A belated final postcard from the edge…of Lake Windermere

14 02 2011

Tuesday 7th February:

At last – a Kodachrome morning!

As we rubbed the sleep from our eyes, splendid views emerged across the lake, the mountains beyond mirrored in its glassy surface.  Early morning yachties were already out making the most of improved weather conditions while swans, bathed in light, glided serenely by and cormorants skimmed the water looking for their fishy breakfast.     

It was a scene straight out of Swallows and Amazons, but more of that later…

Despite my best intentions, to go for a healthy breakfast option, the Cumberland sausage and black pudding could not be denied, and the only concession was scrambled eggs over fried! So with my cholesterol levels soaring (Chris doesn’t do meat!) we set off to make the most of a bright new day.     

With the lake like a mill-pond we were able to take the Windermere ferry (an extortionate £4.00 for such a short hop) from Ferry Nab to Far Sawrey – and Beatrix Potter territory.

A short drive took us to Near Sawrey and the 17th century Hill Top farmhouse, where Beatrix (1866-1943) wrote many of her children’s stories and created such as Jemima Puddleduck, Tom Kitten, Samuel Whiskers and Pigling Bland.

Unfortunately Hill Top was closed and we had to settle for views from outside and a wander around the picturesque but ‘working’ village.

The Beatrix Potter books contain many pictures based on the house and garden and following her death it was bequeathed to the National Trust with the proviso, written into her will, that it be ‘left as if I had just gone out to the post, a fire burning in the hearth, cups and saucers ready on the table for a visitor!’

In total Beatrix wrote and illustrated 23 books, starting with The Tale of Peter Rabbit, first published in 1902. It was the proceeds from her early publications that provided Beatrix with the financial independence to move, in 1905, to the Lake District, where she had often holidayed as a child.

Beatrix’s books, which celebrate rural British landscape and lifestyle, have been published in multiple languages and large part of their enduring popularity is due to the quality of her watercolour illustrations, which depict animal characters full of personality but clearly related to the natural world from which they are drawn.   

During my lower primary school days I was always aware of the Beatrix Potter books, with their distinctive covers, sitting in the class bookcase but they always struck me as ‘girls stuff’ and I was more attracted to ‘boys stuff’, in the shape of the Reverend W Awdry’s railway series – including Thomas the Tank Engine and co.            

It was until years later, during bedtime reading sessions with my two young daughters that I became better acquainted with the works of Miss Potter and began to appreciate the quality of her art work and the lasting appeal of her stories.

Nicci and Gemma, both children of the ‘80s, arrived at a time of resurgence for the Beatrix Potter brand and increased merchandising. Nic, being the first-born, was inundated with all things Peter Rabbit. When Gem arrived on the scene another character had to be found for her – and so began the Mrs Tiggy-Winkle collection. We’ve still got boxes of Potter memorabilia stashed away in the garage.

From Near Sawrey we took the short drive to Hawkshead, a small village of higgledy-piggledy houses small squares, a handful of pleasant inns, and the obligatory selection of tea and gift shops. Cars are banned from the village itself but there is a huge car/coach park on the outskirts, which made me thankful to be visiting out of season rather than in the height of summer.         

The Old Grammar School, founded in 1585 and closed in 1909, a handsome and well maintained building next to the churchyard was closed for visitors at this time of year so we missed out on seeing the carefully preserved school rooms and desks where old boys, including one William Wordsworth, carved their initials for posterity!  

The next stop on our itinerary was to be Coniston and with that in mind I stepped inside the Henry Roberts Bookshop, off Hawkshead’s main square. Lake Coniston is the setting for Arthur Ransome’s children’s classic, Swallows and Amazons – a book I’m sorry to admit, I’ve never read. In my defence, that is most probably because I came across the 1962 BBC adaptation before discovering the book. Visiting the area where the story was set, it seemed as good a time as any to rectify such a gross omission from my literary education.     

I was surprised to find that Swallows and Amazons was first published in 1930, set in the summer of ’29. It was republished last year to celebrate its 80th anniversary, complete with the author’s original cover design and illustrations.

Perhaps a little late in the day I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the story for the first time, following the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, as they set off on a voyage of exploration and discovery in the boat, Swallow, camping on an island in the middle of the lake where they soon find themselves under attack from Amazon pirates, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, with whom they share an idyllic summer of adventures.

It may be rather middle class, a little dated and over romanticised but harks back to a healthier and more innocent type of childhood, when kids could be kids, roaming free, taking risks, engaging in imaginative play and gaining real life experience, under the watchful eye of responsible and supportive adults waiting in the wings.       

Before leaving S&A, a little bit of film trivia…  I had never before realised, but the child actress playing Titty (interestingly renamed Kitty), in that 1962 BBC series, was Susan George, a popular pin-up for male students of the ‘70s (such as myself) who later appeared in altogether more adult material, such as the classic  psychological thriller Straw Dogs (1971) alongside Dustin Hoffman.    

It was a perfect day to stop off for a stroll around Tarn Hows (just a couple of miles north-east of Coniston) and one of the most photographed beauty spots in the whole of the Lake District. I remember from my, long ago, A level geography studies tarns (or corrie lakes) as glacial features created by the retreating ice but this one is actually ‘man made’ in the sense that it was created in the 19th century by damming a stream that connected three smaller tarns.

The setting is stunning, with a panoramic backdrop of wooded fells and mountain peaks such as the nearby Old Man of Coniston, the Langdale Pikes and Helvellyn.

Interestingly the word tarn derives from the old Norse ‘tjorn’, meaning teardrop, while ‘how’ is Norse for hill.

By the time we arrived in Coniston, nice location but a rather grey and foreboding village, it was time for a lunchtime break. The Black Bull with its whitewashed walls and beams, and home to the Coniston Brewing Company, was a pleasant enough setting to enjoy a pint of its award winning Bluebird XBnamed of course after Donald Campbell’s jet propelled hydroplane, in which he set seven world water speed records and in which he finally perished on Coniston Water.

In 1964 Campbell had achieved a unique double, breaking world speed records on both land and water, at 403.1mph (in the Bluebird CN7) and 276.33mph (in the Bluebird K7) respectively.

His tragic final attempt to set a further water speed record took place at Coniston on an exceptionally calm morning, 4th January 1967. He recorded a speed of 297mph on his first run along the lake and was exceeding 300mph on the return leg when Bluebird suddenly soared into the air and somersaulted back into the water, vanishing in a cloud of spray.

Mr Whoppit, a teddy bear mascot was found floating amongst the surface debris but amazingly Campbell’s body was not recovered from the lake until 2001, when it was finally laid to rest in the local churchyard.

The bar of the Black Bull is home to a gallery of black and white images of Campbell and Bluebird K7 as well as stills from the film Across the Lake (1988) in which Anthony Hopkins played the role of the speed king. The pub was used a film location.

Making the most of the dry and pleasant conditions, before returning to the hotel, we took a nostalgic detour heading out along the A592 via the Kirkstone Pass (the highest in the Lake District at 1,489 feet) to Patterdale in the Ullswater valley.

We had come this way on our very first jaunt to the Lakes, getting on for thirty years ago, stopping in an old coaching inn, the White Lion Hotel, budget accommodation recommended by friends. It was a favourite amongst walkers and I still recall a shoe box room with a wall mounted gas fire that devoured 5p pieces (the old ones of course) and single shared bathroom along the landing. The only saving graces were a crackling coal fire in the cosy bar and an excellent fried breakfast.     

It’s still there having apparently suffered an unsympathetic refurb that has deprived it of any retro ‘70s charm it might have possessed – disappointing really.

For our final night out we couldn’t resist returning to the welcoming fireside of The Hole Int’ Wall, where a plate of home-made fish, chips and mushy peas, and a pint of Robinsons Unicorn, brought our short break, in the Lakes, to a satisfying conclusion.




4 responses

14 02 2011
Another Phil

Thanks for the memories of the glorious Lakes…………….and Susan George R.I.P.

15 02 2011

Just enjoyed my – not so early- morning read. So many happy memories of devouring A Ransoms books in the 40’s. Bit before your time! Keep up the good work, G.

28 02 2011

At the age of 20, v drunk and quite excited, I once kissed Susan George-fabulous. Also on a more interesting note my father used to work with/for a guy called Roger Altounyan who was the model for Roger of S&A fame. He was one hell of a scientist and led the team that invented Intal and begat the asthma inhalers we see so often around us. He came round for supper a couple of times and I was only allowed to ask one question about S&A as my dad didn’t want me to embarrass him…..

1 03 2011

Both very impressive but if I had to make a choice I would rather have the kiss with Susan George on my cv!

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