Travel: A walk on the mild side

With bifocals and breathable cagoule in place, Edward Blincoe marched into the mists of the Lakelands

Edward Blincoe
Friday 25 April 1997 23:02

An enthusiastic hiking friend who had just returned from the Lake District told me how wonderful he thought the place. "And I know a great bunkhouse in Borrowdale for less than pounds 2 a night mid-week." I wasn't so foolhardy as to pass on this information at home, but some time later another friend remarked that he thought the Lakes "a dreadful place". I was amazed. "Never eaten such awful food as I did on a weekend in Keswick." My northern pride was stung and my resolve to return to a favourite part of the country stiffened.

We decided on Bassenthwaite, as it was an area neither myself nor my wife knew well. Monday dawned to a forecast of gales, but as we drove up the motorway, the hills of the southern Lakes were bathed in sunlight. Just as we neared Kendal we ran into torrential rain. Desperate to postpone the outdoors, I remembered the Punch Bowl in Crosthwaite being highly recommended. The chef/proprietor had trained at Le Gavroche, and despite it being a wet Monday lunch-time, and with no pool table or dartboard in sight, we were lucky to get a table.

It was a meal to remember, particularly on the way up Hay Stacks the next day. Standing on the top, surrounded by Lakeland's highest hills - Great Gable and Pillar close by; Helvellyn and Skiddaw more distant; breathtaking views over Buttermere and Crummock Water; and, in the distance, the Solway Firth glinting in the sun - it seemed that this was definitely the finest view in Cumbria ... England ... the world.

Memories of backpacking holidays in glorious weather, when I was happy to eat cold baked beans from a tin and fall drunk into a tent at night, cast their shadow. But a practical reason for no longer doing this is that we are firmly in the bifocal generation, unable to read maps if we leave them off and afraid of falling over if we wear them. We know we are teetering on the edge of the great divide between those who roam the fells and those four-fifths of visitors who never walk more than 400 yards from their car. Never shall the twain meet except in middle age and hotel lounges, where the outward-bound drone on about the joys of "breathable" cagoules, and the inward-bounders retaliate with tales of crosswinds and contraflows on the M6. Despite a growing sybaritic tendency, we are anxious to keep faith with the hikers.

Our difficulty with maps was easily solved. We climbed Hay Stacks on an organised walk from the Moot Hall in Keswick. The 15-strong party included a Derbyshire doctor with a holiday home in Keswick, a kitchen porter from Glasgow who was youth-hostelling, and a woman from Bolton who nips up whenever there is a walk that she particularly fancies. The rambles are organised and led by a small group of enthusiasts who know and love the Lakes and can tell you all about the flora, geology and history as they lead you round a variety of well-chosen routes. Of course, they are also eccentric and opinionated and have a number of bees in their bonnets - from the National Trust to fox-hunting, Alfred Wainwright and mountain bikes. Like your dentist, the guides have you at a disadvantage as they are fit enough to talk fluently striding uphill, while you need all your puff to keep going.

On Wednesday we awoke to light rain, but decided to walk in the immediate area and chose a gentle, circular route from a book of local walks. It proved to be a pleasant path through a quiet valley with views along the length of Bassenthwaite Lake. The rain had cleared and as it was still early we decided to visit Cockermouth. This handsome if slightly run- down town - famous for being Wordsworth's childhood home - was busy with the aftermath of a cattle market. We ate our packed lunches outside Jennings' brewery and debated whether a visit there, which would require leaving in a fit state to drive back to our hotel, was worthwhile. The brewery lost and we visited the Castlegate House Gallery instead. Later we browsed in the largest of Cockermouth's many "antique" shops, examining piles of junk that we would have thrown out had we owned them.

On our drive back to the hotel we decided to spend the evening at the cinema in Keswick. At one time I tended to dismiss this town, preferring more remote spots, and would call in only to buy sandwiches from Woolworth's. These days there are at least three sandwich bars, making choice of a packed lunch more of an intellectual challenge - but in most other respects it has changed very little. With hindsight I would recommend Keswick for spring breaks. Besides the cinema, there is the theatre running three plays in repertoire, and lots of B&Bs, pubs and restaurants.

It might be thought that Keswick would be the least likely place to have adopted the Mediterranean habit of the evening passeggiata. But fugitives from cramped B&Bs don their outdoor finery and wander the streets past late-opening shops, deciding on their evening meal and entertainment. Every second shop sells outdoor-pursuits paraphernalia with butch mannequins entangled in ropes and brightly clad in anoraks. The uniform for all but potbellied males, who stick to breeches and jeans, is tight leggings, revealing well-exercised bottoms. With folk nights and beards, and friendly pubs needing no bouncers, there is something of a Sixties feel about Keswick.

On Thursday, our last day, the weather was foul, but my wife insisted that we walk. At the Moot Hall, the guide awaited customers for his hike up Blencathra, wearing a brand-new wet-weather suit that had been rushed round that morning for him to test in bad conditions. Eventually three lads arrived, and two hours later we all neared the summit. I was giving a good impersonation of Brian Blessed staggering up Everest, but no one volunteered to carry my load. Perhaps they couldn't see me through the mist. Our leader kept our spirits high with tales of folk falling to their deaths from Sharp Edge, following Wainwright's advice to descend that way. We photographed our triumph from the top, before being blown down the other side. Coleridge was right when he wrote: "On stern Blencathra's perilous height/ The winds are tyrannous and strong."

As we stripped off our sodden clothes in our steamed-up car for the drive home, we agreed that the holiday had been good fun and very satisfying. A bit like sex, really - we should do it more often.

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