the lake district, part i
Sitting on our separate bags in a crowded train station, handling hot coffee and quiet conversation with equal care, Jonny once said to me, "Some people spend their evening watching sunsets. We spend ours watching the King's Cross departure boards."
Our paths have always crossed in transit. By bus, by train, by foot, by boat, we have navigated our individual courses together more often than we realised. I think perhaps we are travellers by nature, though of very different kinds. Since coffees at King's Cross we have set out on a new journey together; one which, four months later, led us northwards to a place where we might find
Amid the fretful dwelling of mankind,
A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves
I'm not sure whose idea it was, except that not long after I got home from New York I found myself in a coffee shop with a copy of Lonely Planet's guide to the Lake District. Wilde by name and by nature, Jonny organised our camping trip down to the last detail, and on a sunny morning in April we set off from his narrowboat for a train station and an adventure.
bring with you a heart
That watches and receives
A bus, a tube, and two trains later, our landscape has drifted from grey cloud and cement block to velvet hillside and dry stone wall. Cumbria's chocolate-box cottages rolls past our window as the bus winds its way through the hills and over bridges towards our campsite. A trek, made long only by its unknown distance, and we arrive at the edge of Lake Windermere, and our own little wooden hut to call home for three days.
I sleep while Jonny organises - my natural response to completing long journeys. It's partly a genuine tiredness, but mostly some kind of mental rebooting. When I wake, the sun has crept behind the mountains on the other side of the water, and the dusk sends a hazy blue mist across the landscape. Ambleside shimmers on the opposite shore, and everything is quiet and still. I am thinking a lot about Wordsworth, and nature's breath.
The night is cold, but Jonny brings me a hot chocolate in the morning, filched from yesterday's train's buffet car and heated on our little primus stove. We pack daysacks and set off down the lane. The clouds hang low overhead but there are lambs in every field, and we are so immersed in our conversation that we forget to hurry and almost miss our bus.
Cumbria's winding lanes remind me of Norfolk, except for their rises and dips (- my home is known for its flat expanses and wide skies.) We have arrived in the middle of the school holidays, but the weather has been so dreadful this year that the villages are unusually quiet. Jonny wants to take me to Hill Top, the cottage where author and illustrator Beatrix Potter lived and which is now looked after by the National Trust.
The village is sleepy, and there are fewer families queuing for tickets than I expected. (I'm relieved; this place is an unlikely tourist attraction. The National Trust looks after lots of buildings not built for crowds, but grand old stately homes at least have the space to accommodate their visitors. Near Sawrey, the village Beatrix lived in, definitely does not - and I suspect that was one if its attractions to Potter.)
A mother next to us at the desk mentions her plan to visit Wray Castle, another National Trust property, and I pipe up that we're staying at a campsite close by and hear it's very good for children. The woman selling us tickets seems delighted that the two of us young'uns are showing an interest in this sort of thing, praises us for having National Trust memberships (Jonny's first birthday present to me - with half a mind on our trip here and half on my desire for pretty new photographic locations), and talks me into buying a guidebook.
Entry is timed, so while we wait for 12:05 Jonny and I sit outside the cottage and look through my book. Just as they were part of my mother's and my grandmother's childhoods, so Beatrix's tales are known by schoolchildren across Britain today - but I suppose if you didn't grow up here they need putting into some context. Beatrix was a keen artist, and her former governess suggested her illustrations might make good children's books. After struggling with problems we might expect for a woman attempting to make an independent living in Victorian England, she eventually published twenty-three tales, and insisted they be bound editions small enough for children's hands. If you haven't read The Tale of Peter Rabbit, you should do so immediately.
Visiting Hill Top, though, is about more than just seeing where Potter lived. She based many of her illustrations - especially in The Tale of Tom Kitten and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers - on her own farmhouse. This I think Jonny has told me, but I have promptly forgotten. When we walk into the house he goes straight up to the National Trust woman who is handing out copies of the books to the children, and brings one back to me opened on a specific page. There is Samuel Whiskers, and there is the kitchen I am standing in. (It's not long before I am rushing around with the six-year-olds, trying to find dressing tables and window ledges and the great grandfather clock on the stairway.)
I'd show you photographs, but pictures were forbidden. Usually I detest that kind of marketing ploy, but in this case you should really go and visit for yourself. I suggest taking a small child, just so you have an excuse to crawl around on your hands and knees (that sort of behaviour being frowned upon when you're twenty-one, apparently.)
View from the hill above Near Sawrey, with Hill Top in the background (the far grey cottage with two windows)
As we leave Jonny points out the green garden gate, and I have to go to the gift shop to find the illustration of the same little vegetable garden in Peter Rabbit. My mother has the complete collection at home, but I buy Tom Kitten and Samuel Whiskers for myself. I think we are heading townward, but Jonny says he has somewhere to take me for lunch. It's a bit of a walk. We head away from the village and follow a small footpath up the hills, do a little trespassing when he gets lost, and as we climb over a ridge a little lake comes into view.
It is Moss Eccles Tarn, were Beatrix once kept a little rowing boat and Jonny discovered on a run when he holidayed here a few years ago. We sit on a mossy bank and eat the sandwiches he's made as the rain drizzles and the geese call to each other across the water. I'd moaned about climbing over the fence earlier, my wild-and-dangerous side being more dependant on need than nature, and being sure that there was a way to get where we were going without running the risk of trespassing into an angry farmer. I feel bad about that now, because I've been brought somewhere special (not special in itself, necessarily, but special to the person who brought me here, which makes it more precious.) My favourite book is, in some ways, about this: the importance of sharing not just thoughts and feelings and caresses with the person you love, but physical spaces. Important moments happen when one character is in a place which is special to another. Perhaps that is because they plan for special things to happen in places which are special to them, but perhaps it is also because being allowed into someone's special place is important in itself.
We have done this before, and I have tried to write about it. Sitting above Moss Eccles Tarn, eating sandwiches under our waterproofs, I realise I am in a place where I cut across the reflex of a star: I am brought over the threshold of a life which is not mine, and allowed to disturb it a little. I don't know what to say so I take photographs instead.
We spend the afternoon in Hawkshead, where we take a look around the Beatrix Potter Gallery and see some of her original illustrations. There are copies of her books here, too, to read as you follow the drawings around the rooms. It rains some more so we have tea and cake in a little shop, and talk so much that we fail to realise the place closed half an hour ago. We have missed the last bus home, so we plan to walk the hour or so back to the campsite. It is raining and Jonny and I are battling with his map in the middle of the lane, but I still still feel a twinge of disappointment when the minibus from this morning pulls up ahead and waves us on board. However - what luck! The driver tells us a rambling tale all the way home as to how he shouldn't be doing this route so late, and it's only because he was training another driver... It's saved us a walk, and we get back to Low Wray in time for showers and dinner and attempts at expansions in the rain.
Later we are drinking hot chocolate on our little porch and reading from my favourite book, and it has stopped raining and the stars have begun to prick an indigo sky. Jonny says, "Come with me", and we walk down the bank to the edge of the lake and look out at the water for a long time.
Our paths have always crossed in transit. But even so, we have always paused for one another. At bus stops, between trains, on the bow of small boats in the middle of the night, we have taken rest from our travelling. Now we are journeying on together. It is the same but better.
... no Star
Of wildest course but treads back his own steps;
[…] the tide retreats
But to return out of its hiding place
In the Great Deep; all things have second birth
On the edge of water at night it is easy to feel [t]he self-sufficing power of solitude. I have bought Jonny a copy of Wordsworth's selected poems, and read aloud from the boat-stealing episode in The Prelude. Down here, watching the mountains on the horizon, I understand how they can live-but-not-live, how they could be so very terrifying to little Will alone in his stolen rowing boat. We are so very tiny and surrounded with the sublime; a landscape I have never experienced and don't have words for yet. But, Wordsworth was right. It is impossible to stand in this perfect stillness and not feel a presence that disturbs [you] with the joy/Of elevated thoughts.
We are quiet. All things have second birth. Everything is very perfect.