It’s always amazed me how little time it takes to be in the countryside on the way out of Newcastle. Go along Westgate Road away from the centre for about 15-20 minutes, and fields, horse paddocks and woods start appearing. Another 10 minutes later and the lush green of rural Northumberland unfolds in a quiet, expansive and utterly beautiful yawn. Our bus (an unassuming single-decker that seemed fit for local services only) ran all the way from Newcastle City Centre to Carlisle: a journey of around two and a half hours. Following Hadrian’s Wall on the A69, me and my camping companion were treated to bluebell woods, sheepfolds, woods, rivers, old villages and small towns (such as Hexham and Haltwhistle). The journey from Carlisle to Keswick, however, as if getting excited for the mountainous expanse of the approaching Lake District, became evermore majestic. The scenery too got increasingly, well, scenic. It was as if all the clichés of classic pastoral England had either been inspired by our surroundings, or had been squeezed in by a trigger-happy landscape artist. Ancient cottages dozed on hillsides, protected by even older trees, spreading their limbs maternally. Sheep roamed around their fields, kept in by the drystone walls handmade by the first farmers however many hundreds of years ago. The sun shone.
By the time we reached Keswick and Derwent Water (our lake of choice) we had already met two interesting characters: a 70-year-old Eminem and Tupac fan on his way to Cockermouth to sell his house and a recently-freed prisoner committed to turning his life around. Getting off the bus, we bumped into three Australian backpackers who had ridden in on the same bus as us from Carlisle. Initially, they asked us for directions out of the town, as they wanted to hike to a bothy about 10km away. I looked at their intended destination on the map, and since it was already half past five, I advised them not to embark on a three to four hour hike. As an alternative, we offered that they join us in finding a camping spot in the lakeside woods.
After about an hour of view-admiring and wandering around, we came to a path that ran southwards along the bottom of a hill on the western side of Derwent Water. One of our new friends and I left all our kit and the rest of the group at the bottom to scramble up and scout out some good spots on the brow of the hill. To begin with, it didn’t look at all promising: everything was very steep and overgrown with jungly rhododendron. We found some good nests behind uprooted trees, but they would only have been good for a solo camper in dire need of a place to sleep. We wanted a big, flat, open space where we could mess around and have a fire.
Bursting through an especially thick rhododendron bush, we stumbled into possibly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The ground was soft with fallen leaves and the ethereal fronds of grass that protruded gracefully from their deceased forebears. A mixed collection of trees resided on the fringes of the golden clearing, clustering into dark evergreen in the background. A tall tree with one thick limb, its bark rolling back with age, stood silently in the centre – moss clinging decrepitly all around – as if protecting this sequestered spot. On the border of this clearing was an even smaller patch, bounded possessively by the trees. The setting sun was positioned in just the right place to be completely unhindered by any trunk, branch or mountain. The warm, heavy light of the gloaming spilled like honey onto the even thicker ground and outshone the usual sheets filtered by evergreen branches or the mottled patterns flung by deciduous foliage. Midges, mosquitoes, flies, daddy long-legs and many other bugs hung lazily in the air, as if stupefied by the sunshine. It had the same effect on us.
After several moments of silent reverence, we scrambled back down to the others, excitedly communicating our jackpot to them. We all hauled ourselves plus gear to the top again (quite a steep climb), and set about making camp. That night we cooked on an open fire, drank perhaps a bit too much whiskey, and slept under the stars. We didn’t rise until well into the day, which was again sunny and hot.
After parting ways with the Aussies, my friend and I went for a cleansing swim in the lake. The idyllic scene was punctured somewhat by the mysterious construction work happening a few hundred feet away, but the water was beautifully cold and refreshing (especially with our whiskey brains), and the views more than made up for the undesirable soundtrack. As the day unfurled, we casually wandered further south, not trying to put any particular distance behind us. We met a seemingly infinite number of beautiful dogs (mainly border collies) and friendly walkers, and the tall trees provided a great shelter from the surprisingly hot sun.
Before too long we thought it would be a good idea to start looking for another place to camp. This took pretty much the same form as the previous night, only this time we ended up on the flat peak of an especially steep and reasonably tall hill, surrounded by trees. The gradient was such, in fact, that the tent shell we put up was completely invisible from the path, and looking toward the lake it seemed that we were in amongst the canopy, with a backdrop of choppy water stretching up and away. The perspective was pleasingly confusing.
By the evening, we had succumbed to a nap, but were soon grateful for the outer shell of the tent, as it started raining. It quickly turned into quite an intense downpour, and I was intermittently worried about the safety of our things and possessed by that wonderful feeling of being inside when it’s raining really hard. After an hour or so, however, it dried up, and having had enough sleep, I went down to the shoreline. Wind whipped the gorse and dragged little waves up to my feet. At first, I thought my ears were taking in the sound of a busy road, but very soon I realised it was the rustling of the trees: I’ve been spending too much time in the city. I climbed one and sat in its embrace for several minutes, the boundary between me and the surrounding noises thinning with every second.
This sense of merging with the land, the sights and sounds it created, and the feeling of it beneath me and in my hands continued into the next day, when we climbed up a high ridge to survey the mountains. A deep sense of belonging, of returning to a forgotten home, beckoned to me, as if from some lost point in time.