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