If you were an outlaw on the run in ancient England, where would you hide?
A mountain stronghold? I considered the Highlands of Scotland, but that’s a long run from Stonehenge where my guy gets into trouble. Where would l find mountains in England?
I used the Google Maps terrain feature and found some heights to the north. Pulling up the pictorial view, I found myself on rugged, rocky slopes. Perfect! I told an English friend I had found a hideout for my character in England and she wanted to know where. “The Lake District,” I said.
Her eyes sparkled. “Oh, that’s where Merlin the Magician went.” Merlin’s haunts! Even more perfect! Merlin was from a later period than my character. Or not. Do we really know how old the magician was by the time Arthur came around?
Now I needed to visit the Lake District to see if my chosen site worked and to enhance my descriptions. In my story I call it the High Lakes. The raw mountains rise dramatically above the valley floors. And many lakes nestle among precipitous slopes, with treacherous rocky trails.
Wooded beaches add concealment.
My outlaw had a long horseback ride from Stonehenge to his High Lakes hideout, taking several days. My friend Lynn Ash and I had a long train ride, but we would do it in one day. Lynn was traveling with me now, having joined me just before visiting Stonehenge. From Amesbury near Stonehenge we took a bus to Andover and caught the train to Penrith. It’s a pleasant ride through the green fields of England with hedgerow borders giving it a patchwork quilt look.
British trains are noted for their punctuality, but when there’s an accident on the track ahead, what can they do? At our second change our train was late. When we arrived in Penrith we had only minutes to catch our bus to Keswick, the town nearest the village of Portinscale where we had booked our B&B, the Lake View.
Coming off the platform we found steps–no elevator, no escalator to make it easy to tug our large bags. I asked a young woman how far to the bus stop. She assured me it was close and started to give directions. Then she said she would show me and offered to carry my big bag. A young man took Lynn’s bag and together they led us. More angels. If they hadn’t rushed us out we’d have missed the bus and gotten into Keswick after 9 o’clock, a late arrival.
The Lake View was wonderful. Our host Stuart Muir met us at the door and showed us around. We would soon meet his wife, Catherine, who cooked our fantastic breakfasts for us. They had only three double rooms, so every morning the six guests sat around a long table for breakfast. We had delightful conversations while we feasted on full English breakfasts of eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, and more, along with a sumptuous buffet.
We had four nights there, three days to see my outlaw’s haunts. The first day I wanted to spend some leisurely hours on the shore of Buttermere, the lake where I planned to set the camp for him and his fellow fugitives. The next day I wanted to hike into the mountains, and the third day, walk to Castlerigg Stone Circle, the home circle of his cherished grandfather.
Once again, the best laid plans and all that.
After 25 days on the road I had to do laundry. So I thought I would get that done the first morning, stuffing the clothes into my tote and walking the pleasant path from Portinscale to the laundry in Keswick. Lynn, still feeling the effects of her long flight from the US, needed a nap. But she thought she might take a walk around Portinscale after her nap so she kept our only key and promised to tuck it into a secret place so I’d be able to get in when I returned.
On the way out I saw Stuart, who told me he and Catherine were going into Keswick for supplies soon. He wished me well and I went on my way, giving no thought to what his remark could mean to me. I enjoyed the Portinscale-Keswick path over the river, past lovely bluebells, and through the pasture. My father raised sheep on the farm where I grew up but I had never seen black lambs with white ears. They were frisky and adorable.
After leaving my clothes at the laundry I returned to the B&B. The door was locked as usual. I rang. No answer. I checked for the key. No key. I rang and rang. Of course our hosts were in Keswick and Lynn must still be asleep. I should have known better. I knew what jet lag could do.
Finally giving up, I went to the nearby cafe to grab something quick for lunch. I was eating my scone when a man sat across from me. I looked up, surprised to see Stuart. “You’re locked out,” he said.
“Yes, I am.”
It was a bit of a kerfuffle, but the upshot was that I missed the last morning bus to Buttermere. The next bus wouldn’t come for two hours. I would lose two precious hours in Buttermere. I wouldn’t arrive there until 2:24 and the last return bus to Portinscale left Buttermere at 5:18. I would barely get out to the intended site before I had to turn around and walk back. I was frustrated, angry, not at anybody, just at the situation–and at myself for not seeing the clues. Lynn felt terrible but it wasn’t her fault. She opted not to take the hurried trip to Buttermere. But I wasn’t willing to give up even that small amount of time. I would go alone.
I waited at the nearest bus stop. The bus rolled right past me. I ran to the next stop down the street and caught it before it left. The driver seemed grumpy when I asked for a return ticket to Buttermere.
The bus circled the district on narrow roads that wound through trees and lakes, up into spectacular mountains, and through the raw crags of Honister Pass. The picture above, taken through the bus window, may not be the best photo, but it shows the rugged slopes. Roads were barely wide enough for the bus to pass a car, so vehicles often came to a full stop before proceeding. Wide eyes peered from passing cars. Sometimes it was just a matter of avoiding a scrape. Other times, precipitous drops.
When we reached the village of Buttermere the driver kindly told me I could catch a later return bus, a 6:20 back to Keswick. I happily told him that would work. I had to go into Keswick for dinner anyway, Portinscale having few restaurants. That gave me an extra hour. I thanked him, much relieved. He seemed quite friendly now. I think he was annoyed with me before because I was standing on the wrong side of the street (the British all drive on the wrong side of the road) and when I spoke to buy my ticket he realized from my accent that I wasn’t from there and he gave me some slack.
I set out to explore the lake. I strolled past another sheep pasture at the west end of the lake, across a bridge, and out along the walkway bordering the southern shore.
At first the woods were too steep, but I eventually found a flatter site alongside a bubbling creek, which looked like a good option.
The trees in these woods are mostly conifers, which aren’t native to the area. So plans are to cut those out and replace them with native deciduous trees, mostly a small variety of oaks. When I envision my outlaws in the camp I have to screen out all the straight conifers and imagine gnarly oaks. If you look closely at the photo below you’ll see a vertical line through the wooded slope. On the left, above Buttermere, it’s mostly conifers. On the right the conifers have been replaced with round-topped deciduous trees.
Even with the extra time, I had to rush through the woods where I planned to place my hideout. I only walked about halfway down the lake, and instead of wandering and absorbing I hurried along the path taking quick pictures, doing my best to capture the essence of the place in the time I had.
The next day I wanted to get a much earlier bus for my hike into the mountains. I had already scaled back my plans. Google Maps showed a walk to what they call the Pillar that didn’t look bad. When I told Stuart I wanted to walk there he glanced at my low walking shoes and shook his head. I had left my serious hiking boots home, not wanting to carry them. He assured me it was a long day’s hike to the Pillar but I could do a shorter walk to the first ridge that would give me a nice overlook. Lynn wasn’t keen on the hike, so again I would go alone. She opted to take the circle bus ride I’d raved about.
We waited at the bus stop. And waited. The scheduled time slipped past. We eventually learned there was an accident on Honister Pass. The bus didn’t come until after lunch. The 1:36. It wouldn’t get me over there until almost 2:30. How would I ever do the hike in the time left?
My favorite driver was at the wheel. I told him I wanted to get off at Gatesgarth, the nearest stop to the trailhead, at the east end of Buttermere. Shortly after the passage through the raw slopes of Honister Pass he stopped the bus and called out something I didn’t understand. I looked at the mountains beside us and hoped he hadn’t said what I thought. He turned to face me and said quite clearly, “This is Gatesgarth.”
I faced the mountain again. Holy shmoly!
I have hiked in the Cascades and the Rockies. I walk up the mountain outside my door nearly every day. I was not prepared for this trail.
After crossing the flat field I began to climb. The first tenth of a mile or so was a steep incline of stones that formed a ragged staircase. I checked each step to be sure of safe footing. Realizing I had better eat my simple lunch, I stopped in the shade halfway up that first incline. I was going to need my strength. I’d brought a banana and three of Catherine’s nourishing cookies chock-full of seeds and nuts and enough sugar to give me a boost. And water.
Beyond a dogleg turn the trail had a few gravelly stretches between more staircases of uneven stones. No more shade. The sun beat down. My pack grew heavy. My shoes weren’t adequate for the conditions. Time kept creeping by. Was it even possible to make the ridge and get back to the bus stop for the last bus out? I sat on one of the stone steps to consider.
A couple came down the hill. I asked if the trail got any better farther up. They said no. We chatted awhile. They thought I probably shouldn’t be doing the trail alone, given the treacherous rock. Every step up, I would have to go down, even more hazardous. If I turned back now I could walk the length of Buttermere. Take more time. Absorb the site. And I had hiked far enough to get a feel for the mountain. Maybe halfway to the ridge. Maybe a third. I’m not a person who gives up easily, but I turned back.
The next day’s walk to Castlerigg Circle seemed like a breeze in comparison. One of the oldest circles in Europe–older than Stonehenge but younger than Portugal’s Almendres Cromlech–Castlerigg lies within a wider ring of mountains that enhance the wonder.
We enjoyed a last look at the beauties of the Lake District and saw the sun set on Crummock Water, the lake northwest of Buttermere. Lynn walked ahead toward the setting sun as I took a picture. I’d gained a vivid sense of the place even if things didn’t go as planned, and I would keep a warm spot in my heart for this beautiful stronghold and for our wonderful hosts.