February 1st, 2016
FEBRUARY 2016: The Met Office has issued an Amber National Severe Weather Warning for Storm Henry. Valid from 3pm on Monday afternoon until 9am on Tuesday morning….
1/10: Storm Henry To Bring “Severe Gales”
It has been a winter to forget in Cumbria but one that we will never be able to.
Since the middle of November 2015, we have been under constant bombardment from the sky.
Even by Cumbrian standards the weather has been pretty foul.
The fault is that we are situated directly below the jet stream.
That globe-hugging, atmospheric scarf rippling six miles up.
And as I write, it has been over us constantly for three months.
Last month, at a county council meeting I attended in a creaky, wood-panelled public hall in Kendal, Jim Bland, a Lyth Valley farmer, rose to his wellied feet:
“The land is rotten,” he said, speaking for farmers everywhere.
“I don’t know what we’re going to get out of it this year.”
And as he returned to his seat, somewhere in the political undergrowth, an agricultural voice quipped: “Aye. An’ winter’s not ovver yet.”
The floods of 2015-16 have left towns like rivers and fields like lakes.
The argument about ‘who is to blame’, remains one I haven’t really understood on any meaningful level.
But for now, the waters are receding. Drains are full, fields are no longer like swimming pools.
And they have left behind a dirty high water mark and a £500 million bill.
That’s equivalent to six Cristiano Ronaldo’s or 20 Van Gogh masterpieces.
The other big difference of the winter of 2015 has been the naming of our storms.
This has given each a personal identity.
In the media, we have a named “villain” to write about.
But so far, the storm names have been disappointing, as soft as characters from an Enid Blyton novel:
Abigail, Barney, Desmond, Eva, Frank & Gertrude.
But by the end of January 2016, the growing word out of the Met Office was that Storm Henry was up next.
The 8th storm of the winter and the first of February 2016 was due in on the afternoon of Monday, February 1st.
Which just so happened to be my day off.
2/10: Storm Henry Arrives In Cumbria
I had formed only a vague sketch outline of what I planned to do on my day off.
Part of that involved getting out on the fells of the English Lake District.
But as the threat of Henry moved up the news-cycle on Sunday afternoon, it became clear to me that my fell walking on Monday was going to be a write off.
All the weather graphics showed Cumbria invaded by thick, curving wind arrows.
Zipping through on a great northern arc towards Scotland.
The more I stewed on the disappointment of what this meant for my day off, the more an idea began to form.
What if I used the walk to meet Storm Henry face-to-face?
Go out walking anyway but describe what it is like walking on an exposed fell when a storm is coming through?
Do the full TV reporter ‘flak jacket’ job? Run towards the gun fire.
Get on a cliff edge and look Henry in the eye?
The idea started to crystallise.
What if I went somewhere high up and recorded Henry coming through Cumbria?
And immediately, as I thought this, the image of the Kirkstone Pass Inn jumped to mind.
It is one of the highest places I could get to quickly.
The Kirkstone Pass Inn, the so-called “Inn with Altitude.”
3/10: The Kirkstone Pass Inn
The Kirkstone Pass Inn is officially 1,5481ft above sea level. One of the hardest pubs in the country to run.
It is the ‘highest inhabited building in Cumbria’ and the ‘3rd highest Inn in England,’ according to its website.
“The highest pass in the Lake District open to traffic,” says another.
To me it has always represented a shrine to man’s sheer bloodymindedness not to be brow beaten by the Lake District weather.
Only true believers can survive and run a business in a place like this.
I don’t know what was happening in the year 1496 when the torch was first lit at the Kirkstone Pass Inn.
But the local men of the day had sufficient wisdom to understand one infinite truth.
What you need at the place where three whacking great hills meet is a great place to drink.
On Google, I typed in ‘Kirkstone Pass Inn’ but to my horror, the entire experience had been woefully undersold.
“Relaxed out-of-town Lake District Accommodation,” it read.
That’s one way of putting it.
The other inescapable beauty of the Kirkstone Pass Inn, is that it’s also right next to a fell which is even taller. That fell is called Red Screes.
My plan was to go to the Kirkstone Pass Inn and then start the short walk to Red Screes which begins right opposite the pub at the far end of the car park.
The climb would also put me directly in the ‘flight path’ of Storm Henry when he came in.
Red Screes is no giant of the Lake District and fitter men than me will do it in 15 minutes.
But it’s 2,545ft feet up.
Two-and-half times the height of The Shard – London’s tallest building.
It’s also the equivalent height of five Blackpool towers and over twice the height of the Eiffel Tower.
My plan was to do the walk and then if the storm was too bad, I would spend the whole night at the Inn. Book out the four-poster suite for only £55.
Failing that, I could stay in the bunkhouse for £9.50. Bed down on the pass for the night and then get away at first light the next morning once the storm had passed over.
The bunkhouse is described, on the website, as “probably the cheapest bed in Cumbria”.
Another website said that the Inn was “formerly known as the Traveller’s Inn and is purported to be haunted”.
The story goes that ” a troublesome spirit is reputed to be that of a woman who attempted to travel the road in a fierce snowstorm and perished en-route. Her spirit is said to lurk about the building.”
Even better. A resident ghost to keep me company. My plan was to take along my new dictaphone I got for Christmas. The Olympus Digital Voice Recorder – VN-741PC.
I could use it to capture an auditory account of Storm Henry.
And if I spent the night at the haunted Inn, may be I might record the ‘ghost’ on tape at the same time…
4/10: Dryanuary and The Struggle
The reason I wanted to go on a fell walk next to a Lake District pub was because February 1st 2016 represented the official end of ‘Dryanuary’ for me.
I had gone a whole month off the beer – a personal first.
I had been thinking for some time that I would like to mark my ‘first pint of 2016’ somewhere significant.
Celebrate a personal milestone in a dark varnished bar. One with low ceilings, a roaring coal fire and red muffin-topped stools.
And what could be more symbolic than marking the end of Dryanuary with a pint in the pub at the top of a road called The Struggle?
It was perfect. There was a neat symmetry to it all.
I also liked the idea of being benighted in a Lake District pub.
There is a delicious romance about being locked in by the weather.
On the morning of the walk, as I threw the overnight bag into the boot of the car and set off for Kirkstone Pass, the sky was blackish and wild.
I saw it as the first signs of Henry coming in.
Wipers on full in my steamed-up car and Bruce Springsteen booming out of the morning radio. Dancing in the dark.
A perfect song for a wet, dark Monday morning in Cumbria.
But it was only when I had got on to the Kendal bypass that I felt the car shudder and move in the steadily growing wind.
Invisible hands were pushing me into the other lane.
Every time a grey truck came roaring past the other way there are big washes of dirty spray chucked all over the front windscreen.
In the lagoon-filled fields, sodden sheep bejwelled with droplets, snuffle through the misty damp grass.
In the Lake District itself, soft orange lights shine from dark farmhouse windows.
The higher I drive into fell country, the more I become aware of the lash of rain against the car.
As I drive past a small wood, Henry was roaring – making all its trees wave and shudder as if a ghost train was going through.
I can see fallen branches by the roadside, old lamp-posts ringing in the wind and circles of leaves spiralling by roadside gutters.
Large, creaking trees in the fields; flexing their big branches like body-builders.
By mid morning on Monday, the A591 was dark and quiet but this is not unusual during winter. It is one of the best times to visit this area.
On the big double decker bus coming from Grasmere’s direction, there was only one person on it.
He was Chinese and middle-aged. Asleep with his face pressed against the wet steamed-up window of the Stagecoach going south.
He was starting the first drag of what could be a very long journey home.
Despite the floods of 2015, there are still tourists on the streets.
A young dark-haired couple in waist-length flourescent anoraks run hand-in-hand, laughing in the morning rain.
By the time I get to the sodden, wind-lashed outskirts of Bowness the gutters and downspouts are spewing water.
The surface of Windermere has white horses raising to a neigh.
Despite the long grey canopy of clouds, by the time I get past the White Cross Bay holiday park, the sky has patches of blue in the maelstrom.
And I am surprised to see a lemony sunlight burning through the orange roadside trees.
Long yawning rays of sun and the earth’s hinges starting to creak as we turn towards spring.
Just along the road from here, Brockhole is framed by a powder blue sky but in seconds the rolling clouds have mugged it, it changes colour and is gone.
Rubbed out by Henry and an advancing armada of huge, coalblack clouds.
But it is important to note that the sky in the Lake District is always changing.
The photographers will spend their days waiting for the money shot, the picture that sells a thousand calendars.
That is the great difficulty with planning a visit to the Lake District; its changing moods.
If you don’t take the chance to get out – even on a ‘storm day’ like this – you could seriously miss something spectacular.
You don’t get to see those moments of magic when the sunlight bursts through and casts a spotlight down on the dorsal-finned peaks of the mountains.
5/10: Struggles on The Struggle
The Struggle – a long, snaking road into the mountains – is so-called because for many it is.
From Ambleside, it’s a first and second gear grind up the snaking, curving fell road until you reach the broad plateau of Kirkstone Pass.
The Struggle in winter, or summer for that matter, is no place for shaky learner drivers or those who can’t handle the stress of an uphill start.
You have to be quick on the pedals.
The other issue with The Struggle, and the A592 for that matter, is that its dry-stone bends are frequented by a flammable mix of different road users in varying emotional states.
Slow-driving tourists stupefied by the views…….foot-down local van drivers bombing it home for lunch……endurance cyclists fantasising of Le Tour…and born-again bikers.
Greedy tourists in high-powered family cars zoom up The Struggle to take in the view, shove something down their mouths, and then zoom back down to the next view.
Some of them gleefully chucking McDonald’s wrappers as they go by.
Failing to recgonise that the reason they came up here in the first place was because it’s so nice.
Yet it won’t continue to be ‘so nice’ if visitors keep slinging McDonald’s wrappers everywhere because they’re too asthmatic to find the nearest bin!
All it takes to lose your head on the roads around here is for a dozy-brained Herdwick to wander idly into the middle of the open road just at the moment you decide this is your chance to overtake.
You will smash hard through that dry-stone wall and lurch over the side for the start of a terrifying 500ft ‘death roll’ down the fellside.
When the hearse-men show up, your car will resemble a crushed tin can.
And you’ll be the beans.
If you’re lucky, the last you’ll see of Kirkstone Pass is rotar blades and the steady whump-whump-whump of a rescue helicopter.
6/10: Bad signs on the summit
First observations upon landing at Kirkstone Pass: This planet is strangely deserted, Spock.
A whiteout sky.
Darts of rain speckle the windscreen and tufts of cloud scarf the shoulders of Red Screes.
Every dirty grey puddle across the car park has ripples running through it.
A dingy half-light pervades but the sky is changing contrast all the time.
The heater in the car is blasting away but above it, I can still hear the low hum of the wind outside. A low eerie moan coming up through the pipework: Storm Henry creeping in.
As I come to a stop in the car park it occurs to me that I have grown fat and accustomed to pitching up here at Kirkstone Pass in perfect walking conditions.
Sun on the bonnet, bees on the dandelions, light in the sky.
Doing the walk in shorts and shades weather. On days like below, which was taken last spring.
I have never walked here in early February. Not on a dark, gloomy afternoon like this.
Sleety curtains of rain are lashing through, soaking the old slate roof of the Kirkstone Pass Inn.
The curtains are still drawn at the Inn and it seem unusually uninviting.
This is high Cumbrian fell country in early Feb.
The desolate car park is unnervingly empty.
The only sign of human life is a discarded blue trainer, sodden in the rain.
As soon as I switch off the engine, Henry begins to assault the ribs of the car.
Kidney punches around the bodywork, door and windscreen.
The car wobbles in the wind.
The outside noise blasting at the windows.
Not your classic whistling wind but a low, vibrating baritone.
Outside the Kirkstone Pass Inn, a long brewery lorry is parked up and its driver is stalking about. The curtain-sides of his wagon rippling and rattling.
When I open my car door, it’s nearly ripped off its hinges by the force of the wind. And when I try and dig in the boot for my bag and walking boots, Henry tries to close it on my head.
Once I’m kitted up, it is impossible to stand up straight. I am being physically pushed by the wind.
I set off with my camera, wading through invisible currents of wind.
My hood tightly pulled up and my chin-strap velcroed.
When I’m facing the pub. I reel off a couple of photos.
A broken blue sledge by the lonely bus stop and a lion’s face roaring from the wall by a wishing well.
There is a small family of wind turbines at the rear of the Inn and I notice a sign discouraging the vandalism of them…
As I take a couple of photographs of the outside of the Kirkstone Pass Inn, my eyes are suddenly drawn to a square notice in one of its windows.
I can see a little notice on a piece of paper in the front window of the Inn.
Up there in the corner of the windowframe.
The note reads…
So after all that, the Inn was closed for the week!
From today as well!
It was a horrible set-back in my plans but I had come too far now to turn back.
I was here now. Turning round was not an option.
I had no excuse but to climb Red Screes whether the Inn was open or not.
7/10: Meeting Henry on Red Screes
The pathways of Red Screes look like they are bleeding. It is an illusion caused by the effect of water running over red stones. It seems to turn the water red.
Hence the name, Red Screes.
The stone path gurgles and ripples with dirty, orange brown mud and I squelch across a bog. Covering my boots in thick, chocolate mud.
Every step involves crunching on millions of shattered stones. Some of the rocks are big, round and greasy like a car bonnet.
The grass here shivers in the wind like a frightened hare. No birds or other visible wildlife save for the odd wind-blasted Herdwick sheep.
Clumps of reed are porcupine tipped – like the quills of arrows.
The ridgeline of Kilnshaw Chimney is dark and moody with the odd cranny holding a pocket of old snow.
On the other bank of hills to the east, there are dark mountains with whale-backed humps.
The weather is brutal and whipping but it’s February. I am in Cumbria, England. This is what life here is like.
On my first steps up the wet hillside and gaining a little height, I noticed the wind-speed pick up and an oncoming bridge of brighter weather colliding with a wall of storm cloud.
On the drive here today, one question kept occurring to me and I dismissed it out of hand.
“Am I putting my life at risk?”
Walking up this mountain just to commit to print what it’s like wallking through a storm in Cumbria.
To hear the wind howl in a high place, photograph it and then write it all down, as true and faithful to the experience as it can be?
Walking through storms is the stuff of football anthems isn’t it. You’re not actually supposed to do it.
After all, the wind is forecast to be 70mph. On the weather maps, torrential rain is guaranteed.
Yet farmers and mountain rescuers and the police and fire go out in far worse, more often than this.
I am a resourceful man but I have covered enough inquests in my time to know better.
I have heard widows cry for lives lost on these hills.
I have taken notes describing how misadventure befell someone in this environment. The soothing words of a sorry coroner.
Life is blown out like a candle up here.
All it takes is a sudden trip or a launch into the unstoppable fall. And not always from high cliff-faces.
It’s more likely that someone slips coming down the fell and they bang something important or have a heart-attack. Tiredness always makes people clumsy too.
Striding Edge is the real killer.
When walking, I have always made a conscious effort to take slow and methodical footsteps, never losing sight of where my feet are being placed. I’ve also left a note saying where I’m going and what time I’ll be back.
Suddenly as I am walking along, I skid backwards from head to toe and land flat on my sore back.
I am left staring up at the swirling clouds with the rain on my face and the wind howling around my wet hood.
Entirely flat on my back and now struggling to my feet with the grace of a cow.
I thank the gods there wasn’t a sharp bladed stone where I landed. It would have punctured my back.
That is an example of all it takes.
A minor misjudgement or distraction. All you need is a slip like that then a sudden worsening of the weather.
You only need an unlucky run of dice up here.
And people out walking on the fells should never pass up that golden opportunity to turn back, because invariably they always get one.
Better alive at the bottom than dead at the top.
It was always noticeable at the inquests I attended that there were at least a couple of chances for people to turn back on their walks before it ended in tragedy.
Sometimes it is a bullheadedness to go on which can kill people.
Fell walking tends to attract determined, goal-orientated people and sometimes the desire to reach the top can be their undoing.
But let’s get things into perspective. Despite all the forecasts and alerts, I am going for a walk on a wet and windy day in northern England in winter up a reasonably small hill.
And the weather is mixed throughout. Raining one second, stopping the next, the wind rising and falling.
And we must continue to get out walking in the wind and rain before someone comes along and bans it.
8/10: Observations from the summit
On the summit of Red Screes, elated and lifted, I made several recordings to describe what I could see and how I felt.
But to my great disappointment none of them have survived. All of them are indecipherable.
Everything I recorded on the top has been ruined by Henry. I cannot hear any of my notes because of the wind.
All you can hear is violent feedback from the mic. Incessant white noise. But may be that is the one true story of the summit that day.
It was so windy you couldn’t hear anything but Henry.
From memory, I recall feeling the usual rise of endorphins at reaching the top and the elation of spotting the final trig point. The wave of achievement.
There is nowhere to shelter on Red Screes, it has collapsed.
So instead I sit with my back to the trig point, looking towards Brotherswater.
A lump of Middle Dodd down the valley catches a spotlight of sun but it is hard to operate my camera now because the wind is blowing so hard.
I’m shaking every time I go to line up the shot. My fingers are so numb and unresponsive to touch that I struggle to locate the correct button to press .
The views are uplifting.
The drug with fell walking is that it leaves you feeling truly alive.
The wind is so strong that were genuine moments where it felt necessary for me to hang onto the ground for a few seconds, just to steady myself.
On the summit, it was hard to breathe because the wind would snatch the breath from your throat.
Annoyingly, the wind was also rolling and flapping my heavy canvas bag up the length of my back, leaving it rippling like a flag.
The gusts are so hard they push you downwards to the floor. The disorientation makes it feel like you are on the deck of a ship starting to list.
The wind seemed to upset my centre of gravity – the see-sawing horizon confusing my brain.
At times it seemed like Henry was playing a game.
I would be walking along, watching my feet, scanning the horizon, when suddenly this giant, unseen force would smack into my back.
Like a demon wind you can’t see.
At one stage, I was pushed four whole steps back uphill.
On the way down, Henry gave me a shove from behind and I fell forward three paces.
Henry felt malicious.
It is a very uneasy feeling to realise you are completely alone, hundreds of feet up in the wildest weather and being battered by something you cannot see.
The risk that you could be knocked to the ground by something that isn’t there.
Are storms merely vengeful souls blasting the surface of earth?
OK, may be not.
Another experience of the Lake District which no will ever properly record is the variety of changing light.
It makes a million different paintings of the landscape every day.
Fellwalking is like walking inside a painting. A painting which keeps changing.
All of a sudden, a bank of sun would punch through Storm Henry to try and break the gloom.
An amazing cloud break would appear with shafts of light filtering down to the ground.
It is like watching the fingers of god touch the earth.
Especially when you are the only person there to see it happen.
9/10: The Mortal Man
By the time I got down off Red Screes the sky had changed again. Darker now.
It was rolling with black and white clouds – a huge colour battle was taking place in the palette of the sky as the light started to fade.
Bullet-like hailstones nipped at my cold, red face as I walked back to the lonely car which was being encroached by lengthening shadows.
The weather was closing in and I was thirsty for my celebratory drink.
With the Kirkstone Pass Inn closed, my first pint of 2016 would have to be somewhere else.
Would it be The Golden Rule at the bottom of The Struggle?
The Low Wood Hotel with a view across to the Langdales?
Or may be I should just drive straight home.
Sitting there, alone in the car as another dark Cumbrian day ended, it felt like the weather was going to get the upper hand tonight.
But today, for a couple of hours, I had beaten the weather, whatever that means.
You can’t live in Cumbria and be beaten by the weather. It just doesn’t work.
The winter here is an annual contest, for me at least.
I looked at the dashboard clock. It would be dark in half and hour.
I decided to forego my pint for another time and set off home.
On the narrow downhill corners of the A592 towards Troutbeck, it was horrible, grey, murky and wet.
Every car had its red fog lights on and every oncoming car seemed to have an extra LED sparkle.
The misty hillsides were obliterated with low hugging cloud.
Rain lashing in, steaming up the windows.
All of a sudden, I see the bright lights of a nutter driver coming directly for me in the middle of the road.
A dirty white van which finally veers back into his lane with seconds to spare before impact.
How short is life.
The light is fading but at the roadside I see an upcoming sign.
I recognise it as the sign and turn off for The Mortal Man at Troutbeck.
There’s no car behind me so I pull a right, go along the short road, park up and nip in. A drink at the Mortal Man would be a perfect conclusion to the day.
After all, a day with Storm Henry had made me feel very, very mortal.
10/10 The Buzz of the Fridge
When I open the door on the darkened, quiet bar there were four lots of people inside. A tall barman drying glasses and a regular on his stool.
In the wider room, at three round tables, sat three lots of three tourists silently sipping their drinks.
Eleven people in all and not one of them speaking.
I could hear the buzz of the fridge and the sound of Henry shuddering the windows.
Stepping up to the bar I ordered a pint, making some remark about the weather. I felt elated having done the walk and the burn of Red Screes was now warming my aching knees.
My eyes watched the pint being slowly poured into a long sparkling glass. As the barman poured, I heard the pumps bubbling in the heart of the wooden bar, and watched the fizzing spurt of golden beer going into the glass.
The barman placed it on the drip tray before me as I went into my wallet for my bank card. And that’s when there was a problem.
It transpired that to buy a drink with a card in the Mortal Man you have to spend over £10.
“That would be one hell of a drink,” I said as the barman waited to decide what I was going to do.
This has become a feature of spending money in the Lake District and I should have known better.
The drink was only £4.65 but I only wanted one. I’d have probably have been prepared to pay three times the price considering I had not had a pint for 31 days.
Was the day going to end like this?
Sensing I was stuck, the bar man stepped in and agreed that I could pay with my debit card after all.
He would let me off this time. It was a gesture of generosity that I truly appreciated.
Anything else would have forever tainted my memory of The Mortal Man.
Holding my pint, I made my way through the pub’s rooms and sat down beside a table next to a window with a view of the garden.
I tried to recall the Wordsworth quote about Kirkstone Pass.
There was a truth about it even today, all these years later.
“Who comes not hither ne’er shall know, how beautiful the world below.”
Get up there or you’ll never see it.
And as I sat and drank, I spotted this other sign on the wall of the pub.
And the more I looked at it, the more sense it seemed to make.
Postscript: 7th February, press release: “Met Office name the UK’s next storm Imogen”