I should have been doing a long trail run that weekend but it wasn’t meant to be. Coach slipped a note into my plan suggesting I put myself to some other test.
To those non-runners or mountain folk, The Abraham’s Tea Round might well sound like a quintessentially jolly English afternoon amble around a stately garden culminating in scones with jam and cream: whereas in truth it is a thirty mile tour of the mountain tops in the English Lake district that can be seen from George Fisher’s tearoom in Keswick and involves 12,000 feet of ascent and descent.
I wasn’t familiar with some of the route – had I been then I might have thought twice about doing it given the weather forecast for biblical downpours the whole day. That fact plus an unhappy calf muscle that was lingering on meant I decided to hike rather than run it.
I expected to be out for a long time and carried so much food, spare clothes and safety equipment that my rucksack weighed 8Kg.
I needed to make an early start and drove to Keswick the night before, staying at my friend Becky’s. I set an alarm call for 4am but as ever, woke before it sounded. Feeling rather groggy at such an unearthly hour, I made coffee and porridge and, resisting the urge to climb back into my warm bed, made myself ready for the day. I confess to not feeling very bouncy as I walked the mile to the start of the Tea Round at the George Fisher shop in the pouring rain. As I set off from there to start of my quest, I exchanged pleasantries and ‘good mornings’ with some of the early arrivals setting up their stalls in the market square.
I had no real expectations of how this day might go and the only objectives were to reach the café in Buttermere for coffee before they closed and ultimately, to complete the round.
Ascending the first summit, Cat Bells the rain eased long enough to take a few photos of the clouds around the hills. Next was an easy descent to Little Town followed by a steady slog up Robinson including some unexpected scrambling. The rain was relentless and that plus the effort of climbing had me quite wet on reaching the shelter, although it’s only shelter in name and not in nature. One quick photo and I was starting to feel quite cold. I quickly added another overlayer and carried on, feeling the benefit of warmth from the additional garment within a minute or so. The descent towards Gatescarth was new to me and was extremely steep, the rain had turned it to a mud slide and I found it really slow and difficult. Remind me why I’m out here alone doing this?
The next climb is to High Stile which I’d done once before from this direction but it was no easier than I recalled from that time. It’s long, steep with ill-defined trods and more scrambling on wet and slippery rock. I’ve been improving fitness this year but am certainly not mountain fit, I felt very slow but got there in the end. The descent from here is via Red Pike which I’d not been looking forward to. The rain abated to little more than drizzle but I barely noticed as I carefully negotiated the long, stony descent and the falls-risk territory of the green, slimy, wet, pitching that leads to Buttermere, the half way point.
The café was a delightful and welcoming oasis with coffee, cake, a refill for my water bottles, a chance to divest my waterproofs, visit a toilet and wash my hands; each of these are luxuries on such a day as this.
Arriving in Buttermere the weight of my rucksack had diminished a bit with food and fluid consumed but was now replenished back towards its starting mass with another 1.5 kg of water in my bottes. Although brief, the break proved hugely restorative and I wandered onward in a positive frame of mind. For about an hour, as I climbed to Whiteless Pike and beyond, the rain held off. I seemed to be moving better than in the first half, possibly due to the coffee, maybe the terrain is easier but partly because a painful niggle in my left hip that was nagging me on the earlier climbs had quieted.
The respite of the elements was short lived as rain returned with a vengeance, the clouds came in obscuring any views and I quickly donned my waterproof outer layers. Moving steadily onwards and upwards, it didn’t seem possible that the weather could get any worse but on the ascent to Grisedale Pike it became a veritable deluge and I amused and distracted myself with thoughts of gratitude for the open water swimming lessons I’ve been doing.
Grisedale Pike is an out and back from Coledale Hause followed by another climb and more scrambling on wet rock up Eel Crag.
Thoughts of safety and sound mouuntain judgement are never far from my mind on any outings, especially these solo ones. It was around 6pm, I’d seen just one person this side of Buttermere, I was in zero visibility and I cautioned myself to be extra careful as should a misfortune befall me, I was unlikely to be found before tomorrow. It was particularly pertinent thinking as a recovering shoulder injury on one side and a finger injury on the other had made me conscious of my vulnerability on these scrambles today. Sobering thoughts do focus the mind.
Crag Hill was next and with no views here I attempted a selfie – apologies but why not? Then on towards Sail and Causey Pike. This section presented no problem until negotiating a technical descent from the summit of Causey when my tired legs and ever-uncomfortable arthritic knee dared to complain. The proposed route from here is an out and back to Rowling End but the descent had irritated me. Retreating from Rowling End I could see no reason to return to Causey and opted instead for an off-piste descent and contour across knee-high heather then through ‘me-high’ bracken. Still the rain came but despite having been out in it for hours it had failed to soak me as much as thrashing my way through this vegetation: I could feel the increasing weight as the water penetrated my socks and shoes. At the bottom of this descent is a river crossing which presented no concerns as I couldn’t have got any wetter.
The final climb is Barrow which, from Rowling End across the valley looks really steep but in fact was the easiest of the day. A short steep ascent on a small trod to Barrow Door then easy onwards for a short way. The way off is long and I was slowed again by the bracken plantation. Not for the first time did I fall off the path being unable to see it through the dense foliage. Fortunately, all such missteps had thus far only resulted in minor pulls and strains but now I had quite a nasty slip and twist in mud which wrenched my knee and back. A good job the end was in sight. Seeking some comfort, I recalled that amongst the mountain of food I had taken with me was some homemade ginger cake and I had a couple of pieces left. I decided these were my reward for a job well done and proceeded to fish them out of my pack and emjoy them on the last miles. It was dark by the time I returned to the George Fisher store, the market stall holders long gone to be replaced by various groups of noisy revellers.
I’d completed the Tea Round which, until I had the idea put in my head just a couple of weeks previously, I hadn’t contemplated doing and, if asked, would have said wasn’t within reach for me at that time. I’d been training for trails, not mountains and was nowhere near as mountain fit as to feel confident for this type of challenge.
So why take it on? There’s a useful technique called Johari’s window which has seen modified applications since first devised by Jo and Harry in 1955. It has four ‘window panes’: a. things only you know about you; b. things you and others know; c. things others know but you don’t e.g. potential and strengths they can see; and d. a pane for the unknown – your yet undiscovered abilities.
I’ve used this model with mentees and students over many years but also use it for myself. For most of my ‘daft ideas’, I consult ‘three wise men’ for their judgement which I trust. In this instance, my coach wouldn’t have suggested it if he didn’t think I was up to it and I have faith in his judgement. I also knew that I could bail out at the halfway point if I needed to but despite the weather and finding it tough at times, I never considered doing so. Interestingly, I feel the most important thing that saw me through this challenge was being patient with myself (not one of my best qualities); not expecting too much in terms of performance and accepting my inadequacies. Perhaps I should try to remember and practise this in future 😊
My time for the round was 16 hours 34 minutes achieved with an 8Kg pack and Lake District summer weather. All told, a good day out with lots of learning and a sense of achievement.
Last but not least, the good folks at George Fisher keep a record of all the who complete the Tea Round and kindly provide a souvenir or two for their effort – thank you.
You're never too old to set a new goal or dream a new dream