Near the end of term, a classmate asked me, “When are you going home?” Dazed after a marathon day of our 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Plays and Poems class, I said, “Now.” Clearly she meant to the States, not to my flat, so I told her, “some time in the fall, once my dissertation is done.”
“Oh, good,” she said, “then you can come to my wedding. Well, really not my wedding; we’ll be married already, but to the barn dance to celebrate. I live in the Lake District, so it’d be a great chance for you to see that region.” Done. I booked a train to Oxenholme and a room at the Watermill Inn and Brewery in Ings for two months hence.
On the way up, I was meant to connect with her friend from Sydney, but when I asked the most likely of the other travelers on the platform if it was she, I discovered instead that I’d met a Shakespearean actor from Seattle scheduled to play Richard III in the fall in her all-female company. We had a lot to talk about on the first leg of the journey to Birmingham Moor Street Station where I’d need to change trains. She was on a pilgrimage to research Richard III’s history before returning for rehearsals.
I did eventually meet up in Birmingham with the Australian friend, another Shakespearean actress on a pilgrimage of sorts of her own, with tickets to see several plays in Stratford and London. She’d met our friend at a summer course on Shakespeare at Cambridge and the wedding celebration happily coincided with her theatre-hopping odyssey.
The bride (not blushing so much; she’s older than I) and her mother met us at the station and took the very scenic route home to let us savor the too-beautiful-to-be-real vistas, including one of the lakes of the eponymous region. “Do you pinch yourself every time you take this drive?” I asked her, oohing and aahing myself at every turn. “Yes,” she said. “It never gets old.” This area, from whence hail Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, is as green and sheep-dotted as the West Midlands, but infinitely more undulating. Its dry stone walls, dividing up the bye-fields, date back to the 10th and 11th centuries, remind me of those in my home county of Connecticut, except that these stones are flat.
I hadn’t seen, much less sailed upon (as I would do the next day) a lake in ages, and the expanse of fresh water brought back both strong joy and sadness for me. My father, gone 16 years, from whom I inherited all my anxious, Type A tendencies, found virtually his only peace in, around, or on the Upper Greenwood and Highland Lakes in New Jersey. We spent summers there as youngsters and later brought our own children and watched him beam as he taught them to fish and paddle. Mountains, not gentle rolling Costwold or New Jersey hills, ringed this lake.
We climbed in her car for what seemed like a very long time on a one-car wide windy road up to her stucco home, currently undergoing extensive renovation as she and her new husband combine households. It nestles into a hillside with sheep, chickens, and rabbits wandering together in the back garden. The party, she explained, would happen in the large adjoining stone working barn, being cleared, as we spoke, of hay and manure for the occasion. This was no rent-a-barn decorated and festooned within an inch of its life. We’re talking barn, with a capital “B.”
I looked forward to the festivities and settled in after dinner (of venison stew; I had a baked potato, coleslaw and some cheese) at her house into the room over the pub. Now, I was thinking of Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral when I booked it. But alas, not only was Hugh Grant not waiting for me with whiskey when I returned, but the room was not much wider or longer than the lone un-canopied twin bed. At least I’ll get a good shower, I thought … the bathroom in my flat still generally gives me the creeps, so I look forward to nights away. Alas, nor was that to be. The shower was one of those capsule-looking things with curved Plexiglas doors that slide shut, reminding me of the orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s Sleeper. But alas, that didn’t happen either. The plastic soap dispenser offered up a gooey liquid that offered to wash my body and hair equally well, and there was no conditioner in sight (I know this may seem a minor issue, but you don’t have my unruly hair.) The romantic notion of the Inn waned further when I looked out of the window, not to see rolling Cumbria pastures, but an old dilapidated house that was marked for demolition and the highway just beyond it. My room was just over the door to the pub and the bar itself, so to say that there was some noise is a gross understatement. And the cute little angled ceiling in my already small space turned out to support the actual staircase that led up to the floor above mine. On the other hand, breakfast was good, the made-on-the-premises beer selection delightful,(my favourite was Shih Tzu Faced), and the pub itself full of canine friends with their owners.
On Saturday, my new Australian friend and I explored the delightful town of Windermere and walked a mile down to Bowness where we took a 45-minute boat tour of Lake Windermere aboard the Silverholme. After a lunch of Cornish pasties, we walked the mostly uphill 2.5 miles back to the Watermill past those impossibly beautiful fields, a dark cloud of rain just ahead of us keeping them green for us.
After another quick and immensely unsatisfying shower, I hitched a ride up the hill for the main event. Fairie lights leant a magical glow to the whitewashed inside walls of the barn. Greeters handed each guest a full champagne flute. A Ceilidh band, including a fiddle, Border pipes, guitar, and drums played Cumbrain folk music while a caller led dancers in traditional steps, akin to a Square Dance. Later in the evening, a rock band sang guests into the wee hours. Guests included the bride and groom’s families, and friends from near and far, both geographically and in time. I sat and chatted with folks who had known them for over 30 years and others, like myself, who were more recent acquaintances. The bride literally beamed in a simple cotton sundress as she reeled around the floor with her beau and guests.
Unfortunately for me, but to the great joy of most of those in attendance, a van rolled up to set up the pig roast under a white tent. The marinated, decapitated beast reminded me of the one hanging in the Swan Theatre all throughout The Duchess of Malfi. There was nothing else to eat, so I had four Thornton’s chocolates and three glasses of champagne. I went out to look for the loo at some point, following the directions that someone had given me, but found myself not at the port-o-potties, but simply heading down the narrow stretch of road to the pub. Hungry and lightheaded, the sun considering setting, I took it as a sign and simply walked the two miles back to the pub in hopes of getting something in my belly to sop up the champagne. It was the most serene, startlingly beautiful walk I have had since I can remember. At every turn I came upon groups of sheep and cow who just looked up at me, unconcerned if a bit curious, smelled honeysuckle and foxglove all along the road, and watched magpies and swallows gliding overhead. The setting sun lit up the fields in a soft, pinkish-yellowish glow that made the entire vista feel like the film I expected but didn’t find at the Inn. I am at a loss, for once, to describe the deep and profound beauty that I saw with every step. I was sorry to have missed the rest of the festivities (which apparently featured the groom doing a pretty good rendition of Mick Jagger) but immensely grateful for the journey that I did take.
I am so grateful to my friend and her new husband for inviting me to the Lake District and into her life to help her celebrate this happy event, and hope that they continue to experience that joy that I did on my sweet dusk walk.
Photos by Diane Lowman