It was December. Christmas shopping was done, packages in the mail and the first batch of cookies, meant for others, had somehow found their way into my stomach. Outside the weather wasn’t exactly frightful but cold, gray and dreary, the kind of day that lends itself to dreams of spring and vacations. Friends Dave and Debbie had signed on for a week-long road trip in England, leaving the logistics to me. While searching a popular website I stumbled on the place that would become our home away from home. The photos and description promised:
- contemporary amenities in a restored traditional Cumbrian cottage
- in a peaceful setting
- with a river in the backyard
How could I resist.
It also ticked another box: plenty of opportunities for walkers.
Like a bear, I have a strong urge to hibernate and hide in my cozy cave each winter. By spring I look a little like Winnie-the-Pooh when he was stuck in Rabbit’s door after eating too much honey. Lots of walking might be the remedy; although, I’ve learned not to hold my breath and expect overnight miracles.
Last May, entering Riverside cottage, I exhaled. The dream turned into reality. We were in the Lake District and were on the brink of many discoveries.
In spring, the fells of Duddon Valley “are alive with the sound of…” Baa, Baa, Baa. Nature rules: sheep, cattle, rabbits and fells make up the landscape; here we found few farms, cottages, cars and roads. Full-time residents, with few exceptions, seem to make a living out of service to nature, content enough to want to keep it that way, despite the fact that living here is inconvenient. To reach large grocery stores, gas stations or restaurants involves at least a drive of half hour or more.
Behind us was a long day of travel and adjusting to new rules of the road. Now all we wanted was easy and convenient. Cookies on the table, a gesture of welcome, weren’t nearly enough to tide us over until breakfast. The house-guide listed several eateries, one within short distance to the cottage.
We met a friendly neighbor, a forty-something man dressed in jeans and black leather jacket emblazoned with Harley-Davidson®. He moved towards an immaculate Porsche parked next to his cottage.
“Oh yes. The Newfield Inn is an easy walk. Just past the corner, about a mile down the road,” he said when we asked about the pub.
Agreeing that a stroll would do us good, we left Seathwaite, passing a farm. Bellowing and the pungent smell of fresh manure signaled there were at least a few cows nearby.
Pasture after pasture lined the road. Lichen-flecked rock fences looked strong enough to withstand hurricane-force winds.
“I wonder what would happen if I pulled one out,” said Debbie reaching for a small rock.
“Maybe something like a giant domino effect?” said Dave.
Curious sheep nosed up to a gate; planted nearby, a sign read “Footpath”.
“I want to check this out sometime” said Debbie.
That should be interesting, I thought, watching the ewes and their lambs scamper over rocky ground. It would make for a rough zigzag of a walk.
Farther down the road light glittered through trees– the river Duddon. Almost hidden, another sign pointed to a narrow clearing in the dense thicket.
“This one looks good too; let’s check it out tomorrow” said Debbie.
A few diners looked up when we stepped into the pub. By the bar a chalkboard listed Fish and Chip with Mushy Peas, the quintessential English pub meal. Debbie and I chose it to mark our arrival. The food came –plates filled with thick fries and slabs of hot, golden battered haddock. Having devoured our dinner, dessert still tempted. We gave in, three of us sharing a Strawberry Eton Mess and an even richer, creamy Sticky Toffee pudding.
Cool mist greeted us as we stepped into gloomy darkness. Satisfied, laughing and joking we made our way home along an unlit road and through a valley with few artificial lights. Startled by rustling sounds, we peeked over a high wall and saw the shadowy outline of a hulking creature. Dumbfounded we turned to each other.
“What is that?” one of us asked.
Next day we unraveled the mystery.
“Look at the size of that thing” said Debbie, pointing towards a bull sprawled in the grass and surrounded by an entourage of several smaller mates. Mr. Stud, as Debbie named him, was a mottled prize bull, the animal-equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger on steroids. We rarely saw him standing. When he did, Mr. Stud looked like a hairless buffalo, a mountain of heaving, rippling flesh with legs that quivered, having the unenviable job of supporting this beast.
We continued our walk, turning onto the path leading to the river. A few yards into the underbrush a narrow stone bridge hung suspended above the clear and shallow Duddon. Farther into the woods the river bends and forms a large pool. There, we were thrilled to find a rope-swing dangling from a tree. We hadn’t expected to swim, least of all jump in the water. Still, we let the kid in us come out.
Deep in the forest the rush of water grew louder. Large boulders edged or straddled the river tumbling down a hill, under a stone bridge and filling shallow pools. Two retrievers paddled in the cooling waters. It was a warm, sunny day; I envied them.
On our last day we headed to Silecroft. Winding roads led us to the tiny Cumbrian community facing the Irish Sea. Behind the village a low fell sloped toward the beach. Cows grazed in the fields wedged between hill and beach. We were awestruck by the latter; none of us had ever seen a beach quite like it.
Edged by smooth rocks and pebbles that spilled down to soft brown sand, the beach at low tide was wider than a football field and stretched for miles. We met few others: beachcombers, sunbathers and some snoozers. Riders on horseback swayed along the water’s edge. At the far end of the village a handful of windmills twirled; over the sea in the hazy distance, white metal sails, like striding giants, rolled over the horizon. Gentle waves of chilly water swept over feet while we wandered. I relished the carefree moments, dug my toes in the sand and tossed pebbles in the wind, blissful and unaware of things I had yet to face.
Drive through the Lake District and you’ll soon discover that “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” It’s a roller-coaster of a ride. Roads twist and turn, go up and down hills, over stone bridges or narrow to single lanes that lead around tight, blind corners. Sometimes you’ll find yourself, like us, between “a rock and a hard place”. Facing a large lorry (truck), Dave backed up to the tiniest of lay-bys to allow him to crawl past us.
Large tracts of land belong to England’s National Trust and are idyllic for walkers, hikers and bikers; we met all types on the roads. Abundant also are other natives, the Herdwick sheep. Adorable they are; woefully ignorant as well. Some roam freely, a danger to any unsuspecting driver. Faced with such obstacles in the road, Dave often braked suddenly. I helped, my foot pumping that invisible brake right along with him.
After days in the Lake District filled with wonderful experiences –adorable animals, waterfalls, beaches, Hill Top — I came face to face with an unwelcome surprise.
Unfamiliar surroundings, sensitive brakes that gave a whiplash effect to passengers and a skewed depth perception, combined, these left me feeling out of control. As passenger on the “wrong” side of the car, I wondered if the lush green hedges flashing by my shoulder held hidden dangers –stone walls with the power to rip off a mirror or scratch our rental car. Local drivers seemed fearless; they acted like Grand Prix drivers.
Faced with such challenges I soon became tense (Can clenching your stomach in a car give the same result as sit-ups?) and hyper-vigilant.
And so it was that fear of the worst, at times, turned me into an irritable travel companion, one who showed an unpleasant side of herself, much like…
Mr. Stud’s rear!
Not exactly the image I want to see in my mirror.
Fortunately, there is always a chance of redemption.
And next time, I’ll do better, be (I hope) wiser and braver. I’ll take a deep breathe then grab the wheel. After all, hands-on experience not only teaches, it gives confidence.
In the meantime, can anyone recommend a tiny, not very wide car, preferably a helicopter-style that gets a driver out of sticky situations?