Tuesday, 23 June 2009
There's nothing quite as dull as listening to someone else's breathless account of their holiday, so I'll spare you the details. But we strolled around on Hadrians wall. We went to the Lake District and stayed a night on the shore of Buttermere in a B&B with quaintly creaking floors. We saw Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth lived and wrote many of his most famous poems. We had afternoon tea in Cleater Moor where my grandmother grew up. We visited the lovely town of Kendall and then went to Windermere.
The lake is famous as a background to many poems of the Romantic era, and as the place near which Beatrix Potter lived . Windermere is the name of a lake, and also of the town which is perched on its shore. The town is a medium sized provincial centre and town and lake, both, have the great misfortune of being, of all the lakes, the most easily accessible from the South. We had the great misfortune of being there on a Sunday. People were everywhere. I am told that people in Britain, when visting tourist sites, do not like to move more than 400 yards from their cars, so cars were also everywhere. We didn't stop at Hilltop Farm, Beatrix Potter's residence, because we couldn't: the car park was full and the tiny country lanes for miles around were jammed with traffic - including of course the little bit that we were generating. The little seaside resort of Lakeside had a pound in the slot carpark where we could stay long enough to eat lunch, and Windermere we saw only by leaving the car further out of town than the regulation 400 yards.
There were people everywhere: big burly guys with shaved heads, all scrubbed up and wearing clean white T Shirts, being dragged reluctantly around by their girlfriends; middle aged people in matching fairisle jerseys; pushchairs and walking sticks and ladies with blue rinses. They were eating icecreams and pies covered in mushy peas and going for rides on the steamer and fitting it all in before dashing off for Liverpool and Manchester and Middlesbrourgh later in the afternoon. Everywhere were shops and enterprises oriented to processing these visits and which didn't seem to sit happily with the serene beauty all around. The business of frantic relaxation covered the landscape like a scab. We left and after a somewhat tense encounter with Manchester's motorway system, ended the day in the Peak District, on the Staffordshire side of the border, in a little hotel in the Manifold Valley, and here was another of this trip's surprises.
I had never much heard of the Peaks District, before I found myself in it: one of the most beautiful places I have visited in my life. It has rivers and caves and woodlands. It has ancient hills and crags. It has tiny narrow roads bordered with drystone walls and trees. It has villages, each one more jaw droppingly beautiful than the last. I ran out of superlatives and discovered the real meaning of some cliches. Pretty. Rustic. Charming. Picturesque. Unspoiled. It has people. Given the number of villages, the population density must be quite high, but the folk around here don't seem to have plundered and despoiled this landscape they way they have at Windermere. In New Zealand we use the word unspoiled to mean untouched by humans; bearing no discernible mark of human habitation or intervention. Here it means something else. It means a landscape whose cultural artefacts are in keeping with the environment in which they are found. The houses are built of local materials. They fit the countours of the hills and add to, not detract from the natural beauty of the place. The villages and farms were shaped long before anyone imagined a motor car, and they are fitted to the needs of people, not the needs of traffic. They are humanly sized, humanly grouped together and relate to each other in a way which fosters community. Houses are built for the climate and they are built to last. The whole environment, a cultural artefact though it is, still seems natural and still feeds the soul in a way which the stucco and neon excrescences festering around the tourist spots can never do. The land is occupied. It is densely built on and intensively worked, but it is unspoiled.
It is this connection with the land which first hit me with such force on Iona. There is something deeply spiritual in the connection, reflected in the fact that every village finds it necessary to construct and preserve a large church, even when the villagers are not themselves believers. It is there in the erection of crosses and standing stones and shrines. Villages and districts find it necessary to develop folk practices (such as Derbyshire's Well Dressing) which celebrates this earthy spirituality. This connection with place is somewhere near the heart of Anglicanism at its best. The trick is, I guess, to nurture this connection and not let it get overrun by the plastic facade which long ago killed off Blackpool and is in the process of strangling Windermere, and will smother the Anglican church if we let it.