Monday 7th February:
It was very much a monochromatic Monday morning.
Throwing back the curtains, our majestic lakeside view, still hadn’t quite materialised – in fact I could barely make out the far bank, swathed in low, dark cloud.
The help yourself – full English breakfast, however, did live up to expectations and we set off for Grasmere full to bursting with Cumberland sausage, black pudding, bacon, egg and beans – and with no need to worry about lunch time options.
Lake Windermere was looking distinctly choppy and the Ferry Nab to Far Sawrey ferry crossing was not an option, so we drove along the east bank to its northern tip, at Ambleside, before heading west to Wordsworth country.
Wordsworth, a Cumberland lad educated at Hawkshead Grammar School before going up to Cambridge, fell in love with Grasmere and Dove Cottage during a walking tour of the Lake District, in 1799, with his Romantic poet pal and opium addict Samuel Taylor Coleridge – of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan fame.
By the end of the year Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy had moved in to the former pub (The Dove & Olive-bough) with its lime washed walls, uneven slate floors, oak panelling and fine lake views (alas no longer); paying an annual rent of £5.00.
Seen from the outside, through persistent driving rain, it was not at its most picturesque, but one advantage of visiting early on a dismal Monday morning in February was, no fellow visitors, which meant we enjoyed an informative personal guided tour.
During his eight years here in Grasmere, inspired by its beauty, Wordsworth was at his most prolific, penning amongst many others, I Wandered Lonely as A Cloud (although ‘a host of golden daffodils’ was encountered on the bank of Ullswater not Grasmere) and his epic autobiographical Prelude.
Dorothy’s own Grasmere Journals paint a detailed picture of domestic life at Dove Cottage which was also home to William’s wife Mary, their first three children, and pet dog Pepper, a gift from Walter Scott. Scott was one of a continuous stream of Romantics who used the Wordsworth home as a B&B, including Robert Southey, Coleridge and his fellow opium eater Thomas de Quincey.
The family are buried in the nearby St Oswald’s church yard and I couldn’t help thinking that William is probably spinning in his grave at what has become of his beloved Grasmere. The village is now a mecca for day tripping poetry pilgrims, weekend fell walkers and coach parties in search of olde tea shoppes, ice cream and Sarah Nelson’s local gingerbread!
As we set off back to Ambleside, the rain had passed away, occasional breaks in the cloud provided tantalising glimpses of blue and intermittent shafts of sunlight illuminated the surrounding fells in hues of gold and green.
For the first time we were afforded picture postcard views across the waters of England’s largest lake.
The charming market town of Ambleside, with its narrow streets of largely Victorian buildings stands half a mile inland from the Waterhead Pier ferry terminal, at the northern tip of Windermere. It is a walkers’ paradise and all the leading outdoor brands have outlets here. It’s a town where fell boots are de rigueur, even when pushing a supermarket trolley.
Chris and I, best described as occasional or fair weather walkers, largely due to inadequate heavy duty foot wear, were both sucked in by half price offers at Cotton Traders – so no excuses now!
Stock Ghyll was in full spate, gushing down by the old mill and swirling under Bridge House, an early 18th century summer house cum apple store for Ambleside Hall, purchased by local people for the National Trust in 1926, and subsequently one of the most photographed buildings in Cumbria.
At the top of the main street stands the Fred Holdsworth independent Bookshop (est. 1955) and well renowned as one of the best stocked in the Lake District.
Over the years it has been visited and patronised by such well-known locals as the South Bank Show’s, Melvyn (now Lord) Bragg, colloquial poet Norman Nicholson, AW ‘Alfred’ Wainwright – famed for his intricate pictorial fell walking guides, and Arthur Ransome – author of the children’s classic Swallows and Amazons.
Fred remembers Ransome as ‘a large, florid man in plus fours sporting a formidable beard’ who approached the counter and demanded in a booming voice, ‘Have you got all of my books in? If not, why not?
A mixed bag of celebs have crossed the threshold for a browse including: Haninal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), Jesus Christ (Robert Powell), Hyacynth Bucket (Patricia Routledge), and national treasure Victoria Wood (presumably Live!)
I couldn’t pass by this Aladdin’s cave of books without paying a visit. I was immediately drawn to a handwritten card, in the window, advertising the availability of a last signed copy of Tony Blair’s ‘A Journey’. And before you ask, no it wasn’t to be found in the fiction or crime sections!
I wouldn’t have been tempted, without the signature, but I reckoned it a worthwhile investment and, regardless of what one might think of the ex PM, it is sure to, at least, hold its price – isn’t it?
I also justified the expenditure, to myself, on grounds that I was doing my bit to support that increasingly rare and dying breed, the independent book seller.
So Tony is now sitting on my bookshelf, alongside his erstwhile spin doctor. I picked up a signed copy of The Blair Diaries following Alistair Campbell’s his turn at the Cheltenham Literary Festival a couple of years ago! It will be interesting to compare and contrast…
We kicked off our evening, in Bowness, in the presence of another local legend (well at least his riding crop, stirrups and a framed copy of the ballad written in his honour) at the Old John Peel Inn.
D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so grey?
D’ye ken John Peel at the break o’ day?
D’ye ken John Peel when he’s far, far a-way.
With his hounds and his horn in the morning?
Peel, born around 1777 as one of thirteen children, had no schooling but grew up on a small farm where he kept hounds. As a young man he eloped to Gretna Green with a younger woman, Mary White, who in turn bore him seven sons and six daughters! He had married into land and some wealth but neglected the farm to become a horse dealer and huntsman.
His hunting skills were the stuff of local legend and for over fifty years he rode with hounds twice a week, before spending the evening getting legless in some country inn or other; but so well trained were his horses that at the end of the night he could be helped into the saddle and would always be delivered safely home . His last hunt was a week before he died at the age of 78!
And so from the Old John Peel to the somewhat more contemporary and intimate Jackson’s Bistro, a Lonely Planet recommendation to try the speciality of the house, crab au gratin, which certainly lived up to its reputation.