The Lake District is, to quote a facebook friend of mine describing the Island of Iona recently, bonkers beautiful.
More about the much-lauded beauty in a minute. There are idiosyncrasies I will associate with my time in this area for ever. One of these is the endearing, baffling, sometimes downright infuriating lack of signage. We thought Eigg was subtle, with its vague system of coloured dots to indicate various walking tracks; they have nothing on the tracks around Buttermere. In an area that apparently hosts 15 million tourists every year, the only signage you are likely to find as you try to navigate your way around low lakes and high fells are old, sweetly carved wooden signs saying ‘Public Footpath’. Armed as we were with an ordinance survey map, and reasonably bush-savvy as at least one of us is, we managed to get everywhere we wanted to hike to, but it wasn’t easy. We wondered if it was a deliberate attempt to keep all but the keenest trekkers on the beaten track. We ask our host, John, a local, if this is policy and he chuckles. ‘I don’t think so,’ he says in his slow Cumbrian drawl. ‘I think it’s just idleness. I think they’re just too lazy to put anything up.’
Animals are another Lake District theme – they are everywhere. Of course sheep rule – sheep here are like cows in India; they saunter down the middle of the road or sunbake nonchalantly on a barely existent grassy verge beside the narrowest of roads. We have seen road signs asking us to beware of sheep, deer, red squirrels and badgers. Most of all, we are struck by the dogs, who seem to be the main danger to sheep if various gruesome posters are to be believed. Dogs are everywhere. In National Parks, off their leads as often as not. In pubs, lying happily under a table next to a roaring fire. In every outdoor equipment shop in Keswick (and there are about 20) there they are, sniffing the gortex, welcomed in by signs outside, in cafes, in food shops for goodness sake. Sitting at a pavement café in Keswick watching the passing parade was like finding myself in a Hairy Maclary book.
We were spoilt with a whole week in this heavenly patch of the earth. I picked a place to stay almost randomly, and it has been perfect for us. In Buttermere there is a church, two pubs, two cafes, a youth hostel, a couple of farms and not much else. Our rental cottage is part of a 17th century farmhouse, with a seriously uphill gradient between bathroom and bedroom and one coffee table on such a slant that I am worried about putting my mug of tea on it in case it should slip off. It’s warm and cosy and comfortable and we love it.
Buttermere village lies between Lake Buttermere and Crummock Water, and is surrounded by rugged mountains. The area is distinctive in that it is half bucolic, gently undulating, sheep-strewn, old-farmhouse-populated countryside and half mountains of the kind that are hard to climb up, harder to climb down and where you could die if you weren’t sensible. Then there are the Lakes themselves – big ones and little ones, a different colour every hour of every day, reflecting the glory of the hills around them. When we arrive, our host Vicki says that because it is a partly cloudy day, the shadows on the Fells are more beautiful, and she’s right. There’s more interest and contrast than on a day of pure sunshine.
We are grateful, however, for a day of almost pure sunshine when we do our big walk for the week –up the three big mountains on the south side of Lake Buttermere – Red Pike, High Stile and High Crag. I haven’t been so knackered since the last time I climbed the Staircase to the top of Mount Bogong, and it is like a staircase, relentlessly up a punishing gradient, much of which was loose scree which is, frankly, terrifying coming down for a middle-aged person with dodgy knees. When we get to the top of Red Pike we can see to the ocean and beyond it to Scotland, we can see Northern Ireland, land of my fathers, faint on the horizon. We can see endless vistas of grey, purple and blue – range upon range – stretching out seemingly forever. How can there be so much unpeopled wildness in such a tiny country?
On Sunday evening we go to church in a building of which no less a personage than William Wordsworth apparently said, ‘A man must be very unsensible who would not be touched at the sight of the chapel of Buttermere’. It is made of warm pinky-red stone, and is the first church I’ve seen where the stained glass windows behind the communion table are of Mary and Martha. Girl power! There is a little plaque to Alfred Wainwright, who walked and drew and wrote about these mountains, fittingly under a window looking out to Haystacks – his favourite mountain, where his ashes are scattered. As always, I am deeply moved by worshipping with people I have never met before and likely never will again (all eight of them!), singing alongside them ‘lustily and with good courage’, repeating the familiar, timeless liturgy, sharing the bread and the wine of Eucharist, being welcomed warmly by the vicar and her flock.
Every day the leaves have turned a little more autumnal, matching the red gold bracken that carpets so much of these hills. (A guidebook tells me that bracken is poisonous to sheep but that the farmers are subsidised not to get rid of it, as its colours are so beautiful and the tourists love it.) The forests are golden, with a thick carpet of moss so soft I want to lie down on it and never get up. I don’t know which I enjoy more – walking through the trees or clambering above the tree line to the wild, rocky moors with their breath-taking views of mountains and lakes. Every day we walk and walk. Sometimes we get in the car and walk somewhere a little further away, twice we even visit charming little towns, but the beauty of Buttermere is that there are a thousand enticing walks without having to drive anywhere.
The only way I can describe this country is that it is achingly beautiful. It literally makes my heart ache, or some place in my chest, it almost makes me weep. It gives me a deep nostalgia for many of the books of my childhood, my imaginary worlds, and most of my images of the life hereafter. I’ve taken photos with a sense of resignation that nothing that I and my little camera can capture could possible do justice to this place, but I will treasure those photos nonetheless, I will print them out and stick them in an old-fashioned album and pore over them when I am in need of consolation. Even without the photos, though, this landscape is part of me now, and no one can ever take it away.