We stride out towards my son’s first Lake District fell on the kind of morning preserved for daydreams: cool air and warm sun beautifully balanced, a languid drift of light cloud across the fathomless blue, the benign bleat of Herdwicks and the bright song of a yellowhammer from a larch. But we have earned this superlative start, with a frigid pre-dawn cycle to the station shortly after 6.00am, followed by three trains and two buses. This three-hour, five-stage public transport marathon could so easily have failed if any one of its four razor-thin connections – eight minutes at Preston and all of three at Oxenholme – were missed, leading me to conclude that the National Park’s pleadings for visitors to forsake their cars might be more commonly answered if it were made easier to do so. But for us, this morning, it worked, and we are here with all the Langdale fells beckoning us upwards. We answer the call of Bowfell.
A little way up Oxendale Beck we meet the farmer from Stool End, whose yard we have just passed through, out on his quad bike, inspecting a gate he recently re-hung in his top field. Leaning over it, he tells us of how he started with little and worked his way via several farms lower down the valley to be here, where he has now been for 47 years. I ask him of the extent of his flock’s heft and where he has to gather them from for shearing in the summer, and he sweeps his hand across the ramparts of Pike of Blisco, the monumental amphitheatre of Crinkle Crags, the rugged flanks of Bowfell, pointing out significant features with local names that will not appear on any map, noting critical points at which it is essential that dog and shepherd are at the top of their game or else sheep escape down a gully or over a ridge. As an occasional visitor, this level of intimacy with the terrain is difficult to comprehend, and indeed he recalls incidents where even the local mountain rescue team has, to their cost, discounted or ignored it. It is an attitude that James Rebanks laments in A Shepherd’s Life; climbers, walkers, artists and poets love this landscape while appearing to entirely overlook the people who not only live and work within it, but create and sustain its celebrated beauty. Stool End Farm is a typical case: it is the subject of countless art and photographic prints for sale online, and is used as a reference point in walking guides and for charity fell races, but the quietly remarkable life of its inhabitants remains utterly unheralded and little understood.
We ascend into the heart of the landscape to which not just his flock, but he himself, is hefted. Beside Oxendale Beck and Hell Gill, we pass countless crystal pools, their waters, in contrast to the peaty Pennine broth we are used to, so inviting that my son extracts a promise I am only too happy to make, that on another day we can come back here and spend all day playing in them. But today we climb and cross a ridge to leave the standard walking route and join the Climber’s Traverse, a single-file path with the buttresses of Bowfell’s west face soaring above and an 1800-foot plunge to Mickleden Beck below. Route guides euphemistically describe it as ‘airy’. For a quarter of a mile we balance our way along this sliver of terrace, until we come to the one allowance that Bowfell makes for mortals unequipped with the ropes and peculiar resolution of the rock climber: a scree slope squeezed between Chambers Crag and the tilted plane of the Great Slab.
Everything I had read about the geological monolith that is the Great Slab made me warn him it was not for us. But now we are here, and now Elaine, the only walker we had encountered all day going up our route and with whom we have now struck up the instant friendship that mountains can foster, has made her way onto the edge of its one-and-a-half acre, 30-degree-inclined smooth surface, I move us over towards it. I tentatively test it, and on the condition that he follows my barked instructions at all times and strictly stays directly above me, I allow him on. It proves to be glorious. Our boots adhere to its grainy sandstone so well that, after a short while of crawling up on all fours, which had the disadvantage of allowing a view through our heels of the precipitous drop, we simply stand and walk up. He is revelling in it, and I can see that he is experiencing another precious thing that mountains can afford: the exhilaration of being in an exposed and dangerous situation while being confidently in control. By the time we are standing on its final shard into the sky, the mixture of elation, pride and disbelief at what he has just achieved is written all over his face.
After a final scramble to the summit, I know our day is only half way done, and the journey home is long. To come is a gruelling descent of The Band to Stool End’s green fields, where he will describe his legs as feeling like ‘solid jelly’, an oxymoron I will nonetheless entirely understand; a celebratory drink and flapjack at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel before catching the last bus to Ambleside and then the open-topped bus alongside a golden Windermere; and peering out of the train window at the last of the light casting the expanse of Morecambe Bay, empty of tide, into an otherworldly peach plain, far across which the receding silhouette of Bowfell will already be bidding us to return again soon, while I feel the bittersweetness of knowing the perfection of my son’s first Lakeland fell day can never be repeated.
But for now, we savour the summit, finding an eyrie from which to look down on the wildness of upper Eskdale. I surprise him with his first ever Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer, which he had asked for recently after seeing them in friends’ lunchboxes at school, and from his reaction I can see I have instantly created a new tradition for all our future summits. We also keep up an existing tradition on our walks of having a short story from our current Puffin collection, now on our fourth edition, having begun with Stories for Five-Year-Olds. In the still air, the calls of unseen climbers clinging to the crags float up from below our feet. To the south-east, the gentle wooded lands around Windermere are backed by the hazed Yorkshire Dales, and, having just finished reading Swallows and Amazons the night before, we scan for a glimpse of Coniston Water. The rest of our panorama is a crowd of Lakeland skylines stacked one on the other, some illuminated by afternoon sun, some cast with cloud shadows. The Scafell range is in the deepest sulk, hulked under a knotted gathering of cloud. All the silver of the flawless morning is now draining away down the River Esk to where, beyond a land-skein of mist-graded horizons, the sea still shines with its perfection.