Working from home during the different phases of lockdown has had a variety of benefits, one of which being a degree of flexibility in the time of day I’m actually at work. With a bag of mixed weather thrown in for good measure I have thrown out my chronological clock and defaulted to the meteorological one as my work guide. If it’s raining I’m at my desk, if it’s dry I’m, erm, elsewhere. In the Land of the English Summer though, my world of work is favoured by meteorological timekeeping as rain usually stops play.
I’m a self-confessed fair-weather walker. I’ve done the slogging around in the rain and wind and have yet to rave about its benefits. I’m good with bouts of occasional showers and low cloud but, living in one of the most beautiful English valleys sandwiched between a UNESCO World Heritage site and two National Parks, I have the luxury of choice. It would be wrong of me to ignore all that is on my doorstep when the sun is out.
So, I began my week with a work ‘to do’ list and a walking one. Which would be achieved? I must clarify here that I’m a part timer and can also work through evenings if I wish. With nothing worth watching on the TV, this is a personally popular option. As long as I maintain the average hours within relevant deadlines things are fine. To be honest though, I’m not so good at taking time off….
Which is where the Wainwrights come in; the 214 fells curated by Alfred Wainwright between 1955 and 1966 as hills worth walking. I’m familiar with the more famous Lakeland fells and have climbed many of them many times. But his guides have opened my eyes to the lesser known hills and, as I love exploring new ground, it’s enough of a carrot to encourage me to turn my computer off and head out when the weather is fine.
Last Friday I took myself over to Grasmere. The other issue that needs to be factored in alongside the weather, is the sheer volume of summer visitors to the area and the consequent pressure on parking. Early starts or knowing the ‘off the beaten track’ secrets are proving helpful. Walking the less popular hills also provides a quieter day. Stone Arthur and Seat Sandal sit as outliers to the Fairfield massif. I’d been up neither but knew Fairfield well, a fact happily reinforced by needing to climb it again as the linking mountain between the two. Stone Arthur isn’t really a separate fell, rather the end of the ridge running southwest from Great Rigg on the Fairfield Horseshoe. From Grasmere it has a grander stance, topped with a rock outcrop masquerading as a ruined castle; Arthur’s Chair sitting on the Stone Arthur ridge.
With an early start I’d found parking on the main road to be easy and the walk up by Michaels’ Nook and Greenhead Gill offered me the opportunity to see how the other half lived while persuading my legs onto a steady steep gradient. This little slate built enclave of cottages and larger properties offered a glimpse of better endowed living and holiday making with stunning views over well maintained gardens to the village and lake. It made for interesting walking, accompanied as it was by the babble and rush of the beck alongside the path. The path then heads generally straight up the fell side where my breathing stops were places of joy. The valley patchworked at my feet, roads and lanes threading hedge green through the white and grey of village buildings dotting the fields. Stances of toilet brush evergreens decorated the lower slopes in varying shades of silver, jade and emerald, cleaning the skies as they worked.
I pondered the words of ‘Jerusalem’ which could easily have been written about Grasmere:
And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green? And was the Holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen?
There were certainly plenty of sheep and as a village with a substantial population demographic who are deemed in God’s Waiting Room maybe the Holy Lamb has this as a regular stopping off point on His global check-ups?
It’s funny what you think of when walking.
I was impressed at how many lakes I could see from Stone Arthur’s summit – Windermere, Esthwaite Water, Alcock Tarn, Grasmere and Coniston were all there along with Morecambe Bay on the horizon. You get a lot of view for your money on this wee summit.
Seat Sandal, a fell standing alone from the rest of its ridge linked neighbours, offered a wider perspective once I’d scrabbled off Fairfield. From its summit it is possible to see along Thirlmere, over to Ullswater and across to Windermere. It is the only fell whose waters, as Wainwright observes “reach the sea at more widely divergent points than any other Lakeland fell”. Raise Beck runs into Thirlmere and either to Manchester or, if it is successful in escape, to Workington. Tongue Gill runs into Grasmere then Windermere and out to Morecambe Bay and Grisedale Beck finds its way to the Solway Firth via Ullswater. It felt an appropriate place to chat with a runner who appeared to be trying to spread himself just as thinly over the fells.
“Have I just seen you go up Fairfield and then come down it?” I asked as we passed at Grisedale Tarn. The walk had been relatively quiet, even on the Horseshoe ridge, so it was easy to notice the occasional passer-by and share a brief comment. I’d recognised the navy support bandage he had on his calf.
“Yes,” he said, “I’ve just done the same with Seat Sandal, gone up then down.”
I had to ask the obvious question.
“Oh, I see, why’s that?”
He checked his watch and I wondered if he was choosing whether to stay and chat or throw me a comment and leave.
“I’m taking part in a competition we run at home. Who can climb the most ascent in a week.”
“Ah, I see,” I replied, “so how are you getting on?”
“I’ve been here since Monday and been out every day. Think I’ve done something to my leg though. It’s sore. I’ve been putting it in cold water every evening.”
It must have been a problem. He hadn’t answered my question, so I tried again.
“Where have you been today then?”
“I’m parked at Swirls near Thirlmere,” he looked at me, needing some recognition before continuing. There’s nothing worse than regaling folk with major achievements and them having no idea of what you’re talking about. I was being checked.
“Went up on Helvellyn, down to Grisedale Tarn here, up onto St Sunday, back down to the Tarn, up onto Fairfield and down. Seat Sandal is done so I’m now heading back up onto Nethermost and Helvellyn before returning to the car. 5500 feet so far”
And all before lunch.
No wonder his leg hurt.
“That’s impressive,” I replied.
Well it was.
Having done over 5500 feet of ascent on one day a few weeks ago I marvelled at what he was doing and puzzled over managing to repeat it every day for a week. He looked about the same age as me and I’d needed some serious rest. I clearly need to be fitter.
“Thanks, think I’ll go and put my leg in the tarn for a bit before I finish.”
The watch appeared to ring some chronological alarm bell in his mind and he suddenly headed off for some cold water relief.
The wander down Seat Sandal into Grasmere is the perfect end of day walk – gradient, path and views offer an alchemist’s golden stroll as does the track off Hart Side and another hill named for Arthur; this time he has a pike. Both Hart Side and Arthur’s Pike offer superlative views along Ullswater and I managed to shoehorn them into my walking boots this week too, grabbing the rare sunny moments with both hands between days with heavy downpours, high winds and random showers.
Hart Side sits Cinderella-style next to the Helvellyn ridge and, like the fairy tale heroine, offers a beauty only seen once you get past the more jocular neighbours of Sheffield Pike and Gowbarrow. The descent into the valley at Dowthwaitehead took Linda and I into another world of untouched fell farms. Having left Glenridding, buzzing with life on its lake, roads and paths, this tucked away part of Lakeland brought a softer and peaceful pulse where we were outnumbered only by sheep.
Arthur’s Pike and its sibling, Bonscale Pike, are easily accessed summits for anyone who has a fancy to find a view over a lake. Both are busy tops as a result with walkers and cyclists converging from Askham and Pooley Bridge in regular flow at the weekends and during the holidays. So, I headed out early on Wednesday and ate my breakfast at Martindale where parking was still available. The direct path up from Howtown offered the same drama as my climb up Stone Arthur. Ullswater lazed somnambulant at my feet with Helvellyn and all her sisters arraying themselves in morning garb above an awakening valley.
To have that view all to myself was a fleeting yet treasured moment before everyone else and their dogs arrived.
My walking ‘to do’ list did pretty well this week with 5 new Wainwrights explored and two others revisited.
The work? Well, writing about that doesn’t make for as interesting reading but suffice to say that a variety of jobs were woven round my trips out. Part of this involves researching how the brain learns and I need to create some resources on this subject for our students next year. One of the things I have discovered is that our working memory is very limited. Despite having a brain with around 100 billion brain cells, we can only learn, consolidate and recall between three and seven new pieces of information at a learning event. And that assumes we’re focussed on the task at hand. The more engaged and interested in the event, the more likely we will reach the perfect 7. The average is 4. Any distractions can take this down to zero. Repetition, however, helps with getting this handful of working memory contents securely placed in long term storage.
So, I’ve managed seven Wainwrights this week. It’s a good thing I didn’t do any more as the research suggests I’d have likely forgotten the rest. Which would be a waste.
And I do very much like the idea of repeating things.