Hill Walkers Anonymous

I’ve just returned from a week in the Lake District, and I must say that it’s a rather striking place. From the forested slopes of the valleys, to the vistas over the meres and waters, there are beautiful sights at nearly every turn. I’m one of those people who’s easily satisfied with this sort of thing, and I was thrilled with just the character of the moss on the stones and trees that line the roads. There’s something about a moss-covered dry stone wall that gets my sense of natural aesthetics all worked up. But between the walls, the rivers and streams, the trees and quaint cottages, the green valleys and brown bracken-topped fells, there’s more than enough for everyone.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this is a popular place for walking. I should probably explain, though, that walking in England is not quite the same as it is elsewhere. Firstly, it’s called hill walking, rather than hiking. Secondly, it takes no notice of the vagaries of the weather. If the English had to wait for half-decent weather before heading for the hills, they’d only get out once or twice a year. And so they don’t, meaning that the majority of hill walking takes place in wind, rain, or snow, in varying degrees of unpleasant ferociousness. And thirdly, it requires Gear. In the old days, you’d don a pair of sturdy boots, and a sou’wester, and head off into the great outdoors to Have a Jolly Good Time, Old Chap. Now, though, the English have been bested by their prosperity, and there is an appropriate piece of equipment to suit every situation.

This starts at the jacket – from waterproof to breathable, isotexicated to triple-isolationist, multi-layered to hydrostatic membraned, you have to have it all. Then come the boots, and the socks, the pants and the belt, the map pouch and the GPS, the walking sticks and the hat, the watch and the portable weather station. This is before you actually enter the territory of staying overnight in the elements, which goes much further than I’d be able to deal with in a simple blog post.

Now, all this stuff needs to be bought somewhere, and I’ve found out where. While most towns of a decent size in the UK would have some sort of outdoor shop, they seem to be concentrated in the places where this sort of activity takes place. North Wales, the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District. I haven’t been there yet, but I’d wager that the Peak District has more than it’s fair share of this sort of establishment.

But the village of Ambleside takes the prize of having the highest number of outdoor shops per capita. Probably in the world. Here’s a map of the centre of town, showing the ten shops that Google is aware of:

Outdoor shops in Ambleside

(Those of a pedantic bent should be aware that Millets (G) is next door to Blacks (D), and so are shown on top of each other. The same is true of Mountain Warehouse (E) and Summitrek (J). Those who like to know scale can rest in the knowledge that the picture above is about 300m square. )

On top of those ten, there are a further four that Google doesn’t know about. Or doesn’t care to tell me about. That’s fourteen shops for a population of 2,600.

And that, if you care to think about it, tells you a little bit about the English culture. Despite having been the creators of the Scouting movement, they’re not big on preparedness. No collecting up the required gear before heading off on a walking holiday – just pick it up when they arrive and find that they need it.

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