Before the lockdowns that made the world close up, Andy Wasley was a goal-orientated hiker, whose sole focus was often getting from A to B. But the pandemic—and the new habits and expectations it created—has made him slow down. Just enough to smell the birds, hear the birds, and even identify them…
My need for solitude runs deep. It’s why I hike long distances: I need the mental freedom that comes with a single-minded focus on getting from A to B, alone with my thoughts and my map, a long trail and a distant goal. This feels as necessary to me as water.
In early 2020, I’d been planning a second attempt to hike Scotland’s rugged and tough Cape Wrath Trail, a three-week solo trek that—I hoped—would satisfy my thirst for solitude. Of course, lockdown put an end to those plans. It also shrunk my space for exploration to my busy patch of suburban London.
It’s only a year on, after returning to hiking, that I can see how the past 12 months have affected my attachment to solitude—and, above all, my attentiveness to nature. Lockdown forced me to explore myself and my near-abroad in ways that, I suspect, will change the way I hike forever, and for the better.
It’s May 2021. Lockdown restrictions are eased in the UK, and I decide to head to northwest England’s Lake District. I pitch my tent near the foot of Kirk Fell [fells are high, barren features on the landscape, such as a moor-covered hill or a mountain]. Its steep grassy flanks give way to an exhausting slope of loose stones below the summit—my first goal.
My last trip to the Lakes had been in November 2019, as winter’s first snow fell. This time, I enjoy a bright spring morning of pale blue skies above a rush of ragged gray clouds, and the sight of swifts and swallows taking insects on the wing. Chaffinches and goldfinches twitter in the cool breeze, and a willow warbler’s wistful song trickles down the musical scale, close to the burbling waters of Lingmell Beck. Soundscape and landscape sat in harmony as I prepare to set off.
Birdsong echoes in my mind even now, when I think back to that spring morning. It’s as inseparable from the hike as the fells themselves. The truth is, I wasn’t really ‘into’ birds until the pandemic arrived, but they gave me a reason to explore Beddington Farmland, the south London wetland that would prove to be my haven throughout lockdown.
When my work dried up as the pandemic took hold in early 2020, I’d found myself spending time watching and photographing the herons that stalk Beddington Farmland’s muddy lakesides. I’d appreciated their indifferent company—and the way watching them gave me access to solitude and freedom from worry. From herons, I moved on to kestrels, lapwings and little ringed plovers. Bird by bird, I found myself falling into a new way of appreciating the landscape.
I’ve always dreaded busy summits. But as I approach Beckhead Tarn, I feel differently. It seems all that time back in the urban green space of Beddington Farmland has softened my need for isolation.
Today, in the Lakes, birdsong compels me to stop and stare wherever I happen to be walking. As I trudge up Kirk Fell, I turn back to see three buzzards circling high above the valley between me and the Scafell range, dark and solid, out beyond Wast Water.
Somewhere below, I can still hear a willow warbler’s plaintive song, drawing my gaze to the lazy swerves of Lingmell Beck, and a bright scar of slipped scree on the slopes of Yewbarrow, a fell whose top just touched the base of a low gray cloud. I think about how much I must have missed on earlier treks—all the birds that must have slipped by, unseen and unheard…
At Kirk Fell’s summit, two small songbirds—meadow pipits—squabble and dance on rocks painted with lemon-yellow lichen as I catch my breath and take in my first decent view of the pyramid-esque mountain of Great Gable. Sunrise has given way to a watery light that hits the mountain’s bare flanks in silvery glory.
Through my binoculars, I can see dozens of people making their way uphill. I’ve always dreaded busy summits. But as I approach Beckhead Tarn, from whose dark flat waters the fell rises steeply to the southeast, I feel differently. It seems all that time back in the urban green space of Beddington Farmland has softened my need for isolation.
Pure solitude in the Farmland was rare. Even on very early mornings during the pandemic, I couldn’t be sure I’d have the birds to myself. So I learned to content myself with unexpected company and unsolicited conversation. As lockdown wore on, I began to appreciate, rather than tolerate, the company of my fellow birders.
Lockdown called me to birding, and birding has changed me. Alone or with friends or strangers, I’ve come to appreciate a new way of enjoying my own space…
I also realized that solitude’s consoling power lies in the contrast between company and isolation. I had chosen to walk alone, but each nodding hello or brief chat reminded me that I can choose company too. That free choice had sharpened my appreciation of the landscape when I was lucky enough to have a view to myself.
And so, I approach Great Gable with gratitude for the company I’d find as I head up the scrambly incline of Beck Head, one of the many steep approaches to the mountain’s bare summit plateau. Fell runners smile as they pass in a blur of bright running gear and breathy hellos. Dogs and their walkers stand by me, gazing wordlessly at the low hazy valley of Ennerdale. We share our solitude, drawn from different lives to the same spot and the same view. Here and there, I am able to stand entirely alone, and to feel entirely free.
At Great Gable’s summit, three walkers stop to shout crisp fragments of conversation to me over the wind that’s tearing across the summit plateau.
I’d passed them earlier on Kirk Fell. There, the eldest of the three—Dave Cook, 79—had completed his third round of the Wainwrights, the 214 Lake District peaks listed in Alfred Wainwright’s Pictoral Guide to the Lakeland Fells. His son and daughter grin their pride into the wind.
I join them, grateful to be able to share their moment of achievement. Nearby, a raven barks its own contribution to the chatter, before lifting high and flying out towards Kirk Fell. Had I been hiking with my pre-lockdown goal mindset and aversion to company, I’d have missed these moments—and might not have beamed quite so widely as I pressed on with my walk.
Lockdown called me to birding, and birding has changed me. Alone or with friends or strangers, I’ve come to appreciate a new way of enjoying my own space, and learned to see the landscape over more scales and in more detail than before.
Below Great Gable, alone by the great flat lake of Styhead Tarn, I pause to watch a meadow pipit looping high into the sky before gliding slowly back to earth. Then, smiling, I make my way back to the hamlet of Wasdale Head, and to the willow warbler calling me home to rest.
Andy Wasley is a freelance travel writer, photographer and videographer based in London. His writing and photography on adventure travel, hiking, culture and LGBT issues has been published internationally, featuring destinations across the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe.