When I was a child, I famously (within my family circle at least) had no fear of heights. I was athletic and fond of gymnastics and used to run up and down the four flights of stairs to my attic bedroom three at a time. We often visited the Lake District on summer holidays. My father sometimes took me fell walking. For me, one long day's ridge walk, setting off at 7 in the morning so that we would have finished the ascent before the sun was too strong, taking in all of the Buttermere Fells, remains classified as one of the best days of my life.
As an adult, I returned to the Lakes with my own children and we went walking. I took them up some of the fells and, although I think we had some good times, I am sad to say that I put them off hill walking for life. I have since returned on my own and have had some wonderful, liberating walks. Now though, to my great surprise, I have developed vertigo and can no longer enjoy the freedom of the fells. This year, my annual spring pilgrimage coincided with some of the finest weather I have ever experienced in the Lakes. Though cold, the peaks were clear and bathed in bright sunshine all day every day. I arrived, had coffee at Whinlatter's visitor centre and headed up the flank of Grisedale Pike. Reaching the last rocky lump late in the afternoon, I realised that, though I might be able to reach the top, I might not be able to face coming down the loose steep rocks, and I had to turn around, only to be struck by the worst attack of vertigo I had yet experienced. Dizzy and feeling sick I had to sit down and inch my way back to more stable ground on my backside. The humiliation I felt on being passed by competent people on two feet was insignificant in comparison with the relief I felt when I once more reached the stable broad path.
The fells that have delighted me all my life now seemed threatening and oppressive. A day or two in Grasmere were still delightful. I was able happily to walk up Loughrigg Fell and around Rydal and up to Angle Tarn, but time was I would have climbed up via Easdale Tarn to the Langdales or done the Fairfield horseshoe without a worry. Now I am too afraid. I'm quite a timid soul at the best of times, but the fear of being struck by this kind of temporary paralysis is something quite new to me.
The only image I retain from Hitchcock's film 'Vertigo' starring James Stewart is of Stewart's sweating face and the kaleidoscopic whirlpool image used to depict his experience of vertigo. Though a fan of James Stewart, I didn't enjoy the film and would not want to see it again. But I only now realise what a wonderful piece of acting this was.
Staying near Derwentwater with a view of the Cat Bells ridge, I felt I should at least try to do it. I know the ridge well and there is only one tiny section that worried me. Normally, the crowds that stream over this friendliest and most charming of fells put me off, but this time I was grateful to see all those who were inappropriately dressed or overweight or carrying or cajoling small children. Surely, if they can, I thought. And I'm pleased to say that I did it. But as I sat having my lunch, looking down into the Newlands valley I wondered if I could learn to love the valleys in between the fells, with their lush green fields, peaceful white houses and lake shores, as much as I had loved the fells themselves. I'm not sure. The Lake District was never really about lakes for me. It was about hills, fells, mountains, ascending and descending, not about around and along. I am sad to say that I may not go again to the hills. But there are other places to explore – heaths and coasts and woodlands. Onwards if not upwards.