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The Night Shift- Fell walking through the night


There is something beautiful about the fells at night. While the darkness and isolation may be an inducement for panic and distress in some, there is a tranquil serenity to experience should you manage to overcome instincts that tell you to stay safe at home. The fells, at night, seem changed to their daytime counterparts. Distances skewed and familiar landmarks seem non existent, your senses strain for something to latch on to. Gone is daylight clarity, with the chatter or sounds of mountain goers. You are left with just the whistle of the wind, the call of the animals and the sounds of rushing water. The inky darkness, broken only by the pinpricks of light from stars and the soft glow of the moon. On occasion though, you will reach an area that is completely sheltered, with thick cloud obscuring any light from the sky. Here, you are unwilling to make a noise, even to breathe or to place your foot on the trail. You sit still, your senses straining to catch anything other than darkness. This for me, is true serenity.


The Helvellyn Range is no stranger to me. Running 10km from Clough Head to Dollywaggon Pike, with Helvellyn, its highest, and most iconic point, it is a range I often visit. My first time, as a newly converted hill goer, I ascended onto this ridge via Sticks Pass and, while the steep ascent tested my new found love for the hills, the undulating walk over the Dodds to Clough Head soon made me forget the discomfort. I have returned to complete many sections of this range, traversing the full length as a runner, as well as shorter runs and walks utilising different ways up and down off of the ridge. These formative trips left me with an intimate knowledge of these fells.


I packed camping gear and set off to the base of Sticks pass. The evenings forecast was fine, warm and dry with supposed clear skies. I ascended, the heavy load slowing my steps and making me envious of the light fell running gear I usually wear on this ascent. Reaching the top of the pass, I paused, standing to admire the view over Thirlmere. The cloud, thick but high, allowed me to see the fells surrounding me, while also making the landscape darker than usual for this time of day. Ascending Raise, I noticed golden light in the corner of my eye. Vertical beams of light were pouring out of the sky between gashes in the cloud to illuminate the ground below. I sat, wondering if anyone else was witnessing the beauty from the fells surrounding me, as the light danced and faded, and the fells shrouded themselves in darkness.


I had planned to camp near to Catstye Cam, a location I had earmarked on a previous excursion into the hills. My head torch, illuminating the sheltered depression I was to spend the night in, completely blinded me to anything not picked out in its beam. I un-shouldered my bag and turned off my torch. Blackness. Absolute and complete darkness sucking and pulling at my vision. The silence was palpable and my senses strained to make some form of sense of what was around me. As my eyes began to adjust I saw stars begin to emerge. Faint pinpricks of light appearing in the sky. Whether the clouds were dissipating or my eyes were growing accustomed to the dark I do not know. I lay back in wonder, all thoughts of setting up my tent up forgotten. I do not know how long I lay for, with such a restriction in senses, time seemed to be non existent. As I began to feel the chill of night, I considered setting up for the night, but, like a reluctant child, I did not want to sleep. I did not want to wake and see the landscape in the bright lights of day. I wanted to stay, to bear witness to this empty beauty.


Instead I wandered like Wordsworth’s cloud, aimlessly, for no destination was needed. No summits were aimed for nor any paths followed. I walked through this once so familiar landscape, which this inky blackness had rendered so alien. I frequently stopped to lie on the grass, head torch off, marvelling at the quiet splendour of the fells at night. While I could not see them, I knew they were there. Great patches of starless darkness, towering above me, dominating the horizon. As I walked, I found myself making efforts to stay silent as if the crunch of my boots or the sound of my breathe would offend the night itself. To this day, I am unsure where my wanderings took me, at the time, I knew not where I was.


Red Tarn glistens in the moonlight in front of me as I snap awake The impenetrable blackness of night has been replaced by the dark blue that precedes dawn. Ahead, the silhouette of Helvellyn was visible, no longer a point where no stars lay, but a recognisable shape, blackness on a canvas of dark blue. I continued to walk, stiffness in my legs and back from the impromptu sleep hindering my movements. My head torch guided me along Striding Edge and, by the summit of Helvellyn, there was light enough to see without it. What a rare treat to have this iconic hill to myself. My weariness was overwhelming however, I wished fervently that the light of day would retreat and the majesty of the night would unveil again. Alas it did not, and I sat, watching as the pastel colours of dawn illuminated the fells. The Night Shift.


I reached the top of Sticks Pass and began the steep walk down to where I began the trip. Day trippers were beginning to walk up the trail as I reached the bottom, no doubt excited to begin a day on the fells. Normally I would envy them but, I had borne witness to the serene beauty of the fells the previous night. The day passed slowly until, at last, it was time to retire to bed. I lay and, in the scant few seconds before I fell asleep, my mind dwelled on dark empty fells, an impenetrable silence, and a lone figure walking amongst them but, overwhelmingly, a sense of belonging.


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