Natural Thrills Trump Zipwire Spills
Do we need more zip wires and high thrill activities in the Lake District? This is the last week people can oppose plans for multiple zip wires around Thirlmere, which is said to be the birthplace of the conservation movement. While I’m all for progress and outdoor fun, I’m not convinced it’s necessary to scar the natural landscape with another adrenaline fuelled attraction. We already have tree top treks and trampolines; surely we should be promoting and valuing more natural thrills…
Stop, look and listen
Unlike some parts of the world, the thrills of Cumbria aren’t always obvious. The landscape doesn’t flash on and off like the Eiffel Tower at night. The attractions don’t fly you to the stars like the lift in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
To experience the glittering gold of Cumbria you have to hike, and bike and swim. You have to tune into nature, check the weather, dress up warm and use a map. You might miss the real gems if you don’t look and listen carefully. They are likely to be conjured up in conversation in a cosy Hawkshead teashop, or casually mentioned in the commentary on the Coniston Gondola. They may be woven into words at the Kendal Poetry Festival or hidden in a tent or a talk at the town’s Mountain Festival. They may be passed on via a helpful volunteer at Allen Bank, or floated with a faery boat at Grasmere. Sometimes you’ll catch a reflection of them in the coloured glass at Claife. Sometimes like a tourist Hansel and Gretel you have to follow a trail of Grasmere Gingerbread to find them.
But they are here
But the thrills are here. And they are here in abundance. Most are not man made, although humans undoubtedly have a hand in their management. They are curated by us, cared for by us and sometimes damaged by us. Some have been here since the earth was torn apart, or since the clouds first wandered across the valleys, long before the famous poets were born. Others have formed as the county has reshaped and reengaged with its visitors. They are lakes and mountains. They are accessible, exciting and free.
A little bit of effort
All require a little bit of effort, and a respect for nature. You won’t be driven to Striding Edge in a Land Rover or given a champagne picnic at the top. You can’t get a chair lift up the hillside at Whinlatter before hurtling down the Altura trail on a bike and you will need to walk most up the way up Raise before fitting your skis.
A natural rush
But once you have worked for them, the natural attractions are guaranteed to lift your spirits and make your heart leap. They will give you the adrenaline rush you have been looking for in your life of routine and rota. I have brought my kids up in their shadow and their light. We are not climbers or sportsmen, we are a normal family and we have hardly touched their potential. But here are some of the ways we have achieved a natural high in the county we have adopted as our home and why I don’t think a zip wire is necessary to get up close to adventure.
1 Wild night on a mountain
You can experience a Lake District mountain in many different ways, but some would argue you are never really alone or at one with one until you sleep in its embrace. After a challenge from the outdoor shop George Fisher, we spent a night on Skiddaw last year. Five of us hiked up, stopping to watch paragliders own the sky in every colour of the rainbow until we reached the top ourselves. We then pitched five bivvy bags on the saddle between Skiddaw and Little Man, in what seemed a suitable spot.
But until dusk we had no indication of how beautiful, or formidable this tiny strip of nature would be. As the moon rose so quickly you’d think the sun was chasing its tail, Derwentwater faded in every shade of grey and the wind came out to play. In a long night our little tents were battered and blown, while we froze and then overheated under thin canvas as morning touched us with its magic wand. I felt I was Bonnington and Shackleton rolled into one, despite the fact I’d just had a glorified teen sleepover. And the biggest thrill? Sliding down the scree on the Millbank descent, challenging our collective and individual nerve. Zip wires? For wimps.
2 A plunge into Windermere
I first took my first plunge into Windermere two years ago and I still remember its bite. I was training for the Great North Swim, and David, one of the helpers, was giving me some tips.
“It’s all psychological and not physical,” said David as I tiptoed into water below 10 degrees. He was wrong; I had ice cream brain freeze in every part of my body. And he was also right. Once I had taken the plunge (his best advice was to count to ten and be fully submerged by nine) it was only a mental battle. I could ride over the waves on a choppy day, I could ignore the weed and the reed and the wind and rain and focus only on my breathing. I could take on anything. And on the day I took on the splashes and splodges of hundreds of other swimmers, as we all battled our own psychologies to cross the finish line. And you know what? I didn’t even feel the cold. I did feel exhilarated, invigorated, challenged and athletic. I had crossed a corner of Windermere without an engine or a paddle or a boat. What could be more natural than that?
3 A paddle and a camp
Do you know what happens to the world in the early hours of the morning? We found out when we canoed across Windermere one night to camp at the National Trust site at Low Wood Bay. It quickly transforms from almost nothing into pretty much everything. Swans preened soft signets and nudged them towards the water. Geese gaggled and then flew and the sun nudged and then smudged the sky. The light shifted, subtle and silent as a lily opening. And we became part of the lake’s watercolour canvas. If you have never been the first to break into a lake, you should try it sometime soon. Don’t worry, you won’t shatter it’s beauty, unlike unsympathetic development schemes.
4 Toddler Walk of the Central Lakes
“Er damp? It’s a paddling pool.” If you are under the impression a long distance walk with young kids might be a little on the boring side, you need to try it in January, after the rain has pounded the ground into a post Christmas pulp. Our walk, from Booths in Bowness-on-Windermere to the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick took us five days and barely covered 50 kms. But it was filled with joy and challenge as we picked our way through boggy creek and gloopy mud, the rain providing a drumbeat to the soundtrack of our squelching feet. We used planks of wood as stepping stones, slipped in liquid graphite and pelted down the fell as fast as the rain pelted onto our heads. Other people might come to the Lake District to have the ground pulled out from under their feet. With the help of the 555 bus returning us home and back to the start of our adventure each day, we found our feet, gave them some exercise, and eventually dried them off.
5 An MTB zip in Keswick
My mountain bike adventure in the Lakes came on a leap year. I thought Stuart may be about to propose again, but instead he proposed we borrow a bike. I’m not skilled at mountain biking but the combination of good equipment and a great hill gave the day a dream-like quality. Climbing slowly up the bridleway onto Latrigg brought views across the lakes and as the sun belted on to Derwentwater I belted downhill, encumbered by only by my own fear of flying.
6 Following the crowd on the West Shore
The West Shore of Windermere is the opposite of remote and if you are looking for solitude you should look away. But if you want a family friendly amble through the trees without a wire in sight, this is ideal. There’s fun in doing it with babies in prams, toddlers learning to ride a bike, and strolling couples all clambering over stumps or flying over roots. Our ride took us a couple of hours, but the chilling out took longer when we stopped for terrace treats at Wray Castle, I always find scones to be a jam and cream filled high.
7 A bushcraft adventure
Who knew adrenaline could start without a match? Former Ray Mears Apprentice Ben McNutt from Woodsmoke showed me how to cope if I was ever stranded in a jungle, lost in a desert or marooned on an island. In truth we were only a few minutes from Far Sawrey but it felt much more wild as we assembled our bow, socket and fireboard, used the bow drill to produce friction and gently encouraged heat and smoke, let hot embers, lit our tinder and blew. Shame he didn’t bring any sausages.
8 A winter sunset barbie
Whilst we are talking sausages, there is nothing like cooking up your own, at the edge of a lake or up a mountain. We have done this many times, but the most memorable al-fresco dinner came in winter, on the coldest night of the year as the sun blushed pink over Ullswater before dropping into the void. We set up a fire pit, and this time used flint and steel to produce a spark. We went searching for dry twigs to use as skewers for our marshmallows as the daylight melted on our tongues.
9 A sledge descent
When Stuart asked me to climb on top of him one year in the middle of nowhere he wasn’t being romantic. Easter commitments meant we couldn’t get away skiing but we were determined to have an adventure in the snow. Just above Haweswater a short stroll took us to a hollow where the snow had managed to stay powdery and white. We built ourselves a home-made toboggan run and found a new use for a plastic orange survival bag. I soon found they were only designed with one person in mind when after a few moments of intimate grappling, we flew headlong down a steep slope with me firmly not in control. After that I was only for going solo, to similar crash-bang results.
“Mums created a ledge of her own,” said Cameron, pointing to a second run I carved out by my backside going off piste. Not a ledge but a legend.
10 A champagne waterfall
You don’t have to submerge yourself in a lake to feel the raw power of nature or the energy of her spirit. You don’t need to push yourself down white water in a boat either, although we have done that many times. Last week we took a short walk to Aira Force waterfall, perhaps the most famous of the Lake District falls. Following the landscaped Victorian path we made our way up to the bridge above the waterfall. As bubbles blasted below me I wished I had the New Year’s discarded prosecco magnum to catch and bottle them. We saw a red squirrel dive into a bird box in search of food. We captured the brilliance of the light as the sun set over the temporary Pooley Bridge. And we filled our lungs with the dark, and the dark with our breath.
Be part of the campaign
Nature has been working on her natural attractions in the Lake District for rather longer than we have. It’s worth seeing them before they disappear or we line them with cables and car parks and ticket booths. If you’d like to make your objections known to the authorities about the Thirlmere plans then follow this link. Or just get out there and zip along the skyline, unharnessed and free.