Monday, February 23, 2009

Part 6 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

WEDNESDAY, JAN 21 - The morning was thick and grey with rain, and wet snow clung to the shrouded hills, but I went for a short walk into the tiny village of Grasmere. Rather than go very far into the town proper, I took a turn on a woodland path beside the river. As I passed a gate in a wall of ivy, a gentleman came out in his boots, coat and cap with a tumult of furiously happy spaniels. There might have been three, but they were vigorous as thirty, and he apologized kindly for their racket, ere striding off into the woods with his furry little pack. I would have kept walking, enjoying the exercise pulling at my muscles, but Sylvia waited on me for breakfast, and in fact stood in the inn's doorway watching for my return.

We found the dining room considerably more populated than last night, and they offered a continental breakfast as well as traditional fare. We both had the full English breakfast: fried eggs, sausage, bacon, fried tomato, fried mushroom, toast with jam, and black pudding. All but the black pudding was very nice, the black pudding .... not so much. It had an unpleasantly smoky aftertaste and just made me squeamish. Sylvia didn't even try and likes it not at all.

So there you have it, friends! I did encounter one weird food that I could not eat, in England. ;-)

Then we packed up and paid up, as I'd made an appointment to drop in and visit renowned border collie breeder and trainer, Derek Scrimgeour. Derek and his dog Laddie placed 1st in the English Nationals for 2009, and with his bitch, Fleece, placed 5th, and I met him at a sheepdog training clinic he held in northern California a year and a half ago. A friend of mine recently bought a pup from him and had it shipped to the US, and through her communications with him, they were made aware of my trip and extended a very generous welcome.

Derek had said between 10:30 ad 11:00 in the morning would be a good time to come up, as he had to do this morning was feed sheep. Ah, the best laid plans ...

Off we drove, straight away into rain and mixed snow, and ruggedly wild valleys. A wet dusting of snow frosted the hills, and by Thirlmere, Sylvia stopped and let me snap a few photos, while she stayed snug in the car. I spoke to a pair of older Scotsmen even madder than me, for they were cheerfully heading out for a hike, backpacks and all.

We reached Keswick (pronounced "Kezzick") about 10:30 and *tried* following Derek's careful instructions. However, we somehow *missed* the 15-foot tall War Memorial in the middle of an intersection, which formed a major landmark for us, and we wound up noodling off out of town. There we turned back to a petrol station for directions. The girl at the counter very concisely gave them - and we got none of it, this time wandering off up some hilly neighborhood, whereupon we came down and parked in front of the Twa Dogs Inn. (Which was closed.) We called for help, and Helen, bless her, guided us by phone and stayed on the lane until we were at the lane to their farm. The most interesting part of the directions was the "go about two or two and a half miles until you think you're lost!"

But in reality, from then on, there was no way to get lost, just a narrow, single track that clung for life to a great, STEEP wooded hillside. I now know why the English have Land Rovers. I don't think Derek has one, but he should. My friend Sylvia's poor little car was soon liberally coated in mud made of numerous organic substances, after crawling up the lane towards the farm. It wound and climbed and clung for about two miles, before looping back along an even steeper slope and crossing a swift stream.

There, perched on a green hillside amongst bare trees and angled loops of stone wall stood the old stone house of Lonscale Farm. Where we parked is hard by the barn, the house itself tucked away behind. It's a magnificent, gorgeous setting, tucked close at Blencartha's mighty flanks. Steep, barren hillsides soar up to caps of snow and a clear stream tumbles down the valley. It is visually exhilarating and uplifting to the soul. Derek himself noted that he never takes this place for granted.

Inside, the stone farmhouse's plastered walls were painted a warm, butter yellow, which Helen has decorated with blue-patterned dishes (the type escapes me now) and several of her paintings. It is a thoroughly English and thoroughly cozy old kitchen, with a heavy trestle table, a cast iron stove, and high ceilings - against which several pairs of trousers hung overhead to dry. The house is, Helen guesses from a date on a windowsill, circa 1816.

Sylvia and I were treated to tea and biscuits (cookies, to us Americans) courtesy of Helen, and we settled in for a very nice visit. I was nervous about this visit, having met Derek only on one instance at that sheepdog clinic a year and a half ago. But he and Helen were lovely, warm hosts and we felt quite at home. There was a blond girl and a strapping Scottish boy who apparently work for them, and they wandered in and out like family. Also, there were three little Westie terriers who waddled about the house, belonging to their daughter, Rachel, and one very large, very brazen cat. Derek and Helen took delight in telling how the cat haunted the crew from One Man and His Dog, when they were up to film on the farm a year or two back!

At a pause in the friendly gabbing, Derek looked to me, and almost at once, I asked if we'll see any dogs at the same moment he asks if we should go see dogs. Hee! Not hard to figure who has the Border Collie Disease, when Derek and I donned coats and hats to go out, while Sylvia and Helen very sensibly stayed indoors.

Derek meanwhile seemed quietly delighted to show off some of his dogs. We walked by kennels and into a steel barn while he rattled off the various parentages and relationships of dogs and pups we passed. Then from a corner pen, he released the Crown Prince of the Killiebrae kennels, Laddie. Laddie had no time for me, rocketing out of his kennel like a guided missile the instant Derek opened the door, because Laddie knew there was Work To Do.

In sturdy Laddie, the 2009 English Nationals Champion, I saw a dog that hurled himself into his job with an absolute joy of going. He was just stupendous to watch. He is a big, solid but not at all coarse dog, just a mass of muscle, sinew and power. Derek sent him hurtling up the paddock - his training field sits at about a 45-degree angle - and worked him with whistles this way and that, like guiding a radio controlled fighter jet. Everything Laddie did was pure power - even his stops seem to hum with energy in his stillness, like a muscle car rumbling at a stoplight.

In Fleece - she who was 5th at the English Nationals, and who is aunt to my pup, Nick - I saw a more graceful sort of power, as befits a lady of quality. She is of Derek's bloodlines, but bred by a woman in the US (same as bred my pup, Nick) and he and Helen joked about going to American to buy one of his own dogs. Derek spoke how he initially thought Fleece was too soft, and even contemplated selling her. But then "she just came on," and now you couldn't buy her.

Last to run was Zack, an import from ... either Norway or Netherlands, I forget which! He was a big youngster who flaunted his stuff with skill and boundless youthful exuberance. Amazingly, the sun came out to banish the rain and snow, so I got a few good photos in, as well.

So, Derek and I pottered about in the rain for half an hour or more, and I think he enjoyed his dogs as much as I did. He later commented that we had the Border Collie Disease for sure, if we'd stand out in the rain to watch dogs work! Hee! And for a little while, I completely forgot I was anybody's guest. :-)

Our visit at last at an end, we bid farewell and made our way back down through the potholes and mud to Keswick. There we followed Helen's directions (bless her once again!) to a theater and café down at Derwentwater's shore. But we found it closed, apparently undergoing renovations. I did take a moment to take in Derwentwater, its surface grey and cold under restless dark clouds. The wind off the water was utterly frigid and a few raindrops spattered, prompting me to bid the local Canadian geese a hasty farewell and make my way back to the car.

From there we toodled around the ubiquitous narrow, winding lanes seeking the way to Castlerigg Stone Circle, since I could hardly consider my UK trip complete without at least one stone circle. We found the place almost without knowing we'd found it, very little in the way of "You're Here!" to mark the fact we'd arrived. But we parked in a little turnout at the edge of some farmer's stone wall, and there it stood. An uneven circle of stones rather like a fossilized dragon's teeth jutting from the green gums of the earth. Sylvia walked up with me, despite the blustery cold dampness, because she said one had to come all the way up and enter the circle, before leaving.

Then she retired to the car's warmth and left me to soak in the moody ambiance of the place. It was easy to see why the ancients chose this side, with its stunning 360-degree view of surrounding snowcapped peaks. Heavy-bellied, shifting clouds and pallid beams of sun created an ever-changing vista of light. Mercifully, the spatters of rain stopped, and I put up my umbrella - which might have become a casualty of the slashing gusts - to splash around the sodden hilltop. The damp stillness was broken only gently by the passage of several people out hiking local footpaths: the English do so love their walks, regardless of the weather.

I spent quite a little while up there simply being, breathing, looking, and admiring the stark beauty that is Cumbria. Time is a thin fabric in this country, its layers never all that far from reach. Finally, I figured I'd tempted pneumonia or at least a head cold long enough, and bid the ancient hilltop farewell.

Failing to spot a pub on our way out of Keswick, we went on up the road a couple miles to the wee village of Threlkeld. There, at the Horse & Farrier Inn, we had a very nice and very hearty English lunch. I had a smoked salmon sandwich - open-faced - and Sylvia had the cheese, which was shredded cheese, also open-faced. The *bread* the sandwiches were on was hearty, home made, and HUGE, one sandwich easily big enough for two if not three of us. Needless to say, we could not finish our meals, but we didn't go away hungry, and I had a truly delicious dark ale to go with it.

After that, we were back on the road and heading towards Sheffield once more. I should very much like to see this wild, fey region again, and I'll pray one day I will.

~ * ~



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