In December 2016 I found myself with a day to spare. I don’t quite know how it happened as it certainly wasn’t planned, but in that window between Christmas and New Year, on the 28th to be exact, I woke up on the wrong side of a bottle of gin with a slight headache, and nothing at all in the diary. Usually these few days each year are a mad rush of hellos to rarely seen family and friends, punctuated only by the odd bacon wrapped chipolata and stray thought as to what the New Year might bring. This day however, started with the wonderful sense of nothing – no arrangements, no requests, no obligations, and no ideas.
Not long after peeling myself out of bed I was stood at my living room window sipping a Kenco Millicano. Before me lay the wasteland that was my front garden. Earlier in the year I had dug it up with every intention of landscaping it in late summer, but had instead just created random piles of soil which I had left to the elements and which were now just a huge litter box for the local cats. As I stood there in my brand-new-too-big Xmas jumper, courtesy of my mum, I could see a bloody cat not four feet from me. It was staring at me as it did its business with not a jot of shame – almost challenging me with its unflinching gaze. I had long since given up ‘shooing’ the buggers away, and this one squatted with such brazen contempt for my authority, I just drank my coffee and watched. As it finished up, brushed soil over its mess, and sauntered away down my garden path, something struck me - the ground wasn’t frozen! It was mild! I looked up to the sky and it was blue - cobalt blue with only traces of clouds smudged and smeared and still. The copper beech hedging that divided my garden from my neighbour, drained of life but full of texture, stood dormant - its leaves usually acting as a thousand gnarled weather vanes rattling in the wind, had not a twitch amongst them. It was a day for a walk!
Within 20 minutes I had my camera bag packed, my thermos brewed, and my pants unbuttoned at the waist (I had a longish drive ahead of me and was carrying a little Christmas dinner paunch.) I jumped in the car and headed for the Lake District. The journey from Hexham is invariably a slow one, the single carriage A69 forcing you to trail behind lorries and tractors as you pass through rolling Northumberland countryside and into Cumbria. I used the time to figure out where in the Lakes would be nice to try, and what I could fit in with only a few hours out on the hills. Some months earlier I had been sat in the beer garden of the Swinside Inn in the Newlands valley – a lovely traditional pub surrounded by sweeping fields and abrupt crags and woodland. I had become fascinated by a peak that rose up like a ridge not far in the distance and that looked a lot like Catbells to my untrained eye. My friend Joe told me that it was called Causey Pike, and that there was a route up that traced its way in a horse shoe across the peak and around where we were sitting before falling into Braithwaite, giving lovely views of Derwent Water along the way. I smiled as I drove past Carlisle and onto the M6 Southbound – I knew where I was heading.
Not long later I was parking up. I had driven through Portinscale and down the winding roads that carve their way through dense woodland and on through the hamlet of Stair to the west of Derwent Water. Reaching the bottom of Rowling End, a low but steep hill that begins the ridge up to Causey Pike, I had pulled in on the road that wraps itself around the hills and weaves its way to Newlands Hause and Buttermere. There was no-one around. No cars, no people, no sound. The Lake District is wonderful in any weather and at any time of year, but I get a particular thrill on days like these. It seemed empty, almost ominous, and all around me seemed taller, and wider, and more exciting because of it. I grabbed my bag and threw on my hat, crossed the road, and started my ascent following Stonycroft Gill.
There was a route straight ahead going steeply up to Rowling End via Elias Crag – I considered it briefly but, fancying an easier life I followed a path that rose more gently up the valley side. Within five minutes the landscape began to reveal itself – the valley is narrow and steep, a path on the opposite side leads the eye gradually towards Outerside, curled and browned bracken lies limp all around, sharp edges and towering peaks begin to cut their way into sky above you. I stopped for a moment to take it in. I realised how, for the most part, I prefer walking alone. As I looked back down the valley, along the path I was on, pointing the way to Derwent Water and the hills beyond, I thought of how the silence you experience when you pause when alone, the freedom you have to breathe or sigh or wonder, is something I will never tire of. As much as I appreciate the company and craic that others can bring, solitude is essential to experiencing this landscape as fully as possible. For me, anyway.
Before long I was there, panting, on top of Rowling End. Like a purpose built viewing platform it directs you, makes you turn around, invites you to step forward, it offers you the most splendid view over Skelgill Bank to Derwent Water and the east. I was tempted to pull the camera out but Causey Pike stood behind me, teasing me with the promise of even more impressive views. I turned and started to claw my way up. Partly path, partly jutting rock, the ascent is a scramble that excites but never scares. As I went up, I remembered that an old friend once told me he thought that the point one reaches maturity is the point in life where one sees a tree and no longer wonders how it might be climbed. By that measure, I am not yet quite mature and it is wanders like these, heading up Causey Pike in December, looking for footholds, driven by a childlike anticipation, that often tell me I may never be.
On reaching the peak the need to take a photograph was knocked out of me by the sheer scale of what I saw – it demanded a pause, it needed a few moments to be fully appreciated. To the west ran the ridge, along Scar Crag, up to Eel Crag and around to Grisedale Pike and Braithwaite – the horseshoe I was planning to walk. To the north stood Skiddaw, squatting with authority over Keswick, full and thick and leading the eye to Blencathra. To the east, sandwiched between Rowling End and Barrow like a couple of pincers, sat Derwent Water, with Bleaberry Fell, Clough head and Great Dodd poking their furrowed brows over each other under the blue winter skies. And, most noticeably, at this time, on this day, in this light, to the south, Aikin Knott, Robinson, Scope End, Hindscarth and High Spy, like folds in a quilt or waves in a an off-green sea creating such sweet shadows as the sun started to set.
It was here that I met my first fellow walkers of the day. A family of six - three generations it would seem - finishing off their sandwiches, packing away their thermos, and starting their slow climb down to Rowling End. Also, a middle-aged man with an ill-behaved Collie, checking a map whilst smoking a roll-up. Hellos were exchanged with all and then I pulled out my camera and started to shoot. It was difficult to know where to start as each view seemed just as or more impressive than the other. I could see, with the falling sun, that I would have most joy looking to the south and the dusty winter haze and shapes and that were being created there, but I couldn’t help capturing a couple of shots of the view to the East first. Derwent Water and Keswick were in miniature, framed by the hills around them with barely a sign of life. The family who had recently left the peak stood on Rowling End and were admiring the view also – I thought I might be able to create a tilt-shift image of them and so got a quick snap.
I shifted my attention south. I managed to get a couple of images before the other walker’s Collie dog developed a fascination with my groin. I part stroked it (the Collie, not the groin), part pushed it away, but he was determined, and, it would seem, hungry. His owner came over to chat. We exchanged a few words, me pretending his dog wasn’t nuzzling my crotch as we spoke, him unaware or indifferent. By this time the sun was disappearing quite quickly and the landscape was shifting as it did so – lines of light, glare, shadows, crawling across the ridges and edges as we spoke – all the things I wanted to try and capture if I could. After a brief chat about immigrants (him anti, me shocked by how anti he was) his dog was prized from my nether-regions and he was on his way, running down the ridge to the west before dropping down into the valley, his canine pal running alongside. Was it just me or did the Collie wink at me over its shoulder? Each time I looked away, took a photo, and looked back, he was smaller, until he was soon just a speck, moving with what seemed like amazing speed, quickly being swallowed up by the peaks and troughs around him. I turned back - Scar Crag stood ahead of me to the west, the sharp contrast in the light now making its dark slopes ripple as they fell down to Rigg Beck. I decided to chase the light and began to follow the ridge towards Eel Crag.
I had only made it a short way when I looked up and saw that my day was nearly over – the sun was close to touching the hills on the horizon and its colour changed – reds and oranges spilled over the peaks and into the dark valleys below. It was impossible to shoot with subtlety – the contrast between that which the light touched, and that which it did not, was too extreme – what had seemed impressive but familiar only half an hour earlier, now seemed almost Martian. An otherworldly red planet-esque feel snuck into each of my photographs, only the pock-marked edges of the hills, picked out by direct sunlight and set amongst huge blankets of black, were visible.
I turned – the view behind me, to the east and north, though just as transformed and just as magical, was calmer, more recognisable. I looked towards Bassenthwaite Lake, it trying its best to hide behind tree covered hills and the short but prominent Outerside. As I looked, I noticed movement, ever so slight, ever so small. My friend the walker with the strong views on EU freedom of movement and the sexually aggressive Collie was there. He had, in what seemed like an impossibly short amount of time, ran down to Stonycroft Gill and back up to the peak of Outerside. As I watched him with an admiration the sun sank behind me and the shadows in the valleys around us started to spread and rise like inky waters, swallowing up the hills an inch at a time. Small pockets of light remained on only the highest of the peaks and a spotlight was created before me, shining only on the walker and his dog as he took a breath on Outerside. I rattled off a shot. Then he was gone.
I soon realised I wasn’t going to do the horseshoe route as dusk started to spread around me. I often carry a headtorch in my camera bag for just such occasions but in the rush of leaving the house for this impromptu trip, I had forgotten to pack it. I walked slowly along the ridge towards Eel Crag and saw the path heading up, winding backwards and forwards in a serpentine fashion before me, and knew it was too much that day. I was about to head back down, deciding to walk into Stonycroft Gill to follow a path back to the car, but the show the sinking sun was putting on behind me was fascinating. I had a little battery left on my phone, and so if need be I could use the torch for my descent. Indeed, I did use it when I headed downhill later that evening, smiling as I went and excited to get back to my computer to see what shots I had managed to capture. But, before I did, I sat down for a while. The winter sun sank slowly over the horizon – throwing out final thin warm fingers of light as it seemed to lower itself gently behind Red Pike and out of sight. I ate a snickers, crouched on a seat of heather, nestled into the side of Scar Crag, ringing every last moment from this wonderful winter day, and promising myself that in the future I will always look to carve out time for a hike in between Christmas and New Year.
All shots taken with the Sony A7rii using the Sony G Master f2.8 24 - 70mm lens.