Chiaroscuro in Cumbria

So this, too, is England.

The line walked between the Shire and Mordor.

We pottered along dry-stone-walls, past tea rooms and chapels, and skirted the placid pools of Buttermere. We breathed the fern-thick air of our first gentle ascent up and into the hills, nestled in a green-grey English idyll.

And then in an instant the cloud was upon us, like tunnel vision, wreathing distant peaks and closing in on our still-distant goal: the saddle at the mouth of the valley. Somewhere, we had taken that all-important step beyond the everyday.

We earned our makeshift beds that night, having half-hiked half-gorge-walked in sheets of driving rain, through a stream, over the saddle, and up the twin peaks of Great and Green Gable. Scuffing through scree to the tarn that was to be our resting place, we found ourselves blessed by a glimmer of sun, as sudden as the storm that preceded it. We followed its descent into the valleys, and set up camp in a serene lilac glow.

For a few hours, it was the promised land. Gas-stove instant pasta that somehow tasted of heaven, hot chocolate made fresh from the mountain stream, and a quiet companionship set against the backdrop of eternity. We spotted solitary stars through thickening cloud, and slipped into sleeping bags before the chill took hold.

The following day began with porridge and currants, continued through great stone corridors straight out of Tolkien’s imagination, climaxed with sandwiches on Scafell Pike summit, and plunged into chaos as we came face-to-face with England’s darker side.

Some fateful combination of a mismarked map, a flipped compass, gathering dusk, a turned ankle and a meteorological turn for the worse resulted in us clambering on our hands and knees on a near-vertical slope, in varying states of near-hysterics.

There was no doubt that we would make it back to civilisation – no time to even question whether or not we would – merely the desperate drive to go on. But along the way we found ourselves on close terms with our own insignificance, and with the wrathful elements that govern the idyllic lakes.

The following morning we slipped from an isolated beach into the placid waters of Buttermere, now cradled by the very mountains that had threatened us the night before. As we let the icy water enhance and ease the aches in our bones, we faced the vista with a new reverence.

We had known a brief yet primal terror. We had learned the hard way that the sublime takes many forms. We had seen for ourselves that this, too, is England.


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