Each month we’re pitching our small tent (all 1.2kg of it!) at a point chosen precisely, moving month by month in intervals of 30-degrees around a clock face which has a single sycamore at its centre.
There’s a nice discipline in planning ahead, through close inspection of our maps, to locate a spot that’s high enough for us to wild camp (always beyond the last fell wall), has a chance of having a small but sufficient space of flat ground, and is likely to be dry.
For April – the last two days of the month – we took our chances on a piece of ground just above Alcock Tarn, overlooking the Grasmere valley. And when we got there we did find a perfect pitch – with the added plus point that our pitch overlooks the Under Helm Sycamore, which marks the centre of our imagined clock face. At this time of year this tree, flush with new leaves, is iridescent against the grey scree slope of Helm Crag.
This month’s camp was the first when we didn’t feel cold, and the first when we could eat our dinner outside, and in the light. Set against the challenge of camping in snow and in temperatures well below zero (January‘s readings dipped to minus-8 degrees) this feels like a total luxury.
Notes made along the way …
It’s as warm as a summer’s day and the trees are bursting into leaf. Beech are shining with new leaves, the huge chestnut leaves are like drooping five-fronded hands, the oak leaves almost translucent – and lines of larch, hundreds of straight trunks, are fringed with the fresh green of needles that are free to sprout now the warmth is here. There’s birdsong and a light breeze, which takes the edge off the challenge of walking up hill in this surprising heat. We both regret not wearing shorts.
Violets are blooming purple, adding to the feeling of fecundity in this surround of fresh green; but at our feet the soil is so dry after two weeks without rain that cracks are beginning to appear. The late milky sun is reflecting on the rippling surface of Grasmere lake, and the fields in the valley bottom are an intense bright green. It is a picture-postcard of an early English summer. The season has changed, and our moods have changed with it. The entire landscape has lightened up, shrugged off the hard-edge of persistence and stamina that is winter’s coping mechanism, and seemingly breathed out, released tension, and let its colours shine.
We started our walk from Dove Cottage – just as Dorothy and William Wordsworth would have done, countless times. I met an old friend there who told me of her favourite spot nearby, and her commitment to go there every Tuesday – her place of well-being. And for me, stepping out now, slowly making my way through woods and uphill, brings a feeling of wellbeing. Simply to be out among the green is refreshing.
I thank my lucky stars, or whatever it is you’re supposed to thank, that I am fortunate enough to be here, to be able to do this. I am a little unwell but not too unwell to walk, and it’s just a passing cold. Earlier today I couldn’t stop the tears as I listened to stories of the Easter Sunday bombing in Sri Lanka, the families destroyed, the loss and the pain. To be here is to be in an utterly different world, and to feel blessed.
The close of day
As we sat, taking in the close of day, the sun became a white hot orb, hanging above the black ridges of hills, then was swallowed by a sea of clouds. It seemed the sunset would be without drama, some slowing grey of dusk, but high above our heads scattered began to turn pewter, and then an apricot glow filled the sky.
We are rapidly approaching midsummer and I’m struck with how much faster each passing year seems to race. Is this the typical thing about getting old, that proportionately each year is a much smaller part of the whole life lived? Or is it the sense not just of what has passed, but also a sense of being drawn towards an end, which with every passing day, is getting closer? As many Buddhists would say, to be keenly aware of the unavoidability of death is to seize the opportunity to make life all the richer. Being out here, beneath a big sky, among rocks and skylarks, is part of a mix that for me does make life feel rich, and also feeds into thoughts and plans for what future we have left.
Alcock tarn morning: sunrise
The pair of air-dancing skylarks seem to be either curious about us or oblivious. They are flirting and diving and swooping, showing off their bellies and wings, tweeting as they do with a watery trill.
It’s 6.04 now and the quiet of the valley is beginning to be broken by the passing of vehicles in the main road – a couple of delivery trucks and, later, a car. Then the sounds are dominated once again by the bleats of sheep and the trickling of sky lark song.
The day is waking with softness. A little way above me, there’s a tiny nub of rock that looks like an eagle, sitting, watching the valley. But of course it’s not. The last single eagle seen in Cumbria – a golden eagle last sighted in 2015 – used to nest above Haweswater. As the eagle flies, that old nest site is not far from here. An eagle has a territorial range of at least two miles and with ease can cruise high and survey a vast space. But my eagle today is nothing but a small piece of rock, worn into its watching shape by the passing of ice and hundreds of years of wind and rain.
Looking over a place of cultural heritage
Looking down over Grasmere, the valley embraces deciduous woodland, green fields, neat walls and a scattering of houses. None of this is by chance: efforts to keep the valley ‘picturesque’ have been going on ever since Wordsworth’s time. One of the things I hadn’t noticed until it was pointed out to me is the absence of overhead wires and pylons – all the electricity here (as is the case in several Lake District valleys) is fed along wires that are underground.
Just standing here and staring at the scene makes me think of the recent award of World Heritage Site status for the Lake District as a living ‘cultural landscape’. Here I am, a short walk away from the places where William Wordsworth lived when he produced his most well-known work. He first moved here, to Dove Cottage, with his sister Dorothy in 1799, and both of them saw out their days from a Rydal Mount, overlooking Rydal Water. I suspect almost all of the land that I’m looking over could be stitched together with the threads of their walks, William pacing out his thoughts, Dorothy noting down the smallest of details in her journal. I’m also within a stone’s throw (quite literally) of the regional headquarters of the National Trust, whose formation was part of a wider story of a conservation movement that had its roots here and spread around the world. And all the landscape I see is shaped by the practices of a hill farming system: walled in woodlands, inbye land and meadows linked with intakes and unfenced commons. On the surface, this is culturally very rich indeed; scratch beneath the surface and there are questions about the need for cultural shifts that will support an improvement in the environment. It’s something we’ve been thinking a lot about, and if you’re curious, there’s a separate blog about that here.
I take my mind away from the storying of land and the naming of places, and feel instead the rock beneath me, the dry grass, the earth. The air is full of a song that swings and swims and trickles and dances: the skylark singers are high, unseeable and insistent. I sink into meditation and begin to get a sense of this small patch of ‘here’; and feel it not as a place laid upon with stories but as a place of potential. I wonder, rooted in this soil, how many rowans could spread across this hillside. I spotted a tiny one right at the edge of a Crag. It has been nibbled back each year to become a bonsai in a cleft of rock. It would be nice to come back in five years and see it growing as a tree rather than a struggling shrub.
As we walked along the high ridge we’d been talking about the space for trees in the Lake District fells, the challenge of bringing change, and places where change is already happening, and as we came down off Nab Scar we caught sight of hundreds of new trees. We’ve seen these before, as tiny saplings, and now they are beginning to emerge from the tops of the plastic tubes. It’s heartening and exciting – and also a reminder that trees play a long game, any landscape change does, so a wish today cannot be fulfilled today – but in five or ten years’ time, there will be young groves.
Along the coffin route between Rydal and Grasmere (so called because coffin bearers used to carry their dead along here to reach consecrated ground) we walked in the surround of trees and birdsong. Each time the wind picked up, tree flowers and pollen rained down on us, a dry dance of spring. By a pond thick with horse weed and irises we watched a heron eat a fish (or a newt or frog perhaps) and felt as if we’d been let into a secret world, just for a brief moment; as soon as the heron noticed us, it hid.