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Simon Parke: The Lakeland alchemy

28 July 2010

WE ARE looking across the valley, at the start of the day. Mist hangs heavy on the mountains, and rain pours down. The sheep seem unconcerned, as do the early walkers. Being a southerner, I enquire about some sun. “It’ll be like this for the rest of the day,” my host says with quiet de­liberation, and he’s not wrong: it is.

I am here, in the Lake District, leading a parish retreat, and it is an appropriate setting. Weekends such as these are often extremes of delight and despair, laughter and pain, and this mountainous region in the north-west of England has its own highs and lows, featuring both the highest mountain in England, Scafell Pike, reaching up 978 metres, and also England’s deepest lake, Wast­water, which reaches down about 79 metres.

Here are the glories of glaciation: ice-carved valleys, many of which are now filled with water, which is not in short supply, as another record this area holds concerns rainfall. Seath­waite, in Borrowdale, is the wettest inhabited place in England, with 130 inches of rain a year.

But, rain or no rain, the Lake Dis­trict is busy. It first became a popular tourist spot in the late 18th century, when Continental wars made foreign travel risky. William Wordworth’s Guide to the Lakes, in 1810, further enhanced its popularity, and it hasn’t looked back.

Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud here, but, on my walk, I am anything but lonely. I pass walkers constantly, and, as the tradi­tion is to say “Hello” to each, a quiet reflective stroll can become an ex­hausting social activity.

But such bravery around us! Take the annual Windermere swim, from one end of the lake to the other. The lake is 15 miles long, but it’s not just the distance. I hear of one strong swimmer who was forced to give up after seven miles. “He was paralysed by the cold,” my friend said. “He just couldn’t move.”

Also, watching the popular Lake District fell-runs is not for the weak-hearted. The steep climbs may be hard, but the speed with which they run down the slippery gradients is truly eye-popping.

I am similarly struck by the bravery and honesty of those on this parish weekend. There is something safe about going to church; you are never far from the door, and, if con­versation is not going well, you can be out and home in ten minutes. Come on a parish weekend, however, and you are trapped with these people for 48 hours. I call that a brave move.

And, as for honesty, I am surprised by how quickly we are beneath the superficial coffee-chat and into the guts of people’s lives. It is a mystery, but going away changes the psycho­logical chemistry; it is as if there’s a special alchemy in adopting a differ­ent geography.

The brave discover this: some­times we must go away to come home to ourselves.


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