Made in Britain: The Destination

Abroad can keep its Alps, its Rockies, its Himalayas. Esquire editor-at-large Will Self is happiest hiking in "the cockpit of the English sublime"

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Nearing the top of High Raise, a modest enough 762m eminence in the Lake District, I looked around me with something approaching awe. This is not an emotion, you appreciate, that comes easily to me: I have looked upon the mighty Himalayas devoid of feeling; and rolled through the Rockies without the slightest increase in my sluggish heart rate; the Alps have a tendency to make me burp. Yet, here I was, up a mere mound a fraction of their height, and transported. Why should this be? Well, I’m not a patriot of any stripe, and nor do I cleave to the asinine idea that the particular clod I and the 60 million-odd rest of you sods squat on is in some mysterious way blessed by the Almighty, and yet… there is no disputing the chord a Lakeland vista can play on my sad old heartstrings, picking out notes of trans-generational memory, love and loss.

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I think we all feel that way about the Lakes, whether our acquaintance with them comes from Wordsworth and Coleridge’s dithyrambs or some dumb Pringle-woolly-ripper on the box, and whether we first encountered them on a team-building exercise with a group of overweight photocopier salesmen, or wandering free as thistledown. My initial trips to the Lakes were in the company of my father, a prodigious walker, who, clad in voluminous grey flannel trousers and wearing a gabardine mac the size — and cut — of a tent, would amble gently up Skiddaw or Sca Fell not only without pausing for breath, but while actually smoking. We would flap along behind in our crude Seventies orange cagoules (they had no zips and began to mildew after a single soaking), and high on Kendall Mint Cake.

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When I was little older, I went walking in the Lakes on one of the hippy-dippy kids’ camps my mother sent me to. (Think co-educational Scouts with sexual intercourse, Bob Dylan songs and marijuana smoking — what’s not to like?) It was Easter and therefore on top of Helvellyn there were white-out conditions. One of the leaders fell off Striding Edge, and would’ve plummeted to his death if someone hadn’t caught hold of him by his wide, leather-tooled guitar strap. Ah! It was a happier, more innocent era, before health and safety existed or Jimmy Savile had become a paedophile. 

Of course, in the fullness of time I have grown to have children of my own — in the purely paternal sense, you appreciate — and so, of course, I have taken them with me while I puff up Lakeland fells chewing Nicorette. Which brings us to this Easter, when once again conditions in this, the very cockpit of the English sublime were, quite frankly, sublime: a great swathe of snow lay everywhere above 400m, and the summit of Scafell Pike, the highest peak in England, was a bluish fin of iciness. There was no question of climbing it — which I had intended doing — and even High Raise, in our contemporary risk-averse culture, required crampons and ice axes. As it was, I had to give one of the whelps a sound thrashing (purely of the tongue sort), when he became seized up with fear in a particularly steep and slippy gully.

But naturally, this being the English Lakes, as I took in the view from the top, a couple about 20 years older than me came up from the other side of the mountain. True, they weren’t smoking — but nor were they puffing. They told me they’d come all the way by bus from somewhere in Yorkshire, leapfrogging from one local service to the next, entirely gratis courtesy of their Freedom Passes. Yes, they laughed gaily, life for super-fit retirees such as themselves was a total blast: they were minted thanks to ring-fenced final salary pensions, and they had all this natural beauty at their toe tips. My generation, by contrast — let alone my whelps’ — were going to have to work… “until you all drop!” the apple-cheeked old loon cackled, and I very nearly look the liberty of pushing him over the edge, so he could appreciate the full compass of the trusty old pride-goes-before-a-fall adage. 

As it was, I simply looked out over the stupendous view: the great whale backs of the fells streaked and striped white and green under the sharp sunlight, and my heartstrings let out a mournful twang as I considered that I’d mostly be contemplating all this loveliness for the foreseeable future in screen-saver form.

lakedistrict.gov.uk

See more of the country's finest in Esquire's September Made in Britain issue: on sale now.