Sunday, February 22, 2009

Part 5 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

TUESDAY, JAN 20 - Today, we awoke to frost and ice under sunny skies. Amidst the unexpected chill, we packed to head for the Lakes District. I think Sylvia considered driving over the Yorkshire moors, but we could see snow on top and instead took to the motorways.

Much like our US freeways and interstates, the motorways slice firmly through England, whisking us north up the M1 through industrial areas, farmlands and towns, all three crowded far more closely together than I'm used to seeing in the American West. We eventually turned off onto lesser A roads that twisted and turned through pastures, plowed fields and houses. We came abruptly into Huddlesfield, a sprawling industrial city that continues the English tradition of juxtaposing the modern and very old.

The A roads lift us into neighborhoods of Dickens-onian looking brownstone houses and then dump us onto the M60 amidst snowy high moors, towards Manchester. Then down again to rather typical freeway scenery, the least interesting of any drive yet.

When we got into western Lincolnshire on the M6, the countryside again became more rural, with small farms, fat sheep, stone houses, hedgerows, and stands of barren trees. The grass of the pastures was still green despite the winter chill. Finally, somewhere not far westward was the cold Irish Sea, and further, the Isle of Man. The sun dimmed somewhat behind a soft sea haze.

Crossing into Cumbria, we were greeted by the sight of sheep on the low hills, mixed flocks of heavy wool and uncertain lineage. We rolled into the town of Kendal at last, which apparently flourished in the 1400's - 1600's as a textile center. It's a quaint town with narrow, bendy streets crowded closely by little shops.

We walked around the noble Kendall Parish Church, whose origins date to the Domesday Roles, 106-summat. The present magnificent building, with its peaked arches and ornate rose window, dates to the town's heyday in the 1500's-ish. At the Abbot's Hall coffee shop, tucked snuggly next to the Abbot's Hall Art Gallery, we stopped for sweets and a lovely cup of coffee. Though the textile trade is history, Kendall remains a considerable town, bustling and busy on its narrow streets, and thick with handsome old stone buildings.

Out of Kendall, we headed west, and the country is instantly filled with little farms and many small flocks of sheep. Each farm is chequered with little walled pastures, the stone walls clambering determinedly across the landscape, however gentle or steep. At a BP petrol station not far out, a tiny Chrysler/Jeep/Dodge dealership has wedged its glass self incongruously between the station and an old guest house. The country turns rugged as we near the lakes, and there are still more sheep: white with black faces, white with white faces, and even one flock of black sheep with white faces, and a couple that seemed all colors at once.

Windemere town is crammed tightly on its hills and winding streets, the cold, snowy crowns of the fells dimly visible in the distant haze across the lake. The town is quite touristy, boats and outdoorsy pursuits advertise at every turn, whilst the masts of sailboats rock on the grey chop of Windmere itself.

Here Sylvia stopped outside a little information centre to check the map, and I hopped out to buy postcards, and also ended up with a toy dog and a couple toy sheep!

On we went, thick, barren woods at the bottom of the lake through which we followed a narrow, windy road, the steep hillsides dotted with houses, shops, and a couple quaint hotels perched here and there. The place undoubtedly crawls with tourists in the summer, as I noted caravan parks, as well. But for now, it was grey and wintry and cold.

We stopped briefly at Fell Foot parking area for quick snapshots of sheep and a view across the bottom of Windemere. Then we drove on, passing the Lakeside & Haverwaithe Steam Railroad station, a picturesque 1890's building of an unexpectedly golden blond stone.

Then, possibly because it's tradition for our lot, we missed the turnoff to Coniston Water and the 5084 highway, and wound up out on the peninsula at Ulverton, among tidal flat farms and a seaside town. We missed the turn again on the return lap, but reversed course once more on a wee lane, and got it right as the rain came in.

North we drove along Coniston Water and then towards Amblesby, and the countryside became rainy, rugged, dark and wild, the narrow road tightly bound by high stone walls and tall hedges. The terrain is hilly and craggy, the spill of sodden green pastures doted with rather feral-looking grey sheep, and stone walls march and loop across the fields. Here and there, the occasional spirited stream leapt down from craggy stone faces, and each farmhouse wedged between woods and stony hillside bore its name at the front gate. Sylvia stopped on one nameless lane to let me snap some pictures, ere I dove back into the car to escape the returning drizzle.

Darkness settled slowly as we neared Amblesby amidst a steady grey rain. We reached the Swan Inn at Grasmere at nearly dark, and checked in to a quiet inn. It is a lovely place in its serene, country-gentry way, and unlike anything I've seen in American hotels, our room actually had two twin beds, rather than our traditional doubles/queens. The magnificently huge showerhead in the bathroom, however, promised a special treat for me.

In the meantime, however, Sylvia and I relaxed a bit, freshened up, and went downstairs for supper. There was almost no one in the quietly elegant dining room, and we had the full attention of our very proper young waiter. He might have been straight from Central Casting, I thought, being handsome, slender, soft-spoken and oh, so proper. Sylvia warned me about the habit of some posh restaurants to have the waiter place your napkin in your lap, for you. And a good thing she did, else I might have leapt out of my skin when he daintily whisked the white linen to rest across my thights.

Dinner was as pretty to look at as it was tasty to eat. Sylvia had plaice, a sort of white fish I'd never heard of, while I had the lamb, thick with sage and other spices, and served over mashed carrots, a turnip and cooked carrots. I'd feared a meal so pretty that it failed to fill the stomach, but the helpings were ample and I'd love to revisit that lamb right now!

For dessert, we opted to share a special Lakes District treat: sticky toffee pudding. This is a heavy, cake-like pudding soaked in caramelized syrup, and served with a dollop of ice cream. We wondered if the succulent heaviness was due to suet, but I later learned the prime ingredient was dates! Whatever goes in it, it was absolute heaven for the palate. Oddly, the taste and texture reminded me of something I'd eaten in my childhood, but I've yet to recollect what it was.

Then, fed to satiation, we had a nightcap in the bar and chatted with the lady bartender. Finally, we turned in for a good night's sleep.

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