Why seeking out sun-soaked destinations in the middle of winter is the norm for British holidaymakers is hard to understand. Sunshine is great, but the amount we get in this country is more than enough and allows us to be inspired by the moody, atmospheric, solemnness of the British autumn and winter. If we all lived in the Mediterranean, half as much would get done and perhaps even the great poetry and literature that our culture has become famous for would have eluded us; Great Expectations without the sluice houses, Wordsworth without his beloved Helvellyn.
The British weather and landscape may get a lot of people down but they can also provide an endless source of inspiration, and if you can't find beauty in what the United Kingdom has to offer then quite simply you are not trying hard enough. Last year, when plans to visit Morocco fell through I decided to visit the enigmatic Lake District. It had been an extremely stressful few months of work culminating in a ten-thousand-word essay. To unwind and take my mind of things, I thought there to be no better way than to put my life in danger. I am terrified of heights but I have learned that where there is horror, there is often fascination and this was certainly the case.
We stayed in a small village called Patterdale, just a couple of miles south of Ullswater and famous for its breed of terrier. It was very quaint and a perfect place to stay as it lies at the very base of Helvellyn. The surrounding scenery is terrific and the road to it from Windermere is unforgettable, reaching 1500ft. In the winter, you can stay in a double room with half board (breakfast and dinner) for under £50pp per night and the food is of a good quality. The waiting staff are a little over-efficient and so it may sometimes be necessary to slow them down by ordering a bottle of wine and trying to pronounce it correctly.
The purpose of this trip, of course, is to hike. Hiking is a revitalising activity and, if you up to it, scrambling can really get the blood pumping, quickly releasing all anxieties and replacing it with nothing but fresh air and the occasional burst of adrenaline. As much as I felt obliged to climb my namesake, Great Gable, I opted for the more dramatic ascent and within an hour or so of the expedition, our efforts were rewarded with jaw-dropping views. I've never been to the Alps, but I don't feel I need to; the sense of adventure and the foreign feeling of this British terrain was all I needed. The winter offered a helping of snow and mist that had a sensational energy. One minute you can't see you hand in front of you face then, a matter of seconds later, a 180o vista presents itself and you can't help but stop to take it all in. You can immediately understand why Wordsworth and many other poets and people spent so much time on this particular mountain, and can fully engage with the profound effects it may have had on them.
the spectacular view from about half way up Helvellyn
Without wanting to contribute another poem for the lakes, there are words of warning that one should only ignore at their own peril. In the winter, when the lakes and mountains are arguable at their most beautiful, they are also at their most dangerous. Before climbing such a treacherous mountain as Helvellyn, it's important to get 'clued up' about the paths and more importantly the equipment that is necessary. In a nearby town like Windermere, you can find plenty of equipment and information. Spikes are essential for the ice; a good pair may cost you around £25-35 but could end up a life-saving investment. Beside, there is little adventure in going halfway and having to turn back due to packed ice on the fells.
the path gets narrower as we approach striding edge
Though it is not the highest peak in England, Helvellyn is certainly the most dramatic and still peaks at over five-times the height of London's BT Tower. The 'striding edge' encapsulates the danger, the beauty and the sheer height of your endeavours. Extreme caution is recommended on this knife edge and it would be advisable to have rope and other more advanced tools at hand. Again, information will be available in a local town as to what is safe. Patterdale itself has a small shop with trekking poles available for around £15 a pair.
A great way to get there is to travel by coach to Leeds from Victoria. Then you can hire a car for cheap in Leeds and drive through the Yorkshire Dales to get you in the mood. You won't regret it.
Embrace the winter, and reap the psychological rewards of traversing unexplored territory at dizzying heights. It's very affordable and genuinely cathartic. You wont get a tan, but you will return to civilisation with a stronger sense of perspective and something to remember the next time you gaze upon the BT Tower.