The Pretzel Within Feeling the Forbidden


The Pretzel Within

Feeling the Forbidden

Scafell Pike

An unending nightmare of bracing walks and clean, healthy fun

Cumbria, England
31st May, 2003

Trudge. Trudge Trudge... Trudge.

There was nothing. All around us stretched the broken rock and scrub grass of a Cumbrian mountain top. Beyond that, small piles of stones. In the further distance, nothing.

The low cloud surrounded the ridge of Bow Fell, impenetrable. The rain fell, and fell, and fell.

The most common sentence that passes through a man's mind, other than "I know far more about than (any random subject) than (those fools/you) do," and "I bet she rides like a donkey", is probably "What on earth am I doing here?" The rain fell. We could see nothing. We had been climbing for almost two hours. There were six left to go.

What on earth am I doing here?

Going by recent experiences, my real purpose in life is to seek out humorous and/or sordid encounters with hot chicks with unexpected personality disorders, that always end with me smiling and backing away towards the tranquilizer gun. Which makes all this flapping around hilltops in the dirt hard to fathom. Why the pursuit of hardship? Why must we deliberately inflict pain on ourselves for no reward?

The Stoney Road

Hiking and climbing are two instructive activities. The sole point of a mountain hike is to spend six hours of your precious free time struggling around the mud in the maximum of discomfort, all in order to arrive back at the point where you began. During the walk you can, of course, look forward to encountering some merry fellow hikers with their hearty conversation and tales of the hills.

Yes, you can't avoid these crushing bores, or their fatuous, weatherbeaten wives, or their six hour speeches on the importance of thermos flasks, and their snide, probing questions about your outdoor clothing before triumphantly showing off theirs - more zips, inexplicably larger flaps and in an even more obscene neon yellow shade of dog vomit. Even if you do escape, you can congratulate yourself that there's only one pub down in the valley, where you are bound to bump into these fools once more, and you'll have to go through the same damn charade all over again.

Here's the good news. You can now recreate all the pleasures of a Saturday hike in the Brecon Beacons from the safety of your own home. Simply erect a treadmill in an drafty shed and tramp away for eight merry hours. Invite your loved ones to hose you down with a stream of cold water while the neighbour's children take turns to pelt you with mud and small stones. Finally, for that complete weekend atmosphere, have your dog urinate over your boots and lock them in the boot of your car for a week.

False Top

We blundered on in the mist. There are four peaks between Bow Fell and Sca Fell, our destination. I began to wonder if anyone could tell them apart now that visibility was down to twenty metres. After an interminable period of scrambling up and shunting down, I tried a little gambit. Choosing a moment when, as leader I was twenty paces ahead, I veered off to the right, jumping up a pile of boulders for fifty metres. Picking the high point, I sat down and allowed the others to catch up. "This is it," I said, "Scafell Pike, highest mountain in England."

Who could tell one rock from another in the mist? Everyone sat down, relieved, and got out their sandwiches. We could now turn back... I could almost taste that pint of bitter calling to me in the Dungeon Ghyll, so far below...

"Where's the cairn?" My brother had the map out. Curse his pickishness.
"This is the cairn. It's more jumbled than you'd think."
"Where's the sign, should be a sign at the mountain top..."
"Probably fell down. Sit down, have some tea."
"You know, I don't think this is quite right..."
Bugger. Rumbled.

The Clean Light

We scrambled on, on and up. One last push, one last up and down, and we were up. We stood at the top, at Scafell Pike, and the mists rolled back and we saw at last, from the mists to the clean light beyond. All the troughs and valleys of the Lake District displayed in sudden, brilliant clarity, green, grey and blue. The world shone out, all around us, free in every direction, newly cleansed by the rain. We stood for a while, drinking in the distance, and then, in the warm sun of the afternoon, made our way down.

Down to the valley floor, and life, and the cities again. The cities are comfort, and work and rest. In the cities we are made safe, all roads are straight, and our lives are ordered. But we were not made always to be safe, or ordered, or to live in comfort. Our ancestors lived wild plains, and free hills. And sometimes we yearn to return, for a while, and see the clean light, and the free distance, and climb in hardship. And we surge on and on, through the old remembered pain of our ancestors, through the challenge of the rock and the sky, on to the top, and the light beyond.



Bow Fell


Low Level


Into the Valley


The Drunken Duck


Hat & Spoon




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The Facts

Where I stayed

How I got around:
You can take a train to Kendal or Windermere. After that, there are occasional local bus services. It's better to bring a bike.