I've been out of the city for a week, up in Cumbria in the south Lakes. Last Friday silly_cleo
and I left London, carrying a whole car's worth of luggage, food, kitchen equipment and hiking kit, at eleven o'clock in the morning. She passed her driving test a couple of months ago; the DVLA are currently assessing my fitness to drive. By different means, we're in the same boat. We agreed that we would tag-team and take it slow on the way up: five hours' driving time, so we'd stop a lot for coffee and do it in seven.
We arrived at our destination ten hours and forty-five minutes later. Late summer Bank Holiday weekends are apparently not the best time to travel. The bright side of this is: a) we are better drivers; b) we are closer friends; c) we can now do literally fucking anything. We drove 273 miles in my car that famously doesn't do third gear. (Or air conditioning. Most of those ten hours were spent in sealed thirty-degree heat.) We went on the North Circular and the leafy suburbs and entire length of the M6 and up numbered gradients on single-track roads in the pitch darkness. We spent two and a half hours under one motorway bridge while Google Maps tried to convince us we could fly. In the last half-hour of the journey we had all the windows open and the night air was sharp with greenery and it was worth it for that; though we did also arrive to dinner and a standing ovation.
The house is the one out of Swallows and Amazons
- it's still owned by the same family, who rent it out for part of the year - and it's beautiful, a rambling eighteenth-century farmhouse that's been iteratively modernised but still has the original beams. It has a particularly lovely kitchen with a local-slate floor and a table that seats thirteen adults if they like each other. This is the second time I've rented the place for a week on behalf of myself and twelve friends, and I'm more and more convinced that this is the best idea I've ever had. As well as being glorious inside, the house has a wooden rope swing, sweet peas in the garden, sheep, chickens, and a view over a glorious sweep of hill country. On the other side the River Ness slops gently to its estuary and at the bottom of the hill is a ruined cottage in a coppice, with some slate walls still standing and the rest grown over by nettles and curved-down trees. A. says it appears as a structure on the 1911 Ordnance Survey but after that disappears from habitation, and a hundred years from now it may have sunk entirely into the moss.
I had given up on not working over the holiday - I have far too much to do at the moment, and in any case the drive up pushed me right over into unpleasant hypomania. But it was much easier than it would have been in London; I burned it off by running, and taking long walks, and I sat outside with cushions and papers and did my manuscript revisions in the open air. I ended up doing four full days' worth, which I'm proud of, and then stopping, which I'm prouder of. I ate and slept when I could. At the start of the week we had the Tesco man arrive with the whole week's work of groceries and during the course of the week I think people baked eight different cakes. And at the end of the week the skies cleared, and you could stand in the garden at midnight and see no artificial lights for miles, and a massive spread of stars. It was dark enough to make out the Milky Way, following the same orientation as the roof of the house, which made me think that where we were standing on a hill near Coniston was in line with the galactic plane.
We came back this evening (after a drive of merely seven hours) and A. and I unloaded everything and went for a quick dinner at the Singaporean place up Holloway Road, because there are some advantages to living in the middle of a city of seven million people. But places uphill where the air smells sharp are better for me. The landscape around Ulverston reminds me of where I grew up - it has the same wild-not-rural character, not manicured and muggy like it is down south - and Whitehaven, along the Cumbrian coast, is the first place my father lived in England. We might not be able to go back next summer, but the year after that. The message in the guestbook was: Baked many cakes walked many steps enjoyed much house. The cottage down the hill was like that when we got here.