A Journey into Scotland … Part 9
The area between Coniston and Windermere is one of my favourite parts of the Lake District. In the sixties you could already find crowds at Tarn Hows, Hawkshead and Far Sawrey. It has always surprised me how many people come to this most peaceful part of the country and then congregate in huge numbers. If you knew your way around or were prepared to take the road less travelled you could still find the sort of peace and solitude that has attracted poets and artists for centuries. Esthwaite Water is a beautiful lake which you can often explore in stillness. Take the first two books of The Prelude with you (in my opinion the 1805 edition captures the spirit of the times much better than the 1850 edition*) and you’ll soon realise what a fine poet Wordsworth was. The landscape around will provide commentary for the poem and the poem will add meaning to the landscape. Further south, Grizedale Forest extends for miles and it was here that we came. There were no lakes and no mountains but no lack of amusement.
We played out episodes of The Last of the Mohicans (my mother referred to the forest as Magyar’s Country), raced sticks down streams and I saw birds here I’d never seen at home. Jays were common. Their harsh clattering cries contrasting harshly with the soft pinks and blues of their plumage. I saw hawfinch and woodpeckers and once ruined a game of hide and seek by becoming entranced by a tree creeper.
My route is an old wool traders road. Most of the towns hereabouts were built on wool. Lakeland spotted cloth was worn by English bowmen at Flodden Field. Falstaff’s “three misbegotten knaves” in Henry IV part One were wearing Kendal Green. Kendal was the biggest and most prosperous of the Lakeland wool towns in medieval times but Ambleside, Hawkshead, Grasmere and Skelwith Bridge all owed their existence to spinning, weaving and dying. As well as putting some Wordsworth into your daysack, pack in a copy of Portrait of the Lakes by Norman Nicholson. He’s the true heir to the title Lakes’ Poet. He lived his life in Millom and had a true understanding of the region. He didn’t just know the history but had lived it from the inside. Generations of Nicholsons had worked the mines and quarries. He saw the houses and towns for what they were and understood the beauty of the place. Not for Nicholson a hike up a nearby hill to experience “a grand view over Langdale and the Scafell range” in the style of Alfred Wainwright. This true poet understood that landscape and working life were inextricably linked. He knew what he was talking about and had the words to express it.
Nicholson had problems with the influx of mass tourism. He wasn’t against it. He recognised it as a vital income to the area that had lost it’s primary and secondary industries. His worry was that the baby would be thrown out with the bathwater. That the tourism itself would kill the very thing that the tourists had come to see and I feel a great deal of sympathy with this. We both love visiting Hawkshead. He writes “I am attracted to the town and always enjoy going there, but I never do so without feeling a twinge of conscience.”
I feel very much the same way. I worry about how you can enjoy the streets of the town when they are filled with gore-tex wearing hikers and coach loads of pensioners. When, in short, they are filled with people like me. Nicholson goes on, “unfortunately it has to suffer the same treatment as all the other quaint villages, to be photographed and water coloured until its individual and delicious oddity has become that of a doll’s village, an exhibit in the York Museum lacking only the fluorescent lighting and the glass barriers.” It perhaps doesn’t matter so much now that so many of the residents have come from afar to live in the village, because it is quaint, but that opens up a different argument.
Wordsworth went to school here and that fact accounts for quite a proportion of the visitors, and yet like Haworth, Alloway and Stratford on Avon many of the visitors are non readers. I worked at Haworth Youth Hostel for eighteen months. In all of that time we had one visitor who had read a Brontë novel other than at school. What is it about Shakespeare, Burns and the Brontës that they should lure in so many people who don’t know much about them? And why should Wordsworth be among them. In many ways he was the least Romantic of the Romantic poets. He has none of the explosive living and out and out sex appeal of Byron yet Newstead Abbey draws a thin trickle of visitors in comparison. In Grasmere an American tourist was carefully shown around Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth museum and was delighted to the point of seeking clarification on many issues. Before leaving he thanked the curator and then asked a final question. “Who did you say lived here?” **
I like Ambleside and Ambleside has more than its share of visitors. It offers you as many opportunities to make impulse purchases of fine bone china, sheepskin slippers and fudge as anywhere in Cumbria yet it still retains a sense of being a real place where real people live. There is a no-nonsense, down-to-earth independence to true locals perhaps best displayed by the strange one up one down cottage built on a bridge purportedly so the householder wouldn’t have to pay land tax. In fact it was built to be what it is; a curiosity. My mother loved this building and the story that went with it. She once brought us up from Ulverston by train and steamer up the lake (the train was steam drawn too) in order to show us the house. We stood by it, wandered around and generally marvelled for the eight minutes it was able to hold our attention. We then began to wonder just what else we could find to do, that might match it for fun, in Ambleside.
There is something gloriously lasting about the town. The hotels and pubs do good trade and are reflective of an earlier time. The walls are made of slate and there is no more solid building material. It is by no means beautiful but it endures and I think this gives the town its sense of Permanence and purpose.
I’ve been on country lanes all day, often without a single car for company. All that changes on the final stretch. The A591 feels like a motorway after my quiet ambles. It isn’t far to Grasmere and though the slope is against me, the road is fast. I only know one way of pedalling when there are big lorries around and that is to go as quickly as I am able. It may not make me any safer statistically, but it gets the hardship over with a whole lot quicker. The views would be stunning if there wasn’t a bloody big road going through the middle of them.
At Grasmere I book into one of the two Youth Hostels and fall into conversation with two Americans who undermine my prejudices *** by being both extremely good company and rather knowledgable about Romantic poetry. We buy each other beer and wile away the evening in discussions of Keats and Shelley, the sublime and the merely beautiful and the best route up Greenhead Ghyll to find the sheepfold mentioned in the poem Michael.
*Wordsworth grew increasingly conservative in his later years and this interfered with his editing of his more revolutionary younger work.
**For the full story and plenty more read Portrait of the Lakes by Norman Nicholson
*** Meant with gentle self-mocking irony. I’ve never been anything other than admiring of literary Americans.