Saturday, February 6, 2010

Into the Clouds

My six year old grumbles most days on the way to school. It's about a mile, longer when we take the quiet way. She's tired, she's bored, why can't we drive? And I can't blame her. The traffic is deafening, the footpaths are hard on her feet, and the quiet way is loooooong. So we look around us, trying to notice the small good things: the Borzois running at twilight, the setting sun illuminating their flowing fur and transforming them into fiery angels; a fallen nest lined with down; a pole with a neck warmer (guerrilla urban landscaping at its best). But often it feels like slim pickings.

Happily, though, we've ditched school for a while and are roaming around the UK instead. This week: the Lake District. Our house is in a tiny village, surrounded by fields and woods and rivers and mountains. So I dragged my reluctant daughter out for a walk. She grizzled as we put on her waterproof pants and snow boots, and stomped out the front door. 'Think of it as a treasure hunt,' I suggested. 'We have a map, we'll follow the clues, and we'll look for treasure: views, rocks, leaves – whatever is interesting.' She rolled her eyes and sighed.

So we headed down our street, over a river (saying hello to the ducks), past the pub, under the railway bridge, through a kissing gate (mwah, mwah), down a path between two dry stone walls, through another kissing gate, across a field, over a steep stone stile, down a driveway, and along the street home.

When we saw the ducks, she cheered up immensely. And from thereon she was exuberantly happy. She waded through the deepest puddles and sloshed in the mud, made kissing sounds at each of the gates, and clambered up the stile even though its height gave her pause. A train went by, and she waved. We saw sheep and a tractor and heard water everywhere – a tiny stream running beside the road and tumbling over a ledge; the drip of a misty rain; and of course the river. Mosses and ferns grew out of the stone walls. We inspected the fallen leaves (mostly oak); we looked at algae and the colours of the stone; we saw footprints in the mud and counted how many different shoes we could find. I read out the directions bit by bit, so she could locate the stile, the gates, the yellow arrows showing the way. The distance – longer than the school run – felt completely insubstantial. She raced home, described every step of the way to her father, and asked to do it again.

The next day, she begged to go for a longer walk. So while my husband and our middle child caught the train to Liverpool, home of Anfield football ground (motto for LFC and all families with young children: 'You'll never walk alone'), I strapped our toddler onto my back, took my six year old's hand, and headed out. Nothing heroic, just three miles. Our path took us past the cemetery (hello Elizabeth, there's always an Elizabeth), along the river (with a view to the weir and its endlessly fascinating falling water), across some farm land (investigating molehills and sheep poo, as one does), then straight up a hill into the twelfth century woods. After climbing for 45 minutes, we reached the ridge. We hung our jackets on a tree, sat on a damp bench, ate a chocolate digestive and admired the view: miles of rolling fields and hills, patterned by walls and hedges; sheep on a slab of rock, looking startled; patches of snow in the folds of the nearby mountains; and everywhere moss, fallen leaves, and trees. We saw and heard no one. It was just us, and the world at our feet.

Rest done, we rambled on. To my delight, I found Yggdrasil. Then, in a clearing, Yggdrasil again, but from this tree's massive branches hung rope swings. My daughter shouted and ran, leapt on and flew through the air; the ground sloped away. The trees were ancient; the view was glorious; the ground was covered with soft leaves. We had climbed a small mountain, and were so pleased with ourselves. And then this, an unexpected gift, treasure indeed. Heaven on earth in a rope swing.

After a while, we followed the path out of the woods and into the clouds which had rolled in below us while we were on the ridge. We walked through mist across the fields: up six foot high ladder stiles with slippery rungs, through kissing gates so narrow I could barely fit with the baby backpack, and over a stone stile which landed us in a stream. We learned more about how to read directions on a map, and how to find those little yellow arrows in the landscape which show where to go. (Rule One: It's always more obvious than I think.) All the way, we were engaged, talking, energised, relaxed.

As we trotted down the final hill, negotiating our way over a cattle grid (bypass gates are for wusses), I reflected again on the walk to school. It's a big issue for us, a long and often exhausting part of our day. How can a mile at home be a gruelling slog, when three miles here are pure joy? What makes walking in our suburb so hard?

If only our daily walk went over a stream, into the woods, or through a kissing gate; if only it had a slightly dangerous rope swing or a stile too high for comfort; if only it were quiet enough I could hear my children speak; if only there were no traffic and they could run ahead at will; if only...

If only our path led us into the clouds.


PS – We do plan to buy a courier bike, which will carry all three girls to school and back, but even so I will still need to negotiate traffic in a big way – and the girls will get no exercise.

PPS – The walk was such a hit, the whole family did it again the next day. My not-quite-four-year-old, who demands to be carried for any distance longer than a block, ran, leaped and climbed the entire ramble. Every time she began to lag, I'd point out the next stile and she'd shout with glee and sprint across the field. Joy.

PPPS – Incidentally, this walk is a simple loop around a town that barely features on a map. It isn't one of the Great Walks of the Lake District, just one of thousands of rambles in the area. Yet it was so beautiful and satisfying that I'd happily do it every day for the rest of my life – and I haven't even begun to explore the other walks in the local photocopied guidebook.

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