Barely noticable beyond the houses of Windermere, the trees begin to rise, starting a hill. I crossed the main road and past the sign pointing me onto the Orrest Head footpath, at this point a minor road leading gradually up. There are houses on either side, chatting walkers coming down. A giant scarred patch shows where a house has begun to be built, a ditch drawing water away from the inevitable September rain.
The road rises into the woods. Dry-stone walls mark one side, flowing with lush green moss much older than the houses. There are ferns on the muddy bank, polypody in the walls and pink flowers among the moss. Where the road bends, paths cut the corners. Not planned paths, but simply where people have found the quickest route.
One such path passes next to a garden fence. on one side clean-cut grass and neat edges, on the other a riot of bracken, and dark yews like monstrous friendly shadows of themselves. As I leave the houses behind a chainsaw starts up ahead. Two men are slightly down the hill, felling trees. There are piles of rhododendron, slain and left next to the wall. I can’t see what species they are cutting down, but I hope it is one of the few alien conifers still visible among the oaks.
The trees are fighting off autumn, showing the first signs of turning; the oak and ash with bits of yellow or faded green. I pass a beech with ravaged leaves, all covered in tiny holes with their edges brown and dead.
Windermere appears, the lake that is, rather than the town, and I remember where I am. Walking up a road through a shrinking woodland feels like anywhere. Beyond the water is the forest, the conifers of Grizedale, and beyond them the sky, grey and changing.
Towards the summit there is a gate, and on either side large embedded stones with inscriptions. The one on the left is a dedication, to a local landowner who was good enough to leave Orrest Head to ‘the people’. If you look on a map today you will see what this means. The hill summit is a beige island of open access land surrounded by the white of private farms. Here we can wander at will, play in the woods and make our own paths; but it is still an island.
Along the following section of path the low trees crowd in, red berries of rowan and hawthorn bright against the fading green. And then rock, furrowed and wrinkled by time and countless boots. The summit is a minature Lake District, an outcrop among the trees, speckled with puddles.
I passed the surrounding benches and sat on the very top, on the stone seat fixed so firmly to the rock it could have been part of it. Now above the trees the land is revealed, the view spreading over Windermere and away to the high fells. Wetherlam and the Old Man of Coniston are in the clouds, and the fells out west are quickly being consumed, the Langdale Pikes lonely survivors beneath the grey. Gusts of wind came in from the south-west, that favourite approach of our wet weather. The sky is all grey, but a hundred different colours of storm-grey. Tonight is due the first named storm of the year, Aileen, and its forerunner clouds are making their mark.
This view is famous as the first sight Wainwright had of the Lake District. When only 23, transfixed by the lake and the fells beyond, here started a lifelong love that led to all his guidebooks. We can thank Orrest Head, and the good weather of that day, for helping people out of their houses and into the hills, aided by his meticulous description and drawings.
It is hard to imagine now, with the dozens of guidebooks to the mountains, and the ability to search the internet for photographs and route descriptions, what it must have been like to not know. Not know how many fells there would be to find, to have to track down information. I wonder if he stood at this very spot and picked a hill to climb first. The Langdale Pikes, that great knuckle rising in the distance, must have drawn on his itchy feet. How would we feel today to do the same, to stand on a hill looking over a hundred others and to choose one by sight rather than height, or access, or whether you have the right map. What a feeling that must be.
It was then I really noticed the benches. The summit was covered in them. From where I sat I could see seven in total, all gazing in various directions from south to north-west, but all angled so that by looking straight ahead, no other bench was in view. I imagined seven couples up here, watching the view and pretending they were alone.
I got up to walk around the summit area as the wind picked up. The air smelt of rain. Down a small drop, just before the tree line, were two more benches, looking south-west into the weather and invisible from the others. The whole set-up felt like a defensive look-out post, like those Iron Age forts on hills that command a view of the landscape. But defence is the wrong word. The benches stand here so that you can sit and see the view, but also so you can present yourself to the landscape. To ask if you are allowed to go further, to feel the wind, rain and sun of the Lake District before a lifetime of wandering. They are the alters on which people offer themselves.
The clouds sank further on Wetherlam. I began to walk down, stopping briefly in the calm of the wood to admire an oak; taking the most direct route, cutting all the corners. Partly to stick two fingers up to the road, and partly because I had just remembered I’d forgotten to pay for parking.
Back among the houses of the lower hill I heard the chainsaw again. Then the crack, crash and thud of a tree falling.