The other day I posted an account of an ascent of Scafell Pike my son Daniel and I made recently. Anyway, the day afterwards, not wishing to strain ourselves too much, we went for a short, low-level walk in the Duddon Valley with my cousin, Jo. She took us to see Frith Hall (SD189916), not far from the village of Ulpha. It's a picturesque ruin now, but 400 years ago it was a hunting lodge. Since then it has been used as an inn and more recently a farmhouse. I must admit that I found it a bit of an ordeal at first, as my right foot was a bit sore from the previous day. I finally found a tuft of sheep's wool and stuffed it down my boot which seemed to work, although it's hardly sterile and I wouldn't recommend it. The path to it runs through a pine forest at first and this, Jo explained and we quickly discovered, was crawling with wood ants, which had been introduced by the local estate to feed the game birds. The forest floor, when you looked closely, was crawling with them and every few yards you came upon one of their distinctive nests. Coincidentally, I saw a man on TV a few days later who said you can eat them: he was just picking them up and popping them in his mouth. You have to bite them quick, he said, before they bite you. It seemed a bit wantonly destructive to me, unless you're starving on a desert island covered in pine forest, so I found myself willing the ants to get him first. If they did, they probably cut it out. I'll have to keep watching those out-take programmes. (I have a weakness for them, and Game for a Laugh too. When I was little I always used to enjoy watching Candid Camera. A man takes his film to be developed and the shop assistant cunningly swaps it for another one and unrolls it in broad daylight to “check the perforations”, that kind of thing. For some reason people are either amused or annoyed by these programmes. Nothing in between). Anyway, to return to the wood ants. It wasn't my first encounter with them: a few years ago I went climbing at an outcrop somewhere in Teesdale. The ground was crawling with them for miles around. We assumed that if we ignored them, they'd ignore us, so we roped up and started climbing. Trouble was, as soon as you sat on a ledge to belay your partner they were crawling all over you. Not only that, but within minutes they were marching along the rope. It was like a real-life Tom and Jerry cartoon. Hellish.
Back in the present, Jo had been having long conversations with a Buddhist monk the previous week and we found ourselves discussing reincarnation and the dangers of treading on ants. She also told me about the Dorje Shugden controversy which was of great concern to her friend but which, not being a Buddhist, I knew nothing about.
We passed some houses and some sort of drilling apparatus on the back of a truck: was the Western Lake District was about to become an oil-field? We decided they were more likely to be drilling for water.
The ruined lodge itself stands close to the top of a hill, just to the side of the true summit (158m), a steep, rocky “toy mountain” about as high as the ruins themselves. Children for centuries must have enjoyed climbing up this. Adults for centuries must have told them to come down.
I have always had a fondness for what I think of as “time machines”. I don't mean the literal, HG Wells-kind of time machines, but things which allow us to step back into the past. The experience of finding and holding a stone age tool: feeling how naturally the stone fits into the palm of the hand. When you see and feel how your grip matches the patina left on the rock by its original owner, it's as if you've almost made contact. One can get the same feeling listening to a tune somebody wrote hundreds of years ago.
I don't think I'd ever thought of this in relation to mountain summits until I scrambled up the last few feet from the ruined house to the rocky peak. There is only one highest point to a hill. Many people over the centuries will arrive at it knowing that they are at the top. Each new arrival has a common experience of something with other people across time. You might say that merely being alive is a common experience and you'd be right: but it seems obvious to me that certain specific experiences (like the tool, the tune and the hill top) inspire us to sit up and take notice.
Countless people, like me, must have bounded up those rocks, stood at the top and looked around. The foreground must have changed a great deal over the years. The horizon, hardly at all.
Thanks to Joanna, for the photos