Old age is just around the bend
And I can't wait to go grey
I'll sit in wonder
Of every love that could have been
If I'd only thought of something charming to say"
- Death Cab for Cutie, The Sound of Settling
So did I forget to mention the American? (Aka the Quiet American, aka the Ugly American.) We first met this august gentleman at the station in Carlisle, where our rail connection to St. Bees was cancelled and replaced by a bus service. The American is hearty. The American is cheerful. The American is loud. (The American is awfully American.) The American is also doing the C2C alone. The American, we all instantly and silently agreed, will not be doing the C2C in company with us. What we didn't reckon on was that the American would be dogging us halfway across the country.
When we'd walked from the B&B to dinner in St. Bees, whom did we spot up ahead of us? (We sat on a bench until he'd gone.) When we pitched our tents at Ennerdale Bridge, there was one other small tent up at this site. Owner? That we learned when Darby and I went into town for dinner. "Oh, hi there. How was your walk? Great." We deftly dodged dining with him. In the morning, rising with the dawn at 5AM light floods the tent, and it's warmer to get up and get moving than it is to lie shivering in sleeping bags when we headed out, the American's tent was still there. We hoped we'd be leaving him behind. What we didn't know was that the American was having his kit shipped from town to town and would be moving fast.
So we hoof it out of town, Angler's Crag pivoting majestically around us on the right. It's another glorious morning. On the downside, as we departed at the bum-crack of dawn, Ennerdale Bridge's one store wasn't to open for hours; thus we were sans breakfast and lunch.
MF: "Just think: right now we could easily be sitting in some office, drinking coffee, reading e-mail . . ."We pass through one of the first of hundreds of "kissing gates" a neat arrangement with a swinging door that lets smart bipeds through, but not less smart quadrupeds. Unfortunately, unless the gates are big, they can do a job on bipeds with huge packs. I dub this small one a "sucking gate".
MP: "And instead, you son of a bitch, it's going to be ten miles before we even have a hope of lunch."
We pass a donation box for Cockermouth Mountain Rescue.
MF: "Cock'ermouth . . . ?"Shortly after, we reach the lake shore: Ennerdale Water. This is a very long lake; and we will be traversing the entire southern shore. It's a pretty, easy path right up until we reach the tower of rock known as Robin Hood's Chair. Here we have to leave the lakeshore and climb rocks in earnest. The descent in particular is harrowing, the diciest moment of the trip so far (and one of the diciest overall): nearly vertical at parts, scrabbly, and awfully high. Our packs threaten to pull us right off the face.
MP: "If you're a girl you do not want resuscitation from those guys . . ."
Having survived that, we pause to take stock and lament our failure to secure breakfast or lunch! Here, Darby busts out with a large emergency cache of cashews and dried cranberries. Darby rules! (These were to become the best-traveled cashews and cranberries in history crossing the Atlantic, traversing the width of England, then re-crossing the Atlantic.) We also appreciate the fact that we have the entire lake to ourselves a major bonus of doing this in May (Rather than July or August, when the C2C is a thoroughfare). Of course, we fear that no sooner will we have said it than the American will come round the bend:
tA: You guys having lunch? I was just gonna have lunch!Darby deserves explicit credit for that last line (which had me laughing for hours).
Us: Actually, we were just carrying on.
tA: I was going to carry on!
Us: How about if we throw you in the lake?
tA: I was just going to jump in the lake!
And so we carried on along the shore, passing through our first dry stone wall. These amazing structures positively blanket northern England. Darby explains that they are built with no adhesive or sealant whatsoever it's just a matter of finding rocks that fit together so precisely that the walls stand for decades. Apparently it's a dying art.
The rest of the lakeside walk is through some amazing, rocky, mossy forest (DK). Finally we reach the eastern end of the water, bit it adieu, and set off across large sheep enclosures.
After that: into the pine forests:
We pause to shed clothing. (Constantly adding and removing layers, plus rain gear, was also to become a ritual.) Mark watches on his tree stump throne, King of all Creation!
My notes here say "along river, cut through valley, clouds on escarpments. glorious!" My head is now playing, and carries on doing for hours, Death Cab for Cutie's "Sound of Settling": "Bump bah! This is the sound of settling, bump bah! Bump bah!" Darby and I find we each have our internal soundtracks to the trip. (When Mark and I aren't reciting Public Enemy lyrics aloud.) My notes here say, "break, lie on packs, shifting clouds and contrails. bliss!"
MF: You can't get this at the multiplex or the mall. You have to hike for it.Finally we reach the only structure in, as far as we can tell, all creation: the tiny little Black Sail YHA (DK). It takes its name from the dark peaks which surround it on all sides; it's a heck of a setting.
We were awfully hoping to score lunch here. But, as with most YHAs (we were to learn), they weren't officially open until 5pm. As we stood mournfully by the door, it opened and out came a hiker: "Come on in! There's tea and cakes in the kitchen, just put money for them in the honour box." Kick-ass! We settle ourselves down and I, for one, have the best two cups of tea of my life. We also chat happily with a few other C2Cers including one father and son pair. Unfortunately, the son is complaining of a worsening knee problem.
This is a bit of a harbinger of doom, as Black Sail is the staging point for what is the first or second most ass-kicking climb of the whole hike: Loft Beck. Darby, with her elevation charts and graphs, is seriously worried about this one: apparently, it rises over 300m in less than a half a kilometer. So, we're in no hurry to carry on . . . until the American spills into the little cabin.
tA: You guys playin' cards?!Well, okay, he didn't actually say that, but he may as well have. We dissemble about what our next stop and camp site are, saddle up and get busy getting our arses kicked. First was the easy bit of the climb, up into the foothills. Then the serious bit, up the rocky stream bed, began. These should give you the flavour (do note the tiny figures in the first one):
Here's the Darby take on the same terrain:
Here's where we learned the principal lesson of this lark: It's not the mileage. It's the terrain. Actually, it's the terrain and the 30lb pack on your back. Trust me, your knees were not designed for this. Don't get me wrong though: I for one was having a blast. I love a good clamber! Crisp air, sunlight, stunning scenery, billygoating around, using the body fully! Of course, the other two were cursing my name for ever having suggested any of this. Still, we all summit together, still hanging in:
From up top, we can see both the Irish Sea and Ennerdale Water over my right and left shoulders, respectively, in this awesome panorama (the components stitched together nicely) taken by Mark. It's a completely kick-ass spot and I can't remember when I've been happier: I realise I'd happily do five hours of slogging for five seconds of this.
My family is always complaining that I never smile for pictures. Here, knock yourselves out (DK). (Though, it should be noted I'm not smiling for a picture; I'm smiling, wildly, when a picture was taken.) I'm a happy guy.
Of course, as we were to learn, there's always one more bit of summit than you think there is. We eat it; take the obligatory group shot; then a less-obligatory but very nice semi-group shot; then get busy with a true high-level traverse. I say this: fell walking rules.
Finally, the descent which follows the course of a defunct quarry tramway (DK). This is where we begin to learn that the fully loaded steep descents are, if anything, worse on the knees than the ascents. Ouch. Still, lovely views.
We take siesta outside another YHA at the bottom. While Darby nips to the ladies, I promise to guard her bag, which I actually swipe and run away and hide. While crouching out of sight, I remember a gag one of the Three-Armed Hiking Team related to us: apparently, it's a grand joke amongst hikers and fell walkers to hide rocks in the bags of their companions. Then, at the top of some huge peak, when the rock is discovered, you get a grand laugh that you just made your mate carry a rock to the top of a mountain.
Naturally, I quickly find a suitable (suitably large and heavy) rock, putting it one of her outside pockets. I decide this isn't devious enough, so I take it back out and bury it in the main compartment. When I see Darby emerge, I let her stew a bit then reappear. I make a joke about what a lame joke it was to steal her bag I reckon this will be a good dodge for the rock issue. Unfortunately, two things happen: one, she goes deep into her bag for stuff, and Mark (kind of miraculously) says:
MP: I'd check for rocks while you're in there if I were you.I then make the tactical error of going to fill my hydration sleeve. When I get back, the outside pocket of my bag is zipped up. I open it and remove the rock. I give the others a dismissive look. "Oh, yeah, like that rock isn't a dodge. My water sleeve goes in that pocket!" While I dig for the others, we discuss that this could be an Assassination Game for the C2C. Mark suggests victory is measured in grams per mile carried. This would lead to different strategies: you could do very well with a tiny pebble carried 100 miles. Deep concealment would also be an art: the rock at the bottom of the shampoo bottle, which you discover on the last day: "Son of a BITCH!"
DK: . . . What, like this one?
MP: A really clever bastard would have planted more than one.
MF: I wasn't that clever. The bag theft was my dodge.
We finally agree that we're all much better off calling a rock-hiding truce. This walk is tough enough.
It turns out that after that shellacking of a climb, we've got another couple of miles to go to get us into Borrowdale. It's pretty terrain . . . but it's just that bit too much. We're done for when we stumble into town which is actually a collection of the villages of Longthwaite, Rosthwaite, and Stonethwaite ("the Thwaites"). The former has a camp site, the latter two reportedly have a pub apiece. They're in a lovely setting, but hardly amount to a town all together.
We're near collapse when we're held up by a mid-street sheep herding exercise. You do have to admire what those sheepdogs can do. We manage to pitch our tents near the wall of the field then face another half-mile walk to get to the pub! The keeper of which (the Langstrath Inn) tells us they are serving dinner to those with bookings only! We must have looked desperate, as he agrees to squeeze us in. We have a couple of pints outside while waiting. I decide beer is going to be key to all our operations in this sector.
We get served big hearty dinners suitable to the omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan, respectively which we devour like refugees. We consider the stunning fact given all we've already seen and done that yesterday morning we were in St. Bees; and, the day before, in London. Finally, we crawl back to the camp site in the gathering dusk.
MP: Recognise that yellow tent?
MF & DK: It's him.