Letters Home: Christmas 1999
I’ve tried hard to avoid this theme in the past, but I think there’s no getting around it now: We’re settling down. Maybe it’s the rhythms of rural life, or the fact that autumn has just arrived, but our pace and routine is decidedly middle-aged.
1999 began as hectic as ever with Jane attending sculpture school at Stoke-on-Trent, commuting 200 miles to Newcastle University to teach for 2 days, and coming home on weekends. We had moved into a new house and I started a new job. It was still raining; the roads were flooding. At night we could hear the thunder of boulders bouncing down the river. But in March, Jane came home. In April the sun came out, and we finally got down to the business of living in the country.
Cowgill lies at the far end of Dentdale, 9 winding miles outside Sedbergh. We boast of the brewery of Britain’s best Christmas bitter, England’s highest train station, and a chapel whose history somehow involves William Gladstone and Queen Victoria. On our way into town we pass Green Cottage, home of our local gamekeeper. As is the tradition, he advertises his trade by displaying his quarry from a fence outside his home. This is one of our landmarks into Sedbergh. Bevan once described it casually as, “you know, that twisty bit in the road, where that old guy hangs his weasels.”
Our house is a teensy 4-room terrace in a former knitting factory on the River Dee. An open coal fireplace in the kitchen is our only source of heat. Jane, who is a dab hand at these sorts of things, has taught me how to maintain a fire: stoking it up with ‘washed doubles’, banking it down with ‘slack’, keeping the right amount of ash in the pan so it ‘ticks over steady’, transferring the heat to the back boiler to warm the radiators in the house. Once you get the hang of it, you can keep a single fire for weeks. (Witness middle age: I didn't bungee-jump or pierce my nipple this year, but I kept a fire going for 3 weeks!). It’s the warmest house we’ve lived in – and the smallest. Fortunately, the barn is just a half mile up the road. We are beginning to get some real use out of it. I’ve made some furniture this year that I am quite pleased with. Bevan has his own workshop with a bench and tools. He is getting quite adept at disassembly: he's removed the components of all his electronic toys (much to the frustration of his parents). We’ve promised him he can have our car after it dies so he can turn it into a helicopter. He and two friends have it all figured out: 1) warn the police that some 9-year-olds will be piloting an old van in the sky, and 2) charge customers £2 to cover the cost of in-flight peanuts.
Bevan flew to America by himself in July to summer with his grandparents. I was completely sold by the line that kids can fly without their parents, and Bevan believed us when we told him nothing could go wrong. He had the concentration and resolve of a prizefighter about to enter the ring as we kissed him goodbye at the metal detectors. But Jane and I became gibbering wrecks unable to leave the airport until the plane was airborne. Instead of going on the razzle we drove straight home and lurked about the phone waiting to hear that he arrived safely. Bevan had a fantastic time and will emigrate to America as soon as possible to the land of fun, ice cream and no clothes.
Our house and workshops lie at the base of Whernside, the highest peak in the Yorkshire Dales. This summer Jane and I climbed it and discovered a pair of tarns – 2 large lakes at the top of the fell. The idea that bodies of water existed 2000 feet above us captured my imagination, and I was determined to swim them. So, the following week I cajoled my brother-in-law, Rog to join me. It was a hot 2-hour climb to the top and we wasted no time stripping off our clothes and rushing into the… diving into the… wandering around the … puddle -- they weren’t more than 2 feet deep. So here were these two old guys standing naked in knee-deep water on the top of a treeless mountain, arms outstretched, shouting, “I’m king of the world!”
Having conquered the top of Whernside, I had to take on the bottom. Ibbeth Peril is a gorge and waterfall just below our barn. The locals call it ‘Ibby Pearl’ and say that a witch lives in a cave under the falls. My friend, Chris Payne, the blacksmith/woodworker (and now foundryman – he just built himself a cupola and is pouring cast iron up by the train station) insisted he take me into Ibby’s home. You enter the cave through a tiny hole on the bank of the river. I wonder aloud if I will bump into any large burrowing animals, but I’m assured not. “This cave fills with water whenever the river’s high.” (How comforting.) Once through, the hole widens and flattens out into a broad slit, which requires crawling on your belly over wet rock for about 40 feet. Suddenly, the place opens into an amphitheatre some 60 feet in diameter and 30 feet tall. Up in the corners where the floodwaters can’t reach are stalactites – real ones! Just like in the caves you pay to go into! We never saw Ms Pearl, but we did meet Roy, the local electrician. He is the self-appointed caretaker of the Ibbeth caves and comes down after most floods to clear out the clogged passages. Roy emerged feet-first from a hole that I swear was no bigger than my computer screen, dragging a plastic paint bucket cut down the middle and filled with mud. By the way, I learned at my own expense that cavers here are bemused by the word ‘spelunking’ and dismiss it as one of those American terms that make things grander than they really need to be – like 'hiking' and 'wind chill factor'.
Living in rural Northwest England offers up a constant mix of time and progress. Our neighbour Johnny Akrigg takes hay in traditional bales using 50-year-old machinery. Across the river, the Gornalls have modern silage machinery using tractors that are too big to cross our tiny stone bridge, and make giant shrink-wrapped silage bales each weighing 2 tons. After all the hay is in you will find the Gornalls in Church; Johnny will be in a lawn chair with a bottle of whisky laughing into a mobile phone. We know a couple down the dale - a journalist and a lawyer - who practice virtually from their home computers, while our 72 year old friend, Billy Haygarth, still wears pointy steel-toed clogs designed in some previous century to kick potatoes up out of the earth.
Somewhere among these eras is me and my job as technician at the private and privileged Sedbergh School. Founded in 1525 this is one of those schools steeped in tradition and wealth. One German lad, who had been spending a lot of time on Flight Simulator, told me that he had recently inherited five airplanes. The grandson of the king of Saudi Arabia is here too. But they all call me 'Sir'. The Design Centre, where I work, is completely equipped for woodwork, all types of metalwork, electronics and computer-aided systems and controls. I am obliged to learn how to use all this stuff. I’ve been helping one boy build a steady cam and advising another in the design of a chess board with a cabinet which remains locked until the pieces are arranged in a certain way. Having spent my previous years in state schools with miniscule budgets, I feel guilty having the time and money to do a job right.
Mind you, there isn’t much financial payoff for us in any of these activities. We try to use this beautiful countryside and odd lifestyle as justification for our meagre earnings, and most of the time it works. Other times we are baffled at how much energy can produce so little. Somewhere we should have learned how to make a better living with less effort, but as Bevan said when we discovered he didn’t understand fractions, “I think I was on the toilet when they taught that.”
Can I borrow your notes?
This is a view of Cowgill taken from the Dent Train Station. Our tiny flat is in the old knitting factory on the river (oval in the photo). Rivling, the barns and 5 acres is in the L-shaped box.