July 23, 4pm It’s hot, very hot. Must be 25 degrees or more, the sun is burning, there’s barely any wind and we’re wet with sweat. We’ve just set off from Elterwater to begin our ascent through the quarries and we’ve stopped to one side to try and locate the peregrine we can hear in the trees to the left. We don’t, but instead, I see a red squirrel, its compact rust-red body on a wall and then a fire-bright flash of tail as it disappears up the trunk of an old oak.
4.40pm We are gaining height, walking through the woods. The air is heavy with the smell of sap and my skin glistens. I can hear lorries turning and grinding in the quarry below us, and a sheep bleating, but in between these noises there’s only the trickle of streams and a stillness.
5pm Out of the woodland, and the heat hits me. It’s like stepping into an oven. I notice a narrow path on the left and as I approach it, the air cools: it leads towards an opening in the rock, one of many made by the long history of slate quarrying in the Langdale Valley. We wander in, a massive spoil heap of stones to our left, and the vertical rock face of the scoured-out hill on our right. When I reach the dark opening, the rock is dripping wet and it’s covered in mosses and stonecrops. I stand, looking into a black space, and feel a cold moist breath seeping out of the heart of the fell – it is natural air conditioning, and so very, very welcome. Ahead of us there is an uphill climb, without the shade of trees.
In the woods, frogs the colour of last autumn’s leaves jumped across the path. Here, in the scorched open, grasshoppers break their pact with the ground to leap, in temporary flight, then disappear among grasses, camouflaged once again. A double-winged dragon fly buzzes at the height of my knees.
5.30pm I’m sitting on an outcrop of rock listening to a plaintive repeated squeak of a bird I cannot see, and cannot name. The valley is below me, wide and flat. Some of the fields have been mown and cut grass lies in dark green lines against the pale yellow ground. There’s a campsite and clumps of trees, sycamores and oaks in full leaf. It’s a pastoral scene that might have been the same a hundred years ago, or more.
The valley road is barely visible. I’d miss it if I didn’t know it was there. And the only sounds are sheep and birdsong – that same repeated creak – and wind, picking up. The wider world that fills the news seems far away, and I’m thankful of the break. Today, Boris Johnson was voted in as Tory leader by his party, beating Jeremy Hunt 2:1. Trump tweeted that he thought Boris would be ‘great’. Boris is talking big talk, without any substance, MEPs from the European Parliament are saying they don’t like or trust him. In Iran, a British ship is being held. In Yemen, poverty goes on. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than 2500 people have been infected with Ebola, and many of them have died. In the Amazon rainforest, the felling of trees is rising and rising, with an area of wonderful and diverse forest the size of three football pitches being destroyed every minute. And here on this hill, the heat is part of a wave that’s being felt across Europe, breaking recorded temperatures across the continent. Are things spiralling out of control? I don’t know. There are storms brewing, natural, political, emotional. I will, for now, walk slowly with my heavy bag towards the setting sun, feel the wind and sun on my skin, and find a place to lay my head through the short night. I refocus on this patch of here that I am passing through. The ground is covered in bog asphodel, each bright yellow flowerhead a cluster of stars catching sunlight and turning the air gold against the fresh green of bog-fed grasses and bracken. The heather is finding its pink flush, and the rocks are covered in lichen.
A little further on and the view opens up again: towards Bowfell, with Scafell hazy behind it, Crinkle Crags, Harter Fell, and a sweep of high land curving into Swirl How and Wetherlam. To my right a high dry stone wall runs along Lingmoor’s ridge. I was surprised to hear myself gasp, and saying to Rob, Wow, that’s an incredible wall – not something I thought I’d ever say! But it’s a work of art. It’s beautifully built, perfectly topped, has a pleasing symmetry in its lines of through stones, and rides the fell like a rollercoaster. We both stop and look at it and its snaking shadow, and in doing so take in the small things around it as well: the different types of heather, small flowers among the grass, creeping spiders and flies, and the sounds of the open fell.
7.30pm The tent is up, and the pause of evening extends before me. This is the seventh camp we’ve done as part of Sense of Here – one per month – and this land, with its rises and falls, its clefts and crags and shadows, and the ways in and out of valleys and between peaks, is feeling more like my ‘backyard’, as a mapped space, mapped in my mind, marked out, one section in relation to another, the wide span of undulating hills drawn in somehow to become whole and wholly recognisable – but never wholly known, for it changes with the passing mood of weather and clouds and seasons, and while the contours may be fixed, and most of the rocks are in the same place, it is never the same place twice.
Sundown The sun is sending hazy rays into Great Langdale Valley, where the valley floor is cut through with a silver river and is divided, where it’s flat enough, into green fields. The Band runs like a thick tongue down from Bowfell to Stool End Farm at its base. I remember chatting to the farmer, Keith Rowand, on a snowy winter’s day six years ago and finding out that he had a ‘pet’ deer, two in fact: the first deer that turned up and decided she wanted to live among the sheep later became pregnant, and her daughter joined her as a farm resident in the valley.
Above the valley, the Langdale Pikes are bunched up against the sky like knuckles: Stickle Pike, Harrison Stickle and Pavey Ark dominate the view like overlords, proud of their distinction. I sit and watch the light play. To the south, the angled beams of sun have turned the craggy face of Wetherlam silver. And it’s so very very quiet. We’ve seen the forecast, we can feel the air: this is the calm before the storm.
8.40pm The sky is getting broody now: a front moving in from the southeast, a huge lid of burnished grey pulling itself over the valley. Above Bowfell the sky looks like the belly of a rainbow trout. Esk Pike is catching hazy rays and blushes, as if painted rose. And then it fades to grey and the valley settles into dusk.
Next morning, 6am The stillness and quiet of yesterday evening has been replaced : the morning air is the sound of falling water. Every hill is ribboned with the white lines of tumbling becks after last night’s heavy rain.
It wasn’t just rain last night. As the forecast had predicted, the rain came with thunder and lightning. I became aware of the first flashes, bright white against my eyelids, at a quarter past midnight. Thunder rumbled. Within ten minutes it felt as if the storm was right over our heads. Rain pelted the tent as if it were stones, and we felt the sound of thunder through our bodies before we heard it: the whole land was caught in the storm, and the energy of the storm left us feeling as if the hills around us were waves. Guilly was not a fan. He inched up from his small bed at our feet and snuggled in. We all snuggled. We know the dangers of being high on a hill in a storm. Before we got into the tent last night we placed Rob’s camera tripod, together with our metal walking sticks, on a high outcrop away from the tent. Who knows if that would work as a conductor? It was worth a try.
The storm circled us, like a predator, round and round, retreating and returning, stalking and threatening. When the rain eased and I looked out, I was confronted with flashes and white lines lighting Morecambe Bay in the distance, and then a three-pronged fork of white fire that seemed to strike Pike of Blisco, directly opposite our camp.
The drama of the storm carried on for around three hours. An initial nervousness was replaced by a thrill: I love storms. I thought back to the March canvas and the question: Where is the Wild? Last night it was there for certain, in a hot and clashy sky, with celestial drumming and an erratic light show, the circling and circling of a storm, the power of electricity. To be in a tent triggered to alertness by thunder rumbling through the air and the ground felt vulnerable and raw; our three warm bodies close together under a thin cover of canvas, our spot of shelter in the midst of wild.
To emerge in the morning and stand outside the tent in the swirl of storm clouds retreating, to breathe in air heavy with moisture and the warmth of early sun felt just as raw, but much, much less vulnerable. We were alert still, from the charge of the storm that had kept us awake but somehow energised us, and far more relaxed. We summited Lingmoor (in the mist) and picked our way via tarn, streams, heather, bracken and juniper wood, back to the valley floor, pausing regularly, taking in the feeling of sky, land and water.