A clean mist hangs over the town, like a sheet of blown cotton fibre. The edges of the town melt in to the surrounding fields as the mist softens the hedges and the trees. Buildings pale, and fall back; only a church spire peaks out from the top of the rumble of blocks and rooflines. Hills muster in to mountains; water rushes ever onward. Welcome to the village of Hawkshead, in the Lake District.
The pub was surprisingly empty, and seats were found quickly. A fire burned, prickled and popped at one end of the room. The drinks were a selection of local ales and international ciders. The room was pleasingly dark and comforting after the encroaching night outside. A few drinks were drunk, and we decamped in to the dining room for an evening meal. Relief all round at not cooking tonight.
A walk from a picturesque town, along a rushing river. Stone under foot: artificial yet natural. We wend our way through marshlands, up through tree roots and down through muddy puddles. A waterfall and a roadside. Eventually we find our way in to a disused slateworks; should we be here? Then we see the ubiquitous dog-themed café and shop, and know that our business here is done.
If your experience of travelling in the UK is the Lake District, then we would like to apologise to you: not everywhere is as expensive as that. Even London is not as expensive as the Lake District, but only because of the amount of competition in the capital: there everyone is trying to sell you a coffee; in the lakes everyone is trying to buy coffee from one place. Only it’s not coffee; it’s gingerbread.
An argument breaks out: “why don’t we just go on a walk over the hill to the tarn? The dogs will love it” “We’ve got the pushchair.” “But there are paths at the tarn.” “Yes, but we still need to get there.” “Why don’t you just drive and meet us there?” In the end we all drove, and it was a very pleasant walk around the tarn. No one had the energy to walk back in to town over the hill; not a surprise.
The pub was too full to get in to at Christmas, so we sent in the most vocal of our group, along with a handful of bank notes and vague orders to avail us of drinks hot and cold. Because we had the child with us we were offered seats on wet benches. Because of smokers we kept repositioning the push chair. Drinks arrived to varying degrees; we would never see the change from that transaction.
The road was dark, but popular with traffic. There were no street lights, and we had a pushchair with us. And a child. Cars came past frequently, in both directions. We made our way hesitantly down the road, our phones in our hands, pointing the torches to the ground. We may be killed on our way to the pub, but at least we’d be well lit while we went about our way. We cared less on the way back.
We rented a cottage for our stay in the area; it was owned by a local pub. We were well past the usual season for such things, so the cottage had not been in use for some time. As soon as we were in the building we could smell it: Gas. There was a leak from the fire downstairs. As we had several children with us, we were reluctant to stay there. No other properties were available at the time.
It was my turn to cook; that afforded me a few hours on my own with an unfamiliar kitchen, with no ingredients. The shops were unhelpful, and cooking became an exercise in improvisation with some similar sounding and smelling stuff. How many pickles, preserves, chutneys and mustards can a stew handle, I asked myself. Thankfully there was an abundance of those; sadly there were no potatoes.
The Christmas market was a relief after all. A few streets of stalls selling, not the array of German tat we had become accustomed to, but local produce, mulled wine, and a selection of children’s hats and gloves. At points there were circus performers and local musicians playing classic rock covers, the age range implying a revolving rite of passage for anyone in possession of a good guitar and amp.
Every shop in every town must cater for one of the key needs of the visitors to the lakes: Beatrix Potter merchandise, twee coffee shop, with associated paraphernalia, or the equipment and the attire required for surviving outdoors. Shops consolidate all of these things in to one, with revolving stands replacing the need for a full shop. Walkers will buy anything, shopkeepers tell themselves.
Stupid as this sounds, but everywhere you go there are bodies of water. That’s the phrase I feel most comfortable with here. Yes there is at least one lake, but calling them all lakes is just a recipe for repudiation. Many of them are tarns; many of them are waters. You must know the difference, lest you be a pariah to all concerned. No matter how one wet thing looks like the rest, you must know.
The forest had been paved, and was attached to a wonderfully designed visitor’s centre. The path all around was solid, and suitable for both the elderly and those who had yet to learn how to walk. The sides of the path were strewn with artworks, many of which had decayed or been vandalised out of recognition. Such is the English way. A zip line strung across the valley, enticing eyes out to the view.
Today’s driver would never drive in a large urban area, with its rectilinear road junctions, and its dense, thick, population of vehicles obscuring each and every byway. Yet, here in the lakes, with the twisting, turning, narrow roads, too tight for any two vehicles to pass painlessly, they are perfectly at home, speeding along past curves of tree and hedge, growing out in the roadway, with nary a care.
A flat patch of grass, overlooking a tarn and a wood. Various generations of this extended family potter about and contemplate pushing on. Our child stands up and attempts to take a few steps. This is as many as she has managed up to this point. In a few weeks she would be running, but this was still new. A step, a step, and a stumble. Is she crying or is she chuckling? Who on earth knows?