Posts Tagged ‘Ullswater’

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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lady of the lake ullswater



I carried the Prelude,
As The Lady slit the waters of the lake.
Black they were, like tar,
Unrippled in stillness.
And the hills sweated in white wreaths,
Hung, and slipping down,
To touch shy fingers to a silver shore.

How much of this memory is mine?
How much is his?
Here, he tells me,
Look at this, from long ago,
And know,
Thy God as love.

But it was not love.
Not then.
Loneliness was more my muse,
Cold hands wrapped around my heart,
So with each breath
I was reminded of my separateness.

Beloved of none.
No Dorothy,
No Sara to warm the empty ways,
Where light of love has never shone,

And where I was bound that day.

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Lady of the Lake - Ullswater - 2004In the summer of 2004 I took the old steamer, The Lady of the Lake, from Glenridding, Ullswater, as far as the jetty at Howtown, then made my way on foot into the remote valley of Martindale. There, on a bend, just before the narrow road gives out, there stands a massive yew tree, one of the largest and oldest in England. In its shadow lies the lovely, lonely old church of Saint Martins where, on a plain headstone, I chanced upon the following inscription:

Here lies the body of Andrew Wilson. Traveller. Orientalist and Man of Letters. Author of The Abode of Snow. Born at Bombay April 11th 1830. Died at Bank House Howtown June 8th 1881

I’m guessing many a pilgrim must have pondered this headstone in the hundred and thirty years it has lain there, but  for me it was to become a particularly significant encounter. My later thirst for knowledge of this man’s life was, and remains, something of an obsession. In 2004 I was soaking myself in various oriental and mystical philosophies, and therefore  open to all manner of related connections.  It was for this reason the word Orientalist struck home first, followed by the title of the book, which I recognised as a romantic phrase often used to describe the Himalaya – roof of the mystical east.

The grave of Andrew Wilson - MartindaleI took shelter in the chapel from the sweltering heat for a while, made some notes, then continued on my walk, pondering this odd syncronicity and telling myself I’d look that book up when I got home. It proved to be the beginning of a long journey of discovery. Indeed, it’s fair to say that through his work, much of it now obscure, this lost Victorian man of letters has become a kind of guru to me. I am broader now, deeper, and much less attached to things that simply do not matter than I was when I first did that walk. This is not to say  Wilson alone is responsible for this change in my outlook, his being just one of a company of voices, but he’s certainly been by far the most congenial companion along the way and I still take great delight at turning up yet one more snippet from my researches into his life and work – no matter how trivial.

The son of John Wilson, a famous Indian missionary and founding father of Bombay in the 1830’s, Andrew actually spent much of his early life in and around Edinburgh where he’d been sent to escape Bombay’s terrible insanitary conditions, and the risk he would follow his siblings to an early grave. His education took him to the Edinburgh Academy and then, like his father, along the path of training to be a minister in the Scottish church. But a profound crisis of faith caused him to veer off course, into what appears to have been a very modern kind of European Buddhism – a philosophy espoused by the likes of Schopenhauer and other gurus of the later German romantic period. Deeply troubled, he abandoned his training and took up a career in journalism, eventually editing newspapers in India and China, as well as the UK. But it’s in his personal works, rather than his day-job reportage that I have sought the man, and a very interesting man he turned out to be.

The Nineteenth Century saw many writers who were far more prolific and materially successful than Andrew Wilson, while as a traveller, there were others far more ground-breaking. It’s  for this reason he does not feature at all large in the role-call of Victorian celebrity. He enjoyed some public recognition with the appearance of The Abode of Snow in 1875. Sadly though, increasing ill health prevented him from building upon its  success. While he continued to write to the very end, his later years saw him slip into relative obscurity and disability, his retirement from the world’s dusty byways being funded by the writing of penetrating, and sometime acerbic critiques of other people’s books. Whatever his qualities as a writer, mealy mouthed he was not.

The Abode of Snow is the best introduction to his work, though it catches him at a point in life when he was very ill indeed – barely able to walk and with every breath he took being an effort of steely will. It is an account of a six month trek in the Himalaya, beginning on the sweltering plains of India in the summer of 1873 and rising to the borders of Tibet, then along the valleys and mountain ridges to Kashmir. It’s been described justly as one of the most epic journeys ever undertaken on horseback, a journey he began more in hope than in expectation that the cooler air of the higher altitudes of the northern frontier would restore his health.

Throughout the early stages of his narrative we get the impression he was not entirely confident he would survive, but survive he did, returning temporarily rejuvenated, to pen his memoirs, initially for serialisation in Blackwood’s magazine, but later for publication in book form. The result is at times an intensely personal travelogue, deeply reflective, but it is also typical of his work in that it provides us with  an entirely unaffected description of what was then a very remote part of the Victorian world, including the varied cultures and the people for whom those seemingly inhospitable wastes were home. The book found favour with a pubic greedy for romantic tales of exotic travel in corners of the world that were already fast disappearing under the steady march of Victorian imperialism. He had far more to offer this genre, but his own eccentricity and ultimately a return of his ill health meant the public was to hear no more of Wilson’s extraordinary travels.

Some time after publication, a copy of the Abode of Snow found its way into the hands of the novelist George Elliot, who read it aloud to a gathered company of friends in the drawing room of her home at Rickmansworth. Afterwards, in a  letter to John Blackwood, editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, she said: “But what an amazing creature is this Andrew Wilson,…”

When I first encountered Wilson I was naïve in imagining a linear life’s path, from Bombay to Westmorland, which had seemed curious enough to me, and worth investigating, but in fact I discovered his footsteps had circumnavigated a world of steam trains and sailing ships with  breathtaking dynamism – from India, to Hongkong, to China, America, and India again. He finally settled at Bank House, in those days a humble small-holding, where he rented rooms and penned much of the work that was to become the Abode of Snow. The place is still there, though nowadays it’s better known as an annex of the Sharrow Bay Hotel, beautifully situated overlooking Ullswater. By a strange quirk of fate then, you can still rent rooms there, but at rates I suspect Wilson would have found beyond his means. I also suspect he would find that amusing and worthy of a witty, or a philosophical aside, illustrated, as was his way, with a few lines of apposite poetry, deftly plucked from his prodigious memory.

Bank House - HowtownIt was here, at the age of 51 he endured a long and distressing conclusion to the illness that had dogged his steps for much of his life. Unmarried, childless, he passed away attended only by his landlady and was buried just a mile or so up the road at the Old Church of Saint Martins. This plain and lonely old chapel would be abandoned shortly afterwards, leaving Wilson – Orientalist, writer, thinker and prolific traveller – to rest in peace and final obscurity.

Most of his other works – his earlier travelogues from his days in China, Baluchistan, Switzerland, and Sutherland, also his poetry – are difficult to find, being published anonymously in Blackwood’s Magazine from 1857 onwards. You can uncover them  with the help of Wellesley’s guide to 19th century periodicals but one needs a dogged determination and even a slightly obsessive attitude to get at them properly. Most of those vintage periodicals however are now freely available online,  and I found them well worth the effort – and the tiny font –  not only in fleshing out Wilson’s entry in the dictionary of National Biography, but in experiencing more of that genial charm one encounters from a reading of the Abode of Snow – also his beguiling wisdom, a thing that manages to strike a curious balance between Victorian no-nonsense rationalism, and full blown nature-mysticism.

He was not universally admired in his day, being criticised by The Times as too sympathetic towards the Chinese, perhaps understandable at a time when our armed forces were busy setting fire to large parts of the Orient. Then, on passing through the United States in 1861, when commenting on the opening stages of the Civil War, he dismissed Abraham Lincoln rather sniffily as a small man caught up in large circumstances – a phrase I beg my American readers to forgive as a momentary aberration. Then there was an early stint as Editor of the Hong Kong “China Mail,” during which his journalistic recklessness landed him in court on a charge of libel. Duly found guilty he was fined the eye-watering sum of £1000 and bound over to keep the peace – this at a time a when decent salary was around a £300 a year.

Mealy mouthed, no. Recklessly outspoken,… at times, yes. But among his fellow literati he was much respected, spoken of with great affection, and viewed as something of a wayward genius, even a curiosity, with many a drawing room gathering of his old Edinburgh school chums beginning with the words: what news of Wilson?

I could fill a book on this subject, and probably will do one day, for the half a dozen people besides myself who would find it interesting,  but I’ll end this little homage here with Wilson’s own words. On the nature of life, he was no more eloquent than in this excerpt from a contribution he made to Blackwoods Magazine in March of 1858, titled Stories from Ancient Sind:

Experience and reason assure us that the fabled spontaneity of  perfect life is only a sickly dream; for the law of life is but the law of growth and labour; the golden ages of the past have germed in pain and grown with difficulty into full wide-branched glory; and behind every civilisation we find no primeval paradise but only the seething swamp with its slimy brood, the low tangled jungle with its self destroying life, and the hoary salts and the petrified flames of the pathless desert….

…So the world wends; in the light of life onwards, and backwards again under the cold inevitable shadow of death, and its life is ever beautiful and mystic, freshly joyous or infinitely sad, to the imagination of man, for it is in the nature of the human spirit – its highest exercise and noblest prerogative – not to confine itself within the narrow limits of its petty personalities,…

Andrew Wilson 1858

The Abode of Snow is still in print. You can also get an ebook copy for free from the Internet Archive here.

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