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the happiest man in the world

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I spent all last week in Bowness. I rented a very comfortable, secluded house in the woods near Longtail Hill. From a picture window in the living room I could see over the town to the head of the lake and the Fairfield Horseshoe and the other hills above Ambleside.

On Tuesday it rained. I drove down to the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, a gallery I’ve always liked since I visited it some years ago and first saw Paula Rego’s paintings there. The current exhibition is of the paintings of Robert Bevan and the Cumberland Market Group. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t familiar with Bevan’s work until last Tuesday. He was an excellent painter. His best stuff was done in the last twenty years or so of his life, in that magical age for painting that flowered with the Post Impressionists and bloomed with amazing vitality for fifty years or more. Bevan – who the catalogue describes as a Neo-Realist – was cut down in his prime in 1925 shortly before his sixtieth birthday.

The Cumberland Market Group have nothing to do with Cumberland, despite the exhibition being in Kendal. The catalogue suggests the exhibition was originally shown in Southampton, and the Cumberland Market in question is a square in London in an area to the east of Regent’s Park, just south of the basin of the Regent’s Canal. Bevan had a studio in the Square and did some enchanting paintings of it, one of which is on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. It catches the geometry of the place with an apparent exactness, but the pastelly colours are beautifully modulated – lavenders, pinks, blues, greys, and creams. Some of the other paintings of the area in the catalogue deploy darker tones and have a greater tonal contrast, but all seem architecturally remarkably true in their detail. His best known paintings it seems are those involving horses. He does a mean horse, that’s for sure, catching perfectly their muscular grace and skittish dignity. But again it’s his composition and use of colour that impressed me most, the exactness, the control, the limited palette, the strong dark blues and the orange-tans of the coats of the horse traders. Bevan’s a painter I can hardly believed I missed.

On Tuesday night it snowed a little. On Wednesday morning I decided I’d take it easy. I wandered down to catch the ferry across Windermere. Bowness was a Viking settlement a thousand years ago and there’s been a ferry here since at least that time. The ferry now carries cars as well as pedestrians and cyclists. It crosses the quiet lake slowly, fastidiously, as if undoing history, as if recalibrating time. I’ve read that as we get older time passes more quickly because our metabolism slows down. The ferry trip from Bowness to the Hawkshead side of the lake seems to somehow alter the metabolism of the world. As you step off you could imagine that days, months, even years might pass before you make it through the woods. Each step might take an hour. You’re in the kind of place where nothing might ever change, where eternity starts to make sense. I decided I’d follow the waymarked path to Beatrix Potter’s old house at Hill Top in Near Sawrey, a distance of only two or three miles.

As I made my way up the hill and through the lanes and woodland paths to Far Sawrey it began to snow again. There was little wind and straight up and down soft hail stones dropped quietly all around me. I put out my hand and caught a few. Although I saw almost no-one on my walk there, there were quite a few visitors at Hill Top. The snow had stopped and as I entered Beatrix’s house the sun came out. The rooms of the house are quite cramped and dark brown. The doorways are low and the windows are small, as is Beatrix’s four poster bed. No wonder she felt such an affinity for rodents and other small creatures, I thought. Of course, the truth is I don’t know that much about Beatrix Potter either, although I’ve seen the film with Renee Zellweger, of course, and I’ve got a Peter Rabbit teacup that someone once gave me.

While I was strolling back I caught up with a white-haired old man walking slowly ahead of me with a wooden staff. He asked me if I’d been to ‘the Potter house’. I said I had. He remarked that he could tell I wasn’t a local and asked if I was on holiday. He told me he lived near Lindeth. I told him the house I was staying in was in the woods not far from there, near Lindeth Howe Country House Hotel. The old man reminded me that Beatrix Potter’s family used to rent that house in the early years of the last century, another thing of which I happened to be ignorant. He told me Beatrix loved the house and bought it for her mother in 1915. It seems Beatrix wrote and illustrated a couple of her stories while she was staying at Lindeth Howe with her family a hundred years or so ago.

‘You know this place well,’ I said to the man.

‘It comes with living here for so long,’ he replied. ‘I’ve never been further north than Grasmere and only once been south of Kendal. I went to Morecambe in 1957 for my sister Janet’s wedding. But I always say you don’t need to go far to see the whole of human life. Cast your eyes around these hills. There’s nothing much that’s happened anywhere else in the world that hasn’t happened to the folks that live right here – or nothing much that matters, at any rate.’

‘Aye,’ I said. ‘You’re probably right. But for the rest of us those things don’t happen in a place as beautiful as this. You’re lucky to live here.’

‘Yes, I know that. And there’s not a man on earth who could tell me otherwise. I’m the happiest man in the world. No man could have had a better life than I’ve had, I’ll tell you that.’

As we came out of the woods going down the hill just past Bryers Fold, the old man pointed over the lake towards what I took to be a house on the hill above Storrs.

‘Do you know who lived there?’ he asked. I shook my head. My ignorance was about to exposed again, I thought.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Should I?’

‘No, you won’t,’ he said. ‘It was Florence Nelson.’

The name meant nothing to me.

‘Who was she?’ I asked. ‘A writer? A painter?’

‘No, nothing like that. Florence was a murderer. Everyone around here knows the story of Florence Nelson. It all happened nearly fifty years ago now. Florence was a beautiful but rather eccentric young woman. She had her eye on a man called Ned Perfect. One day she got it into her mind that another local lass, the buxom and very alluring red-head Sharon Sweet, also had her eye on Ned. Florence saw Sharon giving Ned an orange one day and she decided there and then that her rival would have to die.’

‘Love’s a messy business sometimes,’ I said.

‘But not usually as messy as it was going to be for Sharon,’ the old man said. ‘You see, Florence had at that instant also decided on the way Sharon was going to die. She was going to be flattened by a steam roller. There were a couple of snags, though.’

‘Florence didn’t own a steam roller?’

‘Yes, that. And she didn’t have a licence to drive one either.’

‘Oh.’

‘Yes, you see, Florence always regarded herself as a good law-abiding person, and she was not about to take a steam roller on a public road unless she was fully qualified to do so. For the next nine months she went to Lancaster every Saturday morning until she passed her test. She purchased herself a second-hand steam roller, a Wallis & Steevens Advance six tonner. She painted it bottle green and hid it deep in the Black Beck Wood. She waited for her opportunity. She knew that every Sunday Sharon walked from her home up near the golf course all the way down the hill, straight over the crossroads and down Longtail Hill on her way to the service at St Martin’s. There’s no footpath on this road. Florence watched Sharon for weeks. Everyone knew you could set your clock by Sharon and Florence soon discovered that every Sunday at exactly thirteen minutes to one Sharon came around the blind bend near the bottom of Longtail Hill and, head down, continued climbing towards the junction. On the following Sunday Florence drove her steam roller out of woods and made her way up to the crossroads at Ferry View. She waited there until fifteen seconds before thirteen minutes to one, at which moment she threw the throttle wide open and set off hurtling down the hill. An instant before the machine hit her Sharon looked up and saw Florence at the wheel. There was a fixed deadpan expression on Florence’s face. No glimpse of pity, no glimpse of glee.  No glimpse of any emotion but blind determination. Sharon was flattened beyond all recognition. Her remains were almost seven feet wide and over twelve feet long. She was identified by the silver crucifix she always wore and the wide arc of her lovely red hair embedded in the tarmac. Some say strands of Sharon’s hair can still be seen there, even after all these years.’

We crossed the road and followed the path through the woods and on towards Claife Station. It was a bright afternoon and the sun was glittering on the lake.

‘Florence was sentenced to incarceration for the rest of her days, of course,’ the old man continued. ‘She was sentenced six days before the day on which she would have married Ned Perfect. Throughout the trial Florence never once expressed the slightest remorse for what she did. She always blamed Sharon for her own fate. For Florence death was the price any woman would have had to pay if they even so much as dared to bat an eyelid at Ned. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. No, not by any means. Florence Nelson wasn’t finished yet.’

At that point the old man asked me to walk on as he needed to relieve himself and was becoming desperate. He said he’d catch me up in a minute or so at the ferry landing, which was only a hundred yards or so further on.

At the ferry landing I sat on the seat looking up Windermere past Belle Isle to the snow gleaming up high on Rydal Head. The ferry arrived about ten minutes later. The old man hadn’t made it on time. As the ferry slowly crossed the lake to Bowness I kept looking back for him. The white-haired man was nowhere to be seen.

On Thursday I drove to Coniston to go for a walk on the snowy fells. Before I did so I went to Brantwood, the house on the east shore of the lake which was Ruskin’s home for the last twenty five or so years of his life.  Owen Vardy had described it to me as ‘astonishing’, and he was right. The house is spacious and light and full of beautiful paintings and furnishings and books and objects from nature. There were a number of Pre-Raphaelite pieces, which I thought to myself were sure to have had Owen swooning on his visit. He loves that sort of sublimated metaphysical yearning. Brantwood sits on the hillside overlooking the lake and has fine views across to the Coniston Fells – Dow Crag, Swirl How, Wetherlam, the Old Man himself.  To live like this in a place like this could only ever be a privilege.

At the little bookshop I bought a couple of postcards and a little Penguin paperback from the Great Ideas series – ‘On Art and Life’ , which contains two essays by Ruskin, the first being ‘The Nature of Gothic’ which was first published in the second volume of ‘The Stones of Venice’ in 1853. The Ruskin quote on the cover of the paperback is “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both”. Few socialists could fail to admire Ruskin and to admit their debt to him. Even my dad’s got a soft spot for him.

I drove back down the tortuous undulating singletrack road into Coniston village. I parked at the Tourist Information Centre just opposite the internet café. On my way towards the fells I stopped off at Ruskin’s grave. He died in 1900 at the age of eighty one. Someone had placed two small bunches of fresh yellow daffodils beside his headstone. The whole graveyard was full of scattered purple crocuses and dense clumps of droopy snowdrops. I glanced up at the mining cottages. I headed for the the Old Man and the snow.

As I drove back into Blyth on Saturday for once the place looked drab and uninteresting to me. It looked messy and run down. For a brief moment it didn’t look to me at all like home.

 .

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