Thursday, July 28, 2005

Hidden jewels 

It was one of those vaguely planned, make-up-the-details-as-you-go sort of days. The kind of lazy summer day on which Kenneth Grahame might have sent Mole and Ratty pottering up a quiet creek with a picnic hamper, intent on nothing more than communing absent-mindedly with the spirits of summer; a day with broad intent, but no minute-by-minute itinerary, not even so much as a list of things to do and see. After all, when you’re setting out on a circular tour round a lake on mountain bikes, all the planning you need to do seems to be summed up in that simple description; anything more seems superfluous. Just keep turning left, but not so sharply that you end up in the water. It’s like that old return ticket joke – Where are you going? Back here, of course. It wouldn’t be a lazy day exactly, not quite as relaxed as Ratty and Mole’s – after all, we’d be cycling twenty five miles or so - but when spread out over the space of a day, that relaxed mileage gives plenty of time to stop and take in the view, laze in the sun, eat an ice-cream, and explore all the interesting little corners we might come across.

Being camped on the shore of Ullswater, it seemed the obvious thing to do. The first part of the route, from the south end of the lake to half way up the eastern side, is entirely off-road, on rough tracks that have enough variety to offer a gentle sort of excitement without forcing the kind of in-your-face challenge that might upset the laid-back feel to the day. Sometimes open, sometimes wooded, sometimes sandy, sometimes rocky, the track twists and turns, rising to a 600 foot high rocky look-out point giving stunning views over the lake, falling again – rapidly - to the lake’s shore (clearly we chose the right direction in which to undertake our circumnavigation) then setting off on a relatively straight section, parallel to the shore but a little way above it.

Straight it may have been; monotonous it was not. At every turn of the pedals, tempting pockets of interest lay in wait to lure lovers of nature’s artistry away from the path. Way-points such as a tiny sheltered cove, shielded by trees on three sides and ringed by springy close-cropped turf which formed a natural seating shelf at the beach’s edge. The beach itself was a carpet of silver-grey shingle, decorated with sumptuously mossy boulders and artifacts of sun-bleached driftwood, and with the charred remains of a small fire marking the spot where others too had appreciated the charm of this spot.

Imagine the scene those fire-setters inhabited: a fragrant ribbon of smoke curls up from their smouldering fire, twists just out of reach of the overhanging branches’ leafy fingertips and gently disperses in the still evening air. Across the lake to the west the sun is low in the sky but has not yet dropped below the hills that rise up from the opposite shore, and so the cove becomes a floodlit stage with tree trunks for the wings, leafy canopy for proscenium arch, and players… but here the metaphor breaks down, for surely the show is all around; both here in the cove and out over the lake, and those on the beach are both players and audience. So the evening’s entertainment unfolds, gloriously three-dimensional and participatory. Eventually though darkness falls and the show ends; they feed the fire until crackling flames shoot sparks up into branches above, then draw closer to each other…

Do I over-dramatise the scene? Time then to reign in imagination, shoulder daysacks and return to bikes and track.

It was only a quarter of the total distance, but that first section took until lunch time. We hardly saw a soul the whole while; not until we came close to the jetty where the lake steamers have a drop-off point did we encounter more than the occasional walker on the path, but there, contained within a tourist-strolling-distance semi-circle centred on the jetty, the population multiplied tremendously.

We hurried through the throng and made our way to the tarmac road that joins the shore at this point; from here on it would be tarmac all the way. Rounding the top of the lake takes you into tourist territory - definitely no place for Mole and Ratty, but good for ice-creams. Then the road back south again turns slightly inland for a while, then rejoins the lake, running almost-but-not-quite along the shore. A close look at the map reveals a narrow strip of green between road and lake – only a couple of millimeters on the map, 50 meters on the ground; not a lot you might think, but walled and wooded it forms as effective a barrier – at least to respecters of private property notices – as if it were 500 or 5,000 metres wide. So near, but yet so far… As we sped along, we kept an eye open for possible ways through, catching tantalizing glimpses of water through the trees. Then, just as the road ahead turned inland again, we spied a possibility, a gap in the wall with clear water just visible beyond.

The shore was reached by a scramble down a steep earthy bank, following a natural ladder of gnarled tree roots whose fingers reached deep into the soil; judging by their polish, plenty of others knew the secret of this secluded spot, although today we had it to ourselves. Mole and Ratty would have been thoroughly at home here – a burrow amongst the roots in the earth bank, a mooring hidden in the reeds and a boat out on the lake – what more could they ask? And for the young-at-heart, a gently shelving shore shallow enough to allow paddling, should you be so inclined.

Just like the morning’s cove, the miniature scale of the place gave it an instantly friendly, intimate feel – more than two or three people here and it would be crowded. It was a delightful spot and the afternoon perfectly fulfilled the earlier promise of the day. We stayed there for a long time, doing nothing in particular except allowing the spirits of Kenneth Grahame’s timeless characters a few moments reincarnation as we pottered amongst the reeds and branches at the water’s edge. Eventually though visions of supper grew stronger and their lure harder to resist, their potency all the greater for being undiluted by the after effects of a generous lunch time picnic hamper. Reluctantly we left that reminder of an altogether more magical world to return to its afternoon slumbers, and clambered back up to the road - thankfully though, one not frequented by manic toads in motor cars.

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