I was walking down the woods with the dogs this morning, thoughts trailing through my mind, as they do. Titch, the sheepdog, spotted something over the hedge, but I just ignored it, I thought she must have been looking at a rabbit or something. Then, when I turned the volume down on the head chatter, I heard the chaotic chorus in one of the sheep fields. I turned around to see if I could see anything and sure enough, Titch was right. There was the naughty escaped lamb, with it’s mother incessantly bleating over the other side of the hedge, violently trying to head butt its way back into the field from where it had absconded. The louder the mother ewe got, the more the other sheep in the field joined in, the more the lamb rammed its head. Oh bollocks.
There’s no real easy way of catching a spring lamb, especially one that is on it’s own. Just as you’re getting close to them, they bolt off in the opposite direction; usually ramming their head against a fence only I know they can’t fit through. They are a bit dim. I spent the next half an hour chasing the lamb up and down the hedge back in the woods, through bramble bush and thicket, up, under and over barbed wire fencing, in the pouring rain. While I was doing this, I was also trying to keep Titch under control. Although she is a sheepdog, we got her as a rescue dog and she’s never really been trained to look after the sheep, she’s more of a pet. I always think she looks like she’s going in for a leg when she looks at a lamb. She loves bones and happily hoovers up any carcass she comes across, always with that look of defiance on her face. She never seems that bothered about rounding up fully-grown sheep, it’s the little one’s she likes. So in between, “where have the sodding Labradors gone?” a lot of ‘sit down’s’, and ‘will you fuckin’ sit downs’, I tried to get closer to the lamb. With the absence of any corners to back it into this took some time. I finally got closer to it when it got its head jammed in between some wire. I hoofed it over a fallen down tree (“Sit Titch!”), an ocean of bluebells (“Sit Down!”) and other fauna (“Don’t you fuckin’ move” accompanied by a death stare) and launched myself at the lamb, grabbing it by the scuff of the neck. I pulled its head out of the wire and picked it up in my arms. It took me a few moments to clam it down; its little heart was beating like thunder. I saw, when I picked it up, its nose was bleeding from hammering its head so many times trying to get back to its mother, poor stupid thing, but they never learn.
I seem to have this natural aptitude for calming animals down and it’s something I am very grateful for. It wasn’t long before the lamb looked like it was going to nod off to sleep as I held it, either that or die right there in my arms, you never can tell with sheep to be honest. As it was calm now, I lifted my head up to assess the situation, only to be faced with a barbed wire fence equal in height to me. ‘How the fuck am I going to get you over that?’ I asked the lamb. I was holding a lamb, over three-months-old that weighed about the same as a medium sized dog. I am stronger than I look, but it is mind over matter a lot of the time. The fallen tree and bramble bushes hedged me in from behind, the barbed wire from the front with about a foot of space in between the two where I was lodged. There was no way I could scramble underneath all that, or over it, holding a fat lamb, while Titch was licking her lips on the sideline. I took a moment to consider my options. While I was doing this, the adrenalin must have started to wear off because my legs started to shake in a very strange manner, quite uncontrollably. Now the lamb was getting really heavy, I was very aware of this. I shuffled up the fence line a little bit, as far as I could, and with some level of genius I pulled the barbed wire up with my elbow and the wire fence down with the other hand, all while still holding the fat lamb. This created a space of about a foot in between the two. I wasn’t at all convinced the lamb would fit through the gap, but in an act of blind faith I somehow shoved it through without shredding its head and off it ran bleating to its mother.
I fought my way back out of the undergrowth dripping wet and bemused, but feeling always capable. I whistled the Labradors back who were off merrily chasing rabbits. Titch, at my feet, rarely leaves your side anyway, but especially when you’re holding a lamb, it seems! On our walk back to the farm, the roving mind chatter returned and once again I reminded myself that I must write my adventures as I do them, it’s just so much easier. It’s no good leaving it a few weeks, or even longer, because in that time many other adventures have been had. The longer you leave it after your trip, the less you feel like writing about it. The minute details get lost in the ether, only to be easily traded for other stories from new expeditions, and then there’s no story left at all, so to speak. I still haven’t completely finished Greece, or Spain from last year, though I do have notes for those so that doesn’t really count! Being mindful of my intentions, this weekend just passed can’t go without noting, so without further deviation…
This would be my third trip out in the Mystery Machine (MM). The first was when I bought it and picked it up from Lincolnshire. The second was a trip to the beautiful East Coast, which I haven’t written about yet. This time though, I would be voyaging to The Lake District. May Bank Holiday weekend. 6 days, my longest time away in her so far.
Manoeuvring a bus across two lanes of the A19 is quite an adrenalin rush. I step on the gas and nothing really surprising happens, in fact not a lot happens at all. Put it this way, I don’t think I’m going to be getting any speeding fines through the post, ever, not from driving that anyway. She’s steady away, Captain. But she wasn’t phased and didn’t stall, thankfully. I didn’t have long on the motorway before turning off to go across country to get on the A1 north via Northallerton. I’m still getting used to the spatial awareness logic and the difference between a car and a house on wheels. That and the fact that The MM is an import and a left hand drive, which when you first take to the road makes you want to be in the middle of the road straddling the white line. No sooner had I turned off onto country lanes, what should I meet approaching? Two articulated lorries. One was a double-barrelled pipe transporter and the other was a builder’s merchant, one behind the other. Oh holy fucking shit! I got into the side of the road as far as I could up to the hedge and clenched my buttocks. The look on my face was probably priceless. I waved out of the enormous Hymer window with heartiness and vigour to express thanks; the driver probably thought I was deranged.
I was pleased to get through town and on my way. It was quite funny driving right through Northallerton in the big bertha, a first for me. You do feel like you’re in one of those monster trucks, where you can just drive straight over the top of the humble car, if you had a bit more power that is. I made my way up the A1 and then on to the famous A66, the road you don’t want to be on in anything other than sunny weather, if you’re driving anything other than a car. It was really windy when I got right on to the tops. The sky was black and menacing and full of something, I wasn’t sure what. The surge and pull off the lorries as they overtake you is a sensation you only really get a grasp of when you too are in a high-sided vehicle. It’s a bit of a Frankie Howard ‘Oooooooh’. And then the odd ‘Farrrrrrk’, as you try and remember how to steer a car on ice, and that is most definitely to not fight it, just go with it and hope the whole show doesn’t blow over with you in it.
I happily observed the view out of the window as I passed Brough castle, marvelling at the amazing windows in the MM, it’s like being in an Imax cinema, with full surround. Let’s hope for no cracked windscreens because I might have to sell my body to pay for a replacement. I chortled at the idea that if I did need a wee stop, all I had to do was pull over and use the onboard toilet, how amazing, what a novelty. All in all, apart from the odd pang of guilt when cars got stuck behind me, it was a lovely drive up there. I got on to thinking about how many times I’ve huffed and puffed when I’ve got stuck behind similar vehicles in the past. I’ve found a new sense of respect for such eventualities, and already the MM has taught me so much more, which I will go into later.
When I arrived into Glenridding, after a tight, long, winding and quite clench worthy drive down the side of lake Ullswater, the Sat Nav that I’d bought, specifically designed for the motorhome may I add (apparently), decided to take me to a car park and make me drive over the top of houses to get to where I needed to be, ‘go off road’, it said. So far, the only difference I can see between a normal Sat Nav and the ‘special’ one is that instead of having an arrow pointing where you are going, I now have a motorhome icon… So I know it’s me, driving the vehicle. It did make me laugh, still does.
I wouldn’t care, but I had to punch in the vital statistics of the van when I first turned the ‘special’ navigator on. The height, width, weight of the vehicle and that kind of stuff, so the device could miraculously determine what roads were suitable and which were not. Technology is marvellous isn’t it, when it works. I figured it out myself, where I needed to be, and just followed my nose. I pulled out of the car park and did a left turn up a village street until I got to the top and saw the sign for the farm where I would be staying. I turned another left onto a gravel track. At the top of the track I stopped and thought, you’ve got to be fucking joking. There was a house at the top, so I got out and knocked on the door, thinking that perhaps this was where I checked in. Nobody answered. Visions of Withnail & I flooded back to me. I’m not from around here. I’ve come on holiday by mistake. The track I was to make my way down was as tight as a pair of Bondi budgie smugglers. A beautifully crafted dry stonewall on either side and not much space for anything else in between. I don’t mind admitting I was shitting pips going down there. How I managed to get the van down there without ripping a hole in the side of the van or ending up in the ditch is quite an impressive achievement, for a first timer.
At the bottom of the track I saw where I needed to pull into and swung the van as best I could into this beautiful streamside location. The beauty of arriving long before the hoards that such a weekend brings about is that you get to pick the premium spot, and that’s exactly what I did. I did have to have a bit of a shuffle, well a ten point turn, to get the right position in between two trees, but when I got it sorted I had the prime spot, overlooking the stream and fell. I felt so chuffed with myself, really elated. The location was gorgeous.
As soon as I got parked up I had a walk up to the farmhouse where I was greeted by what I guessed was the grandmother of the farm. I had talked to her on the phone, I recognised her voice and had to laugh when she checked if there was any space for me, I could hear her flipping over the pages of a reservation book. No online booking and pay when you get here. Such a beautiful chirpy soul who didn’t mince her words and smiled in quiet knowingness, if that makes any sense, mostly about her watching me come down the track like a learner driver, out of her farm house window. ‘Steady is always best’, she said, while chuckling in amusement. I had to say, ‘I was just wondering, might I purchase some eggs off of you?’ I was waiting for, ‘Me son deals with that, he’s up in’t top field, ‘is legs bound in polythine, you can’t miss ‘im’, but she was far too nice for that. Six free range farm eggs we’re 90p, yes that’s right 90p. I nearly skipped back to the van, because once you have eaten free-range organic eggs, you know what an egg really should taste like. Over the following week, I would see that the farm was a proper family business, not unlike my own. And I think I must have met the entire family over the week, for one reason or another, and they were all so lovely. I’m split between keeping the place a secret and helping their business through writing this, but I will tell you it was Gillside Farm out of gratitude.
That afternoon I went for a wander down to the lake and around the village. Such a serene place and I never feel more energised than I do around mountains, lakes and the ocean. I was just content pottering around taking a few photos. It was sunny when I arrived, but by about 5pm the clouds rolled in and then came the hail and the rain, to be followed by more blue sky by about 8pm. This set the trend for the next six days. Back at the van it was lovely sitting on the sofa staring out of the window watching what I called nature TV. I had the stream, the sheep and lambs that kept escaping, followed by the farmer on the quad bike with her two dogs rounding them up. It does please me to see a woman doing that job; it’s not an easy job in that weather. You could sit there for hours watching the clouds roll past and the different weather patterns form. The way the light changed on the fell and the diamonds of light reflecting in the stream. Sound magical? It was. It was all made ever so much more pleasant because the van has central heating, which still cracks me up. Being one who likes to know how everything works, I still find it amazing that you can have the same sort of heating system in a van that you have in your house. I’d love to see the workings of it; you know, pull it all apart and then put it back together again. Once you switch that thermostat on, the van is toasty in about 10 minutes; I think it’s amazing. I still have mad ideas about buying a fallen down building then building it back up again. And I still have even crazier ones about doing building, plumbing and electricians courses. I’ve always thought I can do anything I set my mind to, and really, anything is easy if you know how. How amazing would it be to build your own house, to your own design, then sort the entire inside of it out as well? All by yourself, a whole house, what an achievement that would be. And you’d save a small fortune.
The next morning I woke up quite early, peeping out of the window to see what the weather was doing, it was a fine day. The double bed above the captain’s seat is unreal. It is so comfortable; it’s a bit hard to get out of. You don’t really put camper vans and comfy beds in the same sentence, but this one is. It’s on a hydraulic pull down system, which too, I think is amazing. It’s not creaky or squeaky, just spongy and lovely. I hopped down and got ready for a bit of adventure. Nothing starts the day off better than my favourite breakfast in the whole world. Ciabatta bread, toasted… with butter, then half an avocado on top of that and a poached egg on top of that. Not forgetting the cayenne pepper, I like it hot! Lashings of black pepper and Himalayan salt, obviously.
I did the morning ritual of washing up, then emptying the Thetford (shitbox on wheels… but only wee is allowed in mine… the rule is, if you dump in it, you hump it. There’s something so not right about emptying shit out of a box, especially if it’s not yours. Why put yourself through it at 8am if you don’t have to? Campsites are too well equipped to be enduring that with a hangover or at any other time to be fair). I have got pretty good at sorting that job out, I even bought some organic shitbox cleaner so I’m not polluting the streams, aren’t I thoughtful. You do empty it into a waste disposal by the way, not into the stream.
After I had a shower, I got my gear ready and set off on a little adventure. I didn’t really have a plan, but that’s the way I like it. I first went into the village and managed to blag some WIFI, because as the outdoor shop guy had told me, I’d have to walk for about five hours to get a signal on EE. I thought this might be a bit of an exaggeration but I humoured him and bought a pair of gloves because I’d forgotten mine. I had the best coffee in The Country Kitchen and managed to get in touch with all the people I needed to. That reminds me actually, the night before, I actually used a phone box, remember them? It cost me 70p for about a minute, and it started charging me from when the phone started ringing. By the time I got to say anything, the phone went dead. I thought, fuck that, I’m not putting any more money in there. No wonder they are just an ornament. They should have left them all as red phone boxes, much nicer to look at.
After this, I wandered back up the road and I was so spoiled for choice of things to do, I just followed my nose. I saw some dots on the hillside, anoraks and backpacks, not that far from where the van was, and thought, that looks good up there, I’m off up there. So off I went. A steep climb up the hill and over a stream to a majestic tree, I could tell the view was just going to get even more awesome the further up I went. It was at that spot that my phone went beep. I laughed, and thought what a load of bullshit, no signal. I got a signal, even if it was only in that one square meter. But now I knew that if I did have an emergency, I could hoof it up there and wave my phone about, I knew the exact spot, right by the blue water pipe that fed the sheep trough. I’m a sucker for landmarks. I’ve got a photographic memory, shit in exams, but brilliant in pub quizzes in the picture round. I made my way up from here and on to the top of this part of the fell. The view over Ullswater from there was epic, it was pretty jaw dropping and I felt elated. From this point I had two choices, over a fence that didn’t have any directions, or through a snicket that had a sign that said Helvellyn. I went the unofficial way first, only just to have a quick look. The track ran out almost immediately, but the view was grand, and I also spotted that somebody had been buried up there, and I thought, what a fantastic place to rest your bones, overlooking the lake. It was obviously somebody who loved the place and I guessed it was the husband of the older lady at the farm; he was the only member of the family I never met. The land he loved, oh what a romantic I am. It really was a prime spot reserved for somebody special. Maybe it wasn’t him at all, might have been some poet.
The goat in me just can’t stop. Once I get walking, I just have to keep on going, up to the top of the mountain. I passed a few people coming down as I wandered my way up alone, each time I stopped for a chat. I asked the passers if they’d been up to the top, and each person said that they hadn’t dared. They said there was a lot of ice up there and deep snow in places, and that you’d probably need special equipment to get across past striding edge. Each time, I thought, well, I’ll make my own mind up about that! I made it, by accident really, almost to striding edge. I enjoy climbing and walking so much; I forget I’m even doing it really. I get so absorbed in the moment. As I stood up there, I could see the weather was closing in and that it was snowing on the tops. I took in the view, and thought to myself, I’m going to be doing this all over again tomorrow and I can remember what my legs were like the following day. So with that thought in mind, I decided to leave it at that and hike back down again. Part of me was annoyed for not doing the full circuit, but the more life experience I have the more I realise you should always go with your guts. Pig head I won’t be beaten says ‘do it’, gut instinct says don’t.
I had a lovely night back in the van with my guitar. I have to admit; I never thought it would be so funny watching your own hand being an idiot. Why is it that my hand is doing that? I have such little fingers. It’s almost like trying to get a piece of defiant string that is two inches long, stretch to two meters. Saying all that though, I am trying, and I have already learned all the lyrics to Bobby McGee, that bit was easy. I’m aiming for a Christmas number one, but I fear it may take longer for my hand to behave.
The next morning Corey came up and met me at the farm. I had watched the weather go from pleasant to ‘oh shit’, in the space of a few hours we went from blue sky to snow. I could see it was going to be a bit of a challenge for our climb up Helvellyn. Not one to be beaten, when he got there, we got all our clobber together and set off up the peak, a different route from the one I’d taken the day before. Up past the old mine works, even that stretch you feel like you’ve done a bit of a hard yard if you haven’t done any serious walking for a while. I admit the initial climb did feel hard. Next time, I will take a smaller backpack. I can’t remember what I took up with me last time, but this time I felt like I was carrying Diggy on my back. Camera gear, it weighs a tonne. We stopped for food fuel just after the YHA by the stream. I was running out of power as early as that which did worry me a bit. I had stocked plenty of supplies though and peanut power got me going. As we steadily got further up the fell, it started snowing and didn’t stop, the wind thrashing ice onto my face. I was gutted I didn’t have my Aussie cap with me, the cap I usually go nowhere without, because my sunglasses just didn’t cut the mustard. The sky was grey, but because of all the snow, the glare was intense. Being a vampire, I do have a bit of an aversion to bright lights directly in my eyes. Actually I can’t stand bright lights in my eyes, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I don’t like squinting, I don’t know really. Seen a photograph of me? I’ll usually have sunnies on. It’s not vanity, it’s because if I haven’t got my cap, I have them instead to keep the direct light out.
We trudged our way up the track, all the while we had glimpses of the mighty Helvellyn as we went. Just as I was convinced I was going to see the tarn, we got over a traverse and it wasn’t there. It was over the next one, which was quite a bit away. Anyone who has been up Helvellyn, who isn’t an extreme runner or regular fell climber would probably agree, it isn’t easy going up in places. Especially not when it’s snowing and about minus five degrees with the wind chill. Corey didn’t really say a lot on the way up, it was the first time he’d been up there and I wasn’t really sure what he made of it really, but he took it in his stride.
When we finally reached Swirrel Edge, even though the visibility wasn’t great, it was amazing to see Helvellyn in those conditions. It was snowing, freezing, and the wind was howling, lashing ice on my face. Last time I was up there, it was mild, and I went all the way baby! The view from up there, I know, is utterly jaw dropping. Last time, I even shared a bottle of my homemade elderberry wine at the summit, and then wobbled all the way back down Striding Edge, half cut. Nothing like a hearty belly warmer of a port-like tipple to really make you feel like you’ve just climbed Everest. “The mountain was so enormous, it was bigger than Everest” This time though, I knew in my heart of hearts that we wouldn’t be going up there. Pig head said yes. Gut said NO! I did have it on good authority as well, that the summit really wasn’t passable without ice climbing gear, so we embraced the fact that we had almost got there and were still elated at that. It certainly deserves a mention that several people have died climbing up there this year already and you never take anything for granted. Just because it is not Everest, it doesn’t mean you’re invincible.
We had a good climb back down again, and I was reminded of the jelly wobble legs going back down the fell, all those stones to climb down. Have I got any Marathon’s left? I mean Snickers. Though the last time I didn’t really notice it with half a litre of elderberry wine in my belly. We finally got down and I was really smiley happy to realise that the track led us directly past where I was camped in the Mystery Machine. I don’t remember this from last time, but I do remember the pub, oddly. The pub was about a five-minute walk from the farm, as I mentioned, very handy for everything you might need.
It lashed it down over night, in amongst the celebrations, and didn’t really stop raining all night. It is quite a soothing sound, the rain on the top of the van, and I really quite like it. That vibe mixed with the stream that was in full flow, it was like a special kind of music playing, you don’t get that for free in a standard hotel. The next morning the weather hadn’t really let up, and we didn’t rush around to get outdoors. It cleared up by lunchtime though and I thought, what better a place to go in these conditions than to go to Aira Falls. So that’s what we did. I’ve never seen so much water coming through those falls, the scene was set, and it was a spectacle. As the sun dripped through the trees onto the moss and water it was like being on a film set for Lord of The Rings. It was magical and special being in a place like that, and to not feel the energy you would have to be uncomfortably numb. It is magic there at any time, but I feel blessed to have been there when everything was so forceful and vibrant and natural.
Whilst the man was suffering with some sort of man flu that afternoon (In hindsight, I think he might have had a bad pint the night before, call an ambulance), I did what I feel is the right thing to do in those sorts of situations. I left him to get on with it. I’ve never really been an advocate of over sympathising, because I don’t think it does anybody any favours. So I left him feeling sorry for himself in the Mystery Machine and I went exploring. I found an amazing spot, with a big flat slab of rock, which you could sit on and look over Ullswater. My only regret was that I hadn’t packed a few beers before I set off. When the sun was shining on my back, it warmed my whole body. As I looked at the view, I couldn’t have been happier. The whole moment really was a wow one and I’ll never forget it. The colours, the landscape, the silence and the freedom, bring it on!
I’ll skip along to the next day where the sun was shining and all was well. Having the beauty of water so close by, my only inclinations were to get on it. So with that in mind, I duly did both. We had a beer brunch and booked onto the historical steamer across the lake. We missed the first boat, as is enforced, when the timetable that is issued is out of date. No panic, we’ll just go to the pub and wait. It was so lovely to sit in the beer garden next to the water of the lake. I welcomed the warm sunshine on my back and would have been quite happy to sit there all afternoon. Jacket on, jacket off, in the lakes you never can predict what it is going to do next. Hot one minute, cold the next. We passed the time laughing, as we discussed the possibility of us doing a ‘middle aged’ fancy dress afternoon. Us Peter Pan people, actually dressing like other people the same age as us, to see what we would look like if we really epitomised our age and the stigma that goes with it. We sat and people watched. ‘What do you mean lime green chords? Maybe I could wear a flowery skirt’. No. But hey, I would for a laugh. ‘He looks a cross between George Michael and Chris Moyles, bet he’s an antique dealer, they always wear rainbow coloured corduroy trousers’. All in harmless fun I can assure you. In the interim, I was trying to meet and stroke everyone’s dog. I love how the Lakes are so dog friendly, you can take them in any pub or cafe. I so wish Diggy could get in the van! Big spoilt hairy bear! I still haven’t made him a door ramp to get up into the van, but I will! Perseverance prevails!
The trip across the lake took about an hour and a half, it was picturesque and the water calm. Stick me on a boat and you won’t hear anything but joy come out of my mouth. I love being on water and I love any boats, I don’t care what shape or size. Sailing along, I spotted a few yachts that I fancied. I always remember ‘Star’, a beautiful pleasure yacht that was for sale in Airlie Beach in Australia when I was working on the dive boats. I used to pass it every time we went out, and every time I would say how much I loved the boat, I’ve never forgotten it. It was for sale for a cool $540,000, a bit out of reach on a Divemaster’s salary. Still, I will do my skipper’s licence at some point and I will charter a yacht, even if I have to hire one.
We sipped gin and tonic as we sailed along and when the boat moored we were in Pooley Bridge. It was late afternoon by the time we got there, but we did have time for a quick pint at the pub by the river before we had to catch the last boat back again. We caught a different boat back and it was far more impressive than the earlier one. The Raven, historical steamer, launched in 1889 and is the sister ship of The Lady of The Lake, the oldest working passenger vessel in the world, still in use today on Ullswater. Nout like a bit of maritime history!
We practically had the boat to ourselves on the return journey and as the flag flapped in the wind on the back of the boat we watched the scenery roll past. We decided that seeing as the boat was available for private hire, it could be a contender for the joint birthday party venue. There was an upper and lower dance floor, a bar, and a place for the decks. Even a pole to swing about on! Then I remembered what happened on Andy Jeffers birthday boat party in Hamble, near Portsmouth, I seem to remember us all being banned from not just the boat, the village as well, but that’s another story!
This was the last day of a fantastic week in the Lakes. Oh man, am I going to have some fun buzzing about in the Mystery Machine. There’s nothing like the freedom of the open road, especially when you haven’t got a plan. I’m looking forward to seeing all the places I haven’t been yet and feel totally blessed to have a set of wheels with a bed attached to them. Not forgetting, of course, the absolute blinder, being able to have a wee without getting out of the van, that still makes me laugh. A bed and a bog on wheels, now you’re talking!
The ritual of packing up the next morning get’s more proficient and swift the more I do it. Gas off, toilet empty, step up, everything locked down, and off I go! A wet drive back across the A66 with visions through the panoramic window of where I’ll end up in the Mystery Machine next… Watch this space…
Until then, keep loving the life you live and living the life you love…
Over, but not out…
Captain Jayneway X