One fine morning, we took the little car ferry from Bowness across Lake Windermere to Far Sawry. On board were backpackers, bikers, and people out to enjoy a day on the other side of the long lake.
Our destination was Hilltop Farm in Near Sawry. We were headed to the home of Beatrix Potter. Peter Rabbit was a long hop, skip and jump from Wordsworth and Coleridge’s 1789 volume of Lyrical Ballads with its “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Tintern Abbey,” but it was a story my mother had read to me as a little boy. The names Flopsie, Mopsie and Cotton-Tail still echo in my head because we raised rabbits back home in the early 1960s and had named three of our brood after these characters.
Exactly why were we raising rabbits is something I am afraid to ask of my memory.
There was also a Choyce connection here. One of Potter’s close friends was a woman named Louie Choyce. They had an extensive correspondence which was later published as The Choyce Letters – revealing the details of their friendship, as well as their common interest in sheep, fungi (mycology), horticulture and all things living.
Potter herself is best known for her 28 children’s books that she wrote and illustrated. They were somewhat cutesy little stories for the most part, which have since been translated into 35 languages and have sold over a hundred million copies. Like most successful authors, she initially met with rejection when trying to find someone to publish her work but, once she met publisher Frederick Warne, her career took off. She then connected with Frederick’s brother, Norman, both her editor and lover – which sounds like a most unlikely combo – and things might have gone happily ever after had he not died of a disease known as pernicious anaemia.
In her heart and life, Beatrix was a lover of animals. Peter Rabbit was modeled on her own pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer.
As a child – a somewhat homely child one might observe from the photographs – she had mice, frogs, hedgehogs, and even a pet bat, to keep her company.
Through the years she had dogs for pets too, of course. Perhaps her most famous is her collie Kep who appears in a number of photographs of Beatrix as well as in The Tale of Jemima the Puddle-Duck.
In the car-park at the preserved Hill Top Farm – the Potter home – I chatted up a man standing there with a Jack Russell Terrier. We talked about dogs for a few minutes and he grumbled about dogs not being allowed in The World of Beatrix Potter, an engaging entertainment attraction back across the lake in Bowness. He also thought that the price tag for a family afternoon there with the show and afternoon tea was a bit steep: 84 pounds. I agreed and lodged my own complaint about the high price of going into Hill Top and other National Trust sites. Linda must have been off taking photos, because we two men grumbled and consoled each other like that for a while until, in the spirit of mutual male complaints, I mentioned how the unyielding British government would not allow us to fly our Westie into the country in the cabin of the plane. “It’s just not fair,” I said, one dog lover to another, but because he was an Englishman I added in jest, “You should have that fixed.”
Instead of laughing and saying, “Yes, I’ll get right on that,” he frowned and said, “That and a lot of other things. It’s this damn European Union thing, I bet.”
Oops. He bet wrong, as France and other Euro-nations are easy-peasy on dogs compared to Great (“We’re an island, you know…”) Britain. After that, the conversation sort of peter-rabbited off and he allowed his Jack Russell to tug him off towards a trash can where the dog sniffed and then peed on the shiny metal, reminding me to avoid anything even slightly political when talking to strangers and never, ever mentioning European Union, Brexit, fox hunting or the lack of proper hot water to anyone I would meet in the United Kingdom from now on.
As the parking lot continued to fill up, and my wife came to rescue me from further alienating citizens of our host country, I began to wonder why Ms. Potter’s fame had grown rather than diminished over the years. I had tried rereading some of those children’s books recently and well…am I allowed to say it? I just didn’t quite get it.
I know, I know, I know. “They are children’s books, you flaming snob, jerk,” you might say to my face.
And so I will simply say no more about the thin plots, the silly characters with even sillier names like Squirrel Nutkin, Little Pig Robinson and Mrs. Tiggy Winkle. And, besides, it was my own dear mother who loved the stories and was willing to share them with my brother and me when we were just wee ones.
The Potter house itself was smallish and dark and downright austere, but the surrounding countryside was heavenly. Beatrix proved herself to locals that she was indeed a true animal lover and a conservationist. When she died at 77, she left her fourteen farms (fourteen!!) and 4,000 acres to the National Trust. She was able to afford all that property thanks to the huge success of her book sales.
Although she was a famous writer, naturalist and land baron, she had begun farming here with as much difficulty as anyone else, even having to cope with a total of 96 rats in her first two years at Hill Top. Her passion extended itself to sheep farming – a predominately male domain at that time. Yet her fame for breeding Herdwick sheep led to her election as the president of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association which was a big deal in those days and in these parts.
As usual, we were channelled through the gift shop as we were leaving Hill Top Farm and I was sorely tempted to buy a Peter Rabbit shot glass but left it there on the shelf instead for a true fan to purchase and carry home and revere.
Driving on, it was easy to see why Potter had fallen in love with this rolling green, bucolic countryside
I was thankful that this side of Windermere was not quite as commercial as the eastern shore around Bowness, Windermere proper, and Ambleside.
We stopped for lunch at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel on our way to Great Langdale. I had the chicken and leek pie, which I would recommend. On TripAdvisor, which is always a lively place to monitor other folks’ opinions rather than facts, David L. of Preston, U.K. reports that it is “a no-nonsense pub, popular with climbers and walkers enjoying the Langdale Pikes. The interior consists of stone floors and bare wooden benches and tables; perfect if you’re wet or muddy (fairly common in this part of the world)…Service is efficient, but I am puzzled that the staff all appear to be from Eastern Europe. Are there no locals who need the work?”
While I can’t answer his Socratic inquiry concerning the local employment situation, I would own up to the fact that we encountered many, many East Europeans in the service industry while travelling and they were all super friendly, efficient and helpful.
Despite some obvious lingering resentment of European Union which had flared into the Brexit disaster, many a British veteran pub-goer will tell you that service has dramatically improved throughout the land once job-hungry folks from the continent were permitted entry into the kingdom.
Refreshed and restored, we motored on through Chapel Stile and on to our destination of Great Langdale. I had fussed greatly over what mountain we should climb – something difficult but not too difficult – a steep hike that Wordsworth would approve of and something that would get us breathing heavily and challenge our abilities. In a hiking book, I had read about the trek up to Stickle Tarn and decided that was the place.
A tarn is a lake, I had learned but when trying to determine what “stickle” meant, I could only discover it meant to have a stubborn argument about something trivial – or if you can believe the Urban Dictionary – it is “The space between you and someone else, when you don’t want them touching you.” I never did sort out how it applied to the mountain we were about to hike. I would maybe use the word out loud if ever I find myself on a subway ride in Tokyo during rush hour.
Instead, I chalked it up to one of a myriad of small mysteries in my life that would never be unravelled.
Parking the car at the foot of this most Cumbrian of the Cumbrian Mountains, we were certain Stickle was a worthy adversary and set out on the stony path behind the inn. Our first encounter was with some sort of Outward Bound type group. About thirty twelve-year-olds in safety helmets, bright sports clothes and water shoes were scrambling up a ravine through the cascading water. They were being led by shouting, university-age counsellors and splashing each other as they hopped from rock to rock. It was a warm day and it probably felt good to be wet. Linda and I agreed that we approved of anything challenging like this that would get a contemporary English youth out of a classroom and out from behind the screen of a dastardly video game.
Sure, there would be a few scraped knees and some damaged egos, but it was the pre-teen version of real adventure, and made me think that perhaps the ‘British Outdoors for Youth Anti-Internet Soak Your Bully in a Mountain Stream Central Office’ should require all children between the ages of nine and sixteen to be locked out of their homes at least once a week and required to commune with Mother Nature on whatever terms possible.
There was, however, on the path before us, one chubby lad sitting it out on a ledge with his (or somebody’s) mother, his safety helmet in hand, his ego battered, his self-esteem damaged beyond recognition. We didn’t stop to ask what the problem was as that would only have exasperated his plight. But it was clear and universal that here was the boy who couldn’t quite find the will or courage or whatever it took to join his peers in their wet and somewhat wild fun. Maybe he just had a bad stomach from eating too many Yorkies, Rolos, Maltesers, Milky Bars or Hariboo Strawbs. Or maybe he had just chickened out and his schoolmates would never, ever allow him to forget it. Scarred for life from this and several similar episodes, he would grow up to be a murderer or a terrorist. Or it could go the other way. He could turn out to be an “I’ll-Show-Them” type who comes up with a cure for cancer and a device that can convert poisoned water into clean healthy life-giving fluid for free.
We left the brooding boy and the shouts of his happier classmates as we ascended the trail that continually became steeper and steeper. Linda was in better shape than me, thanks to her running mornings, but I was coaching oxygen into my lungs, advising my calf muscles to muster their strength and trying to keep up with her the best I could.
There were sheep about perched on small ledges here and there and the view of the Great Langdale Valley just kept getting grander and grander. Sure enough, the tarn was waiting for us at the top with two even higher mountains – Harrison Stickle and Pavey Ark – looming above with a spectacular blue sky behind them. All the mountains around had been scraped mostly raw by retreating glaciers. There were no trees but hearty desert-like looking plants and enough dry grass to keep the sparse sheep fed.
At the summit, we were rewarded with a view of a pristine mountaintop lake.
It reminded me of photos I had seen of other mountain tops with circular lakes at the summit. And then it occurred to me; it was a volcanic cone. Stickle Tarn is what’s left of an extinct volcano. And here we were, me puffing heavily like a six-pack-a-day smoker and Linda still hopping from boulder to boulder like twenty-something gymnast. We had worked hard to get here and this was our reward; a dead, but breathtaking volcano top.
We gorged our eyes on water, sky and distant peaks for a while, and congratulated ourselves on our success at a strenuous climb, vowing that if there more hills like this around then bring them on. We wandered a bit there in the heights and snapped some of those photographs that never do justice to such natural magnificence. Then Linda led the way down on the far side of the tiny rivulet we had traced to the summit.
The trail petered out to nothing and we found ourselves on a much steeper slope with much less stable footing. It turned out to be a path mostly used by the mountain sheep and I feared we were not quite as adept as they were. But if I knew one thing about scaling down mountains (and I don’t know much) it is this: when in doubt, slide down on your ass. And so we shuffled and crab walked and bumped our bums ever downward on these most ancient stones until we could cross the stream again and make our way back down towards the voices of the adventure-happy kids in the lower creek.
Uncommonly proud of having scaled such a difficult climb, I would later look up the hike in a Lake District hiking book only to discover that the author referred to it as a “nice family hike” – but refused to let that diminish my sense of accomplishment. In my memory, it continues to loom as large as an amazing and legendary ascent.
I was itching for a pint of beer from the pub below but settled on sharing an icy cold bottle of Coke purchased from the friendly barkeep. I had noticed that in most of the British hiking books, detailed descriptions of the trails invariably ended with some fairly precise directions as to how a weary, thirsty hiker could find his or her way to the nearest pub. At Stickle Tarn, you don’t have to look far; we were barely off the trail when we stumbled into the Sticklebarn Pub. I don’t usually drink sweet fizzy drinks, but I felt like they put something special in the Coke that day although it was probably the generous buzz provided by the mountain and the air. I was reminded that if a person needed to overcome a bout of what the Romantic poets would have called melancholy, a good challenging hike to any available stickle or tarn might do it – that and a slug of ice-cold Coke.
How exactly could it be that something so natural and magnificent combined with something so commercial, crass and unhealthy could create such a small cocktail of euphoria?
I don’t quite know, but it does.
According to Engineering Timelines, the Langdale area “is the site of what might be called the first recognizable ‘industry’ in the British Isles. The scree slopes here were quarried some 5,000 years ago for the raw materials for stone axes, which were then shaped and eventually ended up distributed round the country.” The stone in question was called greenstone volcanic tuff and it really did get exported far and wide, with at least one group of diligent archaeologists determining that a whopping 27 per cent of the axe heads from this period came from the Great Langdale area and some found as far away as Wales, Ireland and Poland.
Soon it would be time to depart from the Lake District, drive back to Glasgow airport and find our way back home to gear up for our month back in England (by way of a flight to France), this time with Kelty. I had noticed an English Facebook posting for a “Tails Trails – Events for Dogs and their Humans” coaxing folks to “Come Join the Pack,” so I knew there was plenty of dog-friendly hiking to be had in Langdale and vicinity. But I had also read accounts of sheep owners shooting unleashed dogs in Cumbria – blaming dogs for the death of substantial numbers of their sheep – so perhaps Kelty would be safer some place other than on the steep craggy slopes of the fells.
In the morning, over coffee, I also found myself drawn to other tragic news of this Lake District that had been so generous to us; only a month before, a climber had died after falling at Raven Crag right behind where we had enjoyed lunch at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel.
One such tragic story led to a plethora of others with headlines reading “Glaramara climber dies from head injuries after fall on Raven Crag,” “Injured Lakeland climber airlifted from Raven Crag after 33ft fall,” “Paraglider critically injured in crash on Tarn Crag, Great Langdale,” “Great Langdale walker dies after fall in Dungeon Ghyll,” and “Lake District walker dies after falling on Scafell Pike snow slope.”
We were not mountain climbers, Linda and I, but I find that preparing for a long-distance flight anywhere, even when going home, sobers me to realities that haunt me from time to time. Adventure and danger are linked, as are beauty and loss.
Soon the car was packed and we were on the A 592 leaving Windermere driving through the stark beauty of Kirkstone Pass and skirting the shores of Ullswater where Dorothy and William had taken their “holiday ramble” and she had seen the vision of the white dog in moonlight. Then it was onward towards Penrith and the M6. As we crossed over Hadrian’s Wall again without a trace to be seen, I realized there was so much more to experience in this corner of the Celtic world and that we would be back here again to take in the tarns, make footprints on the fells, wade in the waters, and sing praises to poets old and new. ~ Story by Lesley Choyce