In Notes from a Small island, Bill Bryson puts it like this:
‘I counted thirty-three people there ahead of us, huddled among the fog-whitened boulders with sandwiches, flasks and madly fluttering maps, and tried to imagine how I would explain this to a foreign onlooker—the idea of three dozen English people having a picnic on a mountain top in an ice storm—and realized there was no way you could explain it’. And you can see what he’s saying. However. Whether it’s Britishness, or nature, or nurture, in the end it doesn’t make a difference: whatever the weather, the food-stop on your walk is a great, great moment. Welcome to Thing 11.
I’d been looking forward all week to some rare weekend-time with a dear friend, who I don’t get to see nearly as much as I’d like to; and, all week, the weather icon on my phone promised us a clear, cold, sunshine-y winter’s day. Perfect for a walk. At choir on Thursday evening we decided on getting a (very modest) bit of height, the better to profit from it. But I woke on Saturday to a familiar, dull absence of light from behind the curtains and a misty, soggy dreichness pawing untemptingly at the window. I reached for the phone, gave an accusatory look at the weather app, and texted Helen. Looks like it’ll clear up a bit by 1. Still fancy sandwiches outside for some reason, but I’m ok to be talked out of it if you think it’s insanity. But Helen was game, so the plan was on. I drove to Arnside. We tucked our various layers in (it’s not about the visuals, here), compared our lunches (hurrah! Helen had two bits of brownie), got our boots on, and were off.
Arnside itself had been very busy when I drove through, so we were delighted to find that it was quiet up on the Knott. It might have been to do with the early-Hammer-productions mist looped here and there through the trees, or the low cloud, or the extremely churned and clarty state of the paths. We didn’t care. It’s one of those modest but marvellous walks where you get a lot of view for not very much work, and we were soon able to look down on the expanse of Morecambe Bay stretched below us, with Grange and Cumbria over the other side and the snow-topped Howgills just visible in the far distance. There was something eerie, today, about the Knott—probably a combination of the weather, the desertedness, the extreme quiet, and the usual, slightly odd-shaped bushes and wind-distorted trees which populate the top. But there was also such beauty to be enjoyed: the drops of water on branch-tips and buds; the changing play of light in the wide, clouded, January sky; the muted, lovely winter palette of grass, bracken and rotting leaf, accented here and there with the flare of new-springing gorse. There were smells, too (rain, vegetation) and sounds—the squelch and slither of boots on mud, and the rustle of packs against waterproofed backs.
And talk, of course. For those of us lucky enough to be mobile, talking while walking can be one of life’s simple but profound pleasures. We got caught-up, checked-in with the latest in each other’s lives; then the talk settled into a different phase, wider, able to go off any old where, and—as so often with Helen—moving between the serious and the downright silly. Someone you can belly-laugh with: life doesn’t get much better than that. Except, of course, when you add outside, and a view, and sandwiches.
Established on a rudimentary bench (a slight list to starboard, and a large muddy puddle underfoot) we dined, deciding that Helen’s butties were better-looking, though mine did include splendidly, ludicrously strong cheddar and luscious home-made fruit chutney (a present; thanks, Jan). As we ate, we pondered the question of why the food you eat on hills (or wherever) is invariably—and whatever its intrinsic merits—absolutely delicious. It could be Mars Bar sandwiches on a windswept fell in Yorkshire, huddled in the lee of a wall while the horizontal rain turns the view into something resembling a picture on a failing black and white TV set. It might be watery and accidental beanfeast “soup” slopped from a Trangia pan on Harris, or unadorned Ryvita shoved with cold-palsied fingers into a rapidly-drying mouth, and rendering speech impossible for quite some minutes… Whatever it is, it always tastes good. What’s that about?
There’s probably something genuinely physiological about having worked up an appetite, though the exact relationship of calories out and taken in shouldn’t always be too closely examined; the sense of having “earned it” may take one too far, I find. There’s the pleasure of being somewhere lovely, perhaps with a view, or a new-season soundtrack. There’s the feeling of lunching as the new, temporary owner of this bit of land, which you’ve claimed for yourself, somehow, simply by walking it. There’s the fact of how distant this perching with semi-clenched buttocks on a moss-slippery log feels from the usual, workaday world. There’s the freedom to flick stray bits of cheese off into the bracken. And, however fleeting it is, there’s a pleasing sense of self-sufficiency, of completeness: sarnie, flask, waterproof to sit on. You have, for this moment anyway, got everything you need.
As with train journeys, so it is with walks: the bit after a change/lunchstop usually feels different, somehow, from the bit before it. On this particular walk, this shift came along with a change in actual terrain: the loop takes in a bit of open hillside, woods (various), shingly, rocky and muddy bits of shore, and stretches of path clinging to the hillside’s edge with a drop—short but still sheer—to the rocks below. We sat for a while to share space and time with some waders. A trick of the seascape meant that the birds appeared to be walking on water. Running or standing on stilt- or scissor- legs, each bird was atop his own perfect reflection, mirrored in the quiet sea which looked deep but which was, as revealed by the withdrawing tide, the merest skim-shimmer over the sand. A noisy gang of oystercatchers appeared to be irritating a heron, who kept settling for a moment, then setting off again on clanking wings to find somewhere else where he could pose, and wait, and fish unmolested. Time for a piece of brownie, and the shared silence of contentment.
And then, a micro-version of that end-of-the-holidays feeling; you get that, sometimes, at the end of a good walk. There’s mud to be left outside the house/car, as much as possible; coats to be draped to dry; the shaking of crumbs and used tissues out of the rucksacks; and yes, oh bollocks, I need to go to the supermarket on the way back home… But still, though it’s over, that time is secured. It cannot be taken away from you: —those precious hours of sharing time, place and food with someone you love.
*For a simple and beautiful celebration of what the hills can be to us, have a look at ‘The Hills’.