Country diary: a ‘mountain’ town much like Chamonix

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The car hums along the dual carriageway, a warm, dark cocoon for two slumbering children after the stimulus of nursery. The sodium glow from the lights of Keswick slides into view and my eye is drawn to the encircling peaks. I trace the muscular outline of Skiddaw and find what I’m looking for, pinpricks of light dancing downward on a huge black triangular canvas.

Nestled in a cradle of enclosing hills, Keswick is most certainly a “mountain” town in the same sense as Chamonix or Banff. The comparatively diminutive stature of the Lakeland fells is more than made up for by the zeal with which its residents practise the religions of the outdoors – walking, running, riding, climbing, flying, paddling or sliding.

These bite-size mountains are perfect for squeezing big adventures into short periods of time. I think back to one of my first winter climbs, my partner and I teetering up a steep, ice-filled gully by torchlight, a snowstorm swirling and snatching at our heels. Afterwards we sat wide-eyed over a couple of pints in a busy Borrowdale pub, stunned into silence by the transition from what had felt like a fight for survival to the bustle of a normal Saturday night.

I don’t know who is behind the lights I’m looking at, though I am familiar with the local mountain biking sects that roam the hills come rain, snow or shine. I’m up there with them, tyres chattering across slate, lungs full of cold air, vapour swirling in torch beams, the entire world reduced to a bright circle of frozen, rushing landscape.

Tonight wisps of mist float across a bright moon hanging in still air and I can just see the rounded hummocks of Helvellyn and the Dodds shining brilliant white, broad sweeps of brittle bracken muffled by snow.

I turn into the driveway, headlights tracking across drystone walls before coming to rest on brightly coloured scooters and trikes twinkling with frost. Thoughts turn to my next winter activity fix. Two amazing young children and an ongoing tussle with long Covid have made the opportunities more sparse, but my faith remains strong. The winter is long and my ice axes are sharp and ski edges honed, ready to escape on to the wonderful cold, dark fells.

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