Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

A Walk to Skiddaw House

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Far Wescoe: apparently the cottage where poet WH Auden often stayed in the 1930s

A good walk on the lower slopes of Skiddaw this week. After driving up to Cumbria for work, I managed to fit in an afternoon on the fells – first time this year – and actually got some sunshine.

I decided to take a look at Wescoe, a hamlet centred on a large farm. There’s a literary connection because W.H. Auden’s parents had a cottage here and Auden took refuge in it when he got back from the Spanish Civil War in 1937. It was here that he wrote most of his famous poem ‘Spain’, as well as other excellent early poems such as ‘It was Easter as  I walked in the public gardens’.

As far as I can work out, the cottage must have been Far Wescoe – the white one opposite the post box. When I first came here back in the 1980s, looking for the house, I asked around and eventually met an old man who told me, yes, ‘Doctor Auden used to have a cottage here’. He’d never heard of the poet W.H. Auden, but he remembered Auden’s dad, the Birmingham G.P.! Oddly, that made me feel much closer to Auden himself.

From Wescoe I took the lane north-west – partially flooded in places, and I got the predictable bootful of water – which soon becomes a footpath heading due north parallel to the beautiful (and beautifully-named) Glendaratarra Beck, which is down in a deep wooded gorge but gradually comes up to meet the path as you go.

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The lane heading for Skiddaw House (Great Calva in the distance).

I didn’t have a huge amount of time so I simply carried on up to the small bridges over the beck (where someone has just built a new but not intrusive stone building housing, I think, some hydroelectric equipment which I hope isn’t going to interfere with the beck itself) and followed the path up to Skiddaw House.

Skiddaw House is one of the bleakest and most remote houses in the Lakes – a former bothy, now a Youth Hostel (it was closed when I got there so no chance of a cup of tea). It’s a wonderfully grim place, and the larches planted as wind protection have long been reduced to spindly skeletal remnants by the ceaseless prevailing wind.

Skiddaw House is the setting of just about my favourite episode in the whole of Hugh Walpole’s Herries Chronicles, the duel between John and Uhland Herries in The Fortress in which Uhland shoots John and then commits suicide – a horrific  scene but brilliantly written and very suitable for this grim, remote spot.

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Skiddaw House: bleak and lonely but weirdly romantic

 

Given more time, I’d have turned due West and returned via Skiddaw summit, but sadly time was limited and I just returned direct to Wescoe. The consolation was a wonderful view over to the Newlands valley and Causey Pike in front of me as I came down.

I haven’t done a lot of walking this winter owing to persistent minor ailments and family business, but I’m hoping to get up to the Lakes at least once a month henceforth and will try to post about where I go each time. And if you fancy a creative weekend in the Lakes in May 2014, take a look at www.lakelandwritingretreats.co.uk and think about joining Angela Locke and me for a stimulating break!

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Towards Newlands – Causey Pike just right of centre, late afternoon sunlight

Cumbria Blue Badge Guides: A Surprise at the Swinside Inn

I spent Monday and Tuesday this week up in the Lakes for a reason I couldn’t have guessed in a million years.

The Swinside Inn: traditional Newlands pub with great food

I’d had an email, totally unexpected, to say that the Cumbria Blue Badge Guides were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the founding of their Association in the Swinside Inn, at Newlands near Keswick, where the organisation was originally set up. They were going to have a plaque to commemorate the occasion and they wanted me to unveil it!

What's the collective noun for a set of Blue Badgers?

I found this pretty hard to believe because I don’t see myself as the sort of person who goes around unveiling plaques. But it wasn’t a hoax. It turned out that the Guides (and no, they’re not Girl Guides, they’re the accredited tourist guides who take people on all kinds of tours, big and small, around the towns, villages, historic sites and mountains of Cumbria) have been using my Literary Guide to the Lake District as a resource, year in and year out. So they’d decided to invite me to do the business.

A clean slate. Plenty of space for the next 20 years

I met the Guides and their friends and partners, led by Nicky Godfrey-Evans, at the Swinside Inn around 6 pm. After drinks and talk, and a photo session outside the Inn, we got the plaque unveiled. It’s a fine slab of Cumberland slate, engraved with the ‘Blue Badge’ design and details of the date and the Association it commemorates.

I quickly found that the Guides are a remarkable group of people, from all sorts of backgrounds. Their training is rigorous and they’re all enthusiasts for Cumbria (and other parts of the North-West) with their own special interests and expertise. They take on everything from demanding fell walks to coach tours and (as you’d expect in the Lakes) every one is a strong and genial personality. So the bar was buzzing with energy, ideas and laughter.

What you see when you wake up

The Swinside Inn is under new management and George and Judy treated us to a superb meal – absolutely first rate traditional Cumbrian food with a good range of choice. I stayed resolutely mainstream and I couldn’t have done better. The steak-and-ale pie was quite definitely the best I have ever tasted – tender, beautifully cooked and full of flavour; and the sticky toffee pudding (I had it with ice cream) was utterly delicious, and a satisfyingly huge helping as well.

I stayed overnight and was greeted with a fabulous view up the Newlands Valley towards Causey Pike in golden morning sunshine. Fabulous.

Seathwaite Farm, heading for Grains Gill

With the weather so good I wasn’t going to stay in the valley, so I went up to Seathwaite and walked up Grains Gill, then climed Scafell Pike. The air on the summit was icy but the rain and cloud held off and there was the whole of the Lake District, the Solway and the west coast with the Isle of Man on the horizon: everything misty green, gold and purple under a radiant blue sky.

Stockley Bridge, towards Seathwaite

If you’re walking in Newlands, do check out the Swinside Inn. And let’s hope for lots more fresh, sunny days like that as spring turns into summer.

It was a lesirely drive home, not least because some sheep were being moved from field to field at Lodore. They got

Looking back from Grains Gill

away from the dog and spilled all along the road, up side paths and into other people’s fields. One driver (not me) got out to stand and watch. Finally the shepherd came down with his dog. Unabashed, he took one look at the motorist and remarked, pointing at the other side of the road, ‘If ye’d’ve stood theer, ye’d’ve done sum gud.’ Quintessential Cumbrian remark!

Pedestrians made it a leisurely journey home