Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 16th April 2018

IS the Lake District turning a bit snobbish about tourism now it’s got this wonderful world heritage status?

BBC Radio Cumbria has just finished a week devoted to national parks and their future, and during one of the debates the chap from the National Trust, when asked about the increasing millions of visitors, suggested that the only answer was to “manage” the tourists.

Sounds a bit 1984 to me. According to my dictionary, to manage is to “administer, handle or control, cope with financial difficulties”.

I appreciate the concerns that, as visitor numbers rise, there is a concentration of tourists in the main centres like Bowness, Windermere and Keswick. No lark on a bank holiday, that’s for sure.

But isn’t that where most of them want to go? It’s inexplicable to some of us that a visitor to Keswick wants to spend the day wandering the streets eating fish and chips, competing for pavement space, searching for an expensive car parking spot, buying twee gifts and outdoor gear they’re never going to wear and possibly taking a wander down to the busy lake when there are all those fantastic fells to traipse, valleys to visit and a chance to find peace and quiet off the beaten track.

But it’s called freedom of choice and to me words like “manage”, no doubt spoken with good intention, reflect the fact that tourism really only wants the good payers, the folk who stay in the better hotels and guesthouses and spend, spend, spend. We’re not so keen on the visitors who want to do the Lakes as cheaply as they can, although it’s supposed to be a place for all, rich and poor, whether they seek culture or the nearest chippie.

Exactly how can tourists be managed without turning the Lake District into a museum where folk can only go where they are told? I know that’s painting an extreme scenario, but I wonder if we aren’t getting a bit carried away with our own importance now we’ve had a royal visitor up to unveil the plaque in Keswick’s Crow Park that tells the world of tourists that we are a bit special and we know it.

HANNAH KNEW REAL POVERTY

THE blackbird which sits atop the tree outside my window has finally announced that it is spring. “This is my territory and if there’s another blackbird out there that fancies hooking up with me I’m on for it,” he seems to be chirruping.

So at last spring is upon us in all its glory. My favourite time of the year when everything in the countryside is fresh and, for all the perceived miseries of the world, there is a renewed sense of optimism in the air.

Hard to think that, just a couple of weeks ago, we were battling the snow. The Beast from the East and Hysteria from Siberia. Maybe they still are up in the remoter fells, but blackbird tells me the worst is gone now.

That fact that winter had not entirely left us struck me a week ago when, driving along the A66 towards Braithwaite, every inch of the Derwent Fells and Skiddaw were coated white.

The Herald’s enthusiastic photographers, amateur and professional, captured the essence of our late winter evocatively with pictures that made the reader shiver just looking at them. Sheep huddled against the gales and blowing drifts, lonely barns and sparse trees set against white fields and grey skies.

When we get wintry spells like the one we had recently, it reminds me of the late Hannah Hauxwell, who became a national heroine after television documented the lonely privations and unendurable hardships involved in running a farm on her own, without electricity and water, with an income of £240 a year. Those who plead poverty these days should have a crack at Hannah’s life and then understand what real poverty is.

Barry Cockcroft’s documentary about life in the High Pennines brought thousands of donations. Food parcels were even delivered by helicopter to Hannah’s Low Birk Hall farm in Baldersdale. Eventually failing health caused her to sell up and move to a cottage in the nearby village, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

Hannah went travelling for more TV programmes. To France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy, where she met the Pope. She lived two lives, one in isolation, the other a self-effacing TV personality. One writer said she “broke the heart of the nation” with her simple eloquence. She did not complain about having next to nothing. She felt she had no right to any more.

TV critic Sean Day-Lewis wrote, the day after that first documentary was screened, of her “extraordinary dignity, simplicity and acceptance”. Hannah died in January, aged 91. There’s a meadow near Low Birk Hall — “Hannah’s Meadow” — as a reminder of her ordinary yet extraordinary life.

THE ILLITERACY “DISEASE”

SOME while back I had to attend a course which my then employer determined was needed to keep us writers on the straight and narrow when it came to our English.

It was all about gerunds, I recall. Verbs that function in a sentence as a noun. I’d always thought gerunds were a breed of dachshund until I was instructed otherwise. It was evident that when asked for my definition of a gerund the answer did not go down too well with the academic in charge of the course.

Which indirectly leads me on to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid’s assertion that around 750,000 people who have settled in this country cannot speak English fluently. They should feel at home among the millions of home-grown Brits who cannot speak it either.

Life’s about contrasts. Last week’s Herald carried the story of a group of students from Penrith Queen Elizabeth Grammar School who went along to hear an expert linguist speaking at Keswick Literature Festival. How encouraging that this group of 16 and 17 year olds enjoyed the scholar’s talk and the insight it offered into the evolution of language. Just as long as it didn’t involve a surfeit of gerunds.

Compare their quest for knowledge with the World Literacy Foundation’s report which stated that “function illiteracy” costs the UK £35 billion a year with nine million — one in four — struggling to read or write.

The report’s author, Andrew Kay, described illiteracy as “a disease that we are aiming to eradicate”. It affects every part of life, from reading a medicine label to filling out a job application. Britain has one of the highest rates of illiteracy in Europe, with all the social disadvantages that brings.

Surely there must be lots of people out there capable of teaching the basics. If our schools are too overworked to do it, what about the retired teachers and academics, bankers, bobbies, thespians, soldiers, office workers, English students, even the old hacks in my game? They don’t need to know about gerunds, just plain English that helps folk get along in life.

All praise to QEGS for stimulating a love of our marvellous if sometimes convoluted language among its students, but to know that one in four adults struggles to read and write is something we ought to feel thoroughly ashamed of.

It’s a disgrace in this hi-tech age that millions suffer in wordless ignorance.

HOW TERRIBLY STRANGE TO BE 70

WHEN Prince Charles spoke the other day about impending life at 70, I knew exactly how he felt.

I’m a few months ahead of the Prince, having turned my three score and 10 last July. Whereas Charles “finds bits dropping off” his body, mine is more like an old banger that won’t start in the mornings, needs constant oiling, has severe braking problems when going downhill and always seems to be developing fresh mechanical problems just as the last one has been dealt with.

Charles was in Brisbane and looking back fondly on his first trip Down Under as a teenager. “It is hard now, I find, to believe that all these years have actually passed by, or that I shall soon be 70,” he said. “I do know only too well — and understand — the strange feeling of disbelief that this is actually happening.”

I never had anything in common with the Prince and his way of life. At least I thought that was so. Now I discover that the advancing years have given us a form of kinship. Welcome to the over-70s and not terribly chuffed about it club, Your Highness.