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Day Three: Rosthwaite to Patterdale

I knew today was going to be a toughie, but it was only after speaking to fellow walkers in the pub yesterday that I realised most people did this section over two days. It involves two steep ascents and descents, going up and down twice, and most people seemed to be stopping at the village inbetween. Now that I realised my walking powers had be reduced to human levels, i wondered whether I should do the same.

The first hour or so involved walking up an increasingly picturesque steep sided valley. At times it felt so magical I expected to bump into a hobbit or an elf. At the back of this imagination was a sense of looming fear as I realised that I would be required to climb over the crinkly furry walls of the surrounding hills. This was amplified by the lack of power in my legs and bite of the blisters which held me back walking any faster.

As soon as I started climbing these feelings were all overtaken by the sheer effort required to continuously use my legs to life myself and my rucksac up step after step. I kept reminding myself of what I had learned over the past few days – that this pain was fleeting and would disappear as soon as I got to the top and stopped, to be replace by the blissful euphoria of the view and lack of strain on my lower body. Behind me I could see a trail of people following who any moment now were going to overtake me, which would have been a blow. I felt like the first on the trail that morning, and I wanted to be the first to the top. The intensity was compounded by the constant contemplation of the logitistical and emotional nightmare of not being able to do this section on one go.

All of this meant that when I did get to the top first I almost started blubbing such was the sense of emotional release. People started joining me almost immediately, so I tried to man it out. The view was spectacular, a panorama of furry green folds and bumps rising up to a series of peaks, ridges and plateaus. It was like somebody had laid a sheet of wet green velveteen over a buch of randomly arranged chairs, and then stuck miniature sheep on it.

This gave me the burst of energy I needed. I piled on down the other side, avoiding the high route because however nice it was it would stop me reaching my overall goal. Once I reached the mid-point, a youth hostel in grasmere, I threw my pack off my back and laid on the floor for half an hour to ‘have a moment’, relax and ready myself for the next part. I was exhausted by I knew the energy was in me.

The next bit involved another steep climb up to Grisedale Tarn. I could see from a distance that the top was covered in white mist, spilling over the edges of the moutain tops in wraith-like tendrils. I could also not see anybody on the route in sharp contrast to the convoy earlier on. This wasn’t going to stop me, although it probably would in any other circumstance, even if I were with other people.

Once again the climb was a slog, starting at being a noticeable slope to becoming amazingly steep. I found it all diffcult, even just the slope, but didn’t let myself dwell on my lack of abilities. I just needed to male my destination, a youth hostel, for 6pm, giving me time and space to recover and prepare in a relaxed fashion. I hadn’t booked a bed, which given the popularity of hostels in the lakes was a major problem, and could result in an exhausted tent putting up and dinner locating situation.

I got to the misty top. I could hear the sound of children chattering and wondered whether these we’re the ghosts of local kids taken before their time. Then for a second the mist cleared and I could see a school group absailing up a mountain top above me. As well as dispelling my supernatural fears, it also reassured that I wasn’t being too foolhardy being up there.

The mists also cleared enough to show me the tarn, a silver disc of water being rippled by the almost gail force winds up there. It wasn’t as spectatcular as before, but it was still an achievement and had been done on reasonable time.

Then the long, at times boring descent into Patterdale. It wasent that the valley wasn’t pretty-it was average pretty for the lakes which meant very pretty for anywhere else. But when you’re tired and the soles of your feet sting a little with every step, everthing pales into insignificance compared with warmth, space and cleanliness. This was one of the reasons why in retrospect I wish I’d been able to split it over two days as I would have enjoyed each bit far more.

I finally got to the hostel, 6pm on the dot, and they had a spare bed. I was so ecstatic but way to worn out to show it. Within the space of two hours I was washed and fed (a very lovely and filling chilli con carne – I recommend!) with breakfast and packed lunch sorted and my clothes on the washing machine. All without moving more than 50 meters from my (warm, soft) bed.

The reality of whether I survived the day will only be felt tomorrow morning. If I seize up immediately then it was too much for me handle. If I keep going then it was an achievement, but not something I’d like to repeat. I will be back to do at least the roswaithe ( in borrowdale) to grasmere walk again as was fantastic, walking between two very special places. But at this moment the only destination I am going to is bed.

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Day Two: Ennerdale Bridge to Rosthwaite

I woke up to the sound of rain tapping against the surface of my tent-loudly. If you’ve been in a tent when it’s raining then you know that it makes quite a sound. Imagine how loud it must sound if you’re in a tiny coffin-tent and the entire outer sheet is only ever a couple of feet away from your ears; like a million small bullets being fired at the skin of a snare drum.

Ironically this meant the rain wasn’t half as bad as it sounded – I completely suited up to go outside to find it was nothing more than drizzle. This still made packing up a nuisance, but not a horrendous one. I discovered that of all my skills refined over the longer walk, faffinf when packaging was the one that I was still as good at as ever. I faffed so much that things got wet in the rain while I moved them around three times before finally putting them in and out of the bag, shaking them all about, and then putting them back in.

The morning was a bit of a trudge. Admitedly it was a trudge that involved the tranquil grandeur of Ennerdale water, a smallish lake surrounded by impressive but smallish fells. I kept my rain gear on because the weather would occasionally move up a gear from ‘drizzle’ to ‘medium spitting’ and I could see an array of angry looking clouds hanging over the end of the lake. However, the closer I got to the end, the more these clouds receded and the more occasional bursts of sunshine we received.

At the end of the lake the weather hadn’t worsened, but the path did. It became a gravel trail with pine planatations on either side, reminding me of the uber-trudge that was alot of the great glen way. After I while I started to make out a shape above the trees to my right – pillar fell. This was a amazingly brooding (almost) mountain, full of granite blocks with sheer jaggerdy faces sticking out at various angles. As I proceeded it came closer to the path and I could the multitude of different nodules of rock covering it all around.

Eventually I made it to Black Sail Hut, the youth hostel famous for not being accessible by road. It was amazing, a tiny old bothy on a small level platform of grass surrounded by various knuckly and gnarly fells on all side. I was absolutely knackered by this point, and had to have my lunchtime pasty a little before I got there to power me on. My blisters were starting to bite and my legs felt so weak they could only stumble along the path that lead there. Previosly I was used to powering ahead if all an sundry, now I was being overtaken as often as I overtook. These were both frequent occurances becuase the route was packed full of other people (couples and groups) attempting at least half of the coast to coast. I stayed 30 minutes at black sail and i’m sure at least twenty people pasted through.

Eventually I got back up and reembarked on my mission. This was now to go over the top of one of the surrounding fells and descend the other side to my final destination. Man it hurt; my body seemed to slow down to a fraction of it’s normal speed and I ‘admired the view’ (whixh was amazing) quite freqently. The rain didn’t help-it had now become constant medium drizzle, making everything a little more uncomfortable due to being cloaked in condensation filled waterproofs. But I got to the top and it felt good-an amazing view down over buttermere lake, the lake itself almost obscured by angry looking fell tops and mist drifting upwards . It you didn’t know better you’d think you were looking at hades rather the lakes!

Then a easy-ish slog down to borrowdale, past the slate mine/musuem in which I had a sneaky coffee served by a polite but abrupt Ukrainian girl. I was soaked through at this point-my exterior covered in a thin film of water and my inner garments warm with trapped perspiration. I used to wonder what was the point of these waterproofs if you’re insides still got wet? I found out the truth in Scotland when I couldn’t be bothered to put on my waterproof trousers in what turned out to be a downpour. The answer is that you become saturated with cold water that is potentially illness-inducing, and it is worth the warm fug perspiration to avoid that.

Once in Borrowdale the rain eased and the surrounding selection of various feels easy to discern and very pretty. Each had a unique combination of folds, bulges, nobbly bits, sharp bits and patches of scree. One even appeared to have dry stone walls running across sides so steep they both appeared verticle.

I had hoped to catch a last minute bed in the local youth hostel, but they were full up so it was not to be. The campsite was suitably close although I was horrified to discover the local shop described on my map and guide book no longer existed, so dinner was at the local pub and the next days lunch would be made by our campsite owner.

Not ideal. Tomorrow is apparently the hardest day of the coast to coast (although not the longest) and I need all the help I can get. My blisters are getting worse and I’m not sure whether I can do the whole stretch in one go, or will have to make an early retreat in Grasmere-which as worst case scenarios goes isn’t too bad a result at all!

Day One: St Bees to Ennerdale

I stuffed myself silly at the B&B in Carlisle, pushing my already recently expanded belly to full capacity. On the train down to St Bees the weather was cloudy but not grey – luminescent rather than gloomy, bringing out the darker colours in everything rather than washing everything out. Most of the time the line ran within sight of the coast, revealing giant looming slabs of dark cliffs hugged at the bottom by dark grey sea defences like the bumper running around the front of a dark green car.

On the way to the start point at St Bees bay I got a couple of ‘good lucks’ from passing strangers, before performing the traditional rituals of picking up a pebble and dipping my feet in the sea. The last one almost resulted in me getting drenched as I got distracted by trying to work the camera I was using and didn’t notice a big wave coming until the last minute. As I struggled up the adjacent cliff I also realised that it might not have been the best idea to get the take-away coffee from the beach shop as I struggled to finish I between each huff and puff. You could probably tell from a distance that I was from London, that unable was I to live without my skinny latte.

At the beginning of the day the sea was silver and blurred with the bluish-White cloudy sky above. As the day progressed it got brighter and warmer, and the sea turned blue in response to the weather. I passed quite a lot of bird watchers focusing intently on the sea birds hovering around the cliffs. After our joyous experience with puffins on duncansby head I could understand what drove them to stand or sit there for hours with their high-powered telescopes, but without them unfortunately I could not tell today what they were umm-ing and arr-ing about.

Eventually I turned away from the cliff and inland. Almost immediately I was confronted by a row of mountains on the horizon, annoucing the entrance to the lake district. The nearer I got the more I could see that sat above them was layers and layers of tumultous looking-clouds, probably keeping the lid on the equally tumultous weather beneath them. The fact that my immediate weather was still so glorious made it even more dramatic. I’d already heard a bit about the horrendous weather expected ahead, this just confirmed it.

As I kept moving I passed several groups of people, couples young(ish) and old(ish), groups single sex and mixed. I’d already heard the route was busy – unfortunately starting on a monday rather that Saturday or Sunday hadn’t stopped me getting caught in a convoy of ramblers.

I overtook one group of middle aged women at the base of the first big hill I met, Dent Fell. It was steep and sharp; the first section was a wide gravel path through a pine plantation which was the worst kind of route in blazing sunshine-shaded from the wind but not the light and heat. I sweated my way up
Until I broke out of the trees to find and equally steep stretch of moorland ahead. This really got me as i was weaker now from my previous efforts. It started to dawn on me just how much power had gone from my body. I started feeling like I was going to vomit and/or faint as I hauled my belly and my bag up the hill, and stopping every 5 or so metres to ‘admire the view’ (which was spectacular – luscious looking green fields running up to a glistening ocean).

At the top I threw off my bag and lay prone on my back. I shut my eyes and listened to the sound of the wind whistling around me and birds chirping. It was lovely and relaxing, the sound of space spreading around me in all directions, even downwards towards the bottom of the hill, made even more pleasant by the sun caressing my face. The pain and naseau subsided, partly relieving me about my ability to tackle the walk, and partly reminding me of the reason why I was doing this

I got to my campsite pretty soon, buzzing all the way but ready for a rest and a shower. Hilly went up almost instantly despite not having touched her in almost a year. Like riding a bike somethings never leave you I suppose, similarly like my ability to then faff about with my various bags of stuff for twenty minutes without anything bar my sleeping mat and bag actually going inside the tent. Partly this was because my tent was becoming infested with large midges and I didn’t want to open my inner tent. The hedges about were humming with them, obviously attracted by the warmth and lack of wind-one benefit of the change in weather would be they would hopefully be washed away for a bit.

On the way to the local pub for dinner I passed the most amazing sight of the valley i would pass through tomorrow whih was made up of a series of large and unique mountains on either, each one’s details – crags, scree, ridges, etc – picked out by the early evening mellowing light. Behind them were the dark clouds I was sure awaited me tomorrow. I enjoyed the view while it existed, because sure as anything it would be different tomorrow once the rain and clouds descended

Back on the road

Less than a year after last taking leave of my senses I have once again attempted to fit everything I need to survive in a single rucksack and leave myself to the mercy of the elements for an extended period.

I’ve grabbed a two week window of opportunity to complete the coast to coast long-distance path, an almost two hundred mile walk that cuts across Britain at it’s most dramatic and beautiful ‘neck’ of northern England before joining the ‘head’ that is Scotland. Not only is it the most amazing cross-section of England, taking in three national parks including the daddy of them all (the lakes), it is supposedly the second best long distance walk in the world, I guess because of the variety of landscape you experience. It’s legendary among walkers and I’m grabbing the chance to do it before other commitments make it unfeasible to do in a single stretch.

In some ways I’m more prepared than last time. I have extended backpacking experience and have been building up my stockpile of lightweight (and expensive) gadgets and technical clothes for a while. On the other hand I’m probably less fit now then when I started last year and definitely more overweight-I’m wearing the same trousers as before and they feel noticeably tighter against the small slab of flab that is protecting my midrift from imminent danger. If I was about to go walking in the desert I’d be all set with my camel-like hump. As it is, the one thing northern England is not scarce of is calourific foods laden with saturated fat so I doubt I will be required to dip into these reserves very often.

Joking aside, I am slightly concerned that it it took me about 2-3 weeks to adjust my body (especially my feet) to the rigours of walking over 15 miles a day, with the first 2 weeks being the most painful. This is fine of you’re walking for 12 weeks, but if the pattern repeats itself I’ll end up spending the entire two weeks in varying degrees of discomfort and pain. Not ideal obviously! However I have to remind myself this isn’t the Himilayas, how bad can it get?

Epilogue

It’s been almost a week now since the end and I’ve been gathering my thoughts together to write some sort of conclusion – partly for myself but also partly to answer the questions people are already asking.

Did I find what I was looking for? Kinda. I did get to a point of calm and contentness: it took a while of shedding distractions and finding the right balance in my walking ‘style’, and even after all that it came in fits and starts.

However what I found was less of a ‘thing’ and more of a ‘process’. This means that unfortunately i can’t bring the feeling back to London wholesale. Because the walk was far more about the journey and not the destination, an experience not a goal, I reached John O Groats not with a feeling of euphoria but sadness because it meant it was all over. I won’t be going back with a constant beautific Buddha-like smile but I will be returning having gained a set of aims and techniques that enable me to achieve that feeling. Now I have to go about doing these things in the ‘real world’, which is going to be much harder than walking 1,200 miles.

I also found that you can’t walk away and sweat out regret and guilt. Walking 1,200 miles definitely changes your present, potentially your future, but doesn’t change anything about the past. Secretly (and naively) I’d hoped this might be the case. The sense of peace is more a respite from these more negative feelings rather than something which erases them.

Now many aspects of returning fill me with sadness and anxiety. This sounds incredibly spoilt and ignorant to people who have spent the last 12 weeks working, but I’m scared that I’ll forget all these ideas and within months everything will be back to how it was before, except with the addition of a savage bite taken out of my savings. The main benefits of the walk – the freedom, simplicity and calm – were so intangible that I can already feel the memory of them slipping away.

However, I did have an amazing time, and it has refreshed and rejuvenated me; these were the original objectives and they have been met in spades. Thus the next big challenge really lies back at home. It lies in tinkering with the bits of my life that undoutably need improving, (for example learning how to drive before before I turn 31 next February is a priority) and it lies in making sure I don’t lose the feeling and forget the lessons of my time away.

Beyond that, I’d definitely love to do more ‘lightweight’ backpacking-whether for a weekend or a month. I’ve definitely got the bug – after 12 weeks l feel like i’m just starting to get it right. I’ve even said that I’d do the return journey – JOGLE – when I’m sixty because there would be such an elegant symetry to it (and because it would be great fun). However, If i do get that chance i might choose another of the big’uns. Suggestions would be welcomed!

On re-reading my epilogue the conclusions do sound a bit obvious. I can live with that-i gained something hard to put into words (despite my best efforts on the blog along the way!), something intangible that you have to actually do first-hand to fully understand, and even then struggle to understand what it was. Which is why it was definitely worth doing and will stay with me hopefully forever.

Right, having answered the questions I needed to deal with first I’m going to move onto the questions everybody else is way more interested-what were my favourite landscapes/areas, and what were the worse bits. I’ll get this written up by the end of the week as I go back to work next Monday (!!!!) and will need all my energy for that.

PS thanks for all the emails and texts of encouragement and congratulations over the last week, they were lovely!

Sent from my iPhone

LEJOG66: Watten to Duncansby Head (John O Groats)

My mum dropped me back at Watten quite early in the morning so that she could get back in time for her cooled breakfast. The weather was cloudy and cool and was predicted to rain later, making for a very different experience to the day before despite the landscape actually being very similar. I now felt like I was walking in northern Scotland, not a semi-imagined Australia.

I spent most of the morning on a single straight road surrounded on each side by scrubby fields. The clouds like the land streched out for miles but seemed to be hanging very low in the sky, giving me the feeling that there wasnt much space between the ground and the white ceiling above. I was like a speck caught between two massive horizontal planes, one green on white. The road rose and fell several times, so i was constantly walking towards a spot on the horizon that when I reached it revealed another stretch of road and fields.

I knew it was the final stretch when I could see a mast on the crest of the hill ahead. Over that hill would be the sea, and I would be turning right along the coast road for the final few miles to john o groats. I was a little bit emotional, I could feel something well up inside me and push through a couple of times to my throat and eyes. I didn’t really know what it was I was feeling emotional about, I didn’t really know what I felt about the fact that my three month journey was soon to be at an end. But instead of trying to analyse myself too much I decided to just enjoy the remanded of the walk and the feeling of lightness and calm that came with it (when things are going right that is!).

It seemed to take forever to get to and pass the mast, but eventually I did. And there was the sea in front of me. Oddly once I knew I was on the final stretch the knotty bag of emotional within me dissipated. I walked along the coast road, marvelling at how different to Cornwall and lands end this felt. Mostly the land ran into the sea, and out to sea were the shapes of Stroma and the Orkneys. It was a bit greener, a bit less dramatic but definitely with more of a feeling of isolation.

My mum joined me just before John O Groats to walk that last few miles, and Jenna drove on ahead to meet me at the finish line. We had decided to finish at Duncansby Head because it was the most north easterly point and everything I’d heard about JOG sounded quite underwhelming. A twisty road led out and up onto a headland where we could see Jenna waiting next to the lighthouse. Looking back over my shoulder I could see the north coast stetched out to my left, and as I got closer to Jenna i could start to see the far more rocky east coast appear to my right. There was a bottle of fizz and a finish line flapping violently in the wind waiting for me to step through. And that, technically, was that, and hugs all round for good measure.

We then spent a while exploring duncansby head, which has a fantastic view of a set of cliffs and stacks as pointy as witches hats, and finishing the champagne. Over the top of the headlands you could see the sea spread out for miles. ItĀ felt like the right place for the walk to finish, and I’d advise anybody else getting there to check it out. We then retreated to the bar were we had a drink with Ed who had finished earlier than me due to not being hindered by the earlier dilly daillying of a support team. Afterwards we proceeded to a couple more pubs for dinner and more drinks, before returning back to the B&B slightly worse for wear.

On tuesday, the next day, I did actually visit john o groats properly to sign my name in the book. I found the entries of Gary (promising to do it again next year), David (saying he enjoyed every moment of it-even Staffordshire?), Ed (asking for new feet), and the feral boys (who had left a message teasing me about the fact they got there first). I didn’t get the official photo partly because I think it’s a bit of a shabby con but also partly because without all my kit on it seems a bit pointless. We popped into the little museum which is quite cool in an old school way – lots of old photos of life on the area and the kind of old bits and bobs (singer sewing machines, ceramic hot water bottles etc) that I’d love to fill my house up with to bursting point.

In the afternoon we walked to Dunnet Head (the most northerly point on mainland britain) to see the Puffins of which there were tons, flying about around the cliffs in the strong winds like the result of an unholy union between a bat and a parrot. Seeing the plump little things flying is an amazing and ridiculous sight that can’t help but raise a chuckle and warm the cockles of your heart.

However, all this was but a pleasant tactic to delay the inevitable departure on Wedesday morning. As I said goodbye to my mum and climbed into jenna’s car I suddenly felt really sad, the gnawing ache of melancholy I used to get as a child on Sunday evening after a particularly enjoyable weekend. It was over, something intangible and yet very real was slowly slipping away, a feeling of simple purpose, pleasure, freedom and space. The envitabilty and drudgery of the real world was breaking through to the periphery of my mind. The knot of emotion rose up into my throat again as I gave my mum a last hug goodbye, squeezing on my vocal cords and making my words come out all wibbily wobbily.

However, it’s still a while before I do return to the so called ‘real world’ as the 18 hours of driving back to London is being punctuated by a couple of days in the Cairngorns and an evening in Lancashire. I’ll still be blogging for a bit, not about what I’m currently doing but with some kind of conclusion/epilogue (although this morning was sad I don’t want to leave the entire blog on such a sad note!) and the answers to some questions everyone asks me, so if you’re still interested keep popping back for a while. I haven’t finished just yet! Sent from my iPhone

Onwards to the Most Northerly Point

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