How was your week? We spent most of ours in the beautiful Lake District with my husband’s family. My mother-in-law has been a regular summer visitor to Eskdale for many years, so it was the perfect place for her to celebrate a landmark birthday. I didn’t write a single word all week (didn’t expect to!) but I absorbed a lot of useful impressions. It was a long, slow drive back to London on Friday, and I spent most of it thinking about what I’d learned.
My Gilded Lily series is set in Scotland, a couple of hundred miles further north, but the Lake District environment is very similar – wild, rugged scenery of moorland, lake and mountain, mile upon mile of hillside dotted with hardy sheep tended by even hardier farmers. Everyone has at least one dog. Everyone knows everyone else, often going back many generations.
My books star twenty-first century characters who have been brought up in this type of rural community and who combine the best of the traditional and the contemporary. Their roots are deep, and their values are those of their parents and grandparents, but they aren’t isolated from current lifestyles; they’re smart, worldly, entrepreneurial characters who adapt and innovate for the benefit of their home and community.
That’s exactly the kind of feeling I got in the Lake District. It enjoys the benefits of tourism, but it’s a working place, not a theme park.
Mobile phone reception is limited. I didn’t get a signal the entire time I was there, and we had to make arrangements the old-fashioned, inflexible way. On the other hand, all the pubs (and there are many!) offer free wi-fi. They have web-sites with photographs, maps and menus, and booking engines for accommodation. TripAdvisor in particular has transformed their business model, giving them an international reach beyond their wildest dreams.
The pub we stayed at (www.kinggeorge-eskdale.co.uk ) did a roaring trade in excellent home-cooked food that included beef and lamb from the landlord’s brother’s farm, just down the valley. It was so good that I asked where else I could buy the beef: the answer was, sadly, ‘nowhere.’ The pub also offers a wide range of locally-made beers – my brother-in-law was a fan of Moorhouse’s Blond Witch, a brew from over the border in Lancashire – and next weekend is the King George’s annual four-day Beer Fest, with 150 different beers, food, live music, fancy dress, and much more. Hmm. There’s a local pub, the Kinross Arms, in my stories. It doesn’t really feature in the first book, but it comes into its own later, and now I have a much clearer idea of how hard the family that owns it will have to work, and what they might do to make ends meet. I’m also thinking that there might be an indie brewer somewhere in the neighborhood.
We spent a fantastic day at Muncaster Castle (www.muncaster.co.uk). The castle is home to the Pennington family, who have lived there for more than eight hundred years, but nowadays the estate has to pay its way. Visitors can tour the castle (there are over a hundred rooms, enough to reserve private quarters for the owners and still exhaust the most dedicated sightseer). Tickets include an audio tour, narrated by a family member. There are spectacular landscaped grounds, self-catering accommodation, shops, tea-rooms, an owl rescue center that offers daily flying displays, an outdoor cinema, and on the week we visited, wood-carvers, jester contests, husky dogs to pet, and much more. The place was heaving with visitors. It confirmed to me that I’m on the right track with my fictional Kinross Estate. Ian, Cam and Ma don’t live in the big house any more. They converted it to apartments, and turned the stables into business premises that they use to run their various ventures. It’s a slightly different model, but the idea is the same. The family estate has to cover its costs, and must find a new working model to provide steady employment for local people. If the Kinross businesses run into difficulties in future, I have more than a few new fund-raising ideas.
I saw valley after valley of dry-stone walls (or dry-stone dykes) – walls built from stones without cement in the traditional fashion that’s been used since Roman times. I’ve used those on the Kinross estate in my current WIP, and I was very pleased to hear that my assumptions were right – many of the expert wall-builders of yester-year are no longer around and had nobody to pass the techniques on to. The good news for Cumbrian farmers is that the local agricultural college runs courses to teach the skill to a new generation.
I also noticed solar panels in some unexpected places, including remote seventeenth- and eighteenth-century farmhouses. I have to say, I hadn’t associated Northern England or Scotland with enough sunshine to make solar panels worthwhile. I wonder if I’ve missed a trick here? I’m going to investigate further.
I could go on and on – there’s the fabulous Ravenglass and Eskdale narrow-gauge steam railway (www.ravenglass-railway.co.uk), originally built in the 1870s to transport hematite iron ore, now beautifully refurbished and enthusiastically used by locals and tourists alike.
It’s been a busy month, and I’m feeling more than a little shattered. Tomorrow I’ll channel all this great inspiration and get to work. Today I’m going to allow myself a whole day for reading and recuperation. Aaaah.
What’s new with you?