Little gamboling lamb,
Do you know where you am?
I'll give you a hint.
In a patch of mint.
I don't know what inspired Ogden Nash to compose that ditty, but it could well have
been the Lake District of England. In springtime, everywhere you look tiny puffs of wool wobble on legs too new to support them or, if a couple of weeks older, prance gleefully over the meadows. However, they are so preoccupied with gamboling that they couldn't care less about mint.
Mid May is the end of lambing season in the Lake District. It is also the time for
rhododendruns, towering over quaint stone cottages and shaking fists of bright fluorescent flame at tourists who stop to gape in awe. Lambs and rhododendruns are a problem when you're supposed to keep walking.
And walking is what we've come to do. There are 16 of us, Americans from the east
and west coasts and places in between, here to walk the Lake District with an English tour operator called the Wayfarers. Grace and George live in Birmingham, Alabama. When a friend learned they were taking a walking vacation he was mystified. "You mean it costs that much less than renting a car?" he asked.
"One of the things I like about Americans," says Yorkshireman, David Sanderson, who
is in charge of logistics during the trip, "is that they're so genuinely friendly. If this were a group of British, by the end of the week most of them still wouldn't know each other."
English reticence is part of the charm of Malcolm Saunders, our walk leader.
Immediately likeable, self-deprecating humor can't conceal his enormous competence. This is reassuring because the area is notorious not only for its beauty but for the sudden rains and mists that can make walking trails disappear within minutes. I overhear two women say it is specifically for Malcolm that they have come on another Wayfarers trip.
"You should see a lot of bluebells," Malcolm says next morning as we climb slowly into
the quintessentially English countryside. Before us, gently rolling hills ring vast green meadows crisscrossed with rambling stone walls. Valleys where sheep have been dropped like pop-corn finger out of sight while higher mountains enclose the horizon. "Oh, there they are," Malcolm says, pointing to a patch of blue wildflowers bobbing in the shade. "Right on cue. I press a button and up they pop."
"It would be nice if by the end of the week you could identify at least three of the
50 varieties of sheep." Malcolm has stopped at a meadow which resounds with high-pitched baa-ing. These with the fluffy white bodies and pitch black heads are Swaledale, we learn, pronounced "Swaddle." Each ewe bears twins, many of whom are frantically nursing, their tails wagging like out of control windmills.
At Saint Anthony's Church of Cantwell Fell, a chapel set in a field of buttercups,
a plaque tells us that William Rawlinson preached here from 1504 to 1520. In those days, Malcolm says, churches had earth floors and people were buried inside. "You can imagine that the atmosphere was a little oppressive."
After a ploughman's lunch at the Hare and Hound in a village of whitewashed houses,
we climb to the Costhwaite heights where walls are tumbledown and sheep don't bother to get out of our way. Here as in the woods and meadows we have the paths entirely to our- selves. At 4:30 the walk, some ten miles long, is coming to an end. Just when we think it isn't going to happen, Marcia says, "Oh look. We are in the lake country after all." Below us, Windemere, the largest of the lakes, marks a languid curve under hills velvet- green in the afternoon sun. On its placid surface an old steamer creeps toward shore while sailboats seek vainly for a breeze.
The Fayrer Garden House Hotel sits in a meadow overlooking the lake near the town
of Bowness on Windemere. A pretty country inn, it has been chosen for its tranquil location, yet just down the road the town, its narrow streets overburdened with tourist shops, already gives intimations of what it must be like at the height of the season. "There are 12 million people within an hour and a half from here," David says. "You can imagine it in July and August." But there are also 2230 miles of "rights of way," and when we set out next morning on the trail to Troutbeck, we are alone once more.
"That breeze feels wonderful," Catherine says as we emerge from a shady path onto a
rocky, open hill. "Are we theah yet?" asks Grace, our favorite southern belle, who is trying to pant with as much gentility as possible. Since the lakes are surrounded by hills, the paths are seldom level. We walk with varying degrees of difficulty, from none at all - Anne and Arnie - to enough so that a ride in David's station wagon is gratefully accepted. On one of the steeper inclines Grace stops, draws a breath, and says, "I'm going to call a cab."
"I thought undulating meant both up and down," Fred adds. "This is only undulating
up." "Is that home?" Lucy asks, pointing toward what might be lunch. "You're not ready to stop, are you?" says Malcolm. "No," she replies, "but I'd like to see it in my future."
Even amid the suffering, we tend more to laughter than tears. Smiles persist, jokes
proliferate, in truth everyone is having a wonderful time.
"I have a surprise for you," Malcolm says as we finish lunch at an inn with the
philosophical name, "the Mortal Man." He leads us down the main and almost only street in Troutbeck past beautiful stone houses dating from the 1600's. At one a middleaged couple greet us as if we we're old friends and lead us into their garden, "the likes of
which you've never seen," Malcolm promises.
Terraced into the hillside are beds of flowers and shrubs bursting with color.
"Rosemary is quite a considerable artist, you know," says John Griffith, our host, as if he'd had nothing to do with it. "Twenty years ago it was a complete wasteland. We went from patch to patch and learnt the things that grow well. The Ilex, rhododendruns, yews grow like weeds. Colors, yes, salmons, pinks, whites. And of course you must have lawns in England to set things off."
It is largely due to one person that villages like Troutbeck and the miles of sheep
farms still exist in the Lake District. In November, 1901, Beatrix Potter self-published 150 copies of a story she had sent to her governess's son several years before. Her earlier
botanical studies, accompanied by paintings of the highest quality, had been accepted by the
prestigious Linnean Society but subsequently rejected because she was a woman. So she turned to Peter Rabbit and Flopsie, Mopsie and Cottentail and showed them all.
We visit Potter's Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey and see the little house that served as
a setting for many of her illustrations. And we Learn that at her death in 1943 she bequeathed 14 farms and 4000 acres of lakeland countryside, acquisitions made with her royalties, to the National Trust with the wish that they be leased to sheep farmers so the local way of life might be preserved.
Another diminutive building figures in the life of the lakeland's other famous personality.
At Dove Cottage William Wordsworth wrote that he had seen "a crowd of daffodils," though his sister had described them in her diary two years earlier. A wonderful guide repopulates the rooms with the young poet and his friends, making them come alive. Walter Scott, one of his literary guests, said that he had been served three meals a day, "two of them porridge."
Our lunch that day is al fresco, in a field up the hill from Beatrix Potter's home. David
has prepared a table of fresh fruit, scotch eggs, meat pies, Lancashire, Wensleydale and blue stilton cheeses. Sitting on proper little camp chairs, we look over hills and dales that have become familiar to us now, but as beautiful as when we first saw them. For dessert David serves up slabs of apple and gooseberry pie with clotted cream. At which point a young National
Trust officer arrives to inform us that we are in the wrong pasture and "would we mind very
On our final day we walk into Great Langsdale: "long valley." "This is a different kind
of scenery," Malcolm says as we stand high on a hill glacier-cut to resemble the inside of a gigantic bowl. It is bare and wind-swept and potentially fierce though it's been our good luck to have seen nothing but sun. At our feet lies a peaceable kingdom of fields and farms, of sheep and the wonderful dry stone walls constructed to ride the hills as they shift with the weather. Shoulder high, miles of them, they look as new as they did 250 years ago.
Three English ladies in skirts and sensible hats sit by the path as Anne strides by, in
the lead as usual. "It is so nice to see a woman at the head of the pack," says one. "We're just sitting here doing damn all." "But we're enjoying ourselves every bit as much as you are," she declares as I walk past.
"Are you sure?" I think. And I linger at an old wooden gate to watch some more
FELLS, BECKS AND MERES
"Exactly what is a fell?" I asked a sheep farmer. "It's simply a rocky hill," he
answered. "This area was populated by the Norse in the old times. It comes from their language. So does "beck" for stream and "mere" for lake. You have fells in the United
States," he said. "You just don't know what they are."
Heeding the Wayfarer's advice to take time to explore that part of the Lake District
not covered in their walks, for five days I drove and tramped through its nether regions on my own. There are 16 major lakes in the Lake District connected by roads designated "A" and "B." On the former, many can be visited in a day. The latter are narrow, lined with stone walls and can be intimidating to drivers new to the region. Still, it was the B roads that brought me to treasures like Watendlath, a hilltop village of a half dozen farms surrounded by gorgeous scenery. And to Coniston Water which John Ruston chose for his home. From there I climbed the "Old Man of Coniston," so called because by the time you reach the top, you are one.
At a local tourist office I discovered that the Motley Vagabond Theatre Company was
performing "The Tempest" in several towns in the area. And that free guided walks were led regularly by "Wardens," volunteers in the National Park. With two of them and walkers from all over Britain I spent a day traversing the fells of Loughrigg.
For lodgings I treated myself to two of the most luxurious small country inns in the
Lake District. Michael's Nook in Grasmere rises above a fabulous garden ringing with birdsong. Sharrow Bay perches regally on the banks of Ullswater where I spent another day walking.
Both have kichens that proove that the best British cuisine is equal to the finest in the world.
Then I dropped off my car and put myself in the hands of the Wayfarers.
THE WAYFARERS lead walks in the countryside of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and
Italy. For information, contact them at 172 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, telephone 800 249-4620. There are 5 "Wordsworth's Lake District" walks from May to September. The Lake District is in northwest England near the Scottish border. GETTING THERE: Delta Airlines, 800 241-4141, flies non-stop from New York City and Atlanta to Manchester, the nearest airport to the Lake District. The Wayfarers can arrange transportation to the first inn.
ACCOMODATIONS AND MEALS: Rooms are in comfortable country inns in lovely settings. Breakfasts
and dinners are at the inns and are tasty and plentiful. Wine is included. Lunches are picnics or in restaurants en route.
CLOTHING AND GEAR: Casual clothing is acceptable in hotels. On walks, layered clothing is
best to cover all possibilities. Shorts and long pants, long sleeve and short sleeve shirts. Light weight rain gear, hats with brims, sun glasses, sun screen, light back or fanny pack,
hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes are necessities. On this trip I brought convertible
pants by Ex Officio, 800 644-7303. When the weather warms up, the legs zip off. Highly recommended.
CONDITIONING: The average walk is 10 miles at a medium pace on "undulating" terrain with
sightseeing, rest and snack stops. Ages range from the 30's to 70's, with people of normal to fit condition managing well. Regular exercise before coming is beneficial.
ON YOUR OWN: Following the Wayfarers suggestion to spend more time in the Lake District,
I added five days and used the following services: CAR RENTALS: Auto Europe, 800 223-5555, provides cars at the guaranteed lowest price with no cancelation penalty throughout Europe. Especially helpful is its 24 hour toll-free telephone number to the American office should assistance be necessary.
ACCOMODATIONS: Michael's Nook in Grasmere and Sharrow Bay on Ullswater are two of the finest
small luxury hotels in the Lake District. Each is a historic house with beautiful antiques, modern comforts, spectacular gardens and a Michelin star restaurant. Michael's Nook is a member of the Pride of Britain group, telephone 800 544-9941. Sharrow Bay is a Relais & Chateau member, telephone 800 735-2478.
RECOMMENDED READING: "England, Wales & Scotland, Hotels & Itineraries," by Karen Brown gives
helpful off-the-beaten track driving suggestions. The Lonely Planet guidebook, "Walking in Britain" outlines specific hikes in the Lake District.