How Hiking Has Given Me A New Perspective – And A New Wardrobe
In late November, I drove back to my London flat for the first time in months, having spent most of last year’s lockdown at our house in the Lake District in the north-west of England. Our small farm nestled between bracken-clad fells and burbling streams, with three chickens, two horses, a dog and some ducks for company, felt very different to Kilburn in north-west London, especially after so long.
In the city, the pavements were bustling with stressed-looking shoppers, animals were all kept on leads and other people’s lives echoed through the walls shared with houses next door. I looked out of the kitchen window of the flat and instead of sheep and cows grazing in verdant green fields all I could see was graffiti-strewn trains whizzing by to the next stop on the line.
The biggest difference to be found, though, was in my wardrobe. Opening the closet doors was a Narnia-like experience: inside was a different world to the one I’d inhabited in Cumbria for the last nine months. Hanging there was the life I used to live. There were silver-grey ribbed cashmere rollnecks from The Row, figure-hugging navy wool blazers from Officine Generale, baggy double-pleat trousers from Dries Van Noten and a pile of suede Jacques Derby shoes from Mr P.
These were the clothes I wore to go to an office above a west London shopping mall, to drink negronis in velvet-seated members’ bars in Soho, to attend film previews in screening rooms off Piccadilly, to sit on transatlantic flights to visit colleagues in New York. It felt like flicking back a few pages of your own autobiography, except this was a tale told in materials rather than manuscript.
For a few days, I rekindled my romance with these metropolitan must-haves. It wasn’t quite the same as life pre-Covid, but we still enjoyed each other’s company. And then, all too soon, it was time to say goodbye. Of course, I was tempted to pack them up and take them with me, but I realised there was no point. A bit like a holiday romance, I understood that they wouldn’t fit in once we settled back into life up north. It was best that they waited here, where they belonged, for my return.
The reality is I’ve swapped a life of cashmere for one of cagoules – not a swap I ever expected to make, nor one my friends expected to last. But it’s now been a year. We moved up here shortly before the pandemic struck, and I left my job only a week before the first lockdown. I have to admit it was coincidence rather than foresight that led me to work from home, far from the crowds and Covid, only a week or two before it became desirable or obligatory for nearly everyone else.
It takes time to adapt to life up here. You have to get used to saying hello to people when you walk past them rather than looking down to check your phone hasn’t been nicked; it’s more common to find shepherd’s pie rather than sushi on the menu; and there’s more interest in Herdwicks (a breed of sheep native to the Lake District) than Netflix. And boy does it rain, which might explain the lakes, I suppose.
Sartorially, the biggest difference is what is meant by dressing up to go out. Back in London it meant slipping on a freshly pressed shirt and box-fresh sneakers. Here, it means taped seams, Velcro cuffs and windproof outerwear. And, to my surprise, it’s something I’ve embraced. With life lived in a bubble for almost the entire time I’ve been here, and most days spent alone in my study writing a book, I’ve found freedom and inspiration by hiking up the Lake District’s famous fells.
“The reception is very good up on the mountains. Thank god, as if it wasn’t for Instagram no one would believe I’d taken up hiking”
I always found treadmills a bore – literally a road to nowhere – and running on London’s pavements too much of an obstacle course with all the zombies stopping and staring into their smartphones. Whereas here, however hard the terrain, however steep the climb or boggy the footpath, at the top of a mountain you stand and (if the weather allows it) stare over miles of peaks and valleys, lakes and tarns. Not only do you feel a huge sense of accomplishment having trudged 900 metres above sea level on terrain shaped by glaciers more than 11,000 years ago, but the everyday stresses of meeting deadlines, paying bills and avoiding viruses, momentarily seem insignificant and far away. You’ve literally left them behind you for those few hours you let nature and instinct take the lead.
Climbing to the top of a fell and looking down at the world below helps give you a new perspective on life, even when you’ve returned to the National Trust carpark down below.
I’ve become addicted to these climbs and the views they afford. I’ve huffed and puffed to the summit of Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, hiked 20km around the Kentmere Horseshoe, up and across Crinkle Crags, picked my way to the top of Helvellyn, the third highest mountain in England, and scrambled slowly across Striding Edge. On the whole, this pastime isn’t as perilous as it sometimes appears, although in 2015 there were 30 deaths in the Cumbrian mountains.
Sometimes rain, snow or cloud can totally obscure the path ahead and you have to grope blindly for the stacks of stones designed to warn you that you’re only feet away from a sheer drop; other times a piece of loose slate can cause you to lose your footing as you gingerly sidestep along a narrow precipice.
You need to be well prepared, too: map, mac and snack, none of which are too hard to get right. Maps are much easier now that we have apps. The mac bit I’ve obviously invested a lot of time and money on (you can take the boy out of fashion, but…). There are now items in my wardrobe that I didn’t know existed before this past 12 months: shell jackets, ripstop trousers, fleece dungarees; fabrics that sound like characters from World Of Warcraft – Gore-Tex, Terratex, Kyanite and DryVent – and labels that you could mistake for locations seen in Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries – The North Face, Arc’teryx and Patagonia.
When dressing up to go out now, it’s all about layers that will keep you warm, but not make you sweat, colours that will stick out in a storm. Fastenings that won’t let in the chill winds and rain. Boots that will protect your toes from puddles and prevent your ankles from twisting. Trousers that will let you scale a cliff and also allow you to pee. Backpacks that will hold and protect your phone, blister gel and lunch.
The lunch bit I like a lot. I usually suggest we stop for lunch about every 40 minutes; it means I can catch my breath, take a photo and wolf down a packet of Smith’s Square Crisps. No energy bars for me, thank you very much. Happily, I’ve discovered that, with rare exception, mountain-top temperatures are kind to confectionery. I’ve rarely had to come to the aid of a wilting Wispa, a wounded Twirl or rescue a Double Decker in distress. They have all coped admirably on our journeys up and down the mountains here.
Mr William Wordsworth wrote his famous poem, “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud”, after a walk in the Lake District. More than 200 years later, I don’t feel lonely when I wander along the same paths he trod. It’s hard to wander lonely when you have iCloud on your phone, I suppose. Believe it or not, the reception is very good up on the mountains. Thank god, as if it wasn’t for Instagram no one would believe I’d taken up hiking. Or put on a fleece.