A Journey into Scotland … Part 8
“Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest in the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across to the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer.”
So opens one of the most read stories set in the Lake District. Perhaps the most read one to have been set on Coniston Water. I spent half a lifetime avoiding Swallows and Amazons, for that is the book, and then became absorbed in a way that surprised me. I was so sure that it was going to be middle class and worthy and was shocked when I found that it was … well it was middle class but most certainly not worthy. It told of the way you would have liked to have spent your summer holidays, if you had the chance, and told in such a way as to make you feel that you were actually involved.
I loved reading the first (and very possibly the best) so much that I’ve now read all but two of the series. I was a fan of Arthur Ransome before I started. His re-telling of Russian fairy tales and folk legends (Old Peter’s Russian Tales) was a favourite at childrens’ bedtimes. I was quietly reading a tale to my six year old son on a train between Birmingham and Derby when I realised that the reason the packed carriage had gone quiet was because they were all listening to the story. I looked up and a smiling Brummie lady looked across and said “Don’t worry about us love. We’re enjoying it.” I wasn’t reading loudly.
Ransome had been the Guardian’s man on the spot in Moscow at the time of the November Revolution and its aftermath. He had served his time in the hot spots of the world and had had a pretty exciting and successful career as a political journalist before he started writing books for children. There’s an autobiographical element to the books. Ransome was someone who loved nature and loved doing things that allowed him to be in touch with it. His characters are imbued with this love of the outdoors. They camp and sail and swim and fish and explore. They live out their games and the reader lives them out alongside.
My summers had a great deal in common. I too have swum in Coniston water and explored the woods around the margin of the lake. I never camped out for weeks on an island and I didn’t sail a little boat; much as I would have liked to. (I did court my beloved by rowing her around Coniston, but that was a few years later).
Ransome’s lake is a mix of Coniston and Windermere but it is Coniston that I see in my imagination as I read the books. I always see the southern end of the lake. The northern end is associated in my mind and memory with two other Englishmen. John Ruskin’s place in English culture is a complex one. He was an accomplished painter and poet but was more famed for his critical works and his relationship with his wife. (Marriage never consummated). He championed the works of JMW Turner and, later, the Pre-Raphaelites. He wrote about the ideal society and emphasised the role that both nature and art should play in this. His influence over the second half of the Victorian Age was immense, and, after rather going out of fashion, has grown again in the public esteem.
I got to know him through having his house, “Brantwood” pointed out every time we passed the northern lake on our way to Hawkshead or Grasmere. It’s open to the public now and can even be approached on a special ticket on a steam launch. It is its position, above and affording a view down the length of the lake, that attracts me. It is a rather delightful house and is happily the property of the private trust.
I pointed out the house to T as I rowed. The house looked as good from the lake as the lake looked from the house. Which is more than can be said for Ransome’s cottage. It’s been done up and is available for holiday let and it looks awful. Ruskin’s architectural legacy is safe; Ransome has to rely on his writing to preserve the memory of his love of the lake.
It is hard to really like Ruskin but it is equally difficult to find fault with what he had to say. He exalted honesty above all things and saw the purpose of human life to be the pursuit of beauty and truth with truth being the more important. His outlook on the weather:
“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”
made him particularly well suited to living in the Lake District where, as they say, if you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.
I can’t approach the northern end of the lake without thinking about the death of one of my earliest sporting heroes. On January 4th 1967 Donald Campbell attempted to set the world speed record in his craft Bluebird. Up until a few days earlier, Campbell had been up at the very top of my list of true sporting heroes. It was the age of the hero and everybody had a list. I had Muhammad Ali, Roger Bannister, Edmund Hillary and Donald Campbell. All were portrayed on television and in the press as superhuman, young, dynamic and handsome. I saw Campbell a few days before he died and was troubled. The Brylcreemed dapper hero of the papers was rather bloated, balding, blotchy and quite obviously sozzled. With hindsight it was quite natural that he’d be in a bar having a whisky or two on a day water conditions kept him from attempting his record. At the time I felt one of my earliest feelings of disillusionment. We’d come to see a hero and they say you should never meet your heroes. I felt immensely sad at his passing.
Campbell died in a spectacular high speed crash on the lake a few days later. Newsreel of the accident was played endlessly and we knew that there was no chance of anyone surviving. It seemed impossible that they couldn’t find his body. We passed on stories at school of the lake being the deepest in Europe and that Campbell had escaped and was avoiding publicity. We knew both were untrue. It took 34 years before they located the craft and finally were able to answer the question of what sent Bluebird into a spin. He was buried in a Coniston churchyard to the accompaniment of a Marillion song. If I hadn’t become disillusioned in 1967, I would have cried.
I leave the lake and head off into Lags Wood where the smell of autumn is heavy in the air. I’ve pedalled as many memories as miles today. I’m glad to come to a hilly wooded stretch on my way to Ambleside. All I have to do here is enjoy the world I’m cycling through. As far as I am aware, I have never been along this particular road before.