I grew up in the London suburbia of Kent bordering agricultural fields and with the help of a bicycle, pleasant rural areas. It was far from idyllic but the presence of nature was there, and I wonder about a boyhood where this is not so. I could see fields from my bedroom window, and cabbages grew the other side of my school fence. One of my delights was cycling along country roads in the summer, down to Eynsford and Shoreham. And we sometimes walked to a rough woodland area called Canada Heights which I notably remember for the autumn, and the ‘boing tree’. My Dad pulled down a springy branch overhanging a hillside, we clutched it tightly, and it launched us into the air.
Perhaps those boyhood moments were the origin of my adult love of mountains because in some respects, it’s the same thing. I tasted freedom when I sped on my bike, and felt contentment in the sunshine. It’s no different now when I’m in the Lakes, Wales, Scotland, or the Pyrenees: those are the good feelings, the happy feelings I want. Nature facilitates balance, health and sanity, acting as an antidote for the corrosive and deadening forces of society. They were private moments as a boy, memories in the dust only I can discern, and it’s the same thing now: private escape.
I got back from the Pyrenees at the end of august, and since then I’ve been in the hills just twice. British weather is the problem. I spend as many days anticipating a walk as I do undertaking one as I watch the forecast, a collection of web cams and the immediate prospect of the day, as far as such things go. The Mountain Weather Information Service is actually quite accurate, more so than national or local forecasts. Several times I’ve ignored its negative advice in a haze of hill desperation and unfounded optimism, when the predictions were accurate. You get temperature advice, likelihood of rain, wind advice when it’s significant, and both cloud and sunshine advice. Rain makes everything pointless but after that it’s only sunshine that bothers me. ‘Likelihood of cloud free summits 80%’ or 50 or even 40 is a positive indication in our miserable grey country, likely to get my juices flowing like a tree after winter. But like a timetable offering a convenient arrival the bus may be on time or not: the other factor is ‘likelihood of sunshine’. Cloud free hills can still be grey and dismal. If I say ‘they probably will be’ I will likely be correct, statistically speaking. Let’s have a wager: I bet you ten pounds the weather tomorrow will be crap. Let’s run the wager, say, for one week every month for an entire year. It would pay my camp site fees.
In Britain, pleasures are weighed out and restrained like war time rations. Not an exciting espresso on a pavement cafe with bare arms, but tea and a biscuit while watching the BBC. Not the hot friendliness of the Spanish, but the surly reserve of pasty faced sun starved Brits. Not Pyrenean plains and massive sun drenched heights but modest slopes lovely – yes – when the sun shines, but that’s rare. In EM Forster’s A Room With A View the hero, George, shouts “Beauty! Joy! Love!” across the countryside. If he did this in Kent someone would complain and call him a nutter – maybe a gang of ASBO teens would attack him – or it would rain and he’d have to stop. George has escaped the confines of home, and he’s revelling in sensuous Italian landscape. Before the age of about twenty, my name was George.
The French describe it very well: jouissance, the pleasure principle. We don’t get enough of it; it’s hard to find it under damp grey skies provoking stoicism more than exuberance. It’s rather tame on Moel Siabod – where I camped overnight about a month ago – or on the summit of Great Gable where I walked two weeks ago, up from Borrowdale. I did feel content there however, in a happy blue sky moment. I’ve walked up Great Gable perhaps fifteen times, from Borrowdale and Wasdale. I’ve seen the hill in winter, autumn, summer and spring; on the most sombre day I’ve ever experienced in the Lakes from Wasdale, under snow and in sparkling clean light. Like Pic du Midi d’Osseau in the Pyrenees and Snowdon in Wales (Scotland is more complex), Great Gable is poignantly iconic. The National Trust use its image for their logo, it’s been voted Britain’s Best View, and its pyramid dimensions satisfy the soul. Like Midi d’Osseau, Gable is distinctive.
It only takes a few hours to summit Great Gable but on a clear day the rewards are as good as anywhere in the Lakes. You see the gentle temptations of Borrowdale in one direction, the Wasdale panorama the other side, which even from a distant height evokes drama and ruggedness: Wastwater, the Scafells, Pillar, the mosaic of green fields nestling in the valley and the hazy Irish sea. Views down to lovely Buttermere which seems surprisingly close, a glimpse of Inominate Tarn lying at one end of an interesting trek across to Fleetwith Pike; Great End and the Corridor Route snaking its way beneath it, a story-book path where animal-human creatures might walk. Most satisfying, and one of the best traverse sections in all of the Lakes, is actually the approach to Great Gable as you climb to Green Gable. Buttermere nestles below to the right and the slopes of Ennerdale are especially pleasurable. I’ll never forget the first impression this made on me, the blend of mystery and loveliness like a girl, once, in the maelstrom of London so pretty I couldn’t help staring. She smiled, black hair, red coat, while I wasn’t thinking anything nor had any intention of approach or communication. “Beauty! Joy! Love!” certainly, but I was, as the saying goes, struck dumb rather than eloquent.
I took a few photographs of Ennerdale when I first saw the outlook, enjoying evocative slopes and purplish shadows. I didn’t know where it was, what the valley was called, nor subsequently remembered where you had to walk to see that view. It was my early days in the Lakes, once upon a time, long, long, ago. Then years later I realised, this is where I saw that place. But it’s not the same as the first moment; it never is.
Such memories ate the final satisfaction of the hills. For me it’s like a return to a freedom I found in a boyhood cycling summer, before the cold winds of adulthood cut me.
Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart-work
on all the images imprisoned within you
- Turning Point, Rainer Maria Rilke