There’s a stark beauty to Bowness. Here the houses aren’t the warm hues that make other parts of the country picturesque, rather they are shades of grey. The stones here are harder so even though they seem to be haphazardly piled on top of each other, random shapes and patterns, they are straight-edged and sharp cornered. There’s no obvious mortar or fixings, like a dry-stone wall that someone has been at with a sharp chisel. Houses look neat and tidy rather than chocolate box cute. Towns full of these grey buildings snuggle against the sides of water, the Lakes that give this area its name. I haven’t been to the Lake District in years, and I’m pretty sure it’s my first visit with Neil.
We walk alongside the lake, between trees whose leaves are curling brown. Matchstick masts of moored yachts stand unmoving in the windless air. The water is millpond still, moving only when a boat chugs past, tiny waves shushing to the shore under a layer of leaves. The path is muddy and slippery. We turn inland and pull ourselves up the sharp climb to Orrest Head and a view over Windermere, a view that is today truncated by low cloud, the hills flattened, the lake shimmering silver. It’s beauty more subtle than it would be in full sun under a blue sky.
It rains heavily overnight but the wet is blowing away as we begin the walk up Wansfell Pike. A stiff breeze that Wellington would be proud of sends clouds racing across the sky, dark shadows speeding across fields and hills, colours bright one moment, subdued the next. It’s very dramatic, the hillsides russet and gold in their autumn dress, Ambleside a dark shadow in the valley from which the lake stretches. A splash of vivid red glows against the grey buildings and a white-painted barn on the hillside opposite shines bright against the grey-green grass.
The stream is ready to burst, the land soaked through and no room for more water; it runs in every crack, including down the track we follow. We climb almost straight up, the path a series of steps, the views opening behind us with each one. The hills are rounded here, not peaked, although jagged rocks protrude from the grass at the summit. We pause a while, a 360º view, low hills to the south east that I presume to be the Pennines, more rounded peaks to the west and north. I want to venture deeper into this territory but we have only a couple of days. I add it to the mental list I keep: next time.
The M6 north from here feels familiar and I know I must have driven it before, probably in my career days when I travelled a lot. It has to be one of the most beautiful stretches of motorway in the world, right up there with the M62 across Saddleworth Moor. The curved hills are a patchwork of dark gold, red-brown and pale green, darker squares where heather has been burned off to maintain these grouse moors. Cream sheep are dotted around, unconstrained by walls that, lower down, snake across bright green fields to grey farmhouses that blend into the landscape rather than blot it. As we drive north and climb higher the long pale arms of turbines sweep the wind. For me, these do not blot the land either. They are not dark, romantic Dutch windmills, but they are so graceful, and up here more often blend into the grey sky than are silhouetted against a blue one.
A turn off towards the famed elopement village of Gretna Green heralds our arrival into Scotland and a short while later signs point to Lockerbie, a town that I’m sure would rather the world did not know its name. A few km later and urban sprawl appears suddenly. One minute we are on a quiet motorway, so few cars it hardly warrants a single track road with passing places, the next vehicles appear as if from nowhere and multi-laned roads head off in all directions. We swing away from Glasgow, heading east and north before turning west again towards the Trossachs and our home for the next few days.