As you get older you can do less and less. That’s obvious, but some of the things you lose come as a complete surprise. For example, I love the Lake District – I met my wife, did a term’s teaching practice (at Keswick School) and spent many a holiday (including my honeymoon) there – but never in a million years did I think I wouldn’t be able to go back.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. Of course I can actually go there; I could get in the car now and drive across. Or I could get the Metro to Newcastle, change to a train to Carlisle and then take a bus to Keswick (Covid restrictions permitting, of course), but actually getting there isn’t the problem.
Let me explain.
When I drive to the Lakes I prefer to follow the Roman Wall west almost into Carlisle (because it’s the most scenic route), then head down the M6 to Penrith (definitely not scenic) and cross to Keswick along the A66 (back to the scenery!), a route which takes me past Threlkeld and below Blencathra, which is probably my favourite mountain.
I have great memories of climbing this wonderful hill by what I think is the best route of all the seven I’ve tried. That’s Hall’s Fell, the most central of the five buttresses which make up the southern face of the mountain. Starting with a wide swathe of grass and heather, it soon becomes a narrow rocky ridge which leads unerringly straight to Blencathra summit.
There are a couple more routes to the top I haven’t tried. Saving them for another day, I was, and now I’ll never do them.
One particular Hall’s Fell memory, however, really stands out.
It was a miserable day, misty at ground level with low clouds hanging above so you couldn’t see the summit, but we were determined not to waste a day of our short holiday and so, since we knew the route well, we thought, “Why not?” The rocks might be a bit slippery but that was fine as long as we took reasonable care.
As we ascended, damp turned to wet which turned to soaking and, I have to confess, we were beginning to regret our decision when suddenly we emerged into bright sunshine. Spread out at our feet, all around us as far as we could see, there was a carpet of white cloud, rising out of which we could spot, among others, the tops of Helvellyn, Bowfell, Scafell Pike and (once we reached the summit) Skiddaw.
An amazing, absolutely magical scene which remains as bright in my memory now as on that day forty-odd years ago.
Now I have COPD (emphysema and chronic bronchitis), high blood pressure (controlled by four different drugs every day) and aging, knackered legs (no cure for them – and very little relief), so I would have great difficulty walking from the road to Gate Ghyll, the Blencathra fox hounds’ kennels where the ascent starts, let alone actually ascending the fell. Why would I want that to be my last memory of my favourite walk rather than the one I have now?
As for travelling around the Lakes by car, what a total anti-climax that would be – and that, my friend, is a massive understatement!
Even popping into a favourite pub would be depressing.
A much loved walk used to be up the Valley Route from Wasdale Head to Styhead Tarn, then up Great Gable via Windy Gap, then back down to Wasdale Head along the path below the Great Napes and Nape’s Needle to end up in the Wasdale Head Inn for a pint of Old Peculier and possibly – nah, definitely! – a meal.
Popping in for a drink, or even a drink and a meal, just wouldn’t cut it!
No, I really can’t go back to the Lakes, something I never, ever thought I would say. To be among those hills, visiting favourite haunts from decades ago but not being able to wander on foot would be too depressing. I expected the Raven of Age to say “Nevermore” about any number of things, but not that!
I remember, many years ago, an aunt, who was older then than I am now, saying to me, “Peter, you really don’t want to get old. Honestly.” I didn’t understand then.
I do now. About some things anyway.