PLACE NO 4: SCARFELL PIKE, CUMBRIA, ENGLAND
‘You going up t’ Pike?’ questioned a cheery middle-aged man with a geography teacher aesthetic to him.
‘Is it far?’ I asked.
‘Just over there.’ We squinted into the distance and spied Mount Doom.
Armed with some tuna sandwiches and a Snickers bar, and labouring under heavy breaths, we plodded onwards. We hadn’t planned to climb the highest mountain in England. Whilst I could see it on the OS map, it seemed to be several pages away - maybe we’d gone further than we thought? The lines and squares on the map were clearly marked, one square for every kilometre, but effort and distance are very easy to mix up when you are walking vertically.
‘We’ll see you at the top’ he said, and marched off in the right direction as I was still spinning my map so that it correlated with the world before me. He was hiking with his young daughter: she was about eight and scrambled with the dexterity of a mountain cat. I watched enviously as their genetically akin skinny legs clambered into the distance.
‘Ach, it’s only over there - let's go,’ I said. My sister and I both agreed we’d made it this far, it was still early and the weather was good. Afterwards, I realised (upon further Google inspection) that I was following the 15km route from Seawraithe which starts in the Borrowdale valley up to the Pike - possibly the 2nd most difficult, but commonly attempted route. This route is a lot quieter than the walk from Wasdale - which, I hear, is a lot busier due to the shortness of the trek and the lovely National Trust carpark marking its beginning.
The mountain stands at 978 metres. It’s not towering, but it feels important. I used to think English mountains were a bit of a joke compared to Scottish mountains, but Ben Nevis is only an additional 367meters and Snowdon an additional 107m. Which in the grand scheme of things isn’t that much extra - unless of course you are from the Netherlands where the highest mountain, isn’t even a mountain, but a hill of 322.4 metres names Vaalserberg. It is so minimal that the additional 40cm seems to be noted with glee.
A quick glance at some other European countries suggests that the mountains of England are actually not too shabby internationally when compared to places like Denmark where the highest point is Møllehøj at 171m, or Estonia where Suur Munamägi sits at 318m. If you play your geographic cards correctly, you can be quite an accomplished mountaineer without much effort. You could easily boast about how you have climbed the highest peak in numerous counties. If you’re an island hopper, it’s worth noting that the highest point in the Maldives is five metres, or even more horizontal is the three metre height achieved on the Ashmore and Cartier Islands. You can be very much hashtag-winning with a quick saunter in such places.
Growing up in Scotland, I’ve rather naively thought that the entire world was mountainous, and that the Fens (my new home) was an anomaly - an aberration on the norm, a world of flat. I hated the monotonousness of a land without hills, and never appreciated it until I started to drive. Then there was an infinite amount of love for long flat roads and minimal effort.
But, back to the mountain. The Pike itself was shrouded in mist, but only the very top. The rest of the hillside was open to the sun - the occasional cloud freckling the moors below with shadow. The last final scramble lay ahead of us, over a dusty, boulder-strewn ascent, that moved underfoot and caused large granite lumps to tumble downwards into the ether.
My sister baulked. She could see the drop either side and decided it was too precarious. She waited on a springy patch of moss whilst I went to see the top. I was greeted by an opaque dome of white mist which encircled the summit and the central cairn. Up there, was a busy scurry of about a hundred people who had chosen to eat their lunch without a view. So I quickly joined my sister back on the moss and we ate our lunch watching sheets of fog run like silk over the rocks.
The trudge back was laborious, but the scenery no less magnificent. Yet, I can't help feel, like Venice, this is a place that now lives in my memories only. It's fleeting in its wonderment; shifting in graces; statutory in significance.