As a confirmed workaholic, I never ever go on holiday. On work trips, my hosts sometimes take me out to the usual places for sight-seeing, if not too far out of the way, but that's it. In all my stays in India, I have never seen the Taj Mahal or the Khajuraho temples. Outdoors ventures are even rarer, because my legs are slightly crippled by various ailments, nothing truly prohibitive but quite hindersome nonetheless. Why bother taking the obligatory holiday when I can have a more productive and cheaper time at home? And yet, in the spring of 2011, in spite of sore knees and a gout attack on my right foot, I had a very good week walking on hills in the Lake District, in good company.
"To walk on hills is to employ legs as porters of the head and heart, jointly adventuring towards perhaps true equanimity", as Robert Graves put it in his poem on hilltop walking. That was indeed the effect of walking on wind-swept hillslopes, with the help of "Nordic" walking-sticks. As Graves continues: "To walk on hills is to see sights and to hear sounds unfamiliar. When in wind the pine-tree roars, when crags with bleatings echo, when water foams below the fall; heart records that journey as memorable indeed; head reserves opinion, confused by the wind."
In my case the walking also took some gnashing of teeth, but the gout wore off as the miles passed away under my feet. I also spared myself the toughest excursion, the climb of the Old Man of Coniston. Those who reached the top, afterwards bought a cup proudly announding: "I climbed the Old Man of Coniston".
That hill overlooks Coniston, the town where we stayed, close to the house of 19th-century art historian and social thinker John Ruskin. His gravestone in the churchyard is quite a sight. The nearby town of Ambleside was the home of William Wordsworth, the Romantic poet. Fellow poets came to spend time here to get some inspiration from the wild.
It was an exceptional week in that it hardly rained. The waterfalls were smaller than normal, to the despair of the National Trust people who do so much to tend all the numerous heritage sites. Well, for a total amateur it was just as well that we weren't exposed to the full force of the elements. Contrary to what local postcards promise, we didn't get wet, nor did we get lost.
My lady-love (I don't do "girlfriends") had dragged me into this. She's a tour guide for heritage sites, both in Belgium and in Britain. We were in a group of 18, the Hindu lucky number, mostly from her native Limburg, our easterly province known for its meek and slow people with their sing-song dialect. The group is vaguely spiritual-oriented, with a whiff of Druidry and Shamanism but not too seriously, so we honoured the places we visited with a bit of appropriate ritual.
On the way, we dropped into a Mithras temple near Hadrian's Wall where Roman soldiers once celebrated the Invincible Sun. The sites that most interested us were the stone circles and other megalith formations. For the large circles Swinside and Long Meg and her Daughters, we had to do some serious uphill walking outside the trodden paths. Catlerigg, by contrast, is just next to a main road. Two centuries ago already, it was the first stone circle to attract mass tourism. Samuel Coleridge, who had been invited there by his friend Wordworth, was disappointed by all the unromantic human presence. But we did get our silent moment there.
In the Lake District, we met thousands of native Britons walking and trekking, and big handfuls of visiting Dutchmen and Germans, but altogether only four "new Britons": one African who was there in the company of his native partner, one Hindu couple and one Pakistani. A few years back, the New Labour authorities even scrapped the option of free guided tours because these only attracted a "hideously white" public,-- as if the people who do show up are to blame for the absence of immigrant visitors. This absence is strange, considering that not far to the south, there is a string of cities with a large Hindu and especially Paki population. What is keeping them from integrating into their adopted country by exposing themselves to the landscapes that shaped the British character? Hindus in particular, who like to pride themselves on being naturally devoted to care for the environment and on continuing the pre-Christian culture that once spanned the whole world: what is keeping you from exploring Britain's mountains and heath and paying your respects to the pre-Christian sacred sites of the local ancestors?