It is just before six in the morning. I have finally unearthed (at the bottom of a cupboard) my trousers for the Royal Wedding and I am in my aunt’s kitchen in London preparing for Parliament: the wood-pigeon outside has the gravelly voice of a cockney gangster. Most MPs seem to have spent Easter ‘pounding the streets’ for the May elections and the AV campaign. Those who have fought many elections are masters of an arcane and specialised art: they know how loud your tie should be, and how to avoid getting your fingers bitten by a sprung post-box or an Alsatian. I’ve been out with District Council candidates around Wigton last week and Penrith this week (rural den, Longtown and Alston next). Knocking on doors matters not just for campaigning but for learning from people who are sometimes less interested in national politics, and more (in Macadam Way) in the damage done by the roots of the Rowan tree or (in Pategill) the parking. But the most common theme on Penrith door-steps seemed to be how much people want the centre of the town restored again.
On Tuesday, I was able to be in Penrith, to look at a village hall solar project generating £1,000 annually (please contact me if there are other village halls which would like to learn more), and to learn from the staff at the Citizens Advice Bureau (they are looking for volunteers – and it is an amazing centre if anyone is interested). I had a lunch meeting in St. Andrew’s Square. The churchyard was packed with people gazing at the blue sky and the cherry blossom, paler on the trees in the South-West corner. Only one person had turned away from the sunshine. He was staring intently at the inside of a plastic box. I wondered what electronic malfunction had distracted him, then realised he was examining each of the flies he had just bought from John Norris.
St. Andrew’s is a reminder of how much beauty and potential there is in Angel, Dockray, Sandgate and the whole labyrinth of Penrith’s squares and alleys. You can see why in the 80s, the Companion guide-book described Penrith – before the moving of the auction mart and the supermarket fiasco – as one of the most perfect market towns. The crowds passing Graham’s sunlit sandstone front (all its soup and sandwiches were sold out) were a reminder of all the vigorous street-life in Penrith, which we have seen this year from the dancing Santas to the ‘Save Our Cinema’ rallies. I am sorry that I’ll miss the street-parties for the wedding – from Stainton to Greystoke to Low Hesket to Appleby – and Penrith’s celebrations.
Last week, I was able to walk from my back garden at Helton to Windermere and Wastwater, and loop back to Keswick. It will be a long time before I forget the great processional ridge of High Street, climbing from cairn to cairn, the deep lanes below Troutbeck, buttressed with slate as tall as tombstones, the white blossom on the bare black hedgerows, the pink tendrils on the sycamore. I was walking with an American friend and I was proud to be able to show her Cumbria without rain. But the fierce sun turned the scree around Wasdale head into a bare dusty blaze of gravel, and on the great stone steps climbing beside Rosset-Gill (as well-laid as a Hindu pilgrimage trail) the heat was like the heat before an Indian monsoon: I could imagine a temple by Angle tarn, with floating ash and a contemplating saddhu.
So although I enjoyed standing on the shoulder of Pillar gazing at two frayed white clouds in a blue sky, it was not the high peaks at midday that I remember most. Nor the signs of Spring: the clown-like muzzles of the Swaledale lambs and the dark shapes of the Herdwicks under their grey mothers, or brown tips of the oak breaking open – their leaves as tiny as a miniature Japanese maple. Instead, I remember a low barren slope with an air of autumn. We were climbing up from Buttermere, on the old pack-road to Keswick. The sun had set an hour earlier. The long gentle valley was silent. It had not a house, nor road, nor even track. A sudden late burst of rain had reawakened the shifting light on the hills. The descent from the watershed, towards nightfall, was the welcome descent into a fertile plain: the ground richer, the trees broader, the cottage gardens more ablaze with every step. Near Derwentwater, as at the garden in Hutton-in-the-Forest now, April, May and June had all come at once: the apple blossom blazing over poppy stalks, two feet tall, daffodils beside bluebells and April mayflower, and tulips beside late-flowering rhododendrons. But what I will treasure most is the bare ridge-line, just after sunset, where the grass was sere, the gill cold, and it felt like one of the last days of September.