Fellow passengers are cracking jokes about the iconic moment in the film The Italian Job to ease the tangible air of tension in the bus.
I’m sure you know the scene; the one where the coach hangs over the edge of a cliff.
The joking does nothing to help calm my nerves.
The reason? Well, we’re right on The Edge, in the Lake District, on the narrowest of roads clinging to Fleetwith Pike, nearly 2,000ft above the Honister Pass.
I tell myself that the genial driver must know what he’s doing. He makes this trip dozens of times each week. And after all, he’s still laughing, despite hearing corny references to the heart-stopping scene thousands of times.
The nerve-racking journey only takes about five minutes, but feels like an age.
At last we’re out and looking over The Edge. Thankfully, there’s now a railing between us and the stomach-churning drop. We negotiate gravelly slopes and metal staircases around the side of the mountain, with me tightly gripping the rail, as we near the entrance to the Honister Slate Mine.
If I thought this was breathtaking, it’s small change in contrast to the experience of far more adventurous souls; the ones who don’t get the vertiginous heebie-jeebies, that is.
They can tackle Honister’s amazing Via Ferrata, climbing ladders, scrambling and hanging on to the cliff face with the chance to ‘zip’ down from the summit of Fleetwith Pike – harnessed, of course.
It’s certainly nothing compared to the lives of the miners who literally lived on the edge in their tiny ‘bothies’. We duck our heads in to one of these damp, dark slate shelters. It’s almost impossible to believe that anyone would want to spend a minute in there, let alone their nights – and all after a back-breaking 18 hours or so at the face.
One of them, Joseph Clark, was famous for bringing down nearly 11,000lb of slate from the mine in 17 journeys during just one day. That was in 1891.
Our guide Celia, whose son bought the mine in 1996, tells us that the family could not get locals to work here to mine the pale green slate, which is on the roofs at Buckingham Palace and most of Regent Street. Their last miners were Hungarians.
It might be astoundingly bleak and swirling with chill, penetrating mist during our visit, but that’s the drama of these peaks and passes.
We’re among the highest mountains, most dizzying drops and steepest roads in England. The deepest lakes lie far below and we know that when the mist clears we are going to be in for a treat.
Our journey from our campsite on the shores of Derwent Water to the 1,167ft summit of the Honister Pass is spectacular.
This is one of Cumbria’s highest passes, with a one in four gradient.
I’m mindful that well-to-do Victorian tourists who used to set off from their posh hotels in Keswick in their liveried coaches to make the ascent might have reacted very differently. Think of the shock they must have got at being told to get off at the hamlet of Seatoller far below and walk the rest of the way, on what was then just a track, In those days this wasn’t known as the worst road in England for nothing.
Later that afternoon our drop down towards Buttermere on the other side is excitingly steep and made all the more atmospheric by mist and rain.
Our biggest dilemma in coming to the Lake District has been knowing just where to start.
This is England’s largest national park. Around us are more hiking trails than we can shake a walking stick at, plus far gentler strolls around those aforesaid lakes that have inspired poets and artists alike for centuries.
We’re only here for a week. You can appreciate our quandary.
Alfred Wainwright – famous for his Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells – recommended Castle Crag, above Borrowdale, for an “enduring memory of the beauty and atmosphere of the Lake District”. Eminent Victorian John Ruskin reckoned the “best view in all of England” was the one from his house looking out over Coniston Water. As always seems to be the case in our family, it’s our youngest daughter, Sophie, who decides for us. One look at the map and the words Cat Bells pounce straight off the page at her. The fact that, halfway up, are Kitten Bells, adds to the attraction.
I’d read Wainwright’s description of the climb as a “family fell, where grandmothers and infants can climb the heights together”. The route up Cat Bells from beside Manesty Cottages on the shores of Derwent Water is quite steep, with steps cut in places. From the top we look to Skiddaw and further north to Bassenthwaite Lake. To the west are the Derwent Fells. To the east, our views are across to Bleaberry Fell and High Seat.
Our return to Keswick takes us across the old stone bridge at Grange and along Derwent Water’s eastern shore.
This journey takes us far longer than we had bargained for. It’s not other tourist traffic that slows us down; we get sidetracked by footpaths enticing us through the Great Wood and down by the lake.
Next day we return to walk in Lowcrag Wood and up to the much-photographed Ashness Bridge, the view from which has been described as “iconic Lakeland”.
From here we planned to walk to Bleaberry Fell and up High Seat, but are thwarted by the famous Lake District weather.
Our Keswick camp site is wonderful, right on the lake. It’s the Camping and Caravanning Club’s most popular site and proves a great base.
From the edge of town we can follow the Cumbria Way to climb Latrigg Fell with its views down the length of Borrowdale. Castlerigg stone circle is just a couple of miles’ walk. Standing in the centre of this 4,500 year-old circle, 1,000 years older than Stonehenge, we take in a panorama of Cat Bells, Red Pike, Crag Hill, Grisedale Pike, Skiddaw and Blencathra.
En route for a fun day out at Trotters World of Animals, eight miles further north, we’re treated to glorious views over Bassenthwaite.
We’re welcomed back to Keswick by the towering hulk of Skiddaw, glowing such an incredible shade of red that it reminds me of the world-famous sunsets at Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia.
On our last day, our slippery upwards path towards Stickle Tarn, below the beautiful Langdale Pikes, quite suddenly becomes a stream.
We take it all in our stride. It’s all part of the excitement of being in the ‘adventure capital’ of England.
Things to do
For information on the Lake District and all its attractions; golakes.co.uk
Watch flying displays of owls and hawks, feeding demonstrations and get the chance to handle snakes and a tarantula at Trotters World of Animals, Bassenthwaite. (01758 776239; trottersworld.com) Open all year.
The views over Coniston Water from Brantwood, Coniston. (01539 441396; brantwood.org.uk), are wonderful. Former home of John Ruskin. Beautiful gardens and woodlands. Open all year (Wednesdays to Sundays from November to March).
Prepare to be amazed by the anti-gravity room and dozens of other illusions and sense-defying puzzles at the Keswick Puzzling Place, Museum Square, Keswick. (01768 775102; puzzlingplace.co.uk) Open all year; closed Mondays from November to March except for school holidays.
Whinlatter Forest Park, Braithwaite, has easy, scenic trails and is a designated red squirrel refuge.
For the Via Ferrata and Honister Slate Mine, Borrowdale. (01768 777230; honister.com)
Keswick Camping and Caravanning Club Site. Non-members welcome. Open February to November. (01768 772392; campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk/ siteseeker/)