Sunday, 28 October 2018

Running the flag line

I’ve been here a week now, although in some respects it seems quite a bit longer. It’s not an easy place to get your head around, near impossible to ever figure out I’d say. The scenery is utterly breath taking, but like anything beautiful there’s no way of holding onto it; no possible sense of ownership. You have to keep looking again and again because it’s changing every minute, sometimes in the subtlest of ways. The remaining winter sea ice is starting to recede, and towering icebergs that were once attached are beginning to move. There’s a noticeable increase in bird sounds, and the first Weddell Seals and pup have been seen. You can also hear the movement of the water now, as the wind blows the Southern Ocean onto the rocks. The temperature isn’t that cold, and even a sub-zero day seems a lot warmer than its equivalent in the damp UK. You never go out unprepared though, even around the station. The weather can change quite dramatically, and when the wind picks up you don’t want to be without layers.

Perhaps the strangest thing, and it’s difficult to really explain (even to myself), is the contrast between environment and people. There’s the isolation on the one hand and then then highly concentrated communal living on the other. I suppose part of it is the expectation, a sort of sense that being in Antarctica will make you feel something entirely different than you ever have before. And in many ways that is of course true, and by the nature of the landscape here it means that you have a very different interaction with it (and the people you’re living with) than perhaps you might elsewhere. There is a definite challenge to our concept and ideals of freedom; the freedom that such a vast ‘empty’ space should bring. But it is actually this vastness, the wildness of this environment which reduces the amount of it we can safely access. After all, the freedom to wander into a crevasse is not much of a freedom at all. And so the restrictions put in place are not to limit but to liberate. My job here is almost completely station based; my outside recreation boundaries are the 2km route around the ‘Point’, the 900m long runway (depending on flights), and what’s known as the ramp and flag line. After one attempt at running on the treadmill – a 5k that seemed to last an unpleasant eternity, I’m now running exclusively outside. Whilst I’ve always highly valued the escapism and headspace that running (and other outdoor activities) can bring, it has taken on an even greater significance here. And the things we often given significance to (in terms of running) back in the UK almost utterly fade away. I don’t time how long I’m out for, and I don’t measure how far I go. The only time considerations are to do with the tagging out board, and the only distances that matter are the ones inside your mind.

Flags are the signposts here – a coloured square of fabric tied to a long wooden/bamboo cane. The flag lines mark the safe routes, and crossed flags means it’s a no go. As the summer progresses much (if not all) of the snow around station will disappear, but it will remain up the ramp and along the traverse to the local recreation areas. The field guides use radar to check for crevasses, and then designate the safe/unsafe routes. And so on an evening, an evening that might be as late as 10.30pm, it’s an incredible feeling, an incredible privilege, to put on my trail shoes and go for a run along the flag line. The ramp is steep and long, and extra hard work in the snow; but the rewards are quite extraordinary as you leave the station far below. Time and space seem to have their own rules here; expanding or contracting more rapidly than is possible elsewhere. Nothing remains the same; neither the landscape nor yourself. The mountains that you once thought to be at the limit of your vision now appear in the foreground revealing new worlds beyond.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Antarctica - First Impressions

It’s hard to say what strikes you first; the beauty or the silence. A silence which is not the absence of sound, but those indescribable moments where there is no discernible noise. And a beauty which, if you try to speak about it, brings you to the brink of tears time and time again. This place is beyond anything I could have possibly imagined; the wildest of dreams in the wildest of places. There is nothing in the world I have had to question half so much as to whether it’s all real.

The flight from Punta Arenas to Rothera was very much a part of the whole experience. Flying on a Dash 7 is nothing much at all like your usual commercial flight. There were 14 of us on the plane, and in front of the passenger seats were all our bags strapped down by cargo nets. Once we’d taken off we had pretty much free reign to wander around the cabin. I think Lyndsay might have regretted taking the seat next to me as I was either incessantly talking or getting up to find a better window to look at the view. Perhaps she didn’t mind too much though as she didn’t stop offering me the unnaturally coloured sweets that she’d picked up at the airport! I went up to the cockpit to chat to the pilots – they said you could go an entire year, an entire lifetime, and you’d never see Patagonia looking so clear. It was utterly breath taking, and it completely dwarfed any representation of the Andes mountain range seen on a map or in photographs.

The flight lasted in the region of 4 and a half to 5 hours, and the cloud cover started to steadily increase as we neared Rothera and the Antarctic Peninsula. It was getting a bit bumpy at this stage so I closed my eyes and remembered to breathe – the second part of which is always useful. A few minutes later though Lyndsay gave me a nudge and told me to look out the window. My first glimpse of Antarctica – and I wasn’t able to utter anything more comprehensible than ‘oh wow!’ Snow covered peaks rising straight out of the ocean, clouds drifting to reveal mountainous icebergs, and then, tiny amongst it all, the scattered buildings of Rothera Research Station.

Considering that the runway was covered in snow & ice, and that it’s a mere 900m long, the landing was incredibly smooth. I was making a conscious effort to take it all in – this was my moon landing, and I’d never be able to do it again for the first time. For obvious reasons – mostly with it being an international airstrip – we didn’t hang about long on the runway. Before we could set foot on the continent though we had to walk our boots through a disinfected mat. Issues of bio security are taken extremely seriously – this is the most pristine environment on earth, and we want to do everything possible to reduce our impact here.

We were met by Jess (Station Leader), welcomed to Rothera, and taken inside for a cup of tea. It soon became apparent that the structure of each day seemed to pretty much resolve around having a brew – “we are British after all!” There was then a few briefings – information to supplement what we had learned in pre deployment back in Cambridge. And before we could begin our work it was necessary to have two days of specific onsite training. This would include everything from how to access the computer system, to using gators and a skidoo!

Friday, 19 October 2018

Setting Forth

In the grand scheme of things three months isn’t long at all. But, all of a sudden, when your factor in where you’re going it becomes a different proposition entirely. Antarctica is about as remote as it comes. There’s no need for money, no shops, no mobile phones. It’s governed (so to speak) by the Antarctic Treaty - a continent dedicated to science and peace. There are no claims, no military presence, although I can imagine there’s a fair amount of friendly rivalry when it comes to ‘international’ football matches. I’ve been told that there’s an actual Rothera football kit, and there are matches against the Americans when their ship comes in. The football pitch is on the runway apron, and play can begin when all the flying is done for the day. Occasionally penguins will wander onto the pitch sometimes, & the match is temporarily suspended until they realise the humans are not other penguins & wander off again. I learnt all this while waiting at Heathrow departures, chatting to one of the GAs (General Assistants). I think I must have arrived at the airport a good few hours earlier than I needed to be, but I’d always rather it be that way. My friend Kirsten had kindly given me a lift to the airport, & not having seen her for a year or so she picked me up early and we went for some food. I wasn’t paying too much attention at this point, was happy to let Kirsten make all the decisions. She just said we’d go somewhere nearer the airport, somewhere about 15 minutes drive from the terminal. Sounded good to me. We parked up, & started walking through the streets. Kirsten has google up on her phone, and was listing various options for brunch. Again, I left the choice up to her...”we don’t have any of these places in Eskdale, so you’ll have more of an idea what’s good.” I did see somewhere that was clearly serving breakfasts, & not fussy, I pointed it out. Kirsten however was not impressed, “I’m not letting you eat at Weatherspoons for your last meal in the UK for a while!” As we walked on a bit further I noticed how touristy this place was, saw all the shops were selling  British souvenirs, & one even had face masks of Donald Trump next to ones of Johnny English. I started to say to Kirsten, “I didn’t realise that.....wait, where are we?!” She just burst out laughing, and asked if I’d not noticed that we were standing right next to Windsor Castle?! I had noticed the castle (of course) but my brain clearly wasn’t at its usual level of sharpness. “I hadn’t realised that Windsor was so touristy!” I’d probably only seen a similar thing in London, or Cambridge & Oxford. Not that I go to many cities anyway. I was also surprised and saddened by the number of homeless folk about. One gentleman told us a special code to put in the parking ticket machine to reduce the cost by £4. Kirsten didn’t have any change, and I only had American dollars to use if needed in Chile. Think we both left wishing we could have done something to help. We just thanked him and said take care. 

There was a group of BAS staff taking the same flight, so I waited for them before I checked my bags in. My friend Dee had been messaging me the few days before, asking how heavy my bag was, and was I taking this thing or that. I hadn’t actually weighed my bag, just guessed it was about 12kg judging by how easy it was to pick up. Dee however was struggling to get hers under the 23kg limit - something to do with a seven month supply of daily contact lenses (she is working a longer contract). I offered her the free space & weight in my bag. 

The first leg of the journey was a short hop from Heathrow to Madrid where we set up camp in Starbucks until our flight to Santiago later that evening. It was on this flight, the longest flight I’ve been on, & first time to the Southern Hemisphere, that it really started to sink in. It was also the reminder that there is an unglamorous side to any adventure. It’s not the picture we ever post on social media, the long waits, the queues at passport control. Nor the slight travel sickness, sleepless nights, and trying to get comfy on airplanes without pissing off the stranger sat next to you for 13 and a half hours. My first taste of South American air was more relief than excitement, and this was dampened by an overwhelming desire for a shower & some sleep. We had about an 8 hour wait at Santiago before the flight on to Punta Arenas....and then we learnt that this flight had a stop off point en route. 40 minutes on the ground at Puerto Montt while some passengers got off & then a load got on. I’m sure everything was perfectly organised, but it was slightly amusing when those not getting off were asked to sit down so they could count the exact number left onboard. 

It was an incredible feeling to finally reach Punta Arenas, to get off the plane, & take in a bit of Chile on the way to our hotel. Upon arrival we had a safety briefing about the Dash 7 flight, met the pilots, that sort of thing. We were told then that the flight was unlikely to leave tomorrow, but there would be another briefing at 8.30 the following morning. That turned out to be the case - a low pressure system had developed over Rothera so there would be a high chance it would be too risky to land. In many ways, although obviously keen to get to Antarctica, it’s an amazing opportunity to spend a day here in Punta & get a bit more rest as well. It’s also a chance to get in touch with home, to let friends and family know I arrived safely, that sort of thing. This came as an unexpected bonus because I had assumed any communication to be limited at best after leaving Heathrow. It always makes any journey extra special to share it with people, both the people you’re with, and the folk back home. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

One summer after another

The Lake District summer passed in a daze. Seems like that looking back now, anyway. At the time there were moments when it felt fairly enduring, mostly because of the heat which was relentless for weeks. Afternoons would be spent in Blea Tarn....Rachel & I would head down the valley, sometimes bundling Ben into the back of the van, too. On my days off I’d mostly drive over to Borrowdale, stay in my van, & play football for Keswick Ladies. That in itself is a highlight of the summer - it’s the 2nd season I’ve played for them, 9 aside on a Wednesday night. I love the friendships you make through team sport, feels almost like family in many ways. I guess there’s always going to be bonds formed when you turn up to a ground that has no facilities, and have no other choice than to have a team pre-match wee behind a wall. These are friendships that go beyond football, & I’m remembering now going for a run around Buttermere with Rach in the most horrendous weather. I’d got out of the van first, and still sat in the drivers seat Rach had a look on her face that made me think, “oh shit, she’s going to lock the doors, drive off, & leave me to it!” Turns out she actually ended up joining me for swim in the Lake half way round. I think she reckoned we couldn’t get any wetter, and at least the water gave some shelter from the wind! Then there was the camping trip with Laura up the Langstrath valley. The weather was stunning, & we set up camp near a beautiful pool in the river. That evening we headed up Stake Pass for a bit of a walk, light fading over the valley. Laura suddenly starts saying....”Do you ever come across a place and think, this would be a good spot to bury a body? No one would ever find it, & even if they did, they’d never know that I’d done it.” I kindly pointed out to her that this probably wasn’t the best thing to ask someone when they’re about to spend a night in a tent with you nearly 10km away from civilisation. 
As with any team sport there is always a fair amount of banter and piss taking. I seemed to be on the end of quite a lot of it for some reason. During the warm up before one of our home games I was telling them that I’d been stood outside the hostel at Eskdale on Sunday cheering on the riders in the Fred Whitton. I must have clapped about 872 cyclists, and 3 of them commented on the speed of my clapping. One of them said, “why are you clapping so slowly, is it because I’m doing so badly?” I felt a bit put out and assured him that this was my regular, best clapping. Of course the girls then asked me to give a demonstration of my clapping, at which point they all burst out laughing & said that it did sound pretty sarcastic. For the rest of the season I had to endure their slow clapping every time I scored a goal. 
I don’t know how it came about, it must have been after watching a Portugal game in the World Cup. I think I lost some sort of bet, and Laura said that if we got a free kick in the match I had to take it in the style of Cristiano Ronaldo. Of course we did get a free kick, and I managed to keep a straight face even when Laura was bent over laughing in the penalty area. After the match I apologised to the rest of the girls, “sorry for looking like such a d**k when I took that free kick.” Seemed though that no one had really noticed, & surprised I asked, “what, not even when I pulled my shorts right up?!” Ange just replied, “I thought you must have had an itch!” 

I loved the weekly football matches, also loved catching up with friends at the Borrowdale hostel. Turned up one Tuesday afternoon, saw Kate, & said I’d got a present for her. “Oh my god, is it stale?!” I laughed, and replied that it wasn’t quite there yet. Something you should know about Kate, she’s got a thing for stale rice cakes. Has a stash of nearly empty packets under her bed, getting progressively more inedible...saved up for a special treat. I was explaining about this to Chris once, and he looked at me aghast, & said, “What kind of people do I have working here?!” I wondered if I should tell him about the time I nearly trapped Kate in her room...I tried pushing a packet of strawberry Angel Delight under the door, but it got stuck. So did the door, temporarily. 
There was also the 2am chatting sessions with Helen, & no matter how often we said we needed an early night, it always seemed to be 2am when we said goodnight. She seemed quite relieved when I got a job elsewhere for winter, “at least I might get some bloody sleep while you’re away!” 
That might have been the case had I not nominated Helen to take over nighttime Honister runs/antics with Charlotte from me. Charlotte took up running a little while ago, and in a really short space of time she’s become pretty damn good. We’d go out on a nighttime once a week, running up to the Honister Pass grit bin, & then a little bit further each time. We’d get back and if Ellie was still around she’d asked how far we went - and we’d answer knowingly, “ah we got to THAT tree this time.” I would rate these outings as rather tame though when compared to the day we decided to go up Barf. Charlotte is in the process of ‘Hooping the Wainwrights’ which basically involves summiting each of the 214 peaks and then doing some hula hooping at the top. These are all being recorded on video, and this particular afternoon I agreed to go along as camerawoman. It was only when we were halfway up the mountain, scrabbling in the dirt on hands and knees for bits of tree root and heather to hang onto, that I remembered where I’d read about Barf. “Hey Charlotte! I’m pretty sure that this route is a Mountain Rescue blackspot!” But we were absolutely fine, and even met a guy in jeans who seemed utterly unconcerned. He reached the top in time to witness the Hooping, & even made a sneaky appearance in the video. We mentioned that it would be put on twitter, and did he mind? He said it was cool, said that no one was looking for him, that he wasn’t hiding from the authorities or anything. He said that if anyone had anything to worry about from the hula hoop video it was us! 

As summer in the Lake District was coming to an end, another was appearing on the horizon for me. Way back in January I’d applied for the position of Station Support Assistant with the British Antarctic Survey - a job based at Rothera Research Station, Antarctica. More of a story for another time perhaps, but I was successful with both application & then interview. 
I was pretty excited when I told Rachel, “This means I can take the music of Chris de Burgh to the most remote continent on Earth!” No part of this planet shall remain untouched by his genius. Rachel, while not exactly disputing this, replied...”but surely he’d have to be known as Chris de ice Burgh over there?!” I’d also mentioned something about Chris de Burgh to my friend Clare who was visiting with her daughter, Naimh. They thoughtfully came up with a comprehensive list of ‘10 ways to die in Antarctica’, the most realistic of which was probably: You play Lady in Red too many times and everyone turns into blood-crazed zombies and eats each other. Including you. They also had this theory that Antarctica is actually heavily populated by sheep, it’s just that no one can see them because they are white. Anyway. Tomorrow I start the journey to Antarctica. Flying out from Heathrow, via Madrid, via Santiago, and via Punta Arenas. All being well with the weather & such, I should land on the 900m runway at Rothera Research Station on Friday. Even with it being so close now, there are certain realities that can only be realised upon arriving. Ever since it became a possibility, even when I was just considering applying, I’ve been imagining what it might be like (but never truly believing it might happen - because there are some things in this life that struggle to make it into our dreams). On occasions we can have a tendency to think that things like this only happen to other people, people who are more exciting, more inspiring. I’m experiencing a mix of emotions at the moment, mostly excitement, but also a healthy amount of nervous anticipation. I want to be able to take it all in, savour every second of this incredible opportunity. I also don’t want to lose sight of the significance of it all, not for me, but of the work being done. 

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Giant Calculators & a Camelback full of Irn Bru

Once again I find myself in a position where I haven’t written for so long that it feels incredibly difficult to even make a start. This hasn’t been for any specific reason, other than perhaps busyness and (moreover) a lack of discipline. It’s easy to get distracted. I’m over in Borrowdale for my days off, & I was chatting to Helen about this earlier. She’s experiencing a similar thing, and her advice was to just write something - it doesn’t matter how crap, just get some words down. 

Time, as it is want to do, seems to be passing so quickly. I’ve got little over a month left of this 3rd season in Eskdale. I know it’s not just me who is experiencing this - towards the end of July, Mick shared an insight with me: “I’m really enjoying August. I know that it’s only early on, I know that’s it’s actually still July, but I’m enjoying it so far. Think it’s going to be good.” One thing is for sure, there is absolutely no doubting Mick’s optimism and enthusiasm for life. I’ll never forget the Health & Safety talk he delivered earlier in the year for the YHA Lakes World Earth Day beach clean. Stood on the back of a tractor at Selker Bay (West Cumbrian coast) he cheerfully announced that unexploded MOD ordinances very occasionally wash up on the beach, & if we were in any doubt then best not to touch them and everything would be ok. He asked me afterwards what I thought of his speech...”I thought I better say something to make it all official, especially as Paul (Mick’s boss) was there.” I reassured him that it was the finest health & safety speech I’d heard in a long, long time. While Mick’s positive outlook is not in question, some of his knowledge about certain things might be described as sketchy. One particular example of this is calculators. I think Mick must own in the region of 6 calculators, all of varying size. He has the unfortunate habit of misplacing calculators, so each time he buys a new one it has to be a bit bigger than the one before (as he believes a bigger calculator will be impossible to lose). The other benefit (in Mick’s mind) of having a giant calculator is that the bigger the calculator the bigger its brain - therefore making his accounts easier to do. Another example - on a completely different topic - is when one morning we were discussing musicals, in particular Joseph and his Technicolor Dream Coat. I was singing bits of it, but replacing the word ‘Joseph’ with ‘Rachel’. Perhaps to stop me from singing, Mick started saying....”Having gone to church as a boy, I think I know my bible stories pretty well...Joseph, Noah, Moses, etc. But what I can never remember is which book of the bible James and the Giant Peach comes from.” 

We might be far from the bright lights in Eskdale, might be without phone signal, & without WiFi for most of the time, but life here is certainly never dull. We have some lovely, & quite interesting neighbours...perhaps no more so than Struan, who works at the Woolpack Inn. I’ll never forget that time he told me, in all seriousness, that Mick used to be the 2nd nicest person in the world. At least until the King of Thailand died - then he became number one. Struan is not much of a walker, but one afternoon he wandered down the road to the hostel with a backpack on. He found Mick & Rachel and proudly told them that he was going to walk around the nature trail (about 1km long). “I’m fully prepared. I’ve got some water in my bag, plus 4 bottles of cider, and 2 cheese sandwiches. I think that should do the trick.” 

It’s not just the locals of course, we also get our fair share of interesting guests coming through. Occasionally you can’t help but overhear bits of conversation going on in the self-catering kitchen or dining room. I was particularly interested in one such discussion about electrolyte drinks to combat dehydration when walking. One woman commented, “I can’t stand them...I just use water. Tried one once when I was walking up in Scotland, but it was so disgusting that as soon as I got to Ullapool I tipped it all away and filled my Camelback with Irn Bru instead.” Pretty sure it was the best thing I’d heard all day. 

Earlier in the season we had a parcel delivered to us in error - it was meant for the manager of YHA Ennerdale. After getting in touch with Kirsty, we found out that it was some bath bombs, wasn’t urgent, & could wait until the next team brief, or something. Turns out they sat around at Eskdale for quite a while, until I struck upon the idea of giving them to a couple of guests who were walking from us over to Black Sail. They accepted the mission with great enthusiasm, although they did ask why Ennerdale needed an express delivery of bath bombs, & said they were quite glad they weren’t actually staying there as everyone probably smelled. Just before they set off, I suddenly thought it might be a good idea to give them a plastic bag to wrap the parcel in. “Here, take may well rain today or you could fall in a stream, & I don’t suppose you’ll want your rucksacks to be filled with foamy bubbles!” 

It’s not uncommon that we will see the same guests year after year, or in my case I’ll see the same folk that have stayed in Borrowdale at some point over the winter & are now visiting Eskdale. One such guest is perhaps more memorable than others. I was on reception when he came to check in, “Oh, hello! You’re from Borrowdale, the wild swimmer!” We exchanged the usual sort of chat, & I didn’t think any more about it until the following afternoon. I was going into days off, & had headed up to Stony Tarn for a swim. Deserted at the best of times, & today I was fairly certain I wouldn’t see another soul - the cloud was down, and the rain persistent. But who should appear while I was swimming. We had a brief chat, he inquired about the water temperature, & asked the quickest way back down to the hostel. At some point in the conversation I think he must have realised that I was skinny dipping, & he respectfully said goodbye and went on his way. The next time I bumped into this gentleman was when I was visiting my friend Dave who works at Patterdale YHA. I was brushing my teeth in one of the wash rooms when he walked in. I tried to say hello (through a mouthful of toothpaste), but he just looked slightly confused. He glanced back at the outside of the door, & it was then I realised my mistake. At all the other hostels I’ve been to the toilet and shower facilities are unisex. This, is was now apparent, was not the case at Patterdale! Still with a mouthful of toothpaste I said, “oh god, I’m so sorry...I just assumed they were all unisex!” He told me not to worry, and kindly pointed out that the Ladies’ was just a bit further down the corridor. Sometimes we might think that others consider us a little bit crazy. Other times we don’t think, we just know. 

In early June we had a visit quite like any other that had gone before. Nick was undertaking a truly remarkable expedition - the 3 Peaks by Kayak. This involved covering approximately 855km paddling & on foot. I think the closest he got to luxury transport was a cycle ride from the Cumbrian coast to Eskdale YHA. A lift to the pub for food afterwards was even declined. The journey was entirely self propelled. 
I’d been following Nick on Twitter for quite a while; inspired by his posts of life on a boat just off the Isle of Mull. What struck me most of all, not just the beautiful photos he would share, but his humanity, & new and ongoing battles with depression/mental health. It takes a lot of strength, a lot of courage to speak so openly & honestly. 
Nick had previously worked for Outward Bound (in Eskdale), & because of this he wanted to walk Scafell Pike from Eskdale. His Expedition Patron, Alan Hinkes, is a YHA ambassador, so it made sense for them to use YHA Eskdale as their ‘base camp’. It was so lovely to meet Nick in person - he’s exactly as he comes across on Twitter, humble & kind. His visit created a real buzz around the hostel, and it was an utter privilege to play even the smallest part in his incredible journey. What was absolutely amazing was that, on his return from the summit of Scafell Pike, I had just checked in 2 guests who knew Nick of old (and it was complete coincidence that they were here). There was much hugging and tea drinking! It really is a small world. 
Nick’s visit and his achievements had quite a profound affect on me. Not all inspiration has to shout, there is a calm, quiet strength - found so often in nature, recognised so rarely in our lives. 



Thursday, 10 May 2018

Health & Safety Officer v Hardknott Pass

I’ve been back in Eskdale a while now, almost a couple of months in fact. In many ways much is the same, but there’s also a natural difference, an evolution in the way we experience the world. I must admit that I found the first week or so quite difficult - struggled to get back into any kind of routine. Mick, Rachel, and Fiona all pretty much said the same sort of thing. It picked up pretty rapidly though, especially when we finally got around to naming the new dishwasher (John the Baptist). 

Every so often we get a visit from someone at Head Office, and April was the turn of the health and safety officer. Seemed like a nice guy, didn’t bat an eyelid when I walked into the office (thinking it was Mick in there) & called out ‘COO-EEE’ in rather dramatic style. Anyway. The morning he left us (to go to Langdale YHA) the weather was a bit iffy for driving, or at least had been fairly cold over night. Mick strongly advised not to go over Hardknott Pass as would likely be icy, lethal. However, either not believing Mick or for some other reason, that was the route he took. Initially anyway. Over an hour later he returned to us, having got stuck part on ice, part off the road, called the police but was soon helped back down by some passing folk. Mick called Langdale to let them know the health and safety officer would be late, & they informed us that they would have an incident/accident form ready for him to fill in.

The summer football league started again early April, although the pre-season mini tournament was cancelled due to waterlogged pitches. It would be my second season playing for Keswick FC Ladies - a really top group of lasses. Matches are played in the evening midweek, and I’ll often stay over in my van at Borrowdale afterwards. Great to have a change of scenery, and lovely to catch up with friends at the hostel there. Went out for a walk with Kate one sunny Thursday, to a favourite swim spot in Langstrath Beck. It was that kind of day which makes you almost giddy with excitement. “Oooofff. Suns out, bums out!” And when we passed a National Trust land-rover I commented that they might see more than they bargained for today. Kate snorted, & replied, “National Trust? More like National Bust!” As it turned out there were just a few too many people out and about to risk my usual sort of swim, so I went in with my undies on while Kate found somewhere to sit and eat her lunch. I must have been swimming for quite a while, as by the time I got out I found Kate curled up asleep on the grassy bank (hand half clawed around a flask of tea). 

A few weeks ago, in Eskdale, I was about to start my evening shift at work when (out of the blue) Charlotte, Helen, and Glen turned up to say hello! Apparently it had been some sort of last minute day off decision, but I’m not sure Glen had any say in the matter at all. From what I can gather, Charlotte and Helen turned up at Hawkshead YHA and bundled him into the back of the van. It was so lovely to see them all, introduced them to Mick and Fiona, and made them a cup of tea. They were very impressed by our catering kitchen, especially the oven/hobs. Charlotte was actually in awe...”that’s the cleanest thing I’ve ever seen!” Not just talking about cooking appliances here. I said that Rachel pretty much had everything to do with the immaculate state of it, but Mick then pitched in...”hee hee, it’s because we don’t actually do any cooking you see!” 

My friend David came down from Scotland to stay for a few days bringing with him Gill (the dog), and updates about the Highland Council’s atrocious plan to close many of the public toilets. He later sent me a copy of the Northern Times (The Raggy) which had a front cover story about the toilet protests, including how Smoo Cave had now been renamed Poo Cave. It was also good to find out who had served the tea at the most recent Ardgay village meeting. In contrast, I rather felt I was running the gauntlet going to Barrow for a football match - the police there are on the look out for a man who has been throwing table legs at cars (information source the Barrow Mail). We were fortunate to have a few days of largely dry and bright weather. I was able to show David one of the adders which had recently come out of hibernation. I was so excited the first day I saw them again. I think that they are incredible creatures, incredibly beautiful, incredibly fear inducing. It’s amazing to be able to see them in the wild, and while I do go out quietly looking for them, if it really came down to it I much prefer lambs or giant pandas. 

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Ice swimming, & 2 weeks in Scotland

The winter season at Borrowdale finished for me at the end of February. However, my initial plan of heading up to Scotland on 1st March was postponed by the ‘Beast from the East’. The roads weren't so bad where we were, certainly not impassible. But elsewhere it was a different story, and some places were cut off for days. I went out for a run one afternoon - the snow had stopped falling, the skies were blue, and the sun almost felt warm. Heading to a favourite swim spot in Langstrath Beck I never imagined for a moment that the river would be frozen - but where I usually got in there was a thin layer of ice. Sometimes I head out with the mindset of absolutely needing a dip, & this was one of those times. So I stripped off, stepped through the ice and reached a narrow unfrozen channel. I broke my usually silent swim with a whoop of joy, and as I ran back to the hostel afterwards I was pretty sure that I’d just experienced the greatest moment of my life. The water temperature was just below zero. I was telling my housemates about it when Claire suddenly asked, “How are you not dead?!” I didn’t have much of a scientific explanation other than that my heart was still beating. The weather worsened again the following day, the wind picked up dramatically, and the snow fell in a blizzard. We later heard how one guy claimed to have been lifted 4 feet in the air by the wind further up the Langstrath valley. While men sometimes have a tendency to over-exaggerate length/distance, this story was pretty much believable. Claire & I discovered this when we went out for a run and really struggled to stay upright. She had wanted to see me break the ice, so I thought I better mention before setting off that I don’t wear anything when I go swimming. “I don’t care if you don’t?” And that was that. 
What had been a thin layer of ice the day before was now looking decidedly solid and far more widespread. There was no open channel of water, and throwing a few rocks in made little difference at all. So I started using my hands and feet to break through, lifting up and moving aside quite large chunks of ice. Every so often I’d ask Claire if she was ok - I was worried that she’d be getting cold just standing around. She didn’t really seem to hear, and just said, “you are actually insane.” I managed to clear enough ice to have a ‘swim’, and fully submerge a couple of times. On the way home we made a detour to a pool in the river just upstream from the hostel. Apart from at the very shallow edges there was no hint of ice here. Claire, out of the blue, announced that she was going to do it. Before I think even she knew it, she was knee deep in the water, & for a moment she declared, “it’s warmer in than out!” However, this was quickly replaced by cries of, “Oh f**k, f**k, F**K it’s cold!” as she started to swim. “You have to tell them all I did it, K!” When we got back to the staff house Helen started making us cups of tea and offering us a selection of cakes she had been baking. I showed Charlotte some of the photos that Claire had taken - including one of me holding two blocks of ice to cover up my modesty. Charlotte laughed, but then looked a little put out....”I can’t believe Claire saw your boobs before me!” 

One of the things Helen had been baking was chocolate covered flapjack as a leaving present for me. It hadn’t turned out perhaps the way she had planned, & she resorted to bundling it up in tin foil so it looked quite like a shiny football. “You better take it anyway. Keep it in your van for emergency rations in case you get snowed in somewhere. Failing that, I reckon it would be pretty good for breaking the ice when you next go fact, that might actually be a better use for it!” I was going to miss this lot, miss the craic, miss hearing stories from Kate about the time she accidentally put a rat through the dishwasher. Glen had already left, moved to Hawkshead to start a new job there. Things change, time moves on. Even though it wouldn’t really be goodbye, it’s easy to wish that the very best bits of life could happen all at once and forever. Instead you find yourself split, wondering where you should be, & questioning where you really want to be. But it’s not possible to live one life at the expense of another, it just doesn’t work like that. You’re never missing out, never could be doing something better. It’s hard to get your head around it really. I don’t think it’s predestined, nor happens for a reason, but I understand how they came up with the term. There’s something liberating about it all, though. Something liberating that lets us embrace whatever it is we are doing at the moment. A lot of the time though I default to a way of thinking that makes me dream about another time and place.  

A few days later and the roads were quiet and fine. I reached Aviemore with no problems at all, and spent a few lovely days with family there. I had no real plans for this trip, and so when a friend who worked the previous two summers in Eskdale messaged me, I headed over to the Applecross peninsula to catch up and spend a few nights in my van. Jo was staying in the village of Fernbeg - a village in this case being a collection of about ten houses. At first there was no one else around apart from an elderly lady who stopped off there twice a day to walk her small white dog. It soon because ‘busy’ though when a couple arrived at one of the cottages and started flying a drone. I find those things to really be quite an intrusion. One day I headed down the coast to Applecross itself, & I’d got the idea in my head that I’d run to the top of Bealach Na Ba (The Pass of the Cattle) and back. Near the top the snow had been piled up on the side of the road to a height much higher than my head. They’d being doing one heck of a job keeping the pass open all year. From the summit cairn you could see for miles, out over the sea to Skye, to the snow covered Cullin mountains. I don’t normally listen to music when I’m running, but everything about the day had me slightly euphoric. So on the way back down I put on a Bob Dylan live album full blast. The plan was to spend the night in my van at Applecross campsite, and I was so looking forward to a shower when I got there. The place Jo had been staying had no running water over winter, and so I was a good few days without a wash (other than a sea swim). I went to reception to book in and pay, & was met with the news that the boiler had broken so there was no hot water but I was welcome to stay for free. I explained my situation a little, and asked if there was anywhere else in Applecross I could get a shower, asked if there was any water coming out of the showers at all? There was, but it was ice cold, and before I could say that I really didn’t mind, she went to call the B&B to ask if I could use their shower. A moment later she returned, and told me to walk through the field and knock on the door of the B&B; they’d be expecting me. No charge. Nothing at all. Just kindness to a stranger passing through. Which, I suppose, is the best thing you can ever hope for and hope to give in this life. 

After Applecross I headed over to Torridon. The weather was fine so I carried on sleeping in my van, but I did call into the hostel there to have a chat with the staff. Seems to be some sort of universal hostel camaraderie, and it turns out the lady on reception was originally from the Lake District. There was still quite a bit of snow on the mountain tops, and not having the correct equipment or experience for the conditions I stayed to the lower levels. There’s something so exciting about looking at a map, and then going to explore an area for the first time. I picked out a track along a river to some waterfalls and set off. I found somewhere to have a dip, and later on wandered down and watched the sunset over the Loch. A few days there felt like a pleasant eternity - off the grid bliss. It’s amazing how much longer a day can be without WiFi, TV, and no place at all to be. I was heating up some soup on my stove one afternoon when a man walked past carrying two dead rabbits on a stick. He paused for a moment to say hello and ‘that looks tasty’ before carrying on. Sometime later a long haul trucker stopped - he was looking for some hatchery or other. I hadn’t heard of it, but I showed him the map and he said he thought he knew where it must be now, thanked me and moved on. I reckon I could have stayed there forever and gained an entire lifetime of little stories like that to tell. I suppose that’s the truth wherever we happen to be. 

The last few days of my break were spent visiting a friend (David) in Sutherland, and catching up with my aunt and uncle before returning to Aviemore en route to the Lake District. Another season at Eskdale was about to begin, and although it would be the start of my 3rd year there, it in no way felt stale or old. I was excited, and looking forward to getting back.