Friends of the Lake District Blog by Tristan Gooley. July 2018.
Over the years it has been a privilege and a pleasure to give talks and run many courses in the Lake District. But I suspect that the Lakes have taught me much more than I will ever teach.
On a solitary walk up to High Street in April a few years ago, I learned about the seasons; four of them in as many hours. I wasn’t in the habit of taking selfies and still don’t like to, so there is no picture of me in a sweat-soaked T-shirt enjoying views of the sunny lower slopes. However, once on the higher plateau, I could not resist taking pictures of the ice accumulating in my beard.
It was also in the Lakes that I was first given a practical demonstration of our bodies’ need for salt. Three school friends and I met at Euston station in the summer of 1990 and squeezed our way onto a northbound train. We had concocted a wonderfully naïve faux-macho plan to hike speedily across most of the highest fells in the Lakes and we had decided this would be aided by carrying packs that weighed about 35kg. We were 16 years old.
Heading off from Ambleside, we wobbled west along the road towards our first high ground, the Langdales. This was supposed to be a warm up. Warm it was, there was a minor heatwave. Before we’d gained any serious ground, one of my friends started saying some very odd things. On being quizzed about his poor conversation, he proceeded to talk complete gibberish, swayed a bit and then fell flat on the ground.
I was unwise in the ways of the world or walking and a bit confused by this turn of events, so I found a phone box and called my father in London, who was savvy in these ways after years of jungle-bashing with the SAS.
“Stir half a teaspoon of salt into a drink without him noticing. If he drinks it without complaining and then perks up – that’s your problem. If not, call me back.”
He was up and bouncy within minutes. (That said, like most of what I did in the first 30 years of my walking life, this is probably not considered correct procedure. Do not try this yourself… proper first aid procedures… summon help… or something.)
That night we burned our candles, ate as much tinned food as we could, stashed most of the rest for later collection, along with an assortment of large batteries, larger lamps and hardback books. We contemplated our plan to take in three of the highest peaks the following day and then trimmed about three-quarters of it.
More recently I have used the Lakes to enhance earlier lessons, like fine-tuning my ‘nature’s altimeter’. We can gauge our altitude by noticing how deciduous trees segue to conifers that then yield to the treeline, hardy shrubs and a seasonal snowline. But the real art is in noticing how the trees lose height before they give up. An oak near the top of a deciduous wood will be shorter than one lower down and the same is true of the conifers. There is no shortage of satisfaction to be derived by trying to spot the subtler shifts between.
My latest work has been about researching the signs that give us a fast, deep understanding of our surroundings. We can forecast weather from woodland sounds, sense direction from plants and predict the next action of a wild animal from its body language. None of that may surprise, but the extraordinary thing is when we practice noticing certain signs our brain takes over the process and can give us an almost instant sense of what is about to happen. And this takes place without us apparently needing to think about it. To those new to this ancient skill, it can appear to be a ‘sixth sense’, but it is nothing more mysterious than noticing that certain patterns and clues dependably foretell certain events. I call the signs that allow us to do this the ‘keys’, as they unlock an extra level of awareness.
On a recent visit to Kendal, I headed up onto some modest high ground and then fell asleep under a hawthorn and waited for the storm I had been expecting to draw near. I knew before I opened my eyes that it was now closing in. The birds told me. The key I used on this occasion was the ‘squall squawk’, it is the noise the birds make when they are unsettled by approaching bad weather. Once we’re used to these keys, we can sense imminent change the way the animals do. I scuttled back down the path, laughing like a green woodpecker at the rain that tried in vain to beat me back.