Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Just like Essex — but with mountains


Having just returned from the Lake District and a walk around the Coledale Horseshoe, the thought occurs that perhaps my love of the mountains is all due to coming from Essex.

In the original Essex Man profile of 1990 in the Sunday Telegraph, Simon Heffer referred, a little unfairly, to the "bleak tundra of South Essex".

But yes, Essex was indeed flat. Perhaps that's why my A level Geography field trip to the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales was such a revelation to an ill-dressed 17-year-old Brentwoodian in 1976.

It was my moment of Essex epiphany. Here was Wordsworth’s “visionary gleam” of Lake District rock and water, all experienced while wearing my bright blue all-in-one waterproof moped oversuit and cherry red high-leg Doctor Martens boots.

It seems like a different age now. This was a time when back packs had rigid steel frames and no one had heard of Gore-Tex.

My parents were farmers who didn’t do holidays because they couldn’t leave their animals. My home county of Essex was flat, peopled by geezers driving Cortinas with sunstrips on the windscreen. The countryside meant a country club with chicken in a basket and maybe a glimpse of a West Ham footballer. A trip to the mudflats of Southend down the A12 Arterial Road or a hippy bonfire at Mersea Island was my idea of adventure.

But here in the Langdale valley were the biggest mountains I’d ever seen. That dazzling May morning the sweaty scramble over jumbled rocks on the path up to Stickle Tarn seemed to take forever. Muscles never before deployed in the school first X1 were pulled and tweaked. My DMs were perhaps not the best footwear. The weaker members of our party looked exhausted.

Cascading water glistened in the sun and finally we emerged to find the peaceful waters of Stickle Tarn. The giant slab of rock that was of Pavey Ark stood behind the tarn. It was a proper glaciated valley like in my A level text books. They really existed, just like Mr Watts said. We took off our boots and hiking socks and dipped our feet in the cooling water of the tarn, ate white bread sandwiches for lunch and then walked to Easedale Tarn, feeling young and alive. I’d never seen such things before. There was beauty in these isles way beyond Mister Byrite in Romford and the Southend Kursaal.

On the coach back to Grange-over-Sands the cassette player played A Hard Day’s Night by the Beatles and songs from Who’s Next like Going Mobile and Baba O’Reilly. “I’m here in the fields, I fight for my meals!” sang Roger Daltrey as the fields, gullies and stone walls flashed by and it was a moment of teenage liberation from the Who’s
“teenage wasteland”.

We celebrated our hike in the budget hotel by furtively buying bottles of light ale from the residents’ bar and watching Lindsay Anderson's If on the television. At the end the public schoolboys shoot all the teachers, so perhaps it wasn’t that wise to let us watch it. Perhaps Mr Watts, the head of the geography department, had given up on us after he’d announced “Tomorrow we’ll be visiting Hawes…’ This unwitting double entendre caused unqualified and politically incorrect mirth and cheers among us sexually intrigued youths.

Well, we did come from Essex.


  1. Essex is mainly flat I agree, but having trained on my road bike last year for a London-Paris trip I can confirm there are few beasts out there! Bread & Cheese Hill @ Benfleet, Rettendon, Colchester town centre and there is a route out of Chelmsford to Galleywood that is one long drag...

  2. I'll scale Bread and Cheese Hill just as soon as I get my boots on, if only for the name!

  3. A local spiritualist told me a version of the 'Vanishing Hitchiker' and located it on B & C Hill!

    Enjoying your blog, Pete, as I'm currently indulging in some reminiscing of my own on Essex school days.