Before any mountaineers leave Everest base camp to climb to the summit, a Buddhist priest arrives to conduct the puja ceremony, praying for a safe expedition. The lama pays homage to the mountain deity, spreads tsampa flour on the faces of the climbers and sherpas, and throws the rest in the air for good luck. The climbers lay their boots and crampons, some beer and some Marmite on a stone altar of prayer flags at 5,364 metres. Another 3,484 metres above them is the highest point on the planet.
Mountains have always been sacred places – the summits are where heaven meets Earth and the gods meet humanity. Tradition states that if you are foolish enough to heed the call of the sage, the priest, the poet, this is where you begin. Four nights up on a summit and you return either mad or as a poet. Graham Hoyland, who has successfully climbed Everest twice, told me that on both occasions he came down a different man from the one who went up; the endeavour changed him.
But can we have this life-changing experience without travelling to the Himalayas, without all the oxygen cylinders – and all the expense? To find out, I decided to walk the height of Mount Everest in England – 8,848 metres (29,029 feet) by climbing a succession of England’s hills and mountains, from Cornwall to Cumbria. It had been the toughest two years of my life and what was needed was some space between the past and the future. This was to be as much a spiritual journey as a physical challenge. The big hills and mountains are predominantly on the west side of England so the route pretty much drew itself, and although I drove the longer distances between hills, I used public footpaths to make the climbs.
I bought maps, made plans and booked the cheapest B&Bs I could find – something told me that I should not stay with friends; that this journey was to be made alone, with no television, no radio, no weather forecasts. I agreed to take a mobile phone only after a dressing-down from my youngest daughter, but on the understanding that it would remain switched off unless there was an emergency.
I set out in late April, with the aim of walking for 12 days, starting in the south-west of England on Brea Hill, a bump on the northern side of the Camel estuary in Cornwall. From there it was on to Bodmin Moor, then Yes Tor on Dartmoor, heading north as the hills increase in height, and finally on to Scafell Pike, the highest peak in England. (I spent a lot of time poring over the question of achieving the height of Everest, and the hills I walked were just under, by five metres, so I climbed one of the pine trees in the graveyard underneath Scafell Pike to make the summit.)
As I pulled the car up under Brea Hill, the sun was tinting the clouds lemon yellow and the door to St Enodoc church, sitting at the edge of the dunes, was invitingly open. It seemed like a sign, so rather than waiting to set off the next day, I started my journey there and then. From that point onwards, the months of planning and all the timings were completely skewed – and it was the best decision I made.
From Brea Hill the journey wound on to Bronn Wennili, the “Hill of Swallows”, on Bodmin Moor, the highest point in Cornwall at 420 metres. The summit appeared almost like an island in a thick haze of mist. At Yes Tor and High Willhays, on the summit of Dartmoor, it was almost too windy to stand, and it came as a relief to scramble down to the shelter offered by the fabulous Black a Tor copse, twisted with stunted oaks steeped in luminous moss.
The wind on Dartmoor was bearing a storm that roared over Great Hangman on Exmoor the next day, flattening the heather and snugging ewes and their lambs into scrapes and walls. The sea beneath the cliffs was almost white with crashing waves, apart from one red tanker swaying alone. Storms shake the template.
Australian Aboriginal people describe a certain point in any journey as being “three days deep”. By this they mean that it takes three days alone in the natural world to reach a change in consciousness. After three days, you enter The Dreamtime. Although I made it a rule to greet everyone I passed, there wasn’t any conversation, and in the absence of radio, television and newspapers, the world quietened and the familiar found new forms. Up on the Malvern Ridge, I became aware that it was increasingly a journey into silence, and around each corner was the new lace of spring that I would have otherwise simply walked past.
Most of us on this island live on “the plain” – a busy place of people, traffic, sirens, machines, televisions, mobile phones – and we get used to the noise. But once you are above 200 metres or so, the soundscape quietens, and all those hardwired patterns of thought start to loosen their grip. What had started as an extended route march marked by time and distance began to fall away, or maybe I just began to let it all go. And by the time I arrived in the Shropshire Hills, it was in the midst of a heatwave, warm air blanketing a thousand different shades of green shoots and leaves, and lines of early buttercups bubbling up at the side of the paths. Even the rooks, normally brash in spring, were lulled into becoming languorous sentries. I spent the entire day smiling.
Travelling further north, more of the hills become mountains. In the UK, any peak above 2,000 feet (610m metres) is classified as a mountain, and there are over 200 mountains in England. These are precious places, because they remain relatively untamed and beyond the savagery of intensive farming. You walk up off the plain, out of the fields around Edale in the Peak District, and follow a stream into a world of heather, white thistles and black peat, ravens, red grouse and grayling butterflies. Halfway up Grindsbrook Clough, a steep boulder climb, the mist came in, burying the ground and leaching confidence out of just about every walker. I ended up sitting down with a group of elderly hikers, none of us really knowing where we were or how to find the summit of Kinder Scout. It was comforting not to be lost alone.
The final two days were big days. The Cheviot in Northumberland had patches of snow scattered across the slopes and there were the remains of a wild Arctic light breaking through the clouds. It’s almost a yellow brick road to the summit – paving slabs leading over mire to a desolate trig point, a place where barely anything grows. Really, these are deserts. You walk up into a desert.
The final evening was spent at the fabulous Wasdale Head Inn, at the foot of Scafell Pike and Great Gable, the birthplace of British rock climbing. By then I had reached a point where I didn’t want to speak to anyone. After 11 days I had fallen into a sweet solitude, an inner silence, almost a rest from the constant state of working things out, of planning, of reckoning. In the morning, the cloud base was down, shrouding the land above 300 metres. Here, there are no dry-stone walls to rein in the land, and the streams are as yet unnamed. You walk into the mist, into a land of cairns and snow.
The hills and mountains of England hold so much more than history, than scenery. They remain sanctuaries, places of real healing. They might not be as flowered as the Alps, as high as the Himalayas, but their gift is that we can leave in the morning, walk up off the plain and on to the summit and be back down by evening. We can walk into another world, another England.
The writer’s full ascent of ‘Everest’
Day 1 Brea Hill, Cornwall (62m) Day 2 Bronn Wennili, Cornwall (420m); Yes Tor, High Willhays, Devon (621m) Day 3 Great Hangman (318m); Holdstone Down, Devon (350m) Day 4 Glastonbury Tor (158m); Cheddar Gorge to Beacon Batch, Somerset (414m) Day 5 Crickley Hill (273m); Cleeve Hill, Gloucestershire (330m) Day 6 The Malvern Ridge, Worcestershire (425m) Day 7 Caer Caradoc (459m); Pole Bank, Shropshire (517m) Day 8 Kinder Scout, Derbyshire (636m) Day 9 Haworth to Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire (426m) Day 10 Hebden Bridge to Stoodley Pike (397m); The Calf via Cautley Spout, West Yorkshire (565m) Day 11 The Cheviot, Northumberland (815m); Dungeon Ghyll to Pavey Ark, Cumbria (680m) Day 12 Scafell Pike, Cumbria (978m)
Peter Owen-Jones’ complete journey is told in his book, Everest England, available from guardianbookshop.com for £11.43, including UK p&p (RRP £12.99)
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