Sunday, 18 January 2015

Life Of A Mountain: Scafell Pike

This was worth watching for the stunning aerial photography alone. You didn't need the sound turned up (or on at all) to get the most out of it. The breathtaking footage of the fells was interspersed with featurettes about people who base their lives around England's highest mountain. And dare I say it, but some of them were a bit dull. Not the true local characters, like shepherd and fell-runner extraordinaire Joss Naylor, cut from the same cloth as my stubborn Cumbrian grandfather and built to live forever. Or the mountain rescue pilot who reminded us that he might be out for a nice candlelit dinner with his girlfriend when we decide to do something stupid on the side of a hill, so please spare him his girlfriend's wrath and be more careful in future. Or the National Trust volunteer who introduced me to the phrase "cairn anarchy" while removing piles of stones that were misleading walkers across a ridge. No, I mean the posh imports, who love the views, write a book about them and then think themselves above the rest of us. And then drone on in front of a television camera as if they have something to say that we can't just see for ourselves.

The camera crew spent a lot of time at the summit of Scafell Pike, where thousands of people arrive every year in all gear, in all weathers, and with a surprising range of agility and fitness. One - promised simultaneous views of England, Scotland and Ireland - has slogged it all the way to the top only to discover that she can barely see 30 yards in front of her, the mist is so thick and wet. But when the clouds lift, it really does look magnificent up there and you can see for miles. Even if - thanks to the mountain's popularity - you will never, ever get that view to yourself.

The camera crew also spent a lot of time down in Wasdale, which not only is home to the Lake District's highest peak and deepest lake, but also the world's biggest liar, as a notice in the pub will tell you. I don't think the programme mentioned this. But it did feature other notable sporting achievements at the annual Wasdale Show, such as hound trails, fell races and Cumbrian wrestling.

These Lakeland sports days are big events in the Cumbrian calendar. I've been to the Grasmere one a couple of times in recent years, although I spent most of the afternoon trying to tear our daughter away from the bouncy castle.

Grasmere Sports has a rather plummy announcer who runs the event with a calm but military precision. Although the military precision does not prevent the annual Royal Air Force Spitfire flypast being cancelled at the last minute every year owing to inclement weather, even if the sun is shining.

But it's so impressive to see a hoard of local schoolchildren running like the wind up an almost vertical slope, and the sheer speed with which a fell runner can leap down the side of a mountain. And to see quite how lost a hound can get in the bracken before he hears his owner rattling his food tin on the field below.

The wrestling has so many complicated rules that only a local can explain them to you, but I usually don't have enough time to listen before my daughter has run off to the bouncy castle again.

Most of the locals don't pay the entrance fee, since it is steeper than the Buttercrags fell the runners have to conquer, and instead they all stand along the A591 to watch the famous Guides Race. My grandfather always had the best view of the race - he built his house halfway up Buttercrags, and the runners would tumble past the end of his patio.
Guides Race

Mountain rescue at Grasmere Sports

"He ain't nothin' but a hound dog" - crossing the A591 to victory

I have never been up Scafell Pike. My official excuse is that it's a very long drive from Grasmere to get to a suitable start point, and not that I'm too fat and lazy.

The highest mountain I've climbed in the Lake District is Helvellyn, and that's so many years ago now I can't even begin to count them. It took two attempts, mind. The first was when my grandfather agreed to take me along Striding Edge when I was eight years old (was I insane to ask him to do this?), but the weather turned evil. The mist swirled in and a force eight gale struck up. The contents of our pockets were whipped out by the wind and hurled into the abyss. My grandfather, remembering his friends in Mountain Rescue who might be having a quiet afternoon at home with their girlfriends, did the sensible thing and led us back down to safety.

The closest I've got to Striding Edge since was choosing a band called by that very name to play for the ceilidh at our wedding. And it will probably stay that way. But Scafell Pike - yes, it really should be done. Because it's there. Because it's at the very tip of my Cumbrian roots.

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