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Ancient Feet: 20 - Breakneck Speed

...On the way down the mountain, I made the mistake of picking up too much speed and I hurtled down the slippery, rock-strewn mountainside, unable to stop. As I gathered pace, I saw vivid images of myself reaching the valley a thousand feet below in record time. My pal stepped aside as I zoomed past him at breakneck speed and, to this day, I can see his face turning white in horror and hear those mumbled words, reflecting his concern: 'You mad bugger!'...

Alan Nolan recalls his first visit to the Lake District as an 18-year-old.

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'Anything interesting in there?' Tom asked Paul, who seemed to be immersed in Wainwright's biography.

'Yes,' he replied, 'did you know that he didn't visit the Lake District until 1930 when he was twenty-three and he fell in love with it straight away? Amazingly, it was the first time he'd ever been away from Blackburn other than for day trips. Strange really, when you think what an easy journey it should have been because it couldn't have been more than fifty miles or so and trains and buses ran regularly in those days.'

'That's amazing,' said Tom 'for someone who explored the fells endlessly, usually on his own.You can't imagine that he would have been nervous about leaving home.'

That set me thinking, for a number of reasons. It had been a long day nine hours walking over difficult terrain and I had to admit that I had found it a strain in spite of my rigorous training regime. I knew that there would be no respite over the next three days, all of which promised to be just as tough. The following two days would be similarly arduous but would see us through the mountains but, the day after that, we would be faced with a twenty-two mile walk. Hopefully, that would be easier walking but the distance alone would make it tough, particularly after four days of walking without a break.

Although I had visited the Lake District regularly over the years, I did not know what to expect once we were out of the Lake District. Apart from a few days in the Yorkshire Dales, I had never been near the rest of the Coast to Coast route. I knew I could handle walking for nine hours at a time, but I found myself wondering whether I was capable of doing that day after day. Strangely, I hadn't given it a thought beforehand, but now I was beginning to count down the days until we could take it a little easier. If I could get through tomorrow, I would have only two more long days before a much shorter day came along. I shouldn't be thinking like this, I told myself. This isn't a chore. It is to be enjoyed, not endured. I kept my thoughts to myself, assuming that the others didn't share my fears.

Anyway, apart from Paul, the others had taken a shorter and much easier route that day and had not pushed themselves to the extent that I had.
At least part of the problem for me was that I had not been as
adventurous over the years as someone like Tom, for example, so I had not fully explored my capabilities. I needed someone like Tom to push me into doing something as challenging as the Coast to Coast Walk. Of course, things could have been very different if my life had taken a different course. Once again, I compared myself to Wainwright and convinced myself that there were similarities as young men, in that I had led a fairly sheltered early life, had been shy in female company and had not discovered the Lakes until I was a grown man. Growing up on a council estate in Southport with my parents and older sister, we had no money to spend. We were always clothed and fed and I cannot recall ever thinking that we were poor but the fact remained that treats were rare. We never went away on holiday (although that was not unusual as neither did any of the other people on the estate). Unfortunately, I was marked out as being different to the other boys I was growing up with at the age of eleven when I passed my eleven plus and went to the Grammar School. I stood out like a sore thumb because I had to wear the compulsory maroon and black striped blazer, whereas my pals were not compelled to wear a uniform to attend the Secondary Modern. Not only that, but I had to do homework before I could go out and play football in the street.

Things got worse at fifteen when the Secondary Modern boys left school and started work on the building sites and suchlike. Now, they had money to spend and, instead of playing football in the street, they could afford the bus fare into town to go to the cinema and whatever else teenage boys did in those days. Of course, I had my pals at school but they lived all over the borough and, anyway, Southport is a pretty affluent town and most of the Grammar School boys had money in their pockets. I remember that some of my school pals used to go to a coffee bar in town after school where they would meet girls from the Girls Grammar School, but I couldn't go with them because I didn't have money for coffee (and, anyway, if you lived on a council estate, you didn't drink coffee). The result was that I had two distinct sets of friends and I found myself on the periphery of both.
Where I was fortunate was that nobody had any expectations of me. Not my parents, not my school. My sister was the golden girl, always top of her class, and head girl at primary school. I was proud of her, but grateful that it meant people didn't seem to notice me. It was a surprise to everyone when I passed my eleven plus the year after my sister. Indeed, I can remember my grandmother saying 'he's not as daft as he looks' which was not a flattering way of expressing her congratulations. A pleasant 'well done' would have gone down nicely.

I did not enjoy school. All I wanted to do was to be outside chasing a football. The only periods I looked forward to were P.E. and Games (even though it was a rugby-playing school). When it came to 'O' Levels, again there were no expectations and my unexpected success drew another 'he's not as daft as he looks' from Grandma. In fact, I suspect there was disappointment in some quarters. Certainly, the schoolmasters must have groaned when they heard I was staying on to do my 'A' Levels, and I'm sure my father was hoping that I would be easing the burden by starting work. The truth is that I had no idea what I wanted to do and staying on at school deferred the day when I had to make a decision about my future. Although I hated school, I really had no idea what going to work entailed.

So-called careers advisers always seemed to suggest banking or accountancy, but these sounded very boring to me, even though I had no idea what a banker or accountant did. My father was a driver/storekeeper and my uncles were labourers, postmen and railway porters. I didn't even know anyone who worked in an office. So, I put in another two years at school and, to universal surprise, my grandmother was saying 'he's not as daft as he looks' once again. My three 'A' Levels enabled me to land a job in an insurance office in Liverpool. I still had no idea what working for a living would be like and insurance sounded extremely boring to me. Mind you, all I knew about insurance was that a man from the Pru' called at our house once a week to collect some money that was referred to as 'premium' and every few years seemed to get very excited when there was talk of another 'policy' being taken out. I didn't know that people insured their houses (we didn't own ours) or their cars (we didn't have one) and I had never heard of'public liability' or'employers liability'.

I had to have a suit for work. I didn't know anyone who had a suit. My mother bought one from 'the catalogue' and I trotted off for my first day at work, having no idea what to expect. I loved it. After that first day, I couldn't wait to get to work each day. Perhaps the fact that it was 1963 and I was working in Liverpool had something to do with it but they were some of the happiest days of my life. Liverpool was the place to be The Beatles had just hit the big time and all the other Mersey groups were following suit and both football teams were beginning to win trophies.

At eighteen, the world had opened up for me. Hard to believe now, but I had never been away on holiday or been inside a hotel or had a meal in a restaurant. They were for the future. In the meantime, I was happy. Going to work Monday to Friday (and every other Saturday morning) and playing football in the Southport and District League on Saturday afternoons. Then, one Saturday afternoon, talking to one of the old men in the team (he must have been at least twenty-one, but that seemed very old to an eighteen year old) we learnt that he had a static caravan on a site in Great Langdale in the Lake District. A friend who lived no more than a hundred yards from me played in the same team and we decided to rent the caravan for a few days and do some walking. Although the Lakes are no great distance from Southport, this was before the days of motorways and I had only ever had a couple of day trips to the Lakes with my parents who thought that the Lake District was Bowness. So, I was eighteen before I 'discovered' the Lakes, only a few years younger than Wainwright when he was captivated. If anything, his journey from Blackburn was even shorter but, it seems, neither he nor I had the wherewithal to explore what was virtually on our doorsteps until we were adults.

This was a great adventure for two young men, but particularly for me as I had only spent the odd night away from home before. Travelling was not easy in those days and we had to get a bus to Preston before catching the 'express' bus to Ambleside, where we got the local bus to Langdale. Fortunately, my pal seemed to have done some walking in the area before and knew what to do. On the first day, we set off in the pouring rain and walked up to Stickle Tarn. Never having been hiking before, I didn't have any of the accepted clothing or equipment and my 'waterproofs' consisted of a bright yellow bicycle cape, which made me look like a small mobile tent on legs and which failed to keep out the incessant rain that insisted on forming raging torrents of water on my face and head, which flooded down my neck. My footwear consisted of my most robust pair of shoes, the soles of which were soon napping loosely, enjoying the freedom from the uppers granted by a short time walking in the great outdoors.

On the way down the mountain, I made the mistake of picking up too much speed and I hurtled down the slippery, rock-strewn mountainside, unable to stop. As I gathered pace, I saw vivid images of myself reaching the valley a thousand feet below in record time. My pal stepped aside as I zoomed past him at breakneck speed and, to this day, I can see his face turning white in horror and hear those mumbled words, reflecting his concern: 'You mad bugger!'

If I had stumbled, I could have killed myself but, from time to time, I did manage to inhibit my acceleration by landing on a rock which was at such an angle that it slowed my progress slightly and, eventually, I did come to a halt. We arrived back at the caravan cold and soaking wet and, in my case, lucky to be alive but I had learned a number of valuable lessons which have stood me in good stead ever since. We couldn't do any more walking on that first visit, partly because our clothes were soaked, but mainly because I didn't have anything to put on my feet!

Despite the rain and the near-death experience, I had loved every minute and it was not long before we were back again, this time equipped with boots and waterproofs. In fact, we had three or four breaks up there in the next couple of years. Sod's Law dictated that I need not have bothered with the expense of waterproofs as we had beautiful weather each time. We took risks, as young people do. I can't remember that we had maps or compasses we would just set off in the morning with a particular objective, such as the summit of Coniston Old Man, and when we achieved that, we would carry straight on, for no other reason than that we did not want to take the same route back. Sometimes, we would find ourselves miles from our base, absolutely knackered, and have to catch a bus back. Happy days.

Life changed again when I was twenty-one, when I got married. My first son arrived when I was twenty-two and my daughter when I was twenty-three, with my second son coming along ten years later. I loved my family and was content to devote my time to them and work. Twenty-odd years later, the older children were adults and the youngest was growing up rapidly and I found that my life consisted of working from Monday to Friday, with the weekends taken up by cleaning the cars, mowing the lawn and keeping the garden tidy. Going out or trying new experiences were things of the past. In short, I had become a real stick-in-the-mud. Worst of all, I realised that I didn't laugh any more. The separation and divorce were traumatic for everyone concerned, but a new life was opened up to me. I bought a newly-built mews house which required no maintenance and, for the first time in my life, I was living on my own. Suddenly, I could do whatever I wanted without having to consult anyone. At the weekends, I could get up in the morning and decide what I was going to do, without asking what anyone else had arranged, and knowing that I didn't have a lawn to mow or a garden to weed. Fell walking was something I could do on my own and so I would jump in the car and head off up the motorway. As a family, we had managed at least a long weekend in the Lakes each year and done some walking but most of that walking had been at quite low levels. Now, as a solitary walker, I could be more adventurous and I began to walk much longer distances, at higher altitude and in all weathers.

Apart from the walking, I began to enjoy going out again, meeting different people and trying new experiences. This was an entirely new way of life but, after all those years of routine, there were times when I needed someone to give me a bit of a push. So, even after nearly fifteen years of my 'new life', it is unlikely that I would have thought of doing the Coast to Coast Walk if Tom had not invited me and made all the arrangements. Although I was confident that I could complete the walk and, indeed, was absolutely determined to do so, all those years of avoiding anything new still seemed to hold me back sometimes. It was not exactly a fear of the unknown; it was as if I had lost the fearlessness of youth and, I realised, I still harboured a certain reluctance to tackle anything new.


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