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We didn’t head straight home from Yorkshire; I can tell The Sap is up to something, but despite The Chief pressing him mercilessly, he won’t let on. Even Phillippa is kept in the dark with only a short burst of programming to take us west from Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, where we looked down on the town from the abbey ruins that The Chief says figured in Bram Stoker’s worryingly immortal classic, Dracula. This outing is fast turning into a literary paper chase! I wonder what The Sap might have in store as we start our westward journey.
After a few hours on minor roads through moorland scenery that deserves to be preserved for posterity but probably won’t be and with the winter sun now dazzling me and reddening the sky on its journey to the horizon and beyond, he stops me on a bridge over...yes, you’ve guessed it, another railway line. He tells The Chief a mainline steam locomotive will soon be passing, hauling a returning special train southbound over Shap, a railway summit on the line between Carlisle and Lancaster. The line is now electrified and rarely echoes these days to the sound of struggling steam engines as it once did. Just as he guzzles his last drops of tea, a distant whistle heralds the appearance of the determined engine, tugging its sinuous rake of old fashioned coaches. The Chief, who seems to have the measure of The Sap, ventures that the train is no doubt crammed full of similar old boys also trying to recapture a long-lost smutty youth.
Pictures taken, we’re on our way south, on what he tells us is the A6...the one-time main road from the glens. He says it carries little traffic these days because everything rushes blindly along the nearby M6, which unapologetically desecrates the once-tranquil fells. He recalls stopping hereabouts as a youngster when he was allowed to stand and watch the trains while his parents took a break for a brew-up on a motor trip to Scotland in the sixties. True, he continues knowingly, the trains shouted their presence and blackened the sky every half hour or so but the traffic high on the M6 throws a remorseless cacophony that echoes day and night across the hills. As he finishes his story we arrive in Kendal where the local council have very kindly pointed out our campsite for the night. We follow the signs and arrive on an empty industrial estate where a little investigation provides a first class peaceful hard-standing, complete with outside tap and no other souls...bless them.
Early the next morning, before workers arrive, we are long gone and heading into Coniston and Windermere where I take a breather while they prepare to wander off to explore. The Chief says she thinks we have been drawn here by yet more literary giants in the shape of William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome of Swallows and Amazons fame.
“Whatever makes you think that?” says The Sap, “perhaps I was drawn here by John Cunliffe!”
“Who’s John Cunliffe?” she asks, thinking he’s joking.
“You must have led a sheltered childhood,” he laughs “these days he is the most read of them all, he created Postman Pat.”
It’s a bright chilly day so tea is required once they return, but I can see The Sap is itching to get going...another train is due, I suspect. Well yes and no. Finally he tells The Chief that they are not here for any railway or literary purpose but he wants to show her a road that is the most spectacular he has ever travelled on in Britain.
I listen in awe as he says what we are going to do: It is only something we can do out of the main tourist season because the road is extremely tight for a campervan of my 6’6” girth, in fact he isn’t certain I will complete the route unscathed...now I am worried.
We travel west on a road that barely appears to be narrowing, so I don’t know what all the fuss is about...there’s plenty of room. Suddenly, though, without warning he heaves me across the road onto little more than a track and that excess room has disappeared; I couldn’t share this road with an escaped sheep and a starving one at that. He tells The Chief that although he shouldn’t really bring me down here because of my width, it is out of season and lunch time. Most tourists, he reckons, will have sought refuge in one of the hostelries at each end of the long narrow stretch, because other than sheep, grass and abundant water there’s nothing for miles.
Gradually the road starts to climb and we weave through the foothills and he is constantly fighting with my steering wheel and gearstick. He tells her that my saving grace, compared to modern campervans, is that I am rear wheel drive so won’t lose traction on the really steep sections and I have a very low first gear and a good lock to negotiate the tight bends.
As we stop in a passing point for the first time to make way for an oncoming car, I wonder why the driver is shaking his head and wagging his finger. The Sap shouts something and sounds my horn defiantly and we’re off again with grass and shrubs brushing along both my sides. We round a tight bend and the road comes back on us and climbs like a confused helter-skelter, then it veers to the right and manages to keep climbing...we pass a car that wisely seeks refuge in one of the passing places and the driver’s eyes seem to pop with amazement as if reflecting on what lies before us. I am getting quite dizzy as we climb in first gear, which to give you an idea, flat out on the level I would barely overtake a push bike pedalled by a 5 year old and a wimp child at that. The climbing seems to go on forever, then suddenly he goes up a gear and we run slightly down hill to a long plateau where a boulder-strewn torrent joins us from the right. All around us are mountains and incredible scenery, the like of which I have never seen before.
The demands of tea and sustenance make him pull over for lunch at what, he says, is roughly halfway, but that a more demanding climb faces us. More demanding? Can anything be more demanding than what I’ve already been put through? But so far I am at least unscathed, if a little breathless. He walks across the track to take my picture and if I could puff out my chest, I would because I do feel quite heroic at my achievement. I chuckle as he is corralled by a questioning posse of sheep that gaze at him as if demanding to know whether he is simply mad or is the infamous campervan-driving sheep worrier so recently escaped from Wales and now seeking refuge in the isolated northern fells.
Lunch over and with the inquisitive sheep left to nibble their scant grass in peace, we set off along the plateau before starting to scale the heights of the second trial section. As we approach a veritable mountain that seems to have no way across, he makes The Chief tremble and yours truly Sammy the intrepid mountaineer anxious, by recounting the tale of the night the looming climb almost snatched his life from him. Now I know he must be mad because who in his right mind would give the fates another chance?
He tells us that one afternoon he’d been at work more than three hundred miles south when he was summoned urgently to resolve some equipment problems on the Cumbrian coast. After rushing up the M6, he says he passed through Kendal just after 11pm. To have a chance of making his hotel at St Bees and a welcoming drink before the last residents vacated the bar and it was closed for the night, he rashly decided to take the cross country short cut. As he turned onto this narrow route, it was getting foggy, even before the mountains, and at one stage he had to stop because the glare of the headlamps in the fog made the road invisible. It was well after midnight when he climbed out of his car; he crept cautiously to the front to see where the road was going, only to find that the wheels were on the edge of a precipice. Swallowing hard, he groped his way to the rear of the car where he found that the road had zigzagged unseen to the left. He reversed and resumed his journey, at times just about walking pace, that tempting nightcap receding in importance.
And this is the road he wants to take yours truly on...yes, now I know for certain he’s mad.
Then almost without warning we start climbing...now I have never been to a theme park, as such, but I have watched from a car park as a little carriage packed with masochists climbs ever skyward on some fragile-looking framework. Then it hurtles downward and all aboard scream with fear...then queue up and do it again. I tell you, if I complete this journey, nothing will persuade me to do it again.
I climb and climb in first gear, twisting this way then that before corkscrewing my way even higher...I fret that at any moment I shall miss my footing and go over the side or hurtle downhill out of control. Then the road disappears, “This is the spot,” yells The Sap, “imagine this bit at night in fog!” He winds my steering wheel hard to the left and I follow the road back and down to another one hundred and twenty degree turn at the bottom. We are heading downward all the time now and I am grateful when he tell The Chief it’s over and we, no make that I have conquered The Wrynose and Hardknott Passes.
In just a few days I have learnt to swim and mountaineer...not bad for a geriatric campervan! I don’t think I shall ever face such a challenging journey again...but on the other hand, with these two twerps I can’t be sure.