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Posts Tagged ‘Lake District’

The little roads of the Lakes are more demanding on the vehicle and on the nerves than those of the Dales. They zig-zag into the sky and follow tortuous routes, hugging the fells with steep russet and rock on one side, and fresh air on the other, not always fenced. The gulleys are deep. Drop a tyre off the tarmac and you’re going to struggle to get it back on. Do that at speed and you’ll damage the car, do it on the fresh air side of the road and there’s a chance you’re going to roll down the fell. Perhaps I exaggerate, but that’s the impression these roads leave you with, that you’d better be sharp about your wits.

They are among the most sporting routes for the recreational motorist, also for the motorcyclist and the cyclist. They are also “get-to” routes for the hillwalker, delivering him deep into the heart of the Lake’s more splendidly mountainous regions. They seem even narrower to me now than when I first drove them thirty years ago. It’s as if the fells are trying to squeeze them into impassable threads, erase them with the passage of time and harsh winters. They’re busier too, and cars these days are much bigger, much heavier, much fatter than they were. And basic motoring skills have been replaced with electronics that’s useless in these off-grid places.

Even with a proliferation of pull-ins for passing, you’re going to struggle at the busier times. You’re going to find cars parked in them, rendering the way impassable. Meet a blimp-like SUV coming the other way and it’s going to gawp at you like a zombified wildebeast, unable to go forwards or back, so you’ve got to remember each passing place as you pass it, and be prepared to back up, let these dumb creatures safely by, since they are incapable of working out how to do it for themselves.

I speak of course as the only perfect driver in the world.

Maybe I’m just older, but the narrow Lakes roads are not as much fun as they used to be, mainly on account of the usage they’re getting now. They’re also in poor shape. I took the Mazda over the little route from Great Langdale to Little Langdale recently, found the road frost-broken and deeply potholed. I bottomed the car in one hole, scraped the sill. Then I got stuck behind a bulbous Focus ST too, boy racer at the wheel, going at a walking pace, afraid to scratch his car. If you’re wanting to drive these routes, come early, keep your fingers crossed you meet nothing coming the other way and come in a well sprung, small car with lots of guts.

But for all of that they’re very beautiful roads to travel, allowing for many an intimate contact with the sublime nature of the Lake District mountain landscape. It’s better by far of course if you can muster the energy to put your feet on the ground and haul your bones up the paths, get yourself in among the secret folds of the hills, but the little roads give you at least a taste of it.

I remember a week in Austria, surrounded by mountains on an awesome scale, like in a depiction of fairy-land. The following week I was in the Lakes, thinking it would seem tame by comparison, but I discovered all it lacked was the vertical scale, having lost nothing whatsoever of its visceral power. The impact of somewhere like the Austrian Tryrol is obvious in its scale and sheer vertical brutality, while the Lakes engages at a deeper lever.

The power of the Lakes is in part in its age. These are among the oldest of mountains. They are hard rock, worked by weather on a geological time-scale that’s as near to infinity as makes no difference to mankind. They are also worked by mankind who has beetled among them for ten thousand years. And their impact on the senses is in their compactness, so much beauty and drama, darkness and light, fell and field and lake, all of it encompassed in the graceful turn of an eagle’s wing*.

The road threads its way by Blea Tarn, a shallow depression nestled in the palm of the land, fingers and thumbs of crag curling skywards all around, then it dips into the Little Langdale Valley, affording its most spectacular views of a sublime loveliness. A hairpin-junction at the bottom grants the choice of ways: left for the village, and escape to the broader routes through Elterwater, or right for the long and equally narrow road up by Three Shire’s Stone, then Cockley Beck, Wrynose, and Hardknott, all the way to Eskdale if you’ve the nerve for it. Many drive these ways for the challenge, for the sheer exhilarating thrill and beauty of it. They are the ultimate test of confidence in yourself and in your machine, but I wouldn’t recommend it on a weekend afternoon, or a Bank Holiday.

The Mazda escaped its rough treatment on the Little Langdale road with only cosmetic abrasions, easily mended, and my love affair with open-topped motoring enables me to put this minor wounding into perspective. It was a pleasurable drive, somewhat spicy, a drive I imagine could only be topped on a thundering old English motorbike, or a fly-through by Tornado jet.

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martindale

Martindale

Martindale was restless under a pale sun, animated by patchy clouds driven by a stiffening breeze. Meanwhile the head of the dale was spilling over with a snowy cap which hid something darker, something boiling and possibly nasty. Rampsgill head! It’s not a place for the faint hearted in bad weather; but I only say this because it scared the pants off me last time I was up there. I recall the wind tore my map in two – a shrieking banshee, blowing a horizontal rain with tracers of hail, like machine gun fire. The tops were just a few degrees above freezing that day, while at Side Farm, tucked away safe in the sunshine of the Patterdale valley, they wore tee shirts and shorts and sucked ice-creams.

on the beda fell ridge

Hallin Fell from the Beda Fell ridge

I chose Beda Fell instead, thinking it the lighter option. I’d spent an hour the night before at Kung Fu practise, punching a bag and leaping about with a broadsword, and calculated, correctly, my physical reserves were still somewhat depleted. Beda Fell therefore did not fall easily and the ascent was interrupted frequently with pauses to admire the northward aspect towards Hallin Fell and Ullswater, and to take photographs. Wainwright was correct when he said the fells demand a high standard of fitness. To walk here you have to train here, and I’ve been a stranger to the tops lately.

Anyway, I took the line of that lovely ridge to where it meets the path coming up from Dale Head farm, then cut back down to the car, a short circular walk of some two hours but one that left me aching and wobbly. By now the stuff pouring over Rampsgill had turned the dale grey and cold, and not a bit spitty. I saw no one on the fells at all.

We can be a bit a blind in our wanderings, us fell walkers, our heads always turned towards the next objective so we often fail to see what’s under our feet. The flora of the lakes seems often to me quite dull – just sedges, and fern and they only survive because the sheep won’t eat them. I presume they don’t like common butterwort either as I managed to find a tidy colony of it hiding by the side of a beck. I should add the butterwort is carniverous, but only to creepy crawlies.

Common Butterwort, Martindale. Carniverous, but only to creepy crawlies.

Common Butterwort, Martindale (UK). Carniverous, but only to creepy crawlies.

The weather held sufficiently for me to risk driving out of  Martindale with the top down. I’m sure it seems a childish fascination to other drivers, or the non drivers among you, I mean this topless motoring I have only recently discovered. But driving like that you feel the world, you hear the stirring of the trees, feel the tug of the wind on your neck, feel the turn of the day in the air. It’s good to notice these things, and not take them for granted.

The weather caught up with us at Glenridding, so I had to stop there to put the top up. Also it was about time for that coffee and cake I’d promised myself. The carpark here is one of those that reads your number plate as you drive on and you can pay by debit card, because no one carries that much loose change any more. However, my experience of such technological marvels is that they don’t always manage to read your plate when it’s raining, and the card readers aren’t reliable either. This serves only to add frustration to the expense, so it’s wise to have that shrapnel handy anyway. Or if you’re lucky you can park an hour for free at the roadside. I was lucky, tucked the Mazda into a spare slot and fastened down the top just as the rain came on in earnest.

martindale farmI bought coffee at Kilners, part of the old Glenridding Hotel, and sat out under the awning as the rain poured in fine silver threads. It was refreshing, and as I sipped the coffee I rose on a swell of satisfaction at the way the day had gone. My sense of smell even put in a rare return so I was able to smell and taste the coffee, and it was the finest thing, this completion of my senses, adding a sharpness to my observations.

I note several whining “Tripadvisor” pundits berate Kilners for poor service and poor coffee. But the young lady who served me could not have been sweeter, nor more helpful, and the coffee was just grand. It did cost me a fiver, and it was a very small piece of cake – two mouthfulls I’d say – but this is the Lakes, and you must be prepared for that – it’s right up there with Switzerland.

I’ve sat in this place, and its various past incarnations, on many such occasions after walking – coffee, and fine rain in Glenridding – though the occasions be interspersed years apart and spanning decades, but somehow each feeling the same, and timeless in the moment. Only when I rise and continue my journey do I feel the passage of time in the changes of my life.

When I returned to the car I found the rain beading all over it, little glass pebbles that would suddenly form little rivulets, which slid off in pearly splashes, the paintwork a deep blue lustre underneath. She looked small, tucked in between a couple of generic four by fours, but she can certainly move and climbed those zig-zags into Martindale like a rat going up a drainpipe. She’s a sparky old lady for sure.

In that instant the day crystallised into a perfect memory, frozen into the time-zero of all my days in the Lakes: a long drive to a lost valley; visiting the grave of a forgotten Victorian Orientalist; puzzling over the enigma of a man who puzzled even those who knew him; a hike up a sharp hill, one that left me blowing and wobbly; good coffee; avoiding the National Trust car park, twice; and the rain beading on the old girl’s admittedly overwaxed paintwork.

It’s hard to explain what any of this means, all of it ephemeral, but we’ve each felt it in our own ways, and through our own experience, from time to time, and I know you know what I mean. We are all of us, essentially nobodies, going nowhere. At first pass it sounds a depressing concept, but really it’s not. We are more than dust, and it is not the form of the thing that’s important, not the doing, not the seeing of the thing in itself, but more being granted the trick of insight to glimpse the magic beneath the fabric of the world, and to touch something “other” in the seemingly mundane, like,… I don’t know,… the beading of rain on the paintwork of an old car.

Then the door opens to the possibility of touching something other, touching it with our hearts, rather than just our hands.

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I set out with no clear idea where I was going, but then the best journeys always begin like that. The forecast for the Lakes was unsettled, the Dales better, but a fuzzy, subliminal reasoning had me ignoring the Dales’ junction on the M6 and continuing north, so the Lakes it was, gathering gloom not withstanding.

I’ve had a mind to take the car over the over the Kirkstone Pass since last summer, and though the weather was a bit cool and glowery, I figured we might just about make it with the top down and my hat on. So, it looked like today was the day. I had walking gear in the boot, but my outings are as much about the drive these days, so if I did end up walking, it would be a route, like the drive, planned pretty much on the hoof.

The rain held off and I enjoyed a quiet run up from Windermere, gaining altitude as we climbed above Troutbeck. I had the road pretty much to myself, and every twist of it was felt pleasantly in the gut. Not everyone “gets” the small open top roadsters. The MX5 isn’t a powerful or a particularly aggressive car on the road, at least not the 1.6 version like mine. Any number of “hot” hatchbacks could, and often do, outpace it, but while the hot hatch pays homage to the hot headed god of speed, the MX5 pays homage to the more laid back goddess of the road. It is, above, all a very rewarding car to drive, delivering thrills at forty that other cars fail to do at seventy.

There was a pale, lazy mist creeping about the deep cut valleys and the tops. The Kirkstone was clear, ponderous clouds brushing a couple of hundred feet above the summit, so I only just managed to crest the pass in the clear. This can be a busy route; any later in the day than mid-morning and you’re sure to get stuck behind a dawdler or a tourist coach. You need to be careful though and watch your speed. Sheep have no road sense. (see video).

I did hit a sheep once. Neither of us stood a chance. We had a head on after someone chased it from their garden, where it had been snacking on their dahlias. It was quite a thump, one that sent it rolling ahead of the car – a big ball of wool, legs akimbo (it wasn’t funny at the time). The sheep got up, shook itself down, and shot me a pained look – a flower still hanging from the corner of its mouth, then ambled off, apparently unhurt. That was a lucky sheep, but I suspect only one of us learned the lesson of that day: expect the unexpected in sheep country.

At around fifteen hundred feet, the summit of the pass can be a bleak spot, locked in fog, but on a clear day it’s one of the most impressive places in the North – well worth a pulling over in the shadow of Red Screes and maybe taking refreshment at the inn if you fancy it. The inn makes this the highest permanently inhabited spot in England, also unusual for being completely off the grid. It relied for many years on diesel generators for its electricity, but has recently installed wind turbines as a greener option. That said, its comforts are still simple, not least of which is a roaring log fire. On a cold night that fire can make it a hard job to tear yourself away, especially when there’s a gale roaring through the chimney pots and you’re still a long way from home.

So, anyway… what now?

Well, the route leads down to Patterdale – the trip meter nudging just over 70 miles by this time, and plenty of options for walking on this side of the pass, but I’d not had enough of the road yet, so on a whim I carried on to the northern tip of Ullswater, then threaded my way along the lesser known eastern side of the lake. The roads here become suddenly narrow. I’d still no firm destination in mind, but I seemed to be heading for Martindale, if only because that’s where the road runs out. Martindale, for me, also means Andrew Wilson and the old Church of Saint Martins.

Lady of the Lake - Ullswater - 2004I usually visit Martindale via the steamer link from Glenridding which deposits you at Howtown. Then it’s a return on foot via various delightful routes across the fells. But it’s £7:00 to park your car for the day in Glenridding this summer, and nearly as much for the steamer fare. Its a good trip if you’ve not done it before, especially if you hit lucky and it’s the Lady of the Lake that takes you, but a drive round in an old open top car is just as precious and cost me nothing. What I saved would go some way towards the petrol and maybe treat myself to coffee and cake on the way home.

The day was working out just fine.

Beyond Howtown, the road becomes seriously narrow and there’s a series of hairpins that seem on the borderline of possible. They take you up from lake level and deliver you into the lost arcadia that is Martindale. My connection with the valley is quasi-spiritual, born of many a long walk in the silence and the solitude of the tops that embrace this remarkably beautiful place. It sees few visitors. There are no pubs, no shops – just a few dotted farms – a very small, isolated community indeed, yet one that boasts two churches.

Kaiser Willy is perhaps the most illustrious visitor to Martindale. He came in 1910 as a guest of the Earl of Lonsdale to shoot deer. I wonder if he knew then he would soon be shooting Englishmen. The lodge he stayed in is still there, preserved pretty much in its original, early twentieth century glory. You can rent it if you’ve a taste for the lonesome, and a penchant for interesting plumbing.

I’ve long been drawn by the Old Church of Saint Martins. The first time was on a sweltering day, a decade ago when I came across the grave of Andrew Wilson. Wilson was a Victorian journalist and traveller, son of John Wilson, a missionary and sinologist, and one of the founding fathers of Bombay. My first job then was to pay my respects to the man.

The grave of Andrew Wilson - MartindaleI’ve researched Wilson deeply over the years and find his story an interesting one. A genial, eccentric character, he was styling himself a Buddhist as early as 1858 – not an eastern Buddhist, but a peculiarly European one, schooled in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. What his father, a senior and respected member of Scotch Church, thought of that is lost to us, as are the reasons for Wilson’s conversion. What makes this all the more remarkable is he was in training as a minister himself, but had some sort of revelation to the contrary, traded in his divinity and became a talented if somewhat wayward journalist instead.

He was an enigma, an opinionated affable Scot whose banter had charmed fierce tribesmen beyond the borders of Empire. Fluent in Urdu, writer, poet, traveller, self driven to extraordinary feats, yet sadly also hamstrung by a congenital heart condition that would finish him off in cruel fashion at the age of 51.

Of course it’s in the way of things that people die and nobody who is not close to us cares that much except to say thank God that was not me. Life goes on and the past generations are forgotten. But still, there’s something about Wilson that stirs the blood, and I like to keep faith with him.

Coming out of the churchyard, I met a coterie of passing gentlepersons who were admiring my car and who asked, only half joking, if I wanted to sell it. I replied that I could never sell it, because I loved it too much. The car is a conversation starter, and I like that because I’ve always been shy of starting conversations myself. But as we joshed I was still thinking of Wilson, a man who lived a big and full life, exploring a world under steam and sail that I will likely never see even as a child of the jet age. Yet for all of his energy and wit and intellect, he is a man now forgotten, laid to rest in this lonely dale.

I was thinking too how the car would one day dissolve to rust or get bent in a shunt, and how everything I had ever done and seen and felt, will in similar fashion be lost – in the words of the not so immortal Roy from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – like tears in rain. Ephemera, impermanence, life’s meaning glimpsed in passing snatches, if at all, a meaning that must somehow be glimpsed through a screen of meaninglessness. It is the dilemma underlying our deepest emotions and fears; no matter what we’ve done nor what we’ve seen of life, we are essentially all of us nobodies going nowhere, and until we can make our peace with that, the doors to a greater insight will remain for ever closed.

in martindale
We are all dust. The scientist will try to cheer us up by saying, ah yes, but that dust was formed in the hearts of stars, but for me that only serves to make the material world seem all the more brutal and impersonal. The thing is to look beyond the dust, for there’s an essential part of us that’s not made of it.

I looked around at the fells. They were moaning, and not altogether welcoming but I’d come a long way and now it was time for a walk.

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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

Grasmere

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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marshsideFriday 22nd November 2013

Cool this morning, about 2 degrees, light frost. Dropped T off at the bus stop for college, then drove to the Marshside nature reserve and walked out along the old dumper truck trail to the estuary – at least as far as the mud would allow. The skies were a little hazy first thing, streaked with brown and blue grey, but clearing now to a deep blue, a low sun rising behind me and casting long shadows as I look out over the route I’ve just walked. There are a few other cars about, mostly people taking their dogs for a dump, one bearded twitcher standing alone in the reeds, heron-like, with an impressive telescope on a tripod. Across the estuary Blackpool is crystal clear, also Black Coombe, and I can just make out the Lakes beyond, through binoculars, the fells having a light dusting of snow this morning.

I’m probably going to sit here until about 10:00, then go in search of coffee and a new jumper – I noticed yesterday my old lambswool is coming in holes, a bit like me.  I also seem to be scratching about for socks and underpants – so may restock at Matalan.

I’m also trying to think.

I did eventually download that book “Brain Wars” by Beauregard. Hate the title though. Consumed it on my Kindle in one long sitting yesterday. There was nothing new in it for me – a repeat of studies I’m familiar with from other sources – not that this detracts from the importance of the work. Worth the read, but I think I preferred his “Spiritual Brain”. That the mind is separate from the brain seems now all but proven, at least to my satisfaction – only die-hard materialists continuing to deny the evidence that’s been mounting since Myers and the founding of the SPR in 1882. The argument that the mind is reduced by the brain for the purpose of enabling a physical existence in form is also convincing, and further arguments that the mind is freed upon death, back into a greater, non-physical awareness are also compellingly well supported now by an accumulation of evidence from veridical NDE’s. As Jung said, back in ’61, we have to reckon with the possibility,…

Where this leads us I don’t know, what the purpose of the greater mind’s hamstrung foray into physical form might be, again, I don’t know and am probably incapable of imagining. I did get it once, I think, grasped it intuitively, wordlessly, but that was on the other side of an ME, a long time ago. And I’ve slept a lot since then.

The windscreen is misting now, and I’m beginning to wonder what I’m doing here. It’s like this muddy trail in front of me, heading out to the sea. I’ve been passing it for years, decades even, seeing people wandering down it and wondering to myself what was so special at the end of it that might draw them on. Well, I’ve been down it now and it’s just a twenty minute tramp to a muddy foreshore, a couple of stumps and a seemingly infinite plane of yet more mud beyond – nothing that seems very special, in other words,  and always another frontier stretching before you.

The skies are alive with birds this morning, all manner of waders and the plaintive call of curlews and oyster catchers. Great squadrons of geese are moving up the estuary.

Nature is so wonderfully diverse and complex; we look at it and wonder at the purpose of it. But it has no purpose, no meaning, other than what we grant it. The meaning is perhaps what we aspire to, or something we grant it without even knowing we’re doing it. It’s an idea dimly grasped through the fog of an inadequate intellect, and perhaps the full awareness of that purpose will dawn only when there’s been a global shift in consciousness, maybe centuries from now, something that restores us to the perspective of our  immortal selves, temporarily camped out and shivering down here in the mud.

And then what?

But having advanced so far along the trail, I find myself withdrawing from such thoughts now, withdrawing from the mysterious frontier. Life is where it’s at, down here in the mud. Life is where it’s happening, it’s where consciousness lights up if only briefly in form, so with my life more than half over should I not be waking up to the fact of it by now and living it a little more? Should I not be more focussed on simply being instead of sitting here at 9:00 am on a Friday morning with my head up my own ass, ruminating on matters that greater minds than mine have foundered upon?

Okay, time to move on. I need coffee, and underpants and socks.

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hartsop doddIt’s summer, 2000. I’m walking in the English Lake District. It’s been a good day, and I’m feeling a delicious body-weary tingle as I come down the last mile to the car. And then,…. I’m no longer fully there. I’m experiencing something I will later come to understand was a mystical experience. It seems you can fall into them by accident, like I did, or you can train yourself in one of the contemplative traditions, and bring them on whenever you feel the need.

I’ve tried to put this into words before but I always fail, so I’m not going to try very hard here. For now there’s a sense of expanding into whatever I’m looking at  – the hills, the trees, the road. Wherever my vision falls, I’m  both “in” it and “around” it, no longer separate. Strange? No. It feels familiar, like I’ve woken up from the dream of life and realised who I really am. I also feel unconditionally loved, wrapped in a presence, familiar as my own blood, and which both exudes and engenders an infinite compassion for all things.

Remarkable, yes, and I feel fortunate in in having had the experience, but actually, they’re not terribly rare. Countless others have reported them, and it doesn’t automatically mean we’re all going to end up as future novices in a monk’s cell either. I have no difficulty accepting tales of mystical states are exactly what they appear to be, nor that the universe we experience is only a fraction of the universe that actually exists beyond our normal powers of perception; but if one is not to become a monk or a shaman, or a guru, then what? How does one apply that counter-intuitive knowledge in the day to dayness of our ordinary lives?

Well, move forward with me now to the present. It’s a Saturday afternoon, in town. I’m a week into treatment for Anosmia (no sense of smell). I’ve not had a sense of smell for many years now, but the treatment is working and suddenly I’m overwhelmed by the scent of a world I’d largely forgotten. Right now I’m sitting in a cafe, a cafetière of ground Sumatran beans on the table. I’ve poured a cup and my eyes are closed as the aroma rises from the bowl, filling my mind with a symphony of soundless sounds.

Then lunch arrives: Black Pudding and Bacon Panini, with a salad garnish. There’s the heavy, slightly oily scent of the fried Black Pudding and the bacon, then the subtleness of the salad with its vinaigrette dressing – something sweet, and sharp. And I can smell a tomato, fresh cut, like a revelation, singing clear on the side of my plate. You cannot taste when you cannot smell, and right now I am lost in the appreciation of these unfamiliar and infinitely delightful olfactory forms. Beautiful, yes, beyond words really, but I’m also afraid – afraid of losing this dimension to life, of going back into the darkness of a world that does not smell, or taste of anything. Life delights us, but each delight casts also the shadow of its own destruction, and we fear its loss – for then how shall we ever be as happy again without it as we are at this moment?

Well, like the adepts, we can let these forms go, shun enjoyment of the sensual world, retreat into mindful contemplation of the formless, or we can remain in the sensual life but in so doing we must also be accepting of its ephemeral nature, appreciating beauty as it arises, while knowing it for what it is – a reflection of the formless realm, and not exactly the real thing. Still, to be reminded of its presence  is important, not least for the love and compassion it can also engender in the breasts of those who are sensitive to it.

Heaven in a Black Pudding? Well, maybe not,… but it was close, and for a time afterwards I was in love with the whole world, and everyone in it.

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