Winter Holiday by Bruin Fisher – Day 1
It all started very early in the morning on the first full day of our long weekend holiday. Before dawn I got up, dressed quickly and quietly, and left the cottage to climb to the tarn on the hillside, my camera in its rucksack on my back and my sister Claire in tow. I'd suggested it the night before and Claire had jumped at the chance to go with me. It was supposed to be a family holiday and I didn't want to split us up too much, but I knew Mum and Dad wouldn't make it up the hill and wouldn't want to try, so I suggested a very early trek up there, returning in time for a late breakfast and enough of the day left for us to go out as a family.
You see, I'm a bit of a photography enthusiast, and a short break in the Lake District in January was too good an opportunity to miss. It has to be the most picturesque region in Britain and right out of the tourist season there's such beautiful scenery that I really wanted to do my best to get some really classy photos. Perhaps good enough to hang on the walls at home, or even to sell for a profit. I've always wanted to try earning my living from photography – but I don't have a lot of confidence and you need plenty of that!
The trouble with photography is that it's a bit anti-social. You have to lug such a lot of kit with you, and every time you come to a good spot you get it all out and assemble it, take readings and choose a viewpoint, and a lens, and any filters you're going to use. Take a few shots, chimp them on the rear screen, then take them again with different settings in case you didn't get it right first time. Dismantle, pack away, and on to the next picture. It's a great way to spend a day on your own or with other photographers, but it's torture to put the family through. So I don't do it when I'm with Mother, Dad and Claire usually. I just take my camera body with a megazoom lens attached, and no tripod or any other bits. And I take holiday snapshots. Serious photography I reserve for when I'm on my own. I'm on my own a lot.
I was grateful to Claire for offering to accompany me on a 'serious photography' expedition. She's great and for some reason she thinks the world of me. So there we were, Claire and I, about two miles from the cottage and way up high on the mountainside, at this beautiful tarn, a small lake perched on the side of the hill, the wind rippling its surface and the dawn gradually filling the valley below us with pink light. It was breathtaking up there and I was soon charging around the place with my three-legged octopus, taking shot after shot, trying to get as many good pictures before the wonderful dawn light turned into full daylight and lost its magical quality.
I've seen Herdwick sheep before so I wasn't too surprised when I saw a small flock of them up near the tarn. If you haven't seen Herdwicks though you need to know that these don't look like any other sheep. You know what a sheep looks like, right? White woolly things, long faces, goofy looks? Sometimes you come across a black one, but have you seen them chocolate brown? Yes Herdwick sheep are chocolate brown with long coarse hair and white faces and spindly legs sticking out from under their thick furry underbellies. They do look silly but apparently they're uniquely suited to the Lake District weather (the highest annual rainfall in Britain – and that's saying something!) and do very well there. You've heard of Beatrix Potter, the Victorian children's writer? She came to live in the Lake District, took up farming and became a world authority on Herdwick sheep. When she died she left vast amounts of land that she'd accumulated to the National Trust, the big British heritage charity, and the NT have been looking after the Lake District ever since, which is one reason the place is still so beautiful, and not covered in industrial sprawl or housing estates.
What caught my eye about this flock of sheep was not their funny white faces looking out from above the big russet brown balls of wool which are their bodies, nor even the way they blended with the brown bracken that covers the hills from about October onwards until the new green growth in the spring. My eye was caught by the solitary man leaning back against the dry stone wall at the corner of the field just passively looking at the sheep. Like Claire and me, he was well wrapped up against the winter cold, but unlike us, the colours of his clothes blended with his surroundings so you wouldn't notice him from a distance at all, particularly standing as still as he was. I watched him for some time and he didn't budge once. He had a stick. Not anything fancy you could call a shepherd's crook, just a stick, not much shorter than his six foot or so, and with a fork in the top that he had his left thumb crooked into, and his fingers wrapped around the stick below the fork. He had his chin resting on his fist supported by the stick, and his other hand was behind his bottom, cushioning him against the wall behind him. He wore khaki cord trousers tucked into grey marl boot socks in sturdy-looking walking boots. He had a green waxed cotton jacket, with a brown corduroy collar turned up against the bitter wind but he didn't look cold. Either he had a lot of layers on under the coat or he was big built – actually he'd need to be quite a lot overweight if he was filling that coat without two or three jerseys underneath! He wore nothing on his head and his blond curly hair blew around over a lightly tanned face that I couldn't see very well from my vantage point but I knew I'd like to see closer. I couldn't tell his age but from his posture and his full head of blond hair he had to be young. Everything about him spoke to me of contentment and I envied this stranger his life.
I pulled myself together out of my daydream and told myself to get real. I knew nothing about the guy and he might have a life less happy and fulfilled than mine. It never really works for me when I do that – to date my life hasn't been particularly happy or fulfilled so it's not a strong argument. But I took some more pictures, including the shepherd in some of them, the back view so he wouldn't know I'd taken his picture. Then I re-joined Claire who'd been taking some pictures of her own on her point-and-shoot compact and we hiked back down to the cottage in time for breakfast.
I don't really do breakfast except on holiday, and particularly at the Grasmere cottage we always have a full English to start the day and I love it. The smell of frying bacon as we walked in the door was heavenly.
Our holiday cottage is on the outskirts of Grasmere village which is at the head of Grasmere, one of the smaller lakes and in an extension of the valley that contains Windermere, the largest of the lakes and the biggest inland body of water in England at 11 miles long. North of Windermere is Rydal Water, and North again from Rydal is Grasmere. Windermere is the tourist trap and very commercialised, Grasmere is much quieter in season and to my mind much nicer. This visit in January of course, the whole region is pretty much tourist-free. Not many people are like us, mad enough to come in the depths of winter. Actually it was our first time in winter, although we've been in the spring, summer or autumn most years for as long as I can remember.
A family conference over the breakfast table established our itinerary for the day. We would go into Grasmere in the morning to buy postcards, return to the cottage for a light lunch, write our postcards, I would be sent back into the village to post the cards and the old folks would nap in the afternoon before going across the road to the Italian restaurant for a meal in the evening. A gentle schedule for our first day – and since Claire and I had already done some energetic stuff we were happy with the plan.
As you walk from our cottage into the centre of the village, one of the first shops you come to is a tiny building built into the wall of the churchyard. It's a bit of a tourist attraction, and sells Grasmere Gingerbread. It's the only place in the world you can buy it, but there's a reason for that: it's not very nice. Me, I like anything ginger flavoured, but Grasmere Gingerbread isn't like anything else I've come across called gingerbread. It's basically ginger flavoured cardboard. Even so, we buy some each time we come to Grasmere, and take it home and hand it out to friends and relatives to show we were thinking about them on our holiday. Well, Mother and Claire do, anyway. Perhaps it's a girl thing. I wouldn't know.
So of course we fetched up at the Grasmere Gingerbread shop on our way in to buy postcards. But by this time Mother had one of her headaches coming on and didn't want to go into the shop which is a bit small and smells strongly of baking so I offered to buy the gingerbread, and catch the others up after I returned.
I have to duck to get into the shop because the doorway is low and I'm just under 6ft, and once in the shop there's room for about three people on our side of the counter, and about the same amount of space the other side of the counter. Lots of tourist attractions in the Lake District close for the winter but the gingerbread shop is open all year round. They don't get much custom in the shop in the winter but they do a lot of mail order business so they stay open. I was the only customer and there was nobody serving behind the counter when I walked in but the door rang a bell and a young guy breezed in from the bakery at the back of the shop almost immediately. He smiled broadly at me and with not a trace of a Westmorland accent asked “What can I do for you sir?” I love it when someone calls me Sir – I've never felt like a Sir and it feels all wrong but I like it anyway. I looked at him and returned his smile in return for the 'sir'. I asked for six small gift packs of gingerbread and he quickly and efficiently wrapped them, bagged them and handed them across the counter. I gave him cash, not sure if they would take plastic.
There's supposed to be a sixth sense – a 'gaydar' that gay people have that helps them identify other gay people. I think mine is cross-wired. I seem to be able to spot a lesbian pretty reliably but I usually can't tell a gay man from a lamp post. And identifying lesbians doesn't help my social life at all.
Anyway there in the gingerbread shop my gaydar was bleeping. This guy the other side of the counter was younger than me, probably early twenties, and about 5ft 8, slightly built, almost delicate, with dark brown straight hair tucked under one of those white mesh Trilby hats that food handlers have to wear. He had clear pale skin and dark eyes with a real cheeky sparkle in them and I think he was enjoying that I was looking at him the way I was. I have to say I took an instant liking to him with his infectious smile and go-for-it attitude. Not that he would be my type, mind you – I don't go for the pale and delicate type. Cute, but not my type. Anyway, hoping that my gaydar wasn't misbehaving I said hello.
It turned out his name's Stephen, he's a local lad who's lived down south for the last six years and he's at Bristol Uni studying nursing. His family own the shop and he spends most of his holidays helping out. He had to be back in Bristol by Monday for the start of the next term. I didn't find out if he's gay. Didn't matter anyway – he was going home Monday and I was going home Tuesday. No time to make friends.
I remembered I had to catch up with the family and buy my postcards so I grabbed my purchase and shot out the door, banging my head painfully as I went. So Stephen wasn't the only one who left an impression on me.
Why do people buy postcards? Particularly, why do I buy postcards? If the photos I take home after a holiday are not better than the hackneyed old views in garish colours offered in the shops then I should sell all my equipment and give up photography. But for some reason you have to buy – and send – postcards, just to let your friends, colleagues, neighbours know where you've been. It's tradition, I guess, and who am I to buck tradition?
I caught up with the others and we enjoyed a couple of hours mooching around the Grasmere shops. Even though all the tourist shops were closed there was still plenty for the women to look at. I bought my cards at the first shop we passed that was selling them. Dad had already bought his before I joined them. So after that he and I went and sat in a little cafe while the girls kept going. When eventually they returned, exhausted but happy, we ambled back to the cottage and Claire made us soup and rolls for lunch.
After lunch we all wrote our cards, then Mother and Dad wanted to nap, Claire settled to reading her book and I was sent back to the village to post the cards. I walked straight to the Post Office and bought stamps. Then I sat on a bench on the edge of the village green sticking stamps to the cards and watching some kids playing soccer. When I'd stamped all the cards I walked around the green to the pillarbox outside the post office and posted them.
I was surprised how much activity there was in a small village outside the tourist season. Apart from the kids on the green there was another little group of children on bikes talking outside the newsagent. A delivery van driver was checking things off on his clipboard and chatting to the shop assistant at the grocery shop and the postman was working his way along the road with his bicycle and mailbag. Grasmere certainly wasn't the ghost town I'd have expected it to be in January. Just as I was turning to head homewards I noticed a young guy come out from between two shops with a sack truck, wearing the brown cord trousers that I'd seen earlier in the day. The walking boots had gone, replaced by trainers, and instead of the waxed cotton jacket he wore a cream Shetland jersey with a cable-knit pattern that showed a broad muscular chest off to its best advantage. This had to be my shepherd on the hillside or his twin. He was absorbed in his work, unloading sacks of potatoes from the delivery van and taking them around the back of the grocery store, and I took a moment to stare. Couldn't help it, actually, he was so beautiful. He had to be about my age, late twenties or possibly as much as 30. His blond hair, accentuated by a light tan, curled tightly across his forehead above his cute blond eyebrows. His eyes, focussed on the pathway as he manoeuvred his laden sack truck, were bright blue and deep set, above a straight cute nose, a small mouth with well-defined pink lips and a chin covered in blond stubble. He moved with grace and power, clearly having no trouble with the load on the truck. I checked my gaydar; not a peep out of it. Never mind, he was still nice to look at.
I looked away before (I hope) anyone noticed me staring, and headed homewards wondering who this guy was and why he would be up on the hillside at dawn minding sheep, and down in the village in the afternoon carting vegetables.
When I got back to the cottage Claire met me at the door and warned me to keep quiet. Mother's headache had developed into a migraine and she can't stand sudden noises when she gets like that. The meal out we'd planned was scrapped, and I went out to Ambleside to get a Chinese take-away for those of us with an appetite. We ate around the telly, with the sound down so mother wouldn't be disturbed upstairs.