We’re back from a much-needed break in the Lake District. It’s somewhere I’ve never been before, while my husband went several times in his teens, doing ‘Outward Bound’ with the school – sailing, canoeing, rock climbing and such. (He tells me the hills have inexplicably got steeper since then…)
The idea was to get away from work, his and mine, and as it turned out, from the utter chaos of UK politics at present. So we made good use of our National Trust and English Heritage memberships as well as enjoying the scenery and solitude.
On our first day we went into Kendal and had a bimble around the town, which turns out to have a very unusual layout going back to medieval times. It also has quite the most convoluted one-way traffic system we’ve ever come across, so if you’re up that way, be warned! Later in the week we climbed up the hill to the castle ruins and that vantage point helps make a bit more sense of it, when you can see the layout of the hills and the river, as well as other impressive views, so that’s a walk well worth doing.
We found the museum that first day, and that was very interesting, not least to see what today’s curators can do with a collection of bequests from the days of Empire when British naturalists mostly went abroad to shoot things to prove they existed… A real added bonus was an exhibition of art inspired by the works of Beatrix Potter, and as a huge fan of Bryan Talbot, I was thrilled to see original artwork from The Tale of One Bad Rat.
Since it’s the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth, there’s an awful lot going on to celebrate and promote her work. We visited Hill Top, the farm she brought with her own money after Peter Rabbit’s success and that was probably the most touristy place we went. It is well worth a visit, not least to learn how much more there was to her than writing little books about cute animals.
One thing in particular worth noting is her commitment to supporting the Lake District as a working, thriving community. It’s one of those parts of England where an important industrial heritage deserves to be remembered – and the consequences of its loss on the modern day population needs to be addressed. We visited the Stott Park Bobbin Mill which used to produce literally millions of bobbins and cotton reels for the textile mills of Lancashire and beyond in its heyday. And that was only one of more than seventy such factories. Highly recommended for anyone who’s interested in Victorian and earlier industry. If you can get there on one of the ‘in steam’ days, to see the machines at work as we did, so much the better.
Not that the Victorians were all about work and no play. We also visited the Claife Viewing Station, once an elegant assembly rooms for Georgian tourists come to admire Windermere. It’s ruinous now but there’s an Aeolian harp installed as there was in its heyday – and since we were there on a blustery day, that added a distinctively unusual note to our visit.
Windermere and the towns around that particular stretch of water were busy – which must be a good thing for the local economy which does look to be under some stress. Quite a lot of commercial property was vacant, everywhere we went, along with plenty of house for-sale signs to catch the eye. But you don’t have to go far to find peace and quiet and leisurely country walking. We spent a very pleasant day in the hills above Patterdale – being overtaken by enthusiasts in Gore-Tex and lycra as we ambled along, enjoying the views of Ullswater. And on the way back, we rounded a corner on a country road and both saw a red squirrel sitting on a tree in a patch of sunlight, waiting just long enough for us both to say ‘oh look!’ before it bounded off.
After a day of walking, we fancied a sitting-down expedition, so went over to Coniston for a boat tour of the lake. Since I spent my early years reading about sailing small boats rather than doing so like my husband, I was pleased to see places which I remembered from the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books which I adored. I’m seriously considering giving them a re-read.
We also visited Wray Castle which is a very curious place, built as a Victorian exercise in ego for a wealthy industrialist by an architect who really didn’t know what he was doing – and who apparently drank himself to death. Since then, the National Trust hasn’t really known what to do with it and at present, it’s given over to fun activities for children, which seems an ideal use of the place. So if you’re up that way with a young family, bear it in mind!
Sizergh Castle is much more of a proper castle, and home to the Strickland family for over 700 years. The history and evolution of the house, from fortified manor to elegant residence is fascinating, with a lot of original features still in situ including fabulous Elizabethan panelling and carving. The family history is just as intriguing, especially their involvement with Jacobean politics and the exiled Stuarts in the late seventeenth/early eighteenth centuries. Then there are the splendid gardens – complete with a very friendly and sociable black cat. Possibly because, as I discovered reading the guidebook over a cup of tea, the herbaceous border he was so comfortably ensconced in includes a generous planting of catmints.
So that was our holiday in summary, and very enjoyable it was too. While I was up there I did acquire some reading – a scholarly biography of Beatrix Potter and also a book by Christina Hardyment detailing her searches for the places and people who inspired Arthur Ransome’s books. Those will warrant a separate blog post.
And now we’re both back to work. And yes, I’ve been places and seen things which have given me ideas for the stories I’m working on at present, as well as for future projects.