Four our three-year anniversary G came to stay for a few days in York, but on the day itself we found ourselves in our favourite place: the Lake District, on a quest for happy memories and gingerbread.
We wake at five in the morning and are on our way by six-thirty. The morning is dark and ferocious; rain whips against the windscreen as we pull out of the drive and make our way to the A64. We’re quiet. We expect the sunrise as we wind our way north through the Pennines but it doesn’t come; it’s as though somebody has flicked the world into greyscale, but it’s too late to turn back now.
The journey doesn’t feel as long as it is. We curve around the eastern arch of the Lake District and enter from the north, pulling down to Ullswater through the dramatic fellscape. The rain has slowed, lakeland’s colours muted. We drive slowly; there’s no rush.
The National Trust car park at Aira Force is empty: even the shop and tearoom are closed today. It is not yet nine-am. We wander, in dampened clothes but not spirits, down the track and through the gate. It is so still, but the forest burns blush-bronze, as if the distant thunder of the Force somehow heightens the very colours of its woodland home. The copper leaves barely rustle beneath our feet as we tread hand-in-hand through the gentle rain and still air, following the rushing river back towards the rumble of the waterfall. There is nobody here but us.
We pass the money trees – logs with pennies hammered into their bark by previous visitors – and wonder if we might be able to find the two-penny piece we drove into the damp wood on our first visit here two and a half years ago. But the thrill of the fall to come drives us onwards, away from the bleak misty landscape around Ullswater and through the bright woodland.
Rather than climb and take the bridge atop the fall, we descend the aged stone steps and walk alongside the water which hurries away from us and our destination. Though we know what we are about to see – it is my third time here – we are taken aback as we wander across the wooden bridge and suddenly come face to face with the waterfall.
It has been here for longer than either of us can begin to imagine and here it will remain long after we have ceased to exist. It is relentless and never-ending and always the-same-but-different. White water rushes to the edge and crashes downwards, hammering a large rock jutting out on the left-hand side; it lands on a small ledge but continues to race downwards, flooding into the pool at the foot of the Force where, just for a second, everything seems still. The dark water mills around as if unsure of its own direction before succumbing to the magnetic pull of the current.
As we ascend the steps up to the higher path there’s an odd sense of accomplishment and weightlessness; the noise of the Force retreats into the background and the woodland seems to come that bit more alive. We look back from the top towards the smoky water, the peach-pink leaves interwoven with the heather, and the mystical bridge that belongs in a fairytale. Already it feels as if we were never really there.
We take the long-familiar road to Keswick. The rain has stopped and we catch sight of brief wisps of blue between the clouds as we travel. I photograph from the passenger seat, hoping to catch at least an essence of the astonishing beauty we are driving through; when I see the photographs later I will laugh in amazement at how accurately my faithful little camera has captured the scene.
The town’s regular market is in full swing when we arrive, but there’s none of the hustle and bustle we’re used to today; instead the cobbled streets are quiet, trod by people we realise are probably local to the area. The whole town seems larger, more open, and more real.
The cafe we choose is one I’ve passed before but only ever seen with a queue out the door. Today though there’s only the owner working on her laptop next to the bar, all too happy to serve us much-needed coffee and sausage sandwiches. When we leave sunlight washes over us, the world refreshed as us, and we make our way back to the car for the drive to Grasmere.
Grasmere is where all this started – a spark of an idea, a joke really, some months before, where one of us suggested that instead of gifts we drive to the Lake District on our anniversary to buy the best gingerbread in the world. At the time we laughed because we’d both had the same idea separately, and even though we’d been joking something in each of us knew in that moment that that was exactly what we were going to do.
So now here we are, wandering down the well-trodden streets of Wordsworth’s old town, over the bridge, past the church and eventually arriving at the old school where William and Dorothy once taught. It dates back to the 1630s, but today it’s the home of Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread. Nelson was a Victorian cook who, according to the website, invented this particular gingerbread recipe in 1854, and it continues to be sold today alongside a collection of ginger-based foods, drinks and even soaps.
For the first time we walk straight into the shop without having to queue, and as ever are warmly welcomed, basking for a few seconds in the divine scent of gingerbread. We both buy a pack of twelve slices and I pick up a pot of hand-cream for Mum, and then we take a wander around my favourite little town, pausing in Wordsworth’s daffodil garden to enjoy our purchases.
We decide hot chocolate is in order, so indulge ourselves in the wonderful Heidi’s Grasmere Lodge for a while as we plan what to do next. The truth is we both know the answer; we’re not ready to drive back yet. We meander through the town, pausing for photographs given the rarity of it being so quiet and soft, and find ourselves back at the car.
Our destination is a tiny National Trust car park, a beach right on the edge of Derwentwater, called Kettlewell. You’ll pass it on the road out of Keswick towards the Borrowdale Valley, where I first fell in love with the Lake District. It’s our preferred spot to set off in the kayaks and watch the sunset with Keswick fish and chips in the summertime, but today we’re here just to watch the sky’s reflection in the lake and the world pass by.
The light is unbelievably soft. Gentle pinks and blues melt into each other as the lake laps towards our feet. In the distance the snow-capped peak of Skiddaw peeps above the clouds as if to say hello, and we point out Catbells and her neighbour, Maiden Moor, which we accidentally climbed on our first visit here. We can just about see our beloved Manesty, and reminisce about those oh-so-early days.
A family of swans is drifting in the distance and as I photograph I hope aloud that they might just come a little closer. There’s an image in my head that I’m certain I won’t capture, but there’s magic in the air and the birds inch gently towards us, curving round the edge of the pebbled beach. I’m wary in case the parents are protective of their speckled signet, but they pay little attention to us or my shutterclicks.
We watch together as the light fades, and I put my camera away so I can just be here, in my happy place with my love. As we turn to leave there’s the familiar old tug on my heart. The lake whispers to me to stay; the fell-shadows wrap me up, safe in their watchfulness. But we drive away promising a next time before we’ve pulled out of Kettlewell.
As we pick up speed and the fells fade away into memory I skim through the images on my camera, pausing at one particular image from Kettlewell. I’m reminded as ever of the enchantment of the Lake District. I know all too well how this is a place where wishes come true, and today lakeland was more than happy to oblige.