“Promise me,” said my father, “that you will never walk the mountains alone.”
“Yes, Dad,” I nodded, knowing I was fibbing, after we had spent an hour debating the dangers of mountaineering. It is a sport I have long enjoyed, and despite my ageing, see no sign of the obsession passing. Yet even something simple, perhaps a sprained ankle, can be fatal when you are miles from company and your mobile battery is flat.
The pandemic lockdown, for all its difficulties, has allowed me to take to the Lakeland hills daily – for that is where I live – and walk routes that would normally be teeming with visitors. Each morning, I don the tiniest of rucksacks, and wend my way through the streets of Ambleside towards the surrounding fell tops.
I try to reach a summit by dawn, as the Lake District does magical sunrises. The faint eastern glow, then the orange, the purplish clouds, and the sparkling glint from the surface of a distant Windermere. I am alone, disobeying my father, and always feeling guilty for doing so.
It was when the first snows fell in winter that I realised I may not have fibbed after all. I was panting upwards in the half darkness, making heavy weather of the climb, with the normally grippy rock underfoot feeling glassy. Ice filled the puddles, streams and waterfalls that were usually sloshy. I was watching my step with care. If I stumbled, I would not be rescued. Mobile signal? No chance.
It was then I saw the line of tracks, which went right across my path. Each print was massive, at least half the size of my hand. I stopped, peered and caught my breath. I had seen such tracks before, although not in England. Africa and India for certain, Far Eastern jungles maybe, and once in a remote Omani desert. The Lakeland animal that had been there before me, looked to be fur-footed and had not long passed by. There were no claws, no nearby human footprint to suggest domestication, and then I saw the giveaway clue. The two humps at the front of the paw-pad were classic of a feline. Cats show them the world over. This one just happened to be large. The big cats of Cumbria were not imaginary, I thought. They existed, real, and in the flesh. Puma-like animals have been seen on plenty of occasions, near Ambleside, Langdale and Bowness. For some reason I was not frightened, but actually relieved. No longer was I alone on the mountain. No one could say I had fibbed.
Pandemic Lakeland is a very different place these days. Deer now come close and gaze me in the eye, while munching Herdwick sheep inspect me as if I have escaped from an asylum. They could well be right. The other day a field mouse nibbled at my boot before squeaking and dashing into cover. On Nanny Lane above Troutbeck, a fox lay down before me, as might a dog by the hearth. The animal was entirely unperturbed, waited a few moments, as did I, until we both skulked on our way. One hour later, a buzzard soared past, then circled barely a foot above my head before heading into the distance. Astonished, I sat on a moss-covered fallen tree trunk to recover. It was not long before a robin, singing gustily, hopped onto the back of my gloved right hand before darting onward. Even hares stop and look these days, before loping on their way. And the squirrels, red or grey? For some reason they must still learn to trust me. The grey ones continue their alarm squawk from the branches.
Most days, I come across the five fell ponies, who now tolerate my arrival well. No longer are they suspicious. They approach, occasionally nuzzle, and are never threatening. They have no owner, just the open space. A local farmer sometimes feeds them and has certainly given them names. He cares for them well, as I have never seen the ponies look hungry.
Although it is true that I walk alone in Lakeland’s mountains, and there is no one to rescue me if I stumble, surrounding Nature has made me happy that I did not fib to my father. After all, we never agreed that company should be human. For every step of my daily journey, with the visitors gone, I see that Lakeland wildlife has taken over. It is perhaps the only good thing of the pandemic.
And who knows, one day I may even see a huge and massive feline. Then it is anyone’s guess what might happen.
If you go
Coronavirus – be sure to check each of these suggestions before you go, in light of any pandemic restrictions in place on the day. These change frequently.
Lake District National Park
If you fancy seeing these animals, and there are not too many other visitors around, try this route: www.andrewswalks.co.uk/wansfell-3.html
Total distance: 11 kilometres
Going underfoot: A mixture of track, road, rock and slippery fell. Bring spikes if you see ice or snow. Always carry a fully charged mobile telephone.
Time: Allow 2 to 3.5 hours
You can also do the whole thing from Troutbeck, as the route is circular.
Rail to Windermere (London: 3 hours 7 mins; Manchester: 1 hour 44 mins) with taxi from there.
Drive (283 miles from London; 89 miles from Manchester) to Ambleside.
Ambleside: There is a Pay and Display in central Ambleside. Its postcode is LA22 9AY, with more details at Rydal Road car park.
Troutbeck: There is plenty of free parking.
Look no further than High Fold Guest House, dead centre of Troutbeck (LA23 1PG). They call it a hidden gem. Brilliantly run by Jackie Cartigny.
You are spoiled for choice. My favourite is Zeffirellis
There is less choice, but this is a Lakeland village. Try the Mortal Man, an ale house since 1689.
Do not miss
Grasmere gingerbread (Grid reference: NY334507; LA22 9SW)
Windermere cruise – departs from Ambleside (LA22 0EY), Bowness (LA23 3HQ), or Lakeside (LA12 8AS)