We arrive in the Lake District chased by heavy, dark clouds.
A couple of hours in a train, and the gloomy, chaotic streets of London (which someone very close to me describes, with wonderful accuracy, as the AIIMS crossing of the world), is left behind for the gentle rolling hills of England’s favourite mountain area. As we get off the train at Windermere, the clouds play hide and seek—the sky goes black like night for a couple of minutes and it drizzles in cold, sharp sheets, followed by a couple of minutes of bright, tropical-island sunshine.
So this is how it’s going to be. Rain-cover on rucksack, check. Rain-cover on daypack, check. Bus tickets to Grasmere, check.
At Grasmere, an idyllic little village next to a lake that shines like a polished mirror, the rain-soaked meadows are a luminous green that are so vivid that it has a dreamed quality to it. There are sheep in the meadow, grazing through the sunrise and sunset, rain and shine. They are black and grey with voluminous and tough wool and headstrong expressions. The owner of our B&B tells us that their ancestors can be traced back to the early middle ages because they never leave the area they are born in, and they are so well adapted to the weather here that they can spend the entire freezing winter outside, surviving by licking off fat from their own bodies when the grass gets buried under snow. Close to our B&B, the river Rothay flows into the Grasmere Lake. Like everything else here, the Rothay is tiny—maybe six or seven feet across, but moves with great speed and beauty.
If you’ve got any experience trekking in the Himalayas, the Lake District looks and feels like a mountain world in miniature. But it’s also a place central to the birth of our romance with mountains, and our desire to climb them for no other reason but the thrill.
Back in 1802, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge set off from his home in Keswick in the Lake District for a solo 9-day hike through the hills. He breathlessly recorded his experience in his journal, and in a series of letters to his new lover Sara Hutchinson, William Wordsworth’s sister-in-law. One of these letters describes an act of reckless scrambling that is popularly thought to be the first ever recreational rock-climb.
Chased by rain clouds and approaching darkness, Coleridge was trying to find the quickest route down from a hill known as Scafell. Without really studying the lay of the land, he starting descending down a series of ledges in the rockface, and at first, Coleridge was able to drop from one ledge to another. After a few of these jarring landings, Coleridge says in his letter, his “Limbs were in a Tremble, and I began to suspect that I ought not to go on…”
Except by now, he had no choice but to go on—you can drop down into a ledge on a smooth rockface, but without a rope, how do you go up? So down Coleridge went, and soon, he came across a 30-foot rockface now known as Broad Stand.
“And now I had only two more to drop down,” Coleridge writes, “but of these two the first was tremendous. It was twice my own height, and the ledge at the bottom was so exceedingly narrow, that if I dropped down upon it I must of necessity have fallen backwards and of course killed myself.
But this is exactly the kind of living-on-the-edge stuff that Coleridge thrived on, and his reaction was not fear, it was ecstasy—“I was beginning according to my custom to laugh at myself for a madman, when the sight of the crags above me, and the impetuous clouds just over them, posting so luridly and so rapidly northward, overawed me... O God, I exclaimed aloud, how calm, how blessed am I now. I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance & Delight.”
As any one involved in any kind of adventure will tell you, fear is the worst emotion to have when you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Coleridge’s maverick attitude paid off. He suddenly spotted his way out—a narrow chimney that he could slide down right to the final ledge.
My own little adventure does not quite have the same flavour of craziness. It was a wonderful hike nonetheless, and like Coleridge, I too was in a state of trance and delight. It rained throughout the steep walk from Grasmere to a tarn,or lake, high on a hill. The trail turned into a rivulet, the ‘impetuous’ rain clouds gave the whole place an atmosphere of mystery and danger, and the wind kept up a constant racket against my hood. I walked along a gushing waterfall, over dark rocks and lichen covered paths, under stunted trees and overhangs.
Standing next to the tarn, and watching the rolling hills radiate out in every direction, I wished I had nine days, or more, to just keep walking, from one hill to another, one tarn to another, writing letters by torchlight in a flimsy tent the old fashioned way.
And in my head, this will be playing: Benedict Cumberbatch reading Coleridge’s Kubla Khan
Now go listen and melt.