We didn’t intend it to be so. After all, we were only going to spend a week in a remote corner of Scotland, in and around a village where friends of ours would be staffing a bookstore a few hours a day in exchange for occupying the pretty apartment above it. Then, we would drive a couple of hours south to England’s Lake District to admire its beauty and view the memorabilia belonging to William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and others who are creditied with beginning the Romantic School of English poetry in the early years of the 19th century. Finally, we would spend a few days in the City of Manchester, discovering its diversity and exploring its roots in the Industrial Revolution and the beginnings of capitalism.
Over three weeks, we had a mixed bag of experience, accomplishing all we intended and much more. We experienced enchanted moments of pleasure along with pains and frustrations that are often our lot as independent travelers. At the end, we flew home worn out and wanting nothing more than to sit quietly on our front balcony admiring the night sky over old Stambul across the water and mulling over what we had just been through. Indeed, it was another trip of a lifetime.
Before recounting some of the highlights, I’ll give some general observations about our travels:
We might entitle this paragraph Let Us Now Praise the British Soul because, almost without exception, everywhere we went, we were wonderfully well treated by those we encountered in the service and hospitality sectors. Beyond polite, they were really friendly. Over and over, recognizing our foreign accents, they wanted to know what part of the States we were from and what was the purpose of our visit. They chatted us up as though we were old friends, and they were most helpful with information and suggestions. We basked, relaxed and comfortable, in their attention.
To say that the British are dog lovers is understating the point. Rather, they seem mad about dogs, and in the Lake District at least, the dogs go everywhere the humans do. We’d never seen such a concentration and diversity of canine life. It was not uncommon to see a sign in front of a pub or restaurant stating that muddy boots and dogs were welcome.
“Muddy boots” refers to the Lake District’s favorite pastime, walking the fells (hills) and along the many becks (streams) that flow through the valleys. There are footpaths galore. On successive days, I walked along a couple of them for some distance, in one case with mildly disastrous results, a story that I’ll relate later.
Until we arrived in Manchester near the end of our trip, we were surrounded everywhere with natural beauty, much of it green, for the amount of rain in both Scotland and the north of England gives a rare lushness to the grass and plants that is a delight to the eyes. Moisture combined with cool air makes the happiest looking flowers, as well.
Except for the tidal flats around where we stayed in Scotland, the country we traveled was never flat. The Lake District, so-named for its numerous bodies of water, dotted with islets, overhung with dramatic white and dark clouds, and boardered by hillsides in countless shades of green and purple make for some of the world’s most poetic landscapes.
Our itinerary required a car, so upon arriving at Manchester’s airport, we rented a small BMW sedan. I’ve been renting cars for more than forty years, and during that time the rental experience has, in my opinion, changed for the worse. In Britain especially, before driving the car out of the lot, one must inspect it carefully for any dents or scratches, and sign a paper that one has done so. The idea is that one has to bring it back in the same condition or pay for any additional damage, no matter how minor. Many of Britain’s back roads are narrow and have no shoulders. Tall hedgerows and stone walls sit right at the edge of the pavement. When meeting oncoming traffic on the narrowest lanes, it’s impossible to avoid contact with the hedges that brush the sides of the car. On this occasion, although we had no extra charges, the possibility of scratching the car was ever present. It was the same when we parked in the pay-and-display lots that are everywhere in northern towns. Think of the wide parking spaces in America and then reduce their width by a quarter. This calculation will give you an idea of parking spaces in Britain. If the guy next to you has not parked in the center of his slot, it is hard to open your door without touching his and vice versa. Besides being irritating, there is another opportunity for damage.
I’ll end my car talk by saying that I don’t mind driving on the left (the wrong side for most of us) or even shifting the standard transmission with my left hand (upgrading to an automatic would have been surprisingly expensive.) What tired me most was driving on those winding, narrow roads with their succession of hills and blind curves. It is the kind of driving that needs both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road at all times except for repeatedly shifting up and down. I imagine our average speed on those roads to be not much more than thirty-five mph, so that a trip of fifteen miles seemed like a long drive. Finally, it was a relief to get back to Manchester, get rid of the car, and explore the city on foot.
Wigtown (best pronounced ‘wicton’)
Wigtown in Scotland’s southwest corner with a local population of about 800 is small. It might have grown even smaller or disappeared altogether had it not been declared Scotland’s National Booktown in the 1990s. As it is today, it boasts a dozen or so used bookstores, a couple quite large and several with cafes serving light meals and baked goods.
One of smallest of these is The Open Book where our Istanbul friends Peri and Kelly spent half of their daytime hours welcoming customers and assisting with their purchases. Our friends organized a Turkish table with English translations of Turkish novels and a dish of real Turkish Delight that customers were encouraged to sample. Kay and I would stop by each day and even provided a cultural service. One afternoon Kay gave a talk about Turkey’s detective story writer Ahmet Ümit while on another occasion, I talked about my trek of a few years ago on Turkey’s Lycian Way.
Our audiences were small but attentive. One man who stopped by the store repeatedly was Robin. He is an eccentric fellow who in his life has had more than his share of misfortune, yet once we got to know him we found him quite congenial.
The bookstores draw customers from far and wide, giving Wigtown a modest prosperity. There is a bar/restaurant named Craft, owned by a Frenchman named Ben who serves as its chef. Craft’s burgers are especially delicious; we dined on them in company of Peri and Kelly more than once. Craft also has a knowledgeable bartender, a true mixicologist with whom Kay discussed the qualities of different gins.
Here, I’ll digress and write a few words about the cult of gin and tonics. We’ve drunk them for years, of course, without giving them much thought. That changed this summer in Spain where they are blended with sophistication, using selected gins, tonic waters, and additions like cardamon, ginger, saffron, black pepper, and cloves along with the more traditional slices of lime and lemon. These have become fascinating to Kay for whom gin is the preferred spirit.
To our surprise we found Britain’s gin-and-tonic culture to be equally rich. One bar in Manchester claims to have 250 brands of gin on hand and well as a variety of tonics. One reservation I’ve had about this cocktail in the past is that, perhaps because they’ve been made with Schweppes tonic, they’ve been too sweet for my taste. Now, a perfect gin and tonic for me is one made with Monkey 47 gin and Nordic Mist tonic. Several others that I’ve ordered tasted just as good. Cocktail hour on this trip usually included a gin-and-tonic stop somewhere.
For our stay in Wigtown we found accommodations at Hillcrest House, in what had once been a private residence in Victorian times. It is operated by a middle-aged couple named Andrew and Deb, who is a masterful cook. The cost of our room included our morning meal when we could choose from several variations of Scottish breakfast, including a choice of six or eight varieties of jam and marmalade made from locally grown fruit. Hillcrest House served us dinner as well if we told Andrew in the morning that we wanted it. We quickly discovered that where we were staying was absolutely the best place to eat in the area. I mention a few of Deb’s choice dishes just to make your mouth water: a rump steak known as a Pope’s nose; roasted vegetables like fennel, sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and russet potatoes; locally sourced lamb chops that because they came from animals raised in the nearby salt marsh were, Andrew claimed, self-marinated; baked chicken rolled in bacon and served with a casserole of chickpeas, chorizo, tomatoes, mushrooms, and fennel. There were lovely desserts, too. One of the best was summer pudding molded into tower shapes and surrounded with fresh blueberries and raspberries.
In the course of three meals a day over a three-week trip there were bound to be a few that we would rather have not eaten; however, on balance, Kay and I ate very well. The old sayings deprecating British cooking are no longer valid. We were able to find tasty, well-cooked meals wherever we went, and some, like that which we ate in an Indian restaurant in Manchester were amazing. We’ve never better enjoyed a simple order of papadam with four kinds of chutney. The English are fond of chutneys and use them along with good cheese and fresh bread to make delicious sandwiches.
A large area of a map of Southwest Scotland contains the region of Galloway, and within it at the bottom, we find Wigtown on a peninsula named Machars. In former ages the district had greater commercial importance than is does today. The town of Stranraer on the coast had been a busy port. It still anchors the ferry service between Scotland and Northern Ireland only twenty miles away. In our wanderings we visited Stranraer’s small ethnographic museum and learned how life was once lived there before modern times. Driving on along the coast we came to charming Portpatrick, a much visited village whose hotels and services are grouped around a large basin that is a natural harbor containing a marina. We ordered sausage butties from a food stand and chatted with the lady operator, a local farmer’s wife who had only been in town a month. She gave us her impressions of the friendly locals.
At other times we explored Machars, visiting the ruins of once-prominent abbeys and watching the sheep and cattle grazing their way through the green fields. Kay’s favorite breed of cow is the Belted Galloway, so called because of the wide, white belt that bisects its black coat. We first learned to appreciate these beasts in New Zealand and saw them again in the U.S., but Galloway, Scotland is where they originated.
For two or three years, I had wanted to ride a zip line, or zip wire as it’s called in Britain. I finally got my chance this week in Scotland. The Laggan Outdoor Activity Centre has Scotland’s longest zip wire stretching more than half a mile. The ride down it, dangling in a harness, is breathtaking and over so quickly that it’s hard to appreciate. The time it took to harness, come down off the wire, and unharness took much longer than the seconds that the ride lasted. As I rode up the mountain to the starting platform, sitting in the bed of a battered Land Rover with a couple of young boys, I learned that the helmet I had been issued was to protect me from the shocks of hitting my head against the walls of the vehicle as it made it way up a very rough track.
The Lake District
This storied picturesque region of northwest England has attracted tourists for as long as there has been tourism. Fortunately, most of it is within the country’s largest national park. I write ‘fortunately’ because that designation has protected it from the kind of overdeveloped mass tourism that threatens to destroy popular and less protected sites around the world. A visit there has been on my bucket list long before I knew I had one. That’s because I read of its natural beauty as a teenager at Wabash College where, as an English major, I studied the Romantic poets, the foremost of whom, then and now, is William Wordsworth. Kay, too, majored in English.
Ever since we were married, she and I have made travel destinations the homes and haunts of famous authors. It was in this spirit that what we wanted to see most were those locales associated with the life and writings of Wordsworth and his contemporaries. This meant that we had to spend time around the village of Grasmere where the poet lived in tiny Dove Cottage with his wife, his beloved sister Dorothy, and guests like Coleridge who would stay often.
The historical period I’m writing about is the early 19th century when domestic life, other than for the wealthy, was primitive by today’s standards. For instance, the rooms in Dove Cottage are tiny and dark with low ceilings. Although each room has a fireplace, the principal sources of light came from candles made of beeswax and tallow. The tallow smoked and dripped on whatever surface the candle stood on. Besides being unpleasant, the air must have been very unhealthy. It’s no wonder Wordsworth and his sister spent so much time walking outdoors. I have a copy of Dorothy’s journal (bought in Wigtown) that gives fascinating glimpses into this period of their lives. Imagine those times when guests came and everyone had to double and triple up in bed with whomever was present.
As Wordsworth’s reputation and income grew, he was able to move his family a few short miles away to Rydal Mount, a much more spacious and attractive home. There, the poet built a terraced garden with an arbor under which he would write. The garden at Rydal Mount is well designed and lovely; we were told that it looks very much as it did in Wordsworth’s day.
Today, both Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount are museums. In addition, there is another Wordsworth Museum adjacent to Dove Cottage. The graves of Wordsworth, his wife, his sister, and Coleridge’s son are beside each other in the cemetery of Grasmere’s ancient church. The village itself in not much larger than it would have been in 1810.
It is fitting that the poet should be so greatly honored in the Lake District, for his emotional attachment to its natural surroundings was strong to the point of being a religion. In what is probably his most well known poem, he experiences nature as a vision:
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” 1804
There is a great deal to say about William Wordsworth, his family, friends, and fellow poets. Kay and I passed several hours viewing their portraits, examining their letters and manuscript pages, and trying to imagine their lives and the changing connections between them. However, this account has to contain other matters, and, to avoid it becoming book-length, I’ll end Part I here.