William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) lived a century apart and in two very different cultures, at opposite ends of the world. Yet, there were great resonances between the two; the most obvious similarity between Wordsworth and Basho is that they were both walker-poets. Walking for both created an interaction between the traveller and the landscape. Basho made several journeys in Japan and his greatest haibun, travel diary with haiku, was his masterpiece Oku no Hosomichi, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’.
Recently, I made my own journey to the north, revisiting the Lakeland scenery of Cumbria, that my father grew up in. It was a search to find one’s roots and ancestry. My grandmother was from a family that lived near Ullswater, the second largest of the Lakes, in a village called Dacre. It had been many years since I had been in the Lake District; after a five hour drive up from Wiltshire, we arrived in the quiet hamlet of Howtown on the shore of Ullswater and stayed in a charming hotel with an old world feel. The next morning, we climbed Hallin Fell, the craggy, heather, moss and fern-covered mountain that overlooked the southern end of the lake. The view from the top was magnificent as we watched the wind ripple across the lake.
We drove around the lake passing the place that inspired one of Wordsworth’s most celebrated poems, ‘Daffodils’.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze
After a brief visit to the village of Hawkshead, to see the Beatrix Potter gallery and to Coniston Water, to see Brantwood, the home of the eminent Victorian artist and critic, John Ruskin, we arrived at Grasmere, one of the smaller lakes, to see Dove Cottage, where the poet William Wordsworth lived with his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth. Dove cottage, covered with climbing roses, honeysuckle and its tiny latticed windows, provided a fascinating insight into the poet’s life. Without the dark polished oak of the downstairs interior, the upstairs sitting room was brighter and was the room where Wordsworth wrote his poems.There was a room next to it , which was William’s bedroom and also an adjacent guest room which would have been where fellow poets, Samuel Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey and Sir Walter Scott, would have stayed.
Next to Dove Cottage was the Wordsworth museum, which happened to have an exhibition entitled ‘Wordswoth and Basho: Walking Poets’, an interesting exhibit that compared the two poets:
For both Basho and Wordsworth, ‘man’ and nature were intertwined in a great oneness with the earth and with the heavens. In Wordsworth ‘s writing, there are elements of pantheism; in Basho, Zen.
(from Book XIV of The Prelude, an account of an ascent of Mt. Snowdon)
The Moon stood naked in the Heavens, at height
Immense above my head, and on the shore
I found myself of a huge sea of mist,
Which, meek and silent, rested at my feet:
A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
All over this still Ocean, and beyond,
Far, far beyond, the vapours shot themselves,
In headlands, tongues and promontory shapes,
Into the Sea, the real Sea, that seemed
To dwindle, and give up its majesty,
Usurp’d upon as far as sight could reach.
(from Oku no Hosomichi, an account of an ascent of Mt. Gassan)
I climbed Mt. Gassan on the eighth … I walked through mists and clouds, breathing the thin air
of high altitudes and stepping on slippery ice and snow, till at last through a gateway of clouds,
as it seemed, to the very paths of the sun and the moon, I reached the summit, completely out
of breath and nearly froze to death. Presently the sun went down and the moon rose glistening
in the sky.
Like Wordsworth, Basho writes of a direct and deep engagement with nature. Though both are ‘nature poets’, they are also concerned with ‘cultured nature’, the people they met on the road. They were motivated by a desire for a deeper quality of awareness, in their choice to turn away from the conventional and materialistic expectations of their societies.
After Grasmere, we drove back over the stunning Kirkstone pass from Windermere to Ullswater, this road had fabulous views down to the vale below and is known as the highest pass in England. Stopping at a windswept pine tree, I took a few photos of the vale with its drystone walled road and the lake in the distance.
At sunset we enjoyed visiting some relations who lived near Pooley Bridge at the other end of Ullswater, and we admired the magnificent view from the house; I was also thrilled to discover the place where my Uncle Julian painted a Lakeland landscape, that hangs in my sitting room.
Next morning, we drove up towards Wigton to visit Sir Chris Bonington, one of icons of the Lake District and of the mountaineering world. It was a tremendous honour to meet Sir Christopher, who has climbed the world’s highest and most challenging mountains; luckily I had an opportunity to serve him a fine bowl of whisked matcha tea in a tea bowl that I had made. At the age of eighty, he seemed to be in good spirits, a very warm and gentle person.
Next on our journey, we headed towards the town of Keswick, passing the high Skiddaw peak and Bassenthwaite Lake, the only one of the lakes that is actually called a lake; the others are meres, tarns or water. We stopped for lunch at Mirehouse, home of the Spedding family; it was a place that notable Victorian poets gathered, including Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson and was the place where he wrote ‘Morte D’Arthur’, about the legend of the Camelot, the sword of Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake.
Through Keswick, our road lead alongside Derwentwater and down through the Borrowdale valley, cloaked in bottle-green pastures, stitched together by mile upon mile of drystone walls; the scenery had began to take on a sublime beauty, the kind of wild majesty of places that are untouched by man. It was as though we were driving though a fantastic oil painting; the high pass of wind-lashed Honister was vast and remote, far from civilization, with a scattering of Herdwick sheep, grazing in the vale, punctuated by a scree of slate.
We descended into Buttermere valley, with its jagged skyline, to find accomodation for the night and discovered an idyllic house overlooking nearby Crummock Water. This was truly the most magical bed & breakfast in the whole of England; my room looked out over the lake. Later I discovered that Crummock Water was painted by the 19th painter W.M. Turner. We went to the local Fish Inn in Buttermere, dining on Cumberland sausages and mash, washed down with two pints of ale from Jennings brewery in Cockermouth.
Next morning, after a delicious English cooked breakfast prepared by our hosts, we headed further west to tackle the most infamous stretch of road in Cumbria, known as the Wrynose and Hardknott passes. The road is described as a roller-coaster ride with 30 percent gradients and a heart stopping series of sharp and narrow bends. Somehow, without much trouble, I reached the top of the high pass to enjoy the wild view. Now I had the challenge of descending the equally windy road down, this is where the trouble began: it seemed that the car engine had stalled and I was rolling down, pressing heavily on the breaks, and struggling with the steering; at the bottom, I realized that I had forgot to turn the engine on and had rolled down in neutral, somehow I survived!
Passing a few hill farms with their knot of cottages, we headed for the town of Kendal, known locally as the Auld Grey Town, thanks to the limestone and slate used in its buildings. We stopped by at the Quaker Meeting House for lunch and got some of the sweet and pepperminty treat, Kendal mint cake.
The curtain of rain that followed us, as we descended the fells had now cleared, but it was time to sadly bid farewell to Lakeland; we had one more stop on our journey before returning to Wiltshire. Lancaster had been home to the Barrow family for generations, being the place that my grandfather lived. The Barrows had been successful in the Industrial Revolution and had owned a linoleum factory. We visited the house that my father was born in and another that he lived in until the age of ten.
With such fond memories of our ‘Road North’ , we returned back to Wiltshire late that night.
Haiku by LB:
A moonlight lake –
fleecy clouds reflected
I dip my quill
his beard, dipped
though a curtain of rain
A tiny pebble –
on the cairn
higher than Scafell Pike