by Rick Ansell
I love being in the hills. I love going to bed knowing there are hills all around. I love waking up in the middle of the night and remembering where I am and then waking up again in the morning to find myself there. I aways feel a deep sense of peace and timelessness, of drama and at the same time an unchanging constancy. Whatever crap we humans throw at each other the hills just sit there. I feel tension drain from me as I arrive and usually a sense of mounting (or should that be mountain?) excitement rise within me. I don’t know why, I just do.
I like whisky too but not in the same way. Offer me whisky, even a fine Talisker, at 6.00 am and I will probably politely turn you down. Liking the hills is just part of me. Liking whisky is transitory, occasional. Liking hills is an absolute
I can sit and watch the sunlight slip across the crags shifting the shadows as it goes and I can happily watch rain sluice down and white threads form on the hillsides as it all pours off in temporary streams. But I feel an urge to walk them, too, to see what is at the top and to feel the air up there. One of my earliest memories is lying in bed in my grandmother’s house in North Devon. Across the lane outside there was a grassy hillside rising up. I pestered my father for days to take me up so I could see what was at the top. Eventually he did and we walked along the ridge on sheep paths and looked down over the village to the sea and the breeze felt different up there. My four-year-old brain registered that this was a special place. The hill would have been less than 100m high.
Bored during lock down, I thought a lot about hills and sat looking at maps of places I couldn’t go to. I imagined walks and runs and tried to feel the wind on my face and the rocks under my feet. I planned routes.
On the internet there are endless lists of hills and browsing through I came upon a list I was vaguely aware of: the Birketts, 541 tops in the Lake District. Everybody has heard of the Wainwrights and nowadays proper runners skip across all 214 of them in less than a week. Even our own Simon Barnett trotted round them all in a fortnight. Can’t be that much of a challenge and it’s all a bit obvious; all very mainstream. Looking at the Birketts there were hills I had never even heard of in places I hadn’t ever visited and I reckoned I knew the Lakes pretty well. I started plotting them on the map. There were a lot and they were all over the place and not in nice organised ranks. Many were so obscure there wasn’t even a ring contour in the place. Having plotted them I spent ages trying to join up all the little circles until I had a continuous line with a few side loops. I could probably have spent longer making the line more efficient but suddenly lockdown was lifted and I could get out again.
But the maps sat there giving me a little wink every time I opened their cupboard. Towards the end of last year, I decided I was in a pre-retirement phase. How would it be to take six weeks off in the Spring and follow that line and do those loops? Six weeks in the hills. My wife spoke of salaries and pensions but she gradually came round. I remembered Geoff Head.
I travelled up on 3 April, ate a fish and chip dinner in the Old Keswickian, touched the Moot Hall and walked up the hill to Burns Farm. The trip had started.
I had planned the walk to take 40 days – it seemed a nice round number, with two rest days. I had a train ticket back for Friday 12 May and had told my boss I would be available for work on the Monday. Each day was about 25 km, though I hadn’t bothered to count the contours and calculate the ascent. I had reckoned that 25 km a day would be six to eight hours. A steady day; not too draining. By 3.00pm on that first day I was beginning to find a flaw. I had walked pretty hard but still had 10km and both Great and Little Fell to visit before I could camp. The day took just over nine hours in the end.
On previous trips I have found anything less than eight hours a day is sustainable but once I start going over nine hours, I start getting grumpy, tired and depleted. The second day was nearer ten and the third over ten. For the first couple of days I wasn’t carrying too much but on the third morning, in Patterdale, I bought nine days of food to see me through to Ambleside and suddenly I was carrying a lot. More weight meant a slower pace. I gradually resigned myself to the fact that there weren’t going to be many short days. I became interested to see what would happen.
I nibbled away at the Dodds Ridge and eventually crossed Kirkstone Pass to start on the Eastern Fells. There was a big day round the hills Simon and I ran one January night on a Dark Mountains 12 hour event and then a gentler day when I looked forward to a coffee and cake in Bampton only to the find the pub closed. Storm Noa hit me in the Sleddale Hills. I was aware of his/her..their coming as a glance at the altimeter suggested I was 100m higher than I knew I was. The pressure was dropping alarmingly. The sky turned that slate grey/green colour that warns of utter evil. It’s not the inky black of a summer thunderstorm but something much greyer and horrorful. The wind started to drive sheets of water at me and I hurried to escape down into Swindale. The plan had been to climb back out and camp at Haskew Tarn but I didn’t fancy my chances up on the moor. I pitched in the crook of two six-foot walls but still had to get out twice during the night to re-peg the tent and I watched anxiously as the little stream rose up its deep embankment until it was only a couple of feet from the tent.
By morning Noa had gone on their way and I was left with a cold front trailing behind. It was a last gasp of winter and snow showers came and went all day leaving the higher tops white and me just cold. It was miserable and it was here that I started to wonder why I was doing this. It was much harder than I had thought. 25 km was a big day now. My knees were making each descent slow and painful. I would battle through the mornings thinking constantly about making a bee line to a nice warm, dry café. I had been getting a few texts from Simon: ‘Hope you are smashing on’, he would say. I kept telling myself: ‘Simon says to smash on. Can’t let him down’. He had asked whether I had a tracker and I began to wish that I had. Somehow it would have been comforting to think that someone might be watching were I was going. By the afternoons I started to feel more positive as I realsied that although it was going to be another nine-hour day, I was going to get there and as soon as I stopped and got the tent up, I knew there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I made a pact with myself not to give in the morning when I seemed to be at my lowest.
For 48 hours I saw nobody as I plugged across the tussocks and bog, picking off nondescript tops. In poor visibility navigation was sometimes a challenge when I didn’t really know what I was looking for – some nebulous flattening on a nose with no nice cairn or read and white kits to mark the spot. I just had to hope I had visited the right spot when I couldn’t see anything. Often, though there would be a couple of stones and I wondered if Dave Birkett had been round to mark each of his tops. Eventually, two days later I bumped into my first person just near Skeggles Water. He thought I was his mate John and it took a while before I convinced him I wasn’t. Weirdly, I met him with his family the next day on Wansfell as I made my way to Ambleside. I assured him I still wasn’t John.
Early one morning on a remote and insignificant hill called Brunt Knott I found a guy sitting with his dog. We chatted for a bit and he asked what I was doing. When I told him he was full of enthusiasm for the trip. I tried to counter his positivity, telling him it was actually proving to be pretty hard work. “Well of course you are going to have to tough it out at times, it won’t be easy’. Somehow being told that what I was doing was hard made it seem less bad. I had expected it to be easy but being told it wasn’t going to be easy made my experience so far seem more bearable: “It is supposed to be difficult, so it’s Ok that it is.”
Ambleside was big milestone. I had booked myself into Brathay Hall for the night. A shower the chance to dry clothes and get a meal boosted moral. It was just a few more days to Keswick and my first rest day. I thought a lot about freedom. Getting up and going to work every day often leaves me feeling stuck on a treadmill, even though I quite enjoy what I do. Walking through London to work each morning I dream of being free to wander the hills. Now I was getting up each morning and wondering if I wasn’t just on another treadmill, looking forward to a ‘weekend’ or day off. I remembered many years ago travelling across the wastes of Patagonia and thinking: you could be so free here you would never escape.
I started asking myself what I really wanted. An ice cream or a good coffee is a great pleasure but it doesn’t offer the same level of satisfaction as arriving at a remote camping spot after a long day. Without a working week, Friday just isn’t the same.
The next day the sun shone and I had a lovely wander, for the first time in just a tee shirt, along the north side of Langdale and over all the Pikes then north on Bob Graham lines to High Raise. I camped high up the Wyth Burn, a lovely remote feeling valley I had admired last year as we ran up to High Raise on my Joss Naylor.
Each day memories of events, races and other trips would flood by as I coincided with the lines of the Bob Graham, and the classic fell races or I passed spots that had camped at in the past when I first started to explore the Lakes. I remembered the people I had been with, the Bob Grahams I had paced. It began to feel like a valedictory tour at times.
I could feel myself starting to lose weight. My legs were becoming matchsticks. I remembered the Seven Ages of Man. I felt I was entering the ‘age of the lean and slippered pantaloon’ with my shrunk shanks. I knew I wasn’t eating as much as I was burning.
I had to camp early one wet and foggy evening as I just couldn’t maintain the schedule but I knew that the day into Keswick was a short one so wasn’t unduly worried. Arriving in Keswick on a warm afternoon, life felt good. I forgot about ‘Monday morning’ put aside thoughts of long days to come and made myself only ever think about the next day.
The following days took me Back o’ Skidda. There was a day of ferocious wind on Blencathra and then a wet trudge out to the Naddle Crags from Mungrisdale. When I got back to the village wet and hungry the pub still wasn’t open so I pushed on to visit all the Caldbeck Fells and Great and Little Calva. It was late when I stopped but I had the prospect of s shorter day and a café in Ulldale. The next day I had planned to stay at a campsite and their website had talked of a bistro on site. I was really looking forward to a meal that wasn’t pasta and tinned mackerel but when I arrived it was closing and I dined on two packets of crisps and an array of cakes. It was all they could offer me. The pasta would have been preferable if I had had any left.
Paulette and Max came up to meet me for three nights in Braithwaite at the end of April. We ate pub food and there was beer each night. There were long days out over the Buttermere Fells but I didn’t have to carry all the gear. When they left, I felt I was entering the second half of the trip; the downhill run.
Bad planning left me with an impossible day and I got behind with the schedule. A couple of wild wet days on the Ennerdale hills made things harder. I could see no way of catching up on the schedule despite deciding to miss out Pillar Rock. I knew I was never going to brave enough to solo it in the wet. I met a couple on Fleetwith Pike on a morning when I was feeling particularly blue. They were heading back down after a wet night out. They asked what I was doing and were overwhelming in their encouragement: ‘You’ve got to keep going, it’s an amazing thing. Just do it at your own pace’, the girl said when I moaned about being slow and behind my schedule. It helped me resign myself to taking an extra day. ‘This is what I am doing. If I miss that train then so be it’, I told myself. Little acts of kindness had a big impact. Later that day I was sitting on Kirk Fell soaked through when another couple appeared out of the storm. They opened a flask and offered me coffee. The warmth of the gesture as well as the drink got me over Pillar with a spring in my step.
From the peaks of the Ennerdale Horseshoe I headed south to the peaks of the Duddon Valley and Black Coombe. I remembered the weekend running a SLMM with Max. The one Brian had planned. I passed the fence corner where we had had our first control. Poor Max hadn’t realised that unlike when we went walking in the hills, on a Mountain Marathon we didn’t stop when we got to a top, we just kept going.
After two more days of rain and low cloud and tricky navigation, summer suddenly came on. I crossed the Duddon Valley and all the trees were in leaf, wild flowers bloomed in the meadows and beside the lanes. Farmers were busy with the lambs. On a long trip like this you really notice the change in the season. I had been woken earlier and earlier by the dawn chorus each morning.
I headed back north over the Sca Fell tops on a day of blasting wind and camped at Seatoller and had a day in Keswick to resupply and get clothes cleaned. I had a planned eight days left; the home run.
I fulfilled a long-held ambition of camping in the Upper Esk Valley perhaps the most lonely and dramatic area in the Lakes with the great crags of Sca Fell above you. Old County Tops country and The Great Lakes Race comes through here too with the crossing of the Esk always exciting and sometimes impossible after heavy rain.
The Caw was the first hill I ever climbed on a school trip. I camped below it on the line of the Duddon Race and continued north over the Coniston Fells and across Wrynose Pass. That night I camped by Red Tarn. The weather was not cold but at night now I needed layers of clothes in my sleeping bag just to keep myself warm. I felt I was slowly wasting and I ended up eating the next day’s ration of chocolate just to generate the warmth needed to go to sleep. In the morning the decision was made to add another day. My Friday train was cancelled because of a strike and I had the option to travel any other day. Getting home on Sunday would still mean I could return to work on Monday at a pinch.
I struggled over Crinkle Crags to Bow Fell, the last really big hill. Sitting on top feeling sorry for myself a bunch of fell runners came up recceing the BG. “Oh it’s Rick isn’t it, the man from Tring”. They fed me jelly babies and we exchanged stories. I wished them well for their attempt and headed to the Old Dungeon Gill for a late lunch and an early finish feeling much better
On the campsite there the warden came over to chat and ask about my tent, an American made one, not seen much in the UK, and what I was doing. When I told him I was almost done with the Birketts he promised me a free breakfast the next morning to celebrate. There was no way I wasn’t going to finish now.
I finished off the Coniston Hills and headed down the west side of Windermere to pick off tops in Grizedale Forest. On the last day I rounded the end of the Lake, had coffee at the Lakeside Hotel and headed up to Gummer’s How, the final hill. Then suddenly I was on the bus back into Windermere. I sat on the train digging ticks out of my arms with the tip of my penknife much to the consternation of the person sitting next to me. By the time I staggered into work next morning the trip was already seeming like a dream. But I know those days will stay with me.