Monday, 24 October 2016

I get knocked down...

Or, more accurately, "I free fall 10 feet down a river bank"  Yes, I've been in the wars again - this really isn't being a good year for me.  First of all, back in May, I knocked myself senseless and spent 2 nights in Furness General with a severe concussion then this weekend I very nearly did the same thing again.

It all started off so well too.  We're deep into researching book 3 (out next summer) and headed up to Hadrian's Wall country for the day.  We spent the morning and early afternoon exploring Lanercost Priory and Birdoswald Roman Fort, as well as a stretch of the wall - take a look at the pics, it was glorious!

This display really made me laugh - I can just hear him muttering "I could be in Rome right now, in glorious sunshine drinking wine but, no, I'm here in sodding Cumbria building this stupid wall!"

Having had a thoroughly lovely time we decided to round the day off with a stroll along the Eden Valley on our way home.  We particularly like the stretch near Armathwaite - and you can see why - the autumn colours were beautiful..

Anyway, not long after the picture above was taken, I ventured up one of the paths running away from the river to get a closer look at the sandstone cliffs (my background is in geology & I love a good sandstone cliff). On a particularly narrow stretch the clump of grass under my right foot gave way causing me to twist and free-fall backwards for about 10 feet.  Luckily - and I mean REALLY luckily - I landed on a big pile of dead wood - if I'd hit rocks I'm well aware I wouldn't be sitting here typing this...

I shouted for Steve but was thankfully with it enough to realise I'd hurt my hand, so removed my watch and rings, I also spotted my head was bleeding and applied pressure to the wound - thank goodness for first aid training!

By the time Steve got to me I was shakily making my way back to the main path.  With few rests I made it the mile or so back to the car where we had the following conversation:
Waiting for Xrays

Steve: Which hospital should we go to? Carlisle is probably closest.
Me: How about Kendal?  It's closer to home plus it's next door to Asda and I need to nip in there anyway.
Me: What?  I'll be fine once they patch me up - hopefully before the chippy shuts.

I really look forward to my chippy tea night and didn't plan on this getting in my way.

The team at Westmorland General were superb, though both doctors were somewhat surprised by my bouncy demeanour after such a big fall.  I put that down to 2 things - the happy realisation that I was relatively unscathed after a fall that could easily have finished me off and adrenaline, the wonder drug produced by the body after an incident like this which bestows superhuman powers for a short period of time.

They took away my head bandage after they stapled my head back together. Shame really, I was quite enjoying the John McEnroe look.

Once I was patched up we headed to Asda and we made quite a sight.  Steve is currently on crutches thanks to an, as yet, undiagnosed knee problem so there was I, blood spattered with my arm in a sling, trying to steer a trolly one handed with Steve prodding it and guiding it with one of his crutches whenever it went astray.  I think we made a mark on a few people's Saturday evening.

The upshot is I have a badly sprained hand, a broken ring finger and 3 staples in my head - the next day it also became apparent that I have a huge number of bruises all the way down my back.  Curse you for deserting me adrenaline - I couldn't feel those at all when you were coursing through my veins!

Of course the REALLY good news is that I made it home in time for my chippy tea.

Oh - and the thing that made us laugh the most was that when we got in the car at Armathwaite to drive to A&E we put the radio on and, no word of a lie, this was the tune that was playing: Take the Easy Road by First Aid Kit. Really, you have to laugh.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Five Favourite Lake District Fells

Impossible to choose?

With so many stunning fells around, how on earth do you start the process of choosing your favourite? Well over the many hours we've spent wandering up and down the fells we've come up with three key criteria for rating them:
1. Looks - how gorgeous is it to stand back and look at?
2. Views - how spectacular are the views from the flanks and the summit?
3. Interest - how interesting is the hike?
I accept that many people will disagree with me and many will rate some fells more highly because of a personal event or special connection, but I've tried to keep this as objective as I can. That said, beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder so, with that in mind, let battle commence!


Wainwright wrote more about Blencathra than he did about any other fell and that's probably because there is so much to say about this magnificent mountain. At 868m high this is the 14th highest of the Lake District fells and stands guard over the A66 just to the north east of Keswick. So how does it stack up in each of the categories?
Looks: Some of the best views of the fell are from Clough Head opposite or Raven Crag at the top end of Thirlmere (where the above photo was taken from). There are also stunning views as you approach along the B5322 through St John's in the Vale. The crenulated ridges sweep from the summit to the valleys below and whichever angle you approach it from, there is always a dramatic view.
Views: One of the striking things about Blencathra is the variety of views from the summit ridge. To the west is Skiddaw while to the south is the broad valley of St John's in the Vale and the ridge route from Great Dodd to Helvellyn. Below you the A66 winds its way eastwards and away towards Penrith but to the north the views are quite different; gone are the high jagged fells, replaced instead with gentle rolling moorland towards Caldbeck. If it's variety of view you're after then Blencathra has it in spades.
Interest: Blencathra is of course home to "Sharp Edge", a narrow ridge of smooth rock, exhilarating to cross in good conditions but best avoided at all other times, which isn't a problem because there are so many other options to choose from. Halls Fell Ridge is a dramatic if energy sapping route rising from Threlkeld directly to the summit or, if you fancy something a little less challenging how about a stroll along the narrow valley of the River Glenderamckin and then on to the summit via path to the left of Scales Tarn? No wonder Wainwright had so much to say about it.
Great Gable

Possibly the first fell I fell in love with. I can clearly remember hiking up Scafell Pike and gazing across at Great Gable as we made our way up around Sprinkling Tarn. It also has a fascinating history; in June 1924 a group of men and women from the Fell and Rockclimbing Club gathered to dedicate a bronze plaque to all its members who had been lost during the "Great War". The survivors had raised the money to buy 3000 acres a land, the deeds to which were presented to the National Trust as a living memorial to those lost. Each year on Remembrance Sunday a service still takes place on the summit. (There's more detail on that history here.)
Looks: It's just the right shape for a mountain, when kids draw mountains, they look like Great Gable. It sits, imposingly beautiful, at the head of Wast Water slap bang in the middle of "Britain's Favourite View". As looks go, this one's a stunner.
Views: It's no slouch in the views department either A 360o panorama of most of the famous peaks in the Lake District surrounds this fell and stretching away below you to the south west is Wast Water, one of the most remote lakes in the region. What makes the view down over Wast Water so stunning is the simplicity of it all; no rolling hills or farm buildings dotted around, just peaks, screes and water.
Interest. I must admit I'm very fond of the route through Gillercomb and over Green Gable, especially when Sourmilk Gill is in spate, but honestly, can there be any other choice than the approach from Wast Water with the fell looming ever larger as you approach, almost daring you to climb it. And for the more adventurous/ properly kitted out there are an assortment of craggy climbs to the summit. Whatever your mood there'll be something to suit.
Place Fell

This one had been on my list for a long old time before I got around to climbing it, and what a perfect day we chose for it too. Sitting opposite Helvellyn at the south end of Ullswater it's easy to be lured away towards it's more famous neighbour, but that would be missing a real treat.
Looks: Just look at the picture; it's a stunning fell. Driving down Kirkstone Pass it draws your eyes and imagination as you picture yourself making your way towards the summit. Seen from Ullswater it doesn't disappoint either, rising dramatically from the water line to the summit 657m above.
Views: Sometimes you don't appreciate the full beauty of the high fells from the bottom of the valleys; what you need is a medium sized fell to give you a better perspective and Place Fell is perfect for that. From its summit you are ideally placed to admire the sweep of the Helvellyn range to the west & south whilst below you Ullswater wraps itself around and draws your eyes away to the north and Penrith away in the distance.
Interest: Perhaps Place Fell doesn't have quite the same number of routes criss crossing its flanks as some fells, but what routes there are, are well worth the hike. The steady rise of the routes from Deepdale Bridge or along Boredale Beck contrast sharply with the steeper hikes from Sandwick towards High Dodd. And once you're done with the summit the lakeside path back to the car is the perfect way to end the day.

One of the most evocative fell names in the Lake District and the first major fell I climbed. It's also the fell I've climbed most often for a whole variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that you can pretty much guarantee a free parking space if you're heading up from the Dunmail Raise route. As a child growing up in the West Midlands I'd heard the name Helvellyn and it counjoured up images of dramatic scenery and angry Norse gods.
Looks: Helvellyn may not stand alone but it certainly stands out. Viewed from the Glenridding approach you are greeted by the most perfect glacial corrie with Striding Edge along one side and Swirral Edge along the other; text book stuff. But viewed from the Thirlmere approach it's a completely different place; forested slopes giving way to broad rounded shoulders leading the way to the summit ridge.
Views: Where do I start? If you can name a Lake District fell there's a good chance you can see it from Helvellyn. Well, OK, maybe not all 214 Wainwrrights, but certainly most of the high peaks. They disappear off into the distance in regimented rows all waiting patiently to be climbed next time you pull your boots on.
Interest: There are so many interesting and varied routes to the summit that if this was the only fell you could ever climb it would take you a very long time to get bored. The most dramatic route is via the infamous Striding Edge; a spectacular approach dotted with memorials to remind you to pay close attention to what you're doing. Personally I enjoy the climb along Raise Beck then up via Grizedale Tarna and Dollywaggon Pike as it's usually a much quieter route and is most spectacular in the snow. There's also a much more gentle route up from Glenridding to Red Tarn but beyond that there is a sharp summit scramble via Swirral Edge.

The Langdale Pikes

Yes I know I am cheating massively with this one as the Langdale Pikes are comprised of 4 main summits: Loft Crag, Pike of Stickle, Harrison Stickle and Pavey Ark but look at the photo - how can you separate them? They sit together guarding the western end of one of the most beautiful and popular valleys in the Lake District and it would be a sin to try and separate them.
Looks: The Langdale Pikes are a work of art; perfectly formed, perfectly grouped and a joy to sit back and look at as you enjoy a flask of coffee on a nearby fell. In fact it's worth climbing a nearby fell simply to sit and look back at the Langdales. (Side Pike is a good one, or Pike of Blisco if you're feeling more adventurous and the weather is a little warmer.) The deep gulleys of Dungeon Ghyll & Stickle Ghyll point your eyes towards the peaks above them and there is nothing better on a warm afternoon than a flask of tea and some malt loaf and a view like this.
Views: The Langdale Pikes provide a perfect viewing platform themselves for Crinkle Crags and Bow Fell with Scafell Pike peeking out behind. The fells in this part of the Lake District are craggy and sharp and there is nowhere better to appreciate that than from the top of one of the Langdales. And of course there is the Langdale Valley itself, disappearing off around the bend towards Elterwater; a beautiful ribbon of lush green in contrast to the surrounding craggy fells.
Interest: The climb up along Stickle Ghyll is one of the most popular walks in the Lake District and the large car park at the bottom soon fills up on warm sunny Sundays, If you don't fancy the Pikes themselves then hike up to Stickle Tarn follow the path to your left over to Dungeon Ghyll and descend via Pike Howe. There are more challenging routes up onto the Pikes via Mark Gate or Pavey Ark and there is, of course, Jack's Rake; a dangerous and unforgiving route only to be attempted by experienced hikers with all the right equipment.
Perhaps one of the best things about climbing the Langdale Pikes is the collection of rather lovely pubs around their base, all of which are delightful, though if you want to indulge yourself in a little hiking history and folklore then the Old Dungeon Ghyll is the place to be.

Right, that's me done - over to you - which are your favourite fells and why?  Let battle commence!

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Send Robert MacFarlane to the moon

Look around you right now - what can you see?  Are you slouched on the sofa scrolling through the internet seeing what takes your fancy?  Maybe sat on a train as the countryside whizzes past outside, or hanging around the station waiting for the wrong kind of rain to blow through and stop delaying your train.  Or perhaps you're on your lunch break cramming in a sarnie and a low fat yoghurt before the phone rings again.

Wherever you are it would be nice to think you can see something natural nearby, but it seems to be less and less the case these days.  City centres, almost devoid of trees, are dominated by tarmac and glass - parks simply aren't profitable, the ones we've got are (thankfully) well protected but precious little chance of any new ones appearing.

London "greenery"
According to the Population Reference Bureau, in 1800 only 3% of the world's population lived in urban areas.  By 2008 the population was evenly split with 50% in urban areas and 50% in rural.  Current predictions state that by 2050 around 70% of the population of the world will live in an urban areas.

So why is this a problem?  Well, take a look around you - do you see nature?  Over 50% of the global population can't and if you can't see it, why should you care about it?

Yes I know lots of people from urban areas holiday in rural areas and care about it deeply, but that's likely to be an ever decreasing number.  We just don't engage with what's around us in the same way as we used to.

When I was a kid long coach or train journeys were full of activities that required us to look out of the window - how many cows could we count, first person to spot a tractor etc. These days, most kids I see in cars or on busses and trains are already plugged into a screen, often with headphones attached to complete the cocoon.
View from a train window in London

When I'm not trying to scratch a meagre living from writing I deliver training courses right across the country and I pretty much always ask if anyone has an interest in the outdoors - the hit rate is around 1 in 10 with the other 9 looking at me like I just sprouted a second head.

I've been catching up on my book reading recently by working my way through the entire Wainwright Prize shortlist (I've still got 1 1/2 books to go) and there are a couple of regular topics - books that focus on the depressingly negative impact humans are having on the planet or ones that describe the incredible restorative experience of reconnecting with nature.  "Hey guys, the outdoors is fantastic - shame we're busy wiping it all out."

I even paid a visit to the Cheltenham Literary Festival where one of this year's themes was the outdoors. I went along to a variety of interesting presentations (honestly, there is something there to suit everyone and I'll definitely be back next year) but perhaps the most impressive speaker was the person who'd been further away from nature than anyone else - Commander Chris Hadfield. He's enjoyed a perspective of the  earth that very few people achieve and he describes his experiences beautifully and movingly.

Cmdr Chris Hadfield
A humble blogger such as myself is far too smallfry to merit an interview with the great man, but I did queue for an hour to get my book signed and ask him a question.  "Did leaving the earth help you to feel more connected to it?"

His answer was instant "Absolutely yes it did" he said "Every 92 minutes you get to see the entire planet and it's incredibly beautiful.  I'd go back in a heartbeat - you should try it."

Sadly, I'm pretty sure NASA aren't about to launch a recruitment drive for middle aged women (though if they did I'd certainly give it a go) but it did get me thinking.  So far we've sent scientists and logical thinkers into space, but what would happen if we sent more creative minds up there?  People who have the ability to capture what they see and describe it in a way vivid enough to move us to do something about it?

Wordsworth's poems wouldn't have been nearly so impressive if all he'd had was a few dozen photos of the Lake District to work with - he had to be there to experience it before he could convey those experiences and emotions into literary works of art that still move people today.

We need to be moved - we need to be amazed and enthralled - we need to realise that this tiny blue and green squash ball floating around in space is all that we have and we're currently doing our level best to make it unfit for human habitation.

All of which explains why I want to send Robert MacFarlane to the moon - or Helen Mort (another supremely gifted writer) - so that they can tell us about it with words that might inspire us to give a damn and stop tearing the place apart.

No idea if Robert MacFarlane is up for it, but I asked Helen Mort and she didn't think it was an entirely bad idea - all we need to do now is get NASA on board (does anyone have their phone number?)

In the meantime I'll leave you with Major Tom himself - and if you want to be blown away by some amazing pictures of Earth, check out his book - You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Potty Picnics Part 2

"There's 36  miles to Coniston, we've got a full tank of gas, half the contents of Booth's on the back seat, it's sunny out and we're wearing sunglasses."

In Potty Picnics Part 1 we carried a full afternoon tea to to the top of Harter Fell  - this time we had a lovely Hilux car to play with for the weekend (HUGE thanks to Vantage Motors) which was rather too cumbersome to carry to the top of anywhere.

Having toured the Lake District (and beyond) thoroughly for a few days, we decided to round off the weekend with afternoon tea, in the back of the Hilux, in Walna Scar car park - obvious really.

The car park was fuller than we'd ever seen it with cars strewn everywhere and we didn't feel at all incongruous setting up a table and chairs in the back of the truck...

We thought we were slightly deranged but several folks stopped to chat and told us it was the most civilised thing they'd seen all day. (Or maybe they were just being nice hoping we'd toss them a scone...)

We even found a new friend, but he soon lost interest when he realised the smoked salmon was all gone, and in his haste to depart he forgot to tell us his name.

The fells were looking magnificent, if a little busy, and we couldn't resist a quick stop at the end of Coniston Water on the way home.

No idea where Potty Picnics Part 3 might take us but we're open to suggestions.  In the meantime, here are a few more photos from the weekend (if for no other reason than to explain to Vantage Motors why the mileage is so much higher than it was when they dropped it off on Thursday evening.)  And for those who are curious, it's a Toyota Hilux Invincible X and it was AWESOME - seriously, Steve does NOT want to hand it back.

Birkrigg Common

Derwent Water

Friars Crag

NT Car Park Derwent Water

Honister Pass

Honister Pass

Wast Water

Wast Water

Beckfoot nr Silloth

Silloth sunset

Sandy tyres

The Hoad, Ulverston

Ulverston & Coniston fells from Birkrigg

Birkrigg & sheep

Friday, 23 September 2016

High up High Cup

You know how they say that the book is always better than the film?  Well, in my experience, real life is usually better than the book, even a very good book. Many years ago I read Walking Home by Simon Armitage which charts his journey along The Pennine Way (an excellent book and well worth a read if you haven't already) - since then High Cup Nick was firmly on my "to do" list and it's only taken 4 years and a Julia Bradbury special to eventually get me there.

We're deep into research for our third book (you haven't missed book two, it's done and dusted and out next Easter) so a day of sunny blue skies was the perfect excuse to head up there and got some photos sorted.  The scary thing is it was also my first proper hike since the crack on the bonce back in May - Post Concussion Syndrome has been a pain in the rear end but thankfully now seems to be abating.

High Cup Nick was the perfect hike to "break me back in" - it's not too long, there are plenty of places to stop along the way, the views are superb and there are no scary bits.  Or at least there weren't meant to be.  Obviously me, being me, managed to up the ante a little - but more of that later...

There's a small car park with toilets in Dufton (10/10 to Eden council, lovely loos!) and the walk is clearly signposted from the village.  It starts along a farm road that passes a beautiful house currently for sale which generated plenty of daydreams to keep me going along the gradual climb upwards.  The views were immense even if some of the signs were a wee bit confusing.

It's a walk that keeps its best views a secret right until you pop out on the top of valley, at which point it's best to have your camera ready, your memory card empty and your battery well charged.

I'd packed extra food and drink and used the "first hike back" excuse to allow for several very generous breaks, sitting in the sunshine and enjoying the views.  I continued on round to the head of the valley where, although it looks glorious, it was actually blowing a hooley!

It was at this point that an idea entered my head and it went something like this - if I walk back the way I planned (following a path along the opposite side of the valley) I'll get pretty much the same views as I've had on my way in, except from the other side.  If, however, I plunge down the scree slope in front of me which leads to a path along the valley floor, I might get some more interesting views.  I should probably really be taking it a bit easier on my first proper hike back.  Screw it, it looks fun.

All of which explains these next few shots...

C'mon - you have to admit that was worth it.  The screes weren't all that bad (if you've tackled the Wastwater screes then these are a doddle!) - though I did nearly lose my flask of tea (would it have been wrong to call out Mountain Rescue to retrieve a flask of tea?  I'm sure they would have understood!).

The walk back along the valley floor was straightforward if a little boggy in places and the company along the way was charming.

From that point it was meant to be a simple walk back along the road into Dufton - but the problem was that the bushes along the verges were laden down with the biggest, juiciest sloes you ever did see.  Despite the fact I have several litres on the go already I just couldn't leave them there to rot and in the space of an hour had accumulated this little lot.

With my sarnie tub full and the light fading fast it was time to head home.  Tomorrow I need to pick up a couple of litres of gin and clarify whether Sloe Gin counts as one of my "five a day" - I think it's only fair, don't you?