At the age of 31, Alfred Wainwright, chronicler of the fells, did what you might expect and took a walking holiday. Beginning at Settle, he went north via Appleby and Hexham, following Hadrian’s wall for a spell before returning to Settle by way of Ronaldkirk and Askrigg. There was more than usual to escape from:
..what Adolf Hitler said and did in September 1938 gave me and many others disquieting pains in the stomach. He frightened us. He made us feel sick. For he couldn’t enlarge his boundaries without trampling on our friends. Friendship, openly professed, involves many responsibilities and obligations, no less in international politics than in our individual associations, and we were being made to realize it. All that had gone to build up British prestige was at stake. And unless our good name was to be shattered for ever, we should have to help our friends and resist the invader…
These, then, were the days of Crisis. The newspaper headings appeared in larger and larger and blacker and blacker type; their effect was to stun you so that you read on in a state of torpor, which in turn gave way to extreme nervous debility; you couldn’t get things into proper perspective at all with those screaming headlines searing into your brain. (..) You wanted badly to go to a quiet room, or out on a hillside, and forget for a while. But you couldn’t. You turned on the news, and sat waiting with an inside quaking and empty..
So it went on, day after day, the suspense growing rapidly more acute. Words and phrases which had formerly lingered in the background of our thoughts, or been absent altogether, assumed a sudden and terrible urgency. We heard them, read them, repeated them, till we were nearly driven demented. They scared us. Fortifications, dugouts, plebiscites, armaments, bomb-proof shelters, decontamination squads, conscription, incendiary bombs, air raid precautions…
Within hours of leaving macadamed roads behind him, Wainwright was able to drop the whole thing from his shoulders and get on with what was for him some real living. Or, at any rate, that’s how he wanted us to see it. His account of his holiday is written from the point of view of a bachelor, scarcely out of his teens and scarcely into his career, a young man still liable to be overawed by elderly dalesmen with too much to say and university of life prejudices. But Wainwright was in his thirties, seven years married and the father of a son. If he could only stop smoking, he says at one point, he could afford a new suit, or a train set..
War and the promise of war followed him across the dales, and caught up with him finally one night when his inn was shared by two London women motoring north. The women popped out to call their husbands from the village phone box:
About ten o’clock, the two other visitors returned in some consternation.. They came out of the darkness like ghosts; their entrance startled the three of us around the fire. We could see at once that they were upset and shocked; and their obvious concern was not alone for their own problem. As they told of their hopeless wait (they’d failed to get a line to London), a fear which had grown upon them gradually while they had been outside in the street seemed to communicate itself suddenly to the Harkers and myself. ‘Something terrible is happening tonight, something terrible. What can it be?’
We were five people in a little cottage amongst the hills, miles from anywhere, and the other four I had not seen until a short time ago, but a common anxiety established a bond between us…
Harker turned in his chair at length and switched on the wireless. We watched his movements. We waited in dread and suspense… A thin voice came out of the black night, grew into the familiar tones of the announcer. Herr Hitler had been speaking today in Berlin. His mind was quite made up. The territory on which he had set his heart should be his; if it was not handed over to him by the first day of October, his troops would march over the border… For the first time in history, a murderer was announcing his intention beforehand, and fixing a date for his bloodshed: such are the mathematics of modern slaughter. On October the first, the war would commence.
October the first. Today was September the twenty-sixth.
We had four days to live.
Over the course of that weekend, Prime Minister Chamberlain bought time and won the eulogy that would be spoken, three years hence, over his coffin by Winston Churchill. Wainwright spent the first evening of “peace” partying with his young hosts at a village fair, and spent the first night in a sexual reverie in a bedroom festooned with the previous occupant’s lace underwear. The next days were wet and stormy, then -
Just as I was soberly counting on my fingers the girls I might reasonably have expected to marry me if I had asked them to, a diversion occurred. And diversions, on this particular afternoon, were things to be grappled to the bosom. A bugle sounded outside. I peered through the streaming windows into the gathering dusk. A motor-van was standing in the lane; the driver was at the rear, handing out newspapers to the few villagers who scuttled, heavily shrouded, from their homes like rabbits from a warren, and returned as rapidly. Newspapers! Football results! I heard the girl run down the passage and out of the front door. I was after her as though propelled from a catapult.
It was not now raining so heavily, but the strong wind was so bitterly cold that my half-minute’s absence from the fire chilled me to the bone. There were fiery streaks of crimson in the western sky, but they were far distant; Gamblesby lay under black, scudding clouds. It was a bleak, wintry twilight, and held little promise for the morrow.
I found at last that my favourite football team had been defeated yesterday by four goals to one, and were deposed from the leadership of the league. This was bitter cud to have to chew for the rest of the day; better I had continued in ignorance.
The papers were full of commendation for the Prime Minister; there was a full-page portrait of him, a lengthy biography, a great many references, all kindly and of heartfelt thankfulness for his timely action. I was grateful, too; very grateful. He had saved the country from war, and me from much cowardly reflection on how to keep out of it.