DAY 5: BATTERSEA TO…
My initial feeling about getting a rental in England was don’t be a wuss. Be a real traveler. I’ve driven a stick shift all over Sicily, including in Palermo where people will drive toward you in your own lane.
DRIVING IN ENGLAND, EPISODE 1: FINDING REVERSE
After many attempts, Google is consulted. Apparently the stick shift in our Fiat 500 has a little cock ring on it. To get the car into reverse, you squeeze and pull the ring up while sliding the shifter toward the right.
We lurch into London traffic. An hour later, we breach the city limits, and chug onto the highway, where I keep the clutch lightly engaged at all times. Another couple of hours later, I clonk gracelessly to a stop two-thirds of the way into a parking space at a rest area and try to run away from the car.
DRIVING IN ENGLAND, EPISODE 2: THE PASSENGER SIDE
More frightening than the driver’s side is the passenger side, where it seems clear that the driver is a murderous lunatic with no peripheral vision. After a few gasps and scrabbles at the dashboard, my partner looks at me, both hands clutching the steering wheel and says drily, “I know.”
DRIVING IN ENGLAND, EPISODE 3: DON’T USE SAT NAV
Another one of my “real traveler” beliefs is that being led around by the nose by your GPS is boring, especially if you are on foot. Also, I’ve read somewhere that—while reading a map will spark a new neural pathway, ensuring brain plasticity—GPS does not.
Sadly, I am a terrible navigator.
Five and a half hours in to our journey, we find ourselves at a crossroad: pitch black night at the top of a stony hill, sheep bedding down, and the road we’re supposed to take is closed. The other road has a large sign picturing a VW van that says “Travelers, don’t use SAT NAV.” That’s it. Not, “This way to the feckless fens of Yarble.” Just a friendly, “You’re fucked.”
We take the “no satellite navigation” road, rather than drive the Cinquecento into a pit. I’m a bit surprised my partner, the more practical person, isn’t insisting we just find our way to what passes for an actual road. Stony hillside and irked sheep give way to hedgerows and then, stone walls.
DRIVING IN ENGLAND, EPISODE 4: BADGER!
A badger appears in the lane! At the approach of the car, it completely flips out. Throwing anxious glances over one stripey shoulder, the badger waddle jogs ahead of us at full tilt. I decide the lights must be freaking it out, and stop the car. The badger stops, too, facing forward.
“What are you doing?” my partner asks.
“I’m going to turn off the lights.”
“They are freaking him out.” (Now badger is a he. Not sure why.)
I can’t figure out how to turn the lights off.
I start the car, and the badger starts scooting frantically down the lane. Stop/start. Stop/start. Finally, he finds a spot that’s low enough to scramble over a stone wall and disappears into the night. I am delighted. Sheep, hedgerows, stone walls, badgers? Does it get more English than this?
Finally, we arrive in Ravenglass, a tiny village located at the estuary of three rivers, the Esk, the Mite, and the Irt. Yes. It is as perfect as it sounds. It isn’t until we’re safely checked into our room that my partner tells me our “out of gas” light as been on for twenty kilometers.
DAY 6: MUNCASTER CASTLE
The reason we’re at an estuary on the edge of the Lakes District instead of at one of the many allegedly very beautiful lakes is because, while researching the Lakes District, I learned about a castle with a hawk and owl center dedicated to conservation and building awareness about various endangered species of raptor.
When I tried to tell my partner about this I got so excited I burst into tears.
So. We eat a traditional English breakfast (I’m a good eater, but this is a gruesome assortment of foods) and set off for the castle. Acres of gardens, including a “High Himalayan” garden (cue amateur English botanist) filled with enormous rhododendrons. Then, we walk through a long meadow and past a “Vole Maze” which invites young children to imagine what it is like to be prey.
And then, the castle. It is super castle-ey.
HELP THE VULTURES!
After lunch, we visit the hawks and owls. Owls, mostly, as the other birds are getting ready for their performance.
Now, if you will, imagine the cutest, most perfect creature you have ever seen. Imagine that creature is taking a nap on a bentwood perch. This creature is the African White-Faced Owl. Watching it sleep, I feel an excitement that verges on hysteria.
Next door, and squarely in the running for the other cutest creature, is a burrowing owl, a tiny little dude standing on a stump, torn between watching us and keeping an eye on the mouth of his burrow, where he has dragged a half-chewed vole to tempt insects, his preferred snack
I know. It’s too much.
But there’s more. Around two-thirty we are summoned by some wildly goofy event music—something in between “Ride of the Valkyries” and “Here Comes the Bride”—to the afternoon flying display. On the lawn in front of the castle, a woman stands with a bald eagle. Living in Maine, I’ve seen a fair number of eagles. One day, driving down from Washington County, I saw five. But flying low over a field in front of a castle and landing directly in front of us is a whole new level of eagle. We also see an Asian Eagle Owl named Gaston, a large blue-grey falcon, a small brown and white falcon. I know I’m losing bird points by not remembering what the falcons are called. But that mental space is now occupied by the critical situation of the hooded vulture. The final flight is two vultures, and we learn their essential role in the food chain, why they are bald, why their heads turn pink, and about their sociable natures. Help the vultures!
Awkward transition to the castle.
I’ve never been super interested in the staged homes of enormously wealthy families. It always seems like they’ve taken out all the good stuff and left behind a lot of portraits of their ancestors. The family in question here is the Penningtons. Here’s a couple of ’em.
DAY 7: ST. BEES
St. Bees Head. Rusty cliffs overlooking the Irish sea. Sheep everywhere. Walk to a lighthouse. All boxes checked.
DRIVING IN ENGLAND, EPISODE 5: THE ROLLING START
I’d forgotten about what can happens when you start chugging up a really steep hill in too high a gear and have to downshift with your left hand. The dreaded roll—in the rearview, I see the village of St. Bees like a prize at the bottom of a well we are about to roll backwards into, and take the hill in second gear, transmission screaming.
On to Wast Water, glacial lake surrounded by craggy dark fells, with black rock scree sliding down the sides.
More hedgerows, more stone walls. Rounding each blind corner, I lay on the horn. A stop at the Wasdale Head Inn. Flocked velvet upholstered benches, trophy cabinet, empty except for two guys at the bar and a very old farmer with ruddy cheeks and nose who gets a pint and sits at his table. Ten minutes later another very old farmer walks in, gets a pint, and sits next to farmer number one. They chat briefly, like men who have already told each other everything. Then farmer number two falls asleep with his eyes open and snores gently.
Then we rescue a lady who has injured her knee, frighten her badly by driving her to her car, and leave Wast Water feeling quite heroic.
We two heroes return to Ravenglass and go to the pub.