I spent most of my childhood living in the green and lush hills of upstate New York and New Jersey. Just as I was entering my teens, my parents moved the family to Southern California. I remember stepping out of the plane at Los Angeles International Airport and looking out at an arid, alien environment in which the only sign of life apart from human beings was a pathetic row of palm trees that had obviously been planted in a vain attempt to disguise Hell as paradise. On the drive from the airport to our new apartment in Anaheim, I was disoriented. I kept asking my parents, “Where are the lakes; where are the rivers?” At one point, my mother spotted a sign announcing that the freeway was crossing over the Los Angeles River. Eagerly looking down, I saw the mighty waterway – a parched bed of concrete that had apparently yet to make contact with water. Mark Twain had had a similar reaction when he’d seen the Los Angeles River over a century earlier. He described it in these terms: it’s “the only river you can fall into and climb out dusty.” As if dealing with the onset of puberty were not difficult enough, for the next five years I also struggled with a profound homesickness for green hills, rivers and lakes.
William Wordsworth was a late 18th, early 19th Century romantic poet from the lake country of England. Although he was England’s poet laureate and was considered by many to be the greatest British poet of his day, currently his poetry tends to be characterized as an outburst of over-the top nature gushiness. I encountered his poetry when I was 16 and loved it. He is the poet to whom I am most grateful, and the place I’ve always most wanted to see in England was the countryside that inspired him. It is now protected in Lake District National Park, a two and a half hour drive from where we were staying in Derbyshire. Since we wanted to spend several days there, we reserved a room in a small bed-and-breakfast in Keswick (the ‘w” is silent) on the north shore of Derwentwater (the w’s are not silent), a lovely lake rimmed by forests that give way to grass-covered, treeless slopes as the mountains arc high above opposites sides of the lake.
The town of Keswick completely charmed us. The town center is car-free and consists of a stone clock tower surrounded by small pubs, restaurants, gift shops and stores catering to people who enjoy nature. Outdoor clothing and supplies stores are everywhere. On the short walk from the town center to the lake there’s an elegant garden surrounded by grassy lawns trimmed by herds of sheep.
Derwentwater is encircled by a trail, part of which is a promenade with gorgeous views of the lake and surrounding fells.
Along the Derwentwater promenade is the Theatre by the Lake, which boasts that it is the best British theatre outside of London. Lois and I saw Bedroom Farce by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. Although we generally love farces, this one was not “our cup of tea” as they say, although the acting was first rate, as advertised.
The mountains of the Lake District are called fells, and they are the highest peaks in England. The very highest is Scafel Pike, rising over 3200 feet high. Although these sorts of elevations tend to make Californians yawn, folks from the Lake District like to point out that their fells were once higher than the Himalayas; they’re just much more ancient and weathered. The lakes (with names like Buttermere, Ullswater, Windemere, Sprinkling Tarn, and Wastwater) and rivers (which people actually emerge from very wet after they fall in) fill valleys carved out by glaciers. Each lake is uniquely beautiful.
Glacial Valley in the Lakes District
Every morning after serving us breakfast, our hosts Andrew and Ann at Badger’s Wood Bed and Breakfast would quiz us about where we planned to go during the day, giving us suggestions and words of wisdom and encouragement. On our first day we took a two-hour boat cruise around Ullswater, a lake many residents of the area consider the most beautiful. Weather forecasters predicted that the day would be “partly cloudy,” but this description simply did not do justice to the day. When our boat trip started, the sky was mostly blue with towering clouds spreading toward us from the eastern horizon. By the time the boat was returning from the far end of the lake the clouds were crowding together above us leaving just enough crevices to allow brilliant shafts of sunlight to slant through to the surface of the lake.
The next day we decided to take a loop-trip by car around the northern half of the Lakes District, stopping at the halfway point for a walk around Lake Buttermere. As soon as the roadway began to ascend the hills above Keswick, it narrowed into what might generously be described as a one-lane road, and we were winding up the switchbacks alongside a creek that cascaded down a steep and treeless ravine. I stopped complaining about the driving conditions when we passed by an elderly couple bicycling up the face of the mountain, smiling good-naturedly. When we reached the pass, we stopped to stretch our legs and soak in the spectacular views of the Derwent Valley behind us and the valley that cradles Buttermere in front of us.
We scrambled up past mountain sheep along a path beside a waterfall that seemed to spill from the very top of the fell.
Then we plummeted down the road toward Buttermere. Lois particularly enjoys the experience of descending from clifftops in an automobile, especially when the driver is uttering oaths about having to drive down switchbacks on the wrong side of a mountain road barely wide enough for a go-cart. With great relief we left the car at the Buttermere ‘car park’ (a British phrase that still triggers in me images of automobiles cavorting about on slides and jungle gyms). In England although it is generally free to visit the national parks, the hourly charges for parking a car in a national park are so steep that tourists tend to visit and walk at an unusually fast clip. After a brisk two-hour hike around Buttermere, I decided that this was the lake I found most beautiful. The mountains in the Lake District evoke the feeling of the wet green of the Appalachians topped by the steep, sweeping treeless slopes of the High Sierra. We walked through dark green coniferous forests along the west side of Lake Buttermere, followed by open grass marshlands at the head of the lake and then steeper, rocky, lakeside terrain on our return along the eastern shore. The hike was breath-taking at every turn.
Returning to the car, we then completed the automobile loop by first climbing and then descending Honister Pass, returning along the east shore of Derwentwater to Keswick, where I exited the car with a quick prayer of thanks to Christopher, who in my opinion should never have been stripped of sainthood because of the needed solace he gave to travelers on the harrowing roadways of the British Isles.
On our final day, we visited the ancient Castlerigg Stone Circle, erected on a grassy hilltop above Derwentwater by Neolithic inhabitants of the lake country fells over 3000 years BC — a reminder to Americans who are visiting England that they are indeed not in Kansas anymore.
Castlerigg Stone Circle
We wrapped up our trip with a tour of Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth lived with his wife, children and sister, and where he wrote his best poetry.
Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage
Before Wordsworth bought it, the house had been an inn. The Wordsworths converted it into a modest country home where they raised their children and entertained friends and guests like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott. The backyard gardens are still stunning, and on the hillside the Wordsworths had built a small covered deck with a view out over the garden and Lake Grasmere.
Wordsworth needs no apology. In a place such as this, anyone with open eyes should gush. Annie Dillard said that we are here on earth to witness creation and to make sure that it does not play to an empty house. In England’s lake country, nature has not played to an empty house. William Wordsworth was its witness.