Rising from a stranger’s bed I pull aside the curtain and see the low isle of Anglesey floating in the Menai Strait: a fine day to climb Snowdon, first episode in what we hope will become the Three Peak Trilogy over coming weeks as part of my daughter’s Duke of Edinburgh challenge.
The Three Peaks was my wife’s idea. As Londoners, our lifestyles are sedentary, our children lost without wifi and flickering screens. Climbing Snowdon, Sca Fell and Ben Nevis presents a physical challenge – one I’m not sure any of us are capable of meeting – but also the opportunity to visit some of our finest regions, far from the traffic, knife crime and our surreally anti-social neighbours.
From the coastal town of Llanfairfechan, where we have temporarily swapped our Islington home for a small, neat detached house overlooking the Strait, we weave through the silvery threads of Snowdonia. Despite having seen the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Australian deserts and the Arctic Circle, our children are awe-struck by the National Park’s snowy heights and icy lakes, steps hacked from the slopes by giants, woolly, cartoonish clouds impaled on peaks. I panic. What if we fall to our deaths from a crevasse, freeze on some wind-torn escarpment? What sort of parents would we be? How would we be portrayed?
The car park at the bottom of the Miner’s Path is full: I am outraged. How dare other adventurers have the same idea? We chose this route because it’s easier on children’s legs, but now we return to Llanberis and take the long, steep route following the rack and pinion railway track. A nine-mile round trip, ascending 3,000 feet: tough going for adults, let alone city kids.
From Llanberis we ascend a steep sealed road for half a mile before turning onto a rough, mangled track consisting mostly of vast stones pressed in the mud by extinct heroes. Daughter, 14, moans she’s too hot, too cold, too tired, stopping for breath every 50 yards. Son, 11 is more sanguine: a frustrated country boy at heart, he enjoys these sunlit meadows, gambolling lambs, long-vision vistas. In London it’s rare you can see more than a few yards ahead; here we see distant hikers, animated dots far below assume the form of running dogs, the air so clear, scales so vast, judging size and distance become almost impossible.
As we climb, the track becomes ever more challenging: great slabs form rudimentary steps that make thighs groan, lungs burst. Never mind the kids: will I make it? How terrible would that be for my children, seeing their old man turn into an old man before their eyes like a speeded-up animation…
I have an unfair advantage over my kids: I grew up mid-Pennines, spent early childhood tussock-hopping on the Wuthering moors. Then at 11 we moved to the back end of town, where a few years later my paper-round up rain-lashed cobbled streets was comically hard. Added to which my father took me and my step-siblings to Skye, where as a young teen I climbed the Black Cuillins in a day, almost coming a cropper when I slid off a granite shoulder.
That was then: this is now. I’m 51 and have spent much of my life drinking alcohol, eating without discrimination. I’ve never knowingly visited a gym, swim only occasionally, and my principal exercise is the school run. I touch my aching chest. How’s the heart? Still pounding.
Mortality is on my mind because in the past few days I’ve attended two funerals at opposite ends of the country. First, that of Joyce Walker, my best friend’s mum in Yorkshire: matronly, kind, with never an unkind word about anyone, not even me, an angry young scrote most people wrote off before I turned 16. Was I a bad influence on Joyce’s son, Craig, or he on me? Both: we’ve been friends 35 years, travelling the world, living over curry houses and in condemned squats, and here we are, respectable, fathers, me a writer, his career stratospheric. How did that happen?
Craig was always close to his mum and had been worried about her for years, so when Joyce was diagnosed with lung cancer around Christmas the news came as a shattering blow, relief, explanation. She died a few hours after arriving in the hospice: Craig at her side.
Joyce’s funeral was in the small mill town of Elland. I took a train from London to Brighouse and, being early, walked the three miles to the crematorium despite the fact I was in a suit, and rain threatened as it always does once you cross the West Yorkshire border. As I walked, inhaling fresh air, mud on my flapping trousers, I savoured the valleys and satanic hills, crumbling mills and coppery streams that made Joyce: tough, resilient, humorous. As I walked I thanked Joyce for producing Craig, without whom I don’t know where I’d be, or what.
Reaching Elland early, I popped into a pub beside the A629 called the Barge and Barrel. The clientele were men in their 40s and 50s: the barmaid younger, friendly, apologising that they weren’t serving food.
“There are pork pies mind,” said one of the men, pointing at a plate on the bar. “Bit hard though – been there a fortnight.”
I smiled, eager to please, to fit.
“That’s food to me.”
The pie was hard, but I knew I had to eat for my audience and at least the bhajis were warm. Taking my pint I sat in a booth watching rain dapple the surface of the canal, utterly content for these few minutes of grace, listening to soothing murmurations from the bar: in recent days various regulars had each won incredible amounts from the fruit machine. Those present were astounded, not even resentful: money circulates, drips down. Can money be created? I don’t know. As I looked out on the canal it struck me: the north is dying, its rusting rivers and moss-furred stones depressing and claustrophobic: this is why I left.
To reach the crematorium buildings you make steep ascents through manicured gardens, the empty road lined with benches in memoriam: dead faces peek through wreaths, soft toys, hand-written tributes. This solemn climb evokes memories of other J-themed funerals: Jem, father of my step-siblings, who also died of lung cancer; his moustache and laugh crystalline in my mind 20 years later; Joan, the kindly old lady who looked after me so frequently as a child, another tough, kind Yorkshire lass, whose death brought about a reconciliation between me and my mother.
Mum and I have occasionally had a problematic relationship, but now, as she hits 70 and dementia-like symptoms begin to tie knots in her brain, we’ve achieved a sort of peace, an understanding; love, naturally, remains. As Larkin also said, apart from the infamous parent line: “What will survive of us is love.”
The quiet, sterile waiting room of the crematorium slowly fills with Northern folk in dark suits and dresses, solid, kind, sharing memories, tears, laughter: the perfect Joyce tribute. Another mourner, my age, balding, bearded, asks to borrow my pen to write a tribute card: now we recognise each other from the days he (Ste), me and Craig were thick as thieves, indulging in traditional pursuits of disenfranchised youths, walking hills and woods, 18 and daft as three brushes.
As Ste and me enter the chapel I catch Craig’s eye. He’s stood up front, master of ceremonies, this required and necessary ritual, suited, serious, self-conscious, every inch the dutiful, respectable, middle-aged son. Seeing me with Ste he grins momentarily and we grin back: it’s alright, it’ll be alright, he knows we’re here for him. We’re friends.
By now daughter, 14, too tired, mercifully, to complain, slows, grimly setting one foot in front of the other, pausing every few yards, carrying on. Son, 11, burbles on about time travel and YouTube, interjected every now and then with a “Wow!” as we reach another milestone, another icy, transparent tarn, see the toy train climb the slope, glimpse new mountains beyond our reach. Up ahead we see the cafe: halfway house. We enter for pot noodle and cold sausage rolls, coffee and hot chocolate. Son, 11 causes great merriment by asking if there’s wifi: there’s not even mains. Through the window we see Snowdon’s snow-covered upper slopes, the “Killer Convex”, an upturned bowl on which it’s easy to imagine my children sliding, laughing, enjoying the sensation, then panicking as the slope steepens, until…
The trail ahead and behind is now a ragged line of hikers young and old, their faces and languages from every corner of the stony earth: two Japanese girls in Ugg boots and tight jeans more suited and booted for Piccadilly take peace-sign selfies, dogs charge around, too stupid to understand they need to conserve energy. Some children are carried, some pushed, others encouraged or bullied. Our two seem excited now, the end in sight. A line of ants spiral round the giant meringue that is Snowdon. Again I remember my own near-fatal slip on Skye: my trainers then were unsuited to the rugged terrain, ropeless, slipping down a narrow shoulder of rock towards the drop, several hundred feet to certain death, caught just in time when a mountaineer reached out to grab. Where was my father, I wonder?
In a pub in Sligachan, waiting.
Mum and dad separated when I was two: after that I lived alone with mum, sometimes with her boyfriends and later on a second husband. Dad remained constant in my life: stayed in the same small town, where for a few years his house was separated from mine by a cobbled back alley, taking me to France, Scotland and once, gloriously, to the United States. Yet a year after that trip – sleeping in cars in Death Valley, squatting in San Francisco – I ran away from home after an assault by my stepfather, sleeping rough in a small town called Three Bridges. I went home, mostly, because I missed Craig. A few weeks later, my stepfather threw me out again. So it’s probably fair to say that when I was 16, between homes, unemployed and skint, I needed a father figure, and one duly appeared: John Russell.
John lived in London but he was “seeing” Linda Milnes, a Yorkshire woman who had taken me in when I had nowhere to go, and when he invited us to live in London, we accepted. John and Linda were in the removal van, so John’s mum and dad, Jean and Len, were the ones who drove me to a new life – along with two freaked-out cats.
Jean and Len Russell lived in Portsmouth, kindly and old-seeming even in 1985; they seemed posh because of the way they spoke, dressed and conducted themselves. John became, almost, another dad to me, and over the decades we shared a great deal – not least that sunny morning back in 2000 when we sat round the bed as Linda slowly, agonisingly, died of cancer.
John’s mum died in 2014; a few weeks ago Len passed too. He had made a good life for those four years – but missed her dearly.