Glassy puddles speckled the icy path before us; they cracked and splintered under our boots as we made our way along the Kentmere Valley in Cumbria. We were heading for our first Wainwright of 2015, Harter Fell – it was a taste of things to come – the first of 214 we hoped.
Grey-white clouds floated along the ridges above us – certainly not what the weather forecast had predicted. Like plumes of smoke they nestled into crags and gullies, holding on against the blustery wind, reluctant to leave, caressed by thermals. It was calm where we walked. The wind howled above us, the ice cracked under our boots, and sheep watched our every move. The blanket of cloud resembled an unmade bed, rustling and billowing across the sky. The sun fought to get a look-in. Occasionally it splattering the fells with spots of colour – like car headlights on a foggy day – painting patches of yellow across drab, grey grass, like an artist’s brushstrokes.
Kentmere Reservoir, where we stopped for a snack, struggled to reflect the surrounding hills. Across the water, I watched as a patch of blue sky escape dreary clouds but was quickly hidden again. On the horizon, the pass of Nan Bield sat below the clouds. The distinctive box of the shelter, incongruously square against the ruggedness of the crags, was silhouetted against distant blue skies over Haweswater. The weather forecast was correct, but not for us.
Nan Bield was our next stop; a chance to shelter from the wind and have lunch. The path, which contoured along the fell to the pass, looked easier than what lay ahead of us as we crossed the footbridge over the stream.
Little shelter and heavy mist
Sporadic sheep trails relieved the monotonous trudge over becks and around crags. It wasn’t easy. Hannah, only ten year old, was finding it tough. She wasn’t the happy Hannah of an hour ago. My eyes remained fixed on the shelter, no detour, keep straight ahead. A blanket of cloud slipped down the hillside, stopping just above our heads, a ceiling of mist concealed the ridge. We felt isolated and vulnerable, cocooned in a tent of dull, grey light.
I was beginning to feel concerned. The forecast had predicted we would have some sunshine, with cold, but light winds. Obviously, the weather had decided to move elsewhere. Hannah wasn’t enjoying herself; the trudge through the grass had sapped her strength. We continued to plod through the mist, across trackless slopes, attempting to lighten her burden with jokes. In summer, I wouldn’t have been worried about her, but with the cold, biting winds starting to batter us, I contemplated a retreat, to return on a more favourable day. The main path wasn’t far. I promised a food stop once we reached it. There were a few rocks we could sit behind for shelter, before starting the climb to the pass.
The boulder provided a little shelter from the weather. ‘Not for long’, I said, ‘five minutes.’ It was enough, Hannah revived, and we set off again. The wind blew us up the path. Soon we reached the pass and quickly dashed into the shelter. The view was tremendous. Ridges lit by golden sunlight rose out of Haweswater. Walkers silhouetted on the ridge, steadily climbed towards High Street – black Lowry-like sticks against amber hills – it looked almost Alpine.
A mountain bike appeared in front of us. First the wheels, then the seat, then the head of the rider. His face told the story: he had carried his bike up from Small Water. I could see he was glad the strenuous, steep climb was over. The scene was impressive: the bike over his shoulder against a background of rugged crags. I took a picture, to add to the Alpine shots of the walkers along the ridge.
He sat next to us and unpacked his gear, preparing for the race down the path we had just climbed up. His minutes of exhilarating descent would overshadow our hour of struggle. We talked for a few minutes, he jumped on his bike and disappeared. We turning into the wind, rucksack straps whipped my face as we headed for the summit of Harter Fell.
“Bit fresh,” a walker said as he descended past us. An understatement, I thought. The 25mph wind forecasted seemed to have gone elsewhere, it couldn’t have been less than 50mph, as a guess, I suppose. It was freezing. A high wind chill. I lost my gloves to Hannah, must get her some better ones – make a note. With my bare hands pushed into my sleeves like a Chinese emperor, I led the way to the summit.
Sticking T-shirt and sleepy batteries
Braced against the wind strong enough to blow us off the mountain, we posed for a picture on the summit, proudly displaying the Tearfund T-Shirt. It was the reason we were here: to walk 214 Wainwrights, for Tearfund, to raise money for ‘No Child Taken’. Hannah wouldn’t wear it; there was no way she would take off her jacket. So I just slapped it against her like wallpaper, she laughed, the wind did the rest, it looked as though she was wearing it. Maybe I should tweet a picture? I tried my phone; it went dead. Hypothermic batteries fast asleep.
Next stop Kentmere Pike: Wainwright No.2. I could see it – for a second – then it was gone. Icy wind blasted over the ridge at a 100mph, or so it seemed; we braced ourselves and leaned into it. Hannah, revived after reaching the summit, was chuckling, sliding over the ice of frozen tarns, wisely keeping one foot on the grass.
The trig point on Kentmere Pike is over the wall. We leapt over it. The wind whistled through the stones while we sipped hot tea and frozen Snickers. I tried to cut them with a knife, but they snapped, before thawing in our mouths. Hannah couldn’t stop laughing. She was enjoying herself now, the hard work, and the apprehension was behind her. Mince pies and satsumas, left-over from New Year, were okay, but cold. More warm tea; yes please.
Back over the wall, next stop Goat Scar. Hannah glided down a path of ice, pushed along by the wind. A head appeared over the wall to the left of us and smiled. ‘Hello,’ said the face. A sheepdog, wagged its tail excitedly, and tried to get through the fence, but couldn’t. A couple were sheltering for lunch behind the wall. Hannah had found some icicles and offered them one – to go with their lunch – they politely refused.
I am the Walrus
“Hello,” said the Walrus. I turned. Hannah was holding an icicle with two spikes – two teeth. “Goo goo goo joob,” I replied. It took her a while to stop laughing after I sang the lyrics.
Mark laughed; a four-inch long icicle hung from his nose: the Bogeyman. “Left your tissues at home then,” I joked. It was great fun, we even forgot about the wind.
At Goat Scar, I told them the summit was just over the stile. It wasn’t; I just wanted to see the view up the Longsleddale Valley; but if I had told them that, they wouldn’t have come. We climbed the stile and gathered for the view, which didn’t exist – not today anyway. Hannah sat on the grass and glared at me.
In the distance, as though peeping under a stage curtain, I could see sun-speckled hills beyond Haweswater. But our stage was here and not there, so we turned back into the mist again, heading for our third, and final, Wainwright of the day: Shipman Knotts.
A band of sunlight stretched along the horizon just underneath the cloud base. The people living on the West Coast must have been having a fantastic day. Tonight, their sunset should be amazing. We just sighed, then, keeping close to the wall, followed the well-trodden path so that navigation wouldn’t be a problem. A myriad of tracks spread across the fell. Occasionally we found ourselves drifting away from the wall and had to tread back through grass and rocks to keep on the path. We looked for Wainwright’s ‘second gap’, along the second wall, as detailed in his Far Eastern Fells guidebook but we couldn’t find it. He wrote that a long time ago. Things change. We followed the path. It was descending, and that was okay.
Running in boxers
Along the bridleway, we met other people and saw a man running along the road wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. Strange. Then we discovered that he was part of a mountain bike team who had just finished a day out. They were getting changed; that explained things.
Kentmere church came into sight. Our car was just behind it. Hannah was suffering now. The last few yards can sometimes be the worse, as the adrenaline drops. “I can’t walk any further,” she said. “I’m only ten, you know, you’re older. My feet hurt.”
“Not far now,” I replied, trying to encourage her. “Look, the church is just there. You can make it. You’ve been fantastic, well done.”
She did make it. We had all made it. Three Wainwrights in a day; a good start and great fun. “High five,” I said, you’re fantastic. Let’s go home.”
“Where are we going next weekend,” she replied.