In Wordsworth’s Footsteps

As I write this post, the excitement in our household is growing. On Tuesday, July 17, four of us (me, wife Deborah, daughter Emily, and her friend Heeyeon) leave for the UK, the primary reason for which is to hike across the country from St. Bees on the West coast to Robin Hood’s Bay on the East coast – the skinny part of the country.

Aside from the fact that this will be a great challenge, and the further fact that the Lake District is probably the prettiest part of England, there is another great attraction for me: this is Wordsworth country!

I look forward to walking in the poet’s footsteps, and I think that is more than mere metaphor. He was an avid walker (one estimate is that he walked 175,000 miles in his lifetime!), both of necessity and also because he enjoyed it, and he would have been on many of the trails we will be on as part of his transportation network. One day’s hike early in the trip offers the option of walking the so-called “Striding Edge”, one of several Lake District features that Wordsworth walked; we will be staying two nights in Grasmere, in order to visit Dove Cottage and St. Oswald’s churchyard where the Wordsworths are buried; near the end of the trip, we will be nearby the North York Moors village of Brompton-by-Sawdon where he married in 1802. All of these places are known to us either through the historical record, by his poetry, or from sister Dorothy’s extensive letters and journals.

Striding Edge – the Lake District

My intention is to keep a regular (if not daily) blog right here related to the walk – depending, of course, on being able to access the internet. We are staying overnight at St. Bees on July 21, beginning the walk the following day, so I will return to this blog then.

Leaving for England

6:30 pm waiting at YVR for our 8:05 Virgin Atlantic flight to Heathrow.

Emily and Heeyeon have been quietly excited since Sunday, once the anniversary party was over. Lots of preparation and packing. We did very well, I think, to get everything into one checked bag per person, and one carry-on backpack. Checked bags ranged in weight from a low of 21 pounds to a high of 34, so we were well within our limits – which should hold us in good stead when we begin the hike and carry our things on our backs.

I am not looking forward to the lengthy flight because I never can sleep, but I will hope for some good movies.

Next post should be from London!


July 18-20

We arrived in pretty good shape on Wednesday at 1:00 pm at Heathrow. The flight was very good, and everybody got a little sleep: Emily and Heeyeon took turns sleeping across empty seats, Steve dozed a bit in the middle of the flight, and Deborah finally fell asleep during our final descent.

A slow cab ride got us almost to our hotel in Southwark – we had to walk the last few metres because none of us could actually see it! Deborah settled in for a nap, and I took the girls out for a bit of a walk. We walked up to the south bankside, walking west towards the London Eye, but we got distracted and walked across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s and around there. Heeyeon was quite amazed by the hustle and bustle and the skyline.

We gathered up Deborah and went for a dinner at the Mad Hatter, then returned and I am not sure we even made it past 8:30.

On Thursday, we made a pretty full day of walking and sightsveeing: British Museum, Parliament, Downing St., horse guards, Covent Garden. We met Andrew for lunch near Covent Garden. Then we took the tube up to Hampstead Heath – it is such a refuge from the city. At 7:00 we made our way to Dave and Mary Illing’s for a drink and snacks. Very pleasant to catch up. Dave drove us back to the hotel.

Friday we focused on just a couple of things: 1) shopping on Oxford street;  and 2) going to see a show. The girls chose Wicked, and it was pretty good. Certainly the production value was very high.

All in all, a good, if short, introduction to London for Heeyeon.

Travel Day – by land

July 21 – Today was almost entirely devoted to trains and automobiles.

Because we were unable to find a “Sherpa” service that would take our larger luggage from St. Bees to Robin Hood Bay, we settled on taking them to Worcester, since we were heading there after the walk. Alan and Lisa generously agreed to store them until our return.

But first we had to pick up the car that Bill had arranged, so we had to get the train to Harlow. Add in a bit of a visit, and it was 1:00 before we struck out to the West. Needless to say, all meals were on the road today.

Short visit with Alan and Lisa while we re-packed into our backpacks, and we were heading North by 5:45.

We pulled in to the Queen’s Hotel in St. Bees right at 10:00 pm, and it was a lovely old place. We had a spacious family room. We all popped down to the pub for a drink, and then turned in. I stayed up until after midnight, searching the web and wracking my brain to figure out how to get the car to Barrow-in-Furness (where Bill said it should be dropped off), which was 50 windy miles away – and no trains or buses on a Sunday!


July 22

First thing today, Deborah and I shared our possible solutions to the “car situation”. Of the four we came up with jointly, hers was the one we settled upon: start the walk, Steve get a taxi back to the car at the end of the day’s hike, bring it to Ennerdale, and return it on Monday when trains and buses running. Easy-peasy.

After a full English breakfast, we packed up and got on our way. Of course, it was about a one-mile walk out of town to the start of the trail on the beach. We got our pebbles, dipped our booted toes in the Irish Sea, and headed up St. Bees Head.

The first part of the walk was very dramatic, with views up and down the coast as well as out to the sea. Spirits were high, but It was overcast, so we could not see the Isle of Man off the coast, for example. The wind was very strong, too, and kept us on our toes.

After a couple of hours, we turned inland. We had heard from several people that one should expect to get lost every day – we were determined not to. The trail went through farmland and at one point we prided ourselves on finding the right way while a pair of young men had strode past us down the wrong path. They passed us later.

At about 2:15, we found ourselves in the town of Cleator, and hungry. We asked a passerby if there was a pub, and he pointed us to the Brook Inn. As we walked that direction, several well-meaning residents called after us to make sure we had not missed the turn to the path. One, Buster by name, became concerned that the Brook might stop serving, so he phoned. Indeed, they stopped serving Sunday dinner at 2:00, but Buster convinced the chef to prepare us something.

When we got there, we got the full Sunday dinner, but with a sort of hot lamb sandwich made of lamb meat and gravy on a toasted baguette. All the trimmings were there, too: roasted potatoes, lots of vegetables. Very filling. Buster saved us!

After that came the most challenging part of the day. Dent Hill not only demanded an uphill run, but it was foggy and windy, so we could not really see where we were. And the descent was almost as demanding. My toes were complaining of the pressure of going downhill very steeply.

As 6:00 o’clock came and went, we realized our hostel accommodations for the night were some 2-4 miles PAST the town of Ennerdale Bridge. A quick team meeting, and we decided to try to find something close in.

We stopped at the first pub in town, the Fox and Hounds. They were booked up, but the staff was very helpful. They arranged a night’s stay for us at Ghyll Farm, and its owner Roger was coming to get us at 8:30. The girls had something to eat, and I arranged a cab ride to St. Bees to pick up the car.

All went smoothly and I was back at the very nicely renovated barn at Ghyll Farm by 9:15.

On this first day, I noticed how fit Emily was, both physically and mentally. She was in good spirits all day, and would walk ahead, wait, hold hands, help Deborah, cheer on Heeyeon – it was wonderful to see.

I also noticed how difficult this trail is. Between the demanding hill country of the Lakes, the large rocks that litter long stretches of the trail, the boggy ground in other parts, and the horrible weather that continues to hammer this region – this will be quite an accomplishment.

Walkus Interruptus

July 23

We got up and had our full English breakfast. The news at breakfast was the weather report: rain, but more disconcerting, high winds of up to 70 mph on the ridges. Added to that, the scuttlebutt was that mile 9-10 was very steep, and because of all the rain, there was a river to ford!

Right after breakfast, I took off for Carlisle to drop off the car. Again, things went pretty smoothly – fill up with gas, get some cash, find the Hertz dealer, and then find the train station – but still, I did not get away until 11:50, due to arrive at Workington at 12:40.On the train ride, I noticed first of all how swollen every stream was. Fields were flooded. It clearly looked like this area had been getting lots of rain.

I also did some people watching. People on the train were “salt of the earth”, and I thought about what made the people of this region so attractive to Wordsworth. He seemed to want to write about the locals, famers and shepherds, and a number of other characters that populated the Cumberland countryside. And, of course because I was on a train, I was reminded of Wordsworth’s campaigns against the train lines coming in the the Lakes. Obviously, those campaigns were lost, and I was grateful today that there was a train from Carlise to Workington!

Our host Roger had generously offered to pick me up because, he said, he had things to do in Workington. He was right there, and we had a plasant ride back to Ghyll Farm.

By the time we got back, it was 1:15. We had a “team” meeting, and despite the willingness of the kids, especially Emily, to start the 14-mile walk even if it was late, we adults pulled the “safety card” and said we would find a way to get driven to our hostel. Well, after getting quotes from one or two cab firms that were as high as £70, Roger ended up driving us – such generosity.

We arrived at Honister Hause ( I have no idea why the affected spelling!) youth hostel about 3:30, left our bags in the mud room, and walked down to Seatoller to look for dinner. It was about two miles on a very wet bridle path. In Seatoller, though, there was nowhere to eat. We asked at an outdoor centre, and a very helpful young man named Simon said we could find dinner at the Riverside in Rosthwaite – and then he gave us a ride on his way home.

At the Riverside, we saw many walkers, including some we had seen on day one, and the two young women who had stayed at Ghyll Farm. They all said we made a wise choice not risking the walk with the girls. After we ate, we ordered a cab back to the hostel. We stayed up for awhile, and then turned in.

Into the Heart of Wordsworth Country

July 24

Today, we got up, had breakfast, and set out for Grasmere. Because we had stayed at the hostel at Honister Pass, we had about two miles to walk to get to the start of the day’s walk. It started on a steep descent (oh, my toes!), then went back towards Rosthwaite.

After walking through some farm areas, we climbed up out of Borrowdale along Stonethwaite Beck, then Greenup Edge which we had to get out of by climbing a rock face, then up to an extremely boggy area where the fog rolled in but we still did not get lost, thanks to Emily and her keen eyesight finding all the cairns marking the way. After that, we walked along Easedale, and finally got out and headed down into Grasmere. A full day of walking, with more up and down on the rocky trails, and the boggy ground. There were some very nice views back down Borrowdale at the beginning of the day, but when the fog rolls in, it feels as if we are being cheated of what people come to the Lakes to see.

The hostel here in Grasmere was quite fancy. We checked in, ordered our evening meals so we would not have to walk another step, got our boots and other wet stuff to the drying room, and showered up.

Dinner was very good. After, I bought some internet time, so everyone wanted to check on something.

Tomorrow is a planned rest day in Grasmere. The main objective, I think, is to get some laundry done!

A Day in Grasmere

July 25

Today was a pleasant planned rest day in Grasmere. Deborah put some laundry on after breakfast, and we waited for it to finish its cycle; meanwhile, Emily and Heeyeon went into town on their own. Within minutes, I got a text message: “Heeyeon found some good socks”.

Deborah and I walked to town, and the first store we could see when we got down the lane was a Jack Wolfskin outdoor store – which, of course, was where Heeyeon got her “good socks”. There were at least three more outdoor stores in Grasmere, which emphasized what an important point it is for walkers and other outdoorsy folks who want to experience the Lakes.

We went into another of the stores to get some walking sticks for Deborah. Her right knee had been getting tender on the walk in from Borrowdale, and she thought the sticks people had been using would help make her more stable on the ruthless up-and-down of the fells. We found a good deal of £12 a pair; we actually ended up buying another pair for the girls to use, one apiece.

Of course, I had to take Emily and Heeyeon to the Wordsworth graves behind St. Oswald’s church. It really is quite an impressive grouping: William and wife Mary, sister Dorothy on one side, favoured daughter Dora (Dorothy) and her husband Edward Quillinan on the other, and then brother John Wordsworth (drowned in shipwreck in 1805), and some of the Wordsworth children.

After a light lunch at a cafe right on the river Rothay, we walked up to Dove Cottage. Deborah and I decided we should take the girls through, even though they expressed no great interest, and both claimed they had never read any Wordsworth. It was one of those things that makes one wonder how we learn, or learn deeply, or whatever: learning seems a recursive activity, and surely one can lay a bit of groundwork by visiting these sites before reading the poetry? When Heeyeon and Emily are required to read, say, “Tintern Abbey”, perhaps they will remember something of their visit to and guided tour of Dove Cottage.

It was good to be reminded of much of the detail in the cottage, including who had visited (not only Coleridge, of course, but Sir Walter Scott, for instance), the number of people who lived in there (William, Mary, Dorothy, the first few children, a servant girl, and the occasional lodger), and so forth. Not to mention the well that William had dug.

Since we had a kitchen available at the hostel, we chose to make our own dinner tonight. Steve made penne rigate with ragu sauce, while drinking a couple of the local Sneck Lifter ales. We added a salad, and everyone filled up on comfort food this night.

A couple of hours of reading, writing journals, television, and it was time for bed.

Grasmere to Patterdale

July 26

After breakfast, we set out of Grasmere headed for our next stop, Patterdale. It was our earliest start yet (8:45), and Deborah and the girls had their walking sticks to try out. I still had not bought detailed Ordnance Survey maps because our guide book, the one by Henry Stedman that everyone seemed to be carrying, was so good between its small maps and its descriptions that we felt we would not get lost, even though everyone warned us that we would.

Well, we almost got lost leaving Grasmere! Luckily, Deborah’s “second set of eyes” noted the proper exit from town, so we headed up the road, across, and into the fells. Of course, it was uphill.

On the long climb up to Tongue Gill, we met an American couple for the first time, and we sort of “leap-frogged” back and forth with them for the rest of the day. I think it was also this day when we met George, a pleasant young man from Sheffield.

As we moved up Grisedale Valley toward Grisedale Tarn, we passed the point known as The Brothers Parting Stone. Somehow, this was the most moving Wordsworth association I have yet come across. Legend has it that this stone is the point at which John and William said goodbye for the last time, as John was to drown in the wreck of the Abergavenny in 1805. Of course, now I want to check the historical record, but also the poems that William wrote after learning of his brother’s death – poems which, as I recall, he did not publish for some year after. Such a remote place – but such a fortunate find.

[Postscript August 19: I looked for the poem, and it is called Elegiac Verses: In Memory of My Brother, John Wordsworth, Commander of the E. I. Company’s Ship, The Earl Of Abergavenny, in which He Perished by Calamitous Shipwreck, Feb. 6th, 1805. (Wordsworth Elegiac Verses)

Wordsworth wrote the poem in 1805, but did not publish it until 1842. At that time, his note to the poem read thus: “Composed near the Mountain track, that leads from Grasmere through Grisdale Hawes, where it descends towards Patterdale.”

Shortly thereafter, in 1843, he told Isabella Fenwick “The point is two or three yards below the outlet of Grisedale Tarn, on a foot-road by which a horse may pass to Patterdale— a ridge of Helvellyn on the left, and the summit of Fairfield on the right.”

Although the entire seven-stanza poem is worth reading, this excerpt from the final stanza seems particularly fitting, having visited the stone:

“—Brother and friend, if verse of mine
Have power to make thy virtues known,
Here let a monumental Stone
Stand—sacred as a Shrine;
And to the few who pass this way,
Traveller or Shepherd, let it say,
Long as these mighty rocks endure,—
Oh do not Thou too fondly brood,
Although deserving of all good,
On any earthly hope, however pure!”]

At the end of the valley was a cabin for local hikers. It was locked – I suppose one had to get a key from the Ullswater Hiking Club or whatever it was.

We plugged on, up and down, into Patterdale. As we neared the village, we became sort of engulfed in a sheep drive. We could hear them first: whistles and barks across the beck as about six men and twice as many dogs moved dozens of sheep down the hill, through a narrow path, across a bridge, onto our path, and then on towards another field down the road. It was quite fun to watch, and the girls got a kick out of it.

We walked through Patterdale to the youth hostel. This one was a bit run-down, especially as compared to Grasmere. Deborah’s knee was bothering her more than ever. We walked to the White Lion (there’s one in every village!) for dinner. Behind us, there was a family, and the young girl was doing impressions of Americans. I stood up in mock horror and said “do I really sound like that?”, which mortified her and we did not hear another peep from her. Not that I was trying to do that; her parents laughed, and I think they knew I was joking. But I reckon my humour is lost on an 8-10-year-old.

After dinner, we all went to the hostel’s lounge. The girls played Jenga, and giggled and laughed, while Deborah and Steve checked Facebook and checked the next day’s hike.

Patterdale to…Troutbeck?!

July 27

Deborah woke to the realization that her knee would not get any better if she attempted this grueling 16-mile leg from Patterdale to Shap with crags and climbs, so she explored bus options to get there via Penrith.

This was also a day that nephew Andrew and his daughter Rebecca were planning to join us. They found on the map a village, Burnbanks, that we would pass through – the tricky bit was to try to estimate when we would be there. So far, everything was taking much longer than we would have thought.

Emily, Heeyeon, and I left at about 9:00 and proceeded across the river and up out of the valley. There were some great views back toward the dale as we climbed up to what were supposed to be our two main climbs of the day: Angletarn Pikes and Kidsty Pike. The girls were doing really well.

Unfortunately, I made a big mistake with my guide book – and for the first time, wished I had a proper map to cross-reference to. Everything looked kind of all right…but after our 1:00 p.m. rendezvous had passed, I began to worry. I tried to phone Andrew, but either I had no service, or perhaps he did not because I got an “out of service” message. So we kept wandering along what looked kind of like the maps in the guide book. And we could see some houses up ahead, so we kept on towards them.

Finally, at about 4:00, Andrew got through to me. “Where are you?” he asked. “I’m not really sure,” I replied. “Do you have your car? I think you may need to rescue us.” He and Rebecca were on bikes, but they said they would cycle back and get their car.

When the girls and I got to the village we could see, I phoned back. We were near Troutbeck, which is near Windermere – totally the opposite direction of Shap, and quite out of the way. Andrew laughed, and said he would program our location into “Tommy” (his TomTom) and get us in an hour or so. We had no way of knowing how much we really walked this day, but I do know for certain that we ended up climbing one difficult peak that we did not have to do, if only we had stayed on course.

The rescue went according to plan, and we drove into Shap together to find Deborah. We went to the Greyhound Inn where we were staying. No sign of her. So Andrew and I had a pint while the girls got re-acquainted. After about an hour, Deborah showed up – she had walked to the other end of town to wait for us! Luckily, Shap is a pretty small town.

We all had great laughs about the day’s adventures, over a good meal at the Greyhound. The young man serving us really stood out for his attentiveness.

We watched a bit of the opening ceremonies for the London Olympics, and then Andrew and Rebecca left for their hotel south of town. They planned to return in the morning to walk a bit with us on our next leg of the journey.