A lyric essay by Jane Burn
Whenever I go outside, it takes me a while to notice that I am breathing
differently, walking differently. The cortisol beneath my skin
drops a little, stops filling me with spikes.
Little by little, I take it in. Too much of anything at once and I am
overwhelmed. I look at the path as it passes between my feet —
the small stones, the potholes, the dust swarming my shoes.
The times (maybe turning a corner while riding in a car) when I am suddenly
confronted by a stunning, remarkable, incredible view, I start to cry —
I can’t control it. Perhaps it is something about the recognition of a freer place
within myself, a realisation that I belong. Perhaps it is the existence
of something bigger, greater, older and wilder than I can never know,
or the humbling of Self before such glory. Perhaps I am just
not equipped to deal with such phenomena of nature without
pyrotechnics in my heart and head resulting in refractory tears.
Perhaps it is because I can’t impulse control. I’m a messy crier.
I look like I imagine a poltergeist would. I know, when I go
on my trip to the Lakes, I will turn into a red-wept fright at the first
glimpse of a fell. In through the eyes and out through my unruly heart.
I feel I must mark my own Voyage to Salvation by saying something
momentous like and so, my journey begins
but this is no Great Adventure, in the scheme of things,
no epic enlightenment — just my own quiet series of epiphanies.
Please allow my story to be of some note.
There will be no narratives of conquering,
or possessions of endless sky —
I will make what tale I can from this one small attempt.
I am ecstatic even before the coach sets off. The queue
jiggles in front of me, checking coats, shrugging bags.
I am completely hyper, massively over the top.
Isn’t this exciting! I yell, out loud.
Quite a few heads turn my way but, in the main, they smile.
It’s early and already hot. The coach is fancy, coloured gold.
We mask up to board and the driver reads our wrists
with a temperature gun. Clear plastic COVID screens hang
between the seats.
Even the local bus station is a thrill. It has been so very long
since I even ventured this far. Everything looks strange.
By the time we reach the A591, I’m even louder. Look!
The nearer we get, the more the ground begins to rise.
The hills, the hills!
I almost stand on my feet when I see distant ghylls running silver.
The stream! The stream!
I discover that it’s traditional to make a fuss. Wainwright says
that everyone on a trip must shout
The Lion and the Lamb!
and so, to keep this ritual alive, I do.
I will see the fells from the confine of the coach. Keep them, like antiquities in a museum, behind glass. I wonder if I was meant to see the whole of a mountain at once. I am trying but as my eyes move across them I wonder — are humans truly capable of absorbing their size? Is the weight of mountains too beautifully much for my head? It’s as if I am confronted by my soul’s missing piece. I feel the void and try to fill it with with what I see.
Perhaps I should lie at their feet and be absorbed, become centuries, become an immensity of rock. They name you brief. Insignificant and small. They show you up for what you really are.
We arrive for our whistle-stop at Grasmere. The coach decants us at the car park and I stand, indecisively, for a moment. To the left, a short walk to Dove Cottage. To the right, the village. I dither. There are so many people heading into the village that I am swept along, so I let this tide make the decision for me. We only have an hour. There wouldn’t have been time enough to immerse myself in the experience of Dove Cottage anyway.
The queue at the gingerbread shop is at least fifty people deep and the pub by the river is bursting at the seams. I can’t face the galleries. They look packed with people and I would end up accidentally breaking something I can’t afford. I feel huge and clumsy and I’m uneasy in such a crowd. Businesses all over have suffered so much during Lockdown and people have to live but I don’t like this version of the place — there is no room on the pavements. I have to step on the road while vehicles nose, too close for comfort, through the massing crowds.
I try to look down into the clear, crisp Rothay from Church Bridge but there isn’t the space. I find peace in St Oswald’s — pass beneath its roughcast and slate and breathe its cool quiet. There is nobody in here but me. The exposed roof beams are incredible. The walls are pale with whitewash. The impression, looking up, is of a winter forest waiting for leaves. I love the Shrigley and Hunt window the most — the gentle blue, green and tawny gold. Her children arise up and call her blessed. I read these words, set into the glass and it makes me want to cry. The air is gentle with scents of damp stone.
There are tables at the back with postcards and pamphlets. One, with the title The Rushbearing catches my eye. I place the £1 cost in a glass bowl and put it in my bag.
It will half frighten, half fascinate me later —
Green with the rush from vale and mere —
illustrations of the twisted bearings are unintentionally sinister.
I can’t stop spoiling the pictures of sweet Rushmaidens
with a small shudder —
Outside, pressed beneath the neat lawn are the poet and his brilliant sister. I whisper to Dorothy’s simple slab, do you know how many of us love your work? I hope what I write can live on even half so well after I am dead.
By the time we reach Keswick, I’m beyond tired.
I’m hungry. I wanted to see Derwentwater but have completely
run out of spoons. I walk a slow loop of the inundated town,
eat glorious yellow chips, am disappointed by a pot of brackish tea.
I love the houses made from rubbled slate.
I discover how near I came to Castlerigg Stone Circle.
The time that you are given here will never be enough.
I get back on the coach and go home.
On the return journey, I press the sight of the fells once more onto my eyes,
try to permanently gaze them in. I imagine how glaciers once winnowed these valleys
— how cruel and beautiful the ice must have seemed, how they left such a landscape
behind them in their wakes.
How life began as a softening,
how moss became a gentle skin,
how grass took hold in bare cracks,
how slopes learned the wilding of heather,
how roots knew that soon they would be trees.
I listen to the chatter from a group of women seated opposite. One of them has a granddaughter who is getting married and this information is wielded like a trump card. The aisle bristles with excitement, envy and curiosity over the food, location, honeymoon and dress. Another reads aloud from The People’s Friend — a recipe for tea-loaf, the first paragraphs of a short story (I can’t remember what but something sweet and mild). Their hairstyles are neat, white helmets. One of them has been particularly artful with rollers and I am enthralled by her wearing of a lacquered cloud.
They have been so nice / I get up to leave / they all shout
Bye / Bye / Goodbye / as I bump down the aisle / ham-fisted with bags /
step into rough grass and loud air / I wave from where I stand /
on the windblown edge of the A69 / flap and leap at the ribbon
of windows / and they wave back like waving is going out of fashion /
like they have known me for years / as they are whipped away / I see
this daedalum of smiles / like they love / me at the side of the carriageway /
where cars shriek past / and drivers stare / at the sight of my strange
abandonment / hair whipped / cardigan slumped / shoulder heavy
with things I brought / and I cry because / I am alone and the mountains
are taken by the miles / because there is a hare / in the layby / I see
its desolate head / its ears two dead shells / its flayed legs / a nylon
haulage strap coils the kerb / I remember / I saw mountains /
I saw mountains break the sky
At home, I will travel all over again from my chair, look at the photographs
I took from the road as the coach drove past, ask my friends
(to be sure I named them right) which hill is this? or this? or this?
Helm Crag / Helvellyn / St John’s in the Vale / High Rigg / Skiddaw /
Latrigg / Blencathra / Clough Head / Great Mell Fell / Thirlmere /
Deergarth How / Hawes How
I roll their luxurious names around my tongue.