Volume II: The Lake District (Part 2).
Thursday. We'd been in the Lake District for three days now, and nothing untoward had occurred. I hadn't lost my wallet, Izzie hadn't developed diarrhea from the oranges she'd been living on, neither of us had fallen over a cliff, neither of us had fallen into one of the lakes. We hadn't stepped foot in any pubs, we hadn't been attacked by birds, we'd had only minimal contact with our landlord, we hadn't had wild animals come into our room when we smuggled takeaway in. We'd seen lots of wonderful things and been to lots of wonderful places. We were in the zone.
You know what?
It couldn't last.
On Thursday, we decided we'd try out the Cross Country Experience that all the Lake District leaflets kept going on about. The Cross Country Experience is just another term for, Catch-your-own-bus-and-boat-and-cycle-or-walk-tourist-but-don't-expect-us-to-organise-any-tours-for-you. That's what Iz claimed anyway.
Which suited us just fine. We'd both been wanting to go to Coniston to see Brantwood, where Ruskin lived. After another salty breakfast (I didn't admit it to Iz, but I would have DIED for some cereal. However, it had, by now, become a test of endurance) we optimistically set foot on the streets, clutching our trusty map (it hadn't failed us yet) tightly.
"Right," said Iz, by now established as the official map reader (I'd long ago given up on making out what the various squiggles meant). "We're going to walk down to Lake Windermere and take a ferry across it. From there, we're going to take a bus to Hawkshead."
"And maybe stop at the cafe for a coffee," I said, in what I hope was a casual and don't carish tone, thinking of the cute waiter.
"Maybe," said Iz, who has never been known to turn down caffeine. "From there, we catch another bus and that should get us to Coniston and then we take the ferry across Coniston Water and once we get across Coniston Water, we'll be at Brantwood. Right?"
"Right," I said enthusiastically, hoping she knew what she was doing because I sure as hell didn't. "Right-o." (For emphasis).
The ferry and the bus all did what they were supposed to, and we reached Hawkshead in a relatively serene state of mind. We went into the cafe, I got ignored by the cute waiter again, and over pots of hot peppermint tea, we discussed all we'd done so far.
Iz has a wonderful theory on people who choose to live in the country. "They are unnatural. They are unnatural because history has shown that the natural progress of man is movement away from the country, towards the city. To want to move from city to country, on a permanent basis, is to go against history. And to choose to live in a country town is worse, because it's neither the country nor the city."
"Maybe it's both," I said, trying to be open-minded.
She gave me a look and I subsided meekly.
We reached the Coniston bus stop around noon. Looked around for a couple of signs that would point us the way to the lake, but didn't see any. Just rows of cheery little houses. Not a soul in sight except for a woman jogging past with her dog.
"I hate the country," I'm not sure who voiced the words, but the sentiment, at that moment, was mutual.
We soon realised that it was a straight road and, considering the direction our bus had come, we'd have to walk up it. Naturally. It seems to me that one of the universal laws of life no one ever tells you about, is that you always have to walk up mountains. Eventually there's a down, but it's never close enough.
We walked for a while and came to what I assume was the town centre because we were at crossroads. Also, there were at least four people in sight. And a sign saying, Coniston Town Centre. There was another sign, an arrow pointing to the left turning saying, Coniston Water. So we followed the arrow.
We got to the lake fifteen minutes later. There was a restaurant at the edge, with mostly outdoor seating, and practically every table was full. So I suppose the town was empty because everyone was busy eating lunch at what seemed to be Coniston's only eating place. Figures.
While I was busy thinking rude thoughts about the people there, Izzie walked to the dock and she was now standing in front of a sign, with a look of horror on her face.
I walked towards her and once I drew near, she pointed towards it silently. Takes a lot to silence Izzie.
Ferry to Brantwood, it said, 1 pm.
"That'll give us time to eat," I said happily.
I read on. Ferry to Brantwood. 1 pm. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday.
They'd left Sunday out. That was understandable. Sundays are usually left out. But something didn't seem right to me. I read it again.
"They've forgotten Thursday," I said, finally.
Izzie gave me a look. She's quite proficient that way.
"Fuck," I said, because no other word could adequately describe my emotions just then.
"Fuck," Izzie said.
"Fuck," I said again, quite enjoying this game.
Another look, and she turned towards the restaurant.
"We could eat," I said hopefully. "And then see if another boat will take us over. There's a ferry ride at 1.30."
This suggestion was met with approval and we found a bench by the lake and got down to the serious business of eating.
1.30 rolled around, as did a ferry. We made our way to the dock and asked one of the boat's staff if it was stopping at Brantwood.
"No can do, love," said the man. "We sail around the lake and don't stop."
Another man, in a sailor cap, must have noticed our devastated expressions because he came towards us and asked if there was a problem. We explained our dilemma - we'd come all the way from Windermere, part of the Cross Country Experience no less, only to find that what we wanted to experience (i.e. the thrill of wandering through Ruskin's house) was denied to us, because it was Thursday.
"Tell you what," said the man, after a pause. "We'll stop the boat briefly at Brantwood and let you girls get out. We can't anchor so you'll have to jump across the water a bit, but you're young and you look relatively fit, so it shouldn't be a problem."
Our thanks knew no bounds. This man had only one eye (the other was closed in a Popeyesque manner) and he had a bronzed, lined face. Very blue eyes. Well, eye. It didn't surprise me when I heard the other man address him as Cap'n.
Cap'n ushered us on board and, finding ourselves surrounded by octogenerians (it was a ride around the lake after all), we made our way to the prow. It was nice standing there in the sunshine and the wind, and I fell into a reverie which I was jolted out of by an announcement on the loud speaker: Now folks, we're approaching Brantwood where the writer John Ruskin lived, and we're just going to stop here for a brief moment to let two young ladies hop off. Concluding we were the two young ladies, Iz and I made ready to depart. The boat was brought as close to the dock as possible, but there was a foot of water in between. One of the staff (not the Cap'n, sadly) helped me climb onto the edge and I leaped across ungracefully, landing on the dock feet-first thankfully. The octogenarians gave me a round of applause. Iz was not so lucky. She slipped and nearly fell into the water but managed a strange half jump and landed, arms and knees on the dock. She was given an even louder round of applause. We waved to the boat, and everyone (including the Cap'n who was in hysterics) waved back and then it sailed off.
Brantwood was incredibly ugly. The interiors were nice - especially the front two rooms which had been turned into a bookstore and gift shop - and I had a lovely time roaming around Ruskin's study pretending I was him. The gardens were beautiful but the exterior- ugh- I cannot even begin to describe its hideousness. I won't.
After we were done, we decided, since we had our trusty map in hand, to walk all the way back to Hawksheade. The map made it look relatively simple and we thought it would do us good to take in the Lake District on foot. We set off optimistically. Naturally, the road wound its way upwards.
Forty minutes later, sweating profusely, having hurled abuses at a group of innocent cows for being cows, we were reaching the top of a hill.
"I'm going to run up it," I said determinedly.
Iz made a strangled sort of sound behind me - it could have been a snort of disbelief, a snatch of laughter, or a heartbroken sob, but I ignored it and ran.
Reached the top and collapsed on the road. A shooting pain encircled my chest and I wondered if I was living my last moments. Izzie joined me a few minutes later and, having ascertained that I was not going to die, we looked around. The road continued going up, but towards the left, was another path, framed by trees, looking shady and cool, going down.
"Let's go left," I said immediately.
"We don't know that it leads to Hawkshead," argued Izzie. "We could end up back at bloody Brantwood for all we know."
"What does the map say?" I asked.
She looked at it doubtfully. "According to the map, both lead to Hawkshead but in the middle, it kind of peters out."
"What do you mean?"
She showed me. There were strong lines connected the places and, we could make out the spot where we were currently standing, but both roads dissolved in the middle into a series of dots.
"What do the dots mean?" I asked.
We debated what to do. Both of us were tempted to take the friendlier looking path, but neither of us wanted to get lost and walk around for hours, so we summoned our courage, and kept walking. You'd think, because we'd finally reached the top of a hill, we'd get to walk down a bit, but oh no, the road dipped a little - just a little - and then continued its way upwards again. The sun was out in all its glory, the wind had decided to abandon the world, and the occasional glimpse of a calm blue lake did nothing to alleviate my despair. At one point, I did consider running towards the water and jumping in with all my clothes on and staying there until helicopters came to fetch me, but in the end, common sense unfortunately prevailed, and I trudged on.
We met no people on the way though a couple of cars occasionally passed us by. We walked and walked and walked. Walkedandwalkedandwalkedandwalked. We didn't see any signs reassuring us we were on the right path, we didn't see any signs of human habitation, we didn't even see any cows. It was like the entire world had abandoned us, leaving us only with the road ahead and the sun on our faces.
Finally, we reached a point where the road split in two. There was a sign, pointing to the right, telling us Hawkshead was only a mile away. We'd given up talking to each other a long time ago, so we just carried on in silence. Things got better slowly. The road started travelling downwards, we saw more houses, the sun wasn't as strong, the wind came back from wherever it had disappeared to.
We finally reached Hawkshead and made our way to the bus stop. The next bus that would take us to the ferry was ten minutes away. It was also the last bus. We congratulated ourselves on our perfect timing and headed to the cafe only to find it was closing. We should have known - it was past 5 pm. Went back to the bus stop and sat on the curb. Waited and waited. And waited. No bus came. The town had suddenly emptied out. It looked like a ghost town. Finally, twenty minutes later, with no bus in sight, we were forced to conclude that the country had played a nasty trick on us.
We decided to call a cab. Luckily, there was a number printed on the bus stop sign. As Izzie waited for the call to connect, still swearing under her breath, I heard the phone ring across the street.
*Voice from post office across street*: Hello.
Izzie: *slightly bewildered at both voices that seemed to be talking to her, on the phone and from the post office* I think we've missed the last bus and we need a cab to take us to Windermere.
*Voice*: Where are you?
Izzie: The Hawkshead bus stop.
A man suddenly stuck his head out from the post office and waved at us. We waved back. "If you can wait for about fifteen minutes," he yelled, both at us and into his phone (Izzie moved her phone away from her ear and winced), "I'll organise a ride."
"Cheers," said Izzie, and we both collapsed back onto the curb.
"That was strange," I said.
"It's the country," Izzie said, in a resigned tone. "And the north of England. They eat their chips with gravy. Mental."
I didn't see what the chips had to do with anything but I later learnt that there is a huge battle between the north of England and its south. The north insists on eating its chips with gravy, the south thinks this is indecent. I suppose you have to be English to get it.
After fifteen minutes, the man from the post office stepped out, locked up, and beckoned to us. It soon transpired that he was the intended taxi driver. He told us that he'd drive us down to the ferry and we could take that across to Bowness because it would be cheaper, and it would also get him home in time for his tea. We agreed.
On the way there, he and Izzie chatted a bit. At one point, he looked at me (I had my sunglasses on) and asked me if I was Japanese. I made a non committal noise. There's no escaping some things.
The ferry that was to take us to Bowness, it transpired, was generally used for transporting cars across the lake. Iz and I waited quietly while three or four cars rolled onto the deck of the ferry, and we followed, less spectacularly, on foot. It moved very slowly and dropped us off at an unfamiliar pier.
"This isn't where we usually get off," said Izzie, looking around, as the ferry began to move way. The cars, supremely unconcerned, revved up their engines and sped off. It was the two of us alone. Again.
We walked, cut across a field, and after about twenty minutes, came to the dock we usually stopped at. It was only a forty minute walk to Windermere from there. Got back to the hotel, made tea (lots of tea) and watched Kindergarden Cop on television.
"At least," said Izzie, as we climbed into bed, "we're leaving tomorrow. Nothing else can go wrong. Nothing. It's over. One more horrible breakfast and we're back in our safe old city,"
"Unless our journey home turns out to be a disaster," I said sleepily.
It was something I really should have left unsaid.