There and back again
For some, travel is just a checklist – another day, another flag. But returning to a familiar spot takes you past the tour-guide stage and throws you into the deep end of intimate, vulnerable contact. For David Gillett, one more trip to the waves and hills of England's Lake District is never enough
Nursing both my throbbing feet and a pint of Thatchers Cider, I eased back into my chair by the smouldering coal fire at the Wasdale Head Inn. Today was a failed attempt at the treacherous summit of Pillar. But a few weeks hence I'd be back home and likely facing the question again:
"Back to England? Again? …Why?"
"'Tell me what you read and I'll tell you who you are' is true enough, but I'd know you better if you told me what you reread," the French writer François Mauriac said.
Mauriac was onto something, and his theory applies just as tellingly to travel.
Are you a bucket-list location ticker? Or are you pulled back by some unseen gravitational force time and again to a particular place?
Some places just feel right, like going home. They're a movie we want to see again, a dog-eared book that never gets old.
For me, it's Britain, with its ancient culture, mellowed architecture and daily routines that are immediately familiar while still surprisingly novel. Tightening the focus further: the English countryside, William Blake's "green and pleasant land."
If pushed, the epicentre of my longing is the north, with its desolate moors, raw and ever-changing weather, wild coasts and brooding mountains.
Specifically, the Cumbrian Mountains in the Lake District, an area that just this year has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, joining the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon in winning one of the highest accolades on the planet.
In addition to the official attribute speak that comes with such a designation – standard phrases such as "natural beauty" and "stunning vistas" – I'd add a host of other things. What's not to like about a place peppered with weathered villages folded into heathered crevices redolent of coal smoke and sheep dung?
The names are evocative of some other time: Yanwath, Temple Sowerby, Nether Wasdale, Crackenthorpe.
These mountains are a compact, scaled-back Alpine jewel box, chock-full of hulking masses whose rugged truths are soon apparent when the actual climbing starts. Seen through the smoked windows of a tour bus headed for touristy Keswick, they are a picturesque backdrop. Yet these are true mountains with all the inherent mystery and danger such terrain can bring and noble names to match: Blencathra, Skiddaw, Great Gable.
Wordsworth, Coleridge, Beatrix Potter – many writers called these hills home and the Romantic poets haunted these heights for inspiration. John Ruskin wrote of his love/hate relationship with the country he knew so well: "Blind, tormented, unwearied, marvellous England," he said. And then, under the spell of Lake District beauty, he built his home, Brantwood, on the shores of Coniston Water.
About 18 million people are likewise enchanted and visit the Lake District each year, spending more than $2-billion and employing 18,000 people in the process. They come for a variety of reasons: a lungful of fresh air, a trip to the flowered tea rooms of Grasmere, a pilgrimage to Wordsworth's grave, perhaps.
For me, it's about many things: my grandmother's ancestral home in Langwathby, the upland sheep-farming culture, the architecture of the villages that take rustic-chic to the next level.
And the Walking – capital "W." In Cumbria, it's a term that covers a whole dictionary of movement, including rambling, scrambling and climbing. Our first trip to Cumbria almost 30 years ago introduced us gently to this pursuit, a half-day hike as part of an old uncle's car tour. Subsequent return visits have helped us discover the nuance, refine our approach and extend our journeys, walking, as writer Hilaire Belloc said so eloquently, "Across the great wave tops and rolls of the hills."
This in itself is reason enough to revisit a favourite place.
Recently I found myself yet again in a favourite part of The Lakes, the Wasdale valley, often called the home of British climbing. In Wasdale are England's deepest lake, Wastwater; and highest mountain, Scafell Pike; and arguably my favourite view, from Great Gable. It's an isolated place high in the dark Western Fells, a deep valley of scree slides and jagged cliffs, ancient sheepfolds and thick cloud. Difficult to get to, difficult to leave.
It's a place of sheep farming and mountain climbing; little else matters. A night in its silent, dark embrace resets your expectations and preconceptions of what really matters.
Could it be that some of us are prewired to eat porridge, climb fells, endure hurricane winds and end up by the fire at snug pubs at sunset? Life distills neatly into this simple pattern.
Along the narrow path between our bed and breakfast at Burnthwaite farm and the Wasdale Head Inn sits tiny St. Olaf's Church, built, so they say, from Viking ship timbers. In its tiny churchyard, enclosed by ancient stone walls and wind-twisted yews, the tilting grave markers tell a story of mountain-climbing tragedy. This was a tiny detail I'd missed on previous visits. Revisiting gave me the chance to delve deeper. Records of deaths on nearby fells, often of more than one climber at a time, are common, speaking both to the inherent dangers of the area and the love that people have had for these hills over the years.
Alfred Wainwright, king of the fellwalkers and guidebook writer extraordinaire, once said: "The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal. Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits. These are for the seeking, and those who seek and find while there is still time will be blessed both in mind and body."
Edmund Hillary's team used the "exhilarating summits" to train for its Everest conquest, and the lobby of the Wasdale Head Inn is a makeshift museum of hob-nailed boots, climbing axes and frayed ropes. Faded photos show jaunty Victorians posing on impossible pinnacles such as Napes Needle, tweeds and all. And later, eating in the inn's pub with climbers from Holland and Australia, Billy, the wire-haired terrier who regularly goes "down the pub" on his own, visits our table in search of a handout, unimpressed by whatever feat of endurance we'd performed that day.
We'd seen Billy before, of course, on previous trips. But on this return visit, we were starting to feel as through we knew him, just as we were coming to know the hills. One visit would have never done it for us. Two even, would not have been nearly enough to start the process of unlocking the mysteries of Wasdale, of the Cumbrian Mountains, of northern England, of Billy the wire-haired terrier.
For some, the travel experience is 10,000 miles wide and one inch deep, a shopping list accomplished, another day … another flag. I'd argue for a narrower focus and a deeper, more local experience.
Returning to a familiar spot is less about comfort zones and familiarity than you might expect. In fact, taking your exploration to that next level, past that introductory tour-guide stage and really jumping into the deep end of intimate, vulnerable contact – that can be the risky sort of travel that asks more of you – and ultimately gives more in return.
To paraphrase Mauriac: Tell me where you travel and I'll tell you who you are. That is true enough, but I'd know you better if you told me where you return to time and time again.
And no matter how my aching feet might protest, I know I'll be back in a remote pocket of England's north again, squinting up at the so far, evasive summit of Pillar, reading the clouds, getting to know a beloved place better with each visit.
If you go
A car is essential. There is a good selection of rentals at Manchester Airport (we used Europcar.com) for the three-hour drive to Wasdale. The first hour-and-a-half is easy on the M6 motorway, then the roads get progressively narrower and twisting as you wind your way up the western coast of Cumbria and into the mountains.
When to go
The Lake District is beautiful in its peak season, which runs from late April to early September, and everyone knows it. So consider visiting outside this time frame if you can. Prices drop and the crowds thin starting in October, just as the best colours come out on the hills, and the trails are drier underfoot than in spring.
Where to stay
Burnthwaite B&B is a farmhouse bed and breakfast on a working National Trust farm at the foot of the best mountains, run by Georgina and Andrew Race (and Billy the wire-haired terrier).
Where to eat
Burnthwaite farm is just a 10-minute walk from the local pub. Food and drink are served fireside at Ritson's Bar at the Wasdale Head Inn, the self-proclaimed "birthplace of British climbing." The bar, open all day year-round, is named after its first landlord, Will Ritson – a huntsman, wrestler, farmer, fellsman, guide, raconteur and the original "World's Biggest Liar" (an annual Cumbria competition). The inn also rents rooms in its atmospheric old building at the foot of Kirk Fell. firstname.lastname@example.org; wasdale.com.