The Lake District Continued
Pre-planning our itinerary from home in Istanbul, we chose to stay close to three different towns. Grasmere was obvious because of the Wordsworth connection, but we don’t exactly remember why we chose to be near Keswick (the ‘w’ is silent) in the north and Kendal in the south except that those choices would have us explore different parts of the district.
So it was that driving south from Scotland, we arrived one afternoon at the first of our destinations. As it turned out, Keswick (population 5,000) wasn’t a bad choice, but that wasn’t obvious at first glance since our timing coincided with the beginning of a bank holiday weekend, and the town was overrun. Crowds were everywhere, making it difficult to find a place to park and even to walk the streets. Most of these people were day trippers, behaving like day trippers everywhere. They moved slowly in family groups, licking ice cream cones or eating fish and chips as they went. Those that weren’t walking filled the terraces of pubs drinking beer. There was even a rough-looking motorcycle gang named the Devil’s Disciples standing around their bikes. The scene was bewildering enough to make us want to flee.
Leaving Keswick’s hubbub, we sought out the pre-historic monument of Castlerigg Stone Circle and found it not far from town standing where it has for 4,500 years in the middle of a green field. The stones are not as large as they are at Stonehenge, but where those sit on the flat ground of Salisbury Plain, Castlerigg’s are surrounded by a striking mountain background. In this extraordinary setting it is not hard to imagine the spiritual role the circle must have played for the ancients that gathered there.
Another happy discovery was in Keswick itself near the piers where vintage steamboats take tourists to view the pretty sights of Derwent Water. Our discovery was the Theatre on the Lake, a repertory theater with a national reputation. During our days in town we would attend a performance of a new, five-character play by David Hare entitled The Vertical Hour as well as The Rivals, the 18th-century chestnut by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. As we live in Turkey, we miss English-language theater, so whenever we have the opportunity to attend a play we jump at it.
I should mention that our accommodations were not in the town itself but in a nearby country inn named Middle Ruddings. It was there that we ate our breakfasts and dinners and where we slept in Room 9 with a creaking door. Curiously, that door has a plaque inscribed with the words “Hunca Munca.” When I asked their significance, I was told this is the name of a mouse character in an early children’s story by Beatrix Potter. You’ll remember Potter if you ever had the tales of Peter Rabbit read to you as a child. She got rich writing and illustrating those tales and when she tired of London, Potter bought a farm in the area and spent the remainder of her busy life there. She loved the Lake District; to protect its natural beauty she used her own money to buy up farms for sale in order to keep them from the clutches of commercial developers. She was a practical and energetic woman.
I do love to walk in natural settings, so before we left the precincts of Keswick I took the opportunity to do it twice. Because of Kay’s physical limitations, she cannot walk on rugged ground, and since she loves to read and the lounge at Middle Ruddings was comfortable, she was more than content to stay behind.
On my second walk I tried to follow a guide book’s directions. Alas, I made a couple errors of judgment that contributed to a less than happy outcome. My biggest mistake was to leave my hiking poles in the trunk of the car. From the description of the terrain, “easy; some rough ground,” I didn’t think I would need them. The trail I walked was in a valley, along one bank of a river, and back along the far side to the starting point. The walk is named Stonethwaite where the suffix “-thwaite” is an ancient Norse word meaning “place of.” The track was well named because it was filled with countless stones and rocks large and small that had been washed down the steep mountain sides to end up where I was walking. Poles would have made a big difference navigating them. Another obstacle was water on the track. Although it was a sunny day, rivulets of water kept running down and collecting on the track and in the surrounding grass.
Maybe it was because I had eyes on the ground while getting around the stones and the water that I missed the wooden bridge that would have taken me across the river. I walked on for a considerable distance before it dawned on me that there would be no bridge the way I was going. Now, I could have turned around and retraced my steps, but I had an idée fixe that I had to get across the river somehow.
When I walked down to the bank, I saw that the water was running fast but not deep. If I walked across, I would soak my shoes and socks, but I would be on the far side. Again, if I had had my poles I would have made it. As it was, after two or three steps I slipped and fell, soaking my clothes and unfortunately my camera that I was carrying over my left shoulder. Finally, as I picked myself up, I saw the water bottle that had been in an outside pocket of my backpack floating rapidly downstream away from me.
I was a mess. My socks were useless so I stuck them into a plastic bag in my pack. I took the foam insoles out of my hiking shoes and wrung out the water. After resting a while, I got to my feet and started the long walk back to the car. It was a warm day, and I got very thirsty. Meeting a couple and their dog walking towards me, I explained my predicament. They gave me a plastic bottle with about an inch of water in the bottom, enough to get me down the trail and to a camp ground and where there was a water source.
What should have been a two-hour walk had become five hours. Kay had grown alarmed at my lateness. All I can say is that I hope I’ve learned something from the experience.
I won’t write much about the curious museum at Keswick, but I must tell you about the musical stones. These are real stones discovered on a local mountainside ages ago by someone who understood their potential. He chipped and shaped them, “tuning” them like the bars of a xylophone. In the museum these are arranged in a large wooden rack and played by striking them with mallets. I happened to have arrived just as the director of the museum was tinkering with the instrument and was able to demonstrate how it sounded.
We had intended to stay in the village of Grasmere and had pre-booked a hotel room. However, when we saw its odd shape and lack of proper lighting, we knew we couldn’t be comfortable in it for five nights. The hotel had no other room available and graciously let us off the hook for this one. My travel agent spouse quickly found us alternate accommodations nearby in the larger town of Ambleside, directly on the shore of Lake Windermere, the District’s largest.
Sometimes what first looks like a setback turns out to be a blessing in disguise. That was the case with Ambleside. Besides our excellent hotel room at LakesLodge, we found a really excellent Thai restaurant where we ate dinner twice. We also had a very pleasant cruise on the lake on another vintage steam boat.
Besides its engaging small museum, the town had a clothing shop where I found some things I wanted for an attractive price. It was from Ambleside, also, that we finished visiting the monuments to the Lake Poets.
Our last destination in the Lake District was another country inn outside the small city of Kendal. To get there we drove south through a pouring rainstorm that showed no signs of letting up any time soon.
For that reason, we drove past Kendal to the town of Ulverston where we spent the entire afternoon in the Laurel and Hardy Museum. It was a perfect activity for a rainy day. Stan Laurel was born in Ulverston in 1910 to parents who were actors. He grew up in the theater and showed his passion for it at an early age. It was later in 1927, when he was in Hollywood working as a director, that he chanced to meet the American Oliver Hardy on a film set. Together, they made 107 films, most of them twenty-minute two-reelers, and they made most of them for the Hal Roach Studio.
The private museum began as a collection of models, puppets, figurines, press clippings, posters, photographs, and other ephemera that the current owner’s grandfather had amassed over the years. The comedy duo must have been as popular in Britain as in the U.S.
Although Kay and I had grown up laughing at the Laurel and Hardy films shown on television, we didn’t know much about the two men’s lives until now. The museum presents illustrated text panels documenting their careers, especially that of Stan, the town’s favorite son. The museum’s location in the Roxy, a former cinema, is a perfect setting for it. All day, the owner shows Laurel-and-Hardy shorts on the cinema’s large screen, taking requests and introducing each one briefly. He seems as passionate and knowledgeable about them as his grandfather must have been. Another neat thing is that we were able to buy DVDs of some films, items that we had not been able to find in America. After an afternoon of laughter, we drove on to the Station Inn in the village of Oxenholme near Kendal, our last destination in the Lake District.
In the vicinity of Kendal, there are two historic homes open to the public. Levens Hall and Sizergh Castle may not be included among England’s Great Houses; however, they are impressively large and surrounded by delightful gardens. The foundations of both houses date from the 13th century when they were towers fortified to protect their inhabitants from the bands of cattle thieves that raided the border lands. Over the centuries they grew to become the residences of aristocratic families; today they are museums filled with art, furniture, and personal objects acquired over the centuries.
Always conscious of the possibility of rain, we chose to visit the gardens before entering the houses themselves. Those at Levens Hall are filled with topiary of the most amazing size and variety.
The gardens were created between 1689 and 1720 by a gardener named M. Beaumont for the then-master of the house Col. James Grahme.
It seems strange to think of gardens as having rooms, but that’s what parts of the garden at Levens Hall feel like. The yew hedges grow so tall that they become walls surrounding a green space the size of a drawing room. One of these is circular. Another is formed of plants whose leaves are tinged with white, giving their enclosure the look of a white room. The art is fascinating to see and to contemplate.
Architecturally speaking, both houses reached their peak during the Elizabethan Period. Oak paneling, compartmented wood, and stucco ceilings characterize that style. During its long lifetime, Levens Hall had a succession of owners while the Strickland family has owned Sizergh Castle for nearly 800 years.
The Stricklands were staunch Roman Catholics who supported the Royalists before and after the Civil War, during the Jacobite period at the end of the 17th century. Sizergh Castle has two large portraits, one of Charles II looking pleasantly normal and the other of James II in whose thin, pinched face, one could read the monarch’s cruel, autocratic character. As James VII of Scotland, it was he who tried to force Catholicism on his protestant subjects and persecuted those known as the Coventers for their refusal.
In Wigtown, Kay and I had walked on a wooden causeway to view a stone column to which, in the 17th century, two women dissenters were tied and left to drown by the incoming tide. That infamous moment is Wigtown’s single entry in the greater historical record.
Kendal is notable for the career of George Fox who, in 1650, founded the Religious Society of Friends known as the Quakers. The Society’s Meeting House in Kendal contains information about Quakerism, including a large series of embroidered panels celebrating important moments of Quaker history and Quakerism’s peaceful principles. These were created over fifteen years beginning in the 1980s by over 4,000 men, women, and children working under the art direction of a single woman named Anne Wynn-Wilson.
Another Kendal gem is Abbot Hall, a small art gallery with some important works in its permanent collection. The first is a huge triptych known as The Great Picture done in 1646 by Jan van Belcamp. It celebrates a determined woman named Lady Anne Clifford who, disinherited at a young age, fought for years to regain her estates. She finally succeeded and went on to restore them. It’s an early story of successful female perseverance.
Abbot Hall also possesses the largest collection of paintings in Britain by the 18th-century artist George Romney. Most are portraits, his specialty, but there are a couple of others as well. One depicts King Lear tearing off his clothes during the tempest.
The rolling land of the southern Lake District is very different from the steep hills and crags in the north. As we said goodbye, we drove further south toward Manchester into the flat terrain of the Midlands.
Manchester feels like a larger city than it probably is. That’s because of the excitement and dynamism it generates. One evidence of this is that so many Mancunians we encountered are from other European countries and other parts of Britain. They’ve come here because it is a happening place. Weekends in Manchester are party times. The bars are crowded and roaring. A major passion must be football; the city has two of the world’s great teams.
Our interest was more in the look and history of the city. They are connected, for during the city’s industrial heyday of the 19th century, Manchester celebrated its fortune by building some amazing Victorian Gothic buildings, of which its immense Town Hall is probably the best example. We ate Eggs Benedict one morning in its Sculpture Café whose Gothic structure caused people who looked at Kay’s photos on Facebook to think we were in a church.
Another monumental edifice from that era is the John Ryland’s Library, built by his widow to honor the memory of her late husband. It has a magnificent reading room and a vast collection of books, as well as other galleries reserved for exhibits. We browsed through one of these with display cases holding copies of early printed material, such as a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets that I had trouble reading due to its archaic typeface.
Kay and I spent almost all of our Manchester visit in the central city’s business district. One exception was the afternoon we rode the light-rail Metro-Link a few stops to an ultra-modern development around water known as Media City, so called because it contains the local headquarters of the BBC and the ITV. I needed some new clothes, and we knew that there was an outlet mall nearby. Standing in the center of the development, we looked at stunning architecture in every direction. One of those buildings is by Daniel Libeskind and houses the Imperial War Museum North.
We learned that we could walk around the central district with ease. Once we had learned its boundaries and principal streets we explored it at will. The district contains two of the city’s finest museums, neither one too far from our hotel.
One morning we walked to the Museum of Science and Industry for an eye-opening tour of Manchester’s industrial history. The museum occupies five buildings that date back to the time in the 19th century when the city thrived as a manufacturing and trade center.
Its greatest industry was making and printing cotton cloth in a process that took five-hundred-pound bales of raw cotton picked by slaves in America and the West Indies and, through a series of steps, separated, cleaned, fluffed, and spun it into threads, which it then wove into cotton fabric. All these processes were powered by huge, noisy, dangerous machines that left those poor souls that operated them deaf, maimed, and killed.
The contempt of the mill owners for their employees was breathtaking. We had a fine demonstration given by a charismatic woman who led us through all the various parts off the process using the actual machines. It was a brilliant lesson in the beginnings of industry and capitalism. At one time most of the cotton cloth consumed world-wide was made on thousands of Lancashire looms.
The People’s History Museum is unique in our experience. It traces, explains, and illustrates the tortuous path that British society followed to gain equal rights for all its citizens from the end of the civil war in the 17th century to 1945, the year of the country’s first majority Labour government. This path is diagrammed on a kind of flow chart two stories high. By studying it we got an idea of what the galleries of the museum would cover in detail.
Some of what we learned were the political struggles led by government leaders like Prime Minister William Gladstone. Other displays showed what life was like for several generations of a single family, including what each generation ate, how many hours it worked, and what opportunities it had for rest and recreation.
The overall political tone of the stories and artifacts on display is liberal and left-leaning. There are posters and banners used at election times. There are descriptions of secret societies whose mission was to give solidarity and support to their working-class members’ hard lives.
A temporary exhibit of rare photographs taken at industrial sites in the past documents how workers were used merely as models to illustrate some process or installation. This photography made no attempt to probe the attitudes and emotions of those they included.
This is a great museum and the only one of its kind we know of. Some of what it documents is included in other museums but not with the skill and concentration of this one. We spent a couple of hours touring it and could have spent much longer.
We took in the People’s History Museum on our last full day in the city, and by the end of that day we were tired. We had been gone from home for three weeks, doing and enduring much more than I’ve recorded in this account. Of course, we’re happy to have made this trip, yet we wonder how much longer we can make these kinds of efforts. They take their toll physically and mentally. If you have had similar thoughts, write and let us know.