A winter’s tale

“Do you spend more time getting dressed than you do cycling?” I asked the chap lying semi-horizontally on the floor of his van. He was battling with pulling a pair of neoprene-backed shin guards over his feet and he wasn’t making much progress. In the cold temperature, the material had as much flexibility and give as a cardboard box and, as a result, he was in a spread-eagled and relatively undignified position.

“On days like this, I think so,” he paused and gathered his breath, “there’s a windchill of minus 15 degrees forecast so…”

He tailed off.

I was nursing a hot coffee in the car park with the express purpose of adding some heat to my hands before Graham and I set off for our walk.

“You going up high then?” I went on.

“No, I’ll most probably stay low, not far from the tree line where it’s sheltered. But you never can tell.”

Grizedale Pike and Hopegill Head in the clouds

He resumed grappling with the shin guards as he continued telling us about his plans for the day.

“Need to be back here by 2,” he explained, “meeting a mate in Workington at 3”

“Well, if your van is still here when we return, we’ll call mountain rescue,” added Graham with a wink.

“Ah, you’re alright, I’ll be down and away by then,” mountain biking man reassured us as he hauled on more layers. The bike had received a similar amount of time and loving maintenance attention; he was clearly a competent and careful rider. We wished him a good day and finalised our own walking preparations.

Vale of Lorton from Brown Howe

We were parked along the Whinlatter Pass and Graham and I went on to follow the first forest tracks of our planned route onto the slopes of Brown Howe. It was a mixed bag of a weather day with the high mountains having their heads in the clouds whilst we nearly lost ours in the strong, freezing northerly that swept across the lower summits.

I’d suggested the Wainwright trio of Whinlatter, Lord’s Seat and Barf as a relatively sheltered option for a day in the hills and the strategy worked. We’d enjoyed a quick break on the leeward side of the hill before raising our heads above the windy parapet on Brown Howe’s summit. We didn’t stop there long though. The icy wind soon found any exposed skin that wasn’t enshrouded in the warm clothes we had pulled up, over and around each limb and we marched with purpose along to the next top on the short ridge; Whinlatter. We didn’t hang around there either, preferring to drop into the sheltered heather dell between the ridge and the forestry plantation.

A phalanx of Commission trees enveloped us and I loved the stillness and peace of woodland walking. The distant roar of freight train wind overhead intermingled with the birdsong of crossbills and chaffinches and, warming up, we chatted easily along the wide tracks.

Barf from Lord’s Seat

The path took us momentarily back into the breeze on Lord’s Seat and Barf but our attention was taken in navigating the stretches of bog that fill the space between each hill. The extra effort was very helpful too in keeping us warm in the icy gale. Back in the forest we followed good tracks for a mile or so to the car park.

It was absorbing walking. For late autumn, the colour palette of our surroundings was muted but still beautifully varied. Blue green sitkas, pines and spruces added silvery highlights to the dark honeyed larches and coppered beeches. Deep pillowed moss setteed the underlying banks in shades of mustard, burgundy and lime interspersed with the occasional patch of lilac herb robert.

Young western red cedar and western hemlock brought a delicate texture to the green mix and we commented too on the newborn Christmas trees gleefully weed lining the path in any available gaps. Their future was certain.

“That sounds like a molar being drilled,” I commented as we walked along the track. I instinctively raised my hand to my cheek.

“Mmm,” said Graham thoughtfully

We rounded a slight bend to see the origin of the devilish noise; a clan of orange clad workman beavering away in the forest, feeding a large shredder.

“Nearly done,” said one of the workman. In full protective gear and brandishing a chainsaw he looked hot and bothered.

“What are you doing?” I asked, gesturing around me at the busyness in the woods.

“We’re having to clear the bottom branches of trees along the track so that they don’t snag the logging wagons,” the chainsaw workman explained

“Ah I see,” I replied, “how long has it taken you?”

“Just a couple of days,” chainsaw man explained, “I’m glad it’s Friday though.”

He brushed pine needles wearily from his sticky face as colleagues continued gathering the sawn branches at his feet to feed the shredder. The machine straddled part of the track and they had stopped to let us pass through.

We wandered on to the visitor centre in search of tea and cake.

I’d not been to the Whinlatter Visitor Centre for a few years so was quite taken with the adventure playground. Graham’s inner physicist got the better of him on seeing the Archimedes screw but I was more taken with the little bouldering wall. For a moment we dropped rucksacs and adult guard to play childlike until rain reminded us of a warm café nearby.

The loose leaf tea was wonderful. Not so the non-committal lemon and elderflower cake that stayed firmly in the sweet syrupy no man’s land centre of the two flavours. It fulfilled the calorific requirement but, unfortunately, not much else. I might try the ginger cake next time.

It had been a good walk for a cold day; seven miles and three summits conquered easily before dusk, which was the intention. Winter conditions are surprisingly energy sapping with calorie intake shared between the body’s need to maintain core warmth as well as that required to walk, most of it quicker than usual to stave off the cold. There isn’t much spare therefore for long technical walks or having to think straight in the dark. Neither of which I particularly enjoy when cold and tired.

Skiddaw stays under the cloud

But I do relish these short days when wind whips up colour in cheeks and conversation and removes settled cobwebs. Perspectives are given a shake down. Life’s course is reappraised. And of course, afterwards, there is the warm satisfaction of hot showered tired muscles by the fire and the memory of a walk that invariably gains a perfect rose tinted hue when recalled over a glass of red wine.

Bassenthwaite and Skiddaw from Barf

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