16 June 2016

Day Eight: The Lake District Writers

I don't think there are words in the English language that adequately express how dearly I love the Lake District.  Nine years ago when I first came here I spent days "wandering lonely as a cloud" through the countryside in a state of Nirvana that I don't think I could possibly re-create.  The luxury of being a student has never been more real to me than when I was here.  It is always such a privilege to come back.

This time around we are stationed just outside Keswick in a house called 'Applethwaite' in what is known as the "Mallory" apartment.  It is beautiful - a grand staircase and antique furnishings around every corner - I even have my own room and personal bathroom.  Glorious!  Airbnb, friends.  I can't recommend booking places to stay for your next trip through Airbnb more highly.  It's been excellent having such comfortable places to stay - and quiet.

Today we got off to an early start and drove the twenty miles down to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter's farm home.  Beatrix is best known for her Peter Rabbit tales, but she was also a champion sheep farmer and intense naturalist.  Much of the beauty of the Lake District has been preserved because of her efforts and connection with the National Trust.  (Sidebar: twenty miles takes an hour around here.  It's not that you can't travel quickly.  On the contrary - you can travel alarmingly fast down these winding country lanes.  That's just it - there are really only winding country lanes to travel down.  The direct routes that we are accustomed to in the United States are virtually non-existent here.  The longest consecutive stretch we've spent on the Motorway has been about 90 miles, and that was while we were covering a distance of 160 miles.  I don't know how anyone gets anywhere without a GPS around here.).

Hill Top is located in Near Sawrey, a small little village (is there any other kind?) in the heart of the Lake District.  Beatrix was a rare soul - she had a natural inclination towards both the arts and the sciences.  Raised by wealthy parents in London in the late 1800s, she would spend summers in the Lake District as a child.  She was educated by governesses alone while her brother went to school.  She credits this education as being the source of her originality - school never had the chance to corrupt her artistic development.  She loved nature and animals and studied them intently.  (Many people attribute the success of her books to the accuracy of her animals, even if they do wear clothing.)  

I have enormous respect and love for Beatrix.  Although I'm not living in a time where it's as rebellious for a woman to be single and independent, I do live in a culture where such things are a bit taboo.  I admire Beatrix for her grit - for her determination to make her life happy under her definition of happiness.  She did not want to be defined or constrained by the social mores of her day, so she wasn't.  After the incredible success of her books, she left her parents' home and bought her own house.  This was virtually unheard of for an unmarried woman raised in society as she had been, even though she was 39 when she left home.  She lived the rest of her life primarily in northern England, farming and drawing and involving herself in conservation efforts of the north, well into the first half of the 20th century before her death in 1943.  She inspires me.  I relate to her in so many ways, and her example has been a guiding light to me in the last several years.

Visiting her home was a dream.  It's a small place that she didn't live long - not long after moving to Hill Top she married a local lawyer named William Heelis (when she was 47) and the two of them moved to another home near by.  She kept Hill Top, though - many of the drawings in her books feature the farm and the house.  As you tour the home, her books are set out so you can see various places that feature in the illustrations.  Naturally, I had to leave with a few of the books.  I'd like to get all of them eventually, but I could hardly haul all of them back home to the states!  It will have to be a gradual acquisition I'm afraid.

One thing I realized about Beatrix as I read through her letters and journals was how funny she was.  For example, she talked about how, even though she gave The Tale of Pigling Bland a happy (and non violent), ending she had "no sentimental feelings about a large bacon pig."  She also had a habit of planting whatever she felt like in her garden, saying that it would just have to be "survival of the fittest."  I'm desperate to get my hands on a copy of her journals and letters.

After a morning of exploring Hill Top and the nearby Beatrix Potter art gallery, we left the world of cartoon animals in favor of a world of opium addicts.  Grasmere, just south of Keswick, is a town full of history for the English Romantic poets, William Wordsworth being chief amongst them.  (Sidebar: Wordsworth was not an addict himself - he's known as the "Water Bard" because he didn't drink alcohol and was particularly religious - the local church has a monument to him.). Wordsworth had several homes in the area - we stopped at Dove Cottage.  He stayed there for a relatively short period in his life, but the best of his works were composed while he was there and it was well known to be his favorite home. (He really only left it for practical reasons - his growing family needed more room.)

Truthfully, I don't enjoy poetry very often.  I don't think I ever learned how to really, truly read a poem.  School teaches you how to analyze poetry, but not how to slow down and take it all in.  Or perhaps blaming school is harsh - I did have great teachers - it could just be a lack of patience from me.  (Reading came so naturally to me as a child that it wasn't until college that I learned how to slow down and study a text that didn't come naturally.) All the same - I love Wordsworth.  His poetry is beautiful to me - full of conflict and striving to understand the world and longing for home.  I have fond memories of his poetry - reading it in Tintern Abbey and around his grave in Grasmere surrounded by the people who changed and molded and inspired me to suck deeper at the marrow of life.  I love Wordsworth's poetry for what it represents in my life - for who it represents in my life.

I honored that influence a bit after leaving Dove Cottage.  We took a brief hike toward Allan Bank, a National Trust site that was nearby.  Using my 200 miles of hiking in England experience, we were able to hunt down the trail surrounding the house and make a loop back to the car park.  Hiking through England is an art form - you have to know what to look for.  It's a mix of gravel and dirt paths alongside open fields with arrows pointing you in a general direction to travel until you find the next arrow.  Today I hiked along a path I didn't know and still found my way around thanks to that experience - nothing brings back nostalgia and a mixture of heartache and joy more than hiking through an open field of sheep poop in England.

Today my heart is full of gratitude for the paths that have led me here. I'm reminded of one of the messages of the movie Miss Potter (about Beatrix's life) - you don't always know where a story is going to take you, but it's great fun to follow the path and find out.  My story is far different from the one I imagined for myself when I was a child in a few significant ways, but in other ways - it's exactly what I hoped for.  I'm working in a job I love and making a difference in the world.  I have a beautiful house and a sweet, cuddly cat for company, I have good friends - and I get to travel.  What a wonderful thing!

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