By Pendolino to Oxenholme, tilting through the heartland like an aircraft. In Lancashire the weather deteriorated, to pouring rain as the train called at Preston. At Oxenholme, to the Station Inn for a pint and then to camp in their garden. We were the only campers on a wet and windy Thursday evening. Next day, after a breakfast of champions prepared on a Trangia stove in a pub car park, to Sadgill at the head of Longsleddale.
We were away onto the hill before 0800. It was absolutely pouring. I’d not walked a hundred yards before regretting not fetching waterproof trousers. I stopped to put my gaiters on, which helped somewhat. Earlier in the week I had hurt my heel slightly mowing the lawn while wearing big boots with inadequate socks. I was now on the hill with both heels dressed in prophylactic, pre-emptive dressings, a kind of talisman, perhaps, to ward off blisters.
We plugged away up the valley to Gatescarth Pass. I read after our walk that when a railway through these lands was first proposed, back in the 1840s, one possibility considered was a route through Kendal and along Longsleddale, with a 2-mile tunnel under the Gatescarth Pass and into Mardale – the valley now filled with Haweswater. In the end of course, the route chosen for what is now the West Coast Main Line from London to Glasgow, took the much longer and steeper route over Shap and through the Lune valley. What might have been, eh?
Left up onto Harter Fell (778m) and squelch down to Nan Bield Pass, where there was a shelter, one side of which was exposed to the rough northerly wind. We hid behind it. There was a great view of Blea Water, and Haweswater directly “above” or behind it. Then, on up Mardale Ill Bell (760m) and onto the summit of High Street (828m) where it was possible – just, for they are in a north-south direction – to hide for a snack behind possibly the highest dry stone walls in the UK. They weren’t dry stone walls at that moment, I can assure you.
Then the long walk downhill to Patterdale, past the very picturesque and shapely Angle Tarn (I call this one the “other Angle Tarn” to distinguish it from the arguably better known Angle Tarn high up in the northern corrie of Esk Pike.) This gentler and larger Angle Tarn has a little island in the middle with trees on it! Onwards, down to the Patterdale valley floor as the rain eased somewhat. At one point we passed a frenzy of foxgloves, almost as if someone had gone out of their way to seed the hillside with that lovely flower.
At Patterdale we found welcome at neither the Ship Inn nor the Patterdale Inn. Desirous therefore, of leaving the hospitality of Patterdale behind us, we walked with some effort down the valley towards Glenridding. We found St Patrick’s Boat Landing, a little cafe up a flight of stairs, serving tea and cakes. Here we remained, wet and dripping but welcomed by mine host, for a couple of hours.
Refreshed, we set off again, walking up the eastern and more wild side of Patterdale, through delightful woods – a generation or two ago, one might have camped wild here in these remote woods both with impunity and with great pleasure. Perhaps not today – not really the done thing. We crossed to the right-hand side, walking alongside Brotherswater, through still more lovely woodland. At the campsite at Brotherswater, we found no room for us. To be fair, it was a Friday afternoon in late June, whatever the weather. Jaded, we took a short snack and set off yet again.
We slogged through improving weather, our waterproof gear coming off by degrees, until we reached Hayeswater. Here we made the most excellent camp, along with at least three other parties. Our supper was tortellini with pesto, washed down with some very strong beer, followed by chocolate and fruit. A 32 km hike in two halves.
The next day, we had a breakfast of porridge and coffee, and then struck camp in light clag. We reversed yesterday’s route, more or less, back over High Street. No rain this time, but it was windy in places. In improving weather we descended into Longsleddale, for a total round of 45km in less than two days.
Thence by car to Bowness, thinking we might rent a canoe and relax with some boating on Windermere. But Bowness was full of tourists and there was nowhere to park. It made Ambleside on a busy Saturday afternoon look like a deserted hamlet. Dreadful place, possibly only the second time I’ve been there in my life; I shan’t willingly go back. We left, and took the chain ferry across the lake, and sat with a pint in Hawkshead.
Later, we met up with some friends, and in the golden evening, climbed up onto the summit of Holme Fell near Coniston, and camped right on the summit. Very fragrant and heathery. Sat on the summit we ate well – this time we had a spicy dal, and some Farinata – spicy chick pea pancakes. Though the evening grew cold, there was tremendous visibility and glorious views as the sun went down.
The first Kaplan I read was “To the ends of the earth”, an account of travels through dusty, broken lands. I became a fan of his writing on the instant. This book is about the United States: dusty in places certainly, broken in places perhaps, but vital, he argues, to the future of our world.
It is a book full of quotable truism. “Comparison”, he opines, “is painful and not always polite, but it is at the root of all serious analysis”. This is something we learned in geography in school. Our teacher laboured to teach us the importance of the word “whereas”. Kaplan’s father, a truck driver, gifted Kaplan with what he calls a “cruel objectivity”. This work is neither cruel nor objective. Not a hymn of praise to America, more a reasoned defence of the American imperial project, which he argues, has grown out of the physical geography of the American continent. He seeks to “rediscover what is vital, yet forgotten, what is commonplace, yet overlooked.”
He roots the book in the influential work of an almost forgotten man of American letters, Bernard DeVoto. DeVoto’s understanding of the American West was like Devils Tower, Wyoming, towering over the surrounding plain of knowledge. Kaplan’s book is one whose moral and philosophical heart is west of St Louis, at the one hundredth meridian. It is a book that acknowledges the continuing power and importance of the frontier in American thought. Kaplan has to deal robustly with that depressingly popular school of thought that the settlement and conquest of the American West was just a terrible crime. Those grave injustices can’t be swept aside, of course. They are dealt with very well in such seminal works as Dee Brown’s “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”, which should be required reading for all students of the American West.
I rather like his travelogue style of writing. His observations of places like Wheeler, West Virginia, and Portsmouth, Ohio, are fascinating commentary about the human condition as well as a discussion of the American psyche. Rather like Neil Sheehan in “A bright shining lie” (reviewed here), he draws attention to the Scots-Irish or “redneck” heritage, noting that “America as a democracy has a highly developed warrior ethos”. Americans are a fighting people, he suggests. Civil society in the USA has a far closer and more respectful relationship with the military than you’ll find elsewhere in the world.
Of the politeness found throughout the United States, particularly perhaps in the South and in the Mid-west, he suggests that it is just politeness – it goes no further than that. He writes that we must not confuse politeness with hospitality, such as that found in the Middle East or in Africa. Hospitality helps social stability, he writes, but politeness helps efficiency and production.
His road journey is completed at San Diego when he reaches the Pacific and sees the gathered grey hulls of the U.S Navy. At that point he does get a little misty-eyed, like Natalie Merchant’s youthful soldier in her song “Gun shy”:
So now does your heart pitter pat with a patriotic song When you see the stripes of Old Glory waving?
The final third of the book seems quite distinct from the rest, and was not quite as readable – although still interesting. The mordant pen of an observant and humane travel journalist is gone. It is replaced by that of the geopolitical analyst with a distinct, refreshing, and quite understandable bias for, and love of, the United States of America. Modern left-wing liberal culture, particularly in western Europe and in the UK, does tend to be dismissive of the USA.
He does mis-step on occasion and say some odd things. To describe Israel, the Baltic states and Taiwan as “robust, venerable and iconic democracies” (as he does on page 136 of my copy) is pushing it a bit, to say the least! But mostly he is right on the money, as when he writes that the European Union, and globalisation itself, would be impossible to contemplate without the “overarching fact of American power“. That’s the plain truth, if an unpalatable truth to some. The bill for defence of western Europe, from Pearl Harbor down to the present day, has been paid for by American taxpayers and in American lives. Because the Americans have 300 warships, the Royal Navy can get away with a few dozen. European nations are able to spend as little as 1-2% of their GDP on defence, primarily because the Americans spend twice that much.
A note on sustainability: he notes in one place that California and the great cities of the American southwest, use the water of the Colorado River in a wasteful, unsustainable way. In another place, he notes that most European countries maintain an unsustainable level of social welfare, broadly made possible because of American power. It’s the juxtaposition here that interests me. These two unsustainable practices may be connected or linked in some way. There’s no maybe about the fact that both will change.
What would America and the world look like today had the continent been settled eastwards from what is now California, rather than westward from the water-rich Thirteen Colonies in the east? Or if the USA had never existed at all? Or if the United States ceased to exist? Not many writers have dared to even think about that last. The continuance and survival of the USA is not inevitable.
The travelogue in the first part of the book is deftly observed and humane. The second part, his analysis of world order as seen from San Diego, is more partisan and more complex to read and understand. In places I don’t agree with his analysis and in places it is arguably disingenuous.
Kaplan’s central premise is that the world needs the USA, and that the USA is an exceptional country with exceptional, even imperial, responsibilities on the world stage. He argues that the reasons for that derive from the physical geography of the American continent – there is no other like it. Similar conclusions are drawn, on a more general basis, by Tim Marshall in his excellent book “Prisoners of Geography”.
This is a book about America, for Americans, and America-phobes need not pick it up. Their view, in the end, is not sought. “Finding the Rockies” was very interesting, very readable, clear sighted and instructive – one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The watermill stood at the end of a quiet lane that wound along the valley side through the trees. One came round a corner and up a little rise, and saw it, red brick against the green hill. I first saw it a child, when I’d been taken there on holiday. In the back seat of the car, bare legs against the hot vinyl bench seat, I’d bumped and jolted along that road – no more than a dirt track in those days. When we got round that corner, I saw it, and like my parents before me, I was transfixed. I’d loved that place ever since. I brought my wife there and introduced her to it, and later, our kids too.
We’d stayed near there on holiday several times in all the ensuing years, growing to love that sweet, familiar little land. The steep, secret valleys, the winding roads through the woods. The lichen and the stone walls.
I’d stood and listened to the somehow tamed and domesticated sound of the river as it poured over the weir into the mill race. I’d watched as the water poured over the ancient paddles, listened as the tired old wheel creaked round, squeaking and grumbling with age. As if it were saying, Go away! leave me in peace, leave me to sleep in the afternoon sunshine…
And we’d been delighted when someone brought that mill into life and made it work again, turning it into a tourist attraction. It actually ground wheat into flour. Again and again we’d returned to this place in the rounded hills, to the secret watermill. We’d smelt the flour being ground, the dust sharp in our nostrils. We’d bought that flour and carried it away with us, baked bread with it as soon as we could, on the Sunday after getting back home from holiday. We’d tasted that bread, made from flour we’d seen being ground ourselves. We’d seen the wheat, we’d watched it poured out, and we’d heard the flour ground out. We’d heard the rumbling rollers, the grinding grey stones. Almost like it was our own.
And then the chance came to own the mill. In the afternoon of our lives, the means to do as we’d always wished, coincided with the opportunity to do so as well. We could buy the mill. And so we did; we bought it and we went to live there. We went down the quiet lane by the river, to sit and listen to the grinding stones and the weir, at the brick mill under the green hills.
My diary records this: Andrew Marr, in his “history of modern Britain”, writes that “in the New Labour years, as under John Major, a sickly tide of euphemism rose ever higher, depositing it’s linguistic scurf on every available surface”. True. That said, saying what I think is not part of the programme. There are even thoughts that these days I feel I cannot afford to have. I am someone with deeply libertarian and individualist instincts. I live at a time when authoritarianism and collectivism seems to be everywhere on the increase. Not only that, but authoritarianism and collectivism seem to be increasingly popular. In such a world I would do well to keep my opinions to myself. One of the things I fear most of all is being in a place where I have no time, peace, or private space in which to think. I fear being in a place where being a private individual or spending time alone is discouraged or even not allowed. Some might say, “why would you want to be alone?” but to that I say, “get thee behind me, Satan!”
Five years ago – May 2016
After business in London, my wife and I went to the Clarence on Whitehall, and had an indifferent supper in their excellent upstairs dining room with the skylight and the huge wall map of 18th century Westminster. I had a forgettable burger and a pint of Camden IPA, she had venison shepherds pie and a glass of Pinot Grigio. Total £40. Good atmosphere, friendly waitress, ordinary food. Then, we strolled up Charing X road and outside the entrance to the Portrait Gallery, we encountered a large crowd, including paparazzi straining for a view with their cameras. We found out that they were awaiting a view of Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge. In due course, limos and close protection police swept up, and the lady duly emerged to applause and cheers.
What struck me about this stroll in central London was that apart from mobile phones, cameras and the mechanisms used to propel the vehicles, there was nothing in the scene on Charing X road that someone from Pepys’ time would not have understood. What was going on? People were strolling, eating, drinking, chatting. Courting. Buying and selling. The fundamental activities that make up human life in any age.
Ten years ago – May 2011
Jargon: I don’t like the expression “X has a heart for Y” where X is a person and Y is a situation, a country or a problem. Someone at church speaks of having a “heart for France”, the sincerity of which, I do not doubt. But will we “get behind” their “heart for France”, though? Someone notes that as leaders in church, we must articulate a vision to the congregation.
I use the word “vision” here strictly in the modern management jargon sense of “Vision and purpose”, not at all in the prophetic sense of “dreams and visions”.
But leaders, particularly in a church, can end up with a vision statement that their people do not “get behind” – the people may not share that vision. That can be heart-breaking. We have seen all of this ourselves in the past. It’s all very well having a vision for the church if there is no room for discussion, dissent or even plain disagreement. Claiming that it comes from God, even as a clergyman, is a dangerous place to go. Because if you do, you can then brook neither dissent nor disagreement. And we have seen clergy getting into the greatest difficulties by refusing to discuss or entertain dissent. This is not somewhere you can go, neither as a clergyman nor as a boss or a leader in civil society, without the most profound and dire consequences.
Fifteen years ago – May 2006
A church men’s weekend at Wrotham, Kent: Good stuff throughout though more “martial” and less spiritual than I would have liked. That is not to do it down or minimise the efforts of the guy who organised it. In conversation on the Friday night someone mentions a book on courtesy and etiquette amongst the English which I ought to read. I learn that I must take myself less seriously, and also that I must think more deeply – I was comprehensively thrashed at chess by one who I have not considered to be a deep thinker. Clearly he is a deeper thinker than I!! I am encouraged to believe in myself – and to write more.
Twenty years ago – May 2001
Mike Breen of St Thomas Crooke’s Sheffield, spoke to us at a leaders weekend, on Moses, whose life was in three parts. He quoted D.L Moody who said that all people, all Christians, were in one of three phases of life. These were, being made or built, being broken – the desert place, and being used or blessed. It can be a cyclical thing rather than phases – we might be in the desert more than once, used or blessed for a season, made or built for one purpose or another.
Later, off to the Beardmore Hotel in Glasgow with Mrs. H, in a rented car. A pleasant and successful drive up there in a little over four hours. One thing I remember about the long haul up the M6 was the hills around the Lune valley highlighted against a dark and stormy afternoon sky, very beautiful. Visited a number of Charles Rennie Mackintosh sights including the College of Art. Next day, up Loch Lomondside, a nice long walk, cruise on the lake, then round down the side of Loch Long to Helensburgh to see “The Hill House” which was a remarkable place with the most excellent light, even indoors.
When I look back over more than forty years of hillwalking and mountaineering, starting in 1977 and continuing to the present day, there are a small handful of summits I find I have visited time and time again. Tryfan and Snowdon are two of them; Blencathra is a third. I was very surprised to find, when I started preserving my written mountaineering logbooks, that the Old Man of Coniston (803m) was actually quite high on my list.
We visit the mountain here in February 1986, in what were superb, icy-cold snowy winter conditions: quite remarkable for the English Lake District even forty years ago. I rather suspect that we shall not in our lifetime see snow like that in the Lakes. But one may hope.
Five of us left the hut in Coniston and walked up the path, towards Low Water. A tedious slog saw us into the Low Water corrie in deep snow, where we practiced ice techniques for a while on a large, gently sloping icefall. We went on up a gully to the right of Low Water Crag. Apart from a steep grassy step, it was easy but very satisfying snow climbing. It brought us out in due course onto the unconscionably cold and icy summit of Brim Fell.
In mist we continued south along the ridge, which looked quite alarmingly sharp in winter conditions. Snow can sometimes have the effect of making the merely British hill look alpine, and give the appearance of difficulty to what is merely straightforward. I recall being told that one of the first French mountaineers to see the Snowdon Horseshoe in winter, in the late 19th century, wildly over-estimated the height, length and complexity of the route under winter conditions. The party got to the start of Crib Goch, and saw Snowdon in the distance, covered in snow, looking very Alpine. The french mountaineer declared that the summit of Snowdon was too far away to reach from where they stood, in daylight.
Coniston Old Man was iced over, but not completely covered; the Lakeland summits are not high enough to permit a serious build-up of snow. We left north, as the mist cleared to reveal Goat Hause and Dow Crag. We stopped for lunch at Goat Hause and continued across rather rough mixed ground, which was very hard on the crampons. This would be scree in summer and there would be a perfectly obvious path to follow. We were aiming for a snow gully at the northern end of Dow Crag. The first section was just drifted snow, but soon it became some rather trickier frozen-over grass and rock steps. Nearer the top we moved over a rocky rib into the next most southern gully, which was well in condition, packed with hard snow, especially near the top. It twisted away below us down to Goat Water. [It is entirely possible that the photograph of me that opens this article, was actually taken here. At 40 years remove I cannot be sure.]
This was fulfilling and satisfying work, a great end to the route as we scrambled out onto the summit of Dow, to clearing weather and the sight of the Scafell massif absolutely plastered in snow. The weather was photograph-clear. From Dow, we considered our options, and moved onto Grey Friar. When we got there, it was cold, and windy, and we were becoming rather tired. We thundered around the hause and up the gentle slope to Swirl How.
From Swirl How there is a very steep ridged descent called the “Prison Band”. This was excellent sport downhill to Swirl Hause, and from there, down to Levers Water through a good foot of soft powdery snow. That was hard going. In the sky, pastel hues of pink and yellow, a beautiful evening in the making. An absolutely grand day. Down past the iced-over quarry roads through the Coppermines Valley, arriving at the hut around 5pm.
I am in Seat 23K, in an obscure part of the right-hand side of the upper deck of a pretty old Emirates Airbus A380. I would have chosen a different seat had I known I’d be so close to a bulkhead. Rather like this aircraft, I am tired and jaded; it’s late at night and I probably ought to try and sleep, but I’ll probably eat and drink instead.
Sometime on Monday 25th, on EK 352 DXB-SIN
Seat 18K: another business class seat in another upper deck on another Emirates Airbus A380. You start to notice tiny differences between them after a while. On the last leg, for example, we disembarked using the front stairs down to the lower deck and out the lower door. Unusual. On this flight – unusually for Emirates – the selection of films is excellent and watched some of Di Caprio in “Romeo + Juliet” (a favourite of mine), and also watched “Blade Runner” and “The Damned United”.
I’ve done some work too. I’ve boxed myself in, to a degree, workwise. I have to prepare a presentation for delivery to my CEO and the Board on next Tuesday morning. But I plan to take a long weekend with this coming Monday, a day off. I have this business trip to deal with and this important presentation to sort out. Even as I write out the dilemma in long-hand, the solution becomes clear in my mind. Get the slides for the Board sorted first, and all else follows.
Tuesday 26th November, Fullerton Hotel, Singapore
I don’t think I’ve been this engaged with the details of my work for some years. I just took a fairly good night’s sleep in this hotel, sleeping from just before midnight to 5a.m without the night confusions or interruptions that often plague me when I’m in a strange hotel and under pressure. I kept off the drink on the outbound flights, which probably helped, but getting to this hotel room late last night, almost the first thing I needed was a pint. I had to go down to the bar to fetch it, a rather excellent and satisfying IPA, but cruelly and outrageously expensive at S$21 – about £9.
I feel no urge to visit the gym in this hotel. Although it must have a pool, because it is in the inner city and a historic building it seems unlikely to me that it will be open air (in this I was quite wrong.) This room is exquisitely furnished and appointed – but quite inadequate nonetheless. There is no way of plugging your phone in on either side of the bed. The room lights are software controlled – a great cost-saving to modern hotels but a pain in the neck for guests in my opinion. The controls are on one side of the bed only. Though this is a double bed, the room is in effect a single room, designed for lone occupancy. The bathroom is outrageously over-appointed – I mean how much marble do you need in your bathroom? but the shower is cramped and ordinary.
This is the 14th different hotel room I have been in this year. My wife and I stayed at Ettington Hall in Staffordshire. Then, I visited the Mariner Hotel in Aberdeen. There were two places in Italy while on holiday. Inner city business hotels in Jakarta, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City. A hotel in Jebel Ali in the UAE. Two small places in the Scottish Highlands. The Park Plaza Amsterdam Airport and a Novotel in Paris. Busy year. I know hotels and lodging places.
I seem to have energy when by rights I should be feeling jaded from jet lag. There will be, there must be, a reckoning. Am not sure why I am feeling so strong. There are lots of reasons why. In William Gibson’s novel “Count Zero” his character Turner “could only score for the edge at the site of a major defection”. Right here, on this trip, I can score for the edge – I have it, right here, right now. Notwithstanding that, I just found out that I did not make the short list in a story competition I recently entered. I can’t even remember which story I submitted. I’m relaxing after work now: I want the section meeting tomorrow to go well. I know it will, but it is definitely not a foregone conclusion.
The section meeting went well – a tour de force. It’s always a tour de force when I’m involved. It’s what I do. Everything went well and even when it didn’t go well, it was quickly, professionally and discreetly fixed. This is what I do for a living. Work is work so I see no need to discuss or describe it overmuch. Members arrived and sipped coffee. I made small talk and made sure everything worked. I introduced the chair, and then I spoke at length on various technical matters. Speakers gave presentations. We finished and broke for beer.
Drinks were provided by a supplier member with offices a few blocks away by cab. I got some cash which I didn’t need, and had a couple of pints and some nibbles. For some of those drinks, I took care to ensure I drank what was effectively shandy: I’m still on my master’s ticket at this point. Post-event drinks like this are NOT a leisure activity. I exercised some diplomacy and allowed a few older fellows to bend my ear as the representative of IMCA out here in the east…”and another thing…” A chain-smoking Russian lady of about half my age, someone’s personal assistant, began talking to me. She was very beautiful; she had cheekbones like razors. She was painfully thin and as mad as a bag of rabbits. I found it necessary to make a swift escape, and I retreated back to the hotel for a Club Sandwich and a deep bath – two of my favourite indulgences after a busy day in a far country. A long day.
It’s ten to nine in the morning and I’m sat in the lobby overheating slightly in business dress. I’ve checked out and my task is almost done. Shortly, I and others will pay a professional courtesy visit to a local industrial facility. This hotel has as its patrons, dark-suited men in white shirts, the Grey Pound (wealthy older white folks), and a handful of local Singapore Chinese. The coffee is absolutely shocking; the service, adequate; the atmosphere, wonderful.
Friday 29th November, EK 011 DXB – LGW, seat 7J
The film “Arctic” makes me stop – literally. I have actually paused the film to take up pen and paper. “Arctic” – reviewed here – is a remarkable Icelandic film about prevailing in adversity. There were two characters, and possibly twenty words spoken in the film. It was a remarkable movie about how humans deal with adversity and challenge. Not only the physical adversity and challenge associated with being lost in the Arctic and having to survive, but also the deeper issues of emotional adversity and life challenges.
How ARE we prepared? Our hero has a coat, hat and gloves – equipment for survival in harsh conditions. This is what the safety professionals call PPE – personal protective equipment. PPE guards and protects your physical health. Is our emotional and mental health likewise well guarded?
I set off from Surrey around 3pm, starting a 300 mile drive in to the Lake District. Whilst without incident as a drive,there was very heavy rain in the Chilterns and then again around Stoke-on-Trent. The M6 Tollway I think highly of – belting along there cost me £6.90 and probably shortened my total journey time by six minutes. What price money? There are people – quite a lot of people judging by the emptiness of the toll road – who refuse to use it as a matter of principle. I confess I cannot get my head round that attitude. Arguing that you can’t afford it, for a one-off journey, cuts no ice. Commuting might be different, of course. Maybe they object to the principle of roads being private property rather than public infrastructure.
I got to my B&B in Windermere in heavy rain, a little after 8.30p.m. Mine host was a rather eccentric and somewhat peremptory older man. Eccentric, in that he’d already admitted (as a businessman and B&B owner) to not possessing a mobile phone. To not own a mobile phone in Britain today, is in my view little more than a fashion statement. Not owning one as a B&B owner indicates an indifference to customers that I don’t find encouraging. Peremptory, in his attitude. Breakfast was exactly 8a.m and appear here in the hall and I’ll show you into the dining room. (This beats by some margin the narrow window “breakfast is 8.30 til 9, any time” offered by a cheery Australian landlady in Weymouth, which became a standing joke in our house for years afterwards.) Always remember – Fawlty Towers was not a sit-com: it was hard-hitting documentary.
My room was a typical B&B room, woodchip on the walls, a sink, no en-suite, comfy bed, tea-making facilities. I went out for a rather dank pint in a local pub, and went to bed, to sleep well enough.
Part II: from Great Langdale to Styhead
Next morning I went down at exactly 8a.m and mine host was waiting for me. He showed me into an empty dining room set for over a dozen people. He served me as good a Full English as ever I’ve had, with a pot of the strongest and tastiest coffee I’ve drunk in years. An excellent start to the day. Before 8.30a.m I had left – through the misty moisty morning to the head of Great Langdale, where I parked the car in some flat land near the road, a mile or so beyond the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. Getting my gear right took some time, and it was probably near enough 10a.m before I set off.
My rucsac had weighed 16kg at home before so much as a bite to eat went in it. Now, it must have been well over 20kg. I hadn’t walked thirty yards before I wondered if I needed to take a longer warm-up. I considered walking the length of Mickleden, nice and flat, but that meant the horror of climbing Rossett Gill at the end. I decided to stick with going up The Band, so off I went towards Stool End Farm. And as I climbed, I came across the true deliverable of physical fitness. This last six months I’ve been running 20km a week. I walked up The Band in an hour and forty minutes, carrying a 20kg rucsac. I don’t say I didn’t break sweat, nor that it didn’t take it out of me, but my pulse stayed under 100 all the way. Happy with that!! At the top, a rest before continuing up Bow Fell, which despite it’s daunting aspect I found a straightforward ascent. At the top it was almost noon and there was a squall coming, so I stopped for lunch.
From Bowfell I continued round the Scafell horseshoe. Ore Gap, Esk Pike, Esk Hause, but missing Great End. The weather was glorious, so I continued right on up to the summit of Scafell Pike itself, where I arrived at 4p.m.
It was cold. On a few occasions I had cause for concern that I should have brought mittens – as well as gloves. From Scafell Pike back down to the col and down the Corridor Route, starting to feel tired. But what wonderful light: Here’s the view down into Wasdale:
At one point, in the pleasant later afternoon sunshine, the path went down some very steep and rocky ground. You can do without that, when carrying a 20kg expedition bag. In Frank Herbert’s novel “The Dragon in the sea“, an old and wise submariner says to a more junior officer, “As a submariner, you only make the same mistake once“. For me as a man in my fifties carrying a huge rucsac, descending a rocky scree or boulder field, that was true. Here, I would only slip or put my foot wrong once. There would be no second chance. Taking the greatest care one does get down, though the thigh muscles ache. One has to be in the position of being able to lower, in a controlled way, your entire body weight, just on one leg. You have to keep your centre of gravity behind you – if it gets in front of you, you’ll topple over in an instant and game over man, game over…
Very tired, I reached Sty Head, and opted to camp there, on flat ground by a babbling brook.
For supper I had fresh tortelini and some sausage, with onion, garlic and pesto. I use a very old and battered Trangia stove, the smaller “27” model. It has served me well for nearly 40 years. With this stove I feel rather like the proverbial man who has his father’s axe – I may have replaced some of the parts. On the hill I was munching through a small tiger loaf bought in Windermere, with Red Leicester cheese, butter, cherry tomatoes, and a satsuma. I was also using a trail mix of sultanas, raisins, seeds, salted peanuts and chocolate chips. This was inspired stuff – a mix of fast and slow energy. I learned this trick from a teacher when I was in school. And because I can afford the weight, a counsel of perfection for my evening meals was a bottle of Malbec, though wine and bottle weigh over a kilo. It’s an absolute fundamental to me that wild camping doesn’t mean rough or hard living. Camping doesn’t imply “roughing it”. Life offers enough difficulty as it is without adding further artificial complexity.
It was very cold overnight – an unpleasant cold breeze blew in through my air vents, til I shut them, at the expense of increased condensation. During the night the moon came out, which caused me some odd dreams and I did wake up briefly.
Part III: from Styhead to Buttermere – a round of Black Sail
My breakfast was porridge with a dash of Scotch, black coffee with a good deal of sugar, and a sausage. Breakfast of champions. Despite the cold and clear sunny morn, I had what was effectively a wet strike because of condensation. I shouldered my pack and set off towards the path. I passed a fellow out running with his dog, going in the Wasdale direction. It was about 9-ish. I reached the bottom of Aaron Slack and started up. The last time I was here, was twenty-odd years ago, coming off Great Gable with a friend of mine in absolutely dreadful weather: it was the time we met Todd, a lone American youth. Taaaarrrd, as he pronounced his own name, was rather over-equipped, we thought, at the time – probably August. I didn’t feel over-equipped now in October.
I was carrying an MSR Elixir 2 hike tent, an Alpkit three season down sleeping bag, a Thermarest mat, the smaller (size 27) Trangia and about a pint of fuel. A full set of spare clothes, a first aid kit, maps and compass, a hip flask, two litres of water, and food for two more days on the hill. Don’t forget the (hic) half a bottle of Malbec. And of course a pen-knife. And a small pair of field glasses. Waterproof trousers and jacket, fleece, scarf, gloves, wooly hat. And I carried that lot up to Windy Gap between Great Gable and Green Gable. And there, I met a chap with a dog. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” I almost said. Sure enough, it was the same guy. In the time it had taken me to grind up Aaron Slack, he’d RUN up Great Gable and down the other side. And I thought I was fit. He had a friendly and well-mannered grey dog, which whilst I was sat down, came over to see me.
Just look at the view: Pillar is on the left there. Ennerdale centre, and Red Pike just right of centre. Crummock Water is visible to the right, and the coastal plain beyond all.
From Windy Gap onto Kirk Fell: my first navigational tactical error of the day. Staying high is always good advice when hillwalking, of course, particularly in such beautiful weather. I could descend all the way down to the Black Sail hut and then back up the Black Sail Pass to Pillar, or, I could stay high on Kirk Fell, but come down off the fell to the top of the Black Sail Pass. I could see on the map that the descent went through “Kirk Fell Crags” but I didn’t pay enough attention to the detail. Coming off Kirk Fell, I not even see how steep; the land dropped away. The path descends very steeply through rocks and screes. Indeed, no-one could come up that path without actually climbing or scrambling – and I must descend with that huge heavy rucsac.
Mixing down-climbing – descent face-in (making one feel very exposed, but much safer) and going down face-out (you can see where you’re going and you feel safer, but it’s always more hazardous and you’re more liable to slip) – I got down. I recalled advice about visiting the Black Cuillin of Skye. It was simple: if you’re not comfortable climbing downwards, don’t. Don’t go to the Black Cuillin. Down-climbing is a tricky technique to learn and you have to learn to trust your hands and feet. It is the better way down steep places, especially if the rock is wet and greasy. Here, all was dry. Had it been wet I would probably have turned back. Concentration and effort took their toll and I was morally shattered by the time I reached the col. Were it not even 11 o’clock in the morning I should have been tempted to reach for the hip flask for a swift steadying double. I resisted. Climbing onward toward Pillar, I was starting to feel a little jaded. I stopped for my lunch half way up at a “Pile of Stones”. Again, lovely scenery and such clear air.
At Pillar I needed to think: whilst there was no pressing rush, it was decision time about my further route and my final destination. Would it be Haycock and Steeple and then down, or would I go down from here, and then up and over into Buttermere or onto the Haystacks? I needed to start curving round and positioning myself to be within 4-5 hours walk of Great Langdale by nightfall. Here, the second tactical navigation error of the day. Instead of dropping directly off Pillar towards Ennerdale, I dropped down to Wind Gap, the next col, and down from there. The paths looked similar even on the 1:25000 map. But the valley route was the steeper and rockier, down into a deep corrie wherein, to my ears, were nesting some raucous birds of prey of some kind. A wild and little-visited spot for Lakeland.
Some way down, I found I had lost my fleece; it had fallen off my pack where it was strapped on. I dropped the bag and set off uphill in the sunshine to look for it. But how do you find a dark grey fleece on a boulder-strewn sunlit hillside? I had neither the time nor the energy. By mountaincraft and not by luck, there was nothing of any value in the pockets of the fleece – save for all my alcohol gel and a mask.
Downwards to the edge of the industrial forest of Ennerdale, crossing a stream on a fallen log, on through the dank moss-ridden woods. I do love a forest but this place made Fangorn look friendly. In the distance far below, orange. I emerged onto a forest road where three absolutely enormous tracked logging machines stood. This is a deeply industrial environment, in the heart of some beautiful countryside. Then, a long and tiresome five kilometre tramp uphill alond the forestry tracks to the Black Sail Hut.
After a brief snack of bread and cheese at Black Sail, my final climb of the day, through the Scarth Gap into Buttermere – this was familiar terrain. Down into Buttermere for supper and camp at dusk.
Part VI: Buttermere to Great Langdale by bus
I camped in a little dell by the lake. It was a warm night on the Buttermere valley floor – much warmer than up at Sty Head. The forecast rain started at 7a.m, so I had a full wet strike. My supper and my breakfast were the same as the night before – for supper, tortellini, with sausage and pesto, and for breakfast, black coffee, and porridge with chocolate chips and a dash of Malt Whiskey. Dalwhinnie, I think this was, though after being stored in a hip flask it might as well have been Grouse. The second half of the Malbec slipped down nicely and I did not begrudge carrying the extra 1.2kg. As I weigh 91kg, I feel I can afford it. Nor did I begrudge carrying 250g of butter, 200g of cheese, 400g or bread, or an onion. Camping wild and backpacking doesn’t imply living rough.
I walked out the mile or so to the Fish Hotel in light rain, and was very pleased to find a bus to Keswick leaving in half an hour! Just enough time for a quick latte in the absolutely excellent Syke Farm Tea Room. The bus was driven by an amiable scotsman who a number of times had to stop and grab a seat cushion which kept falling to the floor each time the bus went round a corner. It cost £6.40 and ambled through the rain along the shore of Crummock Water, before climbing over Whinlatter to Braithwaite and Keswick.
At Keswick what to me appeared to be luck continued: twenty minutes stood outside Booths in heavy rain and I was onto a big double decker, bus 555, for the journey over Dunmail Raise to Ambleside. Cost: £9.40. At Ambleside I got off a stop too early even that didn’t prevent me from catching bus 516 to the Old Dungeon Ghyll, cost: £6. My journey by road from Buttermere took barely three hours and cost £22. A private car couldn’t have made the journey in much less than half that time. I would have been ready – though perhaps not so happy – to have paid three or four times that amount for taxis.
Had I known that public transport in the Lake District was so comprehensive and so well co-ordinated, I would never have brought the car at all. From where I live in East Surrey, the train would be about the same journey time, maybe slightly quicker, and a good deal less tiresome than trudging up and down the M40 and the M6. The train might cost a good deal more than the cost of the fuel – but as any fule kno, the cost of fuel isn’t the true or full cost of motoring.
Back in Langdale, I swiftly changed into town clothes, under grey lowering skies and pouring rain, and retreated back to Ambleside.
As the ship approached the coast, it was clear that an immense thunderstorm sat over this part of coastal Colombia, towering forty thousand feet into the sky over Santa Marta. The gloom grew as evening wore on, partly from the failing light, partly as we slid underneath this colossal storm. Lightning flickered, and the storm took all our attention as the supply ship Gulf Service lumbered along, rolling gently in the swell.
We made landfall at Santa Marta just as rain started in earnest. The lightning was almost constant by this point. We waited patiently for the shore agents to arrive, listening to the warm rain lashing down. When three vehicles swung into the dockyard, we gladly ran out into the downpour to climb in and ready ourselves for the journey to the airport. The route lay along switchback mountain roads, during which the rain increased to an absolute tropical frenzy.
At the airport, we all checked in, and retreated to the café to drink beer. Outside in the darkness the rain came down. Later, around 9.30p.m or such, the aircraft arrived, and we paid for our beer; a vanishingly small amount for the thirty or forty beers we had sunk, perhaps thirty bucks US. As we boarded the plane the rain was still falling, lightning was still lighting up the storm clouds, thunder booming away even above the noise of the engines.
At Bogota, we collected our bags, and almost immediately made the acquaintance of the security teams, the “Men in black”. These were smartly dressed, unfailingly polite, handsome and fit looking young men in dark business suits, all clearly but discreetly armed. Part of the experience of visiting a country like Colombia at our employer’s expense. James Bond eat your heart out! Swiftly then in MPVs to the hotel, where, after a swift check-in we went to the bar for more beer – as you do. It was after 11p.m when we arrived. I called it a night at 1.20a.m; some of my colleagues were still going strong at 5a.m.
After a troubled night’s sleep I didn’t go down for breakfast until 9.30a.m, and breakfast was superb. Freshly prepared omelettes with all the trimmings, fresh orange juice and black coffee. Can one ask for much more for breakfast? Together with a colleague I took a stroll around the enclave surrounding the hotel, buying a few trinkets in the process. Cash was easily available at the ATM, and it was conspicuous that the cost of living was low, in that the amounts of cash available in the machine corresponded to low dollar amounts. Also very conspicuous were the private security guards, everywhere, in various uniforms, all heavily armed, all polite and well mannered, and many with dogs.
Around 2p.m we set off for the airport. As we arrived there, the depth of security was revealed. We noticed the point car behind us as we’d motored to the airport, and as the five of us moved across the road into the terminal, it was clear to see four of the immaculately suited and suave armed security guards forming a box around us, and all very alert and attentive to his surroundings.
After another wait of half an hour or so we were all safely checked onto an Iberia flight to Madrid, and off we went. As we passed onto the airside, the security guards asked me if I’d thought their service was good. I thought it was and I said so. But as we passed through Customs and Immigration – and this is no lie – I knew it was going to be alright. The guy on the customs desk was a long haired youth in his twenties, and he was listening to Nirvana.
Starting work at midnight, everyone piles into the instrument room at the absolute last possible minute. I’ve been on crews where you start work at 11.35 and your oppo leaves exactly at midday or midnight. On this crew, it was the other way round – you start work exactly at just before 12, and your oppos leave about 12.25 or so, earlier if possible. It doesn’t matter which you do – so long as everyone does the same thing.
We’re in a long line change. The first thing we learn is that all the starboard guns are on deck for repairs and the gun mechanics need a hand. Us two assistant observers head for the gun deck on the instant, followed later by the Observer, once the handover is complete. There are several problems. A supporting U bolt needs replacing and welding into place. One gun has a water leak in the umbilical line. Another gun needs it’s actuator replacing. This last we can do; it’s just heavy work with spanners. All three observers and all three gun mechanics work hard for a while, and eventually all the tasks are completed. The guns are launched at the last minute – only just in time as the survey line starts.
We shoot the survey line; it is mostly uneventful. An observer watches the tell-tales on various computers, of the seismic cable and the guns, and the navigator (or surveyor) steers the ship. It is 3a.m and blowing Force 5-6. There is some swell noise on our seismic recordings – that is, the sea is rough enough to start distorting the reflected noise from the guns when it appears on the seismic streamer, which is towed around 8m under the sea surface.
After the end of line, I perform a set of daily diagnostic tests on the recording instruments. This is a contractural requirement. It’s routine work but we do it for a reason, to spot problems as they crop up. After the test, it is 7.50a.m. My colleague replaces me watching the streamer, and I go for breakfast: sausages, bacon, tomatoes, chips, toast and marmalade, and tea.
We come round onto the next line, and prepare to start shooting, but the wind has risen to Force 7-8, and the swell noise in the direction of the line is unacceptable to us or the client’s representative. We have some options on this prospect – we can swing round to try a line in a different direction. The new information is programmed into the navigation computer by the trainee navigator, his boss keeping a watchful eye. Time passes: the swell noise is no better.
Then there’s a call on the intercom from the bridge, about the rising wind and worsening sea conditions. We agree; it is too rough to continue shooting. I’m despatched to the mess to tell the gun mechanics to stand by to recover all the guns. By now it is Force 8 outside and Seismariner is starting to move. The guns are recovered in stormy weather. Driving rain is hammering down, hissing on the surface of the sea. Because of the weather it takes a while, about an hour, to get all the guns aboard safely. Next, I accompany the chief mechanic and a gun mechanic up onto the quarter deck to help bring in the booms. These extend 21m either side of the vessel and are controlled hydraulically. It is pouring with rain and a sharp gale is ripping at our clothes. We’re all glad to get back inside afterwards and clean up.
I sit down shortly afterwards in the instrument room with a cup of tea. Everyone is sat around, talking. The wind is still Force 8. It’s not a BAD storm, but storm warnings are being broadcast on the teleprinter. The words “cyclonic depression” are seen. It is 10.30a.m. Suddenly, Phil, the deputy party chief, makes his decision – “get the cable in!” We stare: it’s a three-hour job in the wet and cold, and hard work. We finish work at noon…
But Phil has a hunch about the weather; that’s what they pay him for and he is right. There’s a delay about then as a trawler crosses our stern about a mile back – on top of the cable. Crash dive the cable. Fire flares into the rain and wind. By the time we start recovering the cable, it is 11.15a.m. One or two out of every five waves or so is slopping into the back deck and getting us wet; it is quite rough. Progress is slow, pushing and shoving with no hydraulic support. It seems to be getting calmer outside. It IS getting calmer; the sun appears. We wonder at our bosses decision. He appears on the back deck, telling us that Seismariner is in the eye of the storm – the “cyclonic depression” he saw on the teleprinter earlier. The sea goes down to barely 8 or 9 foot waves.
All of a sudden though, just about noon, the wind comes up again, from a different direction. Foam and spray are everywhere all of a sudden; the sea is white. Phil’s boss, the Party Chief, makes a rare visit to the back deck and endorses Phil’s decision: “Get it in QUICK” he says. The wind is now Force 10 and gusting to Force 11.
Getting up for work at 11.30p.m, I’m happy, because I know this is the last shift of the trip. At midnight I join my colleagues on the gun deck and help the mechanics with recovery of the starboard side seismic guns. For me this is mainly a business of pulling in towing strops, and fixing the hook of a “concertina winch” in certain places on the gun array to bunch the array up or “concertina” it. The gun deck of this old vessel is too short to fit the seven gun array when spread out to its full length.
By 12.30a.m the booms are raised, the big Norwegian buoys are stowed out of the way, and the towing strops have been tightened to pull the slack loops out of the sea to avoid them being caught in our propellor. Shortly, we will recover the seismic cable, and for that, the vessel must be driven backwards.
In a flat calm the single short cable is recovered swiftly. Mostly just a matter of pushing and shoving to keep it neat on the winch drum, which is driven hydraulically. Newer seismic vessels have fairleads and winches which can be used as ways to mechanise this pushing and shoving, but not the Seismariner. What can take hours of potentially hazardous and unpleasant grafting in cold and wind of the North Sea, is forty minutes of tedious work in a flat calm in the overbearing heat of equatorial Africa.
Cable recovered, the ship starts to steam towards Mayumba in the Congo, where we will off sub-contract navigation radio receivers by ship’s boat. (This was a couple of years before differential GPS navigation equipment became commercially available). We all adjourn to the crew mess for a well-earned pot of tea. An hour later, work restarts, and I join the mechanic Eric down in his domain in the guts of the ship. Starting at 3.a.m, I help him strip down and replace the big end bearings in four huge water pumps – 12 bearings in all. It takes three and a half hours and two pots of tea to finish the job.
By now it’s 6.30a.m and it is pouring with rain. This is quite usual at this time of year in this part of the world. Our FRB (Fast Rescue Boat) is made ready to transfer the navigation equipment. The sub-contractors gear – receivers, cables, antennas etc – is made ready on the foredeck. The rain stops, but oppressive clouds remain. The jungle close by is steaming and looks threatening. A short break for what we call “breakfast” (though working nights, it is the main meal of the day), and then the crew is ready. It is an assistant observer (myself), the mechanic (the late Eric Gray), and the Assistant Party Chief (Mick).
We lower the boat, and Eric takes her round to the boarding ladder. I climb in along with our client’s representative, the Texan Dave, and we’re off. The ship grows smaller in the distance as we move inshore. We can discern – with eyes, ears and nose – more detail of the jungle and the beach ahead. As the seabed slopes up to the shore, a huge swell develops, white rollers crashing onto a sandbar. We search without success for a way into the lagoon beyond, passing as we do so, the wreck of a coaster bigger than Seismariner. Her rusted bridge is all that remains above the sand and water. We know that getting into the lagoon will be easy – but getting the boat out again through the immense surf will be impossible.
It’s exciting stuff for a young man: the small boat, the sea, the strangeness of the African jungle close by. We can see people waiting for us ashore, but defeated for the present, we head back to the mother ship. On the way the outboard engine stops, and Eric toils to fix it in heavy, pregnant silence, except for the slopping of wavelets against the gunwhale. The four of us in the boat breath a sigh of relief when the engine whizzes into life; we make it safely back home, and are lifted out of the water.
A while later, a second attempt is made at a slightly different location, and all the equipment and the client rep. are safely dropped ashore. It takes three separate trips to move everything, but all is complete by 10.30a.m. The FRB is recovered once again, and we leave the bay at once, steaming for Pont Noire in the Congo, some ten hours journey away at 12 knots.
After another brief tea break, I spend the final 45 minutes of my shift conducting electrical tests on cabling removed from the gun arrays. My results recorded on a scrap of paper, it’s time once again for “Swarfega” at the close of my 63rd consecutive twelve hour shift – and the last one.
My journey home was instructive. I had no ticket for the last part of the journey (from Paris to my home) and more cash to cover this was offered. I was counselled by my colleagues to refuse this offer as the actual ticket would cost more than the cash being offered by the company administrator. Several of us were taken to the airport and flew in an antique 737 with Lina Congo, to Brazzaville. They did not even pressurize the 737 and it flew at 6000′ the whole way. As it was only the 4th or 5th time in my life I had been in an aircraft at all, this passed me by. Those who knew better were petrified. At Brazzaville we changed onto a 747-combi (half passenger, half freight) of UTA. This was in fact the first long-haul flight I ever took. The flight was to Paris via Doula in Cameroon, and Marseille. All was well until we landed at Marseille at 6a.m the next day, and that’s where we stayed. Owing to fog in Paris, we remained on the tarmac at Marseille for four hours, with neither refreshments nor breakfast served. We eventually arrived at De Gaulle early afternoon. It was February in Paris – foggy.
I spent the rest of the day trying without success to get a flight to England – anywhere – Heathrow, Birmingham, East Midlands. Late in the evening I gave up and took train into central Paris, and secured myself a train ticket to London via the Bologne-Dover ferry. This was 1989 – LONG before the Channel Tunnel. I remember several things about that journey. One of them, is buying a Croque Monsieur from a vendor near Gare St Lazaire, and the second, is sitting in a compartment on the train (that dates this story – compartments??) with a number of men – clearly pilots and aircrew – who claimed to be from Mauritius but who were clearly Scythe Ifrican. This was in the days of apartheid when everything and anyone remotely white South African was considered rather bad form in liberal society. These gentlemen, it must be said, were perfectly upright and pleasant fellows.
We took train from Gare St Lazaire (the first and only time I’ve ever been to that particular station in Paris), crossed the channel, and then on a cold winter’s morning, more trains, from Dover to Victoria and on home. I arrived home on 3rd February 1989, having left on 27th November the previous year. A good trip.