This weekend, as I was driving, I got to think about lost places of my childhood, places that are now either inaccessible, or changed beyond recognition. A place I remember with much fondness is the Pillar Hotel in the Langdale Estate, our holiday destination every July for at least eight years.
Back in the day – late 1960s into 1970s – the people I knew never went abroad. Holidays were more likely to be a week on a farm in Criccieth, a visit to an aunt in Suffolk, or Butlins in Blackpool.
In the seventeenth century the Langdale Estate, by the fast-flowing Great Langdale Beck in Elterwater, was the site of small woollen mill. Later it became a gunpowder factory. In 1931, during the depression, the gunpowder factory ceased to be profitable, so it was transformed into a wild and magical holiday resort with a small campsite, and barn dwellings for rent, and The Pillar Hotel, looking like a Swiss chalet, in the centre. Lush and luxurious baskets of geraniums hung all along the wooden veranda. There was one large light dining room with windows on three sides. A gong would sound for dinner, and every day had its particular set meal that didn’t change by the year. On Mondays a whole baked onion arrived with the meat, and there were exotic puddings with names like Peach Melba, and Pear Belle Helene. Three plain white bathrooms were shared by the guests of ten bedrooms, so creeping out at night to the toilet we children ran the embarrassing risk of meeting an adult in pyjamas.
The estate was wild and lovely, with waterfalls, woods of larch and spruce, a clear stream where trout basked between emerald weeds, and a hill we climbed every evening to watch the sun set behind the Langdale Pikes. There were old tennis courts, surrounded by Rhododendron and bracken, and Langdale Beck we reached by clambering through the ruins of part of the gunpowder factory. The riverbed was glorious – great slabs of slate, carved out into gullies and bowls, smooth as silk with the endless rush of water, and pools of icy green water that made our bones ache as we slipped into it screaming. One year it was in spate, wild and rushing and white. We slept and woke to the roar of water. Another year there was a drought – a trickle of water between the rocks and boulders, and flickering lights in the hotel that relied on hydro-electric power.
Year after year the same visitors arrived for that last week in July, and became our friends. Year after year we played scrabble together, children and adults, in the sitting room after dinner – with at least five tables of four, forming a kind of scrabble championship. It was during that week that I discovered the world of trolls too – trolls of the 1970s with their brilliant coloured hair and simian faces. I looked forward to that week for months, and back home in suburbia I missed the mountains and rivers more than I could say.
It all ended when Mr Baines, the congenial owner, chef (with Mrs Baines) and only waiter, left the hotel and bought a café in Ambleside. The regular visitors drifted away. We returned for one more holiday, but it wasn’t the same.
Not long after, the Langdale Estate became a luxury timeshare. There was much building, the wilderness was tamed, the beck-side flanked by smart apartments. What happened to the hotel, I don’t know. People have different expectations of holidays now.
I hoped to find a picture of the old hotel on the internet, but there’s nothing. I wouldn’t like to go back now. They were brilliant holidays.
Two years ago the pond on the orchard was nothing more than a newly dug hole, clear water and pond liner. For the last three weeks it’s been bubbling with frogs – swimming, sunbathing, spawning, the orchard full of their soft rumbling sound, all day, all evening. Their mysterious arrival has delighted all of us, especially the children, who spent hours on Saturday lifting them out of the water and watching them hop around the rocks. The frogs seemed quite unperturbed to be handled – sat for a while, then plopped into the water and swam back under the chick weed.
This morning they seem to have gone. Is it the absence of sun on the water, are they hiding at the bottom of the pond, or now they’ve spawned have they’ve returned where they came from?
My young neighbour, George Peck, took these wonderful photographs – how full of character the frog is.
Often when I can’t sleep, I go back, in my mind, to my grandmother’s farm in rural Nottinghamshire – Stanton-on-the Wolds. I walk past the brick pigpens, down the cobbled lane to the yard, where skinny black cats cluster round a dish of milk and bread – into the room with its surround of Belfast sinks, and smell of raw egg, where we helped my aunt size the eggs on a strange Bakelite object with a pin that popped through a slot. I go on into the kitchen, where damp kittens nest in a box under the sideboard. The sun slants through the window, and cats tiptoe along the edges of furniture. I hear the loud voice of my uncle, and the sound of his wellingtons slapping the stone flags. Out in the hall, beyond my grandmother’s sitting room, I’m lost. Try as hard as I may, I can’t recall my uncle’s study – only a memory of him sitting at a huge untidy desk in the half light of evening. It frustrates me that I can’t remember accurately and there’s nobody left to ask.
We only ever visited Laurel Farm in Whitsun and August – leaf shadow, shafts of sunlight through grain dust in the chicken sheds, the dirty yolk of shattered eggs in the straw, and the soft rumbling song of the chickens. We walked with my aunt, down lanes deep in cow parsley and may blossom, to feed the chickens and collect the eggs. Early in the morning I lay under piles of eiderdowns in my grandmother’s bed, and heard the men calling to each other below her bedroom window. I was a child of suburbia, and this was a kind of paradise.
Yesterday, nearly forty years later, we went back to the farm for a visit. The present owner, very kindly, offered to show us around. It’s become gentrified, all the outbuildings converted into houses, a smell of wealth. The egg room, and my grandmother’s kitchen have been demolished, the kitchen garden buried under a patio. There are no chicken sheds, no cats, no paddock where Friesian cows graze around a track leading to the church. I looked from the outside, through plastic framed windows that had never existed then, unable to see the interior of my grandmother’s sitting room, or climb the narrow stairs to her bedroom, to hear the click of the latch as the door opened.
We crossed the field to the church, saw my uncle’s grave. I longed to stand in the churchyard and feel the quietness of the dead, but we were being shown around. Our hostess was a talker and had much to tell us. Until yesterday I’d forgotten the sharp, vertiginous ache of being shut out, of something being so near and yet unreachable.
Laurel Farm was lost to us very suddenly. My uncle died in January 1977. Neither my sister nor I went to his funeral. Overnight my poor grandmother lost her beloved son, her home, and her much adored cat. I remember my mother, usually so cheerful, returning from the funeral and taking to bed, her face grey and old and exhausted.
It’s not that I idealise my mother’s farming family. They were an odd bunch, volatile, unforgiving at times, with inexplicable estrangements, and much whispering behind closed doors. There were whole areas of the farmhouse where we children weren’t allowed, and a sense of claustrophobia that became more apparent as I grew up. But I loved them, and I loved the land – the wide sweep of the wooded wolds, the restful sky, the soft red brick and steep pitched roof of the farm, the shadowy interiors full of sounds and smells.
I should have known – or perhaps I hoped it would be different. What once existed, and was loved, has gone forever, reachable only through the mind, unreliable memory, the imagination.
I read the following statement in Judith Mackrell’s Dance Blog last week.
Beryl Grey and Gillian Lynne acknowledge that today's performers are technically impressive, but it's a trend they don't care for. Grey feels that contemporary ballet is too much like "a circus" and both she and Lynne argue that gains in physical expertise are being made at the expense of emotional depth and dramatic expression: ballet as empty acrobatics, ballet as extreme physical sport.
Mackrell goes on to suggest that the two Grande Dames of ballet are following the ‘natural order’ of one generation criticising the work of the generation that follows. Maybe this is true, but I know that for many years I’ve felt the same. So much contemporary dance and ballet leaves me cold. As far as contemporary dance goes, it’s often the fault of the choreography, but in relation classical ballet, I’d still rather watch Margot Fonteyn, even on film, than Sylvie Guillem – for all Guillem’s beauty and astounding technical brilliance. Although perfection pleases my mind, it becomes tiring to the eye, and the heart. Is it that musicality and theatricality, maybe even subtlety of dynamic, become eclipsed by the acrobatic? I don’t know. But there's no going back, and I wonder how much further the technique can be pushed before ballet really does resemble a circus, and what cold wonders the dancers and choreographers of tomorrow will produce?
Despite being an advocate for excellent teaching, and life-long training in all the arts, perfection unsettles me. I was working in Japan some years ago and was taken to see a puppet performance by a Master Puppeteer. I understand how many years it takes to create such a Master, how revered he is, and how children and adults in training spend hours every day over each tiny action – a training that’s repetitive, rigorous and impressive beyond anything we know in the West. So I expected great things. It was truly amazing – like magic – but within a short time I felt so oppressed I couldn’t wait to get out of the theatre. By the end, some hours later, it had done my head in! So many many years of effort, resulting in a flawless portrayal of emptiness in the guise of a simple folk tale.
Conversely, one of the loveliest moments I’ve ever experienced, was over twenty years ago, after a rehearsal of Ruckblick, by Amici Dance Theatre. I was gathering my things together to leave, when I caught sight of a young woman with Down’s syndrome dancing with another woman. Her face was open and radiant, her graceful movement embodied joy, and the flow of communication between her and her partner seemed to fill the room. In a second all notions I’d ever had about beauty were turned upside down. She, a woman who the world might see as flawed, was beautiful, enchanting beyond words. It was as if I was really seeing – through the eyes, to the heart – for the first time in my life. I walked out into the sunshine, and sat in the churchyard on Brompton Road, unable to rush through the city for my train home, deeply shaken, and profoundly happy.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.