High Raise, The Lakes District, Cumbria - 25.04.2017

I hate the fucking Lake District.

There, I’ve said it. I hate the shitty, wet, shitty, cold, shitty, Lake District. For years now I’ve feigned interest and affection for this tramps armpit of a national park, and I’m not going to do it anymore. Why some people spend their time and their money coming to stay and wander around what is little more than a collection of lumps, with some dribble in between, is beyond me. Give me straight lines any day. Give me parking spaces and digital advertising, give me ticket barriers and skinny tight jeans, give me exhaust fumes and brutal architecture any day of the week and twice on Sundays, but whatever you do, do not give me the fucking Lake District.

And let me tell you why, dear reader. Let me tell you why, after many years of being under the spell, the illusion, of this barren wasteland littered with wobbly cottages and face-ache ugly sheep, I now see it for what it is – an isolated, inconvenient, inaccessible, wet and windy pile of crap in the north-west of England, as if all of nature got together and squatted for many thousands of years, forcing from its bowels a huddle of pathetic bodies of water and a few piles of stone, before moving on to more worthy parts of the world.

On the 25th of April of this year (2017), when still a stupid and confused young man, I decided to go for a walk with my camera and, as was my wont in that period of my life, I chose to visit The Lake District. ‘Surely you weren’t that stupid and confused!?’ I hear you ask in shock and in dismay, as such a choice would seem utterly ridiculous to those with a semblance of sense and a modicum of intelligence, but yes – unfortunately I was. Unfortunately, when finishing work a little early on a Tuesday afternoon, and with the light nights starting to stretch further and further up the clock face, I decided to speed over to Cumbria and to have a walk up some hills, over some rocks, and around some lakes and tarns. What a tit I was!

I chose Grasmere as my starting point. ‘Grass-smear’ would be more appropriate. What a stinking hodge-podge of a town with its beech hedging and old slate buildings, its cafes and galleries and greenery. Idiot tourists wander around the streets, not paying attention to traffic, furiously licking ice cream as it melts in their cones and runs down their sticky fingers and forearms. Others stand confused, stationary, recently having disembarked from their grotesquely coloured tour buses, not sure where to go or what to do, but seemingly oblivious to how stupid they look with their huge black plastic sunglasses – a thousand elderly terminators looking for their next target, all wearing bum-bags. And everyone’s so bloody nice. The old and young alike smile and say hello to strangers. As I made my way down the main drag, the awful sun with its disgusting warmth beating down on my shoulders and picking out a thousand shades of green in the trees and parks and mountains that tower above this hell of civility and quiet, people popped up from nowhere and grinned and greeted and gurned, and were really, really nice. I had to get out of there.

I turned up Easedale Road, my closest escape route, and started to walk up towards Brimmer Head farm and the hills I could see in the distance. The sun continued to shine and shimmied and shimmered and danced on the surface of the beck I followed and the canopy of leaves above my head. It was late in the day and so other walkers were descending and walking past me, back to the horrors of Grasmere – I wanted to warn them, I wanted to usher them away from the depressing mix of calm and Lakeland culture that oozed from each quaint building in that godforsaken town, but, I am ashamed to say, I decided to save myself. I trudged up the semi-paved pathway, meandering through a field before walking parallel to Easedale Beck, so slow running it seemed almost still. That’s right – even the rivers here are stupid – they don’t even run, and instead create tranquil mirrored surfaces that reflect the trees and blue skies above so you’re entirely surrounded by a sense of light and shade. It’s enough to make you vomit. And don’t get me started on the sheep – there were thousands of them, new lambs and their mothers, scattered about the landscape, the latter chewing on grass with blank expressions and sleepy eyes, the former running around in gangs and jumping and calling, excited by their new life and the vibrant world that surrounded them. They all called out, ewes locating their lambs, lambs locating their ewes – a chorus of livestock call and response that to me, as I wandered uphill and away from them, seemed to sing in deep sheepy voices “We hate you."

Before long I found myself stepping up carefully placed stone slabs alongside the ridiculously named Sourmilk Gill. I mean yes, it is a Gill, and yes, as it pours down from Easedale Tarn and spreads out over huge stones, bubbling in pools and running down rocks, it does take on a slightly white appearance not too dissimilar to sour milk. But still, to actually name it after what it looks like is, frankly, idiotic. And what about the steps I walked on, what about their placement and precision and how they facilitate easy ascent and yet seem to blend into the natural landscape as if they grew out of the ground – how rubbish are they!? How did they get there? Probably air-dropped by helicopter and then lifted and planted by tired workers and volunteers whose sole aim was to make my enjoyment of this part of the world even more acute whilst preserving the delicate structures of the natural earth around me – how lazy and selfish can you get? I wanted to take a moment to rest as the slight walk up hill and the focus it had taken to avoid the million cow pats on my stroll thus far had tired me somewhat. I saw a perfect spot just above me where the aforementioned Sourmilk Gill poured into a Jacuzzi sized pool where it gained clarity and stillness and seemed to beg me to take a dip. I’m no fool however, and I wasn’t to be tempted by such magical scenes and opportunities to refresh myself – I wanted to just stand next to it and sweat for a while and think about how terrible my walk had been up to this point. But even this proved awkward, as, when I approached the pool, I noticed I wasn’t the only one left out in the countryside that day. A woman – a bloody woman – had decided to come to exactly the same spot, at exactly the same time, and to set up camp with a rug and a book and a thermos, and was, as I stood there, in a bathing suit having a swim in the clear cool waters of this perfect natural pool. I shit you not. She was that selfish. She was that unconcerned as to my comfort and my need to sit and relax, that she swam around in the pool enjoying the sun, her lithe body floating and paddling, her face a picture of pure bliss, making me feel a little weird for being there. This may seem to some like a beautiful moment. To some it may sound like a scene in which the wonder of nature and humanity came together in an eruption of sheer pleasure. To some it may appear to be the beginning of a porno film. To me however, at the time, it was a disgrace – a typical example of one person not giving a shit about another, and perfectly indicative of the selfishness of those who live in, and those who visit, The Lake District. What if I wanted to have a paddle? What if I wanted to briefly dip my toes into the water. I couldn’t. And all because some woman had decided to go for a swim with nary a care for the effect it might have on others. This wouldn’t happen in London – there would be changing rooms and allotted time slots and a steep yet affordable charge to cover maintenance costs and chlorine. In the circumstances, I decided to walk slightly further up hill, out of sight of the pool near the top of the Gill so as to save the woman’s blushes, and to capture a quick photograph of the path back down to Grasmere, and the apocalyptic mess I had just walked through. (*see footnotes)

If I had known what was ahead of me – if I had known what sights and sounds and experiences would be laid out for me to tolerate, to push through, to brace myself against, I would have turned back at this point. But I didn’t. For some reason I persevered, foolishly thinking things could only get better and that surely, surely, as I went uphill, things couldn’t possibly go downhill. If I only I knew.

At the top of Sourmilk Gill, passing between Crags Cockly and Brinhow, I walked over the brow of a hill and found myself completely alone and in a world so alien, so quiet, I was stunned. And not in a good way. In the same way as when you eat too fast and something unexpectedly gets stuck and so you’re uncomfortable and surprised at the same time. Just like that. If you’re the kind of person who likes wide open spaces then you may have felt okay. If you’re the kind of idiot who yearns to stand amongst lakes and mountains and wildlife with no-one else around, and feel for the first time that you can understand the thrill of explorers and of the first man Adam, stumbling into new worlds so fresh they are still frosted with dew, then this might have been up your street. I didn’t. I wanted a skinny latte. But instead of my favourite hot beverage I had to put up with Easedale Tarn, perfectly still, reflecting the whisps of lonely cloud that occasionally drifted above in the bright blue sky. It sat there, surrounded by a rolling plateau populated only by the occasional ewe and their off-spring, sunbathing and munching and sleeping. The plateau was surrounded by towering walls of stone – Slapestone Edge and Blea Crag, rugged backdrops of shadows and sharp edges accentuating the Eden below. One tree stood solitary not far from the edge of the tarn – its branches and leaves shot upwards as if petrified by the world around it. I empathised. I took a quick photo before locating my escape route. I had to get out of there.

The path carved its way across the fell and past the tarn, before heading steeply up one of the crags and out of sight – I started to make my way, hoping higher ground would be less oppressive, less ominous and less threatening. As I walked towards the incline I noticed something to my left – something moving in the shadows in the distance. Knowing my luck, it would probably be something horrible, something ugly and wild and unsettling. Of course, I was right – it was a fucking deer. I froze, scared stiff, arms in the air, mirroring the tree only fifty metres back towards the tarn. The beast was huge. It was vicious. It stared at me, perfectly still, its massive brown eyes scanning me for a point of weakness. Its soft brown coat and delicate form was obviously a deception created by years of evolution, all to lure me in before it pounced and sunk its razor-sharp teeth into my legs, my arms, my neck. But then it got worse. Then, to my horror, I saw that it was not alone – there was another deer, even bigger, and then another, very small. They obviously hunted in packs, with the small cute one sent out first to do the leg work and bring down the prey before the big ones trotted over to feast on the spoils – my mangled flesh. I didn’t dare move. I stood and watched for what seemed like a lifetime – a staring competition with three apex predators. The tension was almost unbearable, accentuated by the silence. It was silly of me, but at the time I thought, if I was going to die, I wanted a photo of the beasts who were responsible. Maybe the police, or the lake district mountain rescue, when they stumbled upon my corpse, would find my camera and would be able to use the image to identify the deer and to take them down before they hurt anyone else. I carefully, slowly, reached into my bag and pulled out my camera, all the while maintaining eye contact, and then took a quick photo.

As I pressed the shutter, almost as a reaction, they started to walk away from me – pretending to be scared, pretending to not be interested, pretending to only want to be allowed to get on with their life without any interaction with man – I didn’t know animals could be so strategic. They made a foolish mistake however – in pretending to walk away from me, no doubt in an attempt to lull me into a false sense of security before encircling me and beating me to death with their hooves, they gave me a window. I quickly darted to my left, and then to my right, just to confuse them, and then, after a couple of commando rolls I sprinted up to path in front of me, waving my arms and screaming at the top of the lungs. I didn’t stop until I reached the top past Belles Knott and Lang Crag, and found myself on another blasted plateau with another blasted tarn surrounded by more blasted crags – when was this hell going to end?! I kept moving, further up hill, towards more crags and what seemed like some sort of hilltop between Codale Tarn and Bright Beck – a crossroad of national park pathways and, hopefully, safety. I collapsed when I got there, lungs bursting out of my chest, tears streaming down my face, but without a deer in sight – I had made it. I tried to calm myself by eating a Snickers and having a quick drink of orange cordial – I had been in the wilderness for a whole two hours now and the sweet taste of nuts, nougat and milk chocolate, washed down by overly diluted fruity water, was as needed as it was welcome. I gasped with satisfaction, orange squash and a chocolatey pulp dribbled down my chin and into my beard. I didn’t care. I felt safe, but I could never be sure – my near death experience, though fleeting, had reminded me of how vigilant I needed to be if I were to make it back down to Grasmere and the safety of my car in one piece.

It was then that I noticed the time. I had set off late that day and so although the sun wasn’t due to set for some time, it had already started its descent. The light was changing, becoming more pronounced as it glanced off rocks and distant peaks and valleys. I stood up, determined to work out the best route back, avoiding the way I had come and the perils of Easedale Tarn and Sourmilk Gill, or, as I now called them, Danger Tarn, and the Gill of Death. It was only now that I noticed my surroundings – so bleak, so uninspiring. It was only the week before I had stood in a cramped tube train carriage on a visit to our nation’s capital, my nose buried in a strangers armpit, a day of meetings with jaded nob-heads punctuated by pre-packed sandwiches and franchise coffee shops ahead of me. How I wished to return, to swap these open skies for crowded high rises, these rolling hills for crap stained streets, these quiet, grazing sheep for over-flowing litter bins. But I could not. I was in this hell, and it was up to me to get out of it.

Below me sat Stickle Tarn, surrounded by huge crags and peaks – Harrison Stickle and Thorn Crag and the Langdale Pikes, shadowy guards standing still and proud between me and Langdale Fell, piercing the blue above and rolling, bulbous, into the valleys below. Not at all epic, not at all awesome or spectacular or able to provide a unique perspective as to one’s place in the world and the wonders of the Cumbrian landscape. Just dark and bumpy.

To my right something strange started to happen. As the sun set and started to disappear behind unseen cloud somewhere in the distance, it diffused and softened and started catch the features of hills and stones as they rose up to the peak called Sergeant Man. Continuous expanses of green and grey morphed into contoured, shifting tapestries of stone and earth. Light picked out ewes and their lambs in miniature, moving slowly over jagged rocks and into tiny valleys as thousands of flying insects burst into the air. Their wings caught the sun and like gold dust they floated over every surface, fluttering, chasing, dancing in front of me as I pulled my rucksack back on and started to move up hill. A wave of nausea washed over me, brought on, I assume, by the sights surrounding me, and not at all by the speed with which I wolfed down my Snickers bar.

And then I was there. After a short climb up to Sergeant Man, then a boring traipse across empty fells without another soul in sight with the western mountains stood as silhouettes in the distance observing my progress, I arrived at High Raise, the peak of my walk and the point from which I would descend and retreat to safety and comfort. Another stupid name – High Raise. It’s not even that high. Not too long before this walk I had been up the Shard in London and that’s massive. I mean sure, the Shard is only 310 metres tall and High Raise is 762m, and sure, I had the whole of High Raise to myself at sunset and the view was “to die for”, and, sure, High Raise is peppered with wonderful outcrops of volcaniclastic sandstone and on a clear day you can see as far as the Yorkshire Dales and Morecambe Bay. BUT, is it made out of glass? No. Can you get Prosecco up there? No. Is there a lift? Is there shite.

But, I was there, so I thought I might as well take some snaps before I came back down. In the distance, over the black brows of Rosthwaite Fell and Glaramara the mountains crowded together in a huddle of shadows – Kirk Fell, the Scafells, Great Gable – each blending into the other, only their highest points standing proud above the swell of cloud and mist that seemed to settle amongst and behind them. As the sun fell it stretched out shafts of light like fingers, desperately clinging to the hills and valleys in an attempt to stay around for just a moment longer, its amber glow spreading in its final effort as far as the eye could see. The peaks gained anonymity in this final struggle, mingling with one another and slowly turning into one black mass – a wall of darkness separating me from worlds beyond the horizon. Not to be churlish, but it was all very confusing and perhaps if the National Trust put big signs on the mountains then it would have made it a lot easier to know what the hell I was looking at. #justaying.

I was ready to go home. It was getting very dark, my toes were a little cold, I was sure the killer deer were somewhere nearby, and, frankly, despite the little light show, it was pretty bloody boring. But the Lake District wasn’t quite finished with me yet. Not happy with tiring me, embarrassing me, scaring me and soiling me (did I mention how frightening the deer were?), this supposedly magical place had one last trick up its sleeve – a parting gift akin to a spit and a slap in the face before it sent me on my way, just for shits and giggles. As I made my way from High White Stones to the pile of stones slightly lower down the hillside, named, originally, Low White Stones, the small number of clouds that had hovered above throughout the day started to sink towards me. As they did so, they seemed to increase in number and to gain mass, and seemed to be heading right for where I was walking. It wasn’t until that evening that I was aware of an ‘inversion’.

Apparently some photographers and others who like the outdoors think an inversion is a good thing – that an inversion is pretty. I can say, categorically, that it is not. There is nothing good or pretty about clouds being on the ground and not in the sky. There’s nothing good or pretty about huge bodies of mist and fog, translucent glaciers many miles long and many miles wide, floating down hillsides and into the valleys below you. Imagine how scary it is, and not good or pretty in any way, to be standing on high ground and for it to be like an island amongst a sea of cloud that churns and turns and passes as waves before sinking below your feet as the after-glow of that day’s sun illuminates the landscape with an otherworldly light. Can you image what it’s like? That’s right – it’s rubbish. Cloudy bloody rubbish.

By this point I was sick and tired. I had reached the point where all fear and all coldness had left the mind and body and I would have walked through anything to feel the sanctuary of my heated leather car seat and to listen to a witty podcast about life-hacking and the virtues of hot yoga. I stomped down the fellside and directly into the cloud – I wasn’t going to let it keep me any longer – and the sun popped its head out between two peaks, cloaked in fog so it looked as if it was floating below and on the wrong side of the horizon. I turned to get one last photo, one last sight of the fiery orb which, for my money, seemed to be giving a final two fingered salute to the weary traveller on behalf of all of nature, telling me to stay away or risk further punishment if I ever dared to stray into the outdoors again.

Within minutes the sun was gone. Darkness descended. Luckily I had a head torch in my bag and so strapped it on and continued my way downhill. Past Ferngill crag, towards Calf Crag before realising I’d made a wrong turn, then back again and down past Deer Bields and following Easedale Gill towards Brimmer Head Farm. My knees and ankles and hips and arms and wrists and face and elbows were hurting. I didn’t know why. The Lake District just does that to you I suppose. I was spat out of the great outdoors like some unwanted Hubba Bubba and landed at 11pm on the main street of Grasmere. It was deserted. Faint conversation and laughter flowed from distant pubs, the warm glow of living room lamps bled out of sash windowed slate cottages, a dog barked somewhere on the other side of town. You crazy bastards, I thought. You sick, crazy bastards, choosing to spend your time in this wasteland with your quaint shops and your friendly neighbours, with your nice craft beers and your locally sourced produce, surrounded by the constant threat of nature and wildlife and without an Uber in sight. I retreated to my car, put on my driving gloves, and got the hell out of there. And on the way home I decided to write this blog. If I could save one person from going to this godawful place, if I could save one life, if I could discourage just one innocent soul from venturing out to The Lake District and wasting their time and their money and their happiness on the fruitless exercise of hiking in this part of the world, then I would have done my bit.

You’re welcome, whoever you are.

*Footnote: I’d just like to take this opportunity to point out to my girlfriend that I didn’t watch the female swimmer or anything – I barely even noticed her. All I remember is that there was a pool, there was someone in it, I was disgusted, and I turned away really, really, really quickly.

All images taken on the Sony A7rii using the Sony G Master 24 - 70mm 2.8

 

Helvellyn, The Lake District, Cumbria - 07.02.2017

My formative years were spent on the banks of the River South Tyne. Between the bungalow I grew up in and the magical world of rolling hills and hidden pools, of sun-dappled woodland and frosted fields, was the Newcastle to Carlisle railway line. To cross it every day through the large white gate posts was to cross a threshold, to take a step from the world of adults and rules and order and expectation, into a world of intrigue and of beauty, of possibility limited only by one’s imagination. I’ve been very lucky over my thirty-six years in that as I’ve grown up, I’ve had many opportunities to chase that same feeling in adulthood. Bar a few years spent living and working in cities I have had the Northumbrian and Cumbrian countryside not far from my front door, and have strived to chase that same sense of thrill and adventure through walks in landscapes laced with opportunity, dripping with the potential to stun, to inspire, and to move. When my final day comes, when father time points his crooked finger in my direction and I experience the obligatory flash of life before my eyes, the faces of those important to me will be set amongst a flurry of peaks and valleys, of shadows and lights seen and experienced when in the great outdoors. And there will be one or two moments that linger a little longer in that montage, that stand a little proud amongst the others, having seared themselves more deeply into my memory by virtue of their scale and their colour and their beauty. One of those moments was experienced on the 7th of February 2017, and it snuck up unseen as I enjoyed a winter wander around the famous Cumbrian mountain, Helvellyn. To date, perhaps the most magical walk I have ever had.

I had been up this mountain, the third highest in England, twice previously – once in my early twenties with my brother and his friend Ste, and once in my early thirties with my girlfriend at the time. Both ascents were in mid-summer, both involved inordinate amounts of sweating and panting, and both started from the town of Glenridding and followed the well-trodden route up Striding Edge and back down Swirral. Helvellyn is certainly one of the most dramatic mountains in the UK – a long and at times testing drag up to Red Tarn which sits surrounded by sharp ridges of rock that must be clambered over and along before you rise up to the surprisingly flat plateau of the summit, where views East over Ullswater and West over Thirlmere are waiting to take your breath away.

The route up Helvellyn

On this occasion, on this cold and wet February morning, I decided to try a different approach – there is a path up to the top from Thirlmere that is a little less daunting and that requires little or no climbing or scrambling, which I thought would be much better suited to my levels of fitness at the time, and indeed to the time of year. Back then, foolishly, I wasn’t in the habit of checking the weather before I left home and making my way to The Lakes. I would take a quick squizz at what was happening around me in Northumberland and if there wasn’t anything too severe I would jump in the car. I have since learned how stupid this was, both in terms of safety and in terms of successful photography, after hearing many stories of how dangerous it can get up a Lakeland peak when the elements turn against you, and having suffered a few disappointments of driving over with all my camera gear only to find the weather has put photography out of the question. But, this February trip over to Cumbria was before these lessons – before logic, basic planning and common sense clouded my thinking. On this trip, it looked kind of alright where I lived, so I assumed it would be kind of alright sixty miles away.

I motored over there with a podcast on my stereo, a latte in my cup-holder, and the occasional spit of drizzle bouncing off my windscreen. I drove in along the snaking A66 and as the fields and peaks began to unfold and pop up, I could see the thick blanket of grey that seemed to be floating over the whole National Park. Every slight prominence of the drenched landscape rose up only to disappear into unmoving menacing cloud. As I pulled down into St John’s in The Vale and passed through the crags and woodland, peppered as they were in autumnal colours and trees that stood forlorn, I had a few moments of doubt as to whether or not I should bother. I found a large lay-by just past Brown Crag on the A591 and sat for a minute, the rain thudding dully on the roof of the car, taunting me to get out and face it if I dared. There was no trick of light, no features picked out, no atmosphere – I was sure I wasn’t going to get a half decent photo all day. Yes there were hills, yes there was a lake, and yes there were trees and features and nature all around, but there was so little light. What grey illumination managed to squeeze itself through the ominous ceiling that stretched from horizon to horizon fell limp and tired and desaturated around me.

But then I reminded myself – I didn’t start walking to take photographs. Photographs came as a result of my walking. I wasn’t going to measure the success of my day by what images I came back with, nor by the wonder of the sights that I would see, but rather by the quality of the time I would spend putting one foot in front of the other, clearing my head and sating my curiosity as to what challenge this other route up Helvellyn posed. Plus, I’d driven for ninety minutes to get there and it was ninety minutes back, and was I shite going to turn around without at least stretching my legs.

Thirty minutes later I was well on my way up hill when as if on cue, as if as a reward for my positive mental attitude and determination to enjoy the great outdoors, the rain stopped. I was in a rhythm, trudging up the trail, watching where I placed my feet, the lovely muffled pit-pat-putt of rain drops landing on the hood of my Berghaus as the gradient began to take its toll on my legs, when all of a sudden it was quiet. I stopped and turned, pulling off my water-proof and looking around. The small stretch of woodland that runs parallel to Thirlmere had shrunk and fallen below me and the valley had opened up. The cloud above had started to thin somewhat to the North and to the West, and across the reservoir I could see forests, now picked out by sunlight, clinging to the slopes of Armboth and Whythburn Fells like cloaks of copper and rust. The haze of the rain seemed to sweep away before my eyes and details became clearer, angles sharper, shadows more defined and severe.

Thirlmere and beyond

A little further up the hillside and I started to get that wonderful sense of scale and perspective of the shrinking world I’d left behind - Skiddaw, Bassenthwaite, Threlkeld, High Rigg, Low Moss, Raven Crag, The Ben – so many names, so many weathered crags and withering woods spreading for miles around and reminding me of my insignificance.

From a up Helvellyn to Bassenthwaite

Everywhere I looked cloud seemed to be lifting, peaks both great and small seemed to be shaking off their covers and leaning and stretching to catch a little of the shifting, dancing sunlight. Except for Helvellyn of course. Uphill, not far ahead of me, there was an ominous wall of mist or fog or cloud – I couldn’t see what it was - it was solid and it wasn’t shifting and after a little more hiking I wouldn’t be able to go much further. As I surveyed the mountainside and tried to decide what to do I started to notice something else however – something I hadn’t seen much of that winter. Hiding behind rocks and clinging to slight undulations, peppered seemingly everywhere, there were pockets of snow and ice. With my head down and my eyes trained on my feet, my hood up and the rain flying horizontally into my face, I had not noticed that there was an abundance of the white stuff waiting for me at around 400 metres above sea level. It was everywhere! The first traces were only a few feet ahead, and as the path rose before me these traces grew in number and size and seemed to coalesce into an actual deep layer of snow just below the barrier of cloud I was heading for.

I started to move up hill and the discoloured winter grass and sodden stones began to sink beneath frost and ice – steps became a little more tricky, rocks a little more slippery. I looked to my right across Thirlmere and Long Moss and Standing Crag were stooping below a moody sky and showing a similar winter coating to that which surrounded me. There was something wonderful in the churning grey clouds that tossed and turned above them and I wanted to get my camera out to try and capture something. I saw a boulder just off the path and thought the added height would give me a better perspective. Excited by the wintery conditions and worried that the scene before me might change, I jogged over and tried to jump with one stride onto the wide flat surface of the rock. My foot slipped from under me and I landed with all my weight on the corner of the boulder, my shin taking the brunt of the impact, and then I slipped like a cartoon character who’d splattered against a wall, down the offending stone and into the snow below. There was the usual pregnant pause before the pain reared its throbbing head. For a moment I stupidly thought I might be okay, but within a few seconds I was gripping my leg and rolling around on the floor shouting words I rarely use, in a voice I didn’t recognise. This continued for quite some time until eventually the pain subsided a little and I plucked up the courage to survey the damage. With the odd curse still escaping my mouth I rolled back my trousers and looked at my poor swollen shin. Nothing too bad, thankfully – just a bump and a bruise and a graze that were hot to the touch and that seemed to pulsate in time with a sharp throb that ran the length of my left leg. I sat for a minute and held snow against my shin, wondering if I should carry on. I then got a little bored and remembered that I wasn’t a toddler and should probably just get back to it. I tried the boulder again, a little more gingerly, and snapped a quick shot before heading on my way.

Snow on Bell Crags

The path I was following became increasingly difficult to distinguish and the thick and seemingly impenetrable cloud ahead loomed over me a thousand storeys tall. I continued towards it, carefully, my thinking being that because the level of land around me was quite wide and because I was quite sure that there weren’t any severe drops anywhere nearby, if nothing else, I could take the opportunity to get close and perhaps even stick my head in to see what it was like. I’d heard so many stories of white-outs and dangerous quick dropping fog, that this seemed like a relatively safe opportunity to have a little glance into weather I had never experienced before without any risk of getting lost or falling over an edge. But, as I slowly made my way up icy steps and almost hidden trails towards what had hitherto seemed like a wall of wintery weather, it became less dense, less solid, less daunting. All of a sudden, not twenty metres away from it, I could actually see into it, and it wasn’t fog or mist or cloud, but snow – thick, flying, belting ice white snow. It was like looking into another world – I could almost lean into it, my feet in winter daylight with green fields and autumnal colours not too far below, my torso in Narnia with blizzards swirling around me and roughly ten to twenty metres of visibility. I moved forward and what had up to that point looked like a definite and exact threshold between the two worlds was something a little more blurred – still breath-taking, still two extreme seasons sitting and existing next to each other on the same mountain, but now with an antechamber one could rest in before entering the unknown.

From the fringe of the cloud looking down to Thirlmere

I looked into the arctic-like conditions ahead of me. Somewhere up there was the last four hundred metres of Helvellyn, encased in a recently shaken snow globe I was thinking of stepping into. I figured that as long as I was careful, as long as I was slow, and as long as I could see far enough ahead of me to feel safe, I would continue. I strapped my camera bag back on, had a wee sip of my orange cordial, and with the same sense of thrill and anticipation I had felt as a child when exploring somewhere new, somewhere possibly dangerous, I took a few steps into the unknown. I made slow progress up hill, stopping occasionally to look around and reassure myself that I could still see remnants of the path and enough ground to the left and the right of me. Although there was a distinct difference between the sky and the earth, all was white – the snow flew into my eyes and clung to my beard and the wind whipped around my hood. In the distance, down the valley side, ghostly clouds of all shapes and sizes floated by like so many misshapen ships, some faster, some taller, some darker and more heavily laden with cargoes of ice and hail. These wisps and waves and hauntingly silent bodies of weather would occasionally slow and linger, but then transform and clear – cracks would appear and the sun would burn its way through – slips of blue sky and rays of light appeared momentarily before being smothered and stifled – a grand tussle of elements played out around me as I struggled up the barely discernible trail, every so often catching sight of a heavenly gallimaufry of sun and wind and snow.

Heaven on Helvellyn

Twice I stopped. Twice I got a little scared and started to walk downhill again. But twice I told myself to carry on and to experience and enjoy what was happening around me. The weather continued to shift and as I walked it fluctuated, the world morphing from a calm white glow with an unnatural warmth and stillness, to a steel grey wasteland that shook and that chilled to the bone. Before long however, the ground started to even out and with it the visibility seemed to improve – I could now see thirty metres or so around me. The snow kept up, but it was lighter, more gentle, floating down as if dropped, rather than flying down as if thrown. I had reached a plateau and I stopped to look around, peeling back my hood to enjoy the quiet. It didn’t feel like I had been walking long enough to have made the top, but there ahead of me was the trig point – a short column of stone that marked the summit of Helvellyn. It seemed to tremble as it stood guard over the abrupt drop down to Red Tarn, the ridges of Striding Edge and Swirral Edge running off into the distance before tracing their way like a jagged jaw line down to the valley below. Or so I imagined. Because I could see none of this of course – only the trig point, and a few feet beyond the ground disappearing into nothing. Not ten steps ahead of me was a great blue and white abyss where one of the most wonderful views in the Lakes should have been, and yet the sight was all the more stirring as a result. The trig point was lashed with streaks of ice that had been frozen sideways and I stood next to it trying to take in and appreciate the otherworldly quality of the scene I found myself in. As tempting as it was, I didn’t dare go closer to the edge, and for a few moments I simply breathed in the chilling air and listened to the silence, before capturing one quick photo and then turning to re-trace my steps.

Helvellyn summit

I was only a few minutes into my walk back down when I heard, for the first time since leaving Hexham that morning, the voice of another human being. At first I couldn’t tell where it was coming from and so I stopped and tried to listen a little more closely – it was a conversation taking place somewhere ahead of me, spoken loudly so as to rise above the wind. I started to walk again, peering down the slope and scanning the snow and the outcrops of rock to see if there was any movement. At first I had no luck and, by trying to listen as I walked, managed only to lose focus on where I placed my feet and so stumbled and tripped more than once. But then the cocoon of snow and cloud that surrounded me started to change shape for the hundredth time, and cracks began to appear. The light that spilled into the sky had a distinct reddish warmth that signalled the sun, like I, was in its descent. It was diffused by the thinning grey above me and appeared as a thick band of orange, painting the horizon of the hills on the other side of Thirlmere as they crept into view for the first time in hours. All of a sudden, the landscape around me lit up and I could see quite far downhill - there they were, two walkers like stick men in the distance, clambering over rocks, chatting to each other, having a quick piss (I think), and then carrying on their way. I tried to follow.

Fellow walkers on their way back down

As was their wont that day, the cloud and sun continued to wrestle with each other, albeit with less vigour and less care as to who would be the victor. Like the famous spent swimmers that do cling together, they grasped and they grabbed before the cloud seemed to give a final winning blow and the sun was reduced to a weak blush of amber somewhere distant, somewhere far off and enjoyed by others. I lost the two men ahead of me but after a short while I started to pass corners and steps and rocks that I recognised. I could see further ahead and further below and before too long, I was back at the edge of the cloud. Even though I had only been away from my car for a few hours, even though I had only walked a quite typical distance for me and my usual hikes, I felt like I had been on an expedition of sorts – that I had visited a far-off land and seen things no one else had seen. Full to the brim with this sense of achievement, buoyed by that wonderful feeling of knowing something nobody else knows, I looked to complete my descent with speed and to get back to my car, to rest my legs and check my shin, to wolf down a sausage roll I had left in my glove compartment that would no doubt be the best tasting sausage roll in the world ever full stop. But my walk wasn’t over yet. Helvellyn had one more trick up its sleeve, and it had saved the best for last.

Passing the threshold on the way back down to Thirlmere

As I stepped down I could see to my left that something quite magical was happening. As the sun started to sink to the west, battle-worn and beaten, slipping slowly behind the peaks of Long Moss and Low Saddle and Armboth Fell, the mist and the cloud started to float, slowly at first, across the surface of those same hills and down towards Thirlmere. This gentle tide of wisps and curls of smoke-like fog grew stronger, quicker, more desperate to pour over the edge of The Pewits and High Tove and down Cockrigg and Fisher Crags – they seemed to race and flare as behind them the last bright light of the day - yellow, orange, pink and gold - refracted and diffused, accentuated and then amplified, seeped through and illuminated the western sky with a radiance I would never have thought possible.

Sunset glow over Thirlmere

All the world around me, laid out in miniature, so distant and yet so detailed, seemed to bask in the glow as I stood stunned. Every tree in every woodland, every ripple on every lake, and every crag on every fell side was bathed in the warmest pouring of winter sunlight. It lasted about ten minutes before, once again, the cloud won out and our plucky star sank defeated behind the hills of the western Lake District.

The sun seeping in over Brown Rigg

As a parting gift the sun was kind enough to leave enough of itself to guide me back down to Helvellyn Gill and on to my car and my waiting sausage roll. It was quite the reunion. As the evening set in and I put my car in gear, another vehicle pulled into the lay-by. It was a Vauxhall Corsa with blacked out windows and music playing far too loud. It parked alongside me and the passenger wound down his window - a young lad with a tatt on his neck and a gold necklance Mr T might deem over the top. I wound down my window to be greeted by the unmistakable smell of weed and the glazed eyes of the baked youth who'd enjoyed it. He pointed up to the cloud I had not long ago been walking in and asked if that was Helvellyn. I said yes. He asked me if I'd been up. I said yes. He asked what it was like. I said it was snowing. He didn't believe - asked me if I was taking the piss. I promised him I wasn't. He looked at me like I was mad and the driver - a young girl - pulled away and onto the road towards Grasmere.

I wound my window back up, brushed the sausage roll crumbs from my beard, and started the drive back home. I'm not foolish enough to expect to be rewarded with such sights when venturing out into seemingly mundane conditions in future - indeed many unspectacular walks have been had since this trip up Helvellyn that have been as uninspiring as their weather forecasts have predicted. But, I will never forget this particular jaunt, and it will always act as a reminder of what truly wonderful surprises can occur in the absence of expectation.

Thirlmere from Helvellyn Screes

All images taken on the Sony A7rii using the Sony G Master 24 - 70mm 2.8.