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.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.