A trifecta of good travel includes the decisions of food, accommodations and wheels. How to eat, how to sleep, and how to move about from one destination to another is generally the three-point key to a successful and enjoyable vacation. Because my accommodation needs are simply a bed and a toilet, I let L. organize those; because of my love of trains and buses in Europe, I took charge of those. We thought about car rentals and compared prices; ultimately, a rented car split between us would have cost half what trains and buses have cost us, but the cost of heightened awareness and stress navigating the city streets, the hassle and perhaps expense of overnight parking, and the gas price had us choose the worry-free public transportation, from whose windows we could enjoy the scenery, instead of those from a car, from whose we would have needed to defend our bumpers.
Yet trains and busses sure take a long time to traverse the country, and we relinquished the longest day of the year to traveling from Bath to Keswick, a small town in the north of the Lake District. Because the train was triple the price, including transfers, and could only take us as far as Penrith, from where we would have to take a bus anyway, we decided on the National Express bus service from Bath to Keswick, door to door, it seemed, with one transfer in Birmingham, for a reasonable 54 pounds. It would be a long day: departing at 6:45 and arriving at 18:45.
Once we got our emailed tickets, however, we realized the bus would be making many more transfers: from Bath to Bristol, where we would wait for another half hour, and then from Bristol to Birmingham, to wait for 45 minutes; from there to Manchester, another wait, and then finally from there to Keswick. Luckily we had nothing better to do. The bus left Bath on time; it left Bristol on time; but when we arrived in Birmingham, the bus was delayed by at first 15 minutes, then 25 minutes until finally an hour and a half later we were on the bus. Knowing that we would miss our connection to Keswick, which was the last bus of the day, I contacted the help desk person, who told me that once we get to Manchester, the attendants would see to it that we got to Keswick that evening however it took.
So we waited and waited, and finally the 212 rolled into the bay; we boarded and were on our way to Manchester, where an unknown transfer to something was promised us. Leah slept, I wrote, the country passed us by.
Once in Manchester, the bus attendants were exceptionally eager to help us out. We were the only two traveling on to Keswick from Manchester; he told us that he would issue train tickets which would get us as far as Penrith (that sounded familiar, I thought), from where a taxi would be waiting for us, shouting out our names, and which would take us free of charge the 10 km to Keswick. But first we must get on the free shuttle to the train station, which was just down the street. With a ticket voucher in hand, we hauled off across the street, jumped on the momentarily arriving yellow shuttle bus, got off at the next station, found the train station entrance, got in line where tickets were issued to us, and then settled in once again to wait for over an hour for the train to Penrith. We waited in the main waiting area until 5, making some mental, essential factoids for any future travelers going through Manchester train station: one, there are no public trash cans. You may be lucky enough to find a wandering trash man, who pushes a big trash can around on a dolly, to take your trash and such things as eagerly drunken cans of complimentary alcohol-free beer samples; and two, there is a free water bottle fill up station next to the bathrooms on the far end of the station, next to the entrance to Platform 14, the very one which would get us on the 5:26 train to Glasgow via Penrith.
Once we accessed Platform 14, down a long ramp, up some stairs, over platforms 11 and 12 and then down again onto 13 and 14, the immense throng of people was at first worrisome as this surely indicated train delays of some kind. Once we entered the crowd and became one of them, the train personnel shouted at the crowds, telling us to stay back behind the red line – which was a good three feet if not 4, behind the famous yellow line, which is the line most people know not to venture past when waiting for a train, a foot or so from the edge of the platform. Looking up at the running neon sign announcing the trains arriving on Platform 14, I realized that many trains pass through, and every five minutes a warbled loudspeaker announcement for the next train would be made, followed by shouts from the attendants to “stay back behind the red line! Do not cross the red line until the train has come to a complete stop!” – followed by swarms encroaching and moving beyond the red line. The whole experience was reminiscent of leaving Istanbul during the blackout of ‘74 – and it seemed that a mass exodus out of Manchester from a single Platform 14 was in full swing. Luckily, our train was announced soon enough and without delay, we boarded a coach whose seats all had “reserved” on them, but which most people ignored until they were kindly kicked out from. With L.’s assertiveness, we were one of the first to enter and found forward facing reserved seats that no one claimed and which saw us all the way through to Penrith, where we arrived, wonder of all wonders, at 18:45, the same time we would have arrived by bus had there been no mechanical failure delay.
I was hopeful for a waiting, shouting-out-our-names taxi, but L. had her doubts, and our hope burst like a birthday balloon when all three taxis shook their heads to my asking if they were sent by National Express to pick us up. We waited silently with plan Bs running through our heads, thinking maybe the taxi was late, and should be here any minute, or to take a waiting taxi and simply pay, or, there it was, a bus station, finding the right bus to get us to Keswick. As one taxi and then another left, as a new taxi and then another arrived, queried and released with indifference, our joy at a contingency plan unfolded when a bus rounded the corner with our destination’s name on it. We rushed ourselves and our luggage to the bus stop, probably to the dismay of the remaining, waiting taxi who quoted us a 40 pound fare to Keswick, and sliding over 7.50 pounds through to the bus driver, were on our way to Keswick at last.
Half an hour later, we googled directions to the B&B and within 10 minutes arrived, greeted by a young, congenial woman who showed us our en-suite room, took our cheese and butter for refrigeration, and asked what we’d like for breakfast.
“Would you like a full, hot breakfast, with egg, ham, sausage, beans, mushrooms, tomato, toast? Or you can also have cereal, yoghurt, fruit…”
“Oh, full, please.”
“Full sounds wonderful.”
“You’ve been living off scraps, then, have you?” She asked kindly, lightheartedly, and all us us chuckling by what must have been the look of weary travelers, confirmed her inference.
After the very full breakfast of poached egg, oven roasted tomato, scoop of baked beans, scoop of sautéed mushrooms, two thick slices of fried ham, a sausage that was like a bratwurst but with some kind of breaded filling, toast with jam and copious cups of dark, strong coffee, we sat back with full bellies and pondered the remains of the day. L. and I agreed we would take a “morning walk” together, up to Castlerigg, a moderate, 6 km walk to yet another stone circle on a plateau not far from the city. We set off after an hour or so, and started off with a steep beginning, to get us over a hill or two, whose views commanded breaks to pause and wonder; we went though fields where sheep and cows were grazing, through one KG and then another (I found out, finally after reading enough of these trail maps, that these abbreviations mean “kissing gate” which is sort of like a turn style to keep livestock in without unhinging and re-hinging a gate), over rock walls, until soon we were there, at a mini stone henge with un-chiseled rocks, forming a place not only for the lingering, solstice druids but also for modern day hippies who use the occasion to camp, strum guitars, barbecue and drink till sunrise.
On our return to the room, we noticed how many dogs were out with their owners, and these weren’t run of the mill dogs, but full breeds of all kinds, and beloved pets to be sure. Named as one of the dog friendliest cities of England, one can’t help but believe that dogs are not only well cared for but probably receive just as much recognition and reverence as the chalk horses carved on the hills. I enjoyed Keswick probably solely for this reason. Not only did nearly every other person have a tail wagging companion walking gracefully by their side, many were two and three dog owners, usually all of the same breed. The border collie took top place in frequency of sightings, followed by the Welsh collie (ginger and white), all types of retrievers and labs, lots of spaniels including the little King Charles spaniel, corgis, a lot of whippets, one 15 month Bernese (couldn’t help but stop, talk and pet- they waited a year for him to be born and absolutely love his temperament) and a 5 month old German shepherd who was all romp and loves. The dogs, welcome everywhere their owners are (some signs saying that dogs can bring in their owners if they are properly trained), are naturally socialized and so know how to behave in public, never causing a nuisance. I loved being around all of those dogs; the place made me very happy for that reason, but also for the nature that surrounds it, and so still full from breakfast, after our return to the room, I grabbed an apple, refilled water bottle, and headed off to the Round-the-lake-Derwenter 12 km walk.
Probably not the best decision after a 6 k, I nevertheless completed the walk in 4 1/2 hours, which took me along the shoreline, up into hills, forested deciduous areas and fields alike. Families picnicked by its shores, boaters and canoe enthusiasts were out – and the sun, hidden for so long, agreed to come out finally and make the going far more comfortable. The walk was peaceful, reflective and soothing, and despite the Lake District’s tourism industry, if you head to the places that call you, whatever and where ever they are, you will be pleased, believing they were made for you alone.
This proved true for today as well, as we purchased an all-day bus ticket to explore Ambleside, Windermere, a ferry across Windermere Lake to Hill Top and Hawkside, and then return to Keswick. Grasmere would have been on our itinerary, as this was William Wordsworth’s home town, where he lived with his wife, children and sister Dorothy nearby in Dove Cottage, but upon reading the info on the website, we learned that it was closed until October for renovations. Good thing we checked. We did drive by, though, and let our imaginations do the rest. The bus then soon arrived in Ambleside, but because neither of us were called off the bus by anything compelling through the windows, we decided to just stay on till Windermere. These towns are in the center of the Lake District and the most frequented, and maneuvering the not-even-yet-July-and-already-crowded-with-tourists streets called for a bee line to the ferry. 20 minutes later, we found the right pier and purchased the tickets, which included a mini van up to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s village and her home, from where she wrote the Peter Rabbit children stories.
Away from the “maddening crowds,” we melted into the soft countryside once again. Kept intact like most of the villages in the English countryside, but especially in the Lake District, Hill Top is a charming, one main street little town, with pastures, a church, a few stores, farms, stone walls, the sheep, and of course, rabbits. L. went into Potter’s house, which has been kept as is, according to Beatrix’s wishes that it remain so upon her death, and open to the public. I stayed outside and enjoyed the garden and town.
Now familiar with the early bus quitting times, we didn’t stay long, but hopped back on the van to take us to Hawkside, known for the still functioning grammar school where Wordsworth attended from 1779-87. Besides that, there are some ice cream and fudge shops, restaurants, pubs, the typical gift shops, and one bus out of there which by that time we were ready for. We transferred at Ambleside, and an hour or so later arrived back at the B&B, worn out but satisfied, glad to be informed about what the central parts of the District looked like, and called it a night. Almost every day we mention the possibility of finding some live music later that evening, but by that late time neither of us can move a muscle, except to reach for the treat bag.
Before I left the Lake District, I needed to get up on a mountain; I needed to get onto the tundra and spines of the peaks surrounding Keswick and do the Romanticism thing that my favorite poets Keats and Shelley did and from which must have informed their writing. L., who follows the wisdom and guidance of Rick Steves nearly every day, suggested I do the hike to Catsbells, the hike to go on when in Keswick. I heeded her and Steve’s advice, and on the last day in the Lake District, despite a weariness and fatigue amassed from days of hikes and walks, left around 10 am; I told her that I may be back in ten minutes or ten hours, but in either case, I would keep in touch. I backtracked out of town on the same path I came into from the 12 km walk and this time, 2 km later, veered off into the mountains for the Catsbells. I loved the strenuous uphill climb; the path was stoned to prevent erosion, and the low mist and air reminded me of the ascent by foot of one of Scotland’s highest peaks that I climbed one foggy day. Sheep were all around, and stone then turned to gravel, which turned to stubbed grass, and then just pure rugged rocks, as the last of the ascent required use of all four limbs. I had reached the summit, or so I thought; once over it, saw that after a short plateau, another mountain, a foot path carved into its side, veered skyward again. How can its tantalizing force be ignored? What a perfect reason to lose the field trip of noisy school children, who were rewarding their ascent with a break and packed lunches. I headed off to the next summit. Soon, their voice noise receded, and I was left with my own steady breathing, the baying of sheep, and a light wind. Thunderstorms were indicated by the weather channel that day, and although a top of a mountain is not where I usually run to when such a forecast is predicted, the clouds did not yet portend to such violence, and I lay down on top of the world, in the sheer silence of high altitude, in soft, green tundra, and closing my eyes felt the beauty, the power and the glory, amen. Between the mountains and the stones, I found my peace.
Arriving back in Keswick around 5 pm with rubber legs and a steely hunger, I stopped by the grocery store with the few pound coins I had brought with me, having left my wallet at the B&B. I bought some salad materials, and headed back, thinking Leah and I would leave again for supper. Leah had just arrived herself, had just been at the store, and gotten salad materials for us both as well, so we just must have missed each other. We ate grain and pasta salad mixtures, I told her I think live music is in order for later, and then we fell on our beds, not having discussed it further.
June 25, 26
We found a fantastically inexpensive train ticket online from Penrith to York, and with a smooth bus ride to Penrith and smooth train ride to York, arrived at our last apartment, a studio on the river that surrounds the old town of York. Arriving around 3:30, we first have tea and unpack, then found the grocery store for the last four days of in home supplies. We return, have soup and sandwiches, read the many pamphlets and get a feel for a new city and what it has to offer. L. chose a mini tour to the Brontë parsonage, in Haworth, a few hours drive west of here, but I chose to have a rest day, where I can catch up on this writing and make some homemade chicken soup. Today is supposed to be the last day of rain and wet and cold, as we anticipate the sun and heat (that the rest of the world seems to be experiencing) coming tomorrow. I was left to the task of planning for tomorrow, so with an hour or so before she arrives back from the moors, I better get on that.