For all the differences in the way they lived, their experiences, expectations, even life expectancy, the people of the past had more in common with “moderns” like us, than perhaps we appreciate. As part of my research into William Scoresby Jr.’s whaling voyages, and in an attempt to reach a workable understanding of early nineteenth century life, I’ve been reading Thomas De Quincey’s Recollections of the Lakes and Lake Poets Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey, first published between 1834 and 1840., and first published together in 1862. I’ve been reading a battered, rebound copy of the 1862 edition, which I picked up for £1 a few months ago (we live in remarkable times). Anyway, De Quincey is an eccentric and opinionated writer, known for his racy style (for the time), and anecdotal digressions.
I first read Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), and On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827) as an undergraduate. De Quincey’s restlessness appealed to me then, but what I find fascinating now, in this later work, and in my middle age, is the way his sensibility grates against the modern world: how terrifying must the railways, and the growth of industrial towns, have been to a generation that grew up without them? In that respect, he reminds me of my own generation, with our pre-digital childhoods and hyper-connected adult lives. Here he is on the poet Wordsworth’s older brother, Richard:
… he had become a thriving solicitor, at one of the inns of court in London; and, if he died only moderately rich, and much below the experience of his acquaintance, in the final result of his laborious life, it was because he was moderate in his desires; and, in his later years, reverting to the pastoral region of his infancy and boyhood, chose rather to sit down by a hearth of his own amongst the Cumberland mountains, and wisely to woo the deities of domestic pleasures and health, than to chase after wealth in the feverish crowds of the capital.
I have many reasons to be thankful and among them last weekend was that the storms and flooding that hit Cumbria on Saturday December 5th did no more than inconvenience my family and me. It’s true, we lost our car, which was already stranded and beyond saving in the early hours of Saturday morning, before “Desmond” actually arrived. The River Rothay finally swept it away up the road just after dark on Saturday evening. But the insurance has already covered that and, well, it was just a car, and not a particularly special one.
Compared with the people of Carlisle, Cockermouth, and many other places, we got off very lightly indeed. Rather unexpectedly we had heat, light and broadband throughout the weekend. Besides a slight worry that the floodwaters would eventually reach our elevated front door, and the frustration of being marooned, all we had to think about was just how extraordinary the rain was, and how awesome, in the proper sense of the word, nature can be. My memory of that Saturday is of darkness, and relentless rain. The air became mostly water. It is also full of the noise the river made as it barrelled down the valley, carrying with it large branches and the root balls of gigantic felled trees. There were few opportunities to take photographs–being outside was just too unpleasant and it was far too dark anyway–so these pictures were taken before the worst of the flood hit.
That roaring sound was everywhere, all the time. It is no great revelation, but true nonetheless, that the world we make for ourselves–the comfortable, carpeted, indoor world–is a lot more precarious than it seems.
Tourism is a major part of the economy in this beautiful part of the world, but there are businesses of all kinds, from art galleries, gift shops, and shops selling outdoor gear, to cafes, breweries, and of course farming. They are suffering: please use them. Visit if you can: don’t cancel that hotel booking if the hotel is still open. If you can’t visit, why not buy some of your Christmas presents from Cumbrian businesses online?
If you can spare some cash, please also give to the flood appeal.
The Lake District walk from Skelwith Bridge to Elterwater is an easy two miles (at most) on level ground and good paths. For that reason it is popular with families, and people who can’t manage a climb, or just don’t want to. Last weekend we had a sniffly, cold-ridden child with us, so rather than do something more strenuous it made sense to shuttle between the Britannia Inn at Elterwater–great chicken pie with suet pastry, and a well-kept pint of Coniston Brewery’s Bluebird Bitter–and the waterfall at Skelwith Bridge. The leaves were just beginning to turn, and the lake and river were smooth and reflective. This is a popular short walk, especially on a sunny day like this, but it rewards with some of the best low-level scenery in the Lakes.
The dry stone walls are part of what makes the Lake District landscape so magical, and this one, on the lower slopes of Loughrigg Fell, near Ambleside, is a particularly fine example. I’m not so keen on the six foot high bracken it’s holding back though.
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There are only a few places in Britain where you can see red squirrels in the wild. Most have been driven out by the larger American grey squirrel. I snapped this one last weekend at Whinfell Forest near Penrith, Cumbria. I’m pleased it worked out so well shooting handheld in low light with a long-ish lens. Click the picture to make it bigger.
At The Guardian books blog Ben Myers celebrates Alfred Wainwright, who documented the Lake District hills wrote of some of the most attractive, meticulous, and downright useful guidebooks I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Written in longhand (no standard fonts for old Wainwright) and accompanied by beautiful line drawings, these books are eccentric and lovely. As Myers says, he is one of the most important of all Lakeland writers. And now Kendal town council is building a statue:
Kendal town council recently announced that they are to honour a notable local writer with that rare tribute, a public statue. No, it’s not Wordsworth (or Coleridge, De Quincey or Ruskin – all of whom drew inspiration from Cumbria’s rugged landscape and inclement weather – or for that matter, Beatrix Potter, Hugh Walpole, Arthur Ransome or John “Postman Pat” Cunliffe).
The writer in question is Alfred Wainwright, an obscure name to many beyond Britain’s shores but a God-like figure to those hill-walkers, ramblers and mountaineers who gravitate to the Lake District national park in their droves. Or perhaps it is Wainwright’s body of hand-drawn guide books – many of which are still considered definitive guides, all of them researched on foot – that people admire, rather than the actual man himself. Having grown up surrounded by my Dad’s many copies of Wainwright books I naturally assumed he would be an admirer. “Yes – of his work,” he said when I asked him recently. “But he was a miserable bugger.” [More]
We took a post-Christmas trip to the Lake District yesterday and had a very cold walk along the path from Elterwater to Skelwith Bridge. This photograph gives an idea of how cold, and how beautiful, it was. The Olympus E410 is an entry-level D-SLR, so it has its limitations, and the lighting conditions–frost, water, direct sun–were not easy to handle for a novice like me, but as you can see, it is remarkably good at photographing water. Click to view full size.
Here are a couple of pictures from our walk yesterday, both taken from the Loughrigg side of Rydal Water.
Looking roughly West towards Grasmere.
Looking towards Rydal Mount.
More images in the gallery (best viewed using thePiclens/Cooliris plugin):