We’re in love with the fells and the stone walls of England. In a sense, both were left here by the glaciers at the end of the last ice age; a parting gift to the British Isles it would take 14 thousand years to appreciate properly. Where once glaciers had grown fat and advanced slowly across the land, now there are the dales and the lakes. The rock they crushed and rolled smooth and pushed aside was piled up hundreds of metres to create the magnificent fells, now home to the Herdwick sheep.
The land is rocky, made up mostly of pebbles and boulders, large and small. Back when farms were created, and they needed to enclose pastures for sheep, rock was abundant, wood was harder to come by. So everything here is made of stone. After a century or so, the stone walls themselves transform into perfect little gardens. More amazing than their natural beauty, however, is the human skill that has gone into building them.
These walls are piles of stones, fitted together without mortar of any kind. The joints between the stones are tight. Rarely can any light get through from the other side of the wall. And as you look at them from a distance, you see that the layers of stones are not random, they form up in near straight lines. The tops of the walls often sport a unique flourish; sometimes resembling a crenelated castle wall, other times a smooth cobbled road surface, or the builder has chosen square-shaped stones along the top that look like natural bricks all roughly the same size and shape. The more you look, the more see. They stretch up gradients that are precariously steep. It seems impossible to imagine someone carrying the stones there, let alone placing them in such perfect, and perfectly stable, symmetry.
Scott and I both think there should be a documentary film about the people who carry on the craft of building and repairing stone walls. While walking we think about the various elements that would be included in this documentary… it could be narrated by Sir Richard Attenborough. It could feature interviews with historians and geologists, as well as botanists and landscape architects. But it would star the local people who build these incredible structures.
I’m sure stone walls is an art drowning in globalization’s rising tide of marketing mediocrity, lost along with a lot of other beautiful things, like the traditional English pub. We’ve met a surprising number of local people bemoaning the loss of real English pubs, replaced by “posh” gastro pub-type places. We’ve been lucky to find a few good old-school pubs. But they’re becoming harder to find.
The hilltops here are something else altogether, a different world. We tried to describe them in our last post, but they really must be seen up close to appreciate properly – see previous post here. We could walk them for days and never tire of the landscape. Often the photos don’t do them justice, which is why we’ve added short videos to try and give you a sense of their beauty. Despite the howling mobs that jam the areas towns, like Keswick or Ambleside, Windermere or Coniston, most people don’t bother with the hilltops. So if you make the effort to climb up, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself alone up there. Just what we like.
Since we last posted, we’ve been wandering the seacoast, the small rural villages of northwest England and the wilder countryside in one of the dales of the Lake District.
We’ve stayed at B&Bs in Ulverston and St. Bees, and then returned to the countryside and the fells. We’re camping in Keswick again right now for wifi and a chance to update our blog.
Ulverston is mostly unremarkable, except to learn that it was home to Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy. Also now, it’s home to the largest Tibetan Buddhist Centre in Europe, the Manjushri Kadampa meditation centre. A former medieval Augustinian hospital and priory, the location has been the private home to lords and captains of industry, as well as a hospice and rest spa for miners run by the miner’s union. It now houses a monastic community of men and women and lay religious people from all over the world, mostly American, British, and European. Looking for something to do after we had rested and finished our blog updates, we went twice to meditate alone in the quiet temple, walk the grounds and have lunch in the café.
Our original plan had been to stay in a B&B in St Bees, a train ride away from Ulverston up the coast, and then contemplate walking parts of the Coast-to-Coast. After our education on continuous long-distance ‘walks’ in England, we scrapped that plan for a different approach that we find is making us very happy. We had B&B reservations for St. Bees, and wanting to see the ocean, we went there out of curiosity. It was one of our better decisions. St. Bees is really special.
A small coastal village that has become famous as the start of the Coast-to-Coast walk, it has long been one of those seaside vacation spots for the British. It’s incredibly windy, mostly chilly, with a smooth pebble and sand beach. You’re on the northern coast of the Irish Sea, so this is not the Mediterranean. Still, the British come here in swimsuits and beach towels and eat ice cream by the bucket from Hartley’s Tea Shop at the beach.
I always thought it was crazy for people to spend a week at the beach when it was cold and rocky and the sky was often menacing and moody. But I was wrong. It’s really beautiful. To spend just one night before heading off to start the Coast to Coast is to miss out on a wonderful place. We spent extra days there just to walk the coast along St. Bees Head and wander into the nearby villages and towns. We stayed at a spectacularly good bed and breakfast called Stonehouse Farm. We’ve used Airbnb up to this point, and paid the same price. Airbnb gave us much, much less. Stonehouse Farm is run by professionals, like all licensed B&Bs in England, and it’s authentic and spotlessly clean. Breakfast was a feast and the coffee excellent. The owners are charming. They nearly never have vacancies, but we were lucky to get two mid-week nights. Even luckier still, when a group cancelled last minute we were able to stay two more nights.
Having coffee while we wait for our fantastic breakfast at Stonehouse Farm
St. Bees’ origins are interesting. It’s named after St. Bega, a young girl who, according to legend, was the daughter of an Irish king. She fled in a small boat rather than be forced by her father to marry the son of the Viking king of Norway. Landing at St. Bees, she dedicated her life to God and lived as a religious hermit in a cave nearby. Bega left one day fearing raids from Vikings that had become common along the coast. She never returned. There is no reliable record of what happened to her, but she left behind a small gift, a silver bracelet. Revered as a saint for her kindness and holy character, the 12th century church is dedicated to her memory. It’s a fascinating place.
While exploring St. Bees and the surrounding area, we chatted about how pleasant it is to be in this rural place. Why? The wifi is non-existent, so we spent some time traumatized by the realization of how dependent we all are on the internet and access to it. But it also forced us to just be there, quietly enjoying the present. Why are rural places so popular now? Perhaps we all carry around a sense of loss for a world that is rapidly disappearing in the ocean of sameness and constant agitation of Facebook updates and the 24-hour outrage porn of the internet and television news. It used to be that wherever we were, we had to just be in that place, and to talk to people there. Now we can live in another world entirely and not see the one we actually inhabit in the moment.
There are of course good things that come out of a connected world. We have this blog, for one. And it helps us stay in touch to new and old friends, colleagues, and people we meet along the way, not to mention the total strangers that somehow find their way to us.
We’ve spent some time in the towns just outside the Lakes. There is a palpable sense of loss when you visit some of the towns that don’t benefit directly from the tourism economy of the long-distance walks or the Lake District and its World Heritage designation. These towns feel like places left behind, where prosperity is something old people remember and the young will never know. These towns contrast starkly with the impossibly charming prosperity of the very small villages that edge the Lakes. The traditional life and economy of this area feels under threat. Most of the scenic little cottages and farms wear signs out front advertising their true identity as vacation cottages for the well off. It’s probably why we see so many posh cars roaming around. Still, if the rich can preserve these places in some form I suppose they can stay, as long as they keep their poshy ways from wrecking the place with upscale restaurants and spa resorts (of which there are a growing number).
In any case, change is the one constant in the universe, and we’re living through an age marked especially by it. This place is no exception. Maybe as with all periods of change, we’ll emerge out the other end in a wiser, better place. That’s been the case in the past, so there are many good reasons for optimism. The existence of the Lake District as a National Park is just one. That decision was made in 1951. We’re grateful to the generation who felt obligated to protect it for future generations. For this moment, we’ll treasure what’s here.
We reluctantly left St. Bees for a new place, Eskdale. Oddly enough, we came here for Roman ruins. When Scott lived in the lakes, he visited the ruins of a Roman fort. I love ruins, Roman or not, and wanted to visit some on this trip. Humans have lived in England continuously for thousands of years, and they built a lot of things that can still be seen. Scott wanted to show me the Roman fort at Hardknott, so I thought this should be our next destination.
Scott joked that its Latin name really says it all, mediobogdum. It is known in modern times as Hardknott Castle for its location at the top of Harknott pass, one of the hairiest roads in Europe. The gradient at one point reaches 33 per cent. It’s too narrow for more than a single car, and it twists up one side and down the other. In a car, Scott remembered it felt scary steep, as if it were impossible to drive.
Its location in Eskdale makes it inconvenient to get to without a car, and there’s no bus. But I found a way. We took the train from St. Bees down to Ravenglass, known for it’s tiny narrow-gauge railway that used to serve the mines in the Eskdale valley. There’s no bus here, but we paid a fortune to ride the tiny train. If you’ve ever had a ride on the Stanley Park Children’s Zoo train, then you get a pretty good idea of what this is like. The difference is that this train was once a real operation with a serious purpose. The Stanley Park miniature railway is, well, a tourist trap. If you like trains, then this one might thrill you. It’s run by volunteers and is very sweet, even though it’s a little over-priced. It got us to the village of Boot, nearby our campsite. We stayed there four nights and walked the surrounding fells. The location of the campsite made it possible for us to walk the few miles up the steep pass to the Roman Fort and back.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it yet, but it rains a lot. It has rained so much that I’m almost never without my magic pants. Most campsites have ‘drying rooms’ – a heated barn usually – where you can put boots, tents, and wet clothes to dry. We’re lucky, though. Our exceptional tent, our boots and the magic pants keep us quite dry, on the inside if nothing else.
We’ve spent every day, with the exception of a sparse few, outside in some form of moisture dropping from the sky. We’ve become glued to weather forecasts like gambling addicts. Each day we pore over the Met Office or BBC updates. Each day it vaguely refers to sunny periods and a 30 per cent chance of rain. I interpret that to mean there’s a 70 per cent chance that it won’t rain. Either English forecasters are con men, or we are the unluckiest human beings alive and just hit that 30 per cent. Every day. We were joking about this to a young man named Dan who was tenting next to us in Eskdale.
He laughed and nodded. “It’s the classic English gift for understatement,” he said. “When we read 30 per cent, we understand it to mean there’s a 90 per cent chance it will rain.”
In truth, the British weather forecasts are gibberish to us. Here’s an example from the other day:
“Today: After a chilly start, it will be a fine, sunny and mostly dry day. A few mainly light showers may develop during the day, but with light winds it will feel reasonably warm in the sunshine.
“Tonight: A generally dry evening, but showers becoming more widespread and heavy through the early hours, with the risk of thunder. Under clear skies it will turn chilly with patchy fog.”
Right. So read that carefully. It passively-aggressively hints at a dry and sunny day. Unless it’s actually cold and very rainy with a thunderstorm. Throughout are weather platitudes like, “if it’s sunny, it’ll feel warmer.” Or, “if the skies were to clear during the night, it’ll be drier.”
In fact, it rained that day, a torrential downpour kicked off the morning, then subsided to a sideways windy drizzle. There was no sun. A woman dressed for a long day of hiking on the fells, came out of the information room at our campsite with a hard look of annoyance on her face. She stood there in the door staring in disbelief at the hard shower and said to us, “It actually says it should be sunny right now! How ironic.” Then she stepped out into the rain to trudge back to her tent.
In any case, we’ve managed to dry ourselves out before going moldy or smelly. We’ve now had two days of dry weather and it’s been glorious. For days, I’ve had the Beatles’ song running through my mind:
“Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
And I say it’s all right.
Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter.
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here.
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right.”
Now we’re preparing to head back out to the fells. We’re drinking tea and writing in a café in Keswick. Our laundry is done, our tent and bags are dry. We’re ready.