Skin and blisters

CNV00033And so we came to the end.

The final day of our Coast to Coast crossing, with the sun high in the sky, the countryside at its overblown lushest:  fields ripening and a football World Cup injecting carnival into every humdrum corner.

All we had to do was walk the final 14 miles from Ennerdale Bridge to St Bees.

We’d passed this way before of course. But both of our previous Coast to Coast endings had been characterised by dragging boots and sea frets reflecting the fear in us that we might never come back and if we did might never experience the walk in such a glorious spirit of being and sheer, exuberant discovery.

Now we  knew we could. We had. And that made  this final morning entirely different: as fresh, buoyant and full of promise as were Shushie and I. After our conversations of the previous day this was no reluctant letting go but a spring into the first day of the rest of our lives.

And how, at last, the weather colluded.

Arcadia in miniature

The day’s first gift,  as we climbed up out of Ennerdale Bridge, was the surprising discovery of a stretch of moorland, sheep cropping the springy grass, trees low with that ancient blown look of the exposed.CNV00025

It felt like a closing bracket, reminding us of where we started, looking out over the North Yorks Moors, 14 months and 180 miles earlier.

But this strange patch of Cumbrian moorland is only a minor aberration, and shortly our path took us off the fell road and down into the unbelievably perfect Nannycatch.

Wainwright calls it an Arcadia-in-miniature and so it is: an unexpected ravine, totally hidden except to walkers, where Nannycatch beck winds beneath the cliff of Raven Crag.  The grazing sheep looked a little put out by our arrival, retreating to the cover of bracken and boulders, while small pellets of soft dung revealed the hidden valley’s other occupants emerging only at dawn and dusk. All around us birds we could not see sung as if this were the only place on earth.

It was the sort of place to visit with a picnic and no plans but we had plans a plenty and skipped through Nannycatch, soaking up its beauty and yet with eyes peeled for the path that our guidebook  promised, or threatened – depending on your point of view – would rocket us skywards for the walk’s final climb, up Dent.

CNV00027‘Dear Dent’ Wainwright calls it somewhere in recognition of its humble size relative to the Lakeland fells to come. Yet at 1,395 feet Dent is no pushover and, for those on their first Coast to Coast leg, represents an unexpected – and sometimes unwelcome – taste of the challenges ahead.

From the west it presents a long, unrelenting haul to the top where, according to Terry Marsh, the author of our guidebook, ‘mere mortals will be obliged to remain in a heap for some time’.

View from the top

Just as well really, as the view from the summit is breathtaking: a panorama out towards the lines of Lakeland fells, across to Sellafield and northwards to the Solway Firth, the twin peaks of the Isle of Man out to sea and, closer, the mound of St Bees Head.

From our direction Dent is a little kinder, offering a forest path that winds upwards in a series of hairpins.  It was tough but we were high on last day adrenaline; so much so that as we emerged onto Dent’s grassed summit, we literally burst from the tree canopy like athletes from the blocks. Well, retired athletes, who’d still be easing themselves from the blocks as the competition crossed the line. But still, what we lacked in speed we made up for in volume, screaming into the breeze ‘St Bees here we come’.

We knew at the top we would see our second coast. And so it was: far out there, beyond the patchwork of wide gold and green fields that make up St Bees Head – the opaline blue of the Irish Sea. CNV00068

It was time for coffee and as we sat there I noticed something surprising:  as much as we love the Lakes, speak of them as ‘home’, the place where we are most ourselves, on this day we had our backs firmly to the serrated lines of felltops.  Instead both Shushie and I looked resolutely forward with not an ounce of regret: to where we are going.

A final word on pies

I won’t use the word smug to describe how it felt ten minutes later to be flying down Dent, towards the village of  Cleator, while group after group slogged upwards: stickily red-faced, with barely breath to greet us.

After all, they had 180 miles of magic to look forward to.

But would we have swapped places with them? No. On this day we were being drawn forward, pulled by the light playing on the distant headland, by the promise of the gulls’ cry and sea salt, and by a sense that this time a part of what we were experiencing was a genuine feeling of achievement. That reaching St Bees was a triumph of selfishness over selflessness…(see my last post) and therefore life over living.

CNV00031There was nothing to stop for in Cleator. Not even, it turns out,  a pie. (Long story short, there used to be a shop selling pies so big and tasty they become a little legend in their own right. But the Cleator pie maker died and the shop that used to sell them soon after. The village’s other shop has neither the business nous to step into the breach, nor a sense of humour. Trust me on this: we called in for something else they didn’t sell and left with a flea in our ears.)

The measly half page in the guidebook given to the final eight miles meant we were left to muddle our way through Cleator,  eventually deciding to follow  a newish cycle track speeding westwards on an old railway line as confidently as the TGV through the French countryside. Another closed bracket perhaps, reminding us of the miles we trekked with the ghosts of the Rosedale Ironstone Railway back at the start.

After a mile the track headed under a disused railway bridge out into England’s summer fields, where even ravenous sheep struggled to keep pace with the countryside’s surge skywards. We passed a pond whose waters were entirely hidden beneath reeds that grew taller than us, and then on, under another bridge to a track leading to a series of farmhouses whose land this must be.

Occasionally we passed other small groups of Coast to Coasters, and one larger group who seemed to be part of an organised trip, and perhaps one that had not made it entirely clear the Coast to Coast is no walk in the park. At the front of the trail were around a dozen smiling and appropriately dressed Europeans, and, some quarter of a mile behind them, being coaxed forward by the obvious group leader, three Japanese girls dressed for the Arctic and looking as miserable as someone who has walked 180 miles for a famous Cleator pie only to discover the last one has just been sold.

Flying without wings

They were the last west-to-easters we were to see as we sped out from the fields to farm tracks and then onto a narrow coast road into the pretty village of Sandwith where, on any other sunny Sunday, we might have stopped for a cider on the village green. But still the sea was like a magnet,  tugging at us as we bowled along until, in the distance, a clapper board house with a rowing boat stationed in its garden, suggested we were there.CNV00040

And so it was. To the north, jagged red cliffs and a beach scrubby with seaweed-covered boulders, leading away to the rooftops of Whitehaven. Ahead, a signpost mysteriously encrusted with biting insects. And to the south, and all around us,  the promise of a path meandering along the cliff edge, through high grasses and flower-jewelled banks, smelling of sea and sunshine and the end of our journey.

It could not have been more perfect; a greater contrast from the miles of wet haziness we had slogged through to get to this point.

The fields on the landward side were grown tall with corn while below us white horses bobbed on a now turquoise sea and the cliffs held dramas of their own, alive with seabirds of every variety, tucked into shelves and crevices, while others rode the breeze overhead effortlessly. It felt that if we were to step off into the blue we would rise into the air with them.

Full up

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We had promised ourselves a picnic on the seacliffs. St Bees woud not be our own this time, but shared with crowds of daytrippers. So time for reflection would happen before we reached the physical end we decided.

“We’ll know the right spot when we see it,” I told Shushie confidently. And we did. A place where the path, running so close to the sheer drop, suddenly took a 90 degree turn to offer views in both ahead to where we were going, and far, far, out to sea.  And where it did so, two large boulders waited.

Shushie and I kicked off our boots and socks and settled in, knowing we could take our time here, in this place where fields and sea and sky met in a tableau of light and colour and beauty. Where every second a wave unfolding to shore, a bird returning to its young in a cliff crack, or a cloud shadow passing overhead, changed the picture into something new.

It was after we’d eaten, as we sat there breathing it all into our souls, that Shushie reached into her backpack for her phone and two sets of headphones. And the vividness of those moments, already being committed forever to memory, lifted to another level.

This is the music we listened to.

And fed up

Not everyone was having such a glorious time on the cliff path that day. As we continued to sit in our  cliff top perch two youngsters strode by, faces glowing with sunshine, strong legs bare and firm. Behind them an older woman huffed and puffed: “I thought we were going for a walk. Not a route march.”

We smiled sympathetically at her, assuming her remarks were fond rather than furious. We were wrong. As the young couple waited and she closed the gap,  her sarcasm turned to a screaming fit.  “Let me do this MY WAY. I mean it. Go ahead if you want to go at your own pace. And leave me to mine.

“This is the LAST time I EVER agree to go walking with you.”

Ouch. But believe it or not  she may not have been the angriest walker on the cliffs that day.  A few miles on, as the path began to dip and climb again between the undulations of the velvet fields, another woman, closer in age to us,  came towards us –  carrying an outsize suitcase.

Bear in mind that we were now several miles from a road in any direction were on a narrow cliff path above a steep drop, where anything larger than a backpack was a liability and distraction. And there she was,  dressed like us for walking, except for the mystery of this massive suitcase which she was alternately dragging behind and shoving with both hands in front of her.

I’d love to be able to give you an explanation but as we approached the look on her thunderous face clearly said ‘do not even THINK about asking me what has happened and why I am out here alone with enough luggage for a midlife gap year’.

So we didn’t. But if you’re of a literary mind, I might just have offered you a cracking first scene for your next novel.

Journey’s end

CNV00044We had almost reached the end of our story and it’s fair to say the closer we came the slower we walked.

We took time out to watch the herring gull fledglings  somehow managing to survive on their impossibly precarious perches, while adult birds seemed set on dive bombing them to their deaths 200 feet below.

And to take pictures of each other  skipping through the fields when, finally, the curve of St Bees beach came into view.

Here I begin to be at a loss to describe all that we felt as we picked a way down past a vast caravan park  to the prom where everyone else wore flip flops rather than worn boots, and had that slightly dazed air of day trippers who can’t quite believe they are at the seaside and not only is it not raining; it is hot enough to justify an ice cream.

We were locked inside our jumbled thoughts and scarcely looked at them as we shed boots and socks and allowed the sea, its surface glittering with a million diamond lights,  to draw us the last few hundred feet. Every step brought a release from those thoughts, every wave smoothing its way to shore whispered to enjoy the cool sand between our toes, the breeze soothing our glowing faces, the shining ocean, calling us home.

CNV00056Until the wholly blissful moment when our hot, tired feet splashed into the waves and we waded as deep as we dared, eyes raised to the silver horizon. 

There were rituals to come. A small bottle of champagne intended as much for the photocall as our stomachs. Gifts for each other to be exchanged on the beach.  But that would come in a minute.

Right then, as we stood up to our thighs in seawater, it was a long, long hug – a slightly damp one from the tears flowing down our faces – that sealed the moment.

We had come came to the end. And realised it was just another beginning.

 

 

postscript

One final bit of business before I close.

Right back at the start, I promised you blisters.

But in 16 months of walking the best we’ve been able to summon were a few micro-bobbles. Certainly nothing worthy of having a blog named for it.

I lamented this to Shushie as we set out on this final weekend of walking and once again the universe was ready to play its part – with a reminder to be careful what you wish for.

Here, dear friends, is what my skin and blister, my soul sister,  found when the boots came off:

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And so we came to the end. And realised it was just another beginning.

Crisis, choice and change

George Gap CausewayIt is 15 months since I wrote, on the eve of beginning this Coast to Coast crossing,  ‘bring it on change’.

I wrote from a belief that our lives were somehow on hold, strangled into relentless routine by becoming full-on carers for the second time. I wrote from a sense of wistfulness for the other times we had walked this way: when the four years it took in each direction were accompanied by profound shifts in both our lives. As the scene moved from sea cliff and lofty moorland, through soft dales to soaring fells, so our circumstances moved too.

Secretly – because of course it makes no real sense – I believed that it was our walking that somehow forced the change. That each step towards west or east coast sent a signal to the universe that it needed to do its part. To reward our physical efforts by rearranging the landscape of our lives.

I quoted, in the very first post of this blog, Sarah Ban Breathnach’s words in her book Something More, “There are three ways to change the trajectory of our lives: crisis, chance and choice.”

But what this new Coast to Coast was really about, I think, was calling out to the universe again; asking it to step up one more time in return for Shushie and I doing our part. We had both reached a point where it was hard to see quite how life could go on as it was. We were exhausted, lost, frustrated, and in denial about some of the nastier emotions we sometimes felt. I’d labelled the small breakdowns I was experiencing  as burnout. Shushie hinted at something even darker.

fledging

It wasn’t only about having to accommodate the caring in already busy lives, though there were days when I wanted to stamp my foot like a child and scream how unfair it was. Unfair on us, who had already spent five years in our forties caring for an uncle who had been very little to us when he was well, but so little to other people too that there seemed no-one else to take on his care. Unfair on me, who, in the same week mum was felled by a stroke, was looking forward to the first child fledging -beginning a gap year in Australia which ought to have heralded the first small promise of the freedom of being an empty nester.

IMG_0901Most of all, unfair on our mum, one of the strongest women we knew, whose daily round of visits to sick friends, day centre, lunches, outings and quiz nights, involved walking – marching in her case – miles every day. It was inconceivable that someone so fit, so determined, so stubborn, might be stopped in her tracks when for 78 years nothing and no-one else had been able to change her course.

Please understand, I know that there is nothing special about our situation. Other people care. Some of them care more and better than we do. Other people – including mum perhaps – have much more to deal with. But we can only be us and experience our own lives. And all of this was happening to us at a time when we’d been led to expect life should be opening up. When the long, tough years of making and breaking relationships and hearts, of  bringing children through their own, significant challenges, of juggling demanding jobs along with it all, and just, well, trying so damm hard to get it right for everyone, ought to have been levelling out, like the jagged peaks and deep valleys of the Lakes, melting into the gentle green cushion of the Yorkshire Dales. We were due that.

The big ‘c’

CNV00051So now Shushie and I were pounding through Ennerdale Forest in sunshine, as conscious of the perfectly delicate stems of pink orchid as we were of Pillar’s sharp outline towering above us like a tombstone that, even on this summer’s day, remained always in shade, dark and unknown.

We were one day and no more than 20 miles  from the end of a walk that had taken us half a year longer than we’d expected. The first ‘c’ – crisis: Shushie’s father in law suffering a massive stroke too; mum’s pulmonary embolism followed by the breast cancer becoming so aggressive she needed a mastectomy; and other even less explainable crises involving close family and friends that wholly blindsided us but do not belong on this blog.

The universe had indeed stepped up, with a wry smile on its face, and said ‘you think you know what you want but I know better so here you are: have more of the same and see what you make of it’.

Great joke universe.

Choosing life

Here is what we made of it.

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“Doing this walk again saved my life,” Shushie says as we soak up the sun and the scenery.

I wait; want to know that she doesn’t mean she thought of ending it.

“Many times I felt myself teetering on the edge of a black hole. I don’t mean I’d have stepped into it, not that. Getting seriously ill, something I wouldn’t recover from, going out of my mind. It was there, waiting for me, so many times.”

Shushie and I have always shared everything but we never talked about that until this moment. It was her darkness.

“What made the difference was realising that I am just doing too much caring. I care for mum, I care for Maurice and for Pud caring for Maurice. And then I go into work and people want more of me. They want me to care about them and I do because I can’t not. That’s who I am.”

“Yes, you are wholehearted about everything. I see that,” I tell her. “So..?”

A bee buzzes busily close by, frantic to collect the nectar it needs while the rain is absent.

“I’ve thought about this and I’m clear I don’t want to stop caring for mum. And I don’t want not to be able to help out with Maurice and be there for Pud. So I need to stop having a job that is also about people needing me all day every day and me having to give out the whole time.”

“Over-caring.”

“Yep. I just want a happy job. Something I can go to and leave behind afterwards, working with people who are well for a while. Not for ever, but for now.”

It is not a big revelation. We have spoken of it together recently, and there are no crashing chords as in a momentous turning point to accompany Shushie’s words; her decision to leave behind a career of almost four decades. But it is quietly significant, this moment of the third ‘c’ – choice, where Shushie is choosing to save her own life  by recognising and honouring her own needs.

Resistance really is uselessCNV00028

“And you?” she turns to me. We are on a roll now, rocking through these sunlit woods, footsore yet also lighter than we’ve been for so, so long.

“When we started out, and it’s not easy to admit, I suppose thinking about what might happen to change things, I meant us no longer being carers.” I don’t go so far as to use the D word – mum’s death – just as Shushie didn’t use it when we were actually skirting around the subject of suicide.

“I mean I thought the shifts, whatever might happen, would be in the physical world. In our circumstances. When actually what’s changed is much bigger and more significant than that.”

It’s hard to find the words.

“What’s changed is in my mind, all the things that have fallen away,wanting and expecting everything to be a certain way. I don’t know how it happened but it’s as if I’ve let go; as if all my resistance to what’s going on has just melted away.

“It’s what I teach,” I say to Shushie. ” That so much of our pain, our suffering, comes not from what happens but from what we think about what happens.Fighting ‘what is’.”

Loving what is

map stopI can’t pinpoint the moment the shutters in my mind simply gave way under the pressure of the years, like a rotten shed collapsing in the merest breath of wind.  Perhaps the week I spent at Serenity Retreat in Greece, leading other people in healing their lives but, as always, learning so much from them. Hearing myself speak the words that changing our thinking is changing our lives, and really hearing them. Coming home and changing my diet for healthier choices, allowing myself  to sleep longer, shedding some work commitments, even saying ‘no’ once or twice. Like Shushie, understanding that survival means caring for my own needs too.

What I can say is that choosing not to fight ‘what is’, deciding to accept the way things are, has brought me more peace than I have known for more than a decade. I hear Byron Katie‘s voice gently asking the simple questions in her book Loving What Is: Is it true?

Is it true that all of this is hard? Sometimes, yes. Certainly every time I have the thought and repeat the thought that being a carer is hard I make it harder for myself.

Can you be sure it’s true? No, I can’t. Because when I let go of the thought that it is hard there is room for me to think it is a privilege to give love and receive gratitude, to be partnering the sister I love with all my heart in this caring and loving, to spend soft time with our childlike mum when all our lives it was hard and she was hard.

How do you feel when you think the thought that it is hard, Byron Katie asks with understanding? Resentful, wrung out, exhausted.

CNV00070Who would you be without the thought?

I look at Shushie, glowing in the sunshine. At the trees reaching skywards, but letting in light pools to the soft green forest floor. At the felltops etched sharp against the blue skyline. We can taste the sweet air. Nearby, the beck is flowing down the valley floor, finding a way between boulders smoothed by the years, towards the silver lake and beyond, the sea we will reach tomorrow. Every optimistic wildflower is a jewel flanking the path which continues wide and straight and bright ahead.

It has all been here, this beauty and change and peace, all the time. It always will be.

And all we needed to do was remember that every true  journey happens both without and within, and move to another place in our minds.

 

 

Walking wisdom

Talking of the last mile of any day’s hike (as I was in the last post) one of the conversations Shushie and I had booked into this weekend was a review of our original ‘This much we know’ list.

Remember the one about always choosing pie if it’s on the pub menu and homemade?

Unidentified pie

Unidentified pie

After a close shave in Keswick with one of the ugliest pies ever to darken a pastry case- see left – you can scratch that little gem from the list and make up your own mind.

Just the same, there are a few new little morsels of learning we’re happy to share with anyone thinking of following in our slow old footsteps:

A mile can be any distance

Forget what they taught you in school (1,760 yards = 1 mile for us pre-decimalisation students) one mile is definitively not the same as the next. Every mile towards the end of a full day’s hiking is at least three miles long. Honestly. Whereas when you’re up among the felltops on a glorious summer’s day a mile passes in a moment. There is nothing to do about this magical phenomenon except to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

pack a flask

Yep, it’s heavy, but on a cold or wet day it’s as comforting as fluffy bed socks and the roaring log fire you’re dreaming of.  On a sunny day it’s the perfect excuse to stop and sit.  You already know this, I’m certain, but the only hot drinks that have a place in said flask are instant coffee and hot chocolate (preferably not at the same time). Do NOT, under any circumstances, put tea in it, unless you have a taste for the contents of the u-bend beneath the kitchen sink.

A flask is an excuse to stop

A flask is an excuse to stop

packed lunches are goody bags for grown-ups

When we were kids holidaying in Blackpool, landladies were as terrifying as the characters in a Roald Dahl book; you wouldn’t dare leave anything on the plate, complain about the crisp Izal loo roll, or stay out later than the nine-o-clock news.

The option to holiday overseas, and the success of TripAdvisor, have changed all that. Which means self-respecting b&bs carry on trying to impress even after you’ve packed up and paid. Fresh-baked bread, football-sized wedges of homemade Victoria sponge, fruit from the garden, hams and cheeses from the local farmer’s market. The rustle of that brown paper bag they hand you holds as much promise as the most beautifully-wrapped birthday gift.

 

take a 360 degree view

Ignore the song that says don’t look back. Do. Look up too, in fact look everywhere. There’s a reason that after finishing our first Coast to Coast we turned around and walked back in the opposite direction: it gave us such a different perspective we might have been on a totally different walk. To (mis)quote another song: Life is all around.

always takes the chance to paddle

I said PADDLE!

I said PADDLE!

Walking in wet feet is not the worst thing in the world. Trust me on this: we are the experts. Besides, which would you prefer: the sticky wetness of sweat inside hot boots, or sliding damp feet that have been cooled and soothed in a mountain beck back into those crusty socks?

write a list of essentials and keep it with your backpack

I can’t believe I’m writing this. I’m absolutely certain no-one reading this has ever driven 200 miles to go walking to discover they’ve forgotten to pack their boots. Actually, neither have we. But we have accidentally left behind, in ascending order of inconvenience: toothpaste, pyjamas, flask, compass, jacket, map, shoes to wear when we’re not wearing boots, oh, and the actual backpack too.

We now have The List. It’s just about remembering where we put it.

 

lighten your load

Talking of backpacks, and their big brothers, rucksacks, unless there really is no alternative to carrying two weeks’ of clobber on your shoulders, your enjoyment of the scenery, the conversation and the whole day will be in direct proportion to the size of your load. The man we met in the woods carrying on his back everything he needed for two weeks, tent and cooking equipment included, could neither tell us where he’d been or where he was going. His whole body was set to endure rather than enjoy.

You’ll excuse me for slipping into teacher mode for a moment, but I can’t resist making an analogy here with one of the key lessons in the workshops I run: ditch the baggage. Get it all out; all that icky stuff that’s keeping us stuck, that we’re still carrying out of habit, or fear, or because it never occurred to us that without it we’d be able to move forward a whole lot faster.

Actually, while you’re at it, you might also want to ditch, this time in no particular order:  expectations, frantic busy-ness, stress, seeking approval, martyrdom, ignoring your own needs, over-giving, trying to ‘be good’… and fighting and railing against the reality of how things are.

It turns out, friends, that while Shushie and I were now experts at lightening our physical load, inside our heads the baggage was as st0dgy and indigestible as the contents of that pie we began our story with. We had, what’s more, finally lost our appetite for it.

I’ll save that significantly more important a-ha moment for the next post…

 

 

A day among giants

HonisterTurns out we weren’t the only ones running late.

From Seatoller to the top of Honister, where a slate mine stands sentry at the dramatic gateway between Borrowdale and Buttermere, is a mile and a half of uphill walking.

As we eased our way uphill, happy now to stop every hundred metres in order to turn a full 360 degrees for the view, we saw only cars. No people.

It was a different story when we reached the mine, where anxious stewards in fluorescent vests scanned the fells to the east, muttering to each other about there not being enough time. Close by a trestle table held a few mean plastic beakers of very weak orange squash.

We were ready for refreshment and parked our rucksacks and sticks close enough to be able to follow the unfolding drama. This was a 10 in 10 event for an MS charity: ten miles in ten hours, which would be generous on flat ground, but appeared to involve something like ten serious peaks as well.

(For the record Shushie and I reckon on averaging two miles an hour for the Coast to Coast, the frequent uphills and our commitment to regular stopping to simply sit and look, compensating for those times on the flat when our feet are flying – er hum – at least for the first few hours of the day.)

The stragglers huffing and puffing into sight were, it emerged, almost six hours into their allotted ten,  and had so far clocked up just four miles. Someone at head office had clearly never been walking in the Lakeland fells.coffee stop

Clueless

To add to our rather ungenerous sense of superiority, as Shushie took photos, a lycra-ed cyclist heaved up to me from the steep climb we’d just done.

“Is that an OS map?” his bike rammed into my leg but then there was so much sweat on his face I imagine he couldn’t see what he was doing.

“Can you show me where we are on it?”

I did of course, all the while thinking  ‘bloody hell, this is Honister Pass, one of the most famous intersections in the Lakes, and we are sitting outside Honister slate mine, which is on not only on every map but has a dirty great sign on it. How is it you would ride a mile and a half uphill in scorching sunshine without knowing where you are going?’

One thing we were to learn that day was that come the summer, come the crowd who don’t know a compass from a cucumber sandwich. And on any other day but one such as this, with perfect conditions, panoramic views as far as the Irish Sea, and plenty of people with maps to ask, would be a huge liability to themselves.

You will be aware, of course, from previous posts in this blog, that the only reason Shushie and I recognised this phenomenon was because we had been there and been equally clueless on our first Coast to Coast crossing. We were not so superior now that we didn’t feel a little anxious for all those coming in the opposite direction from Ennerdale clutching nothing more than a roughly photocopied sketch of their route, and no idea that the Lakeland fells would be so, well, high!

On top of the world

CNV00043Talking of which, there was no let-up in the gradient after our coffee stop.

Leaving behind the school groups and coaches at Honister Slate Mine the route joins a disused – vertical – tramline, introduced to save quarry workers from the dangerous job of bringing Honister’s prized green slate down from the fells on hurdles, which they walked in front of  as human brakes on the weight.

But each upward step on slippery shale was, we knew, bringing us closer to one of Lakeland’s stop-in-your-tracks-and-know-there-is-a-heaven views: out towards Buttermere and its neighbour Crummock Water, nestling in the lee of Haystacks, beneath High Crag and High Stile, overlooked by Fleetwith Pike.

There was nothing to do when we reached the top but stop. And sit. And wonder at it all.

To commit it to memory, to bring us back aloft on all the future days when our boots were mired in mud, or grey skies threatened to overwhelm us.

Everything was in such sharp relief: every shadow cast by fluffy clouds on the soft velvet of the slopes; the dancing light and shade of the lakes below; grey rock jagging out from the summits like the teeth of a predator; narrow stone paths picking a way across the fells; in the distance, all this wildness flattening to yellow fields and beyond the suggestion of pale sea; in front of us, across the plunging valley towards Hay Stacks, the merest glimpse of mountain lake  – Innonimate Tarn where Wainwright, our guide, chose to have his ashes scattered.

Of all the fells and dales he walked, this place, this view, was where he felt he would find the most peace through eternity.

And on this day, drinking it all in as thirstily as if our veins had become dessicated during the long, long months before, we could not argue.

view from Moses Trod

Stumbling and signs

For a mile or so, the Coast to Coast route stays on top of the world, following the colourfully named Moses’ Trod – an old cairned road, along which the slate was transported to Wasdale and the west coast. But Moses was more interested in another kind of hard stuff. According to folklore he made his living from distilling and selling moonshine amongst the felltop crags.Perhaps Moses’ Stumbled might have been a more accurate name for this lovely path.

Eventually it was time to leave our mountaintop via the steep descent of Loft Beck, a kind of  chimney stack plunging down into the valley of Ennerdale, between rocks and gulleys so you are forced to twist your body and legs every few steps to accommodate a new angle in the gradient.

Here it was that Shushie and I encountered the same groups of walkers we’d seen leaving Ennerdale Bridge that morning, only now they no longer looked fresh in their new boots and shiny walking gear, but bothered and tentative. Where were they? Were they on the right route, they asked us? Was there far to go? And, lower down, were they even capable of such a relentlessly demanding climb aloft?

cruelty to trees

Company in the forest

Company in the forest

Even at the bottom of Loft Beck we were still less than halfway through the day’s allotted 14 miles. For the Ennerdale Valley is only partly silver lake. Coming from the east there are some four miles of forest to march through before the shining waters of this remote silent lake are glimpsed.

It didn’t matter: we were loving every minute of the day, our bodies were working well despite their recent lack of use, the sun was still shining, and we now we’d crossed over with the west to easters we had the whole lovely valley entirely to ourselves.

We sped past Black Sail Hut – claimed as the most remote youth hostel in England – our eyes constantly turning back to the great tombstones of Great Gable and then of Pillar,  solid grey walls of rock rising from the valley floor to intersect with the giants that can be found in the neighbouring Wasdale valley.

Into the forest proper, which had once seemed to us as it seemed to Wainwright: a mutation.

You can hear his gruff Yorkshire voice in what he writes: “Where there are now plantations of conifers there used to be fellsides open to the sky, singing birds and grazing sheep. It was Herdwick country…Those of us old enough to remember the valley as it was are saddened by the transformation. Lovers of trees paradoxically will not like the hundreds of thousands that make up Ennerdale Forest: deformed, crowded in a battery, denied light and air and natural growth. Trees ought to be objects of admiration, not pity. Trees have life, but thank goodness they have no feelings else here would be cruelty on a mammoth scale.”

Since his time, and ours too, the landscape has been altered in both negative and positive ways: a disease has killed off the larch trees, their loss opening up the canopy, while the Forestry Commission, no doubt stung by the way followers of Wainwright’s route have amplified his criticisms, has begun a programme of planting native species.

As we walked we could clearly see into the forest – it was no longer an inpenetrable olive wall – while on both sides of the path banks of wildflowers thrived.  Apart from our boots, perfectly in time, the loudest sound was the buzz of bees gorging on the nectar of purple wild orchids, pink campion and daisies, while  the occasional fat dragonfly dined on the midge clouds which accompanied us.

Robin Hood’s again

view up EnnerdaleWe talked too.

Deliberately. Conscious of the approaching end of this Coast to Coast crossing.

Recalling highlights and lowlights. Musing together on lessons learned. But I shall save that for another post, since this is already as long as Ennerdale itself.

We reached the lake finally, following the narrow shore path which teeters over tree roots as complex as tangled wool, spreading over and around the rocky path in search of something to fasten onto.

And as we picked our way among the rocks and routes, the scent in the air was of the sea, though that still lay some miles ahead. Perhaps it was no more than our imaginations but with white horses racing across the lakes’ surface, the rich tang of weed, it was a taster of what was to come the next day.

IMG_0749We continued to allow ourselves to stop, despite the deepening day, stripping of  boots and socks to cool our feet in the lake. And to look back towards the head of the valley where clouds were now mustering, darkening the fellsides and, by contrast, intensifying the golden late afternoon sun shining our way home, turning the lake into liquid light.

We were leaving the fierce felltops behind, but only with our bodies. Our spirits remained aloft, drunk as that man Moses on all the beauty we had seen that day; all the awe we had felt, all the peace we had found.

Ennerdale had one final challenge for us: Robin Hood’s Chair, a strange rock promontory jutting out into the lake, where the path effectively disappears and the only way past is by scrambling over its top, with extreme care. Our guide books were silent on the subject of why this obstacle, so remote from Sherwood Forest, is named for the outlaw, but as they point out, it’s a neat connection between the almost start and end of the Coast to Coast walk.

Actually, there was another challenge for two walkers who, after all that road walking through the forest, fully understood the meaning of the expression ‘footsore’: another mile and a half on tarmac to bring us into Ennerdale Bridge, the village.

We have noted often how much longer than a mile is the final mile of any day’s walking. This one went on for ever and the only thing that helped us continue to put one tired boot in front of the other was the thought of sharing a celebratory cider once we reached the village.

We’d arranged to call Barry for a lift back to the car in Cockermouth and he was as good as his word, standing by to get our call and saying it would take him 20 minutes to reach us. The perfect amount of time to buy a cold, cold cider and sit with it outside The Shepherd’s Arms in the sunshine,  looking out towards the fells that had been with us all day, with full hearts and utter satisfaction.Ennerdale water

 

 

The Longest Day

The man was about our age, kitted out in a white tee-shirt and khaki shorts, and didn’t look anywhere near apologetic enough.

“I hope you’re not in a hurry.” His weak smile suggested the little scene playing out between his son, the gate, and our wish to pass through it, really had nothing to do with him at all. “Do you have children?”

We’d been standing there a few minutes by then while the son, no more than 6-years old but with the lungs of a football fan whose team has scored in the last minute, played with the gate: pretending to open it then shoving a firm little hand over the catch and screaming if his dad tried to intervene.

With his back turned to his dad, the expression directed at us was not mischief but malevolence of an earnestness I would not have believed a six year old capable of.

waiting for Damian

heading up Honister

And yes, we assuredly were in a hurry. Despite the glorious blue sky overhead, the beauty of the drive through Borrowdale to get here, the green lushness of this forest path connecting Rosthwaite (where we’d left off in April) and Seatoller, the purple foxgloves and the wild garlic smells, we were desperate to get moving.

Two hours earlier we’d been up and out of our glorious guest house at Ghyll Farm in record time, and stationed alongside the village school in Ennerdale Bridge waiting for a ride with Damian of Bigrigg taxis. It was pleasant at first, standing in unaccustomed sunshine, enjoying the sound of others’ walking boots as small groups of Coast to Coasters starting out on only day two of their trek east, marched up the road and turned down a narrow lane towards Ennerdale itself, a vast slick of silver filling the valley floor up to the point where the fells swept down to meet it.

The minutes passed and more people passed, including a group from Melbourne we’d met in the pub the night before, and who’d admitted day one had been tougher than expected and a taxi had been enlisted to shorten the day. The fact that there’d been four of them last night and only three of them this morning suggested it had become even tougher overnight – as it is prone to do when muscles are untested.

But we were in no position to feel superior, particularly as the minutes passed without the slightest suggestion of a taxi’s diesel noise to disturb the Saturday morning peace.

Our journey up the previous day had been planned around having a few hours spare to walk around Wasdale, now we were so firmly in the western Lakes – an area Shushie and I have done very little exploring in. But we were late setting out, having had to deal, the previous day, with putting one of mum’s cats to sleep. It would have seemed wrong to rush away at the crack of dawn when we were all quietly grieving the end of another small era.

And then the entire British population had chosen June 20th to head up the M6 and we crawled and sweated and waited for the electronic warning signs with the sort of nervousness usually reserved for exam results days.

Time only for viewing from a distance and taking pictures

Wastwater at early evening after a seven hour drive

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the time we reached junction 36 – the magical number at which you can truly believe you are in the Lakes – it was clear there’d be no time for walking but only watching and yearning  through the car windows.

So Damian’s no-show was merely an extension of the previous day’s frustration (and, I’ll be honest, there were a few tears and I did say it wasn’t fair after all we had been through, and if there hadn’t been other walkers around I would certainly have stamped my foot).

Long story short, after we (using the public phone box for reader, it doesn’t matter what your network, no signal can penetrate Ennerdale – the most westerly and remote of the Lakes),  our hosts at Ghyll Farm and the landlord of the Shepherd’s Arms were unable to reach Bigrigg, we jumped in Shushie’s car with no plan other to drive to our starting point and worry about it being in another valley an hour’s drive from our end point later.

En route to Cockermouth and the A66 Shushie suggested I see if I could raise any taxi drivers there and it was Barry of Cockermouth Taxis who rescued us from a layby on the outskirts of town and spirited us into Borrowdale, telling us, as the locals always do, that you wouldn’t catch him walking the fells, but then admitting that his favourite occupation in the world was to pack a sandwich and spend the day sitting alongside Bassenthwaite Lake with a fishing rod, the birds,  his thoughts and Skiddaw’s magnificent shadow in front of him.

So yes, we were starting out two hours later than we’d planned with 14 miles of fellwalking ahead and we were, without question, in a hurry.

Slow time

Eventually, with no help from the boy’s useless father, we were allowed to pass through the gate.

The view opened up. The path was climbing slightly, up towards Honister, between bright green-cloaked fells while behind us lay Borrowdale like the wooded valleys of childhood fairytales. Overhead the sky was the colour of  a tropical pool, with drifts of white clouds only accentuating its blueness.

The fellsides were jewelled with buttercups and purple thistleheads and white puffs of cotton grass. The air smelt of dew and promise. It was the longest day of the year and would be light until at least 10pm.  Really, it could not have been a more perfect day for a walk.

And we, who’ve remarked regularly during recent legs on this walk on how much longer it is taking us to let go of home and relax and just be where we are, who, in truth, sometimes haven’t even managed to wholly relax at all, we were wound as tight as the compress on a broken artery. With the same sort of stifling effect on our hearts and souls.

“You know what,” Shushie said. “We just have to let it all go, allow ourselves to take as long as it takes to do this walk. So what if we don’t get back till the evening? It’s too important to us to rush. We’re here now and it’s the longest day and it’s not going to rain. Visibility is excellent. Let’s just not worry about what time we get back, and if we miss dinner we miss it.”

So we did, slow down that is.

We did let go of the day and allow it to run its own course.

And we didn’t worry.

And if you want there to be some kind of lesson in this making a choice to let go of timetables and habit and expectations and the kind of overwroughtness that turns a little kid into a devil sent to test you to the point of nervous breakdown,  then I can tell you that the rest of the day, and the day that came after, our final day on the Coast to Coast, were quite possibly some of the best and brightest of our lives. So far.

If we could learn every day to press those switches as successfully as we did that day then how many more best and bright days could we open our hearts and minds to?

But no need to get ahead of myself. Let me tell you about those two golden and shining days first…

 

One hundred words for rain

I guess the title gives it away.

After that long, long interlude, after the demands of home forced us to postpone any notion of completing our Coast to Coast walk during 2013, after the wettest winter on record, what did we expect when we resumed?

Er, more rain?

It was the first weekend of April. Six months had passed since that soggiest of crossings from Patterdale to Grasmere…and we woke in our Keswick guest house to leaden skies and that brand of driving rain that cuts the sky like sheets of steel.

If our earlier Coast to Coast crossings qualified for the slowest 190 miles on record (4 years each way in case you’ve forgotten) then this little outing was certainly shaping up to be the wettest.

Still, even the drag of rain is relative when you are feeling as stir crazy as Shushie and I. It might have been hard to tell sky and ground apart, judging from the simple sogginess of everything. Squelching out of Grasmere, our jackets already as slickly wet as the slate roof tiles of the houses we passed, the paths might have been under several inches of water.

But we were finally moving.

Over the years we have learned that the thing that  gets my sister and I down more than almost any other is the feeling of being stuck. Of life having somehow shunted us into the sidings.

Now we were back among the mountains. And ahead lay the promise of soft fell air, the surprisingly sweet smell of wet grass and damp sheep, and the raw, wildness of the felltops.

Easedale view through rain

Easedale through a veil of rain

Turn and turn about

Deposited by a taxi in Grasmere – which was full of despondent weekenders forced to abandon the hills for a morning of souvenir shopping and coffees behind steamy glass windows – we made only one concession to the downpour. We would not tackle Helm Crag, whose rocky outline was entirely submerged in cloud. We would, instead, head up the valley of Easedale, from whose head we believed it would be easier to find our way over a landscape we nervously remembered as being without much in the way of navigational features.

This was most certainly not a day for getting lost or walking a step further than necessary.

The few walkers we encountered seemed to feel the same. Initially we were passed by what I’ll politely call a spritely ‘seniors group’ (and don’t think I don’t know they were probably attaching the same label to Shushie and I),  and by a huddle of distinctly reluctant youngsters who, judging from their clothing, were not used to fellwalking.

Not long after, both groups passed us again, this time heading back to where they’d come from.

We had the fells entirely to ourselves.

Well, apart from the rain that is.

wet, wet, wet

I am going to blame the rain for the fact that there is so little to report on this leg. All of our effort went into picking out the least worst (for which read waterlogged) of all the route options. It was too rainy to stop and certainly too wet to get my notebook out.

Shushie getting something from her rucksack

This may have been the only time we stopped all day

Mainly what we saw was a landscape of hazy green, as through a sheet of cling film.

Becks  swollen to torrents whose thundering noise drowned out any other sound.

A wet tide rising up from our boots to saturate our trousers first, then our jackets, where the waterline coming in the opposite direction, down from our hoods and necks to our backs, met it.

It was, as I said, raw. And  scary and hostile and unknown.  And yet also awesome in its unknownness.

surfing the sky

If the Eskimos have 100 or more words for snow, I’m beginning to feel we need the same for rain – to prevent you experiencing deja vue as you read this. And to differentiate this day’s downpour from those I’ve described on every other recent leg.

Perhaps the simplest way of characterising these April ‘showers’ is to tell you that when we did reach the top of Easedale, and the landscape opened into the common – a large scooped bowl contained by ridges to the north and west – in many places it had become a shallow lake, its soft turf so saturated that the water sat on the surface and new water courses rushed across its surface.

We set out across it, careless of the water for it was not possible to get wetter, hoping that our sense of direction was taking us to Greenup Edge, the gateway from one valley into the next – Borrowdale, eyes peeled for any hint of distinguishing landmark that would show us we were right.

From the top of Greenup we paused only long enough to admire the sheets of rain:  the wind had built to a fury and they hurtled before us, heading down the valley like huge rollers; wave after wave, tearing up the sky.

Then we had no choice but to look down. The descent into Borrowdale was down a series of stone steps slicker than a seal’s skin, while the wind flung itself at our backs. Three times I fell, wind-assisted. While beside me Shushie’s cartilage made an ominous click with every step she took, strained into injury by the need to move forward and apply our brakes at the same time.

It was as hairy as anything we’d walked through so far.

smoke signals

sheep huddled for shelter

In all our years walking, I have never seen sheep look so miserable as these sodden Herdwicks

But eventually we were down and the path a gentler descent, running alongside an unrecognisable Stonethwaite Beck which half-filled the valley and whose surface was as churned and frothed as an ocean storm.

To our right, the fellsides were equally unrecognisable. In place of gentle grassed slopes fat white arteries of water plunged down to the paths.

The tops looked as though they were punctuated by smoking fires. The furious water was whipped by the wind into great clouds of swirling spray: smoke signals warning walkers to stay at home.

We got the message and hurried on, as fast as Shushie’s clicking leg, and the new rivers swamping the path every few metres we travelled, would allow.

As we pounded along, we noticed how even the trees had turned to waterfalls, the rain making cloaks of water down their darkened trunks.

Where could also this water possibly go?

drying out

We found a part of the answer when, after a seven hour soaking, we finally reached Rosthwaite and the bus stop to take us back to Keswick. Inside the waterproof backpacks we carried, several inches of water sat at the bottom. My purse swilled back and forth in the water.

Sitting steamy in the bus, the water literally ran off us to create a small pond around our feet.

On the plus side, we had once again lucked in with our accommodation. TripAdvisor had directed us to Sevenoaks guest house – so named because it is at 7 Acorn Street – and the moment I saw the rooms were named for famous mountaineers we were hooked.

The place had just been taken over by the lovely Sue and Iain Ross, who were nervous about living up to the reputation of their predecessors who were responsible for its top three TripAdvisor rating. But they need have no fear.

We were welcomed by a determination to help us dry out everything we owned, by a large comfy room with mountain views, Easter chocolates on the bed and homemade biscuits on the tea tray; by the promise of pancakes, syrup and strawberries for breakfast; and by a friendliness that proved the perfect tonic for yet another challenging Coast to Coast day.

You can read all about this fantastic b&b here – and if you’re really lucky you might just get to stay in the Wainwright room and feel inspired to walk the Coast to Coast too.

Er, during a dry period?

contents of my purse, drying out

contents of my purse, drying out

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling the fear

butterfly16

I’ve spoken about being scared in the mountains. Learning to respect them. Remembering always that we are nothing to them, even as we are longing for them: the smell and the feel of a fellside morning.

Now, I think, it’s time to be honest and share with you where we have really been with fear over those last legs of the Coast to Coast – and the months since.

This was what Shushie and I spoke of as we travelled north to the Lakes last time: our shared fear that the years of caring, of living with heads that are never free from the insidious soundtrack of doubt, anxiety, guilt and overwhelm, are making us old.

That middle age will go by and the things we promised ourselves, all the living we have yet to do, will be stolen away by the reality of having got lost in the relentless business of trying to manage other people’s lives.

old lives

I recall many years ago when I was writing The Carer’s Handbook someone I interviewed saying to me, despairing, ‘I am living the life of an 80-year-old woman’. Now I know, really know, what he meant. That so much is clipped and defined by mum’s capabilities and the responsibilities we’ve chosen to take on – even while she increasingly fails to respond; giving less and less of herself back.

There is more, too. For Shushie, the great sadness of her father-in-law being toppled and made helpless by a stroke, trying to hold up those who are holding him up.

For me, anxiety about Shushie’s ability to keep getting up and going on while so much of who she is and what she has is channelled into keeping others going.

This is what I fear: that my sister will get ill. Iller, I mean, for already the frozen shoulder and psoriasis are like clamps on her life force, daily reminders of being under intense strain.

I fear that I will get ill. For the last four months my shoulders have been clenched and sore, in sympathy, or because life wants me to know that I need to unburden. We both do.

The other fear is getting old: not the fact of it for I’ve always spoken the truth when I say to others that life goes on getting better. I mean allowing ourselves to grow old in bones and spirit so that something inside, something crucial to experiencing life as beautiful, joyful and endlessly rich, is dulled.

And when, eventually, the time comes that it is just us again it will be too late. We will have forgotten.

I know these are not fears that are special to us, to carers, or indeed to many in their middle years, facing the loss of friends, family, the roles which defined them for two decades or more and, before that, the reassuring rules of childhood where you always know where you are.

That’s the thing about midlife: until now change has been a constant and yet also, in a way, expected. The changing scene of midlife feels somehow uncharted and therefore so much more personal and profound.

We are not asked by passing time to change job, or home or neighgbourhood, but to change our minds: to redefine who we are if we are no longer parents or employees or any of those other easy certainties; and rethink what it is we want from the years that are left.

My fear is I will start to listen to the quiet, poisonous whispers of each successive birthday, each new number, each small reminder that we no longer bounce back the way we used to.

That I will begin to believe that energy spent in one area of life is no longer available for other things. Whereas once I was certain the supply was endless.

On this fine spring day, sitting in the garden seeing bees and butterflies and ladybugs emerging from a winter of hibernation, I pray that in time we will be able to see these years of midlife, of challenge and caring, in the same light.

The fears will prove no more than winter shadows; wind and raining drumming on the windows, obscuring the view.

And spring will return over and over.