The Wainwrights (Part 1)…

Either I’m going slightly senile or I’m not well read (probably both), but in good faith I believed that it was Wainwright who wrote “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, a poem penned centuries ago amongst the rolling fells of the Lake District in Cumbria, arguably the most majestic of all landscapes in England.

It was during a review of Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception” last time out that revealed that it was in fact Wordsworth and not (Alfred) Wainwright that surfed the stratosphere between Coniston and Keswick.

Then the recall kicked in, one of my friends had turned sixty in July and informed me (in our semi-inebriated state), that a friend of his had bought him a set of seven Wainwright books, and gentleman who I had never heard of before, so clearly my ageing brain had mixed up the two.

To the uninitiated, myself included, Alfred Wainwright was a British fellwalker, guidebook author and illustrator. His seven volume “Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells” was published between 1955 and 1966 and consisted entirely of reproductions from his manuscript and associated etchings, an output that went on to become the bible on how to navigate and bimble over the not-so insignificant amount of two hundred and fourteen fells of Cumbria’s Lake District.

At sixty and having no walking experience, my friend’s mid-life crisis (sixty is the new forty!) was to attempt to cross off all Wainwrights by the time he meets our maker.

He started that journey in June with just a few chalked off, and as part of his birthday celebrations (he had six different events!), he suggested that I accompany him and his friends on a mission to bag several more this weekend.

Never willing to let a friend down or refuse a physical challenge, I willingly accepted his invitation to join his bimbling ensemble (after securing the mandatory pass out from the significant other) and subsequently did the needful by booking a small cottage in Witherslack, not too far from our challenging walk known as The Greater Kentmere Horseshoe, a hike that would attempt to reduce his remaining tally by nine.

We safely arrived at the old and rustic cottage, decanted the car and packed in the twenty bottles of real ale at the epicentre and coldest part of the fridge. I was delighted to see a secluded garden with a natural seating area where I would take my morning yoga and Wim Hof practices whilst we were there.

As is customary, once everything was in it’s right place (to quote Thom Yorke), we took to the tracks and found the local pub, The Derby Arms, and loaded up on carbs, fats and a little beer to ready us for our journey into Wainwright County.

Leaving early so that we could guarantee a car parking space due to the limited availability in the hamlet of Kentmere, we took a light breakfast and arrived at seven, loading up our backpacks with sandwiches, coffee, jelly snakes and blister patches and headed for the hills.

The last serious walk I had taken was the Wirral Way, a thirteen mile hike up an old disused railway line several years ago, and I went into the weekend with no training as such, just a dogged British spirit of stubbornness and arrogance.

It was clear from the outset that the arrogance was going to dissipate quicker than a fart in a jacuzzi as we started our first incline, with most if not all of the group struggling for a steady pace, with weak legs and a puffing chest, but we made it to the top of the first ridge successfully and then started for the first of the nine peaks.

As we did, a few things happened. Firstly, I realised that the Wim Hof breathing techniques I have semi-mastered over the last twelve months have more benefits, out on the hills inclines are easier if the mind is set to calm and the belly, chest and head are synchronised with leg movement.

Secondly, I realised that the significant effort I had put in over the last three weeks in mind, body and soul control had paid off, as I found the walk relatively easy.

Lastly, it was clear why Alfred Wainwright was compelled to travel from Leeds to the Lake District every weekend to document and catalog each crag, nook and vale, and why Wordsworth felt compelled to scribe poetry and palatable prose.

With the exception of Scafell Pike which I climbed in the twilight, fog and drizzle back in 2010, I had only ever seen the Lake District from terra firma, mostly around the tourist honey pots of Bowness and Windermere. Whilst I knew it was an area of outstanding natural beauty, the view of Cumbria from the ridge and the horseshoe of fells around Kentmere gave me an insight to inside the heads of Messrs Wainwright and Wordsworth. Here we had vivid vistas and luscious landscapes, inspiring writers and artists alike to put pen and pencil to paper to share with those less fortunate to not experience the sights first hand, and what sights they were.

We took the route in our stride and no one fell behind or took ill, quite remarkable really with no real preparation and two hundred and sixteen years of age spread across just four ageing/aged bodies.

We took our lunch and I was glad to fire up my trust Coleman stove which had not been used for several years, it’s beauty personified in the roar of its flame in abject silence atop peak number four.

What was more disappointing was the fact that I had left the freshly ground coffee beans in the cottage, so the inaugural cup of “Aeropress at Altitude” would have to wait another twenty four hours.

With lunch safely tucked away inside of us rather than outside of us, we headed over the connecting ridge to bag peaks five to nine, a tremendous achievement for our new rambling posse, clocking up thirty seven thousand steps over twenty five kilometres and spinning the Apple health circles faster than a Catherine Wheel on bonfire night.

It is, apparently, customary to document evidence of the successful bagging of a Wainwright, so we decided to do that via the medium of selfies and fingers:

W1: Yoke
W2: Ill Bell
W3: Froswick
W4: Thornethwaite Crag
W5: High Street
W6: Mardale Ill Bell
W7: Harter Fell
W8: Kentmere Pike
W9: Shipman Knotts

Technology does have a tendency to kick you in the nuts from time to time and it did that at the end of day one. The OS map decided to give up the ghost and there were no markers to get us through what is now known as “Bracken Jungle”, chest high foliage at the end of a nine-hour hike. We found the exit point (eventually) and the sight of a Mazda CX-5 never was so good as we collapsed and drifted back to the cottage and the Derby Arms for beers and a well earned pizza.

Needless to say the gang started to flag around eight thirty so we took ourselves back to the cottage, finished off the remaining ale and took in a late showing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Day two started off with a bang(ers), with me knocking out the mother of all Full English breakfasts for the gang, and after packing up and waving a fond farewell to the cottage, we took to the road and Troutbeck for a quick three hour trek, to bag our final Wainwright of the weekend, Wansfell.

W10: Wansfell

With the disappointment on the lack of Aeropress Altitude weighing heavily on my mind still from the previous day, I quickly set up my tropospheric barista to try and regain some respect from party members and I did not disappoint, the Smoking Hot Java coffee oozing through the press with an air of aristocracy about it, with the end product fit for kings and queens.

And with that, our journey was over, a whirlwind tour of the Far Eastern Fells was done and we had bagged ten Wainwrights in the first weekend.

So there we have it, first weekend, which roughly translates as “I’m going to bag all two hundred and fourteen Wainwrights, only two hundred and three to go”…

Foraging: First steps…

I guess there are a few reasons why have decided to take up a more agrarian lifestyle (or at least the start of one).

Weary of the bloatedness that accompanies eating meat in significant volumes has led to a pescatarian diet over the last six weeks has already reaped rewards in a two kilo weight loss, and its a more sustainable way to live. Spending time during the same period rambling across the green and pleasant lands of England, and getting back to nature has given a fresh appetite to put materialism to one side (after the basics hunter-gatherer equipment has been bought and delivered from Amazon – naturally), wanting a life of less that gives me more as a result, and its a more sustainable way to live. Detoxifying the body by reducing alcohol and sugar intake, flushing out unfriendly bacteria and negative Covid knots via the esoteric practice of kundalini yoga and with it a new vigour for life outside the norms of society.

Sadly, I am a hypocrite (and my nineteen year old learned and wise-beyond-his-years offspring concurs this on a daily basis without the need for prompt) and I acknowledge that. Working in an industry which is doing precious little to address global warming and investing in renewable energy sources burns deep within my eco-citizen higher self. With over twenty years invested and with retirement just around the corner (albeit a long, long corner), I have too much invested to just walk away.

My mission is simple, do what I can to be more sustainable now as an individual and as a family (even though on the grand scale of things that is insignificant). Try to improve sustainability and promote green issues in the workplace (knowing that a cultural shift from within will help change the mindset of others on a larger scale than the self or the family). Once I do eventually retire, look towards an off-grid lifestyle, becoming self-sufficient by living off the land and via renewable resources, and if possible go a step further set up a new family (an eco community), starting off small and growing over time, with mind, body and soul at the core.

I’ve admired Jacque Fresco for so long and his Venus Project vision, but it stagnates in this rule-bound material world and having a fully operable and autonomous collective which sits outside the taxation system in the US is in my opinion a tall order to achieve.

I may face the same obstacles in the future here in the UK, but there is hope. One Planet Development in Wales is starting to allow applicants to set up sustainable small holdings to help reduce the countries carbon footprint, something Westminster hasn’t done yet across Offa’s Dyke and may not do, ever.

My recent micro-expeditions over the last six weeks has pushed my retirement thinking further forward, to the extent where it is all I’ve been thinking about for the last seven days since returning from Roman Northumbria. It’s clear to me that not only will I need to detach myself from most of the day to day operations I do now, but I will need to acquire brand new skills and an improved physical prowess should I succeed in what will be the final chapter of my Book of Life.

So like Alice, peering down the rabbit hole into an unknown world, I have started to do some research on what skills I will need. Although the list will be long, it will need to be exhaustive and complete by the time I exhaustingly hit fifty five.

Thumbing through the pages on the internet last week, I decided it was time to get back to basics, real basics, and with that I tried to get an understanding of prehistoric history of Britain, and more specifically the Wirral where I currently live.

Whilst I intend to craft a full post which addresses those historical knowledge gaps from the Palaeolithic age, through the Mesolithic and on to the Romans era, what I have uncovered thus far is that the first Homo sapiens remains in the UK were found (rather remarkably – coincidentally?) at Kents Cavern in Devon where I took the family a few weeks back. These remains carbon-dated to around the year forty thousand BCE and exhibits found revealed our true hunter-gatherers forefathers (and mothers); animal bones, archaic tools and means of illuminating the deepest and darkest caverns by using flints, dry mosses and shells (ancient Yankee Candles).

The trip to the caves fascinated me as did the lifestyle, free from the problems we have today, although they had entirely different problems and dangers to face of course.

Survive they did and we are all evidence of that, but how did the sustain themselves and their tribes, what methods did they use to succeed?

Leaving the hunting aside for another post, my focus turned to gatherering, and what we call foraging today.

Buoyed by my mid-morning blackberry breakfast in Northumbria last Sunday, I did a bit of research and was delighted to find that there was a foraging course in Ruthin (small market town in North Wales) which just happened to coincide with my sisters birthday in a couple of weeks from now. So with debit card already in hand, I dutifully booked us on the course (including my eco-wife to-be), and acquireds a few beginners guides and tools, ready for our first foray into foraging.

Annoyingly, I was off ill from work this week, the kundalini yoga on Tuesday seemed to release many built-up toxins and with it a serious migraine ensued which lasted all of Thursday and Friday, and with it an unwelcome return of my tinnitus, turned up to eleven. Already sprouting cold sores on the lips, I put myself into a dark room and nestled under a duvet for two and a bit days, unable and unwilling to focus and concentrate on the deployment of intelligent IT monitoring systems at work (A.I. won’t get ill, one of the benefits of my work for my employers further down the line after my presence becomes redundant, a victim of my own success).

During my bed-bound sabbatical, I did manage to watch some YouTube videos on foraging, sometimes drifting back off to the land of nod.

There were a few videos that stood out for all would-be pickers:

1. Ray Mears Wild Food

2. Ray Mears Bushcraft

3. Ray Mears Wild Britain

4. Wild Food UK Back To Basics

I guess when it comes to cult of personality and living off the land and it’s resources, Bear Grylls instantly springs to mind. I have liked watching his shows over the years, but find them somewhat contrived and of course a little extreme, sensational not educational.

My quick bimble through some of the online guidance revealed some important principles before taking the first step outdoors:

1. Acquire advice from professionals first

2. Acquire reference books to validate what you forage and if it is safe to eat and don’t taste test

3. Acquire some basic foraging kit (waterproof clothes, gloves, bushcraft knife, foraging bag)

4. Acquire a diary to catalogue where and when you forage

5. Only acquire what you need for yourself/family. Only take a third of the fruits available

6. Don’t take on the edge of agricultural land, especially if the foolishness is brown, likely due to pesticide spraying

7. Don’t trust identifying apps like Google Lens

8. Don’t uproot plants on common land or agricultural land unless permission is granted

9. Sample small amounts during initial forays to make sure one isn’t allergic to the plant

10. Give plants a good wash before consuming to remove dirt and bugs, especially at ground level

Feeling a little better this morning (although looking a whole lot worse due to the “scabification” process on my bottom lip), I headed out towards the old beach line on the coast.

As I passed houses and front gardens with a more watchful eye than usual, I found quite a few interesting trees and bushes, all of which were bearing fruits. On one road alone (all with one hundred yards) I found what I believe to be hawthorn bushes, rowan bushes, a cherry tree, a pear tree and an apple tree.

The road itself has a lot of history. Wellington Road has a set of sea-facing villas, built one hundred and fifty years ago by James Atherton, a local luminary and merchant at the time. The villas still stand strong today with majestic views across the Irish Sea, each unique and picturesque. They are all built on an old tunnel system which dates back hundreds of years when bootleggers would use them as stores for forbidden fayre, the sandstone caves providing good hiding hold for non-taxable contraband.

Taking a fruit from each bush/tree for validation when I got back home (except for the apple and pear trees which were pretty obvious), I headed off to the old cliff line, known locally as the Red Noses (due to them being sandstone proboscis that stretch out to sea). These are now set back from the beach down to the creation of the UK’s longest promenade, built over one hundred years ago, leaving the cliffs a few hundred metres back from the shoreline and with it a thick growth of vegetation.

My old faithful and now off-lead comrade loves it there, as all of the long grasses, bushes and shrubs provide him with plenty opportunities to sniff around and roam for critters.

The main source of foraging here appears to be nettles and blackberries, the small stretch of greenery also lies next to a train track and the bushes grow wild up to the protective railings and are mostly impenetrable (except perhaps with a set of fishing waders which may look a little odd).

Whilst this brief outing was more a “recky” rather than a gathering for breakfast or replacing the “Friday Big Shop”, I did take a few blackberries on the way for sustenance, some sweet and some sour, but sweet anyway in the knowledge that I know they are there and my empty jam jar at home sits waiting for the first foray into preserve making.

Returning home through the back streets, yet more nettles and blackberries grew at the side of the local nine hole golf course, giving me even more evidence to suggest that even in urban areas, opportunities are out there, one just needs to look…