the other colours and tribes represented. The start line’s jovial atmosphere diminuendos to a hush as the same bald man who frisked me now cups his hands to amplify the race introduction, his voice cutting through the methane-heavy cow turd aroma, and is distilled to get up, around, and get down whichever way you want. Then following some light hearted patter with the front runners, a short countdown begins. I quickly take off my waterproof trousers, being the only one in the sea of bare skin to be wearing so, advertising my level of novice. Around, pleasantries and smiles suggest many have forgotten we are all about to embark on a colossal onslaught of torrential mountain ascending, rock hopping, bog trotting, tarn traversing, and flailing descending.Conquering or succumbing to the hills.
Already I feel burning in my thighs and a deep pain in my lower back, wet tuffs of grass and mud flicking into my face, these signal through the grey wet that we are ascending. Ascending steeply.
Fell running is in many ways a misleading term. The hunched and hurling Quasimodo forms that myself and the majority of the field cut out on the shoulder of the first long drag up to checkpoint one at 2100 feet above sea level, suggest more of a fell crawl. A march of soldiers already wounded in their first battle of a long war – it takes the snake of buckled bodies some twenty-five minutes to hit the first top and first marker.
I try to shout as I unzip my waterproof to reveal my race number to the two hill hardened biddies at the first checkpoint. My lungs allow only a pathetic whimper, but the motion of their pen under a mini waterproof cover and onto paper tells me they have acknowledged my effort.
Settling into a group of eight or nine runners, comfortably in the lower realms of the overall standings, I focus solely on the luminous yellow of the elder statesmen who moves like a whippet a few strides a head of me. As the elevation kicks up again, he leans into each step with a huge push from each of his giant palms against his monstrous quadriceps. A path of mud dressed with islands of wild grass offers purchase in sporadic rock outcrops. Howling against skin are slaps and stabs of watery pellets, attacking any exposed surface, soaking any superficial garment to chilled.
Great Sca Fell gives way to another sharp slog across boggy moor land up to the high point of Knott, still not half way. Yellow Man offers some shelter in his would be shadow, and I obediently match his stoic pace for something like a mile.
A couple of runners edge off the main footfall to move around others. Any passing runner is encouraged and shows of machoism or competitiveness are absent, with each runner going through their own processes within the context of a race and aiming to get what they want out of the experience, whether that be a stretch of legs, to enjoy the view, to clear their mind, to be part of something bigger than themselves, to embrace a challenge, to have fun, or any combination of, if not all of, the aforementioned.
A leather skinned veteran slinks her way across the threat of peat bogs, dancing across the moorland with a confidence which suggests familiarity with landscape and conditions, and she easily makes her way around four runners, soon in her wake. I follow her lead in a pocket of lulled elevation and, feeling relatively strong, make good progress. I rejoin the procession. We grind onwards and upwards. Then I spot the red jacket of Tom, a Keswick AC runner who I have met a couple of times at my only previous fell endeavors. A good ten places ahead, 100 foot or so. The group splits. To the right Tom’s group take towards another bracken covered hillock, to the her left my lead chooses a route along an almost path which hangs off of the hillside.
Old coffee aromas hang on the air, a thick pool of various discarded liquids swash across the metallic draining board, and a growing piles of pots an pans groans in its height and instability. A door swings at random intervals, bursting open now and then, as the morning calm and quiet of a gently bubbling restaurant exchanging pleasantries glimpses through to the frantic scurry and graft of Chef, Manager, and Waiter. Work has definitely begun.
‘Two sausage, one bacon, poached.’
‘Salmon with Scrambled’.
‘Tea and coffee for table four.’
‘Bowls back on three.’
‘Have you said morning to the couple on two?’
‘Clear table five.’
‘Can you write a bit neater please?’
An onslaught of instructions and exchanges. The morning rush, a descent of silver-haired munchers breaking their fast in the newly refurbished dining room of the Ivy House. Off-grey painted wooden beams, light pastel colours, simplistic tables of mostly twos and some fours, and an intricate forested wall papered scene, with the decor taking contemporary inspiration from the surrounding Whinlatter Forest and rugged mountain sides. Last winter, the very same landscape filled the village with water, mud, and rubble, in a deluge which brought much of Cumbria and its businesses onto it’s flood-wading knees.
Customers compare notes on the changes. Some love the fresh life injected into the restaurant. Others pine back to the previous tenants pre-flood set up. The flooding sparks curiosity and questioning from many of the guests, for others it seems just another inconvenience on their already very busy and very important schedules. To me it looks fresh and classy, without any extra bullshit, as does the menu.
Ash, the head chef, and Eloise, the restaurant manager, took over the restaurant after the floods. Overseeing the relaunch of the refurbished kitchen, dining room, and menu, three months ago, they are living their dream. Both at twenty-three years old, I immediately admire their ambition, courage, and skill to take on the running of their own restaurant.
They will get married next year too.
I shadow the manager, Eloise, through the first morning shift. I learn how to set up the cold breakfast buffet in the correct way, eventually. I successfully meet and great a succession of mostly retired and mostly pleasant guests. And I finally get to take order, with my very own pen and paper pad, and take great pride in emulating my television idols of various Gordon Ramsey culinary televised adventures, in shouting ‘Check on!’ perhaps a little too loudly each time. Furthermore, I call back on my previous kitchen experience to under take the washing of dirty pots and pans, and make a great effort to ensure everyone notices how quickly and organised, I falsely believe, I can clear a pile of soiled crockery.
The sink fills up with loose tea leaves for the fourth time in an hour, and I curse my short term memory for having forgotten to serve the tea pots with the tea strainer in yet again. From the tea pots, the customers were served a grainy broth fit only for clogging up the gaps between teeth or for possible attempts of amateurish divination.
Petey bits of bog find their way first into my socks, and then eventually all the way up to the hem of my shorts. The sediment and moisture sit uncomfortably and toy annoyingly between the athlete’s foot and blackened toe nails. Well into the latter half of the race, the premise of a rapid decent encourages me to attempt to increase the pace. I spot Tom’s red jacket and slowly catch up with him. We exchange greetings, run alongside one another for a short while, and then I breakaway gradually.
Crossing between the final two checkpoints, I spot the sheep shed, plonked right in the middle of nowhere, which my sister had earlier pinpointed as a marker on my now sodden and redundant ball of paste, the route map. I put my foot down, and open up the length of my stride, the ground is soft, and aiming to keep a few steps ahead of myself, I visualise a route through the puddles of mud and energy-sapping patches of water logged moor. The excitement to get out of the rain spurs me on, as does the premise that my sister is watching from the sheep shed, and I want to make sure I am going fast when I pass her in order to appease my inner show-off.
Slippy pathways push you out and over disguised boggy plunges. Greasy long grasses charade as supportive to footfall and a subsidence in the cloud and rain cover tempts you to forget the unpredictable and unstable terrain underneath. But don’t! A challenge of stamina and fitness transforms into a further test, coupling with concentration and wit.
I aim for and land on a sequence of solid ground in a swathe of slop and sludge. Each successful step is rewarded with a boost in confidence, and an ever increasing ease in step. I continue for what seems a couple of miles in this fashion. Until, Gloop!!! My outstretched leg sinks suddenly into the deep and sticky chocolate sponge. My knee stops dead as the rest of my body tumbles forward in a surge of upper body momentum.
Plunging my scooped hand into another butter pot, I flick my wrist towards the bin and discard it’s slimy content, as another tray of dirty cups, saucers, glasses and toast racks balance on the ledge between the two sinks.
‘In the shit!’
The ever increasing sense of chaos inside a kitchen where your ability to keep on top of your multiple tasks begins to spiral out of your control. Hold your own! and don’t get overwhelmed. What did my first head chef Nick Whelan say ten years ago to me as a half-asleep, heavily hungover, minimum-waged, weekend pot wash warrior? Somewhere between the filth humour and half-slung insults, it comes to me, ‘You need to have a system Haworth!’
I pick myself up out of the trough and needn’t bother wiping off the grime of the mountain just yet. I take a few strides and hope to find my feet again. The tumble blunts the confidence that had caused it. I spot a less worn line, through a rolling descent of telly-tubby land topography. I soon find myself on my own. The person in front to far too catch, those behind, slowing and probably beaten. The spongey green ground encourages me to open up my gait once more, and slowly I get faster. Step after step. Stride and jump. The ground and elevation is steadily tamed. My brain switches off and my legs take control. I impulsively let out a ‘Woooooop!’ and feel very American for a moment. Leaning forward into my stride, my lungs begin to ache, not far to go though! Push on. The 2000 feet of elevation gained offers itself for a flying descent, like a promiscuous maiden spread out below.
Scrape. Wipe in a clockwise rotation three times. Rinse. Stack. Repeat.
I find some sort of rhythm. Glasses at the back, large plates at the front. Tea pots always go through the dishwasher first. They don’t stack well. Get them out of the way first. Saucers and side plates build up like piles of rock. Cairns on a mountain. Offering reassurance, guidance, a pathway, marking the point of summit.
The plastic dishwasher racks stack up methodically and systematically. In turn, they enter the dish washer, soiled, tarnished, untamed. Out the other end, hot, steamed, cleaned, and ready to go again. I slowly conquer the skyline of dishes and feel bizarrely euphoric.
Tumbling down the final home stretch, I can barely keep up with my legs as I try and keep my feet from tripping over the tussocky grass. Feet, ankles, legs, the lot are soaked. Coming down from another line I spot a man in the same jacket as me! I target his surprise appearance, feeling I must prove myself a more worthy owner of such an anorak, and manage to pip him to the point where our paths cross. Legs and arms flapping something silly over the last half mile, the finish line is spotted by the farm wall gate post. I take a comedy roll polly over a particularly voluminous cushion of wild glass and fall all the way over, arse over tit, and make some good progress sledging down on my spine. I quickly pick myself up and soon after reach the finish line to a friendly patter of hardy supporters and already finished runners.
After the race we huddle in a local villager’s garage, who has generously put on a healthy spread of dilute orange and blackcurrant in plastic cups, polyester cups of warming tea, and a pattiserrie-ready selection of homemade cakes, flapjacks, and brownies. Each person spits crumbs and trickles juice down their chin as they take turns in telling their accounts of their own race experiences.
‘How did ya gerron?’
‘Alright now its over!’ I reply to Carl. ‘How about you?’
‘Ye’ were alright ta.’ The nonchalance and modesty masking the fact that, as I later find out, he won the race by a healthy margin!
Tom and another Keswick lad, Jacob, both had great races too, and there is plenty of back patting amongst the flying mouthfuls of flapjack.
The first breakfast shift finishes with a full fry up and pot of tea, shard around a table in the corner of the restaurant. Already, the ice is broken, and Ash, Eloise, and myself talk with increasing ease and interest. I learn about the interesting array of restaurants both have worked in so far, from a Michelin Star Restaurant in Australia, to the B & B around the corner which Lucinda and I stayed in last time we were up.
Whether restaurant or mountainside, factory floor or on a bike ride, down a coal mine or running through the park, the people are brought together by the success in overcoming adversity, however insignificant or severe. Whether persevering through the struggle, enjoying each moment mindfully, or just being happy to be doing something other than sitting on your arse, we come to enjoy the challenges of serving food and slogging up and down the fells. Communally, spiritually, physically, or financially richer, a cup of tea and some snap is the perfect way to put a full stop to the end of any fruitful day.