We left the car two blocks from the guesthouse, in an open spot behind an art school, after having checked our circumstances against those specified by the parking regulations posted nearby. Though the term “blocks” may give some pause, it bears mentioning that Glasgow’s West End follows a grid pattern, and so the perceived “Americanism” is anything but in this quarter’s case. Our guesthouse occupied two neighboring buildings in a long row of townhouses, trimmed in dark red sandstone.
Yet the townhouses stood five meters back from and three meters above the street. Parallel to the street-level pavement where we walked ran a second pavement above our heads, perched on a terrace, and accessible only by intermittent concrete stairs set into the brick supports. Climbing the stair leading to the guesthouse, so did G. and I find ourselves in the midst of a raised garden stretching perhaps fifty meters to either side, the full length of the townhouses. Only one building’s occupants had seen fit to fence their section in and that at the far end. Otherwise, one could well, as we did, follow the upper pavement in either direction, through gardens, outdoor furniture and bins, before descending to the lower pavement and the street.
It goes without saying that my companion and I found the setup most curious and spent a few minutes wondering what economic and social conditions had given rise to this peculiar urban layout. Whether it owed to health concerns and the desire for light and air or to sociological considerations of the need for space or to social class symbolism, the arrangement would grow on us over our two days in the city as we made ample use of the upper way.
Still, at that time, we were concerned less with the neighborhood’s architectural history and more with getting the keys to our room. Once within, we set to a few immediate tasks. G. took a moment to freshen up after his muddy tumble outside the horsepen, and I found kettle, bag and cup for a late-evening tea. Refreshed, we decided on plans for what remained of the evening: dinner, exploration, pub.
In truth, exploration would be limited that night to the West End, as darkness had long since settled over the city. Despite not knowing Glasgow, the grid layout aided enormously in finding our way about. So we began by setting off down the street towards the car and beyond the art school and on into more lively parts until a shopping complex blocked the way forward, at which point we broke off into a sidestreet.
Our first priority being food, we examined the menus positioned before a few establishments before circling back to one which proposed hearty Scottish and English fare. Inside, the place seemed a mishmash of spaces: at once family restaurant, darkened pub and neon bar. G. led us to one such dark nook where, on worn chairs and scuffed table, we awaited the waitress and, in time, placed our order for pie, potatoes and ale. Slightly unsettled by the interior, we did not linger over our meal but soon found our way back into the streets.
The local roadway’s considerable signage brought us safely back to the M6 at Penrith, where we entered the motorway and raced for Carlyle. As foreseen in G.’s binder, we had managed to leave the park by late afternoon, such that we would arrive at that day’s destination before night fell. All the same, a certain haste, even agitation, found its ways into our words and G.’s driving.
The road to Carlisle was flanked by numerous towns and villages, of which a fair few sounded evocative my ears, as well as my companion’s, when we tried them out: Greystroke, Edenhall, Hutton-in-the-Forest, Hesket (both Low and High). Still, we would not see these Northern English settlements and could only conjecture at what they might hold for the visitor: a decaying guildhall, a Sunday wood, the remnants of small-scale industry and craft. Half an hour swiftly passed and Carlisle with it.
Our agitation grew with Carlisle’s passing in that it signaled England’s end, at least in a political sense. For a bridge soon carried us across the Channel of River Esk, the syntax of which I had difficulty untangling, and there appeared to the west the settlement of Gretna, the sign that G. and I had at last crossed over into Scotland. As the M6 became the A74 and bent northwest, we shared a small cheer.
There followed a crude joke, but there we were, within the bounds of an entity of which we had only ever spoken, often into the wee hours. For my part, it was difficult to put my finger on precisely what had so held my imagination in that place. I could make claim to neither Scottish blood nor tongue, but only a token Scottish friend, what I had seen of the country in film and an appreciation for its whiskymaking tradition. As often proves the cases with tourists, my fascination owed to an idea more than any reality. Still, I consoled myself with the thought that perhaps all tourism sets out from such ideas, constitutively unable to integrate the real.
Dusk would see us arrive at Glasgow’s outskirts, with its industrial stretches and metal circus maximus, of which neither G. nor I could make much sense. That said, we managed to negotiate the evening traffic and turnoffs with little difficulty and arrived before our guesthouse just as the sunset gilded the tops of the West End’s 19th century tenements.
The way back proved faster going, if only because we knew that, whatever awaited us, it was not a maximum security horse-pen. With the downhill slope, we soon picked up enough momentum to devour the distance ahead, almost as if jogging. Blue-lichened outcropping and rust-heathered pasture alike parted before our great strides. To the left, the lake had settled to steely grey in the afternoon cloudcover. The wake and churn of the ferry, on its way back to Pooley Bridge, provided the only disturbance on an otherwise glassy surface.
In what seemed no time at all, we had crossed a stream and followed a cut into the lowlands where, perhaps half a mile on, the track came to a head at an iron-bar gate and sign post, detailing various park restrictions. I half-believed that we could not have made better time had we jogged the rest of the way and said as much to G.. From there we moved to a paved road to either side of which stood Pooley Bridge’s few outlying properties: a stretch peppered with farmsteads, one campsite, as well as several smaller residences.
Familiar smells came to me on the end. Though the origin eluded me for a moment, I was shortly able to catalogue them in accordance with memory and put a name on them: the rich, pungent manure of cattle; the grassy musk of horses; the nose-wrinkling chicken coop, softened by straw and grain. Through a wire fence, half-woven, half-barbed, the residents of the latter came to watch my companion and I pass, at which we shared a few words about our respective experiences of animals and the outdoors.
For myself, the sounds and smells of the surrounding farms were well-known, though I had a harder time accepting their place in the landscape. So inconceivable did it seem to me that, amidst the woods and hills, a person could so settle on a life of livestock and farming to the point that this life drove thoughts of all else out. Similarly situated, I could only picture myself leaving that life behind to wander in the windswept highlands. Part of me recognized that thought for mere fancy, the romantic fabrication of a week’s holiday in parts where people were sparse. Yet another saw a grain of truth in that fancy, though the windswept uplands had taken on a shape rather far from what I had imagined. All the same, the truth was in the form of the thing.
Regardless, I was brought back from my reverie by G., who wished to draw my attention to a find dry-stone wall separating field from road. We approached and commented on the level of craftsmanship and attention visible in the way the stones interlocked in a system of weights and counterweights. I had most often read of such walls as illustrations in philosophical fables, of the way in which a single wall could be dismantled and its stones recombined, such that those formerly at the top now formed the groundwork and those from the groundwork the top. While I related something of this to my travel companion, he noted that it was clear from the mossbanks filling out the cracks that these stones had not moved in some time.
Beyond that association, one particular feature most held my attention: the wall’s spine, a line of half-moon stones, of varying thickness, which ran along the top and capped the structure. I asked G. whether he thought them nature or artifice. To this he replied that he was unsure but was vaguely unsettled by their even appearance, the way in which each neatly fit the next and hemmed in and weighed upon the whole. Therein, I thought to see a new parable of society, but one which I neglected to voice, for worry of its crudeness or pessimism.
At an end of words, we returned to the road and, in short time, regained the village. We watched ourselves pass in the reflection of empty windows, severely curtained, and began to speak of the journey’s next leg. The car awaited our return just where we had left it. Once inside, I pulled the binder towards me and watched for cars as we continued our way ever north.
Though difficult to do full justice to our joy at having found the path, I can say that we swiftly put it to good use by turning south and heading for the nearest crest. As is often the case, the going proved longer than one would think merely by looking at it, but the path of beaten earth and turf carried us along quickly enough and with drier feet.
An occasional sheep emerged from uphill or down to pull at the scruffy grass lining the path. We stopped for a minute to watch it whereon I noted a mark upon the fleece, a strip of royal blue spraypaint across the midback. Looking out farther, I could make out several more, similarly marked, back towards the lower ground. At that point, I turned and asked G. for his take on the matter.
He expressed the reasonable view that the blue strip denoted ownership, likely of the farmers whose fields we had just tramped through. I was inclined to agree with him, though part of me wondered for a moment whether there might not be other traits worth tracking in sheep beyond their property status. Perhaps a farmer might sort sheep on the basis of heredity to trace the farm’s bloodlines or instead on the quality of the wool, be it rougher or finer from one animal to the next. Conceivably, that same person could thereby set out any number of traits from one another: leg-length or personality, origins or social status within the flock. Yet such interpretations found themselves undercut by the uniform blue strip which I saw on each sheep that afternoon.
So, naturally, I turned my attention back to the path before us. Now out of the pastures, G. and I felt the full force of the biting wind. So much stronger was it on the heights than in the cuts that we had to pull jackets tight around ourselves and lean into the wind to advance. Fortunately, the crest lay not far ahead, and we managed to power through the last two hundred yards, climbing at a good clip.
It was only once crested that the realization dawned on us, again as it often does for trekkers, that the crest was anything but. For the rise where where my companion and I now found ourselves hid the hill’s summit from sight below. Certainly, it provided an outlook over the lake and valley, but five hundred yards on, we could see what we took to be the true summit and a mile beyond a hill still higher than ours. Straining my eyes, I could almost imagine that this oneupsmanship continued the length of the lake, each hill in turn surpassing its neighbor.
G. and I shared a look and came to the same, silent conclusion that we would go no farther that day. We sidled over to a boulderpatch where we found a ready seat to catch our breath or smoke or record the view via photo. Still, I could not entirely myself from glancing at the summit longingly, not resigned as of yet to the way we, bound by time, are continually falling short.
Though wary, the horses remained at a distance. So G. and I let the stiffness fall from our limbs and attempted to leave as much room as possible between their activities and our own. Fortunately, the pasture was not a large one. As we neared the far end, we could see that the enclosing fence was the last separating us from the park’s higher reaches and the hiking path seen from the road.
The horse-pasture was not, however, ready to be done with us in that its gate showed one marked difference from those below. Perhaps unsettled by the thought of incomers or outgoers, the farm’s caretakers had strengthened its defenses first by running wire along the top of the stone fence, thus doubling its effective height, and then by wiring the wooden gate shut. Push as we might, the gate did not give an inch. All of which left G. and I in a worrisome position. Backtracking could land us in an awkward situation with the owners; staying would mean a life with the horses. So, the only way seemed forward or, more precisely, up and over the fence.
While I would not say that a lifetime of clambering had prepared me for that moment, my hands and feet performed admirably, as I was able to scale the base and balance myself on the loose-stone pillar before putting a leg over, then the other and hopping gently to the ground the other side of the fence. G. followed my lead and acquitted himself well, until the time came to hop. As he braced himself, the uppermost stone shifted beneath him, such that the short hop became an ungainly crash into the soft ground, one leg crumpling beneath him.
Luckily, I was able to catch his right shoulder and lend support. In the end, he emerged largely unscathed, a twisted ankle at most, which he was able to bear and walk off with the afternoon. At last free of sheep-pens and horse-pastures, our feet had carried us no farther than fifty meters before we found ourselves stranded in boggy terrain and the going difficult. I managed to plant one foot on a clump of grass, which proved firmer than the soil around. Looking more closely, I noted that the ground sported as much moss as it did fescue grass. Little wonder that the land squelched underfoot and sucked at our shoes.
My companion and I tried as best we could to find the driest way to reach the path, again lost to sight. Hopping from clump to clump, we managed to extract ourselves from the hillbog and to join a stream running through a defile. Strangely, the land to either side of the stream was far drier than that around, perhaps due to the drainage which the waterway provided. Even when the going proved wetter, we were able, by stepping from stone to stone, to avoid the worst of it and so spare shoes and feet. At a point perhaps ten minutes upstream, we came at last upon our goal: the path, descending one side of the defile, crossing some flat stones, and climbing back up the other. We had only to follow it.
Yet said adventure was slow in coming. We began with a few photos, crouched, stooped, laid out flat, of the mountain view across the lake before approached the ruined quay for closer examination. One wall had fared better than the other in the passing years; the other had sloughed its stone and laid bare the ironwork frame beneath. A wooden dock extended out from the quay, but neither G. nor I chanced it, as the water had already overtaken a third of its length and seemed ready for more still.
From there, we followed the shore across stone and soil, making the acquaintance of downed trees, exposed roots and what seemed an old well, right by the water, but years of runover having calcified one side. We did not linger before its white growths but continued eastward until we came to an inlet. From dry land, we watched a farmer back a tractor, tank and hose down the muddy bank to the water’s edge, flip the switch on the hose, and some minutes later successfully extract himself, tractor and collected water.
A short distance off, we found a bridge spanning the inlet. On the other side, a raised path of packed earth led through a marshy stretch of ground. The soil’s high water content did not dissuade other earthbound forms of life, for we swiftly noticed a number of lumbering white shapes at work amongst the marsh grasses. Closer inspection revealed them to be sheep, which seemed to have free run of the place.
Two hundred meters on, the path let out into a campground, mostly empty on a weekday in the off season. Our circuit of the lake’s northern end had brought us nearer the low mounts to its eastern side, and a few minutes’ deliberation was enough to convince one another that the afternoon would not be complete until we might look out from their heights.
Yet the going would prove more difficult than we had imagined, if only because we had set out from the lake rather than an established trailhead. The campground led to a road with no path leading up the slope: only closed fences and thick underbrush. So my travel companion and I followed the road back north for a time, leaving the asphalt to avoid the few passing drivers and making a great show of examining the rundown walls to the roadside, long since lost to moss. When we were at last able to find a road leading up, it soon ended before a cluster of bungalows and a repurposed farmhouse.
From the campgrounds, we could make out trekkers on the paths running along the ridgeline above. In the end, pressed for time and uncertain of English trespassing laws, my travel companion and I decided to run the risk and passed over a wire fence into an empty pasture. By keeping low and near the treeline, we could stay out of sight of the farmhouse until we reached the next fence and higher pastures from where, ordinarily, it would be more difficult to spot us due to the land’s rise and swell.
A few minutes’ hurried crouching brought G. and I to a steel gate, which we clambered over with little difficulty. A flock of sheep stood ready to greet us, and we quietly passed through their ranks. At the sheep-pen’s end, a wooden gate barred the way. Having come this far, we opted to let ourselves through, only to find that we had traded sheep for a pair of irate-looking horses.
The approach to the Lake District gave us ample time to observe that the North, or what the motorway signs dubbed “the North”, was not itself the farthest land in that compass heading. In fact, G. and I joked for a time over the derision the Scots surely reserved for the name. At the sight of a sign reading “Lake District National Park”, we promptly returned our attention to the road narrowing and splitting off before.
Upon entering the park, I was immediately struck by the clusters of human habitation, such as at Pooley Bridge, with church, village and nearly bungalows for holidaygoers. It made me think back to Acadia where I had noted that, as the park’s creation postdated its settlement, the human element was naturally more pronounced than in parks belonging to more remote areas. As it was, Pooley Bridge provided many of the creature comforts than the designation “National Park” might lead a person to expect.
Our car prowled the village’s main street once up and once down until I was able to point out a suitable parking spot for G. The motor at a halt, we crawled out of the vehicle and stretched limbs cramped from the morning’s drive. For lack of better ideas, we made our way to the inn nearest the car and set up shop in the inn’s pub to wait for the beginning of the lunch hour.
Pints of Northern ale in hand, my travel companion and I tried to make sense as best we could of the menu, in an attempt to find a dish at once reasonably priced, filling and perhaps not standard pub fare. On two of three counts, we succeeded. Over a wrap with crisps and chili and toast, respectively, we commented on our fellow pubgoers and the tacky appearance and bewildering logic of an upright, electronic pub game, seemingly based on a well-known television program.
The sun stood overhead when we emerged from the inn and fetched bags from the car to explore the environs. Not one hundred meters from the inn, a stone beach and dissolving quay opened onto one of the titular lakes, in this case, Ullswater. To the right stood a longer, metal quay which, by the look of its banners, offered ferry service to Glenridding at the lake’s southern end. Glenridding way, mountains loomed, snow still visible on the heights. We would not have time for those mountains, so G. and I turned our back on the ferry to stalk the shore eastwards and see whether we might not turn up something in the way of adventure.