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The little roads of the Lakes are more demanding on the vehicle and on the nerves than those of the Dales. They zig-zag into the sky and follow tortuous routes, hugging the fells with steep russet and rock on one side, and fresh air on the other, not always fenced. The gulleys are deep. Drop a tyre off the tarmac and you’re going to struggle to get it back on. Do that at speed and you’ll damage the car, do it on the fresh air side of the road and there’s a chance you’re going to roll down the fell. Perhaps I exaggerate, but that’s the impression these roads leave you with, that you’d better be sharp about your wits.

They are among the most sporting routes for the recreational motorist, also for the motorcyclist and the cyclist. They are also “get-to” routes for the hillwalker, delivering him deep into the heart of the Lake’s more splendidly mountainous regions. They seem even narrower to me now than when I first drove them thirty years ago. It’s as if the fells are trying to squeeze them into impassable threads, erase them with the passage of time and harsh winters. They’re busier too, and cars these days are much bigger, much heavier, much fatter than they were. And basic motoring skills have been replaced with electronics that’s useless in these off-grid places.

Even with a proliferation of pull-ins for passing, you’re going to struggle at the busier times. You’re going to find cars parked in them, rendering the way impassable. Meet a blimp-like SUV coming the other way and it’s going to gawp at you like a zombified wildebeast, unable to go forwards or back, so you’ve got to remember each passing place as you pass it, and be prepared to back up, let these dumb creatures safely by, since they are incapable of working out how to do it for themselves.

I speak of course as the only perfect driver in the world.

Maybe I’m just older, but the narrow Lakes roads are not as much fun as they used to be, mainly on account of the usage they’re getting now. They’re also in poor shape. I took the Mazda over the little route from Great Langdale to Little Langdale recently, found the road frost-broken and deeply potholed. I bottomed the car in one hole, scraped the sill. Then I got stuck behind a bulbous Focus ST too, boy racer at the wheel, going at a walking pace, afraid to scratch his car. If you’re wanting to drive these routes, come early, keep your fingers crossed you meet nothing coming the other way and come in a well sprung, small car with lots of guts.

But for all of that they’re very beautiful roads to travel, allowing for many an intimate contact with the sublime nature of the Lake District mountain landscape. It’s better by far of course if you can muster the energy to put your feet on the ground and haul your bones up the paths, get yourself in among the secret folds of the hills, but the little roads give you at least a taste of it.

I remember a week in Austria, surrounded by mountains on an awesome scale, like in a depiction of fairy-land. The following week I was in the Lakes, thinking it would seem tame by comparison, but I discovered all it lacked was the vertical scale, having lost nothing whatsoever of its visceral power. The impact of somewhere like the Austrian Tryrol is obvious in its scale and sheer vertical brutality, while the Lakes engages at a deeper lever.

The power of the Lakes is in part in its age. These are among the oldest of mountains. They are hard rock, worked by weather on a geological time-scale that’s as near to infinity as makes no difference to mankind. They are also worked by mankind who has beetled among them for ten thousand years. And their impact on the senses is in their compactness, so much beauty and drama, darkness and light, fell and field and lake, all of it encompassed in the graceful turn of an eagle’s wing*.

The road threads its way by Blea Tarn, a shallow depression nestled in the palm of the land, fingers and thumbs of crag curling skywards all around, then it dips into the Little Langdale Valley, affording its most spectacular views of a sublime loveliness. A hairpin-junction at the bottom grants the choice of ways: left for the village, and escape to the broader routes through Elterwater, or right for the long and equally narrow road up by Three Shire’s Stone, then Cockley Beck, Wrynose, and Hardknott, all the way to Eskdale if you’ve the nerve for it. Many drive these ways for the challenge, for the sheer exhilarating thrill and beauty of it. They are the ultimate test of confidence in yourself and in your machine, but I wouldn’t recommend it on a weekend afternoon, or a Bank Holiday.

The Mazda escaped its rough treatment on the Little Langdale road with only cosmetic abrasions, easily mended, and my love affair with open-topped motoring enables me to put this minor wounding into perspective. It was a pleasurable drive, somewhat spicy, a drive I imagine could only be topped on a thundering old English motorbike, or a fly-through by Tornado jet.

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PS_20150130152500Heavy rain this morning, driven in great curtains by a roaring wind that had even the stoutest of trees swaying. The Motorway was shiny-slick with an ominous standing wet, visibility down to as far as the end of old Grumpy’s bonnet, so we crawled along at a cautious fifty, buffeted by unpredictable gusts while the fast lane streaked by pretty much as usual, sending up smoke.

It was turning to snow as we approached the borders of Greater Manchester, translucent splats landing like suicidal moths upon the screen, to be brushed away at once by Grumpy’s fussy, squealy wipers. The wash I’m using is all smeary, though it advertises itself as Super-clear, and Streak free! But like much in life our words these days boil down to little more than shallow promises. We have to look deeper for the truth of things.

Visibility clears but slowly, and by then the wipers are crossing again, dragging out more smeary mess. They mark time, mark the blurry rhythm of my life: forty miles a day, two hours drive-time, and a day job shift between. 38 years, this year. Winters are the hardest. There is nothing else to do but buckle down and weather them.

The car was a warm cocoon against the elements, against a season that is characteristically bitter, laughing at our scurrying haste, at our fragility. There was an accident here, some weeks ago, four cars caught up in what I guess began as a nose-to tail-ender. It finished with one car crushed beyond recognition, the others bent and spun off at dizzy angles. I was two hours late that night, a night lit up with the combined electric blue halo of a fleet of excited cop cruisers. The whole filthy, roaring ribbon of road was hushed, three lanes bottled down to one, the rush-hour tailback ten miles long. Meanwhile, the coppers brushed furiously at crystal shards, as I waited my turn at the clearing-gate. Others stood guard over the fluorescent coned perimeter, brusquely waving on the rubber-neckers.

I was two hours late home last night too. I don’t know what the problem was; it’s often like this now – just the way things are. I waited out the gridlock on a shopping mall carpark rather than inching bit by bit along the road. Depressing places, shopping malls on a cold winter’s night, but they do at least have food of a fashion, and toilets for the marooned. While I was there, I wandered into a swanky bed-shop, thinking to kill time by browsing pillows. I’ve had a stiff neck lately, and I’m thinking my old saggy pillow might be the problem. The lady sat in this cavernous emporium, presiding over rows of inviting divans – she was middle aged and smartly uniformed in the livery of her employer’s brand. Her smile dimmed only a little when I told her a pillow was all I wanted.

So she showed me her pillows, and I liked the way her hands patted them down and fluffed them up. She invited me to try them out on one of her beds, to lay my head upon them and feel their quality. There was something sweet in this, my fatigue lending the encounter something of a surreal quality – just she and I in this vast palace of beds. I said I would be embarrassed, which was strange, and she laughed, said I mustn’t feel that way. But I also felt unwashed and unshaved, too dirty from my day for any of her nice clean beds, and this of course was a thing not for explaining. She was, I think, in the briefest moment of our exchange, proxy for a curious kind of muse, and my sense of unworthiness was itself a telling thing.

I was persuaded there is much to be said for a quality pillow. It is, after all, where we lay our heads at the end of the day, their comfort a balmy isle, oner would hope, from which we set sail each night, on course for the more distant land of dreams. She did not tell me this, of course, but I was thinking it. And as I handed over my card I noticed her nails were shapely and painted different colours, and I fell momentarily in love, as an adept with his priestess. But I’m an old hand at spotting the faerie and I know such creatures are not for loving, living as they do inside our heads, and only pretending to be at large in the world. I crawled home at going up for eight; indigestion from my McBurger-tea, and a coffee hardly worth the name, but I slept well on my fresh duck-downy pillow, dreamed of windmills blown flat, and crumbling towers spilling grain into the wind like vast murmurations of tiny birds.

So,…

Where are we now? Coming up to my junction.

A motorbike roars past me, doing seventy. I’ve ridden a bike in the long ago, and I know the rain stings at forty, that it mists your visor so you can barely see. A twitch, a sneeze, the slightest unexpected thing, and down you go. I know; I’ve gone – hit the deck and rolled – the bike one way and me the other; walked away, then ached for years.

If he would only back off a little, tuck in behind me and old Grumpy for a while, he’d surely be safe. At least I hope so. Pray God, don’t let me die on the commute! Let it be on a warm summer’s day with a vaulted sky, on a hushed mountain top, or laying down among the bee-buzzed heather, with the larks rising; not here on this filthy stretch of miserable road, grovelling for a crust. I’m reminded though the Reaper rarely works to a time-table that permits us such dignified exits, that he has a penchant for hammering in the full stops. Before the sentence is properly ended. It’s wise to be cautious, not to tempt fate in the teeth of a howling gale, but he’ll get you however he likes in the end, so maybe we should just say to hell with it? And crash on recklessly.

Not a good choice of word when driving on the Motorway: Crash.

Mornings are a fraction lighter now, dawn advancing to the drive-times, so I arrive at least in daylight. The nights are still a hopeless case though, darkness overtaking before I’ve even joined the tail end of the red lighted queue that’ll ever so sluggishly lead me home. It’s at home my flighty little rag-top dozes under a dust-sheet in the mouse-scented garage. She only emerges these days, sleepy eyed, when the rare dry spells, and that pale winter sun, coincide with a weekend. Then she gambols in the brief openings such short days afford, while Grumpy sleeps, his week’s commuting done. She’s waiting for the spring, dreaming of a summer like the last one. And so am I. A part of me rests with her now, warmed by the memory of other times, while the remainder of me sits in this rain-washed traffic yet again, buffeted by the wind, a dull chatter coming from the radio, a voice bleating on about all the snows yet to come.

mazda in garageI think of the feel of that quality pillow, and I think of the woman who picked it out, sitting alone among her beds, late into the night, each night, and I wonder if she remembers me. I fancy the pillow has a comfort now charged with meaning by those hands that so nicely plumped and patted as if to bless, and will surely guide me safe to much warmer, and more fertile climes than these.

Sweet dreams.

 

 

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