A Journey into Scotland … Part 7
There are now twelve wind turbines on the moor above the farm. I can’t remember if they were there in 1987. I don’t know how I feel about them. I like windmills and the movement is graceful: but they weren’t here when I was a child. It’s the sort of change I struggle with.
I don’t want to knock on the door. Who on earth wants someone interrupting an early afternoon with a “Hello, I don’t know if you remember me but I lived here when I was five.”?
I cycled once around the block and noted that while the cowsheds had got larger, the trees I used to climb had got smaller. I was so chock full of sentimental feelings that I couldn’t stay long. It was too much to take it all in. Ghosts were dancing in my mind, my memories and along the top of every wall. Happy ghosts for the most part.
The road towards Lowick was the one on which we’d left the giant snowball. The fields on the left were farmed by the Applebys and the fields to the right were Benson land. A huge Hereford bull was kept in the first. It was the field that the water supply ran through. If the filters became blocked someone had to go into the field to lift the manhole cover to clear them. If the bull was grazing nearby the filters remained blocked and we collected a churn of water from the farm down the road.
There is no bull there today.
Around the bend was an uncultivated patch among two small, worked out quarries. It was overgrown with bracken and bilberries. Because it wasn’t grazed the bilberries grew in profusion and as a child I picked jar after jar of them. To this day they are my favourite fruit. There is no pie like a bilberry pie and no juice like bilberry juice for leaving a stain that won’t wash out. The quarries have been filled and the land has become rough pasture. I feel a twinge of regret.
“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”*
By the time I pass the fir plantation above Windy Ash I leave the magic land behind and opening up before me is a sight for sore eyes. Looking one way you can see the expanse of Morecambe Bay, The Duddon Estuary and across the Irish Sea as far as the Isle of Man. Look straight ahead and the mountains of the Lake District are suddenly there, and close enough to see the shadows on their flanks. A glorious vista. Plenty of memories here but at an intensity that is altogether easier to cope with.
I’ve had quite a day of personal memories. It was inevitable at the beginning of a trip designed to follow my own life that the first miles would be full of recollections. I was just entering the second stage, a stage that was going to take me all the way to the north of Scotland, and this was the stage of discovery.
I’m pedalling into the English Lake District, you’d expect it to be all ups and downs but the route I’ve chosen isn’t like that. I’ve climbed a thousand feet to be here in the land of my childhood. Before me I can see a sparkle from the surface of Coniston Water. Surrounding the head of the lake are the first high mountains I’ve seen; among them Dow Crag and The Old Man of Coniston. It’s one heck of a name for a mountain. Sometimes it’s called Coniston Old Man. I learned the name was I was very young and climbed to the top when I was not much older. The name brought the huge hill to life for me and it played with my childish imagination. Up there among the clouds I expected something supernatural. I think I probably found it. It was always known as the highest point in Lancashire. It surprises even those who knew Barrow to be in the red rose county that Coniston is part of Furness. Nearby is one of those very English points where you can be standing in three counties all at once; except, in this case, none of the three exist anymore. The geography of the north is the poorer for the end of Cumberland and Westmoreland. The Old Man’s claim is now twice false. Not only is it no longer in Lancashire but its near neighbour, Swirl How, is now thought to be a foot nearer the sky.
I ride along under lakeland skies with cloud shadows brushing my shoulders borne on a lakeland breeze. I pass the farm that delivered our milk: six pints in bottles including two from the Jersey herd where the cream extended over half way. It’s all flat or gently downhill and it is spirit liftingly beautiful.
I cross the main road at Lowick Green and choose to follow the eastern shore of the lake because this is where we came for family picnics and to play cricket in a field more suitable for an assault course and where my father would offer the batsman the choice of “spinners or speeders”. I had a job lifting the bat and any ambition I had to hit the ball out of the field had to wait a dozen years or more.
There’s a fourteenth century pub at Lowick called the Farmer’s Arms. It could well be the oldest inn in the Lake District. You can stay there now, it gets good write-ups on the booking web-sites. It always looked the perfect English inn to me and if it were open I would have stopped for the pint I had promised myself for twenty years. At home the old man had a beer mug from there; a rather lovely one that I wish I’d kept. In happy days he made his own beer and won a prize at the local agricultural show. He had that happy knack, that we all aspire to, of being able to make a pretty good fist at whatever he chose to turn his hand to.** He’d pour it carefully into this mug. I liked the yeasty smell and can still catch a hint of it in my memory and it’s years since I tasted beer. A northern variant of The Farmer’s Toast was written on the mug. It was one of the first poems I learnt by heart. I’m still able to recite it.
Let the wealthy and great
Roll in splendour and state
I envy them not I declare it
I eat my own lamb
My own chickens and ham
I shear my own fleece and I wear it
I have lawns I have bowers
I have fruits I have flowers
The lark is my morning alarmer
So jolly boys now
Here’s God speed the plough
Long life and success to the farmer***
The double s in success had the old fashioned f which had a five year old me wondering what succeff was. This is a land where I knew all the farmers and had helped (as far as I was able) many of them with haymaking or milking and had been there at lambing time. I’d seen the milk poured straight into bottles and sealed with a foil top by hand. I was at home on these farms and would have adapted well I’m sure if that had been the family way of life. On my mothers side they’d farmed for generations; one half on the Staffordshire Moorlands and the other half up here in the southern lakeland fells. My brother has a series of family photographs from the late nineteenth century showing our farming forebears carrying ewes across their shoulders and shepherding these fields and slopes on horseback. I’m the only person in this world. There is nobody here but me and, on the back of a bicycle, it is very easy to imagine.
** Metaphors so mixed that they almost end up working.
***The Farmer’s Toast (trad)