The last, still, light moves slowly aside for the night as Catbells and its mountainous cousins reflect, doubled in the lake’s mirror. At the end of a gradually browning, autumnal Borrowdale Valley a couple of cyclists hock up greenies from their lungs, they bob up and down behind the handle bars of their bicycles, with spit and snot hanging off their chins, dripping onto their tops and exposed thighs. For every three metres of horizontal progression these brutes wish to make they must some how push themselves up almost a metre of vertical climb. The first five minutes of climbing upto the Honister Slate mine from Borrowdale are laughably steep. As the road weaves to the cattle-grid a fast brook bumbles over once glacial crud, pebbles and boulders, stone from the fells are organised into walls which stack tightly to the edge of the helter-skelter tarmac.
Turning and gurning, wheels and faces, the first rider moves in heavily laboured jolts of sometimes forward motion. Sitting up, the first rider recaptures his breath, as the road slackens it’s grip slightly in the middle section, opening up. Steadily, the cyclists begin to ride the road, rather than the road riding them. A select flock of couples picnic by the road side on some familiar looking camp furniture. One reads a book, another a map. I recognise the spot from a sixth form geography field trip where we recorded the different size and number of stones, fashioned by the flowing water. A nod of acknowledgement, and a breathy ‘Hiya,’ but the sitters don’t respond. ‘BLURGGHH!’ Sod ya if you can’t be bothered to say Hello back.
My legs forget their brief rest and resume burning. I am getting ever closer to the back wheel of the first cyclist, who is almost half way up the final wind and ramp of the climb, approaching the green and white triangle sign of the YHA on the left. My inner chimp starts to jump about in his cage excitedly. No! Tame yourself! I calm my self, and deliberately take a steadier pace. It is not a ra… Too late. No self control. Weasel! Struggling, the first cyclist stands on his pedals, a last push for the top, and he swings his bicycle from side to side threatening to keel over like a large ship in rough seas. I stand in my own pedals and urge myself forward, to the left, to the right. WOAH! I nearly topple over into a heap of sweaty lycra and to the side, the large weight on the back of my bike, a saddle bag of clothes, tent, and cans of food, rendering me further unstable. Gravity and momentum pull me and the bike in all sorts of directions, and then for a stomach lurching moment I think I may topple backwards and down back towards the valley bottom.
‘Well done!’ the bouncing bald-head whimpers from almost underneath the handlebars of his shiny road bike as we almost reach the top. I grind slowly past to his right hand side.
‘Evening!’ I worry I may sound a little too jubilant for catching him up, and scald myself for succumbing to the primitive need to try to overtake any other cyclist or runner who comes into my line of sight, especially when they are this friendly and up for a chat. As I pull away and over the top of the climb, the slate mine on the left, and the brilliant view down the valley towards Buttermere ahead I hear my sister’s advisory tones echoing in my head:
‘You need to go steady all the way to the first bridge, it’s very very steep.’
She isn’t wrong, and I edge slowly down the bumpy tarmac between the huge slate wall gateway which marks the top of the climb from the other direction. I hang my arse right over the back wheel in an attempt to prevent an arse over tit incident, and get a couple of butterflies as my hands cramp. The extra weight of all my camping stuff is urging gravity to pull me down at speed, over the handlebars, or at worst, both. The bumps in the road cause my wheel to skid, which causes me to break more in panic, which results in me skidding. On the wet patches of corners I let go of the brakes to try and avoid sliding off the narrow road, which causes a rapid acceleration, resulting in a slamming on of the brakes, and the back wheels lock. The haphazard decent continues in a similarly stalling manner.
Eventually, the hotchpotch stone bridge comes into view, and with it a sense of relief, along with the song of the whizzing wheels of the other rider. As I cross the old stone structure, which bridges the tributaries despatched from the mountain tops of Dale Head to the right, and Fleetwith Pike towering above the dramatic tumble of scree slopes to the right, the rider reveals himself as ‘Richard, from Keswick…. works for an estate agent in town’.
We plod alongside one another and with welcome ease, talk mostly about cycling, and cycling in the Lake District.
‘Yeh, just doing an evening loop around Honister and Whinlatter,’ He shares.
‘Ah brilliant, gotta be one of the best twenty miles in the country!’ I beam back.
‘Where you off to?’ He eyes the luggage hung over my bike, like a camel heading into the dessert.
‘Not sure yet…. Going to see where I end up. Probably Ennerdale way I reckon.’ We are carried effortlessly along the water side of Buttermere, which emits a tranquil image of the hills and trees round in its lens. I don’t know or care where I am going. This is alright this.
We talk about routes around the area, and he explains the Lakeland 100, a loop over into Buttermere, Loweswater, over Cold Fell, Hard Knott Pass, Wrynose Pass, Blea Tarn, Red Bank, and Dunmail Rise. A brutally long and hilly route, similair to the famous Fred Whitton circuit, which I later realise, myself, Joe, and Eddy, had completed a few weeks ago. Only ours was more a Lakeland 99. Not because of the ice cream we had along the way, but because my chain set exploded in the 99th mile, after we worked as a team to chase down a group of blokes who dared to over take us on the A66. Karma for being a nobhead maybe.
‘Anyway, you crack on Dan. I’ve only got one speed on these lumps and bumps.’
‘Alright Richard,’ I wish I had said Dicky, ‘Nice to meet you!’ And we bid each other farewell, for the first and last time. Just like that. A Dick comes in and out of life. A Dick. In and out.
I head off a little quicker than I normally would, having enjoyed the brief encounter but had my fill of Dick for the night, and wanting to avoid an awkward situation where he caught up with me at the next junction and we had to strike up another conversation. That being said, it was pleasing to manage to actually maintain a conversation with a stranger, which was surprisingly unpainfull, and to come out the other side not being the only Dick in dialogue.
Skirting around the lesser visited Loweswater on a bridleway-bump-along, I search for a flat piece of hospitable land to pitch my tent on. Clunk, I open the first, second, and then third latched wooden gates. The inn-keepers, sheep and cattle, watch indifferently. The woodland is thick with conifers, evergreens, and other trees I don’t know the names of, and the track is lacerated with rock and divett. Breaks in the trees afford a rewarding view of the smaller lakeland lake.
I picked up a new light weight 1-man tent from one of Keswick’s many outdoorsy shops in the sales using my tips from the week. It’s small and not very heavy, which means it straps easily in between the drops of my handlebars. If it works well, this little piece of canvas could unlock a whole new world of minimal luggage cycle touring. It could allow self-sufficiency in shelter, and rid the late afternoon panic of will I be sleeping in the bushes or bus shelter tonight, or will I succumb to the comforts of a last minute hostel/hotel… if there is one any where near where ever I am.
Pushing down a footpath, and the confidence I have in finding a good spot pays off, I think. Spotting a promising looking cobbled beach beyond the boundaries of the path, right on the lake’s edge, I mentally take note of the location. A little beyond, another potential spot, a green and mossy bed that looks promising. The first spot almost touches the water but threatens severe back discomfort with a pebble dash mattress. And yet the second spot is spoilt with its bogginess, revealed upon closer inspection. Bed of rocks it is.
Five minutes or maybe more pass. Just looking. Watching over at the animals on the now distant bank. Grazing. Pottering. Being. Geese sounds, landing and leaving, tiny farm buildings silhouetted on the horizon, with another perfect mirror reflection of the tall landscape above. Layers of sights and indications of happenings, rise and fall, appear and disappear. I am looking because it is nice, but also because my Google search on ‘Wild Camping – top 10 dos and donts’ told me to.
‘Observe the area for a short amount of time before setting up camp, making sure you will cause no disturbances, or even be disturbed.’
Alongside the obvious ‘Leave no traces….. break nothing but wind…. take nothing but photographs…. leave your napalm at home…… and avoid rubbing dogshit in passing children’s eyes,’ this one sticks in my mind.
And so I wait
The water makes no sound
trees rustle only occasionally
hum of a distant engine
my world slows
and the sound of the two or three cars all evening, sound increasingly fast and obscured.
As the very last light leaves the sky, sapped into a pinhole away in the wast, treading the edge of the watercolour lake gravel and stones push different shapes into the soles of feet. Tossing the synthetic fabric roll of the tent to the angular ground, assessing the contents, one large and two small poles, a ground sheet, and a green tent cover. The green lends itself to discreet camping, though makes little difference here as I have given away my location by plonking right in the middle of a picture card clearing.
Within ten minutes I have decided that not only is this tent the most frustrating, poorly designed, piss poor excuse of woven shit to grace the presence of nature’s global camp site, but also that camping isn’t all its cracked up to be, and in fact it is not a hobby for me, and I no longer consider myself an advocate. In fact, come to think of it I am getting a bit of all this cycling business too. The instructions for assembling the tent are as much use as used-cycle short flavoured chewing gum, and I have a severe internal struggle of whether to just give up and curl up in the contents of the bag to keep warm, a sleeping bag and deconstructed tent wrapped up like a big and disappointing frozen jam rolly polly, only gritty not spongey and sour not sweet, or I could carry on fiddling with my initiative and bent tent poles. I let out a guttural grunt of frustration and probably kick a stone, why am I stood in the middle of nowhere, being gnawed at by midges, with no shelter for the evening, with nothing but a pile of fucking rocks to sleep on? If only I had used Richard’s expertise to locate a vacated farm house, or similair dwelling in the area.
Ploughing on, a brave little soldier, I spend an hour of almost panic-attack inducing fumbling around. I become bereft at the stupidity of the tent designers, and at one point after a particular barb-wire stomach inducing, foul mouth shouting spell, am convinced the tent has been produced inside out in the factory. Unpicking every last stupid hook, de polling every last support, and un-pegging ever feebly lodged peg, I look at my flaccid tent erection with hollow disappointment. Hopelessly, the materials lie on the floor lifeless and structure-less, my dream of a tofu-lifestyle lying on the floor like an unused rubber jonny.
Some time later, I resort to using a large rock to pull some tension into the structure, and crawl inside the make-do tiny coffin canvas. I left my stove at base camp as it was too much to carry, and so tea is a cold can of Heinz Macaroni cheese. Folding over the lid of the circular tin, I use it to cautiously scoop the creamy-fuel into my long waiting mouth. It threatens to be almost enjoyable, but I err nervously as I circumnavigate the artificial-tasting cheese substance with my tongue from the ring pull, trying not to slice my tongue off, which could have disastrous consequences. By the time anyone would find my listless and tongueless body, it would be too late, I would have lost too much blood, lying there tin in hand, like Cobain with his shotgun. What a way to go, death by macaroni.
Thankfully, I do wake up in the morning, and have slept reasonably well considering. Tucking into a can of Beef Ravioli, using a flat pebble for a utensil, I enjoy the morning calm. Never really seen Beef as a breakfast option until the last few weeks working at school.
A small collection of dedicated breakfast eaters congregated each morning in the normally deserted staffroom. Microwaved bowls of porridge, boxes of petrol station bought cereal, and cups of machine coffee, which we had to pay for, were one morning cast aside as the Head of Sixth Form, Ryan Taylor, perhaps the only person who is as equally disheveled as me in the school, entered. A sweaty head, undone shirt hanging over his sticking out belt, and a quick reach into his bag before putting a mystery container into the microwave.
‘What on earth is that smell?’
‘Blurrr. It stinks!’
‘Ryan, What is that?!’
His figure, now sporting a hand combed quiff, moulded with perspiration, is stooped over a table as he spoons a steaming hot liquid towards his bristled mouth.
‘Oh, this?’ In his pleasant and amiable nonchalance. ‘just a bit of beef soup.’
Recalling this story as I watch the morning mist hang lazily over the water causes me to laugh, and I spill the tomato-based sauce on my upper thigh.
The toil of the previous evening now just another short film I can play back in my head, detached from today, and I even manage to brush my teeth in a kind of marking of the moment of surviving the night relatively unscathed, a show of solidarity. Fresh in perspective, I point my bike inland and away from the water and head off deeper south, with a steady speed, not worrying about where I am going.
‘I won’t be in tonight, it will just be you and Sophie waiting on.’ Eloise shouts after me as I leave the kitchen at the end of the breakfast shift.
‘Bad boy.’ Ash says as I later reenter the kitchen that evening. ‘No fuck ups tonight thankyou.’
The service runs smoothly. I decide to take a leadership role. in tonight’s service. Finally, I feel that my brain is working properly throughout the service. For whatever reason, the responsibility of being in charge forces me to actually concentrate through the evening, and although not massively busy, the constant stream of little, uncomplicated things to keep tabs on gives just the right amount of challenge not to let attention wander and to begin forgetting to do basic things.
As I set up camp for the second night on my mini-cycle tour of the Lakes, I admire the lofty Langdale Pikes which surround the National Trust campsite which I have ended up at. 50 miles later, and some serious hill slogging, there is satisfaction and gratification on the menu at the end of the day. Taking a walk down to the Sticklebarn, again National Trust run, providing good grub for the visiting folk to the valley, I enjoy the fact that I have got their under my own steam, navigation, and initiative. As the first time I have visited this part of the Lake District, I am instantly enamored, happy to have found such a nice spot, but a bit sad that it is only now, with a few weeks left up north.
After a sweet nights sleep I head over Red Bank and Dunmail Rise, and eventually cruise leisurely back into Keswick. The success of the jaunt measured in the calm and warm sense of fulfillment, or could that be the All day Brunch and bottomless cup of Lavazza?
I wonder what it is about taking control, and making the important decisions myself, and not on someone else’s watch, that I seek so much. At work in the restaurant, I enjoy working with everyone, but am so easily distracted when someone else is in charge, just like when I was at school, just like some of the more painful individual’s actions met in classrooms over the past couple of years. Visiting Langdale again a few days later with my sister, the clouds are over, the rain is pissing down, and visibility impossible. We are on a reccy of the Langdale Horse Shoe Fell race route in preparation for the upcoming event, the National Fell running Championship final race. Stumbling blindly up each huge and technical hurdle, I become incredibly grumpy and swear at every tiny slip, and refuse to follow my sister close enough for us to maintain a conversation. The whole time, my brain is swamped with negativity, and is drenched in wingeing about the whole stupidness of the affair. ‘What’s the point in a reccy if you can’t bloody see anything?’ I shout up to my sister who, probably for the better, can’t hear the baby-like mardy being thrown. The brain switches off as soon as someone else is in the driving seat, and soon apatheticness has set in to whatever ridiculous route we are taking up whichever stupid mountain, or fail to remember any of the instructions given by the manager within thirty seconds of receiving them.
Then for me it would seem some of life’s glories and satisfactions seem to gleam in the moments where there is a sense of responsibility, curiosity, and of creating something new, whether a managerial decision of who should take the drinks to table 4 or making the choice between turning right or left at the tarn ahead. Maybe it’s engrained in me after spending the past couple of years goading teenagers into playing mundane tunes on the keyboard every day as a music teacher, the need to create the pathway, to follow it, others can follow or not. The creation of successful paths, whether forwards, upwards, sideways, or even backwards, with correct intention and adequate execution, generates positivity and momentum. The value of these moments are revealed easily on a sunny day on top of a fell looking across the valley, but at other times, more frequent times, take a bit more searching, and have to be scoured from somewhere deeper inside, like an old coin sticking out the ground, where a careful eye and a bit of hard work and focus will help to rub off the grub to uncover something treasurable underneath, that may have been missed.
The blue sky, on the Saturday lunchtime break between shifts Lucinda and I scurried up Green Gable, seemingly levitated us upwards and effortlessly to the top.
The rocky climb up to the right hand side of Seatoller takes us steeply up the side of a cold and vertiginous stream. We stand 1000ft up, in an otherworldly natural bowl of land. Cushiony mounds of late summer heather, a thin white trail of weathered path, and a crisp sky pulls us up over the massive land folds, The silence. The remoteness is highlighted in the level of detail audible in the chorus of water and pebble. This music is best shared. Looking back down the valley towards the Camp Site, we can’t quite spot the tent, though the fresh perspective on the size and scale of the area is a good enough compensation. We take a rubble path down Windy Gap, what we guess would take 20 minutes to get down takes over an hour, and suddenly it looks like I am going to be late for work.
‘Best tighten up your laces duck!’
With Styhead Tarn a natural starting line, we run all the way back along the stream, dodging rocks, getting soaking wet feet, and losing height fast on the tumble of gradient. From nowhere, Lucinda is suddenly a nimble footed fell runner, and we manage to waltz our way back down effortlessly, both grinning like pigs in poop by the time we pass through the farm gates at the bottom.
‘That was amazing!’ Lucinda gleamed, as she removed her sheep shit riddled trainers.
‘Was alrate wasn’t it!’
We blast in the car along the side Derwent water on the now familiar Borrowdale-Kesiwck road and drop fell runnings latest advocate in Keswick to have a mooch about the shops just as they begin to close up, and arrange to meet her in Wetherspoons after I finish work. Still covered in muck and smelling like a horse as I enter through the kitchen door at work, the aroma of the day’s food prep hits my nose hard, the herbs strong to the nose now acclimatised to the fresh air, Ash and Lawrence, the second chef, joke, ‘Wuayyy, where you been, up a mountain?’
‘Yeh just pegged it back down from Green Gable.’
They exchange dubious looks.
‘Nah. Have ya?!’
‘Are you serious?’
As a pain in the arse at school this question would usually be followed by being sent out, brought back at lunchtime, or at worst, being sent to work outside Ms Gibbon’s office for the day. Yet as I now clamber towards the hazy twilight of my twenties, ‘Are you serious?’ fills me more with excitement than dread, that I am doing something right in the effort to overcome idleness and being a bore. That it is possible to do something new or different to the habitual routine, and for it to turn out alright. When I first decided to quit work to find a happier way in life, most people asked it. ‘Are you serious?’ At first I was embarrassed, as if it was admitting I was unhappy with the situation of teaching, and that that was something that would best kept to myself and to just get on with it. ‘Are you seriously going to go and live in a tent?’ Then gradually, more people said how they wish they could pack up and do something they enjoy more, or even tweak their routine somehow to enrich their lives gradually, and then you began to wonder more and more, ‘You’re not going to make time to do something you enjoy? Are you serious?!’
Before heading back to camp Lucinda and I have a pint of Pale Ale in Wetherspoons and watch everyone getting steaming, before they head off to dance dubiously in The Loft, Keswick’s premier and only night club.