Nick Hunt, author of Where The Wild Winds Are – a Caught by the River favourite from last year – on adapting to life as a stranger in the Lake District:
December begins with a long drive north. A few days ago my girlfriend and I were watching starlings bunch and bloom in the sky over the Somerset Levels; now we arrive in Cumbria just as the air turns dark. For the next three months we are cottage-sitting at the southern edge of the Lake District. We have come to the coldest, darkest place at the coldest, darkest time of year.
Our front door key looks like it comes from a museum of medieval life. Our roof is held up by timbers salvaged from a shipwreck. The village consists of a dozen houses, one of which is a pub and one is a community cinema. We watch a film there in our first week, imagining we are blending in. ‘We’ve got two strangers here tonight…’ says the lady as she introduces the film. Heads turn and later drinks are bought. It’s a good lesson to learn early on: we cannot avoid being known.
Another lesson is the cold. It’s a fast learning curve. The week we arrive, the ground is a sponge and all it takes is a morning’s rain for the fields to bubble and overflow. Shallow floods cover the roads. But then Siberian winds bring hardness to the land. There is ice inside the window panes. We see our breath in bed. Both of us offer to do the washing up because at least our hands get warm. Up and down steep country lanes I learn the shock of pressing my foot on the brakes and nothing happening, the sickening lurch and slide. On the horizon the fells turn white. We feed the garden birds as an act of empathy.
The most important thing in our lives becomes the smouldering farmhouse range, which chews coal through the night and spits out glowing embers. It must be fed constantly and new supplies delivered. A pile of coal arrives in the shed – a soot-fingerprinted receipt stuffed into the door – and a cheerful man in a cloth cap dumps a hillock of seasoned logs from the back of his tipper truck across the road outside. Fetching it and splitting it are two ways to get warm.
We learn other strategies. I take to walking around the house in longjohns and waterproof overtrousers. Caroline visits a nearby hotel to use their sauna and steam-room. On days when it’s too miserable for the fields, the local farmers go there; the sauna talk is all about cattle, and how the A590 causes flooding, and how the erratic weather conditions are probably not climate change.
Every morning after dawn I take my coffee to a bench at the top of the small hill that rises over the village. I watch the land waking up. It becomes a ritual. The sun is sluggish this far north, reluctant to heave itself over the hills, and the light thickly gropes its way through a submarine twilight. It’s an entirely different dawn to the purposeful sunrise of the south. The sky is somehow luminous and dull at the same time, glowing not only in the east but diffused from one horizon to the other, lending everything the dreamlike quality of the aurora. It must have something to do with latitude or the magnetic pole, or the curvature of the earth, but that’s too much to think about before I’ve had my coffee.
Our village sits on the watershed of the Rusland Valley. Visitors to South Lakeland are drawn to Windermere to the east or Coniston Water to the west, but seldom to the lakeless wedge of land that lies between. A friend of ours described this valley as the Bermuda Triangle. It swallows distance, she said. Things get lost in it.
From here, my eyes get lost with looking. It takes a long time to learn a view and I am still feeling my way, aware that I am a stranger here. I know that the dark stain to the north is the start of Grizedale Forest, gloomy and coniferous, and the fox-coloured hump to the west is the ragged Bethecar Moor. But the valley between is harder to know. It slips through the cracks. It consists of damp, tussocky fields and rough grazing land interspersed by sodden bog, brackeny slopes and woodlands. On some mornings the low-lying ground is sunk beneath a milky sea of wandering mist that parts and joins, on others it’s grey with frost. Dry stone walls of impressive height and sturdiness flow across the land, undulating with its contours, grafting together farmhouses and barns, a continuous human structure. The tough, scattered settlements have a watchful feel, clusters of solid-walled cottages arranged in defensive formations. The suffix ‘thwaite’ is common here – Ickenthwaite, Finsthwaite, Satterthwaite – and thwaite, it turns out, is an Old Norse word meaning ‘cleared land’. Despite centuries of cultivation, the land only feels half cleared at best. Much is unfarmed, or unfarmable. The country has a feral look; not wild but reverting.
On a white afternoon we climb the track to Bethecar Moor. We find an old barn up there, walled like a keep, with arrow slits, and as we step inside a barn owl ghosts silently over our heads and swoops towards leafless woods, its sanctuary disturbed. It looks wrong in the light of day, like a photographic negative. Scattered on the floor below are pellets we open with our nails. Caked inside are scraps of fur and bones the size of pins, miniscule jawbones with needle teeth, which we think belonged to shrews. Scores of them have been coughed up here, in the lair of the mad white king. We take some of them back to the cottage for Christmas stocking-fillers.
For a week the sky sags wet and grey and the snow retreats to higher ground, clinging on in greasy spots. Then it returns full-fold. The outlook from my hill is bleached, smothered, simplified. The dry stone walls are a diagram. Everything is new.