Sunday, 12 June 2011

A Cumbrian Retreat

My mother holds a disliking for the Lake District: all those menacing mountain peaks holding you captive with the occasional escape to overcrowded tea rooms and ridiculously expensive gift shops. Sadly, after our latest holiday - I get a little of what she means.

We stayed in a tiny holiday cottage in an unheard of village called Outgate close to Hawkshead and from the moment we arrived on the gravel drive it seemed that we were whipped and wounded by torrential rain. On the first night we were unmoved by the driving rain; we had wine and baskets of food and a warm fire and six more full days where we’d give the skies a chance. By day three we were wailing along with the wind and threatening to go home.

Day 1
I open the curtains for confirmation of what the howling winds have been yelling to us all night long: to stay indoors if you know what’s good for you. And this is just what we do. We toast the remainder of yesterday evening’s honey loaf and munch and smile at each other. I gaze out of the window and over at the fields where each sheep hunches against the other. But there is little comfort to be got from wet wool. We are expecting visitors today: my sister, Nancy; her husband, Gerald and my Lakes-loathing mother. This gives me an excuse to be in the kitchen where I can slice leeks and chicken thigh; chop dill and mushrooms and pour cider into a slow cooker and leave it alone for eight hours or more. At least the knives are good and sharp.
 Nancy brings a smoked salmon quiche and an orange cake for lunch. Both homemade and hideously delicious. The pastry case is perfectly cooked holding a neatly set mixture of eggs, cream and fish. I watch my sister lick the tip of her finger and dab at the buttery crumbs left on her plate. A family trait – nothing is ever wasted. We discuss food. The quiche is Delia’s and the sweet moist orange cake is Elizabeth David’s. I make a mental note to read up on the latter.

The rain stops and we dress in waterproofs and step into the lane. Faint drops begin and turn into heavy splodges and we take shelter in The Drunken Duck until the sun shines. 

An exotic heat hits us when we step outside. Green and tropical. The puddles are silver with sunlight and we enjoy our walk through gooey meadowland back to the cottage.

Our evening meal is a version of Nigella Lawson’s Coq au Riesling taken from her book, Nigella Express. I
have used cider instead of the Riesling and the kitchen is filled with a warm boozy apple scent.
Day 2
The window today displays another dull scene. Clouds have become a blind which shuts over the mountains. I can’t see any sheep. The treetops teeter dangerously close to toppling point. Last week’s forecast had said today, Monday, would be heavy rain but that the rest of the week would brighten. We hang onto this.
We eat yesterday’s chicken stew with oat biscuits and coffee. Suddenly, we are aware that the rain has stopped, the trees have become calm and we can see sheep. We walk into Hawkshead and are charmed by its quaintness and copy the other tourists who stare through shop windows and suggest cups of tea. Our tea room of choice is part of a brightly coloured gift shop selling jewellery and soaps and scented candles.
We are a long way from heating up a barbeque, I know this, but I want something char grilled this evening to accompany salad wet with lemon dressing and tiny scraped jersey royal potatoes. I take two chicken legs and debone them gathering the remaining meat into neat rounds like small pillows of dough. I smear the chicken in olive oil and heat the griddle until smoking. The chicken hisses as I turn it over in the pan. I bash up some dill and mix it with goats’ butter and place a large dab on each piece of meat. The whole thing tastes savoury, tangy and utterly delicious.
Day 3
A chink in the curtains offers a sulky light and I can hear rain on the slate roof above us steadily getting stronger. I leave a snoring Martin and take myself into the kitchen. There is a punnet of aging raspberries in the fridge. The fruits are beginning to show signs of grey so I pick out the furred ones and throw the rest onto my bowl of muesli. If tomorrow is still the same (I threaten) I want to go home. We pack our rucksack with sandwiches, crisps and a flask of coffee and bundle this, along with boots and cameras into the car. Can there be anywhere as depressing as Ambleside in the rain? Yes! Ambleside in hailstone and we two shivering in yet another anorak shop staring at Beatrix Potter fridge magnets. Suddenly, I can’t bear it any longer and run back to the car with Martin striding after me.
The sky brightens but by then it is too late to hike. Back at the cottage I prepare one of our favourite meals: Mary Berry’s Thai chicken taken from Cook Now, Eat Later. It’s a heavenly combination of chicken, chilli and lime simmered in coconut cream and a soothing stock. I open a giant packet of prawn crackers and we scoop out handfuls to accompany our curry. Martin fancies some strong ale and so we dress up and walk to the local: The Outgate Inn. Stepping into the lane in beads and linen seems strangely invigorating; more so than being encumbered with fleeces and waterproofs and heavy boots. I actually feel like I’m on holiday. The sun and ale go to my head and on returning to our cottage I dance a jig around the living room.

Day 4
Dare I peek through the curtains? Is that the white glow of summer I see resting on the sill? The room becomes suffused with warmth and sunlight as I open the drapes, and dust motes glitter and dance as I step back to admire the view.  The sheep look freshly laundered. There are goldfinches on the laburnum tree creating a twinkling chaos as they bicker for their rights to the feeders. Swallows echo the finches high twittering and flash us with blue and white before disappearing into the eaves.  A squirrel scampers on the lawn, picking up discarded seed with dexterous fingers. A green woodpecker steps into the scene like a jester, cocks his head and mad jokers’ eye, before leaving us with his high raucous laughter.  This is what I imagined my holiday would be like – this is what I wanted from day one. A bucolic idyll. Sunlight and green fields and an endless display of colour and life.

It can’t last. The clouds move in but at least it doesn’t rain. We plan a five mile walk - taking us from Hawkshead church and through bleak and deserted sections of the Grizedale forest, over farmland and through quiet hamlets before returning us to the church. After our walk we visit Relish: a stunning little preserves shop in the centre of Hawkshead. We buy two kilner jars of herbed sea salt.

This evening I have two beautifully marbled mackerel fillets which I pin bone and rub in sea salt; the one flavoured with herbes de provence. I lay them to one side and admire their marine green stripes and silver highlights. I am inspired by Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall’s recipe for Mackerel on Bay scented potatoes from The River Cottage Fish Book and so I slice potatoes, peppers, onions and lemon into a roaster and cover them with extra virgin oil. I roast them on high for 40 minutes or so before adding the mackerel fillets and cooking for another 15 minutes. It’s a sunny dish and healthy too. Adding more benefits, today, to our diet of fresh air and exercise.

Day 5
I turn my back to the window and walk into the kitchen to dish up some muesli. Opening the fridge for the milk I am met with a small bowl of last night’s vegetables coated in a thin glaze of oil. I pop a potato and a chunk of onion into my mouth. Antipasti. I wonder if it would be good enough for a Mediterranean starter at some future dinner party. After breakfast I feel sluggish and sit cross-legged on the sofa and finish my book. Martin suggests going out for lunch and so we head down the lane in our waterproofs. The pub is deserted apart from the barman. We order a ‘Walkers’ Special’ – the ubiquitous soup and sandwich combo. The soup is Tomato and Courgette and turns out to be one of the perkiest soups I’ve tasted. A zingy fresh mood-booster. After this we don’t really mind the rain and take a road walk to Skelwith Bridge.

The sky is a child’s painting: the girl had been handed a box of paints and brushed the top of the page with a deep royal blue. A blend of curiosity and impatience had made her mix in black and white; too much water on the brush had caused the colours to merge into pale ink. The darker watermarks have now become mountains. The whole picture is both threatening and soothing.
Our walk back from the bridge is uphill and we struggle against what has now become a hot afternoon. Something catches my eye on the side of the road and I wonder if it’s a child’s toy - its stuffing burst from the seams. It isn’t. I ignore what I’ve read and heard and intervene by cupping my hands around its body - a bedraggled mixture of down and feathers. It flaps its wings clumsily as I usher it to the safety of the field. A Tawny owlet. Martin wants to take a picture of it but I feel this is voyeuristic; too typically human. We look at the trees to see if there is a parent bird. We can’t see anything and so worry about the owl for the rest of the night.
Day 6
Our last full day. And it isn’t raining. We are going to make the most of the dry weather and plan a six mile walk beside Coniston Water. Martin puts some eggs on the stove to hard-boil. I butter some rolls and prepare a feast of egg and salad sandwiches. We eat these sat on the shore of Lake Coniston and share our bread with a trio of mallards. Our walk takes us through a buttercup meadow being trampled on by a family of goats. The kids are curious and circle us nibbling at our boot laces, and tugging the bottom of Martin’s shorts with tiny even teeth. They have smiling lips the colour of bubble gum and mischief-making eyes that hold little fear of staring you out.

It’s as chilly as autumn but still dry and so we take our wine onto the front patio while our meal of fish and potato wedges bakes in the oven.  A Friday night’s fish supper served with tinned mushy peas (no frills – 18p) and rounds of heavily buttered bread. A text message rumbles on the mantelpiece, our final message from Nicola our cat-sitter. She tells us that the cats are fine but are looking forward to seeing us tomorrow. In the visitors’ book, I recommend The Outgate Inn for lunch and suggest that the next inhabitants buy bird seed from the milkman and fill up the feeders when empty. I do not grumble, as the other guests have, at the over-sensitive smoke alarm although I mention that the weather has been mostly bad.

Day 7
We are home. Our cats are purring. I think they are very pleased to see us.