My feet were in their worst state yet, so I obsessively looked for any patches made softer by a thin layer of mud or gravel to tread on. Often the grass on the verge was long and wet, which would be awkward and annoying to stamp my way through, but there was a strip about four inches wide next to the tarmac where it didn’t grow so thickly, and I followed this, one foot in front of the other like a tightrope walker. Anything that gave my feet fractional relief was worth doing.
My route was not a good one. I did not flow smoothly northwards.
There were no shortcuts or easy ways out; no way of reducing the hardship. The hardship would end when I had been through all of it and not before.
“See you on Ben Nevis in two weeks, then.” In my mind’s eye, a gauntlet thudded heavily to the ground at my feet.
We reached the summit cairn and waited for our turn to pose on top of it, with Steve and Hugo loudly saying things along the lines of “Walked all the way from Snowdon, eh? Nice going!” then looking round to see if anyone reacted. Steve produced some celebratory whiskey, which we all knocked back a sip of.
Looking along the valley, I could see the smooth shoulder of Bowfell climbing into the clouds. That was my route up onto the horseshoe where the highest summits were to be found.
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.
Leaves hung green and gold in the low afternoon sun. Moorhens and swans meandered among the tangled water weeds. I startled a kingfisher and sent it peeping down the canal ahead, then ran into it again and again as it retreated, refusing to bite the bullet and fly back past me. Several stone bridges arched over the water. I passed a few families and dog walkers.
We stood aside to let a flock of sheep pass us as we climbed up to the point where the hill turned from green fields to brown grouse moors. From our high point we could see all the way to the coast, to the mouth of the Wyre, to Blackpool tower, and, most excitingly, to the distant, cloudy fells of Cumbria. This milestone made the ascent worth it. Adrian told me grim police stories of murder and deceit as we made our way down through hillside farms.
We altered course, and more and more frequently had to dodge round large puddles and soaked earth, which then turned into entire sections of path that were submerged. Our route-finding involved some creative clambering and fence-hopping, until eventually we were checkmated. Caught on a track between two walls in an abandoned farmstead, with no way round and twenty metres of water between us and the road, we gave up and sprinted through it.