Travels in the Lake District

ome of the travel delights that I have found in my "endless quest for the unusual" (as the publishers of Britannia Internet Magazine describe it) came my way as I traveled with a small group in the English Lake District earlier this year in search of Spring and Wordsworth's daffodils, which were out in glorious profusion.

Above & Beyond. . .
Hawkshead village, Rydal, Grasmere, Keswick, Kendal, Ullswater, Coniston Water, the Kirkstone Pass, Aira Force, Lake Windermere etc. feature on every tour and are quite lovely. However, if you have a car or are traveling in a small, but comfortable mini-bus, then there are many other delights awaiting you (especially if you have a local driver like "our Sue" who became famous, or possibly notorious, among our group, for manoevering that bus into spaces hitherto unattempted!).

"Our Sue" took us up over the man-made Tarn Hows between Ambleside and Coniston Water to enjoy one of the loveliest views imagineable on a Spring day. Another time she effortlessly steered us through mini country lanes high up to Troutbeck from where we could look way down on Lake Windermere and then over towards Shap Fells and beyond.

Even if you don't have Sue to drive you, it is still easy enough to get away from the main tourist centers. Try a circular route going south from Keswick, past the Bowder Stone (a single rock deposited by glacial action during the Ice Age, 36 feet high and weighing 1,970 tons). Continue through the Borrowdale Valley which follows the course of the River Derwent before joining the Honister Pass to Buttermere and Crummock Water. Here you are ringed on three sides by the peaks of Melbreak, Haystacks and Fleetwith Pike (2,126 feet).

However, for sheer ruggedness and wild, awe-inspiring scenery dominated by the peaks of Great Gable and Scafell Pike, continue your drive along the banks of Wastwater (the deepest lake at 258 feet) and marvel at the massive screes which reach right down into the lake.

You've Never Seen it All. . .
One of the wonderfully refreshing things about the Lake District (apart from the rain) is that you can rediscover your powers of observation. When you go to Beatrix Potter's "Hilltop" home at Sawrey try to find Jemima Puddleduck's egg under the rhubarb plant. I was told by a local guide: "look through the gate into the vegetable garden before you go into the house, it'll be there unless a fox has taken it in the night." We checked, it was there, as was the view from one of the bedrooms exactly as Beatrix Potter had painted it in her day. The book is on the windowsill and you can make a link with the past which excites the imagination.

As you explore the delights of Hawkshead village where Wordsworth was their most famous pupil at the Old Grammar School, don't forget to look up at the figurines projecting from the roof of the "Red Lion Inn," one clutching a pig and the other a whistle (the whistle was blown to start the market) or catch sight of the low arched cottage doorway with the sign "Bend or Bump"?

Explore Aira Force by taking the path to the higher bridge and look down on the waterfall. This is one of the most beautiful short walks, where primroses grow on mossy banks and wild birds sing as they flit ahead of you. On the way back down, pick out the Herdwick lambs with their black faces and spindly black legs, before heading towards the tearooms and a toasted tea cake!

Ambleside, Lakeland's most central town, makes a great touring base. It is a market town, given its Charter in 1650. Here you will find all kinds of accommodations, and restaurants to suit every taste, but you will need to make your reservations well in advance if you are thinking of traveling there. This is one of the most popular places for the British to visit at almost any time of year, so be warned! Ambleside is surrounded by wonderful scenery; Wansfell to the east, the upland valleys of Rydal and Scandale to the north, while just a short walk to Jenkin Crag gives you a stunning view of the Langdales and the highest mountains in England in the distance.

The Smallest House in England?
Visit the famous 17th century "Bridge House" (contender for the "smallest house in England"), straddling the pretty Stock Beck, where it served as a home to a basket-maker, his wife and six children. When you realise that the house is one room only, with a pigeon loft in the upper storey, reached by an outside stone staircase you have to believe that they were an extremely close-knit family!

Feet of Clay?
From Ambleside a pleasant walk through the fields will take you to Rydal Mount where Wordsworth moved with his family in 1813, but don't miss the guided tour of Dove Cottage in Grasmere where you will learn some of the more "human interest" details of Wordsworth's everyday life with his family and friends. An acknowledged genius who could carry 1300 lines of poetry in his head as he strode across the Fells, Wordsworth was irritated by the "domestic trivia" which greeted him on his return home through the only entrance door to Dove Cottage. This was remedied when friends paid for a second door to be built at the back, so that he could enter untroubled to immediately begin dictating to his devoted wife or sister. The guides at the Cottage relate several such stories of the great man and give a nicely rounded view of genius at work.

The Museum adjoining Dove Cottage is certainly worth visiting if you are looking for depth of scholarship and have a lot of time to spare. If not, then you should probably walk back into Grasmere and head for the Parish Church of St Oswald. Inside, the oldest part of the structure dates from the 14th Century. Outside, the churchyard has three entrances, one for each of the parishes it once served. The most famous graves here are those of Wordsworth and his family, but you will also find that of William Green the notable Lakeland artist, and also Sir John Richardson, the arctic explorer.

Exit by the lych gate and turn right. Here is Sarah Nelson's Gingerbread Shop on the site of the old village school. This tiny structure houses the baking of the gingerbread to the original secret recipe. We are told this closely guarded document is housed deep in a bank vault, but that needn't trouble you, just buy some to enjoy on your next walk! Or buy a book called "Tea Shop Walks in the Lake District" by Jean Patefield, and ramble your way from scone to scone.

It is always a pleasure to share a happy discovery with our clients and others. This year we had arranged visits to two very beautiful homes, both lived in by the families who have inherited them, and where we enjoyed the feeling of being invited guests. If you are looking for somewhere a little different with plenty of interest to hold your attention, then you might consider the following:

Holker Hall and Gardens, just a short journey from the southern end of Lake Windermere, on the B 5278 road. The history of Holker Hall goes back to the early 16th century. It has never been bought or sold, but has belonged to three families, the Prestons, the Lowthers and the Cavendishs, all related by marriage. The house has passed by inheritance through the female line. In 1756 Sir William Lowther died unmarried and left Holker to his first cousin Lord George Augustus Cavendish, the 2nd son of the 3rd Duke of Devonshire. From that date to the present, the house has been in the possession of the Cavendish family. In 1871 the entire west wing was destroyed by fire and many wonderful paintings, portraits, pieces of furniture and valuable books were lost. It was rebuilt on the same site with the addition of a projecting bow window, a high roof with dormer windows, square parapeted tower and a copper cupola. Although emulating Elizabethan architecture it is unmistakably Victorian and reflects the confidence, spaciousness and prosperity of the age.

The Library is magnificent and contains some 3,500 books, among them works by the scientist Henry Cavendish. He discovered Nitric Acid, the properties of Hydrogen and calculated the density of the earth. He was something of a recluse and in one of his London houses he had a special staircase built to avoid seeing his servants! Fortunately the present owners are far more sociable - the day we visited we found them working away in the gardens, planting borders and chatting with visitors.

If you enjoy Wedgewood you will feast your eyes on the blue and white Jasper ware in the "Wedgewood Bedroom." The long gallery, the bedrooms, the Billiard room and the cantilevered staircase are elegant and spacious and yet you still get the feeling that it is a lived in and much loved family home.

On a fine day the 23 acres of prize-winning formal and woodland gardens are magnificent. The Rose Garden is reached by a curved pergola draped with Wisteria, Honeysuckle and the Chinese climber "Schisandra grandiflora rubiflora." Spring brings a superb show of rhododendrons, magnolias and azaleas, many forming part of the new Azalea Walk and there is plenty of activity and interest for all age groups with a well-planned series of permanent exhibitions. Time your visit for the first week in June and you will coincide with the Garden & Countryside Festival held annually at Holker. Start from Ambleside, cruise down Lake Windermere, transfer to a train pulled by an old steam engine, then head off to Holker Hall for the rest of the day.

Saving the Best Until Last - Mirehouse - Home of the Spedding Family.
If you are looking to find a place in the Lake District that typifies an English manor house, but one that also has outstanding literary connections as befits the rich legacy of the Lakeland poets, then Mirehouse, situated on the A591 Keswick to Carlisle road, will delight you in every sense. The setting is perfect with Skiddaw Forest rising magnificently in the background while a track leads away from the house through the home meadow to St Bega’s Church (10th Century). The stone cross outside the churchyard has been renewed. It was probably here on the shores of Lake Bassenthwaite that Tennyson sat and weaved the Excalibur story into his "Morte d'Arthur". Sir Bedivere carries King Arthur. . .

". . .to a Chapel nigh the field,
a broken chancel with a broken cross,
that stood on a dark straight of barren land.
On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full."
Our visit, planned for a Sunday afternoon in May, was like walking into the home of friends of friends. Clare Spedding, the charming wife of John Spedding whose family inherited the house in 1802, was at the door to welcome us. Over the years Mirehouse has seen many additions to the original structure. Mrs Spedding related the history of those changes with humor and a lightness of approach which belies her deep dedication to this very "well connected" house.

James Spedding, younger son of the other John whose family went to live at Mirehouse in 1802, devoted most of his working life to the study of Francis Bacon (pictured below) and to writing his biography. From 1841 he was at work on his fourteen volume edition covering the life, letters and works of Bacon. He was very much opposed to the "Baconian" theory that Shakespeare was the same person as Bacon, saying modestly that he was: "not sufficient of a Shakespearean scholar to say that Shakespeare was not Bacon, but a lifetime's study of Bacon made him feel qualified to assert that Bacon was not Shakespeare." In the Smoking Room are displayed some of James Spedding's collection of Bacon's papers and most of the first editions of Bacon's works, as well as Spedding's own works on Bacon.

The Dining Room was restored to its original state in the late 1970's, while the Library well demonstrates that in the mid 19th century it was still possible to be in touch with new developments in every field of knowledge. Thomas Spedding (1800-70) and his father collected the Library covering theology, philosophy, science, history and the classics. One of his closest friends was Thomas Carlyle who wrote of "Dear hospitable Spedding, the Genius of the hills."

You can't go far in the Lakes without Wordsworth's name being mentioned and in the Study at Mirehouse hangs a portrait of Wordsworth's friend, John Spedding (1770-1851), who attended Hawkshead School at the same time. John's second son, James, was something of a link man between the younger generation of literary men of the early 19th century and Wordsworth. In 1835 James took Tennyson to meet Wordsworth at Rydal Mount, and later Tennyson was to succeed Wordsworth as Poet Laureate.

Other manuscripts and letters of Southey, Wordsworth and Coleridge are displayed together with a collection of watercolors illustrating the Lake District of Wordsworth's era. Visitors are encouraged to linger as long as they like in each of the rooms after Mrs. Spedding has explained a little of their history and importance. Outside are several acres of beautiful grounds, a wild flower meadow and woodland and lakeside walks.

You could easily miss this very special home as Mirehouse is only open April to October on Sundays and Wednesdays (also Fridays in August), but parties are welcome at other times by apppointment. You can telephone 017687 72287 (from the UK) or 011 44 17687 72287 (from the USA) for details. My thanks to John & Clare Spedding for their permission to reproduce photos and text from their pamphlet "Welcome to Mirehouse." Enjoy!

For more information, visit our website "English Experience".

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