26 November 2008

Northern soul

Warwickshire, the English county that I live in, is often referred to as: “England’s England.” 

To be sure, Warwickshire it is a truly remarkable and enchanting place.  A place I feel proud and very lucky to call my home. But, if Warwickshire is as it describes itself, “England’s England,” I have decided that Cumbria must be “the England of our dreams.”

The Cumbrian landscape is dotted with quintessentially English-sounding place names, names that make American ears tingle with glee: Greenodd, Arrad Foot, Cartmel, Hard Crag, Castlerigg, Hawkshead, Buttermere, Haverthwaite, Bassenthwaite, Windermere, Barrow-in-Furness, Low Brow Edge, Loopergarth Clappersgate, Ambleside, Cross-a-Moor, and so on… 

This is the England we Americans imagine in our most nostalgic, Anglophilic fantasies. Fantasies nurtured and nourished by a steady diet of “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “Fawlty Towers”, “Miss Marple,” “Masterpiece Theatre,” “Mystery!” and countless other British imports presented in heavy rotation on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). 

For me, Cumbria and the Lake District – the land of Beatrix Potter and Wordsworth – is a magical landscape that fulfills every one of my romantic English imaginings.

We drove up from Warwickshire on Wednesday night. Got stuck in bottleneck traffic on the M6 out of Birmingham, for what felt like hours – eager as we were to get to Backbarrow. It was nice, however, it to have the D.E.B. all to myself, and we laughed and talked all the way. Once out of Birmingham, it was smooth sailing “up t’North.” It just started to drizzle as we entered the enchanted land of Cumbria.

Even with leaving Warwickshire at 6PM, we didn’t get to Backbarrow until around 10PM-ish. We had hoped to make last orders at the pub, but opted to find a “chippy” (Fish n’ chips - my fave!!) in Ulverston, the nearest big town. 

We found a Chinese take-away that specialized in “Chinese Meals and Fish n’Chips” – what more could you need in life, anyway? 

A really sweet, young Asian woman – sporting a New York Yankees hat no less!--served up absolutely dee-lish fish and chips, and offered me my first sampling of the lovely, local Lancashire accent.

It is in these moments that I’m reminded how in the States we are often misled to believe that are only two native English accents: “posh” and “not posh,” a.k.a., “Cockney” (Thank you, Mary Poppins.) When in fact the English phonetic landscape is so very diverse, surely as equally varied (more so?) as  American accents are—which are themselves more varied than most English people have been led to believe, a vicious cycle it seems. But, I digress. 

Our first night in Cumbria…It was too dark to see anything. I was so eager for daylight I almost found it hard to sleep, like a kid waiting for Christmas. I say almost, because, truth be told, I slept like a baby. We’d rented a lovely cottage called “Abbot’s Vue” from the D.E.B’s friend, Richard. 

The DEB’s wonderful rellies/relatives (I absolutely adore them!) Auntie Dorothy and Uncle Colin had offered us to stay with them on Walney Island. And we would have, but we had Lucy, the Princess Collie, along with us and Dorothy and Colin have cats that hate dogs. 

It would have been nice to stay with them, but staying in Backbarrow did put us more inland, and closer to the Lakes. Abbot’s Vue is a lovely cottage, with all the “mod cons” as folks round here would say. Wood burning stove, spacious kitchen, comfy beds with feather-filled pillows and comforters—it felt like sleeping inside a croissant! 

Abbot’s Vue is in a perfect location for exploring the Lakes, with lots of nice restaurants and pubs nearby. Previously, Richard only intended to rent/let his place to friends and family, but I think he is considering broaden his scope. I’d recommend his place to anyone! We loved staying there.

Waking in Cumbria the next morning was magic. I whipped open the bedroom curtains to discover soft grey and pinkish light beaming behind thick white clouds that hung low atop steep, rocky hills. The warm, red brick of Warwickshire had given way to ashen stone and pebble-dash houses with slate roofs the colour of charcoal. 

I hope that I can get away with saying this, I do mean it with utmost love and respect, but to me it felt like being inside that old  "Hovis" bread commerical. Okay, I do realize there are a number of problems with my using the famous Hovis ad as a reference: a.) The ad is meant to be depicting Yorkshire, not Cumbria; but I’m just going to claim American ignorance of the difference between the two and let it go.  And, b.) I also realize that the Hovis ad, though supposedly depicting Yorkshire, was actually filmed in Dorset…the mind boggles…So, given its own complex history, I think I can use this ad as I wish!

I threw open my window, wanting to breathe in beautiful Cumbria all at once. The DEB drew me back down next to him, and whispered in my ear: “I want to make you this happy for the rest of your life.”  (…SIGH…)

After breakfast, we did a big walk up the steep hill around Brow Edge and Low Brow Edge. We drove along the coastal road toward Barrow-in-Furness, stopping at picturesque beauty spots along the way to take pictures, and allow the Princess Puppy to chase seabirds on the rocky beaches. 

As we passed through Morecambe Bay, the DEB remembered a little bayside village called Rampside that he’d visited with his family as a child. 

We drove there, and the old hotel that he and his family had stayed in was still there! I insisted we stop and go in.

The DEB’s mum (Elsie, sister to Auntie Dorothy) was born and raised in Barrow-in-Furness, and was proud of her Northern roots. The DEB’s family always spent their summer holidays in Cumbria and the Lakes. 

Once, on a summer visit, the DEB’s Aunt and Uncle were having work done on their house, so the DEB and his family had to stay elsewhere. They stayed at Clarke’s Hotel. There is a blissful twinkle in the DEB’s eyes as he recalls those bygone family times, and I am elated as he shares them with me. He was just a little lad then, and so excited to be spending a holiday in this swanky seaside hotel. (I can just imagine a little DEB, in his little schoolboy shorts and summer woolen jumper/sweater! Too cute for words!!!!)

I was just as excited to see it now, as he might have been seeing it for the first time all those years ago. And Clarke’s did not disappoint. It, too, played right into my nostalgic, Anglophile fantasy. 

The manager, Mr. Thomas Twigge, a tall, thin, reed of a man, with cute sticky-out ears, greeted us from behind the bar with a big, broad smile. As he pulled us a pint and a half (I’m dieting) of the local ale, I had a look around. 

The Clarke has an old-fashioned charm, and has retained its understated Victorian glamour. It’s all ‘dark wood, roaring fireplace, over stuffed chairs, and a view of the sea’. The feeling is one of warmth, coziness and comfort. 

The bar’s sitting room is like being in your Granny’s parlour – well, that is, if your Granny had been a late Victorian woman of some means, perhaps a former high-society Madame, who’d landed on her feet as the mistress of a wealthy industrialist. 

The Clarke's Hotel is a study in contrasts: elegant, yet humble. Needless to say, I fell in love it. We stayed for lunch (huge portions), and a few more pints. (The diet had already been blown by huge honking portions of hot roast beef sandwiches and chips, so why not?)

After lunch we waddled back to car and headed for Walney Island to see Auntie Dorothy and Uncle Colin. After a cup of tea, Dorothy and Colin showed us a few of the highlights of Barrow-in-Furness, such as Furness Abbey and Biggar Bay Beach. 

On a clear day you can see the Isle of Man. The DEB and I took the Pup to play and watch the sun set on the Irish Sea, while Dorothy cooked us a huge meal for dinner: Steak and Mushroom Pie, with mash (mashed potatoes) and peas (green peas). I LOVE Northern food! Good solid, stick to your bones fare. After all that, all we could do was collapse.

The next day, Friday, we spent the day on Lake Windermere – England's largest lake, and an extra treat for me, Oscar Wilde fan that I am! (One of his plays is Lady Windermere’s Fan, though I don’t think it actually has anything to do with the Lake…)

It was a glorious day, even if it was a bit brisk. The town, Bowness-on-Windermere is a little touristy, but I’m a tourist, so I loved it! This place – and the Lakeland area generally—is Beatrix Potter mad. I love Beatrix Potter, too, so I was in heaven. 

They don’t seem to make as much of a fuss over the fact that this is also “Wordsworth Country”, though. Wordsworth’s house, “Dove Cottage,” is really quite splendid. Goes without saying that the Lakes are a walkers/hikers paradise. There is just too much to see and do in one little visit, so I have demanded that we go back as often as possible. I love that DEB’s family had a tradition of going there every year, at least whilst the DEB and his brother were little boys. It is my goal to resurrect that tradition!

We ambled through Ambleside, saw Wray Castle from a boat on Windermere, and at the end of the day the DEB drove us to Grasmere. 

Grasmere was one of the DEB’s parents’ favorite places. They spent their honeymoon at an old inn (The Wordsworth Hotel) in Grasmere.  (So romantic.) And while there, they fell in love with the works of the Lakeland painter W.H. Heaton Cooper. 

So, we visited the Heaton Cooper Studio, which was still open after 5PM on a late autumn night, surprisingly. Another nostalgic moment for the DEB: after their honeymoon, the DEB’s parents started collecting works by W. H. Heaton Cooper. Sadly, both the DEB’s parents have passed away, god rest them, and the paintings they collected have been passed around, ultimately ending up (equally sadly) in the hands of the DEB’s ex’s brother. Apparently, “The Ex” did not like them, which, of course, is/was her prerogative. But, I have to say: Where’s your sense of romance and family tradition, girl?!?

Here is where a dreamy (in the sense of “head full of dreams”), nostalgic, Anglophile American damsel comes in handy! We LOVE stuff like this! I mean, just think about the scores of little side-of-the-road Antique shops (I use that term lightly…) on American highways and byways offering to sell you “Instant Ancestors” – I’m not the only person who has seen these! 

Basically, they are old, black and white photographs – of strangers. These strangers become your “Invent-a-Story” relatives. I realize I have now given away a huge State Secret here, but there it is. I’m not saying it’s bad thing. If purchasing a photo album full of “Invent-a-relative” pictures makes you happy, and feel better about yourself, more power to you!

The bottom line is that Americans LOVE history. We LOVE tradition. Americans love history and tradition so much, that if we don’t like our own, we will gladly latch on and co-opt someone else’s! 

I also think this goes a long way to explain why WE are the nation that invented the ridiculous classification: “First Annual…” (insert any appropriate phase here, i.e., “Chili Cook Off,” “Pumpkin Festival,” & etc.). This grammatically challenged bit of phrasing is one of the most apt signs of the American love of, nay, need for history and tradition, it says: “We’ve always done this!” So, unlike “the Ex,” I’m genetically programmed to be enamored of such things. Besides, the look on his face as we surveyed the paintings in the studio…who wouldn’t want to support that, have a share in that? 

The rest of our holiday was much, much more of the wonderful same: ambling along footpaths, walking—in my case twirling—on beaches, cozy fires, countless pints, spending time with family, and scenery to die for.

On our last day in Cumbria we went to Coniston Lake and saw the peak called: “Old Man”. The DEB climbed this peak as a boy. It seemed like Everest to him then. Our last stop was Tarn Hows, a mountain lake where the little boy DEB fell into the water from a broken bower. 

He’d been goofing around with his older brother, and fell in fully clothed. His parents were furious. The DEB and I both laughed until we cried at the thought of it, as we stood where it’d happened. Amazing memories.       

Memories of his past that prompted us to have a conversation about our future, and our future (hoped for) children. Of course, I’d want them to cherish their American roots and ancestors, but I want them to have little Northern souls, and magical childhoods like the D.E.B.’s, full of Lakeland walks, Cumbrian food and seaside memories.


Egghead said...

Hello there! I sort of randomly stumbled across your blog (a happy stumble--I've really enjoyed reading through past entries!), and I have a question for you. I myself am planning on moving to England around the end of next summer, and I'm curious how you managed to ship most of your "stuff" to England. The USPS doesn't seem to do international slowboat anymore, and I'm looking for a reasonably inexpensive way to ship wordly belongings over. What did you use? Thanks, and looking forward to more expat ramblings!

An American Girl in the UK said...

Hi Egghead! Welcome aboard! :)
Congrats on making the move. Good to see you've given yourself plenty of planning time. Against much advice, I decided that there were things/stuff in my life that I could not be without. Steer clear of commercial movers firms --they are out to sting you! After much stress I discovered a wonderful freight firm called Contour Logistics. They were FABULOUS! Door-to-door service, they came and packed my huge items (antique bed, etc.) for me, everything arrived safe and sound, well before the time frame over movers suggested. Most places will tell you that you'll have to wait 6-8 months. I had my stuff in about month. No kidding. And the rates were a fraction to what movers wanted. Seriously, the difference between 10K and 4K for the contents of a one bedroom apartment -- lots of furniture, tons of china/crystal (nothing broken BTW) and more books than the British Library.
Check them out: www.contour-usa.com
Cheers and Best Luck! :)

Anonymous said...

Glad that you liked the house and had a good time! I don't know about fish n'chips from Ulverston we'll be going around to Auntie Dorothy and Uncle Colin's - steak & mushroom pie and peas - my favourite! I'll practice The DEB's (The DEB??!!) accent then its just down to how good Auntie Dorothy and Uncle Colin's eyesite is! You must come back to Abbotsvue again and you need to sign the visitor's book.
Best wishes, Richard

An American Girl in the UK said...

D.E.B. = Darling English Boy, of course! :)

Christiana said...

I'm so glad you share my love of the northwest! I think my own D.E.B is getting tired of all the pictures I've taken and every time I've pointed out herds of sheep.

I'm from DC originally and am here (Lancaster) for the next 6 months for my fiance. Its great to read about your experiences - they so closely mirror my own!