“Are there many people up there?” I asked
“No, not really,” the young man looked a bit bemused by my question.
It was my turn to look puzzled.
“Oh, that’s odd. From the amount of cars there are along Ullswater and in Patterdale, I was expecting the hills to be swarming.”
The lad, clad only in fell running kit, reflected a moment.
“Well, the car park at Kirkstone Pass was empty when I arrived, but that was at 6am,” he explained.
“Ah, I see, I think you may find it a bit busier when you get back. I’ve had to park on the roadside,” I grimaced.
It hadn’t been the plan. I’d left at what I thought was reasonably early and arrived in Hartsop at 9am to find the usual car park at the back of the village to be packed.
“It was full at twenty to nine,” a fellow walker commented when I asked two chaps at the junction whether it was worth my while to drive down the lane.
I had wondered.
As I had driven along Ullswater, I’d noticed that all the laybys were full, cars wedged in at all angles. Two parking areas had camper vans lined up, cheek by jowl, and there were already swimmers and paddlers in the lake. It was as though everyone had arrived for an event that had clearly started before breakfast. I followed a stream of cars to Glenridding where they all turned off into the main car park. I continued on, naïvely thinking this was the last of it yet still finding vehicles in every vacant spot, legal and otherwise. I added my car to a long line of pavement parkers near Brotherswater and yawned into my picnic breakfast. I’m more of a night owl than a morning lark so let the bowl of muesli bring my blood sugar to daytime levels whilst I perused the map and the activity around me.
Slumped comfortably behind the steering wheel, I munched my way through a small mountain of fruit and nuts and surreptitiously watched two couples preparing to walk by the car in front of me. One of them, a diminutive Miss Marple with a big smile, sat in the open boot of her car, tailgate up, an abundance of walking equipment strewn around her. She plonked an enormous brown broad rimmed Tilley hat on her head and strapped it down tightly. Not content with trousers and fleece, she also pulled on thick knee length walking socks, whilst chatting incessantly to the other couple who had been ready for a while. There seemed to be absolutely no rush on her part and I marvelled at the patience of all involved as well as wondering if the climate outside the car was cooler than my shorts and T shirt could handle.
They all marched off eventually, disappearing into the green of the local footpaths. I followed on, kicking my grumbling legs into walking mode and beginning to worry if the usual relative solitude of High Street was going to be more reminiscent of a shopper’s paradise.
I’d planned to mop up some Wainwrights that have previously been ignored. None of them sit on any usual route – hence me missing them. So, I decided to create a circuit where they became the focus of intent, rather than the more well-known culprits. Weekends are always busy in the Lakes so it felt a wise tactic and I hoped, even as I booted up, with a sheer volume of visitor traffic I had never seen before, that I wouldn’t be queuing anywhere on the route.
Hartsop Dodd sits outside the village from which it takes its name and it rises steeply without break to the summit at 618m, or 2027 ft. Part of the Caudale Moor spread, Wainwright’s guide book suggested that the north ridge, the direct and shortest route to the top, was ‘a beautiful climb’.
He wasn’t wrong. It didn’t take long for the main road with its noise and bustle to drop away into the valley expanse of greens as the fells took command of my view. My travel stress fizzled out too as I reached a people-free top in an hour, delighting over familiar ridgelines coming into focus and clouds sky dropped over them.
And me at one point.
Soft swathes of rain tentatively brushed the tops before refurling and being windblown up and away with a whisper of “not today”.
I was grateful as I sat in the lee of the wall at Threshwaite Mouth and chatted to the runner.
“So, where have you been since 6am?” I went on, noticing the time as I bit into my honey sandwich. 1130.
“I’m just finishing now. Ran up Red Screes, over Fairfield and onto Helvellyn before crossing over and up from Angle Tarn onto High Street.”
“Nice route,” I commented, feeling as blown away as the clouds scudding overhead by the run length and hills climbed.
“Yeah, it’s been great today”
“And you’ll be back in time for Sunday lunch too.”
“Aye, indeed, looking forward to it,” he smiled and headed up Stony Cove Pike, his last summit of the day. He still looked pretty fresh.
I picked my way up the loose path onto Thornthwaite Crag trying to work out the lad’s mileage and the feet of ascent. I gave up by the top, not having enough fingers to hold the summit count or brain cells beyond three noughts on the height figures. How does someone do all that before lunch?
My path eased now, with the long traipse over High Street and Racecourse Hill, and the ridge was surprisingly still people free. A few here and there, some bringing a wall to life as it talked alongside me for a minute or two; picnickers sheltering from the keen breeze on the other side.
Rest Dodd and The Nab were my next targets and I nearly missed the turn off from the main drag by The Knott. Two walkers had caught my eye, seeming aimlessly plodding over moorland to my right. I’d expected another substantial path to follow up this next Wainwright, but, as I’m discovering, not all hills in that category come as well trod as others. Rest Dodd was one.
As I followed the sheep track I could see why. The terrain it sits above is boggy and made for hop, skip and jump walking. The ridge link to its smaller sister, The Nab, is worse, with a substantial network of peat hags to navigate. And, with it being a ‘there and back’ section on my route, I got to experience them all twice. After pacing out previous miles on an easy track, the new weaving and leaping strategy slowed me down somewhat and, after a steady 7 miles of walking, it took me a few minutes to adapt and accommodate the new. To be fair, the ground was relatively dry and the peat hags had an interesting architectural quality calling for a creative approach to dealing with them. Some could be crossed on grass topped lumps, stepping stones over the chocolate peat below. The peat varied in consistency and I got better at avoiding the chocolate custard and mousse puddles and trusting the slabs of Flake and Dairy Milk in between. The hags themselves varied in height from a stair tread to the equivalent of clambering over a counter top or a small car. And, of course, sat as it is between Bannerdale and Rampsgill in the middle of the Martindale Deer Forest, I had the most glorious views around me and at my feet. The deer were out of sight, but meadow pipits piped my approach across bog asphodel’s yellow stars and the pink purple micro splashes of bell heather peppering the moorland under Rest Knott’s graceful curves.
After an hour or so, this relatively untouched spot had repaid my clumsy weaving efforts with a finely woven cloak of peacefulness and contentment and I felt almost resentful in needing to return to the main path for my last hill. I passed little more than a handful of folk on the track and realised, as I checked my watch that many would be finishing early for the drive home. While the clouds dissipated, I had Brock Crags to myself in the mid afternoon sunshine. Squatting between Angle Tarn and Hayeswater reservoir, it gives unparalled views to the north and west. With the lower sun’s rays glancing off fellsides, everything glowed technicolour; a hill summer in glorious beautiful radiance.
And I had it all to myself.
A bit like my car which had lost virtually all its neighbours by the time I rejoined it. Most of the laybys and car parks now had breathing space as I passed by. I have no idea where everyone had gone all day.
I hadn’t seen them.
Ullswater still had a few hardy souls punctuating the shores with barbecues, paddle boards, kayaks and canoes. One very fat chap floated quietly in a small rubber dinghy, his whole semi-naked body filling it completely. I considered idly if he had actually been inflated with the boat as he trailed fingers through the water. I could identify too with his waterborne serenity. I’d sought to summit four previously ignored Wainwrights and had managed to add another three familiar tops in the process. With a walk length of over 15 miles and around 5500 feet of ascent, my aim to just mop up some new hills had given me one of the longest and hardest mountain days I’ve experienced.
I thought about my reaction of awe and wonder at the surreally insane and a little off the wall achievement of the young fell runner I’d met earlier.
Then it dawned on me. For a middle-aged woman, I’m still not doing so bad. The mountain madness is still alive and kicking.
Long may it continue though I wonder if he aches as much as I do now?