the mountaineer and the goth shop

Sun, Jun 6, 2010

At the beginning of May, Dawn and I headed south for a bit of a scenery change and to visit the rellies darn saath. Our goal was the Cotswolds, that most lovely of English counties, where I could happily retire if I could rob enough banks to finance a life of idleness in a suitably grand pile. Alas, it cannot be. The most we could afford down there would be a squat in someone’s wood shed I fear. But there are compensations for heading furth of “The Wall”, to the land of quaint rootlessness and parochial sensibilities. They being different hills, Real Ale with Ancient Pubs in which to imbibe and Tea ‘n Bun Shops! Welcome to my rose tinted view of England! I won’t mention the current infestation of sports celebrities/presenters on the telly, crooning appallingly bad renditions of well known songs, due to the World Cup. No I won’t mention that at all, at all.

Our first port of call was Coldbeck House in Ravenstonedale. A wonderfully snug and friendly B&B on the northern edge of the Howgills, sitting in a wonderful little village which plays host to Elm Lodge, one of those magnificently English, Hammer House of Horror castellated mansions one only glimpses through towering trees and a carpet of brown leaves, on the way to the local alehouse. Flaming torches and pitchforks you expect to see as the monster is chased up the grand drive. One of those neatly maintained gravel driveways that lead tantalisingly round the corner, out of sight. So neat, yet so apparently unused, except at dusk I’ll wager, when the Master emerges to drink his fill of maidens’ blood. Now I’m getting carried away.

Looking to Yarlside from near Bram Rigg Top

For this area is indeed an imaginationists playground. I’ve always looked on the Howgills as Mountains of the Mind, Those elegant grassy well defined ridges leading into dark and narrow glens and up to vast plateaux, where the mind may wander free of care. Superb country. And so it was that we walked up The Calf, via Cautley Spout, a stupendously steep route of ascent that rears straight from the floor of the glen on a well maintained staircase path. There are few Munros with approaches this steep and at the top, where it swings to the left, the path is rather exposed on a very steep slope. I thought, this would be really interesting in winter. At this point you’re traversing the slope high above the gorge of the Spout and it’s rather exciting. Then all of a sudden, you’re in the bosom of the hills, following Red Gill Beck through a narrow defile to a wonderfully restored sheep fank. A wonderful spot to camp. Then a fine dander up by the burn, ‘til it disappears and you pop out on the motorway of a path between Bram Rigg Top and The Calf. It was here, no sooner had we topped out, than we were almost flattened by a group of mountain bikers racing down the path to get momentum up the short climb to the summit of The Calf.

Summit of The Calf

It’s a wonderful spot to linger and just marvel at the geology of the area. All those smooth rounded slopes. A man could think to his heart’s content up here. We sat on the lush grass 100m from the trig point, where no-one went as they all confined themselves to the path and it was here we had lunch. I had a small pie that contained Gloucester Old Spot, which I thought was a cheese until Dawn reliably informed me was a pig! Travel does indeed broaden the mind I say! A pig! I never! It was damned good too, crammed into that small and chunky pie. Ooh the food of foreign lands. Then I tucked into a similarly sized Game Pie, which had grouse, hare, this that and the next thing all crammed into it with an interesting warning on the label. “May contain shot”. Talk about risk and danger in the mountains. This was almost too much. I might find bullets in my pie!

Looking up the descent route from Great Drummacks

Our descent route was over Bram Rigg Top, Calders, Great Drummacks and down the beck on the North East face. A Howgills descent indeed. We went straight down the grassy face, down a slope that would have made a Munro proud. Very very steep. Exciting even. Once down, we watched as a couple of walkers took an age to descend, unsure of the route, crossing between the face and the even steeper ridge. It was then that I considered the names round here. Yarlside. What a wonderful name. So different and exotic. Yarlside. Yaaaaaarlside. Yaaaaarlsaaaaaaaad! My tongue revelled in the exercise to regions of its surface unknown to it. The smooth sounding Yaaaaarlside contrasted with the gruff and grunt of Kensgriff. Kensgriffffffffffffff. enough enough my tongue was saying!

The rest of the day was spent in Sedbergh, England’s book town apparently and there are a few, as well as roving groups of HF walkers and an abundance of Tea ‘n Bun shops. The main road was festooned with Police tape and traffic cones though. Every layby was cordoned off as was every flat patch of grass by the side of the road and we later learned that the Appleby Horse Fair was the following week, when real Gypsies descended en masse for the horse trading. How wonderful! Not the manks you get up here, with their penchant for crapping by the side of the road and emptying their filth on public highways, not to mention turning up, gathering as much scrap and shit as possible, then leaving it in a huge pile while they move on to some other place they want to turn into a shithole. No doubt they’re down there too but all we saw were brightly painted Gypsy wagons, big horses and the most interesting brawny people you’re likely to see this side of the Med. Gypsies and armed Pork Pies, my mind was indeed being broadened by my journey furth of The Wall.

The holiday then continued south, to the Cotswolds but not before we took the steam train from Pickering to Whitby, a most interesting seaside resort cum fishing village on the east coast. It was here that I stumbled into a Goth Shop and spent a happy hour staring at various impedimenta to movement such as chains, balls, pins for one’s extremities and lots and lots of leather. Wonderfully smellful leather. It reminded me of my student days. I almost persuaded Dawn to get a pair of knee length black, buckle festooned boots, with 3 inch gleaming titanium heels that set my pulse racing while I myself almost succumbed to large leather boots with platform soles, buckles to the knee and creaking like old floorboards, as well as a bikers jacket but I was most disappointed to find the handmade laser gun on the wall was not for sale, although the highly talented maker was accepting commissions. The six foot sword was for sale though and as we were driving it would conceivably fit in the car.

It was at that point, I realised, I was having a mid life crisis! The atmosphere in the Goth Shop was a world unto itself, full of shuffling females in black and red and blokes with black spiky hair, half my age, at least. I then remembered I had to leave the shop and go back into the bright sunshine and large groups of fat shuffling pensioners hoovering up all the ice cream in town. A slowly paunching middle aged mountaineer in goth black boots and leathers would just look even more ridiculous. But I had a whale of a time anyway, living a short dream in a different age, in the Goth Shop. It almost did end in disaster though as my eye caught a life size chrome skull in the window and I almost bought it, to take it home and call it Lembit. No idea why. It just seemed like a good thing to do at the time. Lembit the Chrome Skull on my desk. Wish I had now.

But isn’t life great when one lives it in the contrasts? Life is contrasts. Here I am, a Mountain Leader, who is sometimes responsible for peoples’ wellbeing, safety and peace of mind in what can be very challenging terrain and circumstances. A bloke with almost 30 years mountaineering experience, sitting on a steam train dressed like a mentally ill scarecrow, with a chrome skull on the seat next to him. Isn’t that marvellous? The best of life is living the contrasts. Like the bit of toast where the coffee hasn’t quite drenched it. You know. One end is soaked and the other is bone dry apart from some butter. It’s the bit in the middle, where the coffee meets butter meets toast that tastes the best.

So we had a whale of a time down there and the highest I got was up to Broadway Tower at 7am in a biting north wind, gazing out over a patchwork of fields and chocolate box houses. Such a beautiful area. The Goth Shop was a distant memory although I did chuckle at the thought of taking home Lembit and did wish I had picked him off the shelf and sat him on the seat next to me on the train back. I would have asked the conductor, “does the skull need a ticket?”.

On the descent the smooth steep grass of the fields reminded me I wasn’t getting any more agile as my feet skited from under me, were silhouetted against the blue morning sky while hands still in pockets I landed with a sickening thud on the hard ground. It happened so fast I lay there like a trussed walrus wondering what on earth just happened. I’ve climbed the Matterhorn, soloed rock and ice climbs and eaten bullet ridden pies in the Howgills but here I was, prostrate on short wet grass a couple of hundred metres above the prettiest town in the Cotswolds. Such is the middle part of one’s life. One must adjust to one’s changing portfolio of bodily architecture. Where once muscle abounded, now it wobbles alarmingly. I noticed this for the first time last year, when I walked with my old friend Penguin along the GR221 in Mallorca. We were coming down from the summit of Tomir and I had a cool pair of shades on. As is my want, I leapt several feet across a gap onto a large boulder but due to the shades and ageing eyesight, failed to notice various rugosities on the surface of the rock. The result being a lot of noise as poles clattered all over the shop and a severely bent ankle. It didn’t stop me jumping up straight away and doing that “did something just happen there? I didn’t notice myself” look as two walkers in front of us looked up to see what the commotion was. Luckily I have very strong and flexible ankles and we had a whale of a time for the rest of the trip. But as middle age looms, the cacophony of hill noises will bound to be joined by the wail of ambulance sirens unless I realise that middle age is almost upon me. Almost I say!

But it is middle age that makes us into such wonderful creatures, willing to explore other aspects of existence, secure in the knowledge we’ve done most of what we wanted to do in the mountains. Another couple of summits and I’ll have finally finished the Munros, what with several years of climbing and Alpinism getting in the way of compleating. But it was the Goth Shop that made me very happy that day. I always wondered what life would be like with knees unable to transport an ageing frame to the summits or a paunch too big to pull up scrambly ridges. Then I found the Goth Shop and I realised that life is a journey. We are who we are, in that we are the sum of all our experiences and as we fill up one bucket we label ourselves with, another one comes along for us to start filling up, while still topping up the others.

So here’s to growing old disgracefully. Carrying chrome skulls on public transport and joking with locals in real ale pubs that “yow doan wonna go up there tanight, no sirrrrr, not up to Elm Laaaadge”.

Next time you’re sad and wondering when you’ll next get to the hills or even if you really want to go there, just look around. You’ll find your very own Goth Shop.

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