I can take a while to leave my tent at the best of times, and today I had no incentive to get a move on. I had a set end point for the day in Ambleside, at the northern end of Windermere, which was only 12 km away. So what on earth was I going to do all day? I ate my porridge slowly.
I wouldn’t get another day like the one before. The sky was cast in shades of dull white and a damp chilliness had settled. Eventually I decided there wasn’t much to be said for sitting around, so I packed up my things and made my way past a small mere, over a knott, and down to the outskirts of Windermere town. I brushed round the edge of this to join the short and popular footpath up Orrest Head. At 238m, this is a small fell, but with a decent claim to fame. It was on this summit, looking west towards the same fells that I had admired at sunset the night before, that Alfred Wainwright found his lifelong passion for the Lake District.
It must be a rare and special thing to know and recall the exact moment of your life’s great upheaval, the tectonic shift that leads you to becoming the person you were meant to be. I would guess that most people find their path incrementally, which is no less valuable but does not quite have the same romance. Mountains have a wonder-inducing effect on many to some extent, but it seems that Wainwright got one of the largest doses of this sensation ever (I remember driving into the Ogwen valley when I was 19 and getting a thrill of wonder at the sight of Tryfan – it blew my preconceptions of the UK out of the water that there could be such a real mountain here). It is difficult to think of a closer association between name and place than his with the Lake District.
Over the course of his life he walked all over these mountains, back and forth, again and again and again, never tiring of them. He spent 13 years working on his seven-volume pictorial guide, a labour of love that has earned him immortality. The fells he wrote about are now known collectively as the Wainwrights, and reaching the summits of all of them is one of the main targets for UK peak-baggers. I challenge you to watch this short clip of him talking about Haystacks, his favourite fell, and not feel your soul moved. He set the bar for pursuing a passion.
In fairness, the view from Orrest head is a good one. The path up there zig-zags through leafy woods until you pop out onto the top and can see over the treetops to rolling pastures, then to Windermere winding away into the distance towards the high fells, which disappear into the clouds. I took some time to admire it before carrying on. The quickest way to Ambleside would have been straight along the road by the lake, but I took a wider curve round, keeping my height up the hillsides. I went past farms and cottages with enviable lake views, and lots of rills skipping down the hillside.
It was only mid-afternoon when I came down to the Ambleside jetties at the northern end of Windermere. My contact in Ambleside was my friend Hugo. After graduating as an engineer, he worked for Rolls Royce for a few years before deciding to give that up and go and build paths in the Lakes, as a National Trust ranger. When he isn’t doing that he is taking beautiful landscape photos and taking part in what I consider to be insane fell races. I hadn’t seen him for a while; the last time had been at a house party, when I was resting on a sofa, nearly done for the night, and he had been wearing plastic rave glasses and performing an intense dance for my entertainment. The time before that had been when he had visited my bedside in hospital.
They operated on my back the day after I came in. My surgeon was relatively young and had a reassuring confidence that put me at ease. If anything, it made me not realise how serious the surgery was. I was in there for eight hours as they cut me open and drilled screws into the crushed vertebra, and the one above and below it, then fused them all together with rods. Having never tried drugs, I was sort of hoping that the anaesthesia would be an interesting new experience, but sadly I had no dreams and felt lucid as soon as I woke up, though mum claimed I was flirting with the nurses. She had stayed the previous night in a chair by my bedside. The operation had actually taken a few hours longer than they had told her. That wait must have been one the worst things she had ever been through.
I quickly learned that your back is involved in just about every movement you can make. Every time I wanted to adjust myself on the bed or lean to grab something, I had to grit my teeth and make an effort to force through the pain. They had given me a button that instantly delivered me a dose of morphine and told me to press it every once in a while. I interpreted this to mean every couple of hours. I was later told that most people press it every five minutes. This might have explained why everything was so painful.
I was lucky to have lots of friends come to visit me. Several times I had more in my room than were meant to be allowed. I think it got to a point where whenever the staff saw a group of students coming into the hospital, they instantly knew where to point them. My housemates, and Duncan in particular (from Day 8), were there the most. He baked me a cake, but then read on the hospital’s website that you weren’t meant to bring food in, so he sent me a picture of it and ate it himself.
After the surgery, they encouraged me to try to use a frame to walk to the bathroom. That really hurt. I felt a grinding in my right ankle. Some more scans and they realised that was broken too, with chips of bone scattered in the joint. After a few days, they operated on my left foot. More carpentry, more metal. I think my foot surgeon wasn’t quite as neat as my back surgeon. The scar on my foot is ugly and ropey, compared to the dead straight line down the middle of my back. My fourth toe sticks out strangely now too. They decided to leave my right ankle and hope that the bone would be absorbed into the body. I wonder now how things might have been better if they had operated. This is one of the frustrating things about the healing process – you only get one chance at it and you will never know if the best decisions were made.
I read my book for an hour or so on a bench looking across the lake. I then went for a wander, first round the remains of a Roman fort by the waterside, then around the town centre. I drifted into an outdoor shop, which is standard practice for every hiker and climber I know. In a town like Ambleside, if you have time on your hands, you can visit several outdoor shops and look at the same products again and again, in slightly different arrangements.
Eventually Hugo messaged me to say he was home, and I headed over there. He was actually living as a lodger with a landlady called Sally, who was very welcoming. The front of the house was filled with the kind of clutter that implies a busy mind and a host of interesting ongoing projects. We had wine and pasta, and sat round the table for some time as they told me all sorts of stories about the area. I went to bed warm and fuzzy.