I woke early, cold. I tried to wrap myself more tightly in my blanket and banish any creeping touches of chilly air. Eventually I gave up, got up, and went outside. It was a beautiful day – clear and crisp, with the unmistakable snap of true Autumn. Tina and Adrian helped me get all my things together and were shocked by how heavy my pack was once it was full. My shoulders didn’t give it a particularly warm welcome, but that was what I had signed up for – the fact that I had had any days at all where I didn’t have to carry it had been an unexpected bonus. There would be no more easy rides; I would carry it from there to the foot of Ben Nevis. With repeated heartfelt thank-yous, I said goodbye to Tina, Adrian, and Piper, and started off on my own again.
I rejoined the Lancaster Canal towpath. If anything, it was even more peaceful than the previous afternoon, as it wended northwest away from the motorway. I cannot stress enough how different the feel of the conditions was compared to every previous day of the walk. It was as if the old used air we had been languishing under had all been taken away and replaced with a brand new batch that had just been chilled to perfection in the freezer. It was a mountain stream compared to the Thames. It was feeling the water trickle out of your ear twenty minutes after getting out of the bath. Everything took on a freshness and a sharpness. They sky was clear, ice-blue, and you knew for sure that it would stay that way all day.
I merrily followed the towpath for about five kilometres. I passed a tree full of elves that walked the uncanny line between cute and creepy. I then turned off onto a narrow road running alongside the River Kent. The river flowed fast and white here over drops at the bottom of a shadowy rock gorge. It was narrow enough for the broadleaved trees on either bank to stretch out almost to touch their counterparts. I crossed a bridge onto Nannypie Lane, which led me under the A591, then came off that into the grounds of Sizergh Castle. Here plenty of people were out for a wander. The land was becoming hillier. After climbing up the hillside away from the castle, I sat and had a snack looking out south and west over the incongruously flat Lyth Valley. Its system of drainage ditches shone in the sun like a net of silver.
I briefly lost my way in Honeybee Wood, then carried on through increasingly complex contours. I tend to enjoy walking through places where the countours form a mish-mash of little rings and random shapes; it makes the ground more interesting. It’s all about hiding and revealing, about how the hillocks lure you onwards to see what is on the other side. The best views are always the ones where nature contrives some way of making them sudden and surprising. Approaching a mountain across an unobstructed plain will never make you gasp in the way that the turn of a corner or an abrupt drop-off can. Possibly best of all is when you walk most of the way up a mountain in blank white fog and cloud, only for a window to open for a minute and reveal an unexpectedly magnificent picture to you, and you see that the cloud isn’t a static blanket at all but a swirling torrent of wind and mist. Then it closes again, but now you know what is out there, and you will tell people afterwards about the one incredible view you saw, and it will be all the more precious for its fleetingness.
I filled up my water bottle in a pub in Underbarrow. Down the valley, and up the other side, I came to a saddle between two hilltops, where a friendly-looking oak invited me to rest. I had time on my hands. I sat barefoot in its branches and played my whistle, looking back down towards the valley and the estuary. I ate my lunch with my back to its trunk, and read my book, “Fool’s Quest” (appropriately enough) by Robin Hobb. I was having a lovely day wandering through the Lakeland foothills.
That was more or less the story of the rest of the day. I followed paths through hills used for pasture, but these were more interesting and picturesque than most of the pastureland I had passed through. There were drystone walls, hummocks, rocks protruding from the ground, little meres, twisted old trees, and glimpses of fells. To call these “hills” may create a misleading image of a series of neatly separated, smooth, round lumps. This is a problem I have always had when reading – my slightly underwhelming imagination struggles to conjure up a landscape that isn’t a series of recognisable shapes; pyramidal mountains, dome-shaped hills, dead-flat plains, etc. Then when I visit these places, I realise I couldn’t possibly adequately describe them in a way that really gives any sense of them at all. I was staying above 120m while constantly going up a little and down a little, bending round one way and then another. From above, the ground may have looked like the surface of the sea, with ever smaller ripples overlaid on the larger waves that were the hills. The grass was tussocky, green where it was cropped close to the ground but paling where it grew longer and mixed with patches of brown bracken that lined either side of the path. I had music in my head, and I sang sea shanties to myself as I marched – something I’ve picked up over the past couple of years and spread among my friend groups so that now at a certain point in a party we will inevitably begin some rousing and not entirely tuneful chants about sailors drowning.
I reached a hill called Grandsire, not far from Windermere, and decided it would be a good spot to make camp. From the hilltop, I could look west over the lake to the central fells sharply silhouetted against a line of sunset orange sky. As I was up there, a man came up on a jog, and I asked him if he knew what peaks they were. He reeled them off very impressively. Cold stars drew forth from the clear sky, and I wrapped myself up in more layers. I had walked from Snowdonia to the Lake District. That was pretty good going. I was very happy to be exactly where I was.
They took me in for a CT scan. Back out in my little curtained-off bed, I was still feeling chirpy about the whole thing, until the nurse came. He told me the results, in a voice that was far, far too heavy on the trying-to-break-bad-news-gently tone. They didn’t know the full extent of the damage, but I had broken my back. I decided it was time to ring my parents. My dad picked up.
“Hi dad. I fell while rock climbing and – I’ve broken my back.” I hadn’t expected to start crying, but saying those words myself made it suddenly so horribly real.
“Oh. That’s not good.” This got a laugh out of me. He had hit the nail right on the head. He said he would tell mum and they would be there as soon as possible. I couldn’t imagine what mum’s reaction would be; she worries a lot in general and has never been keen on me climbing or doing anything remotely risky. This was her worst nightmare, potentially even worse for her than it was for me.
Ash was sitting by my bedside and pointed out that we should tell our housemates what had happened. I volunteered to do it, and sent a message to our group chat saying “Ash and I are in hospital because I have broken my back.” I thought this summed things up, but apparently this wasn’t enough information. It sent them into a kind of confused frenzy where they weren’t sure if it was a joke or not, until Ash called to give a proper explanation.
A steady flow of doctors came in to talk to me. They said that upon seeing my scans, the CT team couldn’t believe I didn’t have nerve damage; I had shards of bone poking into my spinal column. They kept touching my feet, asking if I could feel it, and getting me to wiggle my toes.
Possibly the most unpleasant aspect of that evening was that I went into retention – try as I might, I couldn’t pass urine. People often say they are bursting, but this was an agonising new level. For hours it just got worse and worse. Finally, they took me to a private room, sorted everything out for me to stay there, and dosed me up on painkillers. A nurse asked if there was anything else I needed. I begged her to put a catheter in me, which is something I absolutely never expected to do. She insisted on ultrasounding me first, which involved repeatedly pressing a device onto my painfully swollen bladder, to confirm that it was indeed full, though it felt like just an extra bit of torture. The catheter was a blessed relief.
So began the first night of the rest of my painful, uncertain life as a broken man, at the age of twenty-two.*
*Note that, when I write about my injury and recovery, I am trying to convey an image of my mindset at the time, free from hindsight. I worry that this sometimes makes me seem overly dramatic, given the knowledge that eventually I would be ok, while a lot of people who suffer similar accidents aren’t so lucky, but the feelings I went through were based on not having that knowledge of how things would turn out. When I write from my past perspective, I am aiming for accuracy to how I felt then, rather than how things turned out or how I see them now. Above all, I don’t want to give the impression that I think my situation was anything like as tough as those of people who have suffered spinal cord injury.