Hostel in the middle of nowhere. Hiking off track. Coniston from the sky. The Baaaaa-edlands. Fallen villages on the hillsides.
Witch’s Craig Campsite, Stirling.
That night, I dreamt that Tony Soprano had come to my house. I owed him forty quid for some weed I’d picked up. He was visiting to discuss it but didn’t seem particularly bothered. We talked at the kitchen table for a while and then he left. I don’t know what the dream means. I wondered about it on and off for the rest of the day, as the rain came down and the sun was half-obscured by clouds.
Yesterday, after the waterfall, we carried on up the path next to the river, passing black and white sheep in the hills. At the foot of the valley we looked up at the domed hills around us. Behind and between the summits were more peaks. The river became wider the further past the waterfall you went. It ran smooth and clear over water-rounded pebbles on the riverbed. Far off, where the river disappeared underground, the hills and mountains met in a horse shoe. Nestled between the hills and near the centre of the horse shoe was a white cottage. A youth hostel. Near exhausted, we stopped to get drinks then picked a hill almost at random and started our climb.
The valley was dotted with slag heaps, loose and jagged, stacked as high as houses. Obviously these hills and mountains had been a source of slate. Old settlements—mining buildings probably—half collapsed, made from the same grey-black stone, were scattered both on the hill sides and on the plateau we crossed. This area—Coniston, near the Old Man—was used for extensive mining of both slate and copper. Left over material was probably scavenged by farmers or residents to build walls after the mines were abandoned, explaining the spread of stacked slate walls through the Lake District and other parts of northern England.
We left the paths behind and decided to climb. Some times we’d have to scramble up near vertical stretches. It was tiring and whenever we came to a level ridge there seemed a higher one behind it we had to pass. Always the end goal in mind, the achievement and the view. At times we thought about turning back but we’d come too far—the white cottage was barely a speck on the horizon—and getting back down the near-vertical sections seemed more dubious than getting up them.
Walking over high hills, where a misstep could mean injury or death, feels all the more serious when you consider that these hills and mountains were gutted for metal and rock and probably had numerous fissures and chasms and ancient shaft ceilings supported by ancient oak wood in them, semi-disguised or waiting to collapse.
There was a trail not too far away and the thought of reaching it kept us moving. We would join it and our journey down would be significantly easier. A while before we reached the summit we realised that it wasn’t a path but a distant fence we’d mistaken for a handrail. At the top we found no paths besides those left by wandering sheep. There was no clear way down and although we’d summited this hill, we didn’t spend long celebrating. The climb back was difficult and slow and probably dangerous.
The view was worth the climb; hills and mountains stretching undisturbed besides the occasional village. It looked like a model. We were two pinpricks in the universe, single blades of grass in a valley, and we were looking into the distance at Coniston water. At this height, there were no ripples on the surface. It was a murky pane of glass reflecting blue tinted clouds. We perched on the mountain’s cap, bare, brown rock, and watched the scene.
Climbing down, we came to one of the areas that would have been used for copper or slate mining. There were high mounds of stone; sharp to fall into, loose to climb up. Across from us, Yuri found a huge chasm that cut deep into the hillside. It emitted cold and stale air and the constant drip, drip of water echoed up from inside. He made his way down while I explored the footprints of old buildings.
The chasm was etched from creased, grey rock running maybe 50 metres into the ground. At the bottom, a crack opened up into a high-ceiled cave. Where water had run down the rock face for years, it had carved thin channels into the rock that sparkled and looked like smooth grooves on an old tree. Greenery grew up around the edges, there was a single tree at the bottom, and water ran like a moving, clear skin down the walls. Viewed from the opposite ledge to me, the chasm was much deeper, with a sheer drop of maybe one hundred. A fall would have been certain death from either position, though it would have been a more interesting fall from the opposite ledge. You’d have time to contemplate your mistakes. The end would be very final. I could feel this reality as a pleasant background tension and I was aware that being this close to death is a natural part of life. We’ve become far too safe now. As an animal by a steep drop I should have felt hardly a concern at all but we have turned into a very docile, domestic species.
At the bottom there was a sheep skeleton; we wondered if it had fallen although the skeleton seemed too intact for that. Maybe she had climbed down and found herself unable to return and this pit became her prison.
While Yuri made his way down, a large ram came up behind me and startled me with a loud baa. It was closing on my position. There was a doe next to it. Probably his partner. She seemed to be encouraging the ram to charge me, to run this strange animal the fuck outta town. Suddenly, I was more aware of the drop a few strides in front of me. The ram projected hostility, baaed as loud as he could manage and kept its eyes on me. The doe seemed to saying, ‘Go on, ‘ave him. Ave im, babe.’
The ram was loud enough that Yuri called up from the chasm to ask if I’d shouted him. I told him I hadn’t but reported the situation with the sheep and he laughed. For the first time I felt as if I’d made an error in staying where I was. Its baaing persisted even as I backed away cautiously.
I stood on a small slag pile, my thinking was that the ram seemed truly upset with me, it had violence in its eyes, and at least it couldn’t charge as long as I had the high ground. This seemed to placate him, though only slightly. His girlfriend left—drama over—but he stayed, standing proud, watching me with his chest puffed out, at least as much as a four legged animal can jut out its chest. He was probably amused that he’d intimidated this strange, bald monkey into running away and hiding atop a pile of rock. He was right to be.