TGO writer James Forrest in conversation with Harrison Ward on escaping from alcoholism, the solace of the Lakeland fells, and cooking good food in the great outdoors.
James: Please introduce yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
Harrison: Hello, I’m Harrison Ward, perhaps better known as Fell Foodie in some circles. I’d describe myself as a proud Cumbrian with a love of the outdoors and anything culinary. So it was a no-brainer to mix the two passions.
James: So I understand your life was in a pretty dark place a few years ago – can you elaborate a little?
Harrison: I was vastly overweight (22st), a smoker and a heavy daily drinker. I had suffered from poor mental health throughout my time growing up and it continued into adulthood. At 18, whilst working full time in hospitality I began to discover alcohol and it quickly became a key ingredient in my life. Alcohol at first acted as an escape, a way to silence crippling thoughts but before long it was my poison. It became my sole focus, affecting relationships with family, friends and loved ones. At its height, I was consuming over 20 pints a day, causing financial difficulties and health strains whilst still hanging on to a full-time job.
James: What made you decide to make a change in your life?
Harrison: I was in a serious relationship yet maintained my hidden relationship with drink. It eventually came to prominence and signalled the end – I had become somebody I wasn’t. This was the crisis point I needed to come to terms with myself that I was an alcoholic. Initially, after removing alcohol and cigarettes from my life, I threw myself into fitness. My goal was to win back my former partner but I later realised how important this change was for me and others who had stuck by me. I began to lose the excess weight, maintain sobriety and begin to see the world through fresh eyes. It feels like I am looking back at a stranger when I recall my past days.
“Heading back to basics and existing in nature feels like an homage to our ancestors”
James: What role did the mountains play in helping you turn your life around?
Harrison: After returning to Cumbria, my close friend Ryan took me out for a day on the fells. I was practically penniless so he bought me a pair of boots and pretty much dragged me to the top of Blencathra. I was still in the throes of withdrawal and in no state of fitness (my only previous Wainwright was a trip up Latrigg; it took me nearly two hours and I probably stopped for a smoke five or six times). The climbing of the mountain, culminating in the vistas from the top, felt like a physical manifestation of my own personal struggles. Helvellyn followed a week later, Scafell Pike after that and a new addiction had been ignited. Roll on a few months and I was donning trail trainers and running up and across the hills I had previously had no time for.
James: Why do you love spending time in the mountains?
Harrison: I love the sense of achievement, the challenge of the climb, but also the escapism of negatives in day-to-day life. I have always considered myself a laid-back optimist, although these traits may have been buried for a few years. But heading back to basics and existing in nature feels like an homage to our ancestors. I am a big advocate for ecotherapy; the endorphin boost from getting outside is essential to both physical and mental health. That ‘high’ of reaching a trig point at a summit and gazing on the Lakeland landmarks below far exceeds any placebo I may have had in the past. I consider the mountains as key to my life redemption and new-found contentment.
“Helvellyn is close to the heart and it has something for everyone; ridges, a tarn, notable height, accessibility and awesome views”
James: How often do you head into the fells?
Harrison: Living in Ambleside, I am forever in the heart of the Lake District fells. I am lucky to have met many friends and acquaintances who also enjoy hiking and an outdoorsy life. I aim to be out at least once a week, be it hiking, fell-running, cooking or wild camping. But once the nights get lighter it is not unusual to be out and up top every night of the week, from a run home over Loughrigg to a bivvy on Helvellyn.
James: What is your favourite mountain or mountain range?
Harrison: Each mountain so far holds different memories – it may not be the prettiest but the experience was fantastic, or it may hold sentimental value. The central fells are where I am most familiar but the view from Fleetwith Pike in the Western Fells just took my breath away. Helvellyn is also close to the heart and it has something for everyone; ridges, a tarn, notable height, accessibility and awesome views. I love to head up from Swirls car park as the altitude you gain in such a small amount of time is unrivalled in the Lakes.
“No cookout and camp is complete without freshly brewed coffee and a smoked bacon sandwich in the morning whilst watching the sunrise”
James: Your Instagram account combines your love for food with your love for the mountains – can you tell us more?
Harrison: Food, and more importantly cooking, has been my earliest passion. I learned to cook alongside my grandmother as a child and that feeling of bringing people together through food was something I fell in love with. When she passed away, all I asked for were her handwritten recipes. She was a fantastic baker but it was only after she’d gone that I branched out into savoury experiments, soon developing my repertoire, knowledge and palate. I’ve always cooked and initially set up my Instagram account to publish my home cooking in order to avoid annoying my Facebook friends. People seemed to enjoy what I had made and often commented on my packed lunches on mountain days – they were often more ‘cheffy’ than the traditional butty wrapped in foil. So it seemed only natural to take the cooking into the mountains and cook over fire like our forefathers had.
James: Why do you love cooking in the great outdoors and what is your favourite dish to rustle?
Harrison: The element of survival, the fulfilment of a hot meal in the outdoors, the relaxation of it with no worry of time or distraction and the challenge of cooking good food, from scratch with basic equipment. It certainly isn’t the easiest way to do it – (Harrison laughs) – but the reward and the experience is so much more satisfying. I tend to try new dishes each time. Obviously I have no oven, so that eliminates some dishes, but a classic ranch-style chilli or a slow-cooked, flavoursome stew is always a winner. No cookout and camp is complete without freshly brewed coffee and a smoked bacon sandwich in the morning whilst watching the sunrise.
James: You’re making us feel hungry – where can our readers follow more of your gastronomic and mountain adventures?
Harrison: You can find all my adventures and culinary experiments on my Instagram feed @fellfoodie. I hope to have a website live by the summer too so if any dishes tempt you, you will be able to download the recipes. Alternatively you can find me in the fells…
Header image © Daniel J Toal