Looking down from 1,000 feet onto Lake Windermere will make all your senses spin like you’ve won the jackpot on the fruity. You can never underestimate the effect an uninterrupted view has on the soul. It's like a big warm hug from your Granddad. Makes you breathe deeply and think about whether life’s little problems really are worth losing your rag over, and of course the answers arrive so clearly they may as well be written in the clouds:
It's a good feeling to know the world's got your back.
The day had started like every other in London, with the calm of the dawn shattered by police sirens screaming blue murder through the streets. Walthamstow alarm clocks they should call them. Wake you up with all the subtlety of a brass band. Get the nervous energy flowing ready for a morning of shoulder barging your way around the tube system.
Like most city bods, my relationship with the great outdoors had become strained. Watching Countryfile hungover on a Sunday was not bringing me any closer to the living world, in fact Mother Nature would have a case for disowning me and my blackened lungs altogether. But all this was going to change, as I’d called upon some mates in the Cumbrian countryside and arranged a day of activities around the Lake District which would turn this pollution-addicted town mouse into the Bear Grylls of East London. Maybe.
After leaving on the morning train from Euston, a station I can only describe as looking like a giant filofax, my first stop of the day was the picturesque village of Staveley, a few short stops from the famous Oxenholme, gateway to the Lake District. Being a big jazz head I’d loaded Yusef Lateef's 'Eastern Sounds' up on the iPod for the journey. An arbitrary choice that paid off as soon as I passed through the industrial towns of Crewe and Preston and began to see how Lateef’s saxophone snaking up and down the scale glides perfectly across the Cumbrian hilltops as you travel alongside.
Staveley is largely made up of solid stone cottages nestled into a crease in the surrounding hills, over which a magical stillness settles as soon as the train chugs out of earshot. That constant murmur of cars, the respiratory whooshing of engines, is never more noticeable than when suddenly it...
Already I felt a weight lift from my shoulders, as though I'd been carrying a huge clock around my neck the size of the one on Countdown plugged in to my nervous system, tick-tocking a second ahead of me, reminding me about my next deadline, my next meeting. Like a big stressed out Flava Flav. Those feelings were soon forgotten as I greeted the welcoming trio of Joe, Bruce and Dave who were to be my hosts for the day. All three came with the added bonus of local knowledge, which would prove invaluable as phone signal already seemed like a distant memory and we were well out of Siri’s jurisdiction.
An almost tangible calmness hovers above Lake Windermere like a mist. At 13,000 years old and 10 miles long, its quiet power draws out that innate respect for nature which we’re all wired up with, but can become numbed in man-made environments. The lake has seen its share of historic moments over the years, not least Gail and Joe’s honeymoon in Corrie, and if we missed the last passenger ferry across to the start of our ride it was a good few miles trek in either direction before we'd reach another crossing. Bruce regaled us with tales of missed connections in the pouring rain, and of the ferrymaster's arbitrary timekeeping which could see the departure of the last boat prematurely swayed by the flick of a kettle on the other side. I thought back to the fiery ball of rage which rose from my core when faced with a six minute tube delay that morning, but decided to keep my transport problems to myself.
Our bike ride followed the steep stoney pathways around Lake Windermere, opening up into enormous valleys where your call echoes for miles through layers of green, with the sun just strong enough to poke a spotlight through the blanket of grey cloud and light up a lone hillside. Raw, vivid beauty. A Britain I hadn't truly known before, but felt immensely proud of.
It was a good job my senses were being pampered because by late afternoon my legs felt like wet bags of cement. Pushing a mountain bike up a hill felt like steering a wheelbarrow full of cannonballs up the stairs at Covent Garden station. As the day went on I could sense the subtle delight from my mates as the boy from the city started to buckle under nature's demands. Fair play. If I wanted an easy day I could’ve stayed at home and watched Loose Women. Navigating my way down a rocky mound I pulled the right brake (which turned out in fact to be the wrong brake) too sharply and went flying over the handlebars like an elephant fired out of a cannon. I couldn't stop laughing. There really is something exhilarating about falling off your bike. I suggest everybody does it once.
Bikes stowed safely away it was time for a hike uphill. Gummers How is one of the best view points in the Lake District. At over 1,000 feet it's taller than The Shard. Just shy of three St Paul's Cathedrals, and while it’s not considered one of the toughest ascents in the area, if you haven’t had your three Shredded Wheat that morning you’ll know about it.
Half way up I had my first experience with a mountain cow. Shaggy hair the colour of rich toffee with the distant stare of somebody wondering if they'd left the back door unlocked. I stuck out a hopeful arm, she gave me the cold shoulder. Didn’t want to know. The part of my brain needed to charm wild cattle has obviously become dormant. I even wondered if, by some bovine intuition, she knew how much I love a steak, but you can’t dwell on these things.
Reaching the summit took some graft, but once up there the panoramas across the lake absolutely knocked my almond rocks off. Breathtaking. I would've climbed it all again just to see that view through a keyhole. An unfamiliar feeling overwhelmed me as I looked across the lake at the pink neon glow separating the hilltops and sky, a primal sense of achievement from a place beyond my own apprehension. The sort of moment that sucks the hot air out of your ego and helps you to realise your own beautiful insignificance in the world. It’s so much easier to understand nature when it’s laid out in front of you.
Another thing I learnt throughout the day is that units of distance differ vastly in the countryside from what I'm used to. 'A short walk' could quite easily mean the sort of journey that'd usually warrant a service station in between. By the time Dave said the pub, our final stop, was 'just over the hill', I had no reason to expect we'd arrive before sunrise. Luckily a pint and the biggest slice of pork belly I've ever seen in my life wasn't far, and Christ almighty did I feel like I'd earned it.
Back in my room, without phone signal or the proper use of my thighs, I had time to reflect on my day. It seems like our relationship with nature has become skewed in the city. We put fences around it, reduce it to a mere backdrop for our selfies without recognising the power the natural world has over us. In just a few hours on the train you can get amongst some of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe, with clean air and life-affirming views all free of charge. If happiness comes from a greater understanding of ourselves, and I truly believe it does, then there’s no better place to be.