My first experience in England’s Lake District was a fool’s journey. My second was gently reassuring: no matter how deeply the rest of the world descends into selfishness, ethnic hatred, greed, cruelty and vain arrogance, a place will remain for those who have found a home in nature, and care enough about that home to maintain its beauty.
For those who don’t know, or believe a trip to England is London, Stratford-on-Avon and Windsor Castle, the Lake District is the United Kingdom’s largest national park, a UNESCO Heritage Site on the northwestern side of the island, from Morecambe Bay to Solway Firth. It is famous for its residents, who include the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author Beatrix Potter and social critic John Ruskin, and its spectacularly scenic lakes and rugged, barren mountains, known locally as “fells.”
Though you can find similar rural landscapes in the United States, the Lake District is uniquely, marvelously English. Near the town Keswick is a stone circle that is smaller, and believed to be older, than Stonehenge. The larger towns began as Roman forts. You can walk a Roman road built, not in the valleys, but along a high ridge. Many of the dry stone walls that enclose grazing areas for sheep, goats and cattle go back to the Viking invasion. At least one of the small islands in the lakes was a hermitage for Christian monks. The fells are riddled with abandoned mines that produced copper, gold, slate and graphite–that brittle, powdery substance that inspired Lakelanders to invent the pencil during the 16th Century.
The region became a tourist destination in the 19th century, when Romantic poets and artists found inspiration in a rustic, agricultural landscape in which man and nature appeared to exist in harmony.
I hadn’t heard of the place when I joined a high school friend in a month-long back-packing, rail-pass exploration of England, Scotland and Wales. Up to then, nearly every experience I had with hiking and camping was dreadful. My introduction to the Lake District would be worse.
We were staying in a London youth hostel when someone told us we should go to the Lake District, to a place with the unforgettable name of called Dungeon Ghyll, and climb the Great Gable. We could do it in a day, we were told.
We had rail passes that took us as far as Windermere, a town named for the lake. From there we boarded a bus that left us off at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where we went to small fell walkers provisions shop. The bearded guy behind the counter recommended we take some kind of lunch with us. My friend bought a can of tuna. I got a can of ravioli. We had Swiss Army knives with a can opening tool.
After we dropped the cans in our back packs, we asked the guy where the Great Gable was. He pointed and said “you can’t miss it.”
He could have said that the Great Gable was about 12 miles away, up and down and up a considerably difficult series of trails. He could have suggested that we could buy a guide that showed where the trail, and this particular mountain (there were several in the Great Langdale valley) was. He could have glanced at my Converse sneakers and told me I should invest in climbing boots. He could have warned us that, though no rain was expected, the Lakes District is the wettest place on an island fiercely proud of its miserable weather.
He could have added that a ghyll is local dialect for mountain stream, and that Dungeon Ghyll was a waterfall we could see if we followed the creek near the hotel.
But, in the way that locals understand the virtues in failure, he said little. We set off in late morning and were soon tromping up a grassy slope where sheep turned to stare at us. We slipped and skidded over large swaths of what I would learn was “skree,” cascades of broken rock that gave way underfoot without warning.
My legs ached, my feet throbbed and sweat dripped off my forehead into my eyes when I noticed the sun dipping behind what my friend was certain was the Great Gable (it wasn’t). We stopped, sat down on lumpy grass that wasn’t spotted with sheep droppings. The can opener came out. I couldn’t eat my ravioli. We had finished all the water in our canteens (this was before the era of water bottled in plastic).
It became very, very cold. I put on another pair of pants, a second shirt and a sweater, and pulled my London Fog raincoat around me. I shivered as the stars came out. Somehow, we fell asleep.
The next morning I worked up with crusty eyes. A sheep was close enough to investigate the open can of ravioli. I watched it shake its head and look back at me, as if to say, “You crazy, or what?”
I wasn’t crazy. I was cold and miserable. I sat up and saw, in the distance, a tent.
Someone else was on the mountain! My friend thought whoever was in the tent would know where the Great Gable was.
I had no intention of going any further. I wanted to go back where we came, but I couldn’t see the path up, or any landmarks.
As we stumbled toward the tent, a man came out. He wore climbing gear. He wore boots. He had a beard and a thick sweater and a propane stove with a pot of tea at boil. When we told him we were looking for the Great Gable, he laughed and offered us a cuppa.
That tea was one of the best ever. As I sipped it, he told us about trails and guidebooks and that whoever told us to climb the Great Gable had been putting us on. If you’re going to begin walking the fells, we should do something easier.
All I wanted was a hot shower. He laughed again and said “Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel.” He pointed. “You can’t miss it.”
Before we left him, he warned us that going down was harder, and more dangerous, than going up. “Mind your feet.”
It took the entire day to find our way back to Dungeon Ghyll. I had to check into the hotel to take a bath, and so I did. My friend, who had enjoyed sleeping outdoors, wandered off and didn’t see me until the morning.
That bath was everything I’d like, and the bed held me like a baby. The next morning, I bought a roll with a small piece of cheese for breakfast. Then I walked with my friend back to road, took the bus to Windermere, got on a train for Edinburgh and never looked back.
My friend went on to attend medical school. He practices on the other side of the country. His website says he likes to ski and jog. I guess he likes the great outdoors.
I like to jog, though I have be careful of my knees. I go to the gym and lift. I do karate katas. Sometimes I stretch.
I looking at the great outdoors–from a bench, or the window of a hotel room. I avoid most invitations to hike, camp or wander anywhere that isn’t paved.
My wife likes hiking and camping. When I told her about my brief experience with the Lake District, she wanted to go back to Dungeon Ghyll, with a guidebook, maps and really good hiking boots.
She bought the boots. She got the guidebooks and the maps. She found Lake District hotels near some of the famous peaks, such as Helvellyn and Cat Bells.
And so we went to Windermere for more than just a day. We tested our boots on a short trudge up to Orest Head, a walk that inspired a British civil servant named Alfred Wainwright to climb nearly every fell in the Lakes District and write a series of guidebooks about them.
We did another walk to a waterfall–not the “force” at Dungeon Ghyll, but good enough. The walks exhausted me and, again, reminded me how good a cup of tea tasted when they were over.
The climb up Hellvellyn could have been a far more dangerous disaster when a downpour caught us three quarters up the Stairway to Heaven, a trail of rough hewn stone steps going up and up and up.
I balked at going to Great Langdale. She booked a small group tour that include a ride up Hard Knot Pass and other scenic delights. The tour passed through Dungeon Ghyll and Great Langdale. We drove past the old hotel and went up a road that I recognized. We stopped in the valley to take pictures.
I don’t take pictures when I travel. I learned when I went to Rome the first time. My camera and film took up about a third of my luggage. I looked for the best shots. I went crazy when I misplaced a lens cap. I had the film developed and never looked at the pictures after they were printed.
Now I sit or stand for a while and notice as much as I can about a place. If I want a picture, I can buy a postcard.
So I stood and saw the cascade of skree that I had stumbled over. I saw the grassy slopes with sheep grazing on them. Those slopes had started out as gentle hills and then that became so steep that I had, so many years ago, I had to hug the earth to stop from sliding down.
And, just below those slopes, I could make out the trails we should have taken. I asked the guide which of the peaks was the Great Gable.
“You can’t see it from here,” he said.
I couldn’t see where we were stranded. I did, however, admire how beautiful the place could be, when you know where you are, and where you’re going.
A few days later my wife and I gasped our way up Cat Bells, a “family-friendly” fell that is supposed to be one of the easiest in the Lakes District. We had to rest frequently. Families with small children and dogs tromped heartily past us. We did not linger at the top, which buzzed with a zillion black flies.
The experience did not convert me to the fanatical fold of fell walkers. I did not feel Wordsworth’s blissful solitude. My feet throbbed. My legs ached. I was soaked in sweat. We took a bus back to Keswick, found a tea shop, and sat down.
And you know that cup of tea tasted very, very good.