I hit an unexpected seam of gold in Cumbria. What started as a 24-hour detour turned into the most unpredictable adventure — four days during which I became part of the fabric of a stunning little side-valley in the heart of the English Lake District. I could easily have stayed all summer.
It was all Jilly Sherlock’s fault. A long-distance acquaintance as a result of a shared interest in adventures by bicycle, we’d been in touch by email for years but never actually met. This has become quite normal in modern society, but that doesn’t make it right, in my view, and this trip had already afforded me plentiful opportunities to attach faces and memories to what for too long had just been names.
Great Langdale was all about having fun. It was typical of such places, usually naturally stunning ones, tourist attractions; places whose trade comes and goes with the seasons, and thus whose workers do too. It reminded me of the winter season I spent ski-guiding in the Alps, a valley of two halves: one filled with parents on holiday, trying their best to kick back in the mountains among screaming children and bored teenagers; the other filled with the young, unattached and carefree legions of seasonal staff, having dropped out of the rat race (or never made it to the start line) and loving life, happy with here and now, good weather, awesome surrounds, life in an undisturbed bubble in which the rest of the world didn’t matter — and the promise of fresh adventures just down the road.
No wonder, then, that my mission started resonating in a way it never had before. As a misfit ‘adventurer’, I’m usually resigned to feeling out-of-place among those who populate my daily life. In Great Langdale, it was just the opposite. No longer did I have to go through the well-practiced motions of feigning interest in careers, status, fashion, possessions, hobbies and all the rest of it, because nobody here gave a damn about these things. They lived the good life; simplicity without minimalism, nature without dreadlocks, laughter without cliques. Only inclusiveness worked for such a narrow seam of souls; exclusivity was for city-dwellers and their professions and trendy hang-outs and special interest groups.
Jilly had provided the all-important introduction, and I was delighted to discover that even huge institutions were capable of spontaneity, for first thing the following morning I was cleaning cabins and picking litter in exchange for left-over bacon and croissants, having had my presence OK’d by head office and been put to task by the manager of Great Langdale’s enormous National Trust campsite.
— NT Lake District Campsites (@NTLakescamping) May 29, 2014
They’d also thrown in a free tent pitch, but somehow (beer having blurred my memory slightly) I ended up sleeping on the living room floor of the staff dormitory, where I would remain for the next three nights. And the following day, chores accomplished, a bunch of us set off on a real adventure: to hike into the hills in search of one of the area’s very real hidden gems.
The sun was shining, the sky brilliant and empty of cloud, and the fellsides that special shade of green you get late in the spring, brand new foliage almost glowing with vigour, nature thrusting excitedly skywards before midsummer heat and school-holiday footfalls arrive to beat her down again.
Away from the road we trekked, and up the valley along ancient packhorse trails, deeper into a wild and rocky place where governments lost their grip in all but thoughts and fears, rules and regulations mere figments of the imagination and nothing but Herdwicks to enforce them anyway; a place where humility, respect and common sense reign and which those without such faculties avoid.
As we walked, I chatted to one of my companions, Ella, a little younger than me. Intelligent and worldly, I asked how she’d wound up in Great Langdale.
“I was always a Grade A student at school,” she said, “but I didn’t feel higher education was at all right for me… I was handed all of these university prospectuses and told to choose one… I was never told that I could choose to not go at all. I didn’t know what to do… then I got lucky, had the chance to go on an expedition to Ecuador. And I loved it. It felt completely right to be outdoors, making myself useful, having all these new experiences, travelling to new places. And I never looked back.”
She had been working seasonal jobs for years; another bright young spark bouncing around in a world growing larger by the day, conformity and peer pressure attempting to coax that unbounded energy into the safe, socially-acceptable confines of orthodoxy before she had a chance to make her own mind up about how best to spend her time on Earth. Orthodoxy is cunning; it usually wins, employing dirty tactics to secure victory: financial debt, meaningless qualifications, temptations of a better future, social acceptance among people too self-obsessed to notice what anyone else is doing, higher and higher rungs of a ladder on which you’re always hitting your head on someone else’s boot-soles. In her case, however, it had lost.
Jamie. Younger still, a couple of years further down the line and having just escaped the status quo aged 22 on a 50cc scooter. Quitting Leeds University the day after seeing a film called Janapar there (pure co-incidence, I might add), he’d stayed a night on the campsite to save money before a job interview nearby, taken a job at the campsite instead; now had designs on an open-ended trans-Europe voyage on that same 50cc scooter, a plan upon which I was all-too-happy to heap encouragement.
— Sherlock Tales (@SherlockTales) May 29, 2014
Jilly herself had spent a good chunk of a career in the corporate world before disillusionment set in. She’d gone to an expedition planning conference at the Royal Geographical Society with no particular plans, coming away from it with no particular plans but with a headful of inspiration. She ended up cycling most of the way round the planet, and now had no ambition other than to live permanently in a cheap Coleman tent in one of the most beautiful places in the world, wandering Wainwrights, swimming in tarns and occasionally helping flummoxed campers work out what to do with themselves during their annual flying visit to paradise.
So there we were; four people who’d walked so far along the well-trodden path of a conventional existence before taking a leap into the dark woods, purely in order that we could spend a Thursday lunchtime searching for a secret cave in the mountains, giggling in childish glee, knowing that this was the life that we’d chosen for ourselves.
Now, I regret to inform you that I cannot give you the location of the secret cave. I cannot even give you the riddle that will lead you there over the course of a day’s hiking, for doing so would jeopardise its oral tradition. To find it, you must come to Great Langdale yourself, spend a few evenings in the public houses of the upper valley and sensitively ask the more weathered-looking patrons about the secret cave.
If you do take the time to do this, your efforts will indeed be rewarded with your induction into a secret society; one which no amount of Googling will help you enter; a thing for which no GPS co-ordinates are available. All the technology in the world will not assist you in this most old-fashioned and gloriously pointless of quests.
I am frankly dumbfounded that such an enigma can still exist; that it has not been destroyed or sterilised in the name of Freedom of Information or Health and Safety. But it does, and it could only exist in a place like this.
The previous occupants had left bottles of beer for the next set of visitors to find. (We didn’t drink them.)
The cave was nothing more than a hole in a bit of rock. But it somehow embodied the innate respect that wells up in us as we realise our shared subservience to the natural world and what it provides us: simple shelter, a place to gather, somewhere away from the wind and rain. What soulless being could disturb such a legacy, end a generation of quiet, joyful discovery, extinguish such a beacon of hope and sanity in a world gone mad?
It is a memory I shall take with me to my grave.
* * *
That evening in the Old Dungeon Ghyll — your first port of call should you too wish to become well and truly ‘Langdaled’ — I got wind of an opportunity of mutual benefit to my mission and to the working populace at large.
Another nearby pub, it transpired, was short on staff. The landlord had been doing the washing up himself, for want of a kitchen porter. Having graduated from paper-boy to pot-washer at the age of 15, I was on familiar ground — not only with scouring burnt saucepans, but I also knew well the quantities of food that pass through such kitchens on a daily basis.
Jilly’s introduction to Jamie, who had introduced me to Ella, then propagated further, earning me an introduction to the head chef of the pub, who was smoking a fag outside the back door of the kitchen when we wobbled up on our bicycles. I put my idea to him: yes, no problem, he said, matter-of-fact, disinterested; we’ll sort you out with a box of food if you can do a day in the kitchen, strictly under the radar. No money could change hands. I said that it didn’t matter, I just needed enough food to cycle to Edinburgh, three days up the road. The deal was on.
I’ll spare you the details of a day and a night spent scrubbing stacks of crockery and cookware and trundling endless trays of dishes through industrial dishwashers, for they are not particularly interesting.
But what had been interesting was the way in which it was staying put for long enough to get to know people that had turned up the opportunity to help in the first place. Arriving unannounced, aiming to dash off a few hours later, as I’d been trying to do; this doesn’t work so well. You’re too much of a flash in the pan, too easy to ignore.
Within 48 hours of my arrival, everyone in the upper valley knew of the bloke who’d rolled up on a bike without a penny to his name and was working odd jobs for food. My story preceded me, and those in the catering trade who see hundreds of plates of food go past every day (a good portion ending up in the bin) didn’t think twice about diverting an extra one my way; no more a burden than an office worker firing off one extra email among a hundred others.
Tom, who worked as a bike mechanic in Ambleside and who also lived on the campsite, likened what I was doing to Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris And London*, a wonderful book in which the author alternates between homeless wandering and various back-of-the-kitchen jobs. He was paid in little more than food and an insight into what actually goes on in a professional kitchen, later writing the book about his experiences. And yes — the only major difference between him and me (other than the quality of his prose, of course) was the matter of a hundred-odd years, during which nothing really seemed to have changed at all.
At the end of my shift, the head chef asked me if I could help out tomorrow too. I was not working for cash, as I had at the age of 15; rather I was motivated to help out the struggling staff of a busy Lakeland pub in May half-term, for which they were hugely appreciative (and showed it in the form of free beer), and that was reason enough to agree.
At the end of my second day as a pot-washer, the bar manager came up to the kitchen to find me still scrubbing away at 10pm, chefs having long since left. She was mortified, ranting and raving at the absent chefs. She promptly sent me home, thanking, apologising; thrust a rolled-up wad of paper notes into my hand (“from the tip jar”). I looked at it, surprised; didn’t count it; buried it at the bottom of a pannier as I departed Great Langdale the following morning, heading north once again, and with enough food in my bags — if I rationed carefully — to propel me all the way to Edinburgh.
Time was running short for my #freeLEJOG attempt. The next few days would be critical.