Keeping eyes glued to the soft ground, I huffed and puffed my way to the top, feeling a little like The Little Engine That Could. “I think I can. I think I can” said it when faced with a challenging task. Navigating a minefield of hazards –stinging nettles, ankle-twisting rocks, and mounds of moist, tar-like droppings –certainly qualified as a challenge. That is, at least for me, the one carrying those hard-to-shed winter pounds. Pausing to catch my breath, I looked up, surprised to see the slender and nimble one already at the peak.
“He must have been a mountain goat in a another life,” I grumbled.
But once there, surveying the land while being buffeted by a refreshing breeze, Debbie, Dave (aka Billy Goat Gruff) and I all agreed: the reward was well worth the effort.
The wind carried the sound of rushing water; behind a screen of bushes and trees a brook cascaded down into the valley. We were surrounded by rocky fells (hills). Footpaths and hand-built rock walls wound their way up the summits. A few buildings dotted the landscape. Stone fences enclosed pastures in which cows, bulls, and in one field the Arnold Schwarzenegger of bulls held court. A multitude of ewes and frisky little sheep romped and chomped; we heard “Baa, baa, baa” from every direction of the countryside.
We were in the Duddon Valley of the Lake District. Over the next few days we’d encounter a number of images I was familiar with – snow-white swans, boats and ferries floating across deep, wide lakes, small communities with houses built of stone and slate, a legacy of slate mining, as well as winding roads through hill country. I had seen these while watching Rick Steves’ Europe through the Backdoor. Coming here, I anticipated being charmed. I was. I expected surprises lurking in many corners. I got those too. Not every surprise, however, was a welcome one.
Friends Dave and Debbie joined me on a whirlwind one-week road trip in England. For months I had planned and organized our itinerary: the Lake District, York, Chatsworth House and the Cotswolds.
On our first morning we woke to sunshine, birdsong and the sounds of sheep. Stepping outside, Debbie and I were surprised by the sight of a nosy neighbor. On the gate post, not more than a yard from the door, sat a Chickadee-sized black and white bird. For some time he sat still, looking at us as if saying “Hello. Who are you and what are you doing here?”
It was lambing season in Cumbria. Fields were ruled by scruffy, white-faced ewes whose shaggy, blue-gray coats appeared badly in need of shearing; curly black fleece covered the babies. They were Herdwick sheep, native to the area. The Moms grazed, sidled up towards us, hesitated then turned to wander away. The lambs, when not chasing each other, interrupted their play to run to Mom, seemingly head-butted her teats then quickly suckled.
In the 1980s, while stationed in England, I became a Mom. Soon our library held Beatrix Potter’s books. The author of children’s stories featuring characters such as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck, Ms. Potter bred and kept Herdwick sheep. So fond of the Lake District and its animals was Beatrix that when she died in 1943 she gifted fifteen farms to the National Trust on the condition that they are used to graze Herdwick flocks.
Planning this trip I made sure to add a visit to Hill Top, near Lake Windemere. According to the National Trust, it was the gardens, village and surrounding countryside that inspired her to write her stories at Hill Top, her “spiritual home.”
The interior felt warm and inviting. Low-beamed ceilings, window seats, antiques and fireplaces make up the essence of the house. Well-worn carpets muffle the sound of footsteps on creaking wood; the musty odor of old rugs mingles with that of furniture polish. On her desk and throughout the house framed notes display excerpts from her letters.
In the gardens I was amazed by the abundance of wisteria, peonies, columbine and rhododendron. I expected to see a Peter Rabbit hopping about. Regrettably, none showed up. Fortunately, in the fields surrounding our cottage, each day an abundance of Peter Rabbits nibbled their way through the clover.
The days brought many discoveries, and like rabbits, they seemed to jump at us from all sorts of corners.
But corners and life have something funny in common: for both you can’t know what’s in store, hiding just beyond. And sometimes, what turns up isn’t exactly pleasant, kind of like a brush with nettles, a sting that doesn’t last too long, yet leaves a lasting impression.
“So, what’s the unwelcome surprise you keep mentioning?” you may ask.
Well, if you’re familiar with the tale of Peter Rabbit you’ll remember he escaped Mr. McGregor, averted near disaster and lived another day to tell the tale. And that’s what you’ll have to do –come back one day to discover the rest of the story which is…
to be continued