Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 12th March 2019

YOU might say that, privileged to be living in the Lake District, we already have one foot in heaven. Whenever I visit the little hamlet of Watendlath I feel I have not just one foot in heaven but at the very least the toes of my other foot, it’s that heavenly.

When Alfred Wainwright, the legendary guide book writer, was asked to name his favourite Lakeland fell, he answered with supreme diplomacy that it was “the one I happen to be on at the time.”

However we all have our favourite places. High on my list, indisputably, has to be Watendlath with its farms, its tarn, the oft-photographed bridge and its well-placed cafe, refuge of weary ramblers.

Sometimes you think you know everything there is to know about an area where you’ve been born and brought up and lived a good proportion of your life. But we live and learn, and a television programme recently on the Sky Arts channel caught my attention when it told the remarkable story of the artist Dora Carrington and her links with Watendlath.

A series is looking at paintings in the Tate Britain gallery and following in the footsteps of the artists, in this case Dora Carrington, whose painting of a farmhouse at Watendlath is one of two exhibits by her in the Tate.

Actress Helena Bonham-Carter and art curator Gus Casely-Hayford, in a buzz of double-barrelled excitement, picked their way delicately down the path which leads over from Rosthwaite to view the farm which the unconventional Carrington painted during a summer holiday in Watendlath.

Most visitors to the hamlet connect it with being the home of Judith Paris in the Herries chronicles by Hugh Walpole. But how many realise that Watendlath has this connection with Dora Carrington, who was described by a former director of the Tate as “the most neglected serious painter of her time.”

The Watendlath painting features two enigmatic figures in white. It was painted in 1921, shortly after Dora’s marriage to Ralph Partridge. They, together with writer and critic Lytton Strachey, one of the Bloomsbury set, came to the Lake District in a bizarre menage a trois.

Dora was in love with Strachey. He, as a gay man, fell in love with Ralph. Meanwhile Dora started an affair with another friend, Gerald Brenan. All this blazing passion and Watendlath’s seductive charms, what a mixture. If love was at the heart of her art it was love unrequited that proved to be her undoing, for she never got over Strachey’s death from cancer. One suicide attempt was foiled by Ralph, but in 1932, having borrowed a friend’s firearm, Dora Carrington took her own life.

For many years Carrington’s work has slipped under the radar and you rarely, if ever, see mention made of her Watendlath connection when Lake District tourist guides are published. Thousands pass by the farmhouse in that painting without knowing the artistic history it inspired. Casely-Hayford says it is “one of the finest in the Tate Britain collection.” Evocative of a lost time, a story that ended in tragedy, and a lot left to the imagination of the viewer. Dora Carrington’s work is now emerging from the shadows as it deserves to, and it’s fascinating to know that one of my favourite Lake District places is playing its part. I doubt I shall look upon Watendlath again quite the same.

RAMBLING WITH CLAIRE

LIFE for most of us is a mixture of joy and sadness and so it was for William Wordsworth’s talented and adventurous sister Dorothy, whose ascent of Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, 200 years ago, was commemorated in Claire Balding’s Ramblings programme on Radio 4 last week.

Balding records walks with interesting people for a series which has established quite a following. She’s recently walked across Dartmoor with the former head of the Royal Marines and rambled with ex-detainees of the Gatwick immigration removal centres. Usually it’s a walk with local rambling clubs with a back-story to tell.

Claire joined with Cumbrian artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth and friends Jo Taylor and Harriet Fraser as they set off from Seathwaite in Borrowdale to re-create part of Dorothy’s pioneering climb. No easy task in long dresses, cloaks and bonnets, and in the snow which lay thick on the ground when the programme was recorded in January.

It was on 7th October, 1818, that Dorothy and her small party of female walkers climbed Scafell Pike and wrote about it in what was seen as a rebellious act that opened up the fells for successive generations of walkers. Walking was an important part of the Wordsworths’ life. It’s said that William walked 180,000 miles during his lifetime. Dorothy must have walked a similar distance. No pedometers in those days, but her daily steps count must have been formidable.

Alex and friends decided to follow in Dorothy’s footsteps in period costumes and, as they crossed Stockley Beck and climbed up through the snowline towards Great End, they told Claire Balding about their own adventure.

The sad part, which I didn’t know about until I heard the programme, is that Dorothy, who died aged 83, spent her latter years suffering from dementia — “a deepening haze of senility” according to biographer Richard Cavendish.

TAKING A BREAK

I MUST go and practise my breakdancing techniques if I am to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris where the organisers want to bring the ancient games into the modern age and appeal to young kids from urban backgrounds. Perhaps not, eh? Not unless I intend permanently putting my back out. I did once get very close to winning a genuine place in the Olympics. Only in this case it was the table football Olympics and, with skateboarding, surfing and climbing all energetic additions to the roster for Tokyo next year, I suspect Subbuteo has missed its chance.

So how did I almost represent British table footballers in Italy? I had this idea I might be quite good at it and entered the FA Cup of Subbuteo. The two finalists were to be picked to represent the nation in the world finals in Rome. Against all natural reason and justice I won several rounds against other table footie diehards before, in the quarter finals coming up against a Liverpudlian who, by reputation, was England’s top player.

It must be the only time a Subbuteo match had “away” fans. He brought a minibus load of mates with him, a quite intimidating bunch, and slaughtered me 9-0. Dreams of glory lay shattered on the green baize. After that humiliation I packed my pitch away, binned the team and have never played again to this day.

IT’S SUNNY, DON’T BE SAD

IN the space of a week I’ve had my shorts out and my winter top coat back in action. I’ve already exposed my handsome knees — they look better than they function — to the warmth of the February sun and had to make a dash for it when Storm Freya’s advance party arrived with torrents of rain.

Artist David Hockney loves to celebrate spring. He once postponed a big exhibition because he didn’t want to miss it. Does he worry that the premature spring might be a harbinger of global warming? “Well, no. I don’t really. The climate is changing all the time. There’s no such thing as bad weather,” he said. Hockney has probably come across the saying we Lake District folk trot out to tourists — “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes”.

Look, I’m not one of those naysayers who rubbish climate change predictions. Of course we’ve messed up the great gift of this planet we live on. But must life be all about pain and suffering, and why do the environmentalists greet each little glimmer of fun with such humourlessness?

Whether it’s unseasonable February heat or the Beast from the East, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas comes on the telly to inform us it’s our fault for keeping cows or not driving expensive electric cars. Can’t they just let us have our little bit of pleasure before the next bout of self-abasement?

IT’S COMING

FEBRUARY 24th and the first mention of Christmas. Carlisle Racecourse has got its advertising for Christmas parties in early this year with a booking reminder to the well-organised in the race card. Must be the earliest reminder the festive season is just around the corner — unless readers know different.