by Jonathan Swale

Two hundred years ago, the Lakes Poets found an imagined arcadia among the rugged Cumbrian fells (ignoring, for convenience, the rugged farmers and even ruggeder miners and quarrymen who lived and worked there). A century later the railways were bringing thousands of the great unwashed for a brief respite from the smoke of northern towns. Sixty years on and a million families in family cars were importing the urban joys of traffic jams and parking chaos to this once quiet corner of Englandshire. And so to the present: the wheel has turned 180 degrees and seven climbers left the rural tranquillity of Shetland for the crowds, confusion and frantic retail experience that is The Lake District Bank Holiday Weekend.

OK – who decided we should go to the Lake District ON A BANK HOLIDAY??? It would have been madness but for two things: the crags, and the Keswick Pencil Museum.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon at a Langdale campsite already crowded with tents and cars. Jonny Lowes joined us, and only just failed to cripple himself trying to bunny-hop Pete’s mountain bike. Then we went climbing – an hour spent on bouldering problems in a quarry behind the church at Chapel Stile – before hitting the pub.

Next day we headed to Borrowdale in unfamiliar heat, most of us taking on some classic routes on Shepherd’s Crag (just behind the cafe) with the novelty of trees that provided not only welcome shade but also handholds and even handy belay points. Meanwhile Andy and Jonny headed for Troutdale Pinnacle, where Jonny only just failed to cripple himself in a fight with the rock. Then we went to the pub.

That evening Jonny left before he could do any more damage to himself, but Nathalie arrived from a goat farm in Italy, bringing with her a very fine cheese (mysteriously named Tommy) and a holy relic: the desiccated shoulder blade of St. Francesco. Nathalie insisted that it was just a piece of a shagged out goat, so we all sampled it, but it was chewy and tasted of rosemary and soap, so it was obviously sacred so out of respect we left it in a corner of the tent. Tommy was definitely preferable (although Julie chundered her share into the hedge after drinking too much cider and whisky).

The following day, under a blazing sun, we staggered up to Raven Crag (just behind the Old Dungeon Gill Hotel). A short climb was followed by a long walk out, which left most of us too exhausted to climb again so we hit the hotel bar which – joy of joys – had Old Rosie cider on draft.

Day three found us strolling through a field of peacock butterflies to the foot of Castle Rock, Thirlmere. Despite notices warning of some loose rock (a mere bungalow-sized boulder) Andy and Stu went to tackle Overhanging Bastion, whilst the rest of us took on the safer routes on the southern crag. We were joined there by a male climber and his female partner who looked about sixty but turned out to be 79 – there’s hope for some of us yet!

The weather now turned against us, so a drizzly Thursday morning was spent in the shopping insanity of Keswick. Pete bought a couple of knives from a Norwegian axe shop and Robina managed to buy some big pants – OK, she was looking for skimpy knickers but there were none to be had, but that’s still an improvement on Ambleside where you can buy any kind of outdoor kit you could possibly want but apparently no trolleys of any kind whatsoever. As a respite from our harrowing day we had a pub lunch, then took a trip to the Bowder Stone for a bit of bowdering, after which Stu and Pete speed-climbed the nearby crag before we all went back to the pub.

With Friday continuing overcast and damp we headed across the border into Yorkshire to try our hands (and feet, and other body parts) at caving. Long Churn Cave is a classic beginners’ trip that offers underground scrambling, clean stream passages, waterfalls, pools and The Cheesepress – an 8 inch high crawl (for the benefit of Nathalie and Aurore, that’s 203mm, although put like that it doesn’t sound so daunting). Everyone made it through the squeeze, except for Jonathan who didn’t want to take the risk as his body parts are rather larger than the last time he tried it thirty years ago. Then we went to the pub.

So, all in all it was an excellent and varied trip with good craic, some fine climbs among spectacular scenery, and nobody died, which is always a plus (although someone came very close to being murdered. No names mentioned. You know who you are).

Oh yes – the pencil museum. Well worth fifteen minutes of anyone’s time and £3.50 of their cash to walk through a crappy fibreglass mock-up of a graphite mine, see the world’s oldest surviving pencil and learn about the part played by pencils in world war two – worth it, that is, as a cheesy, amateurish alternative to the many temples of outdoor-activities capitalism that make up the rest of Keswick.

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