After two weeks away it's good to be back on this website. No, we have not been strolling arm-in-arm along at a faraway tropical beach backed by palm trees, neither did we bronze our torsos under the hot equatorial sunshine, nor did we gently wade into the coral-rich turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean.
No, it was better than any of that.
Because the above description of long-haul travel belonged to a past epoch when I was single, living in my own bachelor pad with scarcely any responsibility other than to keep myself fed, clothed, and to keep a roof over my head. Such travel suited me perfectly back in those days, as I had no one else to love, cherish and care for. But now as a married man whose spouse is partly lame, I have found that the windswept, drizzly, leaden-grey skies over the Lake District National Park in Northern England to be just as equally enthralling, if not more so, than the Round-the-World backpacking trips which characterised the 1990's.
What has made such a trip enthralling? Watching my wife take in the Park's dramatic scenery with continual delight. Her delight in the lakes surrounded by mountains (known locally as fells) is what make the week long break equally fulfilling as any long-haul or Mediterranean trips. As well as being close to something that has always excited her, seeing for herself one of the many waterfalls which features abundantly across the park.
The Lake District National Park is the largest area under protection from development in England (second to the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland, the largest in the U.K.) It is roughly circular, more than thirty miles, 50 km across, with elongated lakes radiating out like spokes of a wheel, each of the lakes surrounded by mountains. England's highest mountain, Scafell Pike, is located here, rising to 3,029 feet, 978 metres. Maybe just a bump on the ground compared with other mountains around the world, but that did not hinder me from enjoying such spectacular views from its summit back in 1992, with Styhead Tarn not far below, along with a view of the Cumbrian coastline on the Irish Sea, and just after a short walk from the summit, a distant view of Lake Wastwater. Also on that same break, I recall standing on the summit of Helvellyn, the District's third highest mountain at 3,120 feet, 950 metres under leaden skies and a gale force wind nearly blowing me away. Just below, Red Tarn, the park's highest lake, was seen as a dark grey circular splotch on the landscape, the howling winds causing the tarn to quiver by the roughened water before the rain started to fall, obliterating any views the mountain would have otherwise offered.
|Summit of Helvellyn, 1992.|
I had another visit to the Lake District during the Summer of 1999, just a few weeks before marrying Alex. This was a fell-walking hike from Kendal, a town just outside the park boundary, to Keswick, on the northern region of the District, and the gateway to Lake Derwentwater, one of the loveliest lakes in the park. It took three to four days to complete the thirty-plus mile trek over the hills. During one of the days a near-total solar eclipse was on the cards. So I made sure that I was on the summit of one of the mountains which looked across Lake Buttermere. As the moon began to eclipse the sun, the whole mountainous area became gloomy and dark, which seemed to have startled the wildlife. Almost directly above a sliver of a solar crescent was the only source of the dim sunlight.
Hosteling was the best way for me to spend the nights at the District, both in 1992 and in 1999. This included a night at Ambleside Y.H.A. hostel, the largest in the UK outside London. But it was Y.H.A. Keswick 1999 which really struck a cord throughout that trip. Nothing special about the hostel itself, except that it would be the very last hostel I would ever spend a night in a all-male dormitory. It ended fourteen years of hosteling experience, which I have not only enjoyed in the UK, but also experienced overseas, such as in France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Israel, United States, Singapore, and Australia. It was like having a mental video passing through my head. I recalled the best hostel I ever stayed in. It was five nights at San Diego, Southern California, in 1995, which back then shared the same building as the YMCA at Broadway, before moving out to occupy another property at Market Street, where I stayed in 1997. Sharing a room with just one other fellow, he was a builder from Australia, who was the inspiration behind my own journey Down Under two years later. Then not to forget the small New Swedish Hostel in the heart of the Old City Jerusalem, where in 1994 I lived there for a full month, after spending nearly two weeks at the same place in 1993. But as I lay on a typical bunk bed that night at Keswick, I knew that marrying Alex would change things forever. During our short courting days, she made it clear to me that she would never spend a night at a female-only dormitory. Same-sex dormitories are, and will be, forever past.
|Lake Grasmere, taken April 2016|
And so brings us up to this month, where we spent a week at a wheelchair-friendly hotel at Windermere, just a short downhill walk to Bowness-on-Windermere. Alex is not totally wheelchair-bound. She is able to get out of the chair and walk independently for a few metres at a time. Not only does this make her day-to-day housework possible, but also proved to be a great advantage on one of the days of our trip. It was to a spot called Aira Force, a 65-foot high waterfall about half a mile 1 km from the bus stop where we alighted, which is by the shore of Lake Ullswater. At the adjoining car park, the warden warned us that the trail to the waterfall is not wheelchair-friendly at all, as there are steps and boulders to navigate.
We were both determined to see the waterfall for ourselves, especially Alex, as she is particularly keen on waterfalls of all kinds. I did not want to be disappointed after a full hour's bus ride over Kirkstone Pass, neither did I want to let my wife down. So while she was in the wheelchair, I started pushing, as I always do, as we took to the footpath.
The trail was brutally tough for a wheelchair user. Not only were there steps and large boulders, but tree roots as well. If Alex had been totally wheelchair-bound, the warden at the car park would have been right all along. There is no way to navigate an occupied wheelchair along such a trail. But instead, each time we came to such an obstacle, Alex rose from her chair and walked, while I carried the vacant chair, until the path became relatively smooth again. Then she climbed back in. So the journey progressed. And we didn't go about unnoticed. Instead we had attracted the attention of quite a number of walkers, some even offering help. The warmth of such people up there in the North is quite a contrast to the South where we live. This, I believe, is that people in the Lake area don't have that "feeling rushed" mentality - the idea that much has to be accomplished in such a short space of time. The population up in the rural North, as I have noticed, are far more relaxed. A couple of middle-aged ladies actually remarked, after completing the trip,
You should make a film about this!
|Aira Force Waterfall, taken April 2016|
Such perseverance had its rewards. We were both awestruck at the sight of the thundering waterfall! And that was only after finding out about its existence by accident, while checking over a booklet of local bus timetables. But one point did bother me somewhat. That is the inability to wonder at such a marvel of nature due to nothing more than physical disability. But remarkably enough, wheelchairs in the Lake District are very far and few between, according to our observation.
Yet we won over the odds by perseverance. This is not to be big-headed, or anything like that. My original plan after visiting the waterfall, was to wheel my wife to the village of Glenridding, over a mile along the shores of Lake Ullswater, into which the Aira Beck, which features the waterfall, was making its way into. We couldn't do it, because the amount of time it took just to navigate the trail to the waterfall, as well as the amount of time we spent there.
But the exhilaration we both felt at the conclusion of the trip was at a level which not even any of my own long-haul trips were able to accomplish as much. Why was this? I think that on my own I had only myself to make happy. But in this case I was endeavouring to make somebody else happy. And once successful, I can't help conclude that this is the reason why we are here. To put the interests of someone else's welfare above our own. The walk to Aira Force Waterfalls is such a fine example. Supposing I was on my own and had just learnt of the waterfall's existence. Sure enough, I would have hiked the trail rapidly, to arrive with hardly any sweat in my brow, spend up to an hour taking zillions of photos, then head back to the bus stop. Great. It would have been quite easy for an able-bodied person as myself to make the trip. But to have a partially disabled spouse who you love dearly, and you know that she wants to see the falls too - well that puts everything in a totally different perspective. I have discovered that by making the effort to make her happy, the reward returns to me. It is far more fulfilling.
Of all the mysteries of life, since Alex went down with the illness nearly three years ago, I have often wondered why we are in this state, why the doctors have no ability to bring a cure, why she has to be in a wheelchair. And why, if Jesus, after having healed so many himself, sent his disciples out to do the same, have we not benefited? But such experience has taught us both that for me to love my wife while in this state, to take care of her, and to fulfil her wishes, is a kind of honour. Yes, I do feel honoured in taking on the responsibility of marriage and all that's involved.
And I would never trade away my beloved wife for a lifetime of long-haul travel, even if given the choice. My love for her is far, far deeper. I know my need for her as much as she needs me. Rather like the love of Jesus Christ has for his bride, the Church, I believe.