« Paraskavedekatriaphiobia | Main | The Da Vinci Sock Mystery - 5 »

Ancient Feet: 40 - "I Wouldn't Do That With Anyone I Love''

...We approached Blencathra from the east which meant we had to negotiate the notorious Sharp Edge which would be difficult enough in dry, calm weather with good visibility, but which was extremely hazardous in the wet conditions and with visibility down to no more than a few yards. Perhaps we should have been grateful that we could not see how far we would fall if we lost our footing...

Alan Nolan continues his memorable account of a trek with his mates from one side of England to the other.

To purchase a copy of Ancient Feet visit

Signed copies of the book are available from Alan http://apn.thelea@yahoo.co.uk

My own initiation into youth hostelling had taken place only a few years ago, when I was well past my youth. Until then, I had refused to submit to the temptations offered by the YHA as my preference is for a certain amount of comfort, particularly after a hard day's walking. Whilst acknowledging that they served a very useful purpose, I found that I could resist their charms without much difficulty. Over the years, the Youth Hostel Association has been updating its image and improving the accommodation as well as relaxing some of the old restrictive rules but the idea still did not appeal to me. Regular hostellers can't understand this as they think hostels are the most wonderful places and yearn for the old days when the conditions were truly basic.

I succumbed finally a few years ago when Paul, Andy and Tom announced that they were planning an eight day tour of the Lake District, taking in as many peaks above 2,500 feet as they could manage but with the major drawback, for me, that they would be staying at youth hostels. This was another of Tom's escapades which resulted from a late night at the pub. The three of them were reminiscing drunkenly about their youth hostelling days of many years ago, when one of them suggested recapturing the sense of adventure (and discomfort) of hostelling in the Lake District.

What started as the prospect of a day or two of leisurely hostelling became an eight day epic taking in some of the highest peaks in the country. At the time, a number of other revellers had enlisted and, no doubt, were responsible for proposing the idea of climbing these high peaks but, by the time they had sobered up, they found that they could not fit it in. As a result, Tom decided that he needed to invite me. Otherwise, he would be faced with the daunting prospect of trying to keep pace with Paul and Andy. Tom was offering me the opportunity of spending eight days in the Lake District, but with the serious downside of staying in YHAs. In the end, I decided I could not miss the chance to spend more time in the Lake District.

On the first night, we were to stay in Grasmere but, as Paul would be returning a day early because of business commitments, we drove first to Great Langdale, where we were due to spend our final night, so that he could leave his car there. There are two hostels in Grasmere and we were to stay at the Thorny How Hostel and it did not take long for me to realise that my worst fears were justified. We entered a scruffy reception area where we booked in and where I faced the humiliation of having to pay a fee to become a member of the YHA after resisting for so many years. As I looked round the gloomy reception area, I noticed that members were given the opportunity of purchasing provisions to sustain them on their tiring journeys. This was a big bonus if you liked Mars bars as the choice seemed to be Mars bars or more Mars bars.

The dormitory to which we were directed was in an annex to the main building and was reached by a covered walkway. There were more than twenty bunks in the dormitory and the place was full. My inclination is always to go for a bottom bunk on the basis that younger men should take the top bunks as they are less likely to have to get up during the night. It was apparent that the dormitory had been three rooms originally but doors had been removed and doorways widened to make it into one, but the odd shape made for plenty of wall space against which bunks could be pushed. The washrooms were situated in the main building but I noticed that, fortunately, it would not be necessary to go back to the main building if taken short during the night, as the dormitory had its own single toilet, the door to which was opposite my bunk. I had difficulty in falling asleep in such a strange atmosphere and found myself lying stock still, afraid to move as every movement seemed to cause the bunk to creak, quite apart from the rustling of the bedclothes. Although I was doing my best to make no noise, the other 'inmates' had no such inhibitions and there was a tumult of coughing, sneezing, farting, and snoring. This was were I learnt the unwritten rule of the Youth Hostel Association, namely that snorers must fall asleep before non-snorers.

After a couple of hours, I was finally dropping off to sleep when I heard a rustle of bedclothes and a creaking bunk, followed by the sound of bare feet on the hard floor, a light switch being pressed and the turn of the handle on the toilet door. There was a flash of light as the door opened, the sounds of the door closing, of someone having a pee, followed by the flushing of the toilet, reaching a crescendo as the door opened again with the flash of light, the click of the light switch, the closing of the door, the padding across the room, the creaking of the bunk and the rustle of bedclothes. Five minutes later, this procedure was repeated and then seemed to go on throughout the night as the occupants of the dormitory formed a convoy of visitors to the facilities.

Not having had much sleep, I rose and visited the washrooms but, having to stand shoulder to shoulder with half a dozen other men whilst having a wash and shave is not my idea of enjoyment.

My companions tried to lift my spirits by reassuring me that this was one of the worst hostels they had visited and that it was unfortunate that my first experience was in such a place. We were to spend the next night in Patterdale and, fortunately, Tom had been unable to book us in the youth hostel there (what a stroke of luck), so I was able to look forward to the comparative luxury of staying in a B&B, for one night at least.

We set off after breakfast and Andy and Paul soon left us behind and we did not see them again until we reached the B&B, where we had a much quieter and more comfortable night.

However, the third night was to be spent at the Thirlmere Youth Hostel and, after the day on the fells, Tom and I began making our way down from our final peak of Watson Dodd towards the hostel. Once again, Paul and Andy had disappeared into the distance soon after we set out in the morning. As we made our way down the fellside, Tom decided to offer me the benefit of his experience of staying in a great many hostels over the years:

'Now, I do have to tell you that the YHA guide describes the
Thirlmere hostel as basic but, don't worry, sometimes the ones
described as basic are the best.'

Brrrrr. Alarm bells sounded in my head. This was a classic piece of what I call Tomatalk which can be as dangerous as the Red Indian weapon of similar name. I knew from bitter experience that this was Tom's euphemism for 'now, this place is going to be absolute crap and if you thought Thorny How was bad, wait till you see this place. I'm telling you now because I don't want you fuckin' moaning about it when we get there.'

An hour or so later, my worst fears were confirmed once again as we approached the hostel. I could see a wooden hut with a corrugated roof and with a YHA sign outside. There was a single dormitory for men and another for women. There were sixteen bunks in the men's dormitory and we could see that Paul and Andy had claimed theirs already. Most of the other bunks had rucksacks on them so it was clear that the place was going to be full that night. The men's 'facilities' consisted of just one cubicle and two washbasins (we have more than that at home and there are only two of us) but the good news was that at least the hostel had a shower. Unfortunately, the bad news was that to reach the shower it was necessary to run the gauntlet of the drying room which was simply a room with a stone floor and with washing lines hung from wall to wall. After battling through other people's (men's and women's) wet clothes, a sliding door (with no lock) provided access to the shower.

After another uncomfortable night as my second experience of youth hostels, we set off in the morning to conquer the high peak of Blencathra. It was an unpleasant day with steady rain and mist and we faced a long walk along St John's in the Vale to Threlkeld before starting our climb.

'I think we should keep together today lads.'

Alarm bells and sirens sounded as Tom said this. I knew well enough that this was another piece of Tomatalk which I translated as 'this is going to be fuckin' dangerous today but if we keep together there's a chance that one of us might survive, because the last one to fall off the mountain should have the impact cushioned by landing on the other three.'

We approached Blencathra from the east which meant we had to negotiate the notorious Sharp Edge which would be difficult enough in dry, calm weather with good visibility, but which was extremely hazardous in the wet conditions and with visibility down to no more than a few yards. Perhaps we should have been grateful that we could not see how far we would fall if we lost our footing. We were lucky to have Paul with us as he is as sure-footed as a mountain goat and he was able to move about nimbly and point out to us the safest route. We had to concentrate as though our lives depended on it (which they did) and Tom commented afterwards that it was the longest that he has known Andy to keep quiet.

We reached the top safely and Tom discharged Paul and Andy from their obligation to stay with us and, as they disappeared into the mist, he revealed his innermost thoughts about the rest of us.

'I wouldn't do that with anyone I love,' he confided. Well thanks for that, Tom.

This was not the first time that he had done this to me. On a visit to Snowdonia one November, we decided to climb Tryfan from Llyn Ogwen, which is more of a climb than a walk. There had been a hard frost the night before and as we ascended, we found that it was more and more icy underfoot and the climb became ever more hazardous. That really was an occasion when we took our lives in our hands and the relief at reaching the summit safely was diminished somewhat by his comment that he would not want to do it with anyone he loved. This suggested that I was expendable, whereas he could not cope with being responŽsible for the death or serious injury of his wife, children or grandchildren. I could sort of understand what he meant even though it didn't make me feel that great.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.