It was May 2000, and the sun shed a benediction on the Vale of Lorton, where a hundred glorious shades of green glowed in the pastures and trees; and the blossom, lying like snow on every hedgerow, filled the air with its fragrance.
It might not have the breathtaking grandeur of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, or the ethereal beauty of the forest of Te Urewera and Lake Waikaremoana, but to me this was the most beautiful view in the world – the view which always said, ‘This is home!’
Standing by the gate at the foot of Cass How, where the overgrown track begins its winding ascent through the wood to the open meadow and mysterious stone seat at the top of the hill, I could see down the full length of the valley. The light was brilliant today, and the distant shapes of High Stile and Red Pike stood out sharp and clear in muted shades of blue, and a little nearer the distinctive saddle of Melbreak and the Loweswater Fells were brown, purple and greenish-grey.
Closer at hand was the village, its houses scattered amongst the trees – not neat, tidy town lollipops – but magnificent, well remembered mature beeches, limes, oaks and chestnuts, making green-shaded cloisters of the lanes, and standing in solitary splendour in the estates of the Park and the Hall.
On my left rose the whale-back hump of Kirk Fell, tawny and dry even in the lushness of May, and beyond, the familiar ridges and gills of Swinside, Hope Gill, and Dodd which I knew and loved through every season and in all kinds of weather when I lived here.
Walking along the road towards High Lorton, I heard the sheep and lambs calling from the fields below the slopes of the fell, and as I wandered through the village birdsong rang out from every copse and garden. Soon their song was joined by the ever-changing music of Boon Beck as it lept, shouting and tumbling down from Whinlatter and flowed swiftly past the Village Hall. As a child I had often walked up that narrow lane to find, in this quiet corner hidden behind the old cottages, a kind of sanctuary beside the beck.
Passing the school brought back sharp, uncomfortable memories of the day I took the 11+ exam there, but the sight of the swings in the playing field awoke more pleasant visions.
At Cross Gates I turned right along Church Lane to find St Cuthbert’s at the centre of the Vale, with its beautiful beech still standing guard over the graves. To my delight a new beech had been planted further along the wall, ready, in due time to take the old tree’s place. From the beginning the church has belonged to neither of the manors, but with its sturdy tower rising from the fields, reminded, and still reminds the community that God, the creator of all beauty is especially present in this place at the heart of the village.
The plain, simple building is always open day or night, and drew me in to sit in its perfect stillness. I had forgotten just how moving it could be, and as I gazed at the Angel of the Resurrection, glowing among the spring flowers in the East window, I was given new comfort and hope; a joy to temper my sorrow. ‘He is not here, He is risen,’ were the angel’s words, which reminded me neither was my mother here, she was with Him.
Coming out of the churchyard I crossed the open field to Low Lorton, carefully avoiding, as I had always done, both cows and cowpats, and, there being no longer any shop to drop into for a chat, I turned left and walked beside the walls of Lorton Hall; walls I’d climbed many times in the past, especially beside the old green door into the wood. That door, rarely opened as far as I could remember, was gone now, replaced by impressive wrought-iron gates, and the narrow path transformed into a wide drive, more suitable for the smart cars of its present owner.
And so I followed the road downwards to the river and the well-remembered bridge. Many were the hours we spent playing on the wide, shingle banks below the bridge, and many the hours spent by my brothers trying to catch the trout which hid under the overhanging rocks and roots in the deep pool where the paddock begins. Whole summer days had been spent swimming in the deep water at the river’s right-angle turn before it headed towards The Wheatsheaf, where it turned again and meandered on its way to Rogerscale and Cockermouth.
I left the river behind and went in search of another hidden sanctuary of my youth. A tiny stream runs down from Whinfell through a long, narrow copse which was filled with bluebells and wood anemones every Spring, and the banks of the lonnin were starred with stitchwort, primroses and sweet-scented violets. In the Autumn we came here for hazelnuts and blackberries, which grew in profusion on the field edges, and along the roadside.
Nothing had changed, the banks were still covered with flowers and ferns like a rich French tapestry.
I paused and looked around. My favourite walk, up over Whinfell to Mosser and along to Loweswater, coming back by the Thackthwaite road, was a longer expedition for later in the week. But there was still time to climb the lane onto Whinfell and find a vantage point from which to sit and look down over the whole length and breadth of the Vale.
So up I went, pausing at Low Bank Farm to get my breath, and peering down the narrow track which runs down to Rogerscale – so many of my old haunts were calling out to be revisited. Then on up the last steep pull, past High Bank, onto the shoulder of the fell until I reached a grassy ride running along the front of the fell to Hatteringill. There’s nothing exciting about Whinfell, but like a protecting arm wrapped around the Vale, it keeps off the West winds from the coastal plain and the Solway, and plays a vital part in making the valley so rich and green.
I found the place I’d been looking for, a low piece of drystone walling where I could sit and absorb the view. In my mind I roamed every path, track and road laid out below me. I smelled the wild roses in the hedgerows on the Hope Beck road, and looked into the hollow place in the old ash tree by the bridge where precious items had once been hidden from the boys.
It seemed to me that this small piece of Lakeland was perfect in its proportions and in all it had to offer; whether it be meadows, woodland, becks, rivers or open fellsides; easy cycling, gentle strolling or steep scrambling; whitewashed farms, neat cottages or noble houses; whatever you might want, you would find it here, and a deep peace at the heart of it all.
Finally, in that moment, I was convinced that all the long years of exile and yearning were over. I’d come back hoping to reclaim this place as mine, and found that every stick and stone, every tree and flower, every corner and lane were welcoming me home. But the Vale of Lorton doesn’t belong to me – I belong to it, and I’m persuaded it will hold me safe forever.
So I sat and let my heart fill with quiet contentment as the light of the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly closed its petals; and when the soft purple cloak of evening had wrapped it around, I rose from my seat and walked back to my supper under the light of the stars.