Sleeping in the car. Exploring Ambleside. Any other town in disguise. Miserable people in the hills. Walls and rubbish. Dancing soldiers. Grange-Over-Sands, a second first impression.
North of Ambleside
Slept in the car. A cramped but cosy sleep.
We woke up at daybreak, the rain just as heavy, pattering indents on the ground. The night before we parked up in a small gravel clearing nestled off the road and surrounded by forest. The ground was covered in moss, it enveloped tree stumps and grew up the sides of trees like fur, making almost the entire environment a fuzzy, lime green; cut with the browns and greys and black of shadow on wood and rock.
The windows were steamy. I cleared a porthole with my sleeve and saw a flatbed truck parked across from us. Its radio was just loud enough to be heard playing some breakfast show. Soon I fell back into a half-sleep where thoughts and dreams merged. Later, around about noon, when we woke up properly, the flatbed was gone.
We explored the surrounding area, it was our first opportunity to see it in daylight. After an hour or so we headed back to the car and made for Ambleside. A small town full of cars and tourists. They’re kitted out with full hiking gear. Welcome to the quaint, quiet world of the English north, the countryside lost in time. The myth.
Even in valleys of green tones people seem too miserable to smile. The high street might as well be the grey facade of home. The shops are the same corporate chains: Costa, Martin’s, Tesco Extra, Mountain Warehouse. But amongst and alongside those shops are old style traditional tearooms, so I guess it really is the Lake District, despite my reservations to the contrary.
The walls, it’s odd to say, are really a defining characteristic of the entire British north. They run around houses, farm fields, country lanes. If you are in the north you will struggle to find a village that isn’t lined with them. Northern walls are of a very specific style, slate slabs are stacked horizontally until the top where they are lined like fallen dominos, each slanting vertically against the next.
In these walls you find dots of moss, brown discolouration from damp and mould, weeds growing out in tufts and blades of grass stretching through the cracks. They are the classic postcard images; countryside walls around rolling fields, a few sheep wandering, picking at the ground. In reality you see the overflowing bins in front gardens, the discarded chocolate wrapper caught in a sheep’s field, the cracked beer bottle left on a wall. Maybe some of the outer life of the Lake District remains, at least in structure, but its inner life is as hollowed as the rest of our civilisation. Or maybe that’s just Ambleside.
The rain has drenched us to the skin. It creates a halo of spray on car roofs and the road. My great grandmother used to call those tiny explosions of rain drops dancing soldiers. I guess because each rebounded droplet in quick succession looks like a parade ground of soldiers in formation, all throwing their legs into the air, marching. Today the rain was so heavy I saw soldiers dance on the roads, the pavements, outside the cover of quiet shop fronts. They danced on the surface of a pond and far out on the ocean. When they were done they left behind manic footprints in the sand and dirty overflow around the drains.
Grange-over-Sands is on the coast, situated on a hill so that each street is on a different level. The rain collects in shallow streams, runs through the gardens and back alleys of town, swells over tree roots that disrupt the pavement and around pebbles, always running to the sea.
Outside cars pass, throwing up rain water. On the roads, the dips and climbs of hills and fields are faded grey by the downpour. Visibility is down to around twenty metres at best. Heavy clouds hug the tops of mountains and sheep crowd against the walls in their fields, trying to avoid the rain.
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