A Winter's Walk
It was, I thought, probably a good time to turn back. Visibility was down to a matter of feet and the snow lay deep and crisp and even. I’d been following – literally – in the footsteps of a predecessor for at least an hour and this had made progress a little easier. But with each
step into the deepening snow – up to my knees in places – I was tiring, and the early afternoon light was already starting to fade. At that moment a shape emerged from the clag and headed straight towards me. I hadn’t seen anyone for a while and it was reassuring to know that I wasn’t entirely alone out here in the bleak midwinter. As custom dictates we exchanged hellos before the coated shape, sighing in resignation, declared ‘that’s enough for me, I’m headed down’. He quickly moved on, placing his footfall carefully in the very same prints I’d been using on the ascent. Seconds later he was gone and I was alone again with my thoughts.
Setting out from Ambleside earlier in the day, my plan had been simple. I would walk the Fairfield Horseshoe anti-clockwise before dropping down to Grasmere from Great Rigg and spending the night in the Traveller’s Rest. The route was a familiar summer run, and at first the going had been fine with just light snow cover. But beyond Low Pike the scene changed rapidly and the cloud descended. This was not a long and languid day in high summer with hazy views stretching south to Windermere and north to Helvellyn; this was the week before Christmas and the Fell had a very different feel to it. It was not that I felt threatened or menaced. I simply felt insignificant; a tiny speck on the flank of an ancient and indifferent mountain, now cloaked in two days of snowfall.
I weighed my options: push on, avoid getting lost on Fairfield’s disorientating summit, and then find the correct line off Great Rigg. And all in the day’s decline. Or I could turn about, retrace my route, and take a lowland path to the pub. I opted for a compromise. Knowing I was not far from Dove Crag I decided to confirm my location by making for the summit cairn and then I would turn around and head back to Ambleside.
Twenty more minutes of thigh sapping slog and I was at the Dove Crag cairn. A quick check of the map and then, descending due south, I followed my old self – boot prints now hardening into ankle-breaking hobble holes. After a couple of miles, as the snow thinned into boggy ice water, the return to civilisation became more slide than slog, but at least progress was relatively rapid. By High Sweden Bridge I was out of both clag and snowline and the final stretch to town passed quickly. Stopping only briefly in Ambleside, I refuelled with coffee and cake before taking the bridal-way to Rydal and then the Coffin Trail to Grasmere, donning head-torch for the final mile as the last of the light fell behind Loughrigg.
That evening I took the best seat in the house (as the barman told me) – the chair by the fire, and I lost myself in the flames, wishing that I’d had a canine companion with me to enjoy the day (I’d left both dogs at home, Molly because she was now too old, and Topsy because she was still too young). Accompanied by ale, food and firelight, I finished the evening reading and writing, resolving to make an annual tradition of the trip. Three months later – almost to the day – a global pandemic had put life into lockdown and the Fells, now shed of their winter coat, emerged into a warm spring and a changed world.