It is true the best stories are about taking risks, enduring hardships, or overcoming insurmountable obstacles. Preferably, time is of the essence and the odds are against you. No one wants to listen to a story about playing it safe. Since we returned from our trip to the United Kingdom in 2017, I have told this same story countless times and probably as many different ways, yet it never fails to transport me back to a time when I was just a tiny speck on a massive and ancient peak in the Lakes District.
We arrived in Keswick, Cumbria on July 1st, 2017, barely stalling out as we crept our way up yet another narrow and unappeasable hill (Britain seems to be full of them) to the Ellergill Guest House bed and breakfast. Keswick is a small town on the shores of lake Derwentwater, it’s original occupants predating any written records. Derwentwater is surrounded by small settlements, smooth-topped peaks (called fells), and scooped out valleys. Hiking all of the fells is a lifetime pursuit, and in the 1950’s, the locally famous Arthur Wainwright published a series of seven books detailing each one. The photos are all hand drawn and given such care and attention, you feel as if you are reading a treasure map. I gripped the pages a little tighter, enveloping each word like honey on a spoon, and searching for some hidden but essential clue.
On our first full day in Keswick, we set out through the town for a hike to CastleRigg Stone Circle, a steep but relatively short hike from the city center. In the midst of a sheep pasture, a circle of thirty-eight megaliths stands guard over the valley below.
After this beautiful hike, I was feeling pretty ambitious and we headed back to our room to plan out the rest of the day. Our bed and breakfast had an assortment of hiking guides in various states of entropy. Feeling a strong kinship for all things worn and well-loved, I picked up a small yellow manual written for American travelers with black and white print and plenty of notes scribbled into the margins. I came upon a page that described a “highly pleasurable ramble for walkers of all ages and abilities.” The idea of a “ramble” felt so quintessentially English, I needed no further convincing that this was the “ramble” for me. Unfortunately, this hike was only 2.5 miles round trip, and we had the entire day ahead of us. Flipping through the book I found a longer version of this walk at 6.5 miles estimated to take about 4.5 hours. Perfect! It was just barely 1pm now and the last bus back home left at 6:55pm. What could go wrong?
Following the map for the route “Catbells & High Spy”, we hopped a ferry to the trailhead and began our hike. Though the climb was treacherous and often rocky, we saw people of all ages scrambling their way to the top of Catbells fell. We were in good spirits, and when we finally got to the top, we were triumphant. It felt like the thick white blanket of clouds opened up just for us; the summer sun poured over the valley below and illuminated the path to our hard won victory. It was breathtaking, so perhaps we lingered there too long.
The trail continued along the ridge to the fell Maiden Moor. Though we had completed our initial summit while climbing Catbells, the trail would plateau momentarily before whipping up and down like a dragon’s tail, obscuring our view to the even high and steeper climbs ahead of us. It felt like every rocky scramble we surmounted revealed an even longer, harder climb just ahead. It was mentally exhausting, and to make matters worse, this terrain made it impossible to tell when we had actually reached the top of Maiden Moor and also when we started to descend it.
Our final summit was High Spy, marked by a massive stone cairn. By this time we were exhausted, running out of water, and sick of “rambling”. The air was getting cooler and the wind picked up. With only an hour to descend over 2,000 meters before the last scheduled bus, panic set in. There was no clear trail marker to guide us back down the mountain. The manual mentioned turning left at a small cairn, but centuries of hikers had left stone cairns speckled all the way down the ridge. We came across one lone female hiker who attempted to give us directions, but after twenty minutes we were still not descending though we saw a trail below us heading down.
Rather than wait for the paths to converge, we b-lined it straight through a grassy peat field. Within seconds, our boots sunk into a hidden wetness below, the soil so waterlogged that murky black water flooded our boots. At this point, Britton had reached his tolerance level, and I did not blame him. He howled in anger and pain as he twisted his ankle dragging his waterlogged feet through the muck. We would miss our bus. We would be stuck on this mountain all night. We’d die from exposure. We’d never make it back to the guesthouse. The only pair of shoes he packed would never dry. We’ll break our legs. We’ll break our necks. He was panicking.
Barely half way down the mountain, we now had thirty minutes to spare. Still standing in water, I looked at Britton who was walking, slightly favoring one side. I did not know if we would make it down to our bus in time, but I knew we could make it down the mountain. I surged forward, kicking up grass and mud, and pulled Britton along by the sheer force of my will. “Where are you going?” Britton screamed.
We were going to get down this mountain. We were going to drink a beer tonight in a pub. I kept telling him to just keep moving, and though he resisted every single step, he dutifully followed me down pastures littered with sheep poop (I stepped in all of it – I did not care) and through an abandoned slate mine ripe with tripping hazards and plate-sized pieces of sharp, slippery rock. I was terrified every second that one of us would fall to our deaths, but I was a woman on a mission, ignoring my husbands pleas behind me in an all out effort to get us back to safety.
When our feet finally hit a stone road, I began speed walking with Britton still trailing behind me miserably. If I hadn’t been focused on finding the bus stop, a stroll through the small community of Rosthwaite would have been bucolic, peaceful. We zoomed past small homes and businesses, shuttered for the night. My legs objected to every movement, but I was just short of a sprint when we turned a corner to discover the main road and a small bus stop covered in vines. My watch said 6:55pm. Was the bus running late or early?
A minute went by but it felt like a heartbeat. A whirring mechanical sound announced the arrival of a double decker local bus. It swung around the corner, stopping abruptly. The bus driver pulled open to door in surprise, and said, “Wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
You and me both, sir.
What followed was the most cathartic bus ride I have ever taken. Collapsing onto a seat at the front of the bus, gazing out the second story windows, we watched the countryside roll by like a waking dream. The fells that nearly killed us were towering over us again, looking down with indifference. Our 4.5 hour “ramble” took 6 hours and left us mentally and emotionally drained. I felt terrible for leading us into this mess, but I also felt elated that I got us out of it as well.
In the year or so since this hike, Britton and I still look back on this adventure fondly, and appreciate the knowledge we gained. My love of hiking has only intensified since our trip, but I can assure you, any future trip to the Lakes District will include plenty of extra time, plenty of water, and the most updated hiking guide I can find.
Arriving in Bath, it was rainy and warm. Orderly parcels of pallid grey Georgian buildings spread out before us. The city was surrounded by verdant green hills speckled with leafy trees and pastures, and I could not help thinking about how I'd rather be up there on the hills, admiring the twinkling street lamps from afar. We marched our way up the uneven stone sidewalks to the YMCA hostel tucked away in a cozy courtyard which also happened to be a local hangout for the working class set. The room was sparse but not unwelcoming, and though the bathrooms down the hall reeked of body odor and some foreign disinfectant, all was as advertised.
In the early afternoon, we made our way through the mist to the Roman Baths museum. Included in the ticket was a handy audio tour that offered an educational track, a track by author Bill Bryson, and a special track for kids. The museum was incredible with an in-depth focus on Roman religion, culture, and engineering. In the interior rooms, holographic men and women chatted, bathed, and dressed. To walk in and stumble upon these figures going about their lives was exhilarating, like looking into a crystal ball. The musty smell of old things, the sulphurous steam filling the air, and the stony darkness enveloping you. For a moment, history was before you like book opened by the wind. Public baths were an important part of Roman daily life, and to discover this pagan temple surrounding a hot spring must have felt serendipitous to the homesick Roman conquerors. I also found it interesting to see Roman syncretism first hand. They welcomed and absorbed the local Celtic goddess of the hot spring, Sulis, comparing her to their own Minerva.
At the end of the tour, we got to try the mineral-rich spring water, famed for curing all sorts of ailments and other vexing conditions. Unfortunately, it could not cure Britton of his flair for the dramatic.
The next day found us in a small bus with wide sightseeing windows. A persistent drizzle filtered our view across fields so singularly beautiful, I felt I was dreaming. In fact, the gentle sway of the bus, the calm monologue of our tour guide, and some unaddressed jet leg were rocking me to sleep. I bit my lip hard, not wanting to miss a second. Our first stop was Stonehenge, the great henge of stone! I have to admit this was one of Britton's leaning tower of Pisa adventures. I didn't really want to go, but once I was there - Wow! Sometimes you can see a really old thing and know it is old without feeling its age. These stones, even from many yards away, radiated primordial energy. The tallest thing across the Salisbury plain, they dominated your view like a skyscraper with all the force of time.
Our next stop was the Avebury Stone circle, and it took me completely unawares. At first the village of Avebury looked like any little village we'd seen along the road: clean and tidy with a pub, a bakery, a gift shop, and a small chapel. As we began to walk around, I noticed people, mostly women, sitting quietly at the base of the stones. Their eyes were open and alert, as if they were listening. Low and behold, when I get back and do some research, I discover the stones have a sound. They have a voice. Does it sound like the high-pitched fizz when you put your ear to freshly poured glass of red wine? Is it a guttural rumble rising up from the flinty earth? I don't know - I wish I had stopped to find out.
A brawny old woman in a green velvet robe sat at the base of a stone with a tall wooden staff. Feeling increasingly wrapped up in the mystery of the place, I couldn't help myself. I had to speak with her. "Are you a practicing pagan?" I asked, not really knowing what that meant. She identified herself as a shaman, talked about her bet with a friend and physics professor working at CERN about the nature of the universe, and invited me to experience the stones for myself. Holding my hand on her wooden staff, she told me to move my mind from one plane to another - down, up, the past, the present - and with each turn of her staff, I felt a change in the frequency of the vibration of the wood as it connected to the earth. Britton looked on curiously. How could I really explain this to him? It was the strangest sensation, and as much as I love to have evidence for things, I've got none for the way Avebury felt and for the vertigo I felt when I finally left to continue our tour.
Our tour took us through The Cotswolds, an area of enormous wealth for centuries powered by sheep's wool. The growing desire for rare fabrics from India combined with the invention of the cotton gin in the U.S. in the 1790's spelled the end of big wool for The Cotswolds. Bankrupted, they could no longer make repairs or updates to their lovely villages and manses. Sitting unloved and untended for many years, they are now an "AONB". It takes a British mind to create an acronym for the phrase "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty", but it was without a doubt, outstandingly beautiful.
Stay tuned for my next post in the United Kingdom series where we visit The Village from England's 1960's sci-fi classic, The Prisoner!
The sensation of being in London is a sensation that is altogether too familiar. It's not the fleeting clarity of deja vu - no, nothing that exciting. It's a domestic sort of feeling this southern girl has developed for big, lived-in cities thanks to her New Yorker husband. The violent lurch of a subterranean train, the sudden waft of urine or trash, a bird waddling drunkenly down a brick-lined alley. For me, these little moments too easily fade into the wrap-around background of city life, leaving me to wait for a celluloid savior, that unexpected moment that knocks me out of my stupor.
When we arrived at Heathrow after a surprisingly pleasant (and practically free thanks to credit card points) daytime flight from Newark, we were floored by the line at border control. The line looped around forever. We were forced to wade through an undulating sea of Turks and Canadians for two hours, looking in turns longingly and angrily at the U.K. citizens in their bloody expedited kiosks. It did not comfort us that in two weeks we would be those assholes waltzing back into the U.S. nbd. (Hot tip from a friend who lives in London: you can pay for expedited entry if you fly into Gatwick for just 10£.)
When we arrived at our Airbnb, it was weird and wonderful. We were greeted by the owner who runs a motorcycle repair shop downstairs. He was cheerfully glum, just the sort of Londoner I envisioned, with a magnificent red mustache and neat, well-tailored work trousers. He walked us through a graveyard of tires and past a decrepit screen door behind which I recognized several oily steel bowls and the long-handled spoons used to protect its user from the breath of the wok. The smell of rancid oil filled the air as I dodged random pools of god knows what. Up some steps, and then some more, to a bright and modern flat split between 4 floors, each separated by a narrow sets of stairs that were more like glorified ladders. On the tippy top was a small rooftop patio with a view of hundreds of dusty little chimneys and the glowing London Eye. It was awesome.
We spent our first day there seeing the usual sites - visiting Westminster Abbey, seeing the Churchill War Museums, strolling through lush manicured parks, peeking at Buckhingham Palace, and popping into the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. Though the Churchill War rooms were incredible, this was not a favorite day for me. To give you an idea of where my priorities lie, the highlight was actually dinner at Nopi, owned by chef Yotam Ottolenghi. We decided to forgo our reservation and sat at the bar (because people who sit at the bar for dinner are the best kind of people). I love vegetables in almost every form (looking at you turnips, get your shit together), and Nopi did not disappoint - roasted aubergine, pistachio, mushrooms, preserved lemon, cardamom, ginger - so many flavors I love working together.
On our second day, we booked a Beatles walking tour with London Walks as a special treat for Britton. In addition to seeing an enormous variety of locations significant to Beatles history, it was also a good way for us to gain some spacial understanding of popular London neighborhoods that benefited us the rest of the trip. In retrospect, I would have scheduled a tour like this for our very first day. Britton is particularly proud of his zebra crosswalk photo (the one on the cover of Abbey Road) just outside Abbey Road Studios. With just a slight nod at me to start snapping away, he leaped out into the busy street, managed to get into the crosswalk all alone, strike a pose, and quickly exit without getting honked at or mowed over by a black cab. From personal experience, I can tell you Britton's "strike a pose" skills are extraordinary, but that day, he was at the top of his game. Michael Jordan in Game 6 of the '98 NBA Finals kind of game.
On our final day in London, we got up early to be one the first in line for the Tower of London. Our first stop was the crown jewels (notoriously long lines in the afternoon) followed by a meander through the white tower and the first couple stops of the beefeater tour. Being a perpetual tourist myself, it was fascinating to learn about the history of the Tower as a tourist destination and how tourism shaped the way certain items were displayed. In many instances, museum "curators" just made shit up to please the masses. For instance, the Line of Kings was one historically inaccurate exhibit of life-size painted wooden horses and royal suites of armor first displayed in the late 17th century. In the seventeenth-freaking-century, y'all! People have been gawking at this stuff for 350 years! They were just rolling around in heavy petticoats and thinking "Behold at how fusty this stuffeth is - thanketh god f'r advancements in philosophy, technology, and medicine so we has't not to kicketh the bucket liketh these po'r slobss". AND here I am with my bra digging into my shoulder thinking THE EXACT SAME THING. More or less.
As we headed to the sunlit Paddington Station on our way to Bath, we stopped by the Churchill Arms for lunch with one of Britton's Dad's long time friends. She is a beautiful woman with bright eyes and an easy, unself-conscious manner with an appreciation for good ambience and the color black. We heaped steaming piles of jasmine rice and thai curry on our plates and admired the serpentine mass of flowering vines and ferns covering the ceiling of their dining room. We chatted about family and life in the city. I drank a beer that tasted like honey. The longer we sat in that incredible place, the longer I felt myself succumbing to that wonderful sensation of being exactly where you're supposed to be. I imagined myself spending the rest of my life in that room, in that chair, with green tendrils slowly wrapping about me like a gown or funeral shroud. The sun spinning across the horizon yet the world below unchanging in every aspect. Then the moment was gone as quickly as it came, as faulted as memory.
Since the post breezed over quite a few of the places we toured in London, I've included the map below with all the spots we visited during our first week in the United Kingdom. Cheers.