On the healing powers of the Lake District

Arriving into Keswick in the North Lake District on a cool evening in March, the light fading softly over the hills, I knew I had nothing to lose. The previous month I had returned from an adventure in South America with the same backpack that now lay heavy on my shoulders as I checked my map for directions to the hostel. I had returned from the trip to feel a growing sense of losing direction, one which I did not expect to feel in my early thirties. My relationship had come to an amicable end, I was still fighting waves of an illness I had picked up in Peru and I had little idea of where I wanted to take my life career wise.This sense of not knowing and uncertainty felt like a thrill in my twenties as I hopped from season to season working mostly as a chef. I actively looked and sought out change, variety and uncertainty. But as I watched friends around me begin to settle into stable lives and grow into careers and roles as parents, I felt myself long for more stability. I was an unmoored boat rocking around in the choppy waves.

I grabbed hold of the lifeboat sent in the form of a job offer at the youth hostel in Keswick, and after so many recent setbacks, I arrived in the town without any expectations. Just hope. The next morning, I sat in Crow Park gazing over the horizon line at the fells, I felt an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder but equally that these hills were unobtainable to me, sheer, steep unyielding slopes. I was never an outdoorsy or sporty child and whilst I had done a little bit of hiking in Scotland, the thought of hiking in the hills alone made me nervous. But as I studied the map and traced the green lines of footpaths, I could see there were alternative ways to climb these hills.

A colleague at the hostel suggested I try the small hill of Latrigg as my first solo hike. Staring out of my empty bedroom window, the hill looked huge, despite only being 350m. I resisted it for two weeks, scared of what might happen, scared that I might fall apart again. But on one bright April evening, buoyed on from a good day at work and the soft, golden hour light, I found the courage to take those first steps. A short way up, I took a wrong turn, off the main path, ending up deep in the woods. But despite being lost, I was finding my rhythm. Being back in nature, connecting with the path, it was awakening something in me which had been missing for months. A lightness, an excitement, a passion. I retraced my footsteps back to the main path, out of the trees and rising higher and higher on the uneven path. Past the sheep, grazing on the footpath, the bench, I can see the bench, is that the top? Suddenly, as you round that last corner, the final reward for your climb, like a little surprise held tightly in the palm of a child’s hand. The whole of Derwentwater below, the Newlands Valley hills guarding the lake, Keswick, looking like a tiny Lego toy town. In the far distance, the tip of Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. To the left, the towering beauty of Blencathra, the gateway to the northern fells.

Something changed in me that evening, something came back to life. I learnt to trust myself again – that if you put one foot in front of the other, you climb, you grow. Looking back at Latrigg from the valley, I felt a sense of pride and achievement swell up in me. I was up there, I had made it. The first building block to regaining my confidence. A step to remembering who I was and carving a new part of my identity. That summer, I spent most of my free time and days off hiking alone in the Lake District hills. I loved how being solo allowed me to go at my own pace, to not hold others back, my mind now able to focus and reorganise my thoughts. Those hills strip you to your bare essentials giving you the time and space to process your thoughts. To get to the heart of what you really want. The ship that had felt so wild and reckless was finally finding calmer shores and a new direction to head. I began to share and document my experiences in the Lake District on my blog, an outlet to help me process these changes.

It made me realise how so early on as a child we are labelled as ‘sporty’ or ‘arty’ or ‘academic’, and that I held tightly on to that indoors academic girl box I had been assigned. The outdoors and hiking felt like they weren’t for ‘people like me’. I assumed you needed to be super fit or super fast or super brave. But the outdoors is open to everyone, you just need to brave the first step and trust yourself to keep walking.

Rebecca is a writer and hillwalker based in Ambleside, find her on Instagram at @lookwithneweyes and at www.lookwithneweyes.com.

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