Whenever lockdown ends, I imagine we all have a special place (other than the pub) to which we’re yearning to escape. On this Bank Holiday, I’m thinking of two days spent with my boys in the great outdoors a while ago, which didn’t quite go as expected, but where we’ll definitely be heading again when this is over.
It was on December 21st, the winter solstice, that we made plans to head north. From behind steamy windows, on that shortest day of the year, I watched the clouds scud across a gloomy sky. Feeling the drag of low energy on a dark day, I turned the central heating up, collected an armful of maps and sat down with my sons. Two late teenage boys sprawled on the sofa – just on the cusp of no longer, perhaps, wanting to spend a weekend with their dad?
We needed a plan of action to cheer us up. Forever emptying the fridge, battling over Netflix and three weeks of rain is not a great recipe for family unity, for boys bigger than me and used to living away from home. My wife needed us out of the house to restore her sanity. So we each made a list of favourite places to go. Criteria to include water, mountains, decent food (not cooked by Dad). Ideally all three. We disagreed, but a game of darts settled it.
A few months later, we arrive. The warm fug of the YHA in Borrowdale in the heart of Lake District with a promising forecast and two clear work-free days ahead. But you can’t have it all; my younger son has been feverish overnight. He’s hot and hasn’t been well for days. But we’ve been looking forward to this weekend for so long, I’ve studied the maps, the route is all planned out and, well we’re here now so we can’t back out. So we park at Seathwaite and start the gentle walk up to Styhead Tarn.
Those first moments of anticipation as we negotiate the farm buildings, avoid the sheepdogs, tread the cobbles of the dry river bed and start to feel the hills, are full of promise. But within a few minutes it’s clear that Sam is not right. But we’ve come too far now, and none of us want to head back. After an hour’s grind, despite more paracetamols and a face-wash in a deep green pool en-route, he crashes at Styhead Tarn.
We’re deep within an ampitheatre of peaks, from Great End to Green Gable, their bright cliffs glittering menacingly above a tarn full of light; this magnet of so many great walks. As we sit and medicate Sam we peer up at them. Shall we skirt across the slabs up to Broad Crag and then on to Scafell Pike? We could do the shoulder of Great End or have a crack at Lingmell, with its diabolic chasm shooting down it like a scene from Lord of the Rings.
I feel like the worst parent asking my sick boy to push himself another few hundred metres up to Sprinkling Tarn where I know he can rest safely. But he’s up for it, and once arrived, flops next to the reeds and the rucksacks and sleeps.
Harry and I continue the last four hundred metres to Great End. On the plateau top we screw up our eyes. Blinding foreground of pink-white rock, cairns and livid-green turf. Beyond, a delicate network of closely-walled fields in front of the hazy blue of Wastwater, framed by scree shadows. On one side the Langdale peaks shimmer. To my right, Scafell which feels within touching distance, stretches to the triangular shape of Napes Needle pointing down into the valley. Harry waves at another peak, names it and demands we ‘skip across’ (his words) and bag it too. His charm, the incredible light and the knowledge that Sam won’t freeze down there means we crack on.
An hour later, making our way back to his brother, we do our first scree run together. Trying to lean in, bend knees, pick the small chutes and avoid the large blocks and slabs. The thrill, mixed with feeling anxious, we can’t afford two men down. Then as the light fades, we race and double-step the rebuilt path to reach Sam before he tires of photographing lonely ducks and talking to a solitary sheep. We strip and cool off in the chilly, peaty tarn, inspiring a couple of passing mountain bikers to do the same. Then, skipping from light to the brooding shadow under Great Gable, we head home.
The next day is mostly recovery and a gentle afternoon walk. Sam’s engine is back up and running, so at the end of an easy day we take the boat down the hill to Coniston, a lake we’d never been on. Stepping the barbed wire which holds up a crumbling dry-stone wall, we foot-pump the inflatable two-man kayak and look across the lake. The light has a warm, buttery end of day glow. The distant hills shine and Coniston is dotted with tiny craft moving this way and that.
The boys are arguing over who takes bow seat. As they push off in their crocs they waft away the midges and grin at the surprising warmth of the shallows. After some heaving and splashing they paddle off, steering, swaying, growing smaller. I pack the pump and oversized kitbag into the car, stand up and stretch to watch them.
The kayak is now much smaller and I can sense rather than see the furious energy they are pouring into making progress. It is when they are about 500 metres offshore that I realise they aren’t wearing life-jackets. I curse myself. First rule. All my parent and teacher principles scream at me. How were they left in the kit bag?
And then slowly I think, they’ve both swum across lakes before, the water’s warm and anyway they won’t hear me holler. No amount of worry is going to help. It will have to be a ‘learning experience’, family code for Dad’s fault.
So sitting in the scooped, warm gravel my pulse slows, I breathe more easily and force myself to sit still and enjoy this moment. A bulky blue-green dragonfly taps my calf, then rests on it, gnawing unnervingly.
On the lake, boats shrink and enlarge. Splash wildly or plough smoothly. The boys’ kayak disappears around a small island edged by a thin strip of bright beach tipped with deep green pines. It looks like something from a boys-own Swallows and Amazons adventure, but I only sense the fifty seconds of deafening silence until I can see the front of the kayak creep back into view. My breathing returns, and only then do I feel a pang of envy that I’m not out there with them.
When you bring your children into the wild, things go wrong. The weather turns. The waves are just that bit higher than comfortable. You forget the raincoats. The sandwiches get flattened. You can’t bullet-proof nature. Its not meant to be a smooth Centre Parks experience, and you don’t want it to be.
Twenty minutes later, two wet and wisecracking boys loudly drag the inflatable across the stones. We lift it across nobbly, trip-hazard roots and slate shingle that cuts our feet. A few gentle obscenities, and neither day has panned out quite the way I’d planned it, but we’ll remember that.
And it was all the better for it.