Sunday, June 04, 2006

Postcard from the Lake District (2)

Wednesday, 24th May 2006

After heavy rain overnight, the day started by looking very wet and grey. However, owing to the recent acquisition of a new electronic gadget, I am now in a position to gaze into the future and matters were definitely going to improve by lunchtime.

One of the great facets of our cottage in the Yorkshire Dales is that we have shunned modern technology, in so far as we do not have a telephone (well, no land line anyway) and no television. The downside of such an arrangement has been the inability to access the Internet. A little magic box called a Blackberry has changed all that. The Internet can be accessed by wireless means and thus, courtesy of the BBC, I can tell that the weather is going to be fine this afternoon. Cue journey to the Lake District.

The object of our desires today was Lake Coniston. This particular lake, of course, is famous for Donald Campbell's ill-fated attempt to break the water speed record in 1967. The village of Coniston is also famous for the Ruskin Museum and, further along the lake, on its eastern shore, is Brantwood, the former home of the 19th century writer and art critic, John Ruskin. His grave can be found in the churchyard at Coniston.

However, all that was to be saved for another day. Today, we were to undertake a delightful walk along the western shore of the lake and then up through the woodland and over the fell above the lake.

One of the great delights of Lake Coniston is that, compared to Lake Windermere, there is almost a total absence of tourism. No hoards of people in over-filled car parks, no ice cream vans, no packed marinas with yachts and motor launches and very few buildings amidst the lakeside woodlands. Indeed, we saw one small boat throughout the entire walk (no sign of the National Trust's Venetian Gondola today) and met no one else save for a horse rider up on the fell. We were in a state of delightful solitude.

The path alongside the lake passes in and out of woodland, where, many years ago, iron ore used to be brought by barge to be smelted using charcoal produced from the coppiced wood. At this time of year, the gorse bushes are coated in bright yellow flowers and the heady aroma of the white May blossom intermittently wafts past. Beside the path, the fresh, light green tips of young ferns are starting to push through the soil, their small curly heads gradually unfolding to reveal delicate fern leaves.

The lake itself was smooth and blue, with just a slight ripple occasionally breaking its surface, causing a sparkling effect in the spring sunshine. Multiple streams tumbled off the fell side, down through the woodland and across our path before ending their journey at the lake's edge; the water lapping alongside the pebbly beaches being crystal clear. It was a scene possibly unchanged for generations and certainly one that Ruskin would recognise.

Leaving the lake after about one and a half miles, we entered Torver Common Wood and began ascending to the fell. The wood is mainly deciduous with just the occasional conifer. As a result, it is alive with bird life, chaffinches being the most vocally obvious today. That said, the call of a male cuckoo (or perhaps more than one) was with us for most of the journey, the distinctive sound always well into the distance. Why that should be so, I do not know. They are the most frustrating of birds, as, despite being an avid birdwatcher for almost thirty years, I am yet to knowingly see a cuckoo in the wild.

Breaking out of woodland into pastureland to the east of the village of Torver rewarded us with the sight of a low flying buzzard within one hundred yards of where we stood.

The pastureland had other delights of a botanic nature. Alongside the edge of the woodland, primroses were still in flower (their botanic name, primula, being derived from two Latin words meaning 'first rose'). Bluebells were also in abundance, whilst in the grass meadows, buttercups and daisies were omnipresent. Where the land was boggier, swathes of Common Cottongrass sported their white, cotton wool flowers. Really of the sedge family and not a grass at all, the flowers of these plants used to be utilised in making candlewicks and stuffing pillows.

Briefly passing through Torver village, we entered Torver Common and continued up past the Torver Tarn. Torver Tarn is a small reservoir, now redundant, as so well supplied is this area with water. (My apologies to readers residing in the drought-hit southeastern areas of England for rubbing that one in!)

The final leg of the journey passed down through a beautiful tree lined valley called Mere Gill, at the base of which the Torver Beck, swelled by the recent rain, tumbles noisily on its way. Here, horse chestnut trees are in flower; a tree I take particular delight in at this time of year, as the flowers look like large conical candles, giving the trees a decorated 'Christmas tree' appearance.

Just before reaching the road, as if taunting me, a cuckoo calls from away across the opposite side of the Gill. One day I will catch sight of one!

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