Matt has The Long Way Round on in the background. Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman have reached Mongolia. Charley Boorman recounts how they had to cross a mountain river five times in the rain and he was crying. He says “I was scared, I wasn’t enjoying myself, it was hard”.
From what I can see, Mongolia looks a bit like the Lake District. Over the past week we walked its outer edges between Penrith and Boot basing our route on Eric Robson’s After Wainright.
The memorable bits first, followed by vegan and transport notes, and bodily matters.
The Crown at Hesket Newmarket and the conviviality of Malcolm’s bar. The people there were so humorous and self-lampooning. There are plans to set up a web link with a pub in Bavaria and their main worry (they are that age) is how to avoid mentioning the war. One scenario is a sign over the camera to remind them – a bit like “Don’t think of an elephant” I’d imagine.
A shepherd about his business with a couple of dogs.
A vintage aeroplane flew up the valley after Melbreak and dipped its wings at us.
A whippet in a papoose.
Eating wild rasberries in the lane to Nether Wasdale.
The most beautiful view in the lakes – looking south-east from north of Crummock Water you see layers of mountains heaving themselves out of the coastal plain.
A bright red squirrel, the first I’ve seen.
Climbing Melbreak – from some angles the most evil-looking mountain in the lakes.
Being blown clean off my feet by a huge gust of wind near the summit of Great Borne.
Having my teeth actually bared by the force of the wind in the cloud near the summit of Haycock. It got in your mouth and blew out your cheeks – I have never felt that before. Having to walk on the lee side of the dry stone wall to walk at all. Feeling terrified that my contact lenses were going to be blown away. The reliance on the GPS with sheer drops into Ennerdale Water to our left. Scrambling over wet scree and decayed mountain to get back on a path. Losing the first path down in the thick cloud. The relief when I made out the cairn of the second path. The greater relief when we dropped below the cloud line and could see again. Soaked to the skin in a cutting wind, feeling scared to stop for long in case we got hypothermia. Making it down to the road next to Wastwater and shuddering at the decomposing screes that plunge into it.
Matt’s feet after that day; wondering if my camera would dry out.
The ominous warning of this memorial stone on the last day – “Be ye also ready”. Great. Enjoy your walk in the mountains, folks. It may be your last. You may never come down.
Burnmoor Tarn, the eeriest spot in the lakes, and the deserted and frankly ghoulish Burnmoor Lodge. This is the Coffin Route – the bereaved of Wasdale Head would take their dead over this moor to the nearest burial ground in the Eskdale Valley. I find this place really depressing. I listened to Silver Jews and Pavement to cheer myself up.
The last peak – Illgill Head, when the weather cleared from our backs and blew the cloud out of our way.
All the beautiful views – this is only one.
The train reeling us inexorably back to London.
Brings me to transport notes. We arrived in Penrith after an ordeal of a journey involving a rail replacement bus service which got lost in the south Cumbrian lanes. The journey back to London took 11 hours, including a tiny steam train, a £50-fucking-quid taxi ride (this was actually the best part of the journey – he took us over the fells) to Barrow-in-Furness and £78 each single tickets via Manchester Piccadilly, followed by the Tube. Everything was delayed, broken, failed – including the passengers (I’m getting a little appalled at how often it seems to fall to me to secure seats for people on crutches, pregnant, tottery etc – they invariably want them but they won’t ask the people in the priority seats for them).
Next, vegan notes. First, vegan satisfactions. Our Penrith B&B, Brandlehow Guest House, did an excellent breakfast with apricot compote, soya milk, dairy-free spread and even vegan sausages. They also look after people with allergies – very nice place indeed. At the Castle Inn in Bassenthwaite the chef produced a menu especially for me – I had 4 starters and 4 mains to choose from. I chose stew and dumplings (it had been cold and rainy). My dessert fruit salad was not boring – it contained beautifully-cooked rhubarb and caramelised pecans. I’m very grateful because I’m not used to this. I thought the Castle was a wonderful hotel (it also had a spa). The Screes in Nether Wasdale is an absolutely lovely place – the chickpea and spinach soup is probably the best bowl of soup I ever had, and the chilli was fantastic. Honorable mentions – at the Crown Inn in Hesket Newmarket (Britain’s first cooperative pub) there was a curry, ditto The Grange Country House Hotel. Howbeck Lodge got in houmous, soya milk and dairy-free spread for us – I particularly appreciated this because I’m used to little patience from farmers who rear animals to eat. At The Woolpack Inn near Boot there was a very exciting-sounding and imaginative dish called Asian Steps but its flavour was overpowered by either (according to Matt) lemongrass or (according to me) ginger.
Vegan disappointments. The Woolpack Inn was frankly sanctimonious about not having any margarine (this is the place whose menu includes the memorable sentence “We believe that good food is not enhanced by the addition of bought-in sauces such as KETCHUP”). But what does that have to do with my breakfast mushrooms being cooked in water? And why didn’t anybody offer to fry me some bread in oil? And, as Matt muttered as he poured the water from his uncooked poached egg and sodden mushrooms into the dish which had held a little pat of (unsalted) butter, it’s fine to lay down dictats about what goes with good food – as long as the food is in fact good. Some of it was (the beer, bread, black marmalade and coffee) and some of it was foul. The Shepherd’s Arms in Ennerdale Bridge was dire. The chef was totally unprepared and the waiter had to go back and forth between the kitchen and our table to ask whether I ate prawns, cheese etc. I ended up having chips and (undressed) salad. The manager tried to remind me that I had told him not to get in anything special, obliging me to remind him back that I would only have said that if he had told me that they could cater for me. For lunch (we ask for packed lunch if we are walking in remote places) I was offered a pasta salad (the worst I have ever had – dry unoiled pasta with a few bits of tomato and cucumber in among it) which was difficult to eat on a windy, wet mountainside. You can eat sandwiches on the move and still watch where you’re putting your feet. With pasta salad you have to stop. Matt had to curtail my lunch that day and get us moving again because he said I was turning blue.
Which brings me to bodily matters. I was prepared for a certain amount of pain because I’ve spent a year at this computer and I knew that I’d be breaking myself in for at least the first three days. So it was. But it’s amazing how quickly your body remembers what’s to be done. After the first mountain which was a 400m slog, the others were fine and by the end we were able to get up 800m no problem. We carry our stuff – what with the food, water, waterproofs, first aid and survival stuff, extra socks, cameras, mp3 players, GPS, batteries, maps we have to carry with us, there’s not much else we could palm off on a sherpa.
I wish I was one of these spring-heel jacks but I never will be. One concession to my unfitness and the prodigious weight of my pack, I used two poles. I think I’d use them anyway. Not only do they stop you wrecking your knees going down, they are also excellent for holding back brambles, nettles &tc, probing squidgy ground to see if it will take your weight, balancing on rocks when crossing rivers, holding you up when you slip, pushing you up hills, working your upper body, and leaning on when your feet hurt after 16 miles.
That’s about it. Work tomorrow. Oh.