As a parent, and a weekday City drone, the chance to go turn in early and sleep in hotel-grade comfort as long as you want is a dream, so lusted after as to almost usurp the traditional bedtime longings. And yet, given the opportunity, I often find myself awake early, annoyingly refreshed. So it was today. Up before dawn staring at the ceiling, imagining my boys straining at the leash of their gro-clocks.
The rugby (Australia v England, World Cup quarter final) was already penciled into my day and that wasn’t due to start until 8.15am. At least it gave me time to plot the rest of my movements. Breakfast at half time (much needed after erroneously skipping dinner last night on account of a hearty lunch), followed by the remainder of the rugby and a schlep once more into the local landscape.
The Yorkshire breakfast devoured almost as ravenously as Farrell and co. did for the Wallabies, I was soon tramping through the damp morning air along the river that flanks Malham village. The rich coal-fired smoke that tumbled down from the smithy’s forge and that accompanied me out of ‘town’ was almost cliche. The walk takes you along a rushing river valley before winding its way through an impossibly verdant woodland. Am sure in summer months the river is a gentle cohort to the path, but after an overnight deluge, and am sure plenty before that, it had a pleasing drama to it. The woodland is almost twee; riddled with ferns and clad in almost luminous moss, like a fairy-tale gully. Topping it off an imperious heron sat at the bottom of the Janet’s Foss waterfall, waiting on its waterborne elevensies.
To be honest I’m not easily impressed by falls. Towering tropical cascades in Hawaii and Samoa (among others) have set the bar high, so I snapped the obligatory photo and pushed on up and out of the woodland abruptly facing the start of the gorge walk into Gordale Scar.
At this point we pick up The Trip again as Steve and Rob stride the path up into the scar on a bright, cold morning. I am lucky to be pretty much alone as I wind my way in along the river, peering up at the comparatively bleak hillsides, dotted with sheep and yellowing grass, and all the while great piles of loose rock gathered at their base. It reminds me of the piles of grey Lego that I imagine the boys have tipped over the carpet at home, as another Saturday morning unfolds.
The gorge itself finishes abruptly in a super-sized pile of tumbled rock. Steve and Rob barely registered a waterfall but for my visit the run off was sizeable, if not torrential and the scrambled path up to the top of the Scar looked pretty impassable. I clambered up one side and found a perch. It was glorious. Dramatic, invigorating and personal. I was lucky to have found myself alone there, just listening and feeling the impudent shower of water from the ledges high above. Again I stayed longer than planned.
Walking back out of the gorge I passed a dozen or more walkers, filing past me in the opposite direction. Well timed. After taking the short but punchy road back into Malham, wistfully imagining an out-of-the-saddle attack on the bike, I arrived back at the car and set coordinates for Grasmere.
The drive out of Malham was nervy. Narrow roads and bad drivers. But it was again joyously dramatic in its setting. Windswept to the degree it felt as if the weather had conspired with the obstinate landscape to force the roads into those tortuous curves and slopes. I seem destined, along with the majority, to visit the Dales beneath grey skies and low cloud but I can see the charm.
A giddying descent into Langcliffe (must look that up on Veloviewer – in fact, see this brute) signalled a brief pause in proceedings as I rejoined the road-most-travelled past Ingleton and Kendal. Once past Kendal you’re quickly drawn into the Lakes as the magnetic pull of Windermere grabs hold. The sun had broken through and my head kept being pulled left to dazzling glints off the water and sailboats flashing between pine trees like those old zoetrope animations. I flashed past signs to Holbeck Ghyll at the base of Troutbeck, grinning and remembering a similar sunny day three years ago. Slowing through the perennially-sclerotic streets of Ambleside, I nodded fondly to Dove Cottage and White Moss walk (memories of a trip early in my relationship with my wife) before swinging into the McDonald Swan Hotel, a 17th Century coaching inn, on the outskirts of Grasmere.
The Swan is something of a family motif. We stayed here more than 30 years ago. I don’t remember much except for a formal breakfast setting in a cosy dining room and views up cloud-covered imposing fells that seemed to rise up almost directly behind the Inn. We have a coaster (part of a set) at home, which features an old drawing of The Swan. It often comes out at Christmas and it’s kind of a badge of honour to be the family member who gets to have it. While my brother and sister have both visited in the intervening decades, it’s my first stay since.
At first blush the hotel is tired. Not quite in the league of the Old Dungeon Ghyll, but it’s seen better days. Perhaps as long ago as when Wordsworth name-checked it in Benjamn The Waggoner, as a hostelry or repute whose tempting comfort you could scarcely refuse. Contrasted with the beautiful contemporary cosyness of the Lister Arms last night, I can’t deny the experience is deflating. And so I dump my bag and set-about dialing in a route up those same fells I viewed as a boy, with the urge to climb that I genuinely recall.
Setting out up the hill road behind the hotel the steep incline rapidly scrubs your speed and, almost as quickly, your enthusiasm. Interminable stone steps brought back memories of the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu (am not kidding) and pausing to take photos back to the village became a convenient excuse for a breather.
The intense almost ferrous ochre of the bracken illuminated the hillside, the path crossing gurgling run-off streams before switchbacks catapulted me out onto the exposed grassy hillside. The climb was relentless. Boggy false flats and rocky outcrops heralded summits that weren’t summits and I was blowing. So was the wind. As the flanking fells dropped away with every metre climbed the gust (and the now driving rain) piled in, unchecked. I kept checking the map on my phone, plotted on Komoot, and after the first waypoint (Stone Arthur), I focused on the next, Great Rigg. The route was supposed to loop back along the ridge and down into Grasmere but the weather and my preparation meant that it wasn’t a great idea.
I passed only a few people, 6 at most and they were all heading back to drying rooms and firesides. The Herdwick sheep (numbering significantly more than 6) looked at me in that withering way that all hardened locals do, to ill-equipped southerners. Eventually I reached the summit and turned my back to the fierce gusts that genuinely felt like they were going to knock me off my feet. The view, even in low cloud and that fuzzy greyness that blunts the higher resolution of a clear day, was staggering. I stayed as long as I could bear.
For the second time this trip it was a visceral, life-affirming experience. Much these days is made of mindfulness, of being present. You could not be more present, in the moment up there and perhaps that’s what draws people up these fells and crags.
I literally skipped down. As gravity and the incline forced me down, hopping against the rock-strewn path, leaping the boggy-flat spots and thumbing my nose at those snobby Herdwicks. Arriving back at The Swan, elated but knackered I battled with myself about whether I should have done that last leg along the ridge. But truth be told, forgoing lunch, and with penetrating damp and a weakening phone battery it wouldn’t have been smart.
Back at the hotel I had plans to find a local cafe and turn to the blog. But I was done in. I cleaned out the complimentary coffee and biscuits and turned my attention to dinner. I’m not someone who takes to dining alone well but replaying the last 24 hours and peering out of the dimly lit 17th century inn, at the looming blackness of those hills, I felt reassuringly less self-conscious. I passed at least some of the time, when not distracted by the Scotch beef burger and thunderous malbec, reading Wordsworth’s Waggoner. The description of bright casement windows tempting in those who pass by felt comforting. I had felt that draw nearly 800 metres up, on a swirling, rain-soaked crag and it was good to be back in that place, tired and anachronistic as it may be but full of lives lived.
Finally, shortly after Episode 5 starts, Rob recites a Wordsworth poem, Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey. Although describing countryside in the Welsh borders it resonates strongly as to the past 24 hours:
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration.