Man about Tarn

23 July 2018

The beauty of National Parks has inspired thousands of writers. Author Pete May explains why he's in love with the Lake District as part of our #summerofbeauty

My Lake District epiphany arrived on a climb up to Stickle Tarn for my A level geography fielMan About Tarn by Pete Mayd trip. I’d never seen mountains before. Growing up in Essex I was used to flat fields and arid grass. But here there was a new world of gleaming, cascading waterfalls, scree slopes, lush turf, clouds skimming over lofty mountains and stones crunching underfoot. While at the top of the path there was the vast expanse of water that is Stickle Tarn, motionless before the sheer black rockface of Pavey Ark. So this was what Wordsworth was going on about.

Though I’m still not sure that Doctor Martens boots were the most appropriate footwear for my first Lakes foray. Slowly I got more of the gear and a little bit of an idea. The story of a lifetime’s fascination with the Lake District National park is told in my new book Man About Tarn.

My visits since have involved hail and gales, high ways to Helvellyn, mild camping, misbehaving dogs, a lot of aches and many a sublime view. While there’s nothing like a day of wind and rain to make you appreciate any kind of warmth and shelter.

As a student at Lancaster University I’d gaze across the waves of Morecambe Bay towards the outlines of the Coniston fells. Some Sundays I’d walk in snow with the university hiking club, nursing a hangover after last night’s Undertones gig. After moving to London, I discovered you could travel alone, stay in youth hostels and climb up to Helvellyn, using my Boots camera to immortalise the amphitheatre of Red Tarn and Striding and Swirral edges. In the 1980s I came to love the televised versions of Alfred Wainwright’s guide books. AW came across as part old git, part romantic. It was superb Sunday evening TV.

For a time I neglected the Lakes for travels to Australia and New Zealand. But with my wife we tackled Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk. We sat by the lovely Innominate Tarn on Haystacks and thought of Wainwright’s ashes scattered there. But you always have to respect the mountains. Heading to Kidsty Pike we were buffeted by hail, rain, mist and wind. Our relationship almost didn’t survive, but thanks to Kendal Mint Cake we made it, exhausted, to the Haweswater Hotel by ten pm. Nothing tastes better than a meal and a pint of beer after a 20-mile yomp.

Working in the media, solo trips to the Lakes offered a place where humans seemed small against the elements and problems could be placed in perspective. Every year I’d complete more of Wainwrights’ circular routes. There was the joy of seeing my children climb up their first mountain as my youngest asked if Skiddaw was bigger than Everest. Luckily for them, we were greeted by a mass of caterpillars on the grassy summit.

We camped by Ullswater as the waters rose during the floods of 2007. We discovered the Wasdale head Inn, probably the best pub in the world. And that holiday my two daughters managed to walk around most of the Wastwater Screes chanting “we want a pub dinner!” Other trips involved carrying our dog Vulcan in a backpack over Sharp Edge and handing him down the chimney on Striding Edge. We tried a family dry stone walling course and got to love the process of finding the right flat-edged stones, as we built a wall that will last for 300 years.

When my old school friend died at far too young an age, a solo trip to the Mortal Man at Troutbeck and walking the Kentmere Round offered solace. As Wainwright wrote, the Lakes is the place for a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his head. You realise humans and our problems are pretty insignificant silhouetted against the enduring mountains.

Watching the yellow light of dusk settle over Wansfell or sitting by Angle Tarn it’s hard to think of anywhere more beautiful.

I’ve spent four decades visiting the Lake District, but there’s still a sense of excitement when I start packing my maps, walking poles, waterproofs and survival bag. During winter nights in London those days in the Lakes sparkle. Which is why I keep on returning.

Pete May is author of Man About Tarn which is available as a Kindle Single and paperback.

Click here to buy Man about Tarn on Amazon