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.
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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.
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.