Last year, I spent Easter in my spiritual home – the Lake District. We had a week in Bowness-on-Windermere followed by a week in Keswick. The Keswick holiday cottage was so lovely and perfectly situated that, as soon as the holiday ended, we re-booked it for this Easter for the full fortnight.
My parents took their caravan to the area for the first week. My dad, who has done lots of hiking in the past, wanted to climb Blencathra – one of the larger fells – one more time before his 80th birthday (he’s still a couple of years away) so hubby and I said last year that we’d do it with him. Hmm. More on that shortly.
We met my parents in Keswick on the first day and had a wander along the side of Derwent Water to popular tourist photo spot, Friar’s Crag, before having a picnic lunch in Hope Park. It was a bit grey and chilly, but it was lovely to be outdoors after a solid few weeks at my desk trying to finish book 20.
We nipped to Booths – the local supermarket – and I was thrilled to spot Family Secrets at Hedgehog Hollow among the books there. It’s always such a thrill to unexpectedly encounter any of my books out in the wild.
We also popped into the Tourist Information Centre in Moot Hall and discovered from the assistant in there that the ‘Festival of Lights’ was being held that evening. We weren’t familiar with this but it sounded interesting so we left Ella, our sprocker spaniel, in the holiday cottage with our 16-year-old daughter (who didn’t fancy venturing out in the cold to watch a bunch of lights on a mountain!) and went to see it ourselves.
You can read more about it here but essentially it’s about a stack of people lining up across a fell route shining torches when it gets dark to create a trail of lights. This one took place on Cat Bells which is on the western shore of Derwent Water so we watched it from the eastern shore then moved onto Crow Park to see from a different angle.
The hubby took some far superior photos to mine so I’ve shared those, the second one being the view from Crow Park. They reckon there were about 2,000 people spread across the fell which is mind-blowing, and they raised over £10k for charity, this year’s nominated one being The Michelle Jurd Trust who help young people and veterans in Cumbria experience adventure and live life to the full. Torch-holders contributed and there were collection buckets in Crow Park.
We were so glad we stopped in at the Tourist Information or we’d have completely missed this lovely event.
The following day, we planned to have a fairly relaxing one because the day after would be our Blencathra climb. My friend, the artist Lucy Pittaway, was holidaying in the area that weekend so my daughter and I met up with her and her daughter for a drink and cake late that morning. It was lovely being able to sit outside and enjoy the sunshine. Don’t those cakes look yummy? Believe me, they were! Mine was the Crunchie cheesecake and I could absolutely trough down another slice of that right now! If you’re not familiar with Lucy’s work, do check out her website here.
Monday was the big day – the walk up Blencathra. So let’s start with a few facts about this fell:
- Blencathra is also known as Saddleback
- It’s part of the Skiddaw Group – the oldest mountains in the Lake District which are over 500 million years old. Eek!
- It proudly stands 868m or 2,848 feet above sea level
- It’s the 14th highest peak in the Lake District but the highest – Scafell Pike – is only 110m higher
- It was one of Alfred Wainwright’s favourite walks (British fell walker, guidebook author and illustrator)
I didn’t really know what to expect from Blencathra but my dad repeatedly saying, “Are you sure you’ll be all right to do it?” did make me wonder whether this might be a step (or several) too far for me in an effort to get a bit fitter. I wanted to give it a try, though. Hubby and I ticked off our first of the 214 Wainwrights in the National Park last Easter – the much more leisurely and smaller Latrigg – and we had a plan that, over time, we’d work through them all.
My parents were staying in a small caravan site on a farm a little walk away from the start of our ascent so we collected Dad from there and walked across the fields on a beautiful but chilly morning. You see the white buildings in the background? One of those is a pub called The White Horse in a tiny village (a hamlet perhaps?) called Scales so we had to get there first. Blencathra is the fell on the left of the photo which appears to have two peaks. The higher one is the main peak but the plan was also to walk to the second peak, completing the ‘saddleback’ part of the walk.
Out the back of The White Horse is a bunkhouse and a field which is the start of the walk (on our chosen route – there are several options) and is extremely steep. At the top of the field is a stile and I swear that nearly did me in. The steps on it were so high that, at 5 ft 2″, I could barely raise my little legs onto them! I had to scramble onto my knees (not ideal for a 50-year-old short fat author) so I was pretty much wiped out at the first challenge.
After that, there was an even steeper scramble up the hillside and I nearly said I was going to give up and turn back at that point because it was, quite frankly, terrifying. I was convinced I was going to slip and fall but Dad reassured us it levelled out into a more sensible path after that so I continued.
I’m glad I did because the views were incredible and, being such a clear sunny day, we could see for miles and miles. I’m not going to lie. It wasn’t an easy walk. I wouldn’t say I was out of breath that much of the time, but more that my legs just didn’t have the power because I spend my days in a sedentary role and very rarely get out and about. And they do have a tough job given how overweight I am, but they do their best.
It was such a relief to summit, although there was still that extra little bit to walk to do the full saddleback. Thankfully it was mainly on the flat with gentle slopes at either side. That’s Derwent Water you can see in the background.
I was so proud of myself for getting up to the top, especially as I had a complete loss of energy about a third from the top which thankfully the sugar rush from half a Double Decker sorted out (I’d already eaten my healthy snack of a banana near the bottom). What I hadn’t appreciated was how much of a killer the descent would be.
I know coming down can be tough, particularly if your legs are feeling tired from the ascent and you have dodgy knees, as so many of us do at this age when we’re overweight. Nothing had prepared me for quite how scary it was. I was okay but cautious for a lot of it. There were a lot of muddy/grassy ‘steps’ that you could work your way down, but it was at the point where it was more pebbly/gravelly that it got much more scary as it was slippy. The pathways were wide so I didn’t feel at any point like I might fall off the fell, but there was a constant fear of slipping at any moment.
And then the incident happened. Not to me but to someone else and it scared the life out of me. I could hear a group behind me and saw the shadow of someone getting closer. Just as they went to pass me, they went splat, head first. It was a man possibly in his 40s and he got up and laughed and his family laughed with him for being an ‘idiot for trying to run’ but it had the biggest detrimental affect on me. If this younger, much fitter man could fall, so could I and I probably wouldn’t be able to get up and laugh it off. Fear gripped me and I had a proper meltdown about it. I got slower and slower, and my legs got shakier, and I could happily have sat down and cried and never left the mountain.
All I could think about was slipping, breaking something, and them having to call Mountain Rescue who would have an absolute shocker trying to get someone so heavy down the mountain. I imagined everyone whispering about how fat people have no place trying to climb mountains and that I should have stayed at home, out of sight, where I belonged. This right here was the reason I can’t get hiking gear in my size and have to wear men’s clothes – because society says fat means unfit and I’d just proved it by falling over. I hate it when the weight demons tell me I can’t do something.
Dad aka 77-year-old mountain goat was doing brilliantly plodding down ahead of us but I was in a mess. Ella, the super-dog, kept trotting on ahead to see how Dad was doing, then coming back to me to make sure I was okay. Mark (hubby) was amazing. He offered to take my backpack but I didn’t think that would help – there wasn’t actually that much weight in it – and I didn’t want to put him in danger. Instead, I wanted his hand, his arm, his reassuring words as he helped me down. I told him I didn’t want to try any more big mountains and I’d need to stick to the little fells because, even if I did manage to lose weight, the fear of slipping and falling was not going to go away. I’ve been scared of falling for as long as I can remember, but it was so acute on the descent, that I can’t imagine being able to tackle something like that again, even if I did shed half my body weight.
Eventually, the end was in sight but remember how I said that first stretch had been a shocker? I still had that to tackle! My legs were shot by this stage. There was an option to continue walking and come out at the far end of Scales but I honestly couldn’t face the extra distance. Mark passed my backpack and his down to Dad and came up to get me but I’d discovered the safest way to get down on my own – on my backside! It wasn’t conventional or pretty but it wasn’t nearly as terrifying as the thought of slipping, so I slowly slid my way down that scramble bit, somehow got over the stile, and down that final field.
That was me completely spent so Mark left his backpack and Dad, Ella and I retired to the beer garden at The White Horse for a very much needed drink of local ale and a toast for (finally) making it down. It took a whopping eight hours from door to door. I feel really sorry for Dad because he could easily have done it in two hours less if it hadn’t been for me. But I did climb that mountain. I put on social media that I’d conquered Blencathra and a follower commented that she didn’t feel we can conquer something that has been around for so long. I understood the point she was making, but this had been a HUGE battle for me. For me, I did conquer that mountain … or rather I conquered my meltdown to get to the bottom when I’ve never been so scared in my life.
Looking back, I can’t believe I actually managed it. I really enjoyed the ascent and the views were more than worth the aching muscles. I just wish the descent hadn’t scared me so badly. I’m fine with heights; it’s the falling I’m afraid of. I’m convinced that, if that man hadn’t gone head over heels next to me, I wouldn’t have been quite so badly affected but I still think I’d have struggled.
Oh well, second Wainwright is ticked off and my Dad’s bucket list moment was fulfilled so that’s all good. Although, when we got back to the holiday cottage, climbing the stairs to the bathroom felt like another Blencathra thanks to my poor aching muscles!
Have you climbed Blencathra or any of the other fells in the Lakes? Would love to hear from you if you have, especially if it was a struggle for you in any way.
I’ll leave it there for now and come back with Part 2 soon.