Just back from a lovely morning walk, coffee, chat and house tour with Ian. Ian is a fantastically imaginative toymaker and wood turner who has lived in the village for 30 years. His partner of 40+ years, Ruth, is a pediatrician who spends most of her time working for a charity in Ethiopia – she’s just been home for one of her month-long visits, and has gone back down south to visit family before flying back to Africa tomorrow. Ian is here for another two weeks, and then will go out there for a few months while the son that works with him (they have four adult children) looks after the business. This morning Ian took me to the ‘Mill Woods’, which I hadn’t visited before. To get there you tramp through the farmyard at Town Head and then along the old - now overgrown - mill ‘road’, which every person in the village with a house the same age as ours has open rights to travel.
The road ends at the river, where the remains of the mill are still visible – two crumbling stone walls and the main shaft with its two large, rusting forged cogs still attached. Beside it runs the river, which a few years back burst its banks in the worst flood the area had seen for decades, changing the landscape of the water route for ever, forcing it now to navigate around bleak islands of washed-out rocks. The earth between the remaining mill walls and the river has eroded more and more, and Ian worries that over the next few years the rest of it will crumble and disappear.
We continue on, following the river through the Mill Wood – a twisted acre or more of hazel and willow, overseen by huge spreading oaks. Ian points out where the bluebells are just starting to sprout through the loam, and where the mouse tracks are still visible, formed as they found new paths between the greenery beneath the January snowfall. “People always worry about how the little animals cope with the snow,” says Ian, “but they’re fine. They can do what they want under there and nothing can see them.” He points out where the wood has grown into what used to be the two old mill ponds, and then we carry on to what the villagers call ‘the swimming pools’ – two wide openings in the river deep enough to swim in when the summer finally arrives. Ian shows me a strange triangular stone formation beside the water’s edge, which he thinks might have been for watercress. Apparently watercress was an important crop for the monastery when the not-too-distant Lanercost Priory was still a religious institution, although why they would have bothered growing it so far upstream, he’s not sure. But he can’t think what else the shallow bed would have been for so close to the water.
We double back over the fell to Field Head, an abandoned farmhouse that Ian and Ruth tried to buy when the first moved to the area 30 years ago, but their plans were blocked by one of the farmers. No one has lived in it for decades, and it is now falling down. We scramble over a rickety wall, down into where there would usually be waist-high nettles, but for the moment is festooned instead with snowdrops. Ian knows that one of the local barn owls has made its home in the traditionally-arched barn and walks inside in the hope that it will fly out of one of the high vents so that I can see it. It drifts, instead, to the other end of the house through one of the now-open walls, and we don’t want to disturb it further so we leave it be. I’ll see it next time. We walk down the track back into the village, Ian pointing out the original water course and stone tank that used to house the village’s water supply when it came from the fell above us instead of all the way from Alston over the pass.
We head back to Ian’s for coffee. I’ve never been inside his house before – it’s a wonderful jumble of soft wooden angles – he’s made all the cabinets by hand. The kitchen units are all rounded, with huge hand-turned hinges holding on doors that don't conform to any particular shape. There are no handles anywhere. (“It’s a tradition in our house. And the big hinges make them easier to climb.”) We sit and talk about Ethiopia – when Ian goes out to visit Ruth, there is a group of locals he helps to leran English, and we discuss what books might be good for the language levels he is working with. Then he gives me a tour of the rest of the house. Every door, every window and every staircase is different and most of the walls have a curve to them, so everything feels organic. The main staircase rises beside a stained glass window edged in hand-turned oak. Everything they’ve done to the house is to let in light or please the children – one of the bedrooms has a zig-zag ceiling, painted like a circus big top. Above the hallway, reaching into the alcove of a skylight, little hands (ones that are now big hands) have painted an undersea scheme that includes a huge orange octopus, a blue whale and a diving dolphin, all surrounded by darting fish. Ian explains that there used to be a low ceiling below this scene – he built it and then put in ladders from one of the bedrooms and a hole in the wall the other side so that the children could have it as a tiny den. Now the ceiling isn’t there, but the paintings still are. “I’ll paint over the dolphins and the fish at some point,” Ian tells me, “but I’ll leave the octopus there. It creates a great orange glow when the sun comes through the skylight.”
Outside, there is a ‘shed’, with a bowed tiled roof that looks as if it’s undulating in the wind sitting over what was once an old stone outhouse Even from the outside it is so beautiful that I would live in that alone. I’ve wanted to see inside it ever since we moved to the village – the road runs right past its large front window, giving a tantalising glimpse of another hand-made staircase within. Inside, there is a second level full of cushions and duvets, opposite another window that looks out over the garden. “The kids used to come out here to camp if ever they got sick of us,” Ian explains.
I am envious of Ian and Ruth’s children. I can’t imagine a better way to grow up than in that ever-changing, hand-made house, with the harsh wind whipping off the fell around its gable end, with the swimming in pools over summer, with the handle-less cupboards that are made for climbing, not opening.