Defender of the Fells

Landrover CampervanHistorically, I have never liked being on my own. So it was with great trepidation that I set off on my solo camping trip to the Lake District. I say, “camping”, but no tents were to be involved. I’d “pimped my ride” and turned Landie into a rudimentary campervan – if the addition of a carpet, curtains, stove and a portaloo can be called “pimping”.

There is just enough room in a Defender 110, the long wheel based version, for an average sized man (me) to lie flat in the back which is a little known and seldom utilised, design feature.

Debbie thought I was mad, but I’d been held in suburban captivity for several weeks and with ½ term looming it was time to get out of Dodge (Sutton Coldfield). We’d had words the night before, a drunken conversation about “my life”, “my future” and “my solution” – to run away again. But the trip wasn’t part of my ongoing existential crisis – it was a proof-of-concept. Was it possible to live in a Land Rover?

High Spy Summit

I had another mission too. I’d long since wanted to climb the 214 fells that Alfred Wainwright MBE (AW) had described in his seminal work, ‘A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells’ – I was going “Wainwright Bagging” as it is known.

AW was a loner and seldom had company on his ascents. He obviously preferred the blank pages of his notebook to people for company – presumably because they couldn’t disagree with him or complain about their blisters. I was a writer too, but was I cut out to be a loner?

Fear of my own company was not the sole cause of my trepidation. Theoretically Landie can go anywhere but I find getting her “anywhere”, the Alps for instance, psychologically stressful. She doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to reliability – she frequently causes my love to labour.

Despite a worrying noise emanating from somewhere in her drive train, Landie made the hyperspace jump up the M6 successfully and when we materialised in Kendal, I started to relax. The noise had been a reminder that the Agents of Entropy are always lurking somewhere out of sight.

Once in AW country the scenery started to feed my soul and I forgot about the noise. Finally in her element, Landie powered over the Kirkstone Pass and when we finally came to rest, on the banks of Ullswater, I concluded that all her problems where in my head.

The beauty of the idyllic spot was marred by the absence of Debbie. I’ve always thought that any experience is always better when shared with someone that you love. I suspect AW would not have agreed. So I decided to do what most modern solo travellers do and upload a selfie to Facebook. “You are never alone with an iPhone,” I thought and wondered if I could sell that slogan to Apple – but there wasn’t a whiff of phone signal, let alone 4G, in the ether.

Half of me was pleased that I was finally off-grid and the other worried that there was no way to check-in with Debbie. My location, my situation and my itinerary would be unknown to her. Seldom a day goes by, even if I’m in the Alps, when we don’t speak or at least have a text exchange – it was a welcome chore. But the lack of a communications channel hadn’t been anticipated and I thought she would be worried.

I found a phone box, conveniently located in a pub, and once I’d worked out how to use it, I broke the radio silence and explained I’d not been ignoring her. I gave her my intended itinerary for the following day and a cut off time after which, had she not heard from me, she was to call Mountain Rescue – all a bit excessive for a stroll on the fells in June, I admit. But, like skiing off-piste, it’s risky heading out into any abyss alone.

I chatted to a stranger in the pub and being a “loner” meant that I only needed to reveal the parts of my history that I was proud of. When you’re alone you can be anyone you want to be, with no friends around to dob you in. I drank what I now know to be the prerequisite amount of beer for a successful night’s sleep in a Land Rover (3 pints) and staggered back to my crib.

I’d parked in a remote corner of a campsite, next to the lake, which only a Land Rover could reach. While staggering past the other campers, all of whom had remembered to pack friends, I speculated what they might be thinking. Did they feel sorry for me? Did they wonder which path through life I’d taken that had led me to sleep rough in the back of a Land Rover?

Once settled in my sleeping bag, I reviewed the morning’s intended route on the map then fell asleep listening to the plaintive cries of an oystercatcher who seemed down on his luck.

Not having to consider others is liberating. You can eat, sleep and drink when the desire takes you. You can get up when you like too and I set off at 6am the next morning to conquer my first Wainwrights of the trip. Although the early start was probably more due to a tea towels lack of opacity than my newfound liberty – so I made a note to replace Landie’s curtains with something more substantial when I got back to Dodge.

Summit of Angletarn PikesAfter a few vertical miles had been trodden, I looked up at the four looming peaks I’d intended to climb and wished I’d paid more attention to the proximity of their contour lines the previous evening. I realised two things; I wasn’t as fit as I thought I was and that the Far Eastern Fells were vast, uninhabited and a very serious place to get lost in.

With only sheep and meadow pipets for company, I plodded onwards and upwards  wondering if I was really having that much fun. Menacing black rain clouds were rolling in from the West when I staggered to the top of my first summit, Angeltarn Pikes (AW no 143). I grabbed my prize – a picture of me next to the summit cairn. Having toyed with aborting the day’s mission most of the way up, it was a relief to finally get on the scoreboard. However the bleak location and closing bad weather intimidated me and I felt exhausted, frightened and alone. So I quickly started my descent worried that the impending poor visibility might prevent me from finding the main, yet indistinctive, path home.

Demoralised, I decided to abort the rest of the day, accept defeat and head back to basecamp. I hadn’t spoken to or seen a soul all morning and the only conversations I’d had were with the ski demons in my head. I discovered that being alone means being in charge of your own morale and with nobody to keep face with, it’s easy to give up.

Place Fell Summit

While retracing my steps I played with the idea of building my own cairn, nearer the campsite and using it to fake a few more summit-selfies. However, I concluded that I’d only be cheating myself. Seems being alone means being in charge of your own morality along with your morale.

On my way down, I started to encounter other walkers who’d left at a more civilised time. I blocked their paths and forced each one in turn into conversation. They seemed happy to oblige – you can ignore everyone in a crowd but not a member of your own species in a wilderness.

Maiden Moor Summit

With the knowledge that there were now a few people around, I mentally regrouped and rerouted myself home via another summit, Place Fell (AW No 109). While posing for the second summit-selfie of the day my phone received a random text! I was high enough now for it to contact a cell tower in the next valley.

I called Debbie who told me off for being on the wrong mountain and deviating from my original plan. While chatting to her, seemingly from the top of the world, the irony of the situation struck me. Despite bleak isolation being part of their attraction, you’re actually more off-grid in the valleys than on the tops of the fells. I finished my phone call, uploaded my selfies to Facebook and started the final descent.

Maiden MoorAfter a couple more days of Wainwright bagging, I got tired of not being able to stand up in my accommodation. When you get to a certain age, there are some things you can only do standing up – like putting your underpants on. So I cheated and stayed with friends near Keswick – it’s important to have friends in the North.

They persuaded me to join them the next day as marshals for a sponsored fell walk (a gut-busting 20-mile route march around the ridges of the Newlands Valley). I didn’t take much persuading. Like most men I jump at the opportunity to wear a tabard while holding a walkie-talkie.

Despite their curtains having the correct opacity, we set off at 5am the next morning. We climbed towards our allocated checkpoint, the cairn on High Spy (AW No 110) and call sign “High Spy” was “on station” by 7am.

Derwent Water 7amWe watched the sun rise over Derwent Water from our magnificent viewpoint and mused about life. Then, for the best part of five hours, we greeted and triaged some 200 fell-walkers in various states of distress. An independent solo walker, who had clearly picked the wrong fell on the wrong day, stopped too and exclaimed, “I came up here to get away from people!”

I too had seen the sublime turn into the ridiculous. I’d needed to see a few folks that first day on the fells for reassurance, but now flash mobs were diminishing the splendidness of their isolation. I wondered what was the correct amount of people to fell-walk with? AW concluded that, “if you must take someone along, make sure that they are silent.”

On my return to Sutton Coldfield, I concluded that it is indeed possible to live in a Land Rover – for short periods at least. And for equally short periods it’s liberating to be alone. But, if long-term loneliness is the price of a truly liberated life, unlike AW, I’m not prepared to pay it.

With only sixteen Wainwrights in the bag and another 198 to go, I suspect there will be many more nights in the back of Landie ahead before this foolish endeavour is over – so I must get those curtains fixed.

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About Chris Tomlinson

Skier, motor-biker, sailor, drinker, twitcher, runner, cricket lover and electrician. Ski Club of GB Leader, BASI Instructor, author (Skiing With Demons series) and amateur Land Rover mechanic.
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