Taking advantage of the good Bank Holiday weather (a steady drizzle compared to the usual torrential rain), I went for a stroll in the Lakes with a pal of mine.
He adores the Lake District and considers himself an aficionado. Others might label him a know-all.
The best part of being up in the hills with him is when we meet a fellow rambler.
After the standard opening exchange between walkers – known as the weather chat (with rain pouring down... “Lovely day for it isn’t it? Ha, ha. Be careful on top, gets a bit blowy”) – the next question is always ‘where are you headed to?’
This is where my friend comes into his own.
“Well,” he starts, pulling a packet of sandwiches and a fold-up chair out of his rucksack, a clue, if ever there was one, that this is going to be a lengthy reply. “We’re going up Harrison Stickle. Parked at Pert Bottom and took the westerly route up Sticky Tart, you know past the tarn on Dank Moor. From there we’ll go north past Rank Rigg, hit the footpath by Soggy End, come out at the rock shaped like Bruce Forsyth’s chin, and take a sharp left past Lower Bagshaft and on to East Pumping. It’s a tough walk, but not if you’ve my experience.”
The man listening to this will nod his head enthusiastically, murmuring ‘yes, yes’, and occasionally interjecting with observations like, ‘Pert Bottom, nice peak, walked it with the wife in autumn ’82 just before her yachting accident. Terrible thing that, but at least she went quickly.’
I, meanwhile, stand looking at the pair of them with a kind of horrified admiration. My friend has been a fan of the fells ever since he began to walk the Wainwrights. These are, for those who aren’t aware, 214 fells in the Lakes as detailed by a chap called Alfred Wainwright.
Wainwright was an odd but gifted man. Born in Blackburn and with a deathly dull job at the local council, he spent all his spare time catching a bus to the Lake District and painstakingly mapping the mountains. When he returned home – and even if his wife was stood alluringly in the bedroom doorway wearing only a pout and her best silk negligee – he would dash to the attic to work on his book.
Perhaps not surprisingly, his marriage (to Ruth) eventually crumbled, though then again it had been an odd relationship from the start. The first time he removed his cap in his wife’s presence was on their wedding night, when she was said to be revolted by his red hair.
But maybe that personal strife was worth it for his seven-volume A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, written over a 13-year period from 1952, which sold more than two million copies and made him famous.
Not that he was exactly comfortable with it.
When he met an admirer on the fells, Alfred would turn away and pretend to urinate in order to avoid a hand-shake and a conversation. When sales of his book were about to pass the million mark, he was persuaded by his publishers to have dinner with whoever purchased the millionth copy. After initially agreeing he lost his nerve and made a 100-mile round trip to buy the specially marked copy himself.
In other words he was, it’s generally agreed, a bit of a miserable so-and-so.
But his books are a work of art and have become a bible for ramblers.
There is a select club of those who have walked each of the 214 Wainwrights (only around 750 people are in it). The peaks range from a lowly 985 ft (Castle Crag) to the daddy of the Lakes, Scafell Pike, 3,210 ft high.
Astonishingly, in 2008 a six-year-old boy became the youngest to do them, while – even more jaw-droppingly – a chap called Steve Birkinshaw completed, in June last year, a continuous round of all 214 in six days and 13 hours. One can only imagine how his feet smelt afterwards.
My mate is about 20 shy of completing them. He’s 38 and it’s taken him 17 years, which isn’t quite as impressive – though when it comes to talking about them, he can give anyone a run for their money.
Remote chance of being forgiven
I have, unwittingly, lost a lot of friends at the Gazette.
We were all crowded around the office TV last week to watch Usain Bolt v Justin Gatlin in the 200m final at the World Championships.
Even if you’re not into your athletics, you must have heard of Bolt. He’s the tall chap who’s quite nifty, in fact niftier than anyone else on the planet.
Gatlin is pretty quick too, though many would say this is more to do with the substances he has taken.
Gatlin has twice been banned for doping, so this race was billed as the showdown, good versus evil, and anyone with a passing interest in sport was eagerly looking forward to it.
So there we were, pretty excited, a dozen or so of us looking at the TV as the athletes crouched into their blocks and waited for the starter’s gun.
It was at that moment that I got an itch in my right ankle, stretched forward to give it a scratch, as you do, and accidentally leant on the remote control with my elbow and switched the telly off.
By the time someone had worked out how to get the TV back on, the race had long since finished, and a smiling Bolt was posing for pictures trackside.
I made six brew rounds that afternoon in an attempt to make up for my misdemeanour, but have still not been forgiven.