The day was already old by the time the ferry from Ullapool had docked at Stornaway. We had been warned that shops were few and far between on the Hebridean island of Lewis and advised to take advantage of the supermarkets in the capital.
The no-sunday trading laws imposed by the ‘Wee Free’ Presbyterian church were in force across the island, and we were unlikely to find exceptions, so stocking up the provisions was a really good idea – tired though we all were.
Finally equipped with a large box of groceries, we set off, somewhat weary, for the Uig peninsula, all the way across the width of the island. The route seemed straightforward, and didn’t look that far on the map. What we didn’t know was that most of the island’s roads were single-track, with passing places.
Fortunately, the main route east to west was a normal, two-lane highway, but it turned out this only took us half-way to our destination. Coming to the end of the major road, we were faced with single-track and having to use the stopping places to let oncoming cars pass us. The locals are used to this kind of driving, and are well able to judge the road, ahead. They were also very fair with ‘who was there first’. It took a few days for us to get the hang of it. Once you do, you can make much faster progress using this ‘protocol’ from the past.
The sheer ’emptiness’ of the island makes an immediate impact. The landscape is unchanging and composed of low hills, winding lochs and innumerable outcrops of white rock. The view across to the west showed a line of large mountains – presumable the last land before America. It was to take us several days before we had any sense of geography – or even orientation. There is no such thing as a straight line, here. The land is marked out by the need to follow the lochs, most of which end in the open sea, but take a convoluted route there.
Eventually, we arrived in Uig – a peninsula on the north-western shore of Lewis famed for its beaches. It had been a long journey from Poolewe, via Ullapool and the ferry, and we were ready to make a quick supper and turn in.
It was then we noticed how light it was. Despite being nearly ten at night, the sky looked as bright as an afternoon. The two dogs needed walking, so we decided to put off dinner for an hour and seek out one of the local beaches.
A ten minute drive from the holiday cottage and we found the small road that led down to our nearest beach. In the back of the people carrier, the dogs were going mad; being able to smell the sea after being cooped up in the car for most of the day…
But the next half-hour restored the wonder of the whole journey – and one of the primary reasons for coming this far. On either side of us, the near-white beach stretched out for what looked like miles.
It was scenic but – despite the summery sky – still cold. Lewis was a strange place, but we were warming to it… And tomorrow was my birthday… That long-awaited new coat would finally be providing me with real warmth!
Although it was a continuation of the same trip, it would be misleading to continue with the ‘Poolewe Diaries’ as a title. The sailing from Ullapool to the Hebridean main island of Lewis marked the second week of our Scottish adventure, so a change of title is appropriate…
Arriving on the island of Lewis, you get a strong sense of the remoteness of the place. Our departure port of Ullapool was remote enough, but then adding a three-hour ferry crossing just emphasised how separated this community is from the main population areas of Scotland.
The largest town on Lewis is the port of Stornoway, famous for its appearance as the second item in the BBC’s maritime ‘shipping forecast’. The Shipping Forecast is a BBC Radio broadcast of weather reports and forecasts for the seas around the far coasts of the British Isles. It is produced by the Met Office and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
Stornoway is the main town of the Western Islands (the local name for the Outer Hebrides). It was founded by Vikings in the early 9th century, with the old Norse name Stjórnavágr. The settlement grew up around a sheltered natural harbour and became a trading hub for people from all over the island. Local travel to Stornoway was either by family boat, or (more slowly), by horse-drawn coach. The town of Stjórnavágr was the main base for trade with the rest of Scotland and further afield.
In the 15th century the local castle, the ancestral base of the MacLeod clan, was breached by the cannons of the Duke of Argyle, and local taxes were imposed on trade. This was hated by the islanders, who rebelled against such shipping rights being imposed. Continued resistance succeeded against King James VI, who, in 1598, tried to establish his own trading company on Lewis: the ‘Fife Adventurers’.
It failed. Declaring it ‘ungovernable’, James transferred Lewis to the MacKenzies of Seaforth in 1610. Stornoway Castle was later demolished to expand the harbour. A few remnants of the old stonework are to be found beneath the sea, alongside the pier foundations.
I have a personal connection with the island of Lewis – one that’s cultural rather than genetic…
I was born in Bolton, Lancashire. As a boy I used to walk the moors above the town of Horwich, marvelling at the ‘lost city’ nature of the ruins of the old ornamental gardens – long abandoned after the house that used to be there was burned down by the Suffragettes.
Later, I found out the mysterious gardens were the creation of William Hesketh Lever and built as a summer retreat on the site of where he and his wife did their courting. For many years, I looked into his life and built up a collection of facts and images. In a sense, his personal industry and success inspired me.
William Hesketh Lever, a man born to a working-class family in the centre of Bolton, built up a local soap business and became increasingly successful and prosperous, eventually creating Port Sunlight on the Wirral Peninsula, an entire ‘model town’ where the workers in his vast factories were guaranteed quality homes in the pleasant village. Until this trip, I had not realised that there was a link between William Lever and the island of Lewis.
In 1918, Matheson sold the island of Lewis to the soap millionaire – who had now become William Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme. Lord Leverhulme owned the island for only a short time. His economic plans for the Lewis (together with various business setbacks) overstretched his finances.
Faced with failure in Lewis, and unlike his predecessors, he gave Stornoway parish to the people of the town. The Stornoway Trust was formed and continues to administer the town for the people.
The Lever Brothers soap empire eventually became part of Unilever, the modern multi-national corporation whose cleaning products grace most supermarkets.
If was the Friday afternoon. We needed to stock up on essential supplies from a local supermarket, as Stornoway had the only sizable shops and we were staying many miles away. The following day was Saturday, which would allow us to get our bearings in the Uist Region of the island – before the almost total closure that is Sunday on Lewis.
We had been warned that there was a strong and specific religious presence on Harris; one that pervades many aspects of life on the island. In Lewis’ case, it was the ‘Wee-Frees’. The entry in Wikipedia refers:
The Wee Free in modern usage is used, usually in a pejorative way, of any small group who because of their, arguably obscure, religious principles choose to remain outside or separate from a larger body. A Wee Free attitude might show as a preference for being part of a smaller but ideologically sound group rather than a larger compromised one.[
The term ‘Wee Free’ was an epithet commonly used to distinguish between two Scottish Presbyterian Churches after the union of 1900: The Free Kirk and The United Free Kirk – the latter being some 25 times larger in its congregation. The rhyming Scottish diminutive became the adopted familiar name of the smaller entity.
The Island of Lewis is dominated by the Wee Free Presbyterian Church. It has its presence in every aspect of the island’s life. The church is energetically anti-Catholic and regards the Pope as having been artificially ‘inserted’ by dogma between mankind and God. One of the tenets of the Wee Free community is that you protect the Sabbath.
Holidaymakers are welcome to attend the churches or simply enjoy their time on the island. But nothing is open on Sundays… well, almost nothing, as we were to discover…
The decision to abandon the walk along the long ridge path to Ashness Bridge had been forced upon us by time constraints. It had cost us the boat ride back to Keswick – something that had immense emotional appeal – but, instead, it had given us back… calmness.
After a snack lunch by the lake shore in Keswick, , the group travelled to the Eden Valley in three cars. One of the companions lives near to our destination, in Penrith, and would not be returning to Keswick at the close of the day.
Stuart and I were eagerly anticipating this next part of the workshop with. The caves we were to visit had been researched by Sue Vincent. She and Stuart had planned to incorporate them into a landscape weekend, but the sad events of 2021 overtook this.
There was the light of a personal pilgrimage in Stuart’s eyes when we all arrived at the stone circle of Long Meg, the start of our Eden Valley adventure. With some regret, we were not able to spend long, here, as the walk along the River Eden would be a substantial – needing to represent the Hero’s challenge as they sought to inherit the ‘magical reward’ promised by the quest – in reality a change of consciousness.
During our recce day, we had evaluated two routes. Now, siding with caution and calmness, we set off on the shorter one…which turned out to be a blessing – and one not related to the weather!
The Lacy Caves are located directly above the River Eden. It had taken us about ninety minutes to get there, a half hour longer than forecast. The difference was down to an oversight on our part.
This workshop was the first after the Covid period. Though everyone was delighted to be out in the countryside, again, not all had recovered their former walking stamina.
By the time we were halfway to the caves, two of the companions were experiencing tiredness. With one it was affecting her walking. We stopped to allow a period of rest, but the signs were not good – we had travelled a long way into the valley and, regardless of the drama we were about to enact as the day’s exciting finale, we still had the journey back to Long Meg Stone Circle where the cars were parked.
Our pace slowed and, as group leader, I had to take some decisions. The companion in question said she would be okay, as long as the caves were close. They were just around the next curve in the river.
I walked at her side, my arm ready to give support if the going got too difficult. Unlike our recce day, most of the route had been dry, but the final few hundred metres were muddy; adding to the difficulty.
But everyone was happy to continue, and we reached our destination without further difficulty.
Colonel Lacy, a wealthy landowner of Salkeld Hall, owned the land on which the Long Meg stone circle lies. He wanted to clear the circle to make it usable as pasture. On the night he set dynamite to the first stone, a devastating storm developed which caused considerable damage to his nearby farm.
Immediately relenting, he repaired the damage and thereafter swore to protect the ancient circle.
Lacy switched his attentions to the sandstone cliffs a mile away as the crow flies, alongside the river, where he engineered a cave system for parties and entertaining. It was fashionable to have such a folly at the time, and the place was decked out with furniture and had extensive gardens sweeping down to the river.
Having said that, Stuart and I think there was a parallel with Francis Dashwood’s ‘hellfire caves’ at High Wycombe… The truth is lost to history. There is certainly an air of mystery about the place.
We both had suitable outfits to complete the dramatic effect. We were not seeking to make it macabre, simply to shift the mood to a deeper contemplation of two of the remaining Tarot cards: Death and the Hermit.
Stuart prepared for the drama to come, in which we used two parts of the cave system: a well-lighted entrance chamber and a much deeper and darker passageway leading to the innermost space in the complex.
At the entrance, Stuart’s figure of Death called forward each of the companions in turn. showing them the card and asking them to seek the deeper meaning. He then made a loud signal and I appeared – as The Hermit – at the end of the dark passageway, hooded and with a torch illuminating my face from beneath. I am told the combined effect was dramatic…
The companion had to choose to ‘go beyond death’ to find that the inner room actually looked out over the river (of life).
We had completed our tasks for the day. Outside the caves, in the last of the sunshine, we laughed and shared impressions of the Hero’s journey so far.
My rucksack contained a large flask full of still-hot tea, and some chocolate. These were shared out: appropriate provisions for this stage of the journey.
All we had to do to finish the day was to get back to the cars and then drive to the nearby village of Langwathby and the comfort of the Shepherd’s Inn, where we had an early dinner booked.
Our rest complete, we set off… to find that our companion in difficulty was having trouble walking at all…
We took stock of the situation. There seemed no way she could make it back to the village on foot. My only choice was to leave her in the capable hands of the group and walk as fast as I could back into the village and up the steep road to the Long Meg circle. It had taken 90 minutes the other way, perhaps I could do it in half that, if I walked at a fast pace.
Once there, I could drive the car back to the farm track and hopefully get the car within striking distance of the lady – even if it meant reversing the car for half a mile or so.
I made good time to the edge of the village, only to find that the large gate to the main road was locked. We had earlier passed through the footpath space. All I could do was continue to the car, then try to locate the farmer or another keyholder and explain the emergency.
The day that had gone so well was ending with peril… And it had nothing to do with our planning.
I remember looking up at the sky and asking, silently, for help…
I had an odd and unexpected encounter today. One of those chance meetings that seem small and unimportant yet which leave a mark deeper than we realise at the time. I had wandered over to the next village this afternoon… on a quest for information about a legendary tree…one with a history some two thousand years in its growing. While I did not find the one I was looking for, I found what I needed to know about its eventual demise and unlooked for replacement. Of course, Quainton is a glorious old village with wonderful buildings… and so many overhead cables that getting a decent shot is nigh on impossible. But although I had the inevitable camera in tow, that was not my primary reason for the jaunt. I just needed air. It has been a rough few days.
I met a lovely old gentleman in the churchyard who taught me a lot about the village and showed me the oldest buildings still standing there, telling me of the medieval forge and culvert discovered under one of the houses when it was renovated. We walked through the village together and he told me of how it had changed over the years, pointing out the chaffinches, dragonflies and blue-tits as we walked, and taking time to show me the house-martin’s nests under the eaves of one of the houses. It was a slow, leisurely progress, stopping every few steps for the dog to sniff and my companion to rest. He was a very old man.
It is a mellow place with the traditional village green bordered by cottages whose roofs are sighing with age and the George and Dragon… what else?… looks out to the ancient preaching cross and the windmill that is the most visible landmark of the village.
It is the details that I notice though. The little marks of human hands and humour, like the variety of thatch creatures perched on the roofs, the village pump, or the small crosses carved into the stone of the church by pilgrims who have long since reached their ultimate destination. In many of the churches there are little games carved into the pillars and walls near the pews… often low enough to be out of sight of the officiant. You can imagine small hands surreptitiously working away to make these miniature game boards, whiling away the boredom, perhaps, of a service then in Latin and beyond their reach.
I love the quirkiness of the fads and fancies that traverse the ages… from the civic pomp and ceremony of the Victorians to the graphic representations of death from earlier times.. the memento mori that may appear gruesome or shocking to our eyes today, yet which served as a reminder that in death there is neither princely estate nor poverty… it is the great leveller of all and in the beyond of their belief only the riches of virtue would hold meaning. In an era before the advent of antiseptics and antibiotics, when life was fragile and tenuous and dying not a sanitised process, perhaps they did not shrink as we do today from its presence.
My companion and I stopped before the place that had once been the old rectory, now undergoing renovation. He admired the new capstones on the gateposts while I quietly admired a bronzed and shirtless Adonis worthy of any sculptor’s efforts. The old man asked me suddenly what it was that made me take photographs… what was it I tried to capture? I turned my glance from the flexed and gleaming muscles to the equal and warmer beauty of the wrinkled face and the twinkling, questioning eyes. I had a fleeting vision of the thousands of pictures on my hard drive… birds and flowers, skies and buildings, trees and faces, architecture and hilltops, history and humour…and realised I had never really asked myself that question. For a moment, looking mentally at that dizzying array of images I was at a complete loss. There was, it seemed, no common thread. A mish-mash of images, a plethora of subjects… They are not all pretty pictures, not all are gentle, some are harsh, some wild, some dark… and beauty is such a subjective vision anyway…
Then I saw it, the common denominator, winding through them all, a sparkling cord that bound them together. I chuckled as I understood the Ariadne’s thread that has always led me, I think. “Life,” I answered, still laughing at myself. “I love Life.” My companion smiled and nodded, satisfied, as if he were a teacher and I a dense pupil who had finally understood. Maybe he was right.
We had met for lunch and to discuss School business as usual, then, with the afternoon ahead of us and the weather clearing, we took a walk through the wooded valley close by. It seems a little strange as you stand looking out over the waters of the Derwent Valley, drinking in the quiet peace of a spring afternoon, knowing that this one once a training ground for war.
There are many stories to be told about this series of reservoirs that span the valley, but the most famous has to be that of Operation Chastise that took place 63 years ago, almost to the day. Here, during WWII, Guy Gibson’s 617 Squadron practiced for the famous, if controversial raids on the dams of the Ruhr and Eder valleys in Germany that are better known as the Dambuster raids. The raids were designed to take out the industrial heart of Nazi Germany by attacking the hydroelectric plants and water supplies. They also killed some 600 Germans and a thousand prisoners and forced-labourers and have been heavily criticised in recent years.
I am no advocate for war, nor do I know enough of the facts to judge the political or military value of the operation. Whatever the reasons that determined the targets, the airmen who flew in that operation were simply doing their duty for their country. Politics takes nothing away from individual heroism.
Wing Commader Guy Gibson had, by the time he formed 617 Squadron, flown over 170 bombing and night-fighter missions. He was just 24 years old. Of the 133 aircrew who took part in the raids, little more than boys for the most part, 53 were killed and 3 taken prisoner.
The raids required the use of precision bombing. Torpedo nets protected the dams from conventional attack and a new weapon was developed by Barnes Wallis. Based on the same principles as skimming a stone on water, the Bouncing Bomb had to be dropped at a precise height and speed whilst flying low over the water. A method of sighting was developed where lights, shone onto the surface of the water, indicated the correct altitude.
The Derwent Valley was one of training locations chosen for this dangerous operation due to its similarity to the German terrain. Caught between the steep sided hills, and flying close to the water at night, it must have been a terryfing prospect for the young men in the Lancasters, even without the thought of anti-aircraft fire and German fighter planes.
Gibson himself survived the raids but was killed in action over the Netherlands in September 1944, aged 26. Of the 80 young men who survived the raids, 22 later died serving with 617 Squadron and a further 10 with other units during the war. A memorial to the Dambusters is housed within one of the towers of the Derwent Valley Dam.
It is difficult to encompass the scale of war. Hard to imagine its devastation on a scale of millions. It is the smaller things that bring home the true horror and utter senselessness of global violence. It is stories such as that of a young Jewish girl and her diary, the memories and stories of grandparents who served, the tale of Gibson’s dog, the squadron’s mascot killed by a car the night before the raid… and the photographs of his men, younger than my own sons, called to give life, limb and sanity for their country’s need, that really bring it home. It is through the small things that we feel the need for peace.
I thought you might like a walk through Bowness-on-Windermere. It’s the place that most people think of as ‘Windermere’, but the actual town of Windermere is a 45 min walk up the hill from the lake: the final station on the rail line from Kendal, and as close as the Victorian engineers could get to the lake from the surrounding hills.
Holidaymakers arrive in droves from Easter onwards, so it’s nice for us ‘locals’ to make the most of the Winter quietness. We’re driving to the outskirts of Bowness so that our stroll into the town can incorporate a dog walk and ‘frisbee chuck’ on the hilly pitch-and-put course that wends its way to the ferry point.
We were expecting it to rain the whole day – as it has for the previous two; but the skies are brightening. My trusty iPhone 12 is in hand and I’ll be making this a very visual walk, so you can ‘feel’ the atmosphere of this beautiful place.
After much barking and running – and that’s just me – we cross to the other side of the pitch-and-put course and arrive at the far hillock that overlooks the town of Bowness-on-Windermere (Bowness) and its busy ferry point.
The local council allows dogs on the mini-golf course, which is deeply appreciated. Being a former (but not very good) golfer, I stay off the greens of course!
It’s at this point that we realise that it’s a lot busier down there than it should be on a winter Monday… We share this view with a passing fellow dog-owner who laughs, and reminds us it is both half-term and Valentine’s Day. We remember exchanging cards, and tea in bed, but the school holidays have somehow eluded our radar…
Crestfallen, we descend towards the crowded ferry wharf…and don our Covid masks…
As we near the bottom of the hill, a graceful shape slides through the trees. One of the large passenger ferries is about to dock. You’d think it was summer…
You can take ferries along the whole ten miles of Lake Windermere; from Lakeside, in the south; via Bowness; and on to the northern tip near Ambleside, whose ferry point is Waterhead.
The boat – now seen to be the M.V. Swan – the largest of the passenger boats on the lake – beats us to the dock as we watch its graceful entrance to Bowness. There’s something deeply moving about seeing a large craft like this dock, elegantly.
Ahead of us, the Swan dominates the space, its sheer, white presence lighting up the winter water.
Bernie notices a panel on the side of the ticket office which shows the height of the terrible floods caused by Storm Desmond in 2015. She has me pose with extended elbow to show the water level at the time… The ferry harbour was closed for weeks.
The picture below shows the same place after the floods … Devastating.
It’s time Tess had a drink of water, and we’re due a coffee, so we head along the shore and into the town. We’re about to turn off the road into a Costa Coffee shop (with outside seating for dog owners – we know how to live!) when I notice that the intensity of the ‘holiday’ traffic on this main road has diminished…to nothing.
I turn to view a road empty of traffic and there’s one of the largest articulated lorries I’ve ever seen. It’s slowly climbing up from the ferry point, flanked by an escort car that is racing ahead to halt and disperse all other vehicles.
Tess has been in the adjacent ‘coffee garden’ many times. Terrified of the behemoth roaring up the gradient, she drags me towards the gate…
I manage to grab a final shot of the monster as it rages past, then turn to console the Collie… Large coffees, we think… are they licensed? She nods… we’re a complete synthesis of human and dog. Inseparable.
And that’s about it, really. We amble around the shops, loving Bowness’ artisan back streets and alleyways…
There are even some period arcades, their original woodwork intact…
I always look for some humour on these occasions; something to end the piece with a smile… Here’s today’s offering. The new owner of a shop that’s been there ‘forever’ has repurposed its space.
I’ve expanded their wonderful (and I’m sure tongue-in-cheek) tag line in the image below…
Next time you need that unique sterling silver statement jewellery with repurposed attitude, you know it’s time you visited Bowness-on-Windermere… love it!
On Thursday I drove north in sunshine. The hedgerows are fuzzed with the first tender, tentative leaves. Catkins sway in the breeze and even the untended verges beside the road wear a garland of flowers.
You could be forgiven for thinking that it was spring. Officially the vernal equinox was still to occur and, in our usual, unplanned manner, my writing partner and I would greet the changing season together.
England is green. She is always green, but in springtime there is a vibrancy and a possibility in her myriad shades. Creatures both wild and domesticated seem to revel in her freshness and beauty just as much as we do.
In every field there is new life… furred, feathered and rooted in earth. The lambs are a delight to watch, though the ewes warn away any who come too close to their domain. Some are already rounded and playful, others newborn and still unsteady on their feet, discovering for the first time the scent of grass.
Every bush and tree is alive. Buds point their spears at the sky as if to ward off winter weather, birds dive through the branches and the morning is filled with their song.
Squirrels risk life and limb where country lanes lead through the woodlands. Hawks sail the warmer skies and nests that have lain silent now see prospective tenants inspecting their comforts.
Celandines and daisies star the banks and anemones shelter beneath the trees. Early cherries and thorns are in bloom, pink and white against the black bark. Every village green is gilded.
I could have taken the motorway and saved myself a couple of hours driving… but where would be the joy of that? It is spring in England…