So here I am in a small room in the middle of a very dark forest near a very large lake. The room is a cross between a log cabin and a student room. The last log cabin I stayed in was in eastern Hungary a few years ago. I remember it well. In January there is nowhere colder than an eastern European log cabin. It was virtually Siberian. There were two separate rooms in the same building. The heating was controlled by a single thermostat in the other room. Just my luck, that the other room was occupied by a cold-blooded reptile. I kept my socks on all night.
This cabin is probably made of slate – good, old-fashioned Lake District slate. We can confirm that in the morning when it is light enough to see anything. Eastern Europe in winter may have it for cold, but there is nowhere darker than the Lake District at night. I remember many years ago setting off for an evening run near Braithwaite, only to realise I literally could not see my own feet (and I use the term literally, literally). Very unnerving to try to run when you can’t see your feet.
Tonight I was lucky enough to remember the path back to my log/slate cabin from the main house. I walked carefully, half shuffling so that I wouldn’t trip over anything or stand on an imaginary woodland animal. As, I walked over there earlier for a beer, I had the presence of mind to realise that I needed to stay sober if I had any chance of retracing my steps.
Fortunately I also had the presence of mind earlier today to pack a bottle of wine in my suitcase. I’m not sure either wine or a suitcase are de rigour for an establishment clearly designed for walkers. Which it is. There is a special wardrobe near the cabin door, with a notice saying “please leave boots and outdoor clothing here”. I left mine in the car, I hope that is okay.
Anyway, I challenge anyone to challenge my walking prowess. This is the land where I hiked 50 miles for my Gold Duke of Edinburgh award as a teenager, including, yes, a night in a solitary log cabin in Ennerdale forest. And then a couple of years ago, I climbed 24 lake District peaks in 24 hours, give or take an hour or so. On that occasion it was too foggy to see anything from Scafell or from Great Gable. If the Lake District dark doesn’t get you the fog will. I’m not sure which is more oppressive or claustrophobic. But when we have clarity and light – and you are at the top of a Cumbrian mountain – there is no more beautiful place on earth.
Life is about connections. Log cabins in Hungary connect with log cabins in Windermere. The Lake District has innumerable connections for me, beyond the aforementioned hikes. The cells in my blood which are not Lancastrian are extracted from here. My grandfather was born, famously, “at the foot of Skiddaw” near Derwentwater. Only last year we stayed in the house in which his father was born and walked round the house in which his father’s father was born. There is a family grave nearby in Keswick. Other ancestors came from Ullswater, Cockermouth and Workington. My mother’s cousin still lives in an old cottage on the banks of Buttermere.
Unfortunately I was not born here – I was born in Oldham, Lancashire. More precisely I am from the adjacent town of Chadderton.
As I supped my pint of Tetley’s in the main house this evening, feeeling very much at home, I asked the northern barman whether he was from the Lake District. I was looking for a connection. No, he was from Oldham, well, to me more precise, Chadderton. How small exactly is the world? How many micro-connections are there?
I am lying on my bed in my log cabin typing this. I mentioned that I was also like a student room. That’s because I was in a real student’s room only four hours ago, having driven up to Lancaster to re-install my son at university. His new room is identical to the room he had last year, with just a different coloured carpet and a different stain on the notice-board. The shower curtain is shorter too, and the curtains a slightly different colour. It was a good game of “spot the difference”.
There are not as many differences in life as we sometimes think there are. Fog is like night time. Log cabins exist all over the world. As, seemingly, do people from Chadderton.
In some strange way, the Lake District seems to be where familiar things and feelings coalesce for me. Echoes, memories and history encircle me in these familiar mountains, roads and lakes. I hope to re-acquaint myself with a few of them this weekend – re-tread some remembered paths. I will be doing this with a old friend from my university days. I am sure we will relive another connection or two from that part of our shared existence. Student rooms were much the same even then.
We are increasingly encouraged to embrace change, seek out new experiences, look for the new and the innovative. 500 things to do before we die. It’s exhausting. What we need are our old connections. We need history and familiar place. We need family and continuity – grandparents, to parents to sons and daughters. It was a wrench to leave my son today. And so it should be. Family connections are the strongest of all.
We all need our lakes and our mountains and our well-trodden paths. It just so happens that, for me, many of them are here.