Mountains green. Pleasant pastures. Clouded hills.
These descriptions of “England’s green and pleasant land” were written in verse by William Blake in 1804, then set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 to sustain Britain’s resolve during World War I. Since then, Jerusalem has become England’s unofficial anthem, so popular that it has been sung at rugby matches, the Last Night of the Proms and the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Jerusalem sustained my resolve as I planned and executed the sequel to my fortnight in the Lake District and Northumberland – a plot hatched as soon as I landed back home in October 2015. I counted down the months until I could reboard a Mountain Goat Mercedes Sprinter and roam those steep roads that meander through beautiful scenery as they lead to legendary destinations. I looked forward to returning to several favorite spots, to checking off some leftover to-do’s from my sightseeing list, and to experiencing some new things. To begin, here’s a roundup of several more reasons to return to this part of England again and again.
Finally having just been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status — it’s been trying for the honor since 1986 — the Lake District is a stunning National Park that attracts 18 million people each year. I wanted to avoid the summer-holiday crowds, so I chose to return in September. My research gave that decision an enthusiastic endorsement.
“The first two weeks in September, though not so sunny, are when the Lake District is most beautiful,” James Bunting advised in his Batsford guide to the Lake District. “The golds and reds and russet-browns of the brackens and earlier fading trees blend with the evergreens and lush grass to present a picture of unparalleled magnificence and the whole landscape acquires a strange luminosity.”
I soon realized that the phrase, “though not so sunny,” was a genteel way of saying “damp and chilly.” Pulling my Barbour closer to ward off the constant rain and penetrating breezes, I reminded myself of what Mr. Bunting had also written: “The rainfall gives zest to the waterfalls, adds clarity and sparkle to the lakes, clothes the fells in brilliant green and keeps the air wholesome and pure.” Perhaps that’s what Blake meant by writing, “O clouds, unfold!”
To keep the chill at bay, I threw myself into executing my first plan: Eating my fill of my favorite English food. Once more, I indulged in creamy vegetable soups. Ham, cheddar and Hawkshead piccalilli “toasties” on malted sliced bloomer with crisps. Cumberland sausage and scrambled eggs. Porridge. “Posh” fish served with chips and mushy peas. Oven-baked “jacket tatties” filled with heaping piles of cheddar cheese, tuna and sweetcorn, prawns, and even baked beans, all served with rocket salad. Bacon butties with HP sauce. Dried apricots and prunes poached in Earl Grey syrup. Electric tea kettle-brewed Farrer’s “Lakeland Special Blend” tea, accompanied by Brontë Fruit Shrewsbury Biscuits. Chocolate and orange scones. St. Cuthbert Slices. Ice cream in Roman Britain-inspired flavors from the Doddington Dairy, one of the few dairy farms left in Northumberland. And Windermere char, a trout-like fish introduced to the cold waters of Lake Windermere by Roman soldiers and traditionally served in a glazed earthenware “char pot” painted with a circle of fishes (although mine just came on a plate).
And then, at long last, came the much-anticipated Eccles cake. Named after the town of Eccles, just outside Manchester, the treat has been a regional specialty since 1793. A flaky, buttery pastry is filled with currants, nutmeg and candied citrus peel, then topped with demerara sugar.
I indulged in my Eccles cake at The Bluebird Cafe in Coniston, the former workshop for one of the boats used by Lake District legend Donald Campbell in setting seven World Water Speed records. While attempting to raise his own record to over 300 mph, he lost control of Bluebird K7 and was killed on Coniston Water on January 4, 1967; after several failed searches, both his body and his jet-powered craft were finally found and recovered in 2001. Campbell was buried in Coniston cemetery and his boat is being restored for exhibition in the Ruskin Museum in the village of Coniston. I just finished watching “Across the Lake,” a 1988 movie starring Anthony Hopkins as Donald Campbell.
Other new “confections” I ticked off on this trip included drive-bys of St. Mary’s Church in Ambleside, designed in the 1850s by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the creator of the Albert Memorial in London, with a rocket-shaped spire that sets it apart from other Lake District churches. The 300-year-old Honister Slate Mine, which produces Westmorland green slate with both smooth and “harassed” edges. Green Rigg wind farm. Herterton House Gardens, a 16th-century farmhouse in Morpeth with a formal topiary garden, a nursery garden, a physic garden, a flower garden, and a fancy garden with a two-story gazebo. And a lovely surprise in the form of the Lanercost Tea Room and gift shop, housed in a restored outbuilding of the farm neighboring the 12th-century Lanercost Priory.
No visit to the Lake District is complete without some must-do Beatrix Potter pilgrimages. First came a beautiful walk around Tarn Hows. Norse for “teardrop,” the small mountain lake that was part of the eight-acre Monk Coniston estate was gifted by Beatrix Potter to the National Trust in 1930.
At the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, I browsed a little shop selling a range of locally produced items, like those made from Herdwick wool, and souvenirs related to the work of the beloved artist and author. The gallery is housed in a 17th-century building that was once the law office of Beatrix’s husband, William Heelis, and is furnished with some of the original desks and other pieces Heelis used.
The gallery presents changing exhibitions of original Potter sketches, illustrations and possessions; I was thrilled to happen upon the Pace eggs that Beatrix painted. She was so taken with the Lakeland tradition of the “pace-eggers,” in which village children went from house to house, performing an Easter mummers’ play in exchange for pennies and Pace eggs, that she submitted an article to Country Life magazine, but it was returned to her as being “not topical.” View digital images of thousands of Potter treasures at the gallery, as well as at Beatrix’s Hill Top home, here.
I’ve been called out for not being devoted to exercise, but I was victorious in running right into a couple of classic British sporting events.
Bicycles painted red and yellow – the colors of Northumberland – marked the route for Stage Two of the Tour of Britain cycle race, the premier road cycling event that started in Edinburgh on September 3 and finished in Cardiff on September 10. At just over 211 kilometers, the Northumberland stage was the longest of the 2017 tour, beginning at the Kielder Water & Forest Park and continuing through Rothbury, Alnwick, Bamburgh, Morpeth and the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
“Epic scenery! Epic road runs! And perhaps the occasional squally shower!,” proclaimed the flyer for the 43rd International MicroCar Rally, held September 6-10 at Grasmere Sports Field and hosted by the Scottish MicroCar Club. MicroCars are vehicles designed for economy motoring which have no more than three cylinders, often have just three wheels, and have clear plastic canopy windows. Economical MicroCars were most popular after World War II, when steel and fuel were at a premium. Featuring classic MicroCars made from before World War II through the 1960s, the rally included road-runs and a display lineup. Where else but Britain would these two passengers ride in such a race?
Britain is a nation of gardeners. In Durham, I spotted three-dimensional floral examples from County Durham in Bloom, part of the annual Royal Horticultural Society’s Northumbria in Bloom competition focusing on community engagement, improving the environment and rewarding horticultural excellence. The Market Place featured a Bishop’s Mitre commemorating how, in 1075, the Bishop of Durham became a Prince Bishop with power to raise armies and mint coins in return for protecting England’s northern frontier. Adjacent to Palace Green, three St. Cuthbert’s Crosses pay homage to the shrine of St. Cuthbert within Durham Cathedral. The sculptures were created from sub-tropical plants and other foliage, such as palms, banana, New Zealand flax and red dahlias, and were surrounded with ornamental grasses.
And then there’s the telly. I’d bestow an Emmy on “100 Year Old Driving School,” a fabulous three-part ITV documentary highlighting drivers aged between 90 and 102 who agree to participate in an assessment of their driving abilities by examiners from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Equally deserving is “Gardeners’ World,” a BBC Two television program filled with ideas, tips, advice from experts and timely gardening reminders. Also, watch the Cumbria episode of Penelope Keith’s Hidden Villages, a television series in which the actress tours Britain’s villages to discover what makes them unique, with the help of vintage Batsford travel guides.
Looking for something good to read? Try these titles to be featured at this year’s Borderlines Book Festival, celebrating the written and spoken word in Carlisle. Taking place October 6-8, this year’s festival highlights works by some of the best regional and national authors, including A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess, by Amanda Owen; Towards Mellbreak, a novel by Marie-Elsa Bragg that was inspired by Cumbrian folklore, traditions and landscapes; There Is No Map in Hell: The Record-Breaking Run Across the Lake District Fells, by Steve Birkinshaw; Traditional Food in Cumbria, by Peter Brears; Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense, a new book from Jenny Uglow, author of The Pinecone; and One Man and His Mule: Across England with a Pack Mule, by Hugh Thomson. Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey, Thomson takes his mule, Jethro, from the Lake District to the Yorkshire Moors, using old drovers’ roads and mule tracks once used to transport goods across Britain.
That’s just the beginning. Up next: What’s new in Wordsworthshire.