Towns / Cities Visited: 114
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 9,129
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,053,333
As we awoke and bundled back into the car for our one hundred and eighty second day of adventure, and a long journey northwards, it made me smile to think that we would be spending yet another day walking in the footsteps of a couple of the country’s most famous literary names. Our journey would begin in the tiny town of Near Sawrey in the Lakes District National Park. This minuscule village looks as though it was pulled straight from the pages of a fairy tale and, to be fair, that’s not that far from the truth. You see, this place may be unassuming in its appearance, a mere blip on a map, but here resided one of the most well known children authors of all time; Beatrix Potter. As we arrived, we soon realised that Near Sawry was most certainly not designed for such tourism bring fame, and finding a parking space was therefore a tedious task. Funnily enough we found a place to leave our car in a few parking spots on the property of a local who has taken it upon themselves to make the most of the hustle and bustle of their once quiet town and charges a five pounds to leave your vehicle on their land. It was a little pricey, but with all other options exhausted, and our day being hindered, we gave in.
With the car stowed, and tickets bought from the office off-site, we headed towards our destination; Hilltop Farm. Now for those of you somehow unfamiliar with the her, Beatrix Potter was the author and illustrator of a series of fictional children books focused around small animals who lived and had adventures in and around her house and the town surrounding it. Her most famous work is ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’; a book which has since gone on to be made into a film recently. The 17th century farmhouse she lived in, is under the care of the National Trust to whom she bequeathed it, and they have done a spectacular job of keeping it just as she left it. As such, as you meander up the garden path, you feel as though you have somehow stumbled into the very fictional world she created, and a part of you quite expects Peter to duck out from behind a shrub in his signature blue shirt, followed by his cousin Benjamin Bunny. From over the garden wall you expect Tom Kitten to pounce, and through the white picket gate you can’t help but hope that Jemima Puddle Duck or Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle will come-a-calling.
For someone who was born into an upper class family it is hard not to think that this seems a most subdued and quaint little cottage for her to have spent her life, but she did some amazing work here, not only in regards to her literary endeavours, but she also bought a number of the surrounding farms to preserve the country landscape, and rented them out. On top of this she was respected in the field of mycology for her accurate drawing of fungi, as well as being an avid gardener, and prize winning breeder of Herdwick sheep. Much against the norms of the time, Beatrix did not marry until she was 47, to local solicitor William Heelis, although her parents were disapproving of this as they saw his being but a country solicitor as a low standing for their daughter. Also, despite spending much of her life writing children stories, she did not mother any children of her own.
Now, as you draw nearer to the cottage it becomes blatantly obvious as to why there are time slots to enter the house; the place is rather small. Thus, as we had a little time to spare, we lingered in the small vegetable patch, spying a few cute additions hidden amongst the plants, like a paint palette to remind us of her talent as a painter.
Finally it was our turn to head inside. Now I know I’ve said this about other places, but this is a true time capsule, frozen in time as though Beatrix has just stepped out and will be back any minute; a fire crackles in the stove, gloves rest expectantly on a chair, papers lay on the writing desk, and an embroidery sits incomplete on its stand. Propped up here and there are a few snippets of information, but for the most part you have to fit the pieces of how she lived together by yourself. As we lingered in the sitting room I overheard one of the National Trust employees explaining to a visitor that the house was never connected to electricity until after Beatrix’s death, not because she couldn’t afford it, but simply because she disliked the idea of it, instead happily living in the flickering glow of her fire, and surrounded by the questionable air created by her kerosene lamps. For someone who was so headstrong, and ahead of her time in terms of being an independent woman, she was clearly very conservative when it came to some of the luxuries of modern living.
As fascinating as it all was, looking around the house scarcely took more than fifteen minutes, and given that the tickets were over AU$20 each, we came away feeling like we may not have quite got the bang for our buck that we had hoped. Still, the visit was enchanting in its own way. With Peter Rabbit still on our minds we decided that, given we had a little time up our sleeve, we would continue on to the nearby town of Hawkshead, where sits the Beatrix Potter Gallery; a small museum which holds a number of original copies of the authors works. Before this though, with our stomachs grumbling somewhat, we quickly stopped into the tearooms just down the road for a quick scone and a spot of tea to warm us on this rather dreary day.
Fed and content we soon found ourselves stepping into the gallery. The price of entry here is less, however there is so much more to learn about the lady of the hour within its walls. Along with a plethora of original drawings, letters, and manuscripts, including the original letter to one of her former governesses son’s which holds the first drawing of Peter Rabbit; there is also a special exhibit about Beatrix’s contribution to the feminist movement. There was much about her life that turned from the social norms expected of women. For one, she was self published, as it was nigh on impossible to be published as a woman, and she was turned down from quite a number of publishers. Despite this her book was eventually picked up by the publishing house Frederick Warne & Co, and went on to be a bestseller. On top of this, her twenty three children tales have never been out of print. She was also a savvy business woman when it came to recognising the potential to merchandise her characters, and she designed and created a Peter Rabbit doll, which she immediately had patented; making it the first every patented character, and the oldest licensed character of all time. Outside of her literary contributions she also bought 15 farms around Hilltop, and actively helped to maintain them, and it is in this exhibition that a quote from a former shepherd shows just how forward she was with her belief that women were most certainly not the lesser sex; a quote which has him state that she never once paid him, but instead always passed the money on to his wife. On top of this she was very invested in women’s health and helped to have a district nurse appointed to Hawkshead, who would do rounds on her bicycle and also worked as a midwife, meaning birthing in the district became much safer. Despite all of this, it was surprising learn that she actually wasn’t pro-votes for women, but regardless she was a women who did not shy away from typically ‘male’ roles, and her actions improved the lives of the residents of this area from her lifetime all the way until present day.
Our dapple into the life and times of Beatrix had come to an end, but our adventure for the day most certainly had not, and we were soon back in the car and heading north until we reached the next little town we would be calling into; Grasmere. This would be a brief stop, but we were soon walking though town until we reached St Oswald’s Church. The first church here was founded in 642 by Oswald, King of Northumbria, however the current church dates from the 14th century. This rather run down looking stone building is all you would expect from a parish church. Its interior is equally as subdued, with whitewashed walls, exposed timber beams, and a humbly furnished double nave. It is neither the interior, nor exterior of the building which drew us to this holy place though, but rather a small group of tombstones sitting amongst all the others in the churchyard. You see, here, along with his family, rests the famous poet, William Wordsworth. Despite his fame, the stones which mark the Wordsworth resting places are neither gaudy nor ostentatious, but rather simple and unassuming. Just outside the churchyard there is also a memorial walk made up of small tiles engraved with the names and places of lost loved ones, cemented into a rather wistful path which winds amongst the quiet sanctuary of the lush green surroundings. At its end sits a stone holding a short poem by the man himself. It may not be the most exciting of destinations, but it offered a moment of tranquil thought amidst our hectic schedule.
Now, a visit to Grasmere would not be complete if we did not make a quick stop into the shop of Sarah Nelson’s famed Grasmere gingerbread. The shop itself is tiny, but the line out the door proves that even in a tiny back of the woods town, you can lure the masses if your product is good enough. The shop does not only harbour good press though, and in researching the location the annals of the internet brings to light a dispute the company had with a neighbouring business as to whether Sarah Nelson’s should be able to have a trademark on ‘Grasmere gingerbread’, given that the other business sold its own family recipe version, and was also located in Grasmere. This story has a truly unhappy ending, with the owner of the neighbouring business eventually committing suicide, although whether the legal battle was a factor is unclear. Despite the controversy, we were soon in possession of the sweet treat, and took a moment before driving onwards to try a morsel. ‘How was it?’ you ask. Well, I may be a little bias but I have a wonderful recipe for gingerbread and in my mind I believe it is better as it is more of a gingerbread, however as far as assertively gingery biscuits goes, this one is definitely worth a taste.
We had thoroughly enjoyed our latest stint in England, however it was time to head up and over the border into Scotland, and after a three hour drive through some stunning scenery we found ourself pulling up at the beautiful farmhouse we would be staying at for the night. After the welcoming owner greeted us with a tray of tea, took our breakfast order for the following morning, and recommended a nearby pub for dinner, we headed back out to fill our stomachs; after all, our day’s activities weren’t at an end just yet. The aforementioned pub provided a passable and surprisingly cheap meal, and bestowed upon us with our first mouthful of haggis, which, let it be said, is nowhere near as horrendous as people make it sound; it basically tastes similar to black pudding but with the addition of oats. Seriously, just like any other kind of sausage, just don’t think too hard about which bits of the animal are in it and you’ll be fine.
Dinner done, and light fading from the sky, we began our rather questionable journey to the nights entertainment; the Dark Sky Observatory. The instructions on how to get there provided by them, I kid you not, read like if you had asked for directions from a slightly inebriated wayward farmer; think ‘cross the bridge, left, past the big tree, left again, through the gate, right at the fork’. The further we went, the more potholed and treacherous the roads seemed to grow, and they aren’t kidding about the ‘Dark Sky’ bit; we were basically driving blind outside of the light radius of the headlights. Eventually we made it to the top of the crest which houses the observatory, and with a sigh of relief we hopped out.
I’m sure by now you have taken the liberty of assuming we were here to do some stargazing, but as we looked up at the night sky it was hard to ignore the fact that as far as the eye could see it was nothing but…clouds, thick dark looming clouds. Not a star in sight. Undeterred we headed into the warmth of the observatory. Before the tour, we and the other visitors who had managed to locate this place were allowed to roam around a small display area they have which houses a few cool interactive demonstrations of how light is refracted and how electricity works. Around the walls are a number of glass cases holding bits and pieces, from chunks of meteors, to a few examples of almost fluorescent green, and only slightly radioactive, uranium glass crockery.
Eventually the time had come, and we were taken into the planetarium to be given a brief introduction to the observatory. The Dark Sky observatory is located within the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park. Now in a modern world filled with light pollution, it is hard to find a spot undisturbed by such things, and this little slice of the world offers just that, a place where there is an opportunity to study the heavens without the glow of street lights and cities masking their beauty. The presentation explained the damage light pollution does, especially when it comes to upsetting the ecosystem and negatively impacting nocturnal animals; and they explain how they are working to encourage the government to invest in special street lamps that channel light downwards only to where it is needed, instead of in all directions.
By now it was time to head up to the roof, and before we ducked in to see the high tech telescopes that call this place home, it was incredible to look out over the national park and barely see a single light, save for the small glint of a small town in the distance. Just as it always unsettles me to lay in the darkness in both of my parent’s country properties at night, when I am so accustomed to the ambient glow from outside in my inner city apartment, there was something mildly terrifying about the unpierced darkness before us. Our guide then drew our attention to the dim light emanating from beyond the mountain some distance away, and he explained that that was the light pollution given off by Glasgow. You never really understand the impact of it until you see it from this perspective.
Now it was time to see the telescopes, and although the clouds were still thickly pasted across the heavens, our guide opened the roof and gave it a shot to see if their powerful toy could peer through the cloud cover. Alas, despite this computerised bad boy having an internal mirror about half a metre wide in which to catch and reflect the light, we were unable to catch a glimpse of anything. Regardless of the disappointment, it was wonderfully educational to hear our guide explain how they are making bigger and bigger telescopes, and putting them in the few dark spots of the civilised world, including in Australia, in order to get a better view and understanding of the universe around us. The bigger the mirror, the further and more clearly we can see, and as that technology is put into place, who knows how much more we can learn about what lays beyond.
After seeing the other smaller telescope, and listening to the guide explain how to go about amateur stargazing, we were led back to the planetarium for their normal presentation in the case of bad weather, which, lets be honest, in Scotland is most probably more nights than they’d prefer. Laying back in our seats and looking up at the underside of the dome, we were delighted to find a projection of what tonight’s sky looks like beyond the clouds. Through the medium of time lapse video, we were shown a whole years cycle of the stellar movement across the sky. We were also shown a plethora of constellations, and told about the fascinating history behind their names; even when you really have to squint and use the entirety of your imagination to figure out how our ancient Egyptian and Greek ancestors possibly saw the figures they named them after in the random squiggle of connect the dots that make up most of them. Take Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Great Bear and the Little Bear, since when do bears have tails that long, I mean at least if they’d gone with mouse it would have made a little more sense.
Far too soon the presentation had flown through the exploration of the moon, and the lights were being turned back on. Our time of drifting through the cosmos had come to an end, and although we had learnt a lot, it was sad to leave having not done any first hand observing at this observatory. Perhaps we were spoilt by the time we went stargazing in Queenstown, New Zealand, and peered down the telescope to come face to face with Saturn and the sunlight glinting off of its rings. Regardless, it was with happiness in our hearts that we navigated the treacherous track out of Galloway Forest Park and back to our warm beds.
As I lay in the relative inky black of our rural accommodation I thought about the constellations hovering just beyond the clouds. Those same stars have shone down over all of human history, and the light which reaches us tonight left some of those stars long before life on this planet even existed. In each of those constellations its entirely possible that the majority of those stars are just as dead as the people who first named them, and yet, just like our ancestors, their light still reaches us here and now. Looking up into the night sky may be as close to looking back in time as we can get, and yet in doing so we also, undeniably, look towards our future. With every year which comes and goes, we draw nearer a time when the far reaches of our own solar system no longer seem so far; when the distance of a light year seems all the shorter. Just as we used to look up at the Moon and wonder if we would ever get there, today’s wondering will eventually become a story for future generations to look back on and laugh at the fact that such things were ever though impossible. Perhaps one day it will not be just lifeless satellites that we fling past Pluto and off into the great beyond; perhaps one day we will meet our neighbours across the Milky Way in person. I do not believe that we are alone in this universe, for where there is light there can be life, and maybe, just maybe, there is another, on a planet not too dissimilar to our own, who is looking up at the stars tonight, spotting our sun as a glimmer amongst millions of others, and wondering just as we wonder, whether we even exist at all; then again, maybe its cloudy there too.