Misty hill tops

English Lake Districts

Misty hill tops

The boatlands.

The icy wind slashed my face. The sound of horses hooves on stone drifted up from the valley below. And the voices of Coleridge and Wordsworth called out through the mist. It was a bad tempered day on a bad tempered mountain. But, in this part of the world, when the high winds blow and the mountain mists swirl, all manner of sounds can be imagined from centuries past.

Skiddaw is an imposing bulk of a mountain and looms over the Cumbrian market town of Keswick in the northern part of the English Lake District. It always looks angry when blackened by cloud. But blanketed in white, it appears a much happier proposition — until you try to climb it!

After scaling its snowy peak, I began to make my way down. I was tired, worn out and cold. The blisters on my feet were now themselves suffering from blisters and, given the weather conditions, I have to admit that climbing an English peak late in the year is not the ideal thing to do.

The views below would have been brilliant, that is if there had been any. Unfortunately, at this time of year, the clouds of mist obscure just about anything beyond 10 metres.

You don’t have to be insane to climb Cumbrian mountains in a howling gale, but it helps.
I had climbed Skiddaw before, but in summer, and knew that Keswick nestled somewhere below, surrounded by fields dotted with sheep and neat hedgerows. On this occasion, I took comfort from knowing that beyond the fog, the early evening lights of the market town would be glistening warmly on the narrow streets and in the living rooms or lounges of tiny houses, guest houses and old wood beamed pubs with their rustic charm, hinting at what rural England must have been like in what is now a long lost age. The local pubs and restaurants offer some reminders though by serving traditional delicacies, such as Cumberland Sausage, Tatie Pot, and Rum Butter.

Moot Hall, where all the action is.Keswick lies in northwest England, approximately 500 kilometres north of London, but it may as well be a million miles away. This part of the country has managed to escape the ugliness and intrusions of the modern age. The friendliness of the closely packed Keswick streets and the weekly market around the Moot Hall is a welcome change from many of Britain’s towns and cities, with their grey, soulless retail developments and endless slabs of concrete car parks. The English Lake District is a National Park, and new building is very strictly controlled.

To really get a feel for tradition, why not visit the 6th century St Kentigern’s church close by in the village of Caldbeck? If you are into ancient history, climb Castlerigg, overlooking Keswick, to see the 4,000-year-old Stone Circle.

As for Keswick itself, the Market Charter (13th century), early lead mining, quarrying and pencil manufacturing have all played their part in shaping its fate. Famous literary names, including the poets Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth, were influential in attracting the early tourists to Keswick to experience the best scenery that England has to offer. When in this part of the world, it’s easy to see why so many writers and artists were (and still are) inspired by the English Lake District.

Keswick is on the northern edge of tranquil Derwentwater, and beyond the lake and to the south you will find Borrowdale Valley, in my mind one of the most beautiful parts of the Lake District. A scattering of villages with pretty flower beds, tea shops, whitewashed pubs and charming guest houses line the valley, which is hemmed in by peaks on both sides. At the far end, the valley eventually gives way to England’s highest mountains. As mountains go, they are not so tall, but contrary to popular perception, size really doesn’t matter: Place their ruggedness next to tranquil lakes, picture-postcard villages and working farms and they become part of a spectacular landscape.

The local tourist board notes that “the steep-sided valley of Borrowdale running some 10 miles from its sources high in the Scafell mountains down to the shores of Derwentwater at Keswick must be one of the most beautiful and exciting landscapes in the British Isles.”

That’s not just marketing talk. As a regular visitor to the area, I can vouch for what they say. The Borrowdale settlements of Rosthwaite, Stonethwaite, Seathwaite (thwaite is Norse for clearing — many settlers originated from Norway) and Seatoller have a palpable old world character and see their fair share of climbers, walkers and visitors for much of the year. Indeed, you could spend many days exploring Borrowdale on foot, and over the years, I probably have.

But, on this mad weekend, as I tramped down the cruel mountainside, I yearned for the homely atmosphere and comfort of a Keswick pub. And, as I descended, the wind lessened, the mist was no longer and I finally caught a glimpse of Keswick. After a day’s climb, it was a soothing sight.

View from Castle Crag. Photo by Colin TodhunterIt may have been hard work, but there’s a lot to be said for losing oneself in the splendid mournfulness of a rugged Lakeland peak. I thoroughly recommend it. As the winds drifted eerily through the desolate, craggy outcrops, my thoughts gradually became lost in the mountain mists of time.

The whole experience was as physically demanding as it was exhilarating and as challenging as it was satisfying. Just one piece of advice though — if it’s not summer, wrap up well beforehand.

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