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» Rough, still and lonely

When my wife told me to take a hike, she meant it. To the Lake District. Camping. It was my fault. Had I not rashly cast doubt on her own camping credentials, I would probably not have ended up shivering in a tent just below the top of Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, in early February. But when your wife attempts to call your bluff, issuing a challenge and expecting you to duck it, what’s a man to do? It was time to dig out the little-used tent, unpack the down sleeping bag and head north.

Thankfully, I had recruited the best possible travelling companion. Anthony is an old friend who runs his own decorating business in London. He has been visiting the Lake District for 16 years and if he doesn’t quite know it like the back of his hand he’s still the sort of man who gets to the top of a peak and says things like, “That’s Bowfell over there and to the west you’ve got Esk Pike and Great End … ” when all you can see is a series of indiscriminate ridges and hills running into the horizon. Nor, in all those years, has he ever visited in summer, when too many walkers destroy the sense of solitude one comes here for. In short, a winter purist.

Driving up the motorway on a Thursday night we toyed with the idea of Lakeland luxury, amused by the prospect of checking into somewhere unspeakably comfortable and expensive, but this would have been deceitful. Reluctantly we ruled it out. The order of play would be as follows: one night in the Queen’s Head, Troutbeck, as a warm-up; then two chilly nights in a tent, one on a mountain, the other in the National Trust campsite in Langdale. This way honour would be served. The challenge would have been met.

You don’t expect to meet a Frenchman and a pair of Eastern European women working in a traditional 17th-century coaching inn, but these are the cosmopolitan surprises awaiting the visitor to contemporary Lakeland. The cuisine was contemporary, too. I was out of date. For supper I was anticipating a simple pie and chips. Instead, it was a sumptuous dinner of hot smoked salmon, followed by braised belly of pork served with creamed potatoes, caramelised sweet onions, sautéed apples, maple syrup and sage. Good walking food, I told myself, cramming in another pint for good measure. Anthony, somewhat greedily, went for a rich confit of duck leg and then the partridge.

Our guide was the inestimable Alfred Wainwright, a man variously described as gruff, rude, quirky, retiring and generous. Wainwright’s Tour in the Lake District : Whitsuntide 1931 begins with the portentous announcement: “This tour is a most comprehensive one. Limited as we are by time, it is impossible to visit every corner of Lakeland, yet the programme, if followed conscientiously, will lead us everywhere worth mentioning. It will be arduous, but the reward will be well worth the work. It will avoid the tourists, the roads, the picnic spots. It is the claim of this programme that every lake, every valley, every mountain will be seen, if not actually visited.”

Avoiding the tourists is de rigueur for all tourists these days, never mind that the 1m-plus books Wainwright sold on the fabulous fells have caused them to be overrun by tourists for much of the year. This itinerary took him a week. We had a weekend.

Anthony suggested we start with Wainwright’s day three, Keswick to Buttermere. It was 19 miles.

“That sounds like a lot,” I said.

“We could do day five in reverse, Langdale to Wasdale.”

“How far?”

“14½ miles.”

“Hmm. That’s more like it.”

What he didn’t tell me was that it began with a ruinously steep ascent from Langdale and didn’t get much easier after that.

The problem with camping rough – one of its great glories, too – is that you have to carry everything with you. Food, water, tent, sleeping bag, roll mat, cooker, change of clothes. Wainwright we left behind. He was too heavy and his tone irked me.

By the time we had reached Crinkle Crags, which Wainwright judged “Lakeland’s best ridge mile” and Anthony had been burbling away all morning, my back was drenched with sweat, my calves were frozen in shock and my knees shattered. We had surfaced above the clouds for a tantalisingly lovely view, our first, of the mountain wilderness around us, only to be quickly shrouded in cloud once again. Crinkle Crags might have merited Wainwright’s burst of enthusiasm: I barely saw them.

Then, joy of joys, the clouds lifted and suddenly all around us was the essence of Lakeland, rough, still and lonely, a heart-lifting moment for anyone who is moved by mountains. On to Three Tarns, Bowfell and Esk Pike, amid falling temperatures and failing, frozen hands. Water flowed prettily beneath the ice. The wind rising, the hills bare. The emptiness of the scene was the greatest reward for coming here in the heart of winter.

Tempting fate, we pitched the tent in the most exposed spot we could find and one of the most dramatic, a saddle of flat land between Great End and Broad Crag. We had covered 10 or 11 miles. Here I was reduced to a state of collapse for one and a half hours.

I had followed Wainwright’s example by designating myself Leader. Anthony was, as Jim Sharples had been in 1931, Vice-Leader and Consultant. It was important to maintain discipline on an expedition.

“Come and have a look at the sunset.”

“I’m sure it’s lovely.”

“We should go and climb Broad Crag.”

I cursed him. He had younger legs.

The sunset was, of course, wildly beautiful. We were above cloud level and the picture was heavenly, Himalayan, a grey peak or two poking through the clouds in an otherwise clear sky suffused in flames that drifted steadily into lilac. We nibbled on chunks of ice and marvelled at the splendour.

“Time for dinner,” I said.

In addition to his other duties Anthony had been designated Expedition Chef. Hobbling back to the camp, I could think only of food: Cullen Skink soup, beef stew with mashed potato and a pudding of chocolate and biscuits, all washed down with a bottle of claret. Never had a dinner tasted so good. Never was a damp sleeping bag so blissfully restful.

The challenge early on Saturday morning was to reach the summit of Scafell Pike, before returning to Langdale via Langdale Pikes. We had England’s greatest mountain to ourselves: views stretched as far as Snowdonia to the south, Ireland to the west and Scotland to the north.

Much of the route was downhill after that, which was a source of great satisfaction for most of the day until my stupefied knees and thighs were screaming for mercy. At the top of Pike of Stickle a noisy teacher on a mobile phone did much to spoil the serenity of our surroundings. Relief came, after a day of around 11 miles and a boys’ lunch of Scotch egg and pork pie, in the warmth of the Stickle Barn pub.

Anthony started discussing walking options for Sunday. There had been ominous talk of Striding Edge and Helvellyn. Far too vigorous. It was imperative to squash such thoughts immediately.

“You can forget it,” I replied. “I’m not going up another mountain.”

He agreed, with gratifyingly little protest. We settled on a six-mile walk in the Winster Valley – without the slightest hint of a gradient.

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