I mentioned in an earlier post that I had a vivid memory, possibly from around the time I first read Swallows and Amazons, of getting lost in Grizedale Forest. Here’s that story.

We started from Hawkshead, probably after going to church in the morning. (Maybe this was one of the things that ensured the church-going habit would not survive into my adult life!). The plan, I’m sure, was to walk up to Goosey Foot Tarn. This isn’t named on modern Landranger or Explorer maps but lies at about Grid Ref  SD 338 971. I wonder if it was named on older maps or we’d been told about it by someone.

It’s only a couple of kilometres – say a mile and a half in old money – from Hawkshead and we should have found it easily enough, but clearly we went wrong somewhere. There were forest roads, of course, but there weren’t the abundant colour-coded waymarks that there are in the forest today, still less the purpose-built mountain bike trails. I dare say we – meaning my Dad – had a map, but no compass, and of course those forest roads all look rather alike.

At some point we would have eaten our sandwiches and drunk whatever we had to drink – I’m betting it was Ribena. I’m not sure we ever did find Goosey Foot Tarn. I do have a memory of stumbling across a tarn at some point, but I’ve been to Goosey Foot Tarn several times since and the one in my memory looks nothing like it.

A more recent photo of Goosey Foot Tarn

A more recent photo of Goosey Foot Tarn

In fact the one which best fits the picture in my mind is Grizedale Tarn – but unless we’d gone seriously wrong even before leaving Hawkshead (hard to see how), we’d have had to cross the road at or near Moor Top to reach it.

Today, of course, there’s a car-park at Moor Top, with information boards and maps and even a pay machine. But I guess there was none of that back then (this can’t have been later than 1970). Even so, would my parents, with two of us in tow (and my brother being four years younger than me), deliberately have crossed a road that they clearly shouldn’t have crossed and carried on regardless?

What is for sure is that we must have wandered for several hours. Unless I’ve muddled two separate occasions, we reached (Grizedale?) Tarn late in the afternoon and mist was beginning to rise. I’m sure there were some deer on the far shore too. We were all tired and thirsty and I’m sure my brother would have been carried for some of the time. I imagine it must have been starting to feel quite serious, lost in the forest with two small children in tow, evening drawing on, no torch, no spare clothing, probably no more food and drink, and no way to summon help (no mobile phones in those days!). My parents must have done a good job of hiding their concern; I knew we’d been out a lot longer than intended but as far as I can recall it all seemed like a big adventure.

However, we must have found our way reasonably directly down to what is now the main forest centre – perhaps there were one or two signs – which we reached more or less at dusk. Either there was a public phone or someone must have let us use theirs to phone for a taxi.

Out of everything that happened that day, two images really stick with me. One is a lonely tarn deep in the forest (it seemed deep and lonely then, for sure); mist rising off the still water, a couple of deer materialising from the shadows on the far side. A few years later I persuaded the art teacher at school to let me attempt a really large painting (I guess at least 4ft x 3ft, possibly bigger) on board instead of paper. I roped in a couple of friends to help me and we’d work on it at lunch breaks and after school. The scene which I drew, and which we started to fill with paint, was – as near as I could recall – that forest tarn as afternoon shaded into evening.

I think the painting was about 80% done when we got to the end of that school year. Somehow we never got going again the following year. I wonder what happened to it.

The other abiding image is seeing lights and rooftops as we stumbled down a stony track in gathering gloom. I’m sure it was a massive relief for my mum and dad, and something of that must have communicated itself to me too. It’s definitely something which still resonates with me, emerging from the untamed dark to welcoming lights.

That memory came back to me a few days before Christmas 1976 on my first ‘long’ solo walk. I’d walked from Cambridge and remember coming off the empty chalk uplands and dropping down to Saffron Walden in the gloaming. I was more into Tolkien than Ransome at that stage and it seemed very much like approaching the Last Homely House. But I thought of Grizedale too. I’ve had the same feeling many times since, coming down to an Alpine hut perhaps, or a pub like the Old Dungeon Ghyll or the Station Inn at Ribblehead. By comparison, merely rolling up to a car park, changing your footwear and driving off to somewhere else is a colourless way to end a day.

Incidentally, it would be tricky to recreate that magical approach to Saffron Walden today as the M11 now slices right through it. Which prompts the thought that it would be interesting to discuss Arthur Ransome’s environmentalism at some point…


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