I looked out of the window. The mist was so thick I could hardly see to the end of the garden in the brewery complex – and it was pouring down. It’s not called Lakeland for nothing. Undeterred I helped myself to a continental ‘help yourself’ breakfast and was on my way.
I’d collected a bus timetable from a helpful lady at the tourist information office yesterday. I asked which day she suggested I spent outdoors, weather-wise that is. “Well, me ‘usband’s got ta go under t’ car one day this week, and ‘e’s gooin under tomorra so . . .” So I decided to take the hop on hop off bus to the farthest place I’d be visiting, Coniston. It was a direct bus from Kendal, a little zippy one, just like the buses up to Heptonstall and Blackshaw Head in Calderdale. And boy, did we need such a bus. The journey as far as Ambleside was along the main road but once passed the bigger town we were on narrow, winding, steep roads where the bus had to pull over every few minutes to let cars pass. As we passed Lake Windermere I could only just see the hills on the other side of the lake.
At almost 10 miles long and a mile wide at its widest it is England’s largest lake, though it’s comparatively shallow. Many of the photos I took during the day’s adventure appear to be in black and white, so dark and gloomy was the sky the whole day.
I’d decided to go to John Ruskin’s House, Brantwood, on the far side of the lake from the village, and I was going to arrive in style – on a famous steam driven boat, powered by logs, called Gondola which had actually spent several years at the bottom of the lake before being hauled out in 1978 and completely renovated by the National Trust. It had first been launched in 1859 to specifications approved by John Ruskin. I knew the time of the boat’s departure and I didn’t have time to wander around Coniston, so I headed straight down to the water’s edge where I could just make out the gilded dragon of the Gondola through the driving rain. There were only a handful of travellers on this, the first sailing of the day. The interior was beautifully upholstered and the captain kept us informed of things to see, though it was impossible to see out of the rain drenched windows, and it was too wet and windy to stand outside. We passed the site of Donald Campbell’s fatal crash as he attempted to break world water speed record. I remember seeing the crash on TV in 1967. His body was discovered in the lake in 2001, 34 years after the crash.
At one point the captain pointed out a house, almost hidden by trees on the far side of the lake. It had been the home of Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons, one of the books that my children had relished. Apparently he had been married to Trotsky’s secretary, something I didn’t know. In fact, the only thing I knew about him was that he’d based the books on scenes of the Lake District. Just then the purser passed and I commented that my children would love to see his house. “Well, bring them here,” he replied. “It’s rather a long way from California!” I quipped. “California?” he exclaimed, and continued, ” I used to live in a place called Santa Cruz! Do you know it?” Small, small world. We chatted about Santa Cruz for the rest of the journey.
We docked at a perilously long pier that was barely above water level. Another lady alighted with me and we had to be very careful not to slip into the water – I guess that’s why it’s called a slipway. She was enjoying her ‘free day’ on her Holiday Fellowship tour. My mum used to belong to the Holiday Fellowship and made many friends from that group. I’ll have to find photos of this when I get home.
I approached the large house, Brantwood, through the lower garden, designed by Ruskin, and for a large part, actually planted by him, where the flowers were often taller than myself. The estate is 250 acres and he lived here for the last 28 years of his life. A call of nature rarely warrants a record in a travel journal but for once this one did. The walls of the washroom were covered in large mosaic flowers and the toilet seat was made from clear perspex into which shells had been floated. Amazing. I want one!
Inside Ruskin’s home the rooms were not roped off, like they are in most museum homes, and many of the chairs had Please Sit On Me signs. Even Ruskin’s study was not off limits for wandering through. The turret which he had built became his go to place for one of the best views in England, right across Coniston Water to The Old Man of Coniston. He’d also had an expansive dining room added for the many guests he entertained. There were 3 pianos, 2 were Broadwood uprights and the third was a grand, a Wolkenhauer with a sign encouraging people to play it. Of course, I took up the offer, remembering that the last piano I played in an author’s home was Elizabeth Gaskell’s. I soon had a large group of people gathered around me and I asked the docent to take a video of me playing. The view I could see as I played was particularly special for me because this view was part of my earliest memory. Unfortunately, when I’d finished playing another group of people had assembled and I was encouraged to keep playing again and so I didn’t check the video . . . and it transpired that it wasn’t on my phone. Shucks!
Ruskin’s bedroom was filled with 18 Turner paintings, though now they are all reproductions. As in the other rooms Ruskin designed his own wallpaper – and the fire shovels! He was truly a polymath, collecting fossils and sea shells, over 2000, painting and writing. His ideas inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement and his beliefs influenced the formation of the National Trust, the NHS and education for women. Gandhi was influenced by him too. He was also one of the first people to become aware of climate change.
I had a Ploughman’s lunch in the lovely cafe on the lakeside and then wound my way back through the gardens to the jetty where a group of rain-coated humans were fighting losing battles with umbrellas and trying to stay afloat on the almost submerged pier. All rather fun! It’s probably more like a zoo on a sunny day.
Rather than explore Coniston I took the bus to Hawkshead where I had stayed in the Youth Hostel with my mum when I was 14. On one of the windy roads the bus came to a juddering halt as an ATV pulled across the road, followed by a flock of sheep.
Once in Hawkshead I’d hoped that I’d remember something and sure enough I recognised the Minstrel’s Gallery where the second storey forms an arch over the road. I also remembered Ann Tyson’s cottage where William Wordsworth lived when he attended the grammar school in the village.
I recall seeing his initials that he’d carved on his desk when I stayed in the Youth Hostel in the village with my mum when I was 14. Many of the picturesque cottages are painted white and begonias seemed to be the preferred flower of the hanging baskets and window boxes, though, of course, they were somewhat water laden today.
Since I had half an hour to wait for the bus I bought an ice-cream from the famous ‘Little Ice-cream Shop’ and chatted to a lady at the bus stop. It was quite a short ride to Ambleside, which, as a larger village, was packed with tourists.
One of the ‘must see’ things in town is the house on the bridge so I headed in that direction to take the required photo. Ambleside Youth Hostel where I once stayed is out of the village, and perched right on the bank of Lake Windermere. I remember thinking it was very grand and posh at the time.
Back to Kendal on the bus where I had a quick supper and headed out to the movies to see Mrs Lowry and Son. I was glad it was only 20 strides from my room because rain was still pouring down. The movie was superb. I’m a great fan of Timothy Spall. By way of coincidence one of his previous roles had been that of the painter Turner, whose work I had been surrounded by earlier in the day at Ruskin’s house. There were only a dozen people in the theatre, and I was back in the hostel soon after 10 to catch the latest Brexit shenanigans on the 10 o’clock news! A long and varied day.