Monday, August 21, 2006

The long and winding road

Monday 21st August

It was a great day for driving, having fortuitously picked out the A686 after Hexham through the Pennines to Penrith for the central part of the journey. This, I learnt subsequently is rated by the AA as one of the great road journeys in our solar system.

Our first stop was Alston, the 'highest market town in England' also claimed by much larger Buxton, in the Peak District. Continuing on, we climbed further to the Hartside viewpoint, from where we could view a panorama encompassing the Lake District to the southwest, and Carlisle & the Solway Firth to the northwest.

From there we descended through Langwathby by the Eden river, where I lunched at the Brief Encounter cafe* in the railway station, and then passed through Penrith. Unlike its Australian namesake, this Penrith is pronounced with an accent on both syllables: "Pen rith". All I know about this Penrith is that somewhere near here was the farmhouse visited by Withnail & companion.

*not the one used in the David Lean film, which is at Carnforth, Lancs.

Just after crossing the M6, you enter the large Lake District National Park, encompassing the famous lakes: Ullswater, Coniston, Windermere and the Cumbrian Mountains, including England's highest peak Scafell Pike (978m) and The Old Man of Coniston. The lakes exist more or less because glaciers have ground out their beds between the beautiful peaks. The human history of this area has been more associated with mining than industry, no matter how many jam-jars or fudge-trays you may see in the area.

I popped off a few photos at the top of Ullswater, near Pooley Bridge, and then followed the A592 down its western side, stopping in one or two of the few available places. The roads in the Lake District NP are all winding single-lane affairs with many torturous bends yielding a high fatality rate. As I was to discover over the next few days, while people may come to the Lakes to relax in the land of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, they're not there to give other motorists or pedestrians an even chance.

After Ullswater, we rose up through Kirkstone Pass, before coming down through Ambleside at the top of Lake Windermere and turning southwest to Coniston. The first thing I noticed about Coniston itself, other than its beautiful setting is that the buildings are slate. My great-great-grandmother moved from one slate-built town in a beautiful setting to another (Coniston to Dolgellau, Snowdonia).

I happened to park outside the Ruskin Museum, named for the writer-artist-activist James Ruskin, but dedicated to the history of Coniston. I spoke briefly to the lady on staff there about my family connection to the area. When I said that my millwright/engineer ancestor Samuel Jones came from Devon, she said that many people came from the tin mines of Devon to work the local copper mines.

After walking around a little, we drove around the top of the lake towards our B&B, but kept going through to Hawkshead, a pretty little village between Coniston Water and Windermere. Like many towns in the area, it's saturated with tea-rooms and outdoor equipment stores.

Returning to Coniston, I turned down the east road towards our B&B, the Bankground farmhouse complex. At the top of the driveay, I gasped at the extraordinary view over the lake, the town and taking in the surrounding mountains. There was a great lawn out the front of the main building where I had a romp with Bondi, before letting him flop out on the cool green grass with a pile of chicken pieces. Before my own dinner, we wandered down to the boat-sheds to take in the lake from closer quarters.

Our room is lovely, with views over the lawn to one side, and over the lake on another. The guest lounges had bits of photographic memorabilia related to the farm's connection with Arthur Ransome. I learnt that prior to his career writing novels for children, he was a correspondent in Russia during the time of the Revolution, knew most of the major players - actually playing chess with Lenin - and married Trotsky's secretary!!

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