I’ve been thinking a lot about childhood during the lockdown, probably because this was when I last had time on my hands. Day after day with nothing to do in the summer beyond figure out how to pass the time. Feeling that I should be doing something, but what? I wake up exhausted, forehead furrowed, worrying about a future I can’t control. As helpless in the face of not knowing what’s coming as when I was a child, and feeling just as fractious.
Back then, I got by spending long days outdoors with I-Spy books, scouring the fields near home for foxgloves, butterflies, field mice, goldfinches, chaffinches and piebald ponies. I’d spend hours learning to tell oak from ash and beech and when a hole on the ground is an animal habitat or just a plain old hole, and I was forever coming home for tea (and it was tea back then, not dinner, and certainly not supper) with bird bones, feathers and animal droppings to be identified later along with unidentifiable bruises and scratches from clawing through bracken, shimmying up trees and making dens.
Growing up in one of the grittier suburbs of industrial Stockport, these forays offered space to breathe when prospects and the walls of a box bedroom felt too narrow. Freedom was a semi-stagnant pond reached through a strip of woodland left between multiple housing estates, and a string of farms leading down to the River Goyt through to parkland beyond. There was the gully at the back of our house and the field at the end of the road – two green spaces set aside for (yet another) 1980s motorway that was mercifully never built. I had secret as well as real friends to keep me company in my vagabond existence, and I practiced being someone else with both: someone feral, free, daring, exploring and reckless. I liked to think I was at one with nature – if not yet with human nature – and I kept myself busy, looking for somewhere and someone to be.
Fast forward through the decades to the recent lockdown and I’m back where I started, wondering who? Where to? And How? Now as then, my only answer is to walk. Put one foot in front of another, and don’t worry about where I’m going and if I’ll get there. It’s what I know and the only thing that ever seems to work.
And what better place than Kendal for a walking meditation practice to see out the lockdown? This “auld grey town” – like the boots in the song – was made for walking, with higgledy piggledy yards and alleyways winding among limestone houses clinging to hillsides crowned by two castles: Kendal Castle to the east – 14th century home of the Parr family into which Henry VIII’s sixth wife was born – and Castle Howe to the west – once the site of Kendal’s first Norman castle and home now to an obelisk erected in 1788 to commemorate the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Both offer great views of the town and can be built into walks starting out by the River Kent and taking in the town’s many parks and ancient greens.
I love to head for the hills cradling the town, my favourite among them the Helm (185m) – a modest hump topped by an Iron Age hill fort, boasting beautiful views of the Lake District fells beyond Natland, Oxenholme and Kendal to the northwest, and Morecambe Bay to the southwest. The Helm comes into its own in May, when gorse and bluebells run riot on hillsides peppered by hawthorn trees in full bloom, and the waters of the Kent estuary shimmer in the distance on their way to the sea.
Just as beautiful in May are the quiet dappled glades of Serpentine Woods, granted to the people of Kendal in 1824. These are laced with three miles of winding paths carpeted with beechnuts, flanked by ash, beech, yew and holly, and, from April onwards, by fragrant wild garlic, and they include the Alphabet Trail, popular with kids and adults alike. Adjacent to the woods is the “Tramway” route – used in the past to carry carts of quarried limestone down from the fellside to the town below. Sitting above sheep fields cascading down on to the colourful allotments, gardens, and grey rooves of the town’s outlying houses, the Tramway looks out to the peaks of Whinfell, Kentmere Pike, and Mardale Ill Bell. It is just one of many paths traversing Kendal Fell and spills walkers on to the fairways of Kendal Golf Club, now repopulated by golfers urging walkers to watch out for flying balls – until recently, a paradise for birds, wildflowers and walkers reveling in their rights of way when the golf club closed in the eight weeks of the initial lockdown.
Beyond the golf course, two Scars offer a walk described by Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991), long term resident of Kendal and author of the celebrated pictorial guidebooks of the Lake District, as ‘a walk above others: a pleasure every step of the way’. Cairn-topped Cunswick Scar (207m) and Scout Scar (235m): each formed of carboniferous limestone dipping gently towards the east; each offering outstanding panoramic views across the bucolic Lyth Valley of the southernmost fells of the Lake District, including the Old Man of Coniston, Scafell Pike and the Langdale Pikes.
I’ve roamed all these paths in past weeks, much as I roamed the fields near my home as a child, immersing myself in nature. With no work in sight (this is no time to be a tour guide!) and fearful for my loved ones like pretty much everyone else, I’ve been getting by on flower power through a lockdown that started back in March with daffodils and crocuses in the town’s parks, greens, gardens and roadsides, and has since then brought celandines, slender speedwell, primroses, dandelions, daisies, early purple orchid, cowslips, cuckoo flowers, dog violets, bluebells, garlic mustard, poppies and cow parsley, in approximately that order. Blackthorn blossom has surrendered to hawthorn, with cherry blossom in between, and today, up on the limestone enscarpment of Scout Scar, “It was all yellow” (thanks, Coldplay), with Birdsfoot Trefoil and Hoary Rock-rose, hugging the edge of the steep western scarp, trembling in the wind that teases the few trees bold enough to grown on the Scar into haunted, twisted shapes. Heading for Helsington Barrow, and a slow loop back into Kendal via the old racecourse flanking farmer’s fields, I enjoyed the calls of the Cuckoo and Stonechat competing for space with the incessant birdsong from unknown artists, and spectaculars view of Arnside Knott and the Kent Estuary going out to Morecambe Bay, shimmering in the distance.
In happier days, I might have carried on through Helsington to the Strickland Arms beyond Sizergh Castle, for a sociable pint of local ale in its hillside beer garden. When not walking the Scars alone or with my partner, I love to share Kendal and the surrounding fells with friends and other visitors to the Lake District. I can think of no better way to start a holiday in the Lakes than with a walk in this wonderful gateway town, taking in that spectacular ‘pale view of hills’ – the glorious southern fells of the Lake District, glimpsed from a reverential distance. Alas, not today. And perhaps not for the summer either.
Naturally this worries me. True, I haven’t lost a loved one, been ill myself, or had anyone close to me fall ill during the coronavirus crisis, and I thank my lucky stars for that. But whereas just three months ago, I had a diary full of bookings for the next six months and was looking forward to the arrival of nine students in September for a sustainable tourism study tour, I’m now looking at months without work and the collapse of global tourism. Tourism in Cumbria contributes around ₤3 billion and 65,000 jobs to the local economy – my job among them. Unfortunately, every indicator suggests that it could take not weeks, or months but even years for international visitor numbers to recover, if the global coronavirus crisis does not abate.
This being the case, I’m extending my offer to Staycationers – to Brits dutifully staying home or close to it, looking to stretch their legs in the Lake District. With the British government ordering people to take to their cars, it’s evident that for the time being at least, promoting public transport to get around – my raison d’etre – is off the cards. Still, there’s nothing to stop visitors from leaving their cars at B&Bs, holiday homes and hotels (so long as these reopen in July) and I’m here to help if they’d like a hand getting out and about on foot.
After all, isn’t the environmental, literary and cultural heritage of the Lake District something we can surely all celebrate, regardless of where we’ve come from? The lakes, tarns, fells, rivers, and ever changing skies. The poets and writers whose ecological philosophy and early environmentalism drove British Romanticism and the birth of the National Trust. The farmers whose animal husbandry has shaped this area for millennia. And the humble Lakeland cottages and Victorian villas, galleries and museums, and breweries, distilleries and eateries that serve up a taste of Cumbria to all visitors to the Lake District.
I’m not ready to give up yet on my dreams of sharing all this with Japanese visitors – giving back to the people of a country I lived in for more than twenty years. But why not share it more widely? Seize the moment and bloom wherever I can find a foothold. The flowers have taught me this much.