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Gone to the Lake District

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Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.


One of the Lake District’s most famous residents, poet William Wordsworth, penned these lines over two hundred years ago, cajoling a friend out from his books and work and into the outdoors. I had never read that poem until I ended up in one of England’s most sumptuous natural settings and realized the same thing as I sat hunched over my computer, trying to finish up some seemingly pressing matter, so that I could get out on my bike, and into the light.

The Lake District is situated in the northwestern part of England, just an hour south of the lonely Scottish frontier and twenty miles east of the Irish Sea. If you go just a little bit further once you’ve reached the coast, the Isle of Man will be the next landfall, and Northern Ireland after that. It’s a region in England that demands Wordsworth’s sentiment—get outside, get out now … because you never know when it will start raining again. It’s a place that calls, sings, whispers, even shouts in your ear to leave your work behind and come spend a few hours in its glorious hills. It’s the perfect contour map come to life with stark mountains, blue lakes, ancient stone villages, and the ocean only a few ridges distant. It seems directly from an outdoor lover’s dream, and it’s exactly what the area has become. It’s almost otherworldly in its perfection—at least it was in our November visit.

The problem with the Lake District is that it is perfect. It’s so perfect, that a summer day in the area will likely not conjure up images of idyllic, quiet, flower-laden fields with majestic mountain backgrounds. It will probably be characterized by gigantic tour buses, hikers as far as the eye can see, and cars buzzing in every direction conceivable, parading down the lanes we so happily called our own on that gloomy November day.

The Lake District’s popularity isn’t a new thing. It has been one of England’s most popular tourist destinations for centuries. It was home to some of the country’s greatest poets, and the greatness of its bards was reflected in the area’s uniqueness—it harbors all of the land over 3,000 feet above sea level in England, including England’s tallest peak, Scafell Pike. The majesty isn’t just skyward though; the lakes are the deepest and longest in England. It’s a land of geographic extremes, and the weather stays the course as well. The Lake District is home to England’s wettest inhabited place, Seathwaite. The tiny village’s bragging rights include 130 inches of rain per year, which is decidedly less than the nearby uninhabited area of Smith Tarn, which rakes in a jaw-dropping 200 inches of rain annually. It’s not all reminiscent of a rain forest though; the weather patterns are affected greatly by the mountains, so there’s a lot of variation in a small area. In short, if you ride your bike for a day, you’re probably going to run into precipitation at some point along the way, but you’re just as likely to be bathed in the amiable glow of the sun reemerging from a rain.

The Lake District weather demands action. If the sun is shining, the proper words from Wordsworth are: “UP! up! my Friend and quit your books,” or in the modern translation, quit your computer, because there’s so much to see and likely so little time to see it before a new weather front blows in and changes the landscape.  That’s day-one learning in England—don’t pass up a moment in the sun.

I foolishly passed up a sunny morning with work, thinking that morning sun meant a sunny noon, but alas, wet roads were our friends as we headed out of the quaint jumping off point of Keswick. The busy roads in and around town were only a turn away from almost complete isolation. Where moments before cars and businesses were our riding’s accompaniment, our change of direction ushered in pristine fields, continuous, jagged walls and a collection of sheep as the only witnesses to our slow progress.

They don’t call lakes “lakes” in the Lake District. Of the nearly one-hundred bodies of water in the area, only one contains the word lake in its name: Bassenthwaite Lake. Everything else is a mere, water, reservoir, or tarn. So it wasn’t too out of the ordinary to be told by a friendly woman gardening in her yard that we were enjoying a jaunt along the shores of Derwent Water. Another turn took us into a valley that gave the feeling that we were the only people left in the world. There were no signs of life—the endless walls had ceased their dutiful, dependable road bordering, even the sheep had left for more hospitable fields. Keep in mind, this is England after all, there are millions of people crammed into a tiny little space, so to get that feeling of loneliness—it really stands out.

It was beautiful in such a way that I wish I haven’t said beautiful before this point in the article. Our polite whispers—we didn’t want to disturb perfection too much—were all that defied absolute silence. It wasn’t long before we stopped talking altogether and absorbed the scene, or that could have had something to do with the double-digit grades, but it sounds better the first way. It was one of those moments you know that you’ll want to remember and go back to in years to come. It begged to be remembered, and we obliged … and dripped sweat.

Our moments of peace as two small travelers through nature were broken up by a piece of cruel road engineering. The final 500 meters to Newlands Pass were constructed at a ruthless, unkind angle. The previous inner smile was replaced by a grimace, but only for a couple minutes, because the pass was a return to perfection. The descent and its 25% free fall in places was thrilling, smile inducing, and wonderful. I love wind-induced tears on a descent. They feel good. The red and green mountains passed by faster than I wanted them to, and as I found myself trying to hold on to that one scene, you know the one, about a kilometer back? Oh, that was perfect, but what about that one just after the right hand bend? Oh yeah! While still writing my mind’s flash cards, we arrived into Buttermere and civilization. It wasn’t much, but it was almost jarring, nevertheless, it was pleasant. Everything was pleasant after the Newlands Valley. We were happy adventurers drunk from our visit to perfection.

The rest of the ride home continued in much the same fashion. We got another dose of water, this time in the form of Crummock Water, as well as still another dose of water in the guise of a passing shower, and then our second and final climb of the day, up to Whinlatter Pass. We managed to avoid the main pass road for most of the climb and were treated to yet another quiet road. This time, the grade didn’t slow us so much as the gates between fields that provided the slowing. I smile at the thought of opening a gate on a small, mountainside road. It’s not even close to a nuisance.

It’s a place that you know you’ll want to remember, and it’s a place you’ll find yourself doing just that in the not-so-distant future. Sometimes, while I drive along toward some new place or head home from some trip, or when just lying in bed, plotting the next adventure, I find myself remembering that one turn, that glorious expanse, that solitary wall in the midst of green waves of fields. I know there are a lot of places still left to see, but I know that the Lake District is one place that we’ll return to. Again, I realize that I’m not the first to feel like this. Wordsworth beat me to it a couple hundred years ago, so now I’m just paraphrasing, just a quiet echo of his poetry.

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.

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