Posts Tagged ‘Grasmere’


The plan was to drive to Troutbeck, then climb Wansfell. It’s a modest peak, though steep in the approach, as I recall, and it peters out where the big fells are only just getting going. But I thought it would be plenty for the day, and it would get me back into the Lakes where I have not walked since before the COVID restrictions.

Parking’s a bit tight in Troutbeck so, just in case, plan B was to slip over the Kirkstone Pass to Patterdale and do something from there instead, if Troutbeck let us down. And, sadly, Troutbeck did let us down. The last of the slots on the secret (and free) carpark had all gone by 9:15. So, plan B swung into action, only for us to discover the Kirkstone pass was shut for repairs. There was no plan C.

The last thing I wanted now was to end up in the parallel universe of the central lakes, a place of bottlenecked traffic, and zombie crowds. And I especially didn’t want to end up in Grasmere. But when you’ve no plan C, and you’re trying to make up something on the hoof, strange things happen, and, in the end, Grasmere it was. The parking here is not free, and it’s 50p to pee. It’s nice to see the place has not lost its touch.

It was 2010 when I last walked from Grasmere. I went up Tarn Crag, crossed the head of Far Easedale, then returned along the ridge to Helm Crag. But we’re not up to that today. Instead, a simple walk to Easedale Tarn is more our speed. The sun is shining, the morning is fresh, and there are lots of pretty waterfalls along the way.

Reading back about that walk, I did a lot of moaning. The price of parking, and the contempt with which visitors are treated in the shops particularly vexed me. I even took a picture of my parking ticket – shock horror – but those prices seem quaint today. Yes, I have a difficult relationship with Grasmere, though I suppose all tourist traps are the same. I remember being here when my children were still in nappies, and discovered we’d run out – not a situation a parent wants to find themselves in. So I enquired desperately of the chemist, who found my predicament amusing and explained how so few babies are born in Grasmere it wasn’t worth his while stocking nappies. It was a sad indictment of the Disneyland the place had by then become: plenty of money for some, but losing its authentic soul. Wordsworth’s been a long time dead and though he’s still worshipped daily in St Oswald’s churchyard, by the tour busses, all that he worshipped has surely turned to dust. We drove home fast, and with the windows down.

But that old blog piece also reminds me how I stopped to rest by Little Brownhoe Gill, just before tackling the ridge up Tarn Crag. It was where I finally worked out what that line in William Henry Davies’ poem “Leisure” means: streams full of stars, like skies at night. You’ve only to take a little time to stand and stare, and there they are. In broad daylight.

2010 is a long time ago, and there’s been a lot of water down Brownhoe Gill since then, though it feels like only yesterday. But then every decent walk in the Lakes, the Dales, or anywhere, was only yesterday, though that yesterday might have been forty years ago. The normal rules of the universe don’t apply, we tie our bootlaces, and step off into a timeless place of beauty. For today’s yesterday then, we have a straight forward walk, up the Easedale road, then Easedale beck as it tumbles down the fell in a series of rushing falls.

Sour Milk Ghyll, Grasmere

There’s been a lot of rain over the past few weeks, and the beck is boisterous in the shallows, thundering over the rocks. The deciduous trees are still bare, but the yews are a lush green in the sunlight, and the hollies are glossy, berries red and almost luminous. The most dramatic cascade, and what’s been drawing the crowds up from Grasmere since the Victorian Romantics, is Sourmilk Ghyll. It’s one of two to be so named in the district I know of, the other being in Seathwaite.

We have clear skies today, and it’s warm in the sun. The beck is sparkling, and gin-clear. It’s still only mid-morning, and the footfall on the path is light. It’ll be different by midday. There’s a little waterfall every five minutes that draws us aside to fiddle about with the camera, or just to stand and stare. The water-colourist Heaton Cooper described the essence of the district as rocks and light and running water. It’s a phrase that always comes to mind when I’m here, and for obvious reasons.

Easedale Tarn, and Tarn Crag

Above the falls, Easedale Tarn comes suddenly into view. Here, the roar of water falls away into a vacuum of silence. There’s not a breath of wind, and the tarn is a mirror for the backdrop of fells, their lower flanks all rusty, giving way to runs of scree and frozen free-falls of rock towards the craggy tops. Tarn Crag is beautifully lit by late morning sun, and very tempting. I did once pick a line to the summit from here, but I can’t trace it now and, like my last walk, up Rivington Pike, I’ve still not the puff for it. Instead, we head to the far end, looking to perhaps circumnavigate it, but the faint ways here are overcome by water running down from the fells, swelling the boggy bits, and all the becks are in spate, making crossings difficult. I’m not that attached to the idea, though, just glad to be bumbling about. So, we bumble on up the valley a little for the view of Belle’s Knott.

Belle’s Knott

Beyond Belle’s Knott, and a little jink to the right, lies Coledale Tarn, which I’ve only visited once, and I’m wondering about heading up to it. As an objective, I’ve often felt the Lake District tarns are as worthy as its summit cairns, each with its own character, but I’ve only got five hours on the ticket. Any more than that, and it would have cost me eight quid. And again, I’m really not that attached to anything today. So we sit a while by the beck, listening to the music of it instead. It’s not how I imagined the trip turning out, but I am glad to be here, and to be reminded of just how beautiful, how special this landscape is. The main routes in the Lakes, like this one, have always seen a lot of footfalls, and that can be frustrating, even on a midweek morning, but you’ve only to slip away from them for five minutes to find secret places, and to experience the intimate magic of it.

We make our leisurely descent via Easedale, arriving back at the car with enough time on the ticket for a brew in the sunshine. I’ve brought my own brew in a Thermos. Heaven knows what they charge for a coffee in Grasmere, now, if it’s 50p even to pee. That would have been an easy walk, once, but a tough one today. I can feel myself bone tired, and the feet are sore. It’s true, then, a mild dose of COVID might only knock you out for a few days, but it’ll leave you empty for months.

Just over seven miles and fourteen hundred feet of ascent.

I leave the last word to William Henry Davies, on the subject of seeking beauty:

Cold winds can never freeze, nor thunder sour
The cup of cheer that Beauty draws for me
Out of those Azure heavens and this green earth —
I drink and drink, and thirst the more I see

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grasmerePicture postcard Grasmere. Just a thirty minute drive, yet a world away from the Lake District I know, from the sublime beauty of the Wordsworths and Coleridge, and Southey. No, not in Grasmere, Lewis. The poets would not recognize themselves there any more.

In truth, I dislike the place immensely, dislike the moneyed incomers, the second homers, and the beleaguered locals equally, having found the latter in the past to be universally unfriendly, and paradoxically at war with us, the day-tourists who provide their living. Never been to Grasmere, Lewis? Take my advice and beware, the carparks have installed credit-card readers now, because no one carries that much coinage any more! Your secret camera reads our number as we drive on, and sends the fine directly to our address if we drive off again without paying.

So, it’s true, Lewis. You really do know where we live?

However, by way of protection, I possess something you do not: – a little local knowledge. There’s a long lay-by out on the main road, up to King Dunmail’s rise. I’m early enough to squeeze the Volvo in there for free. What was it Rebecca said? Nowadays all we have to go on are our wits? And small victories, in the face of overwhelming odds, mean a lot.

It’s begun to rain. Golfing-brolly aloft, I walk the mile back into the village. Woodsmoke forms a cap upon the vale, the leaden clouds a higher cap, cutting off the fells at a few hundred feet. The air is cool, a Lakeland summer maturing. I buy gingerbread, then repair to the churchyard to pay my respects. This is the tourist thing, you understand.

Now, just a moment, let me see:

Wordsworth, William; 1770-1850. Mary (wife), and Dorothy (sister), muses in their different ways. And Sara, third muse, Mary’s sister – beloved of STC. His children are here too, also Hartley, son of Coleridge. Old stories, Lewis, his best work done in his twenties, an age I can barely remember now, then a long life of contemplation, and one tragedy after another.

Is that where I am now? Surely, I am worth one last flourish!

American tourists are photographing shyly, as if they fear it might be a sin, or there’s a charge, because for everything else in our Buiscuit-tin-Lake-Wonderland, save the air we breathe, there is either a charge for it, or a notice to forbid it. I intuit they’ve already been told off for pointing their cameras in the hallowed halls of the Wordswortharium. They see me looking, so I smile to separate myself from the shadow of sour-faced officialdom.

The wide old gentleman, and his blonded dame sidle over, ask if I will photograph them together, St Oswald’s church in the background, then ask the way to Rydal Mount. I’m glad to oblige. I never fail to be charmed by the graciousness of Americans when abroad, and wonder how they can be so genteel, yet carry guns at home in case of argument. Forgive me, I’m generalizing, I know. I offer them a nibble of my gingerbread, and they accept.

It seems at least I have a face that people trust.

Story of my life, Lewis. Myths, remember? Half truths. Imaginings.

[Lifted entirely out of context from my novel “By fall of night “]

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journals-of-dorothy-wordsworthDorothy was the sister of William Wordsworth, also friend to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Though a diarist, and poet in her own right, she never sought publication and it was only in 1897, some forty years or so after her death, her earliest hand-written journals were taken up and printed by the historian William Knight.

They concern just two months of the year 1798, spent at Alfoxden, when Dorothy was 27. We also have 1800 to 1803 at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, though of the latter, only 1802 is complete. The Helen Darbishire version takes another look at the handwritten originals for the Dove Cottage years. For Alfoxden, the William Knight version is the only academic source now, Knight having ‘mislaid’ the original. She kept other journals – accounts of travel in Scotland and Europe, but these are not included here.

What’s striking is the diaries are either neutral in their bearing or wholly positive of the persons mentioned in them. We must therefore assume Dorothy was, to a degree, self-censoring, and this is fair enough, especially since it’s known she wrote with the expectation that at least her brother would be reading them – and no one is that magnanimous if a journal is guaranteed its privacy. In short, there is nothing here for the muck-raker, not even in that much psychoanalysed pre-wedding scene of June 1802.

But let’s go back to 1798. This was a significant year, marking the collaboration of William Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the publication of their “Lyrical Ballads”, a book that kicked off the English Romantic movement. The preface, written by Wordsworth, can be read as a manifesto of the movement’s aims and, for anyone who wants to know what English Romanticism is, or was, this is still the best place to start.

Then we have the early years in Grasmere, this period marking several revisions of the Lyrical Ballads. But Dorothy’s presence at the birth of English Romanticism is more significant than that, though in ways not always easy to get at. For a start, it seems rather a small slice of a life, just fragments of three and a bit years. So what is it about Dorothy’s jottings that’s kept them in print all this time? Is it simply that she was the sibling of a famous poet, is it prurient interest in the nature of their relationship, or do we glimpse something special in Dorothy herself?

Though I admire the Lake Poets, I find them difficult. Dorothy on the other hand is immediately accessible, her journals capturing with great brevity the most colourful pictures of her life and of the natural world. She was, in a sense, the mind-camera for William and Coleridge, who used her diary as a reference, the result being you will find echoes of Dorothy’s words, and the scenes she captured, in their work. She was also, in a sense, the embodiment of everything the Romantic movement was trying to get at – something profound in its simplicity, in plainness of language, and purity of feeling.

I plead ignorance of Alfoxden, but I do know the area around Grasmere, a village now so overlaid with an impenetrable veneer of chocolate-box tourism and dotted with the weekend residences of city-gazillionaires, it’s impossible to imagine any sort of authentic life being lived there at all. If we want to know what that place contributed to the Romantic movement, two centuries ago, we turn to the Lake poets, but if we want to flip through the stunningly vivid mind-pictures of life in the Lakes back then, and rub shoulders with its characters, then we read Dorothy’s journals. And in them we discover all is not lost, that if we can get away from the honey-pots, and beyond the fell gates, it’s still possible to see and feel the world as she did.

Much of the charm of these journals lies in their capture of nature; of the land and the weather and the creatures great and small, also a sense of the people in the landscape, moving upon it more intimately than we do now, and mostly, of course, on foot. The lack of petty tittle-tattle, though marked, does not diminish their interest. There is also great pleasure to be had from comparing Dorothy’s seasons in that brief window of her life with our own, and the feeling, still, of a Romantic connection with times past, as if no time has passed at all.

Given the immense age of the universe, a single life is no more than a match in the dark, a brief enough time in which to blink and respond to what we see before the light flickers and dies. But some matches are brighter than others, and some minds quicker at seeing what needs to be seen and responding with genuine heart and feeling. It’s also valuable, during the brief flaring of one’s own light if we can be shown what others have noted as worthy, because it gives us a head start in the growing of our own souls. Of course, not everyone possesses such a talent as makes it worth our while, but to my mind at least, Dorothy Wordsworth did. And I think that’s why we’re still reading her journals today.

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wordsworthTwo by two they marched into St Oswald’s churchyard, the entire complement of a seventy seater coach. At their head a suited guide, complete with microphone, broadcast his authoritative commentary over the ethereal hush. It was a vast entourage of American tourists, well heeled and,… damn, they were heading in our direction, seeking Wordsworth’s grave. It was a bold flanking manoeuvre, completely overwhelming us few native poetry bums who had gathered there. We took a deep breath, prepared to stand our ground, prepared also for our politeness to scatter us into the shadows.

There were a lot of American accents in Grasmere this afternoon and a busy-busy atmosphere pervading the early autumnal air. In the cafe queue, earlier, I’d been pressed aside by an assertive and impressively articulate dude complaining his sandwich was taking a long time and that he was under “very considerable time constraint”. This poor guy was on holiday, but he was still caught up in the world of work, in the achievement culture. I recognised his accent, his idiosyncratic use of language. It pinpointed him squarely in the nether geography of performance reviews, and endless Powerpoint presentations. I wondered if he was in this queue now, the queue for Wordsworth’s grave, a similar time constraint weighing heavy – Dove cottage and the visitor centre yet to be ticked off. And boy, there were so many graves with Wordsworth’s name written on them. Thank heavens for the tour guide and his live-broadcast commentary to home in on the essentials.

I moved on as the guide came up pointing out the poet’s resting place. Sadly he was pointing to the wrong William. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I would have expected better research from one so prepossessing as this. Willy (1810-1883), had not followed in his father’s (1770-1850) poetic footsteps, but on reflection the faux pas didn’t matter, at least not in the world inhabited by these poor souls. They had done the grave thing, ticked the box. Most would probably not remember and somehow it all meshed perfectly with the achievement culture thing: Britain by tick-box, the myth of old Englandism: a vibrant, if at times raggedy and fiercely intellectual nation reduced to no more than frock coats, bustles and Mr Darcy’s wet trousers.

To think, poor William and his family have to put up with this sort of thing every day!

I have a difficult relationship with Wordsworth. I read him like all fan-boys as if looking for the key to my own enlightenment. I do find him occasionally profound, but also pompous and immensely verbose. He walked the fells as feverishly as I walked them in my younger days, but at a time when they were not so worn out, when the paths were vague, known only to shepherds, and orange peel did not litter the summits. But the Victorians in all their chocolate box glory were also notable that in their fondness for the sublime they also had a penchant for bludgeoning it to death with words whenever it put in an appearance.

Other philosophers, of the Zen Tradition, in lands far away, had already worked out one could not define the sublime by rich, eloquent and, above all, copious wordery. The poet Basho is a case in point, writing two centuries earlier than Wordsworth, and with a stunning brevity, his Haiku verses connected the human mind with the sublime without attempting to describe it. When words fail us, it’s for a reason and it’s best at that point just to shut up and let nature fill the space in our heads.

But when our heads are enamoured of the schedule and all those dubious measures of achievement, when we are for ever under the cosh of “considerable time constraint”, it’s really all the same if it’s Willy or William we’re looking at because by then the truth is of no consequence and bluff and fakery will suffice perfectly well instead for fact.

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alcock tarn 2The mountain tarns of the Lake District are as worthy an objective for a day’s hike as the mountaintops, particularly as we age and begin to linger longer in appreciation of their character. Once a curiosity glimpsed in passing en route for a lofty summit cairn, I now collect them in the same way I once bagged peaks. A mountain tarn is indeed a special place, bringing something of the sky down to the earth, mirroring the mood of both the day and the man.

Alcock tarn sits on a shelf above Butter Crags. Beyond it rises the massive grassy flank of Heron Pike, one of several summits on the Fairfield Horseshoe route. Look east from Grasmere and the tarn lies hidden, about half way up that wall of green, just above the highest reach of the pernicious bracken. On paper, it makes for a decent half-day’s walk, though somewhat steep, but all walks yield more on the ground than their paper promises, and so it is with Alcock tarn. At just over 1100 feet, it’s a modest enough climb, but I wouldn’t underestimate it.

My guide to the tarns of Lakeland is the water-colourist, William Heaton Cooper. He describes it as a modest and pleasant sheet of water, a mirror of the distant sky, as one looks southward towards the lowlands, Windermere and the sea. An experienced mountaineer, and native of Cumberland, Heaton Cooper would use this walk as an introduction to the fells for anyone new to him and whose “mountain form” was unknown.

I’m not sure what he would have made of me. My mountain form is best described as sluggish these days. Though I’m up a hill most weeks now, the ascent from the foot of Greenhead Ghyll was a “several stopper”, sometimes hands on knees, sometimes in full rest mode on sit mat and with binoculars drawn. My consolation lay in the knowledge that the fellsides here are uncommonly steep, and an ascent is always harder when walking alone.

The weather in the valleys was gloomy-hot, cloud base scraping 1500′, truncating the tops and trapping the heat to make a very steamy day. Humidity was 85%, so it was a very sweaty climb. A sleepy clag hugged the fellsides, ghost-horses drifting down. A light rain had me pulling on my new walking jacket, but its breathability soon proved to be disappointing; before I’d climbed a hundred feet I was wet from the inside out. And hot. Even the rain that day was warm.

The fells were silent, just the sound of my own breath on the ascent. I was thinking of my uncle as I climbed, a veteran of Dunkirk. Following the evacuation he spent the years up to 1945 training in the mountains around Fort William, with the Highland Light Infantry. By the time he embarked for Normandy, he told me he and his mates were like stags. Their mountain form must have been akin to superhuman, and a thing to be envied, though not of course the task that lay ahead of them.

I paused to rest below Butter Crags, once I’d cleared the thickest of the bracken. Bracken is a notorious habitat for sheep ticks, carriers of Lyme disease, and I’ve read they’re on the rise in the Lakes, but have yet to encounter any myself. The only problem I have with it is there’s nothing like pushing your way through its wet ferny fronds for soaking you to the skin. It also stinks at this time of year.

From there, the vale of Grasmere glowed without sun, something luminous in the mown meadows, far below, and which warmed an otherwise sleepy grey. I could see DunmaiI Raise, the steep climb of the ever busy A591 carrying tourists over the pass, on to Thirlmere and beyond. Dunmail was the last true native Celtic King. He met his end in a battle with the Saxons and the Scots in 945. Routed, his surviving clansmen rescued his crown and fled with it up the nick of Raise Beck and on to Grisedale tarn, where they hurled it beneath the dark waters for safe keeping.

King Dunmail rests in the huge pile of stones at the summit that bears his name, and by which there now flash thousands of careless cars every day. But once a year, the spirits of his clansmen return with the crown and bang on the cairn, wakening their sleeping King, and urging him to take up the crown once more. Each time he tells them the time has not yet come. Other more prosaic accounts have him dying on a pilgrimage in 975. I prefer the former myth which has something archetypal about it, like an Arthurian legend. But then the Celts  were always better story tellers than the Saxons.

I remember the climb to Grisedale tarn up Raise Beck. I did it in 1993, on a wild day in the company of friends. We went on to climb Helvellyn. The mountain was dark and angry, snow spiralling in a finger numbing, aggressive wind, and there was a feeling as we climbed, of coming to the world’s end. It was a Saturday afternoon, March 20th, the day the IRA bombed Warrington. I heard of it on the car radio, on the drive home. They had left two devices in rubbish bins on Bridge Street, a crowded shopping centre. The first device drove panicking survivors into the path of the second device. Fifty four were injured, two young boys killed. There were lots of bombings on the mainland throughout the course of the troubles, but that one was closest to home for me, and will be for ever associated with that climb up Raise Beck and onto an angry mountain.

It was an evil day.

The tragic overtones of Grizedale Tarn are carried on in the story of the Brother’s Parting Stone. It was here in 1800 William Wordsworth last said farewell to his brother, John. John was leaving Cumberland to take up command of a British East Indiaman, the Earl of Abergavenny, into which he had sunk his fortune. The vessel was lost off Portland Bill, and John drowned. Some say the event marked a steady decline in Wordsworth’s poetry.

But anyway, on to Alcock tarn!

It comes upon one suddenly, a pleasant sheet of water, as Heaton Cooper says, reedy at its northern end, and a mirror for a steely sky. Looking south along its length it forms an infinity pool, the great sliver ribbon of Windermere and the southern Lakes beyond. I’d seen not a soul all morning, but here I came upon pair already settled in with sketchbooks and watercolours. The mountains held their breath, the only sound was a lone duck dabbling in mud among the reeds at my feet. I fired off a rare haiku tweet to that effect but it felt cheap and shallow compared to the deeply patient deliberations of these two artists. All is not lost, I was thinking, that there are those still willing and able to take the time for al-fresco water-colouring.

I gave them space, waved to let them know I was harmless, then settled down to ponder over my notebook and a poem for which the muse had delivered the first two lines complete the night before, and left me to fill in the blanks. But the words would not come, and the silence was eventually broken by a party of talkers which put an end to my deliberations. They sat down not five yards from me, a flock of gassy old birds, treating me to a voluble warts and all expose of their various intimate lives and which sent the lone duck off in search of quieter waters. They had not seen me. My walking gear has morphed from fashionable fluorescence to unobtrusive greens over the years. With my hood pulled up, monk-like and sitting still in a little clutch of crags, I had apparently vanished, blurred out of the misty, muggy world, so that when I later rose to pack my things away, I gave one old bird a satisfying fright.

Sorry, dear, but I was there first.

Perfect as a circular walk, the route continues south, becoming quite airy on the descent, then fast losing itself in the densely forested glades above Town End, and the broad, well made tracks that lead you unerringly home. A couple of quiet hours up, then an hour down brings you back to the bustle of the many-peopled Wordswortharium.

I took coffee in the garden-centre cafe, and pondered the old Celtic legends. King Dunmail has been a long time dead now, and I wondered at the meaning of his clansmen keeping faith with him year on year. I wondered too what counsel he might offer in addition to his persistent procrastination as regards his throne. For me, I realised, while taking that break on the climb to Alcock tarn, he had pointed out the long lay-by beside the 591.

“Next time you come here, lad,” he said, “Get up a bit earlier. Park your car there in future, for free! And stop moaning about Broadgate Meadow!”

I shall.

It seems I have friends in high places!

alcock tarn

Alcock Tarn, Grasmere, Cumbria

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Grasmere boils in a soporific heat. The air weighs heavily on arms and legs, sapping will and thought. There are spy cameras on the Broadgate Meadow carpark now. They read number plates, and a computer is delegated the task of detecting dodgers. It’s £7, if you want to park your car for over four hours – a day’s walking. The sign says you can pay by debit/credit card – no need for all that loose change, which is as well because £7.00 worth of  change weighs a lot in your pocket. The machine will even text you when your ticket is about to expire, which is useful, but I note there is a surcharge for this service. There are plenty of spaces, but I don’t need one. My lady’s Corsa is on the hotel carpark where the sign says they will clamp you, charge you £25 to release you, and won’t do so until after 10:00 pm, so you’d better have a really good reason for being there. We do; we are guests.

My lady and I buy a £5 bottle of wine from the Cooperative store and sneak it up to the room rather than pay hotel prices. We sneak the empties out again in the morning, deposit them surreptitiously in the bin on the village green. We have difficulty accepting we are grown up enough not to be told off for such things. The hotel boasts four stars, and is expensive, but you only celebrate your silver wedding once. The food is mostly very good. The portions are small but very pretty on the plate, and flavoursome. You rise from the table gratified, but not uncomfortable. I do not rave over haute cuisine, often getting annoyed at those pompous celebrity chef programmes where they enthuse over mashed potato as if it were the answer to the middle east crisis. I am weakening to the aesthetics now, but not the price.

We walked around Grasmere lake, which is mostly road and busy, but flat, as suits my lady. There were disposable barbecues burned out and disposed of down by White Moss Common, little bags of dog poo and suspicious bits of brown smeared tissue under the bushes. It discouraged us from sitting down to picnic. This has always been a popular area, but the stress is showing, town-greyness seeping in. People smiled and said hello.

I stole a look at the Rock of Names up by the Dove Cottage visitor centre, but I thought it looked a touch jaded, though in retrospect this was probably my imagination, still suffering the assault of those bags of dog poo and bits of tissue. The light was difficult, so I did not bother with a photograph. We were not tempted to pay entrance to the visitor centre itself, which had ingeniously linked the work of Wordsworth with Matsuo Basho. I would not have made that link myself, but as I think of it, I see the connection in some of Wordsworth’s lines – he could be very Zen, though in the main far more wordy than the master of Haiku. Both poets walked immense distances, and used plain language. Basho is as revered in Japan as Wordsworth in the UK. There are many Japanese tourists still making pilgrimage to Grasmere.

Rydal Mount

Rydal Mount

As an attraction, I prefer Rydal Mount. Wordsworth spent most of his life there, but is more associated with Dove Cottage, his years in that place being reckoned by the literati to have been his best, poetically speaking. But one has only to visit Rydal Mount to intuit this house must have given him by far the greater joy and comfort. There is not the room to swing a cat at Dove Cottage and only one room with any decent light at all. Rydal Mount, by contrast, is flooded with it.

St Oswalds church in Grasmere has installed musical bells now. At certain hours we are treated to a few verses of a hymn. At 10:00 am we have “Morning is broken”, at 4:00 pm we have “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended” which my lady dislikes as she says it is for funerals. “To Thine be the Glory” is at 2:00 pm which is more jolly. I have visited Wordsworth’s grave twice, the second occasion to look for Hartley, eldest son of STC, and who is located just behind the Wordsworth family. While there I was able to point out to fellow visitors the correct Wordsworth, as there are a lot of them in the cemetery and it can be confusing. I used to struggle as well, but the clue is he died in 1850. To his left is beloved brother John, to his right, beloved daughter Dora. To John’s left, beloved sister, the ever enigmatic Dorothy.

The musical strikes remind us this is a Christian, Anglican, sacred place as well as a tourist attraction. There’s a lot of nature mysticism in Wordsworth’s poetry, but the bells also remind us he sang hymns with gusto. On a busy day in Grasmere, with tourists spilling from the pavements, it’s hard to imagine anything like a profound, spiritual stillness, but if you sit a while in pew at St Oswald’s, you will find it.

At Rydal Mount there is a copy of Wordsworth’s letter declining the poet laureateship on account of his advancing years. It is very beautifully worded. We do not write like that any more. Friend Robert Peel – the PM – assured him nothing would be required of him in return, so Wordsworth accepted.

I have the impression, mostly subliminal, I owe a lot to my reading of this man’s life and work – though his life be tending now towards myth. His work is like the Dao De Jing, meaning nothing without the ears to hear, except for Daffodils – but I think that was more Dorothy’s bidding, and beautiful in a different kind of way. I hear him more clearly now than I used to do, but still have a long way to go. I find it easier to read his poems in a plain north country accent. I don’t know Shakespeare at all, find him inaccessible by comparison, but I understand this is my own ignorance talking.

By coincidence fellow blogger Bottledworder posts an excerpt from Intimations of Immortality which I pick up via the hotel’s free wi fi.

Dinner here costs £38 per person. Coffee is extra. I do not aspire to a lifestyle where such things can be taken for granted. Wordsworth made nothing as a poet. The Prelude was published posthumously to little applause. Only now is it respected. Again, a north country accent helps in the reading of it.

£5.00 for two coffee’s in the garden centre, but the staff were friendly, unlike their trip advisor review which accused them of being surly – which only goes to show, one must treat all publicly voiced opinion with circumspection, to whit:

In my current work in progress, the protagonist, Timothy Magowan, a jaded teacher of English literature, and tweedy man of middle years, has nothing good to say about Grasmere. I have been known to say unkind things about it myself, so it’s something of a turn-up to be temporarily resident again. I dislike the cost of things and the apparent disdain in which the tourist is held, whilst being simultaneously milked as a cashcow, but I’m willing to make an effort if Grasmere can prove itself to be more accommodating, meet me half way. But then we do not see the world – including Grasmere – as it is, but only as we are.

The weather is set to cool by midweek, with the promise of a light, refreshing rain. I may venture up to Alcock Tarn, seek company among the skylarks.

So, to finish, Wordsworth and Basho,… on the Skylark!

ETHEREAL minstrel! pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?
Or while the wings aspire, are heart and eye
Both with thy nest upon the dewy ground?
Thy nest which thou canst drop into at will,
Those quivering wings composed, that music still!

To the last point of vision, and beyond
Mount, daring warbler!—that love-prompted strain
—’Twixt thee and thine a never-failing bond—
Thrills not the less the bosom of the plain:
Yet might’st thou seem, proud privilege! to sing
All independent of the leafy Spring.

Leave to the nightingale her shady wood;
A privacy of glorious light is thine,
Whence thou dost pour upon the world a flood
Of harmony, with instinct more divine;
Type of the wise, who soar, but never roam—
True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home.

William Wordsworth – 1770-1850

Above the moor,
not attached to anything,
a skylark singing.

Matsuo Basho 1644-1694

The contrast is breathtaking!

Matsuo Basho.jpg

Matsuo Basho

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parcelI know this traditional bookshop where they still wrap things with brown paper and string. Here, you’ll find a vast collection of second hand books, all neatly categorised and arrayed in labyrinthine rows on three creaky floors. It’s been there for generations, catering for the full spectrum of tastes, from the pre Socratic philosophers to the latest Fifty Shades. It’s a rare, book-scented treasure house, a bastion of colour and pattern and calm in an increasingly bland world.

I don’t always buy a book when I go there. At least half the pleasure in visiting this place is in browsing with no particular aim other than the search for something inspirational. My choices are therefore driven as much by mood as by the titles. My price limit also varies widely according to mood, and for all I know the cycles of the moon as well. I once parted with £25.00 for a copy of Jung’s Mysterium, a book much revered by psychoanalysts – and which I have not the Latin to decipher. At other times I am loathe to part with £5.00 and come away empty handed, dejected that nothing has taken my eye. To be sure, bookshops like this are mysterious places.

Last Saturday it was Wordsworth – well, not so much him as an idea inspired by him. I’d been revisiting the Romantics, thinking back on things I’ve written about Romanticism – most of it rubbish, but some of it still holding the test of time. And there it was, lurking upon a shelf of rather lack-lustre books, pressed a little to the back as if shy of the limelight: Wordsworth’s collected poems, dated 1868.

It was a handsome little volume – red cloth binding, the pages gilded, and the backing boards beautifully bevelled so the book turned smoothly in my hands like a bar of silky soap. Inside, among the familiar poems, there were engravings – intricate drawings, each protected by its own little insert of tissue paper. It was delightful. It might have been placed there only recently – or been there for twenty years, always escaping my eye until now. Only now did it speak to me. But what was it saying? Here are the poems of William Wordsworth, Michael? Read them? No, I already own a copy of his collected works. It wasn’t that I needed another. There was more going on here. All I know is I wanted it.

An expensive book, I feared, but no – £4.50 was its considered worth, which placed it within the means of my capricious and, of late, austerity-conscious pocket. It could be mine. It would be mine.

I am not a book dealer or a collector. I do not browse these shelves for unknown money-treasures in order to sell them on. The vendor is, after all, an antiquarian dealer of some renown, so I presume the real collectors’ items have already been filtered out of this very public domain – leaving only the dross, where treasure is to be found only in sentiment. I was under no illusions then; to a dealer in books this book, pretty thought it was, was worthless.

Was it really only sentiment then that drew my eye? Could sentiment take my breath away like this and fill me with a such possessive craving for a thing that was otherwise of no use nor value to me? Perhaps it was simply its great age and the fact I have a track record in collecting old and useless things. The Sage of Grasmere had not been 20 years dead when this book was issued, and here it was, still in marvelous condition –  a little frayed at the top and bottom of the spine, but otherwise pristine. Clearly it had been respected throughout its life, and was that not reason enough to earn my own respect now? Or was it that the book lain neglected behind the glass of some unfrequented country house library, untouched by sticky fingers – and now at last had come its chance to be handled, to be loved. Is that why is spoke to me?

It was a mystery, but one I was clearly in a mood to ponder in slower time. For now the priority was merely to rescue it, to possess it.

I took my prize downstairs to the lady at the till and she looked upon it with a genuine delight. She ran her long pale hands over the cover as I had done a moment ago, and in doing so shared with me the loveliness of it.  Her actions, unconsciously sensual and simple enough on her part, were to my romantic eye like holy devotions and they amplified an already growing numinosity. Then she wrapped it carefully, folding the paper with a neat, practised precision, deft fingers twisting the knot, an enchantress sealing in the spell of that afternoon – an afternoon possessed suddenly of a richness and a fertility I had not known in such a long, long time.

I emerged from the shop tingling with something that ran far deeper than the mere purchase of an old book. But what was it?

I’ve had that book for four days now and you might think it curious but  it rests upon my  desk, still in its tight little wrapping. I do not want to open it in case the magic of that afternoon evaporates. While I keep it wrapped, you see, the spell remains intact and only good things can happen from now on. The glass will for ever be half full,… never again half empty. But such an obsessive devotion as this is stretching things, even for me, and I realise it’s in my little foible – some might say my weakness – the mystery of that afternoon is revealed.

One cannot really capture a moment like that, any more than one can capture its essence in a photograph. All you’re really left with at the moment of capture is a dead thing. As I’ve written before, and keep telling myself, as if for the first time anew, the moment comes from within and cannot be contained in any “thing”. Curiosity will eventually overcome my obsessive Romantic sentiment, and I will snip open that package to discover all that lies inside is just a worthless old book, a little more world-worn and weary than I remember it.

The real power lies always in the moment and it will always be erased by time until we can find a way of staying in the moment all the time. If we can do that then every moment becomes imbued with a mysterious presence, a presence that has the power to inspire and elevate us beyond the mundane. There we discover that the meaning of our lives – the meaning we might have searched for all our lives – was never really lost. Nor was it such a big secret anyway, nor less a thing to be toiled at, nor pondered over with our heads in our hands, nor winkled out of the dusty tomes of several millenia’s worth of arcane spiritual teachings. It was there all the time; the numinous, the sheer pullulating exuberance of life.

You do not find it in work or wealth or learning, but in random moments of spontaneous inner realisation, like with me on that Saturday afternoon, browsing the hushed labyrinth of an antiquarian bookshop. But we’ve all had moments like this, and perhaps the only secret is that we should allow ourselves to recognise their intrinsic sacredness, then trust the mind, or whatever greater consciousness lies behind it, will grant us the presence to realise them more often.

Of course a more skilled pilgrim than I would have admired that book for what it was and, without losing a fraction of the meaning in that moment, simply left it on the shelf for someone else to find.

Pass me those scissor’s will you?

Thanks for listening.

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The most expensive car-park in England?

It came as a surprise to me recently when I realised just how many years it’s been since I loaded up my gear and spent a day in the Lakes, walking. I used to do it all the time but I’ve been favouring the Dales and Bowland of late, and now it’s been so long I didn’t even realise the little carpark half way along Grasmere’s  Easedale Road had been built upon – not that I would ever park that close to the fells anyway – oh no, not me – that carpark was for wimps and I’m glad it’s gone. Really.

So,… I left Old Grumpy down in the village, on the carpark, at Broadgate Meadow. This provided the only shock of the day, and left me with the feeling that it’ll be a long time before I visit Grasmere again. Actually this happens every time I visit Grasmere – the last occasion being when I stayed there with my good lady and we paid £400 for two nights in a box-room with mouldy wallpaper – but hey, forgive and forget,…

I approached the pay and display meter in all innocence, fumbling for my loose change, and was unable to restrain myself from exclaiming out loud: “F…..! How much?”

Then I thought: but nobody carries that much shrapnel in their pockets, do they? It must be some kind of  joke. But it wasn’t.  Walkers beware. If you need more than four hours here – which you will do if you’re going up into the fells, it’ll cost you £6.50 this season just to park your car.  Indeed it’s become so expensive to park  in the Lakes these days there’s now an option to pay by  mobile phone! Holiday in the UK? Sure! Why go abroad when you can be ripped off so effectively at home?

The point of the day was to clear my mind, but sometimes if you’re not careful, you just end up taking it with you! So,… forget all that now: deep breath, shoulder the pack and off we go.

Initially I followed the popular trail up towards Sour Milk Ghyll, which was busy with walkers, both setting out and returning from the lovely hike up to Easedale Tarn. I wasn’t bothered about visiting the tarn so, above the waterfall, and with Tarn Crag now in full view, I cut across country, fording the ghyll and making a beeline for the foot of Tarn Crag’s east ridge. You can probably only do this in dry weather, and I wouldn’t recommend you follow my example here anyway or the National Park Warden will probably shout at you for daring to stray from the path – but I’d just paid £6.50 to park my car, so I’ll do, go, and walk where I bloody well like!

All right, all right,… where was I?

Ah,… East ridge. Once I set foot on Tarn Crag’s east ridge I had the sense of being the last man on earth and I saw not another soul for two long, blissful hours. There’s no erosion on this hill at all, the way being marked by an intermittent, grassy path, exactly as Alfred Wainwright described it in 1958, in his Central Fells book. Its intermittent nature makes it a little difficult to follow, but the route to the summit is fairly straight forward, so long as visibility is good. If it’s not, if it’s a bad day, and you don’t know the area very well, I’d advise you to stay away from Tarn Crag altogether. The most obvious danger here would be to stray too far along the ridge, miss the grassy rake that leads you up to the summit, and find yourself on the crags of Deer Bields instead. Deer Bields is mountaineering country, and you need a good head for that sort of thing.

From the summit you have the most stunning 360 degree vista, and the hill’s worth a visit on its own just for this view – as well as the sense of isolation and peace, because judging by today, you’re unlikely to be fighting for somewhere to sit down, as you will be later on, on the top of Helm Crag.

From here, you can do like Wainwright says and retrace your steps back down the east ridge, or, if it’s clear, you can follow a faint path that leads you west, then peters out into the wilderness of Grasmere Common. I followed my nose from here, thinking there was probably a way over to the head of Far Easedale. If there is, it’s not obvious, or it’s easily lost amid a confusion of  faint sheep tracks. You need a good, clear day for wandering about up here.

My GPS track log tells me I continued west, until Coledale tarn was due south of me.  There was a faint path coming up from the tarn but again nothing to indicate this was a well travelled route. Then I headed north, down a gully which is probably going to be very boggy in the wet.  Fernhill Crag was off to my right, and when it was due east I finally picked up the faint traces of a path coming up from the head of Far Easedale, which became more obvious as it led me over Broadstone head, wending round to the west to meet Mere Beck, then finally descending north to the head of Far Easedale. There were a handful of walkers coming up this way, and it does seem to be a recognised route, but obvious it is not.

When I’m not sure of my way in the hills  I find myself always with one eye on the weather, so there was little by way of mystical contemplation on Tarn Crag and Grasmere Common. It was cooler up there than in the valley, but still clear – just the occasional brush of fair-weather cloud to dim the sun, but it wasn’t until I saw that definite path coming up from Far Easedale, I was able to switch over from left to right brain mode and allow myself to indulge in a more abstract way of thinking. Left brain likes its maps, its pecked lines, its coordinates, but the route from here was familiar and has been followed in all kinds of weather, so  I finally put the map away and switched the GPS off.

I settled down in the grass, made some notes, took some pictures, scanned the fells with my new Cliimo 10×32 binoculars, (not bad for £25.00) and began chatting to a few ghosts – not real ones you understand – just voices in my head. I don’t think I’m insane, or my good lady would already have told me; all right, I’m a bit eccentric – this  is just the way it goes with me at times, and if you’ve read any of my stories you’ll know where my characters get it from. Let me try to explain: a lot of  ancient greek philosophy has come to us in the form of dialogues, which I personally find a bit irritating to wade through, but if you try it yourself on your own half baked ideas it’s a useful way of exploring things. I imagine a companion, and they take up one side of the discussion, then I answer back and we play out this “conversation” as we amble sedately over the hills. Sometimes it’ll yield a useful gem, sometimes not. I don’t speak out loud when I’m doing this of course or I might cause worried glances from passing walkers. It’s all done in the head, a purely mental exercise, you understand, and I find it deeply relaxing. Its just that it has  a funny effect on dogs.

Did you say dogs?

I can’t explain this, and I may just be imagining it – I get on really well with dogs most of the time, but when I’m in ghost mode, it sends them wild – they bark, they cower, they bare their teeth and leap in the air at me. It happened on Calf Crag as I innocently made my way in the company of a particularly interesting ghost who’d just introduced me to a pleasantly deep train of thought, only for us then to jump out of our skins when a cocker spaniel went ape and caused its seated owners to spill their coffee. The ghost evaporated for the rest of the walk, and I don’t blame it, while I muttered a shocked oath.

I’ve noticed at times like this dog owners focus their attention on the animal, telling it not to be silly – that  “it’s just a man in a hat” or something, as if it can understand them – never mind the man in the hat who’s just cacked himself on account of their animal – no apology, nothing, even though I am a human being and could have understood, appreciated, and accepted an apology ! There was even the impression that it was my fault for wearing a hat. At best they will lamely suggest the  dog “means no harm”, but I’ve heard that one before. I once saw a  frail old gentleman flattened to the ground – walking sticks akimbo, because a blundering great black labrador had taken a playful run at him and jumped on his back. The owner’s unflustered response, as I helped said gentleman back onto his pins was that the dog  wouldn’t hurt anyone. Sorry – I do like dogs, really – it’s just that they can be so stupid. And they don’t seem to like me talking to ghosts.

Anyway, where were we? Sorry this isn’t much of a walking guide is it? Once you’ve negotiated the uncertainties of Grasmere Common and picked up the path that takes you down to the head of Far Easedale, you can then keep to the high ground and follow the return leg of this spectacular horseshoe over Calf Crag, Gibson Knott and finally Helm Crag. Unlike Tarn Crag, which is unfrequented, this is a popular path, and you’ll rarely be out of sight of another human being. Then you’re down, legs aching, feet burning, and in Grasmere again  – watch your pockets or they’ll have what’s left of your change!

Except it was going up for six now and I was ready for something to eat.

I wondered about Cumberland sausage and mash at one of the eateries, except I decided I’d been fleeced enough on the carpark that morning (did I tell you how much I paid?) so  I called into the minimart instead, chose a packaged salad that had probably been made in Manchester, a bottle of pop that might even have come all the way from China, then queued up at the till. Curious bit this: The queue was about four deep and it was coming up for my turn when a surly looking youth joined it in front of me with a look as if to say you’re not going to make a fuss are you? The checkout girl was chatting to him in a way that led me to believe he was a local –  saying he looked a bit jaded and had he had a rough night last night? Not: “Oy, get to the back of the queue, your ignorant moron – there are customers waiting.” Locals are a special case it seems, and above the mere visitor, with his sweaty hat and his lumbering great day-sack. (I trust not all locals have this attitude)

Did I say anything to the ignorant  moron? Did my newly discovered grumpy-self remonstrate? Did Ego rear his ugly head? No. The locals can be as ignorant as they like. Their Karma is their own business, as is mine.

And I’d just had a very good day in the hills.

It’s a while since I had a day alone in the Lakes and I have to say now with the head of long years and experience that I’m not sure about the Lake District any more. I’m truly sad to say this, because I have so many fond memories of times spent here among the mountains. I suppose if you can find one of the vanishingly rare laybys where you can park your car for free, bring your own refreshments, and stay away from the towns, you’ll find the fells are as welcoming as always. As for how welcome you are off the fells, my impression is that you’re welcome enough, but only so long as you’re spending money in the shops and the hotels and the bars, and you can take your fleecing with a smile – otherwise you’ve no business being here and you can just bloody well push off.

Holiday UK has a long way to go. We just don’t do hospitality in the UK. Instead we have the attitude  that we can charge visitors what we like for the most basic of services, and get away with it. Well, I’m sorry Grasmere, but the next time you see me and old grumpy, we’ll just be passing through.

Did I mention is cost me £6.50 to park here?

Goodnight all. Enjoy yourselves and stay safe. (sorry David, I stole your line*)

Graeme out!

*David Beckham, in a passing comment to the UK media, regarding gathered fans, hopeful of England’s chances at the South African World Cup, in 2010.

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