Chapter 14 – Cumbria
From 19th October until 23rd November, 1991 I rented the attic of a house called the Stables in Cross Lane in the old part of Kendal. To get to my room I had to go through the dining room, up an iron spiral staircase, through the sitting room, and up another staircase that was so steep I had to go down backwards. It was difficult to carry things up both the staircases. The room was seventeen feet by fifteen feet, two feet high at the sides and just over six feet high under the ridge, which meant that the only place where I could stand up was in the centre. There were a lot of massive beams, some of which were very old, and one of which I had to climb over to get from one part of the room to another. I could see Kendal Castle from my windows.
From 27th November 1991 until 27th February 1993 I worked for City Wide Taxis (formerly City Taxis), in Urquhart Road, Aberdeen and lived in a motor caravan in the taxi yard. While I was there I was asked by Michael Joseph to revise the maps for a book to be called Wainwright’s Tour in the Lake District. It was about a walking tour completed by the author and some friends in 1931 and incorporated maps from his Lakeland guides. It seemed to me that the publishers were scraping the bottom of the barrel to produce yet another book about Wainwright, when there were two completed volumes of the revised Lakeland guides that were urgently needed and all ready to be printed. Not only that, but they wanted me to start work in October, a most unsuitable time of the year. Of course, I did it: I would rather do this than nothing at all, but I couldn’t see the sense of it. I was in the Lake District from 21st October until 13th December, 1992, and in all that time I only had two fine days.
In February, 1993 I left Aberdeen to live in a freehold flat at 73 Ferry Road, Barrow-in-Furness, which I bought for £7500. Ferry Road also happens to be the name of the first road featured in my first book. The flat was chosen for no other reason than that it was the cheapest property I had seen advertised anywhere. Nevertheless, I liked it better than many more expensive properties that I had looked at. The flat was on the first floor, with its own front stairs, back stairs, back yard and outbuildings. When I moved in the flat was completely surrounded by buildings of the shipyard, but some of them were demolished while I was there, revealing a view of the Walney Channel. Sometimes I would watch enormous pieces of shipbuilding equipment being moved along the road outside. This was the first time in my life that I had my own bath and hot-water system.
In the 1990s I produced maps and indexes and read the proofs for books by Mike Harding, Bob Allen and David Maughan. I also wrote a book of predictions that I called The Third Millennium, but I didn’t try to get it published because it only came to 6700 words, which is too short for a book, and I was not prepared to pad it out with less interesting material as many authors do. I sent a copy to Arthur C. Clarke, and I was surprised to receive a detailed reply discussing many of the points I had raised.
In March 1995 I drove to Morocco and back in a motor caravan and made a 20-minute video of my journey, which I called Faraway Places. I chose Morocco because it was the nearest place that I thought would be completely different from Britain and because I went to Greece in 1963 and wanted to set off in a different direction. I planned the video so that most of the commentary relates to the picture that is on the screen at the time, unlike many television programmes which are like radio programmes with pictures added later. I only showed myself once, so that people can see what I look like. Most television travel programmes show far too much of the narrator.
The last time I visited the outlets to distribute panoramas was in 1995, and at the very last shop I went to I was shown a panorama from Snowdon that had been produced the previous year by Jonathan de Ferranti using a computer. Ever since I started work on my panorama in 1970 I had wondered if I should ever come across someone else who was doing the same thing, and this was the first time that this had happened. I couldn’t buy one because there was only one copy in the shop, but I was able to send off for a catalogue. Having taken ten years to produce ten panoramas I was astonished to discover that Jonathan could produce one from the Ordnance Survey database in thirty minutes, and that he had already produced panoramas from 127 places in the British Isles.
I had used a pocket calculator to work out the outlines of very distant mountains that I had been unable to see, and I thought that it might be possible to do this more quickly using a computer, but I assumed that one would still have to plot the outline on a piece of graph paper and copy it onto the panorama. It never occurred to me that a computer could actually draw the outlines.
For many reasons I was sure that Jonathan had not consulted my publications when producing his own, and it was therefore a fascinating exercise to place the two panoramas side by side and compare them. The first thing that struck me was that is those places where I had gone to great lengths to get everything right the two panoramas were exactly the same. This gave me confidence that wherever there was a discrepancy between the two panoramas it was mine that was inaccurate. It was like taking an examination and later seeing the answers – but on this occasion I had to wait for more than twenty years for the answers.
The panoramas are encased in transparent plastic, so that they are waterproof, washable and extremely tough. Different colours are used to indicate distances, and the sky is pale blue. The drawings on the back are printed upside down, which is sensible because it is easier to turn the panoramas over vertically than horizontally. Bearings are shown in degrees; and I couldn’t find a single instance where a mountain was wrongly identified or a distance miscalculated by more than a mile.
From June 1995 until May 1996 I worked for J.C. Taxis in Barrow. On 6th February, 1966 there was ten inches of snow on the ground outside my flat and twenty-four inches in the countryside. Over the next two days my average hourly takings were double what they usually were and my tips were four times as great.
In December 1996 I started working as a taxi driver in Kendal, which meant that I had to drive from Barrow to Kendal and back every day. To avoid this, in December 1998 I moved into a rented flat at number 5, Chapel Close, Kendal. It was on the top floor of a former mansion, and it had a wonderful view: I had finally found the home with a view that I was looking for in 1969. To get from the town centre to my flat I had to climb over a hundred steps.
At first I tried letting my flat in Barrow, but I found that this was so much trouble that in 2000 I decided to sell it. This took ten months, and all I got was £5000, two thirds of what I paid for it. In 2007 I was paying £98 a week for a cottage in Kendal that was sold for £117,000. This represented a return of only 4.4 % per year. The £42.50 a week rent I received for my flat in Barrow represented 44 % per year of the £5000 I sold it for.
While I was living in Barrow and working in Kendal the best part of my day was the journey to and from work via Underbarrow, and the best of this was captured by a video camera so that I could enjoy it in later life. After I moved to Kendal I filmed the view of the countryside from my flat in Chapel Close. Then I made another video of the buildings of the town from the same place while the Town Hall bells were chiming ‘The British Grenadiers’. I chose to switch the camera on as the bells started, but the fact that they finished just as the video finished was sheer good luck. Because I was looking down on the town at an angle the shop fronts and the people and traffic were all hidden from view.
From July 1997 until June 2003 I worked for Castle Taxis in Kendal, a period of nearly six years. This was over twice as long as my second-longest job and over six times as long as my second-longest full-time job. While I was driving around I saw a pair of multi-coloured mock suns, one each side of the real sun. I also saw people walking on stilts, a unicycle, a tandem for three people, a steam-driven lorry, the actual car that was used in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and a dark green D-type Jaguar that not only looked beautiful, but sounded beautiful as well. One day in 1999 I received a £5 coin for the first time and immediately put it back into circulation because I expected to receive hundreds of them, but I have never seen one since.
Sometimes, if I started early in the morning, I would be the only person working: I would drive the car and answer the telephone using a mobile phone. When I did this one of two things usually happened: either I would tell the customer that we were fully booked, put the phone down and then work out that the job they wanted me to do fitted in nicely with existing jobs; or I would accept a job, put the phone down and then realise that the job didn’t fit the schedule at all, so that I would be running late from then onwards. Occasionally I would have two cars to control, and this was too complicated for me; yet Jimmy McIntosh in Aberdeen could control eighty cars at once, and he never made a mistake.
When I was a taxi driver I was always pleased if someone asked me the way to somewhere; the other person might be more knowledgeable than me in most subjects, but in this particular situation I was the expert.
In the income tax year 1998-9 I noted that my average income from taxi driving was £113 a week, which was £79 less than the minimum wage for the hours I worked.
In August 1999 I was asked to leave my flat in Chapel Close, but I found an even better one in a house that I had long admired at 24B Beast Banks, Kendal. It stood at the start of the first walk in The Outlying Fells of Lakeland (except for a short stretch that was shared by the outward and return journeys). The windows looked out across a perfect village green; the sitting room had a low ceiling and beautiful wallpaper; and there was a turret that was used as a kitchen. Before I went to look at the flat I had to take some luggage in the taxi to a house in Bowness. It took me an hour and a half to find it, and I arrived at Beast Banks with not a minute to spare. It was as well that I eventually found the house in Bowness because someone else had arranged to look at the flat a quarter of an hour after me!
I later learned that the post office four doors along from my house was the inspiration for the Postman Pat series of books. It has since been closed down.
In 2001 I bought a leaflet about a geological walk in Kendal that pointed out fossils all over the town that I hadn’t noticed before. I used to love exploring the alleyways of Kendal, and without making any effort to do so I found myself arranging them to make a circular walk that started and finished at the town hall. I printed out a description of the walk and gave a copy to anyone who was interested. In 2002 I donated the originals of the Wainwright correspondence to the Kendal Museum.
I conclude this chapter with some letters I wrote at about this time.
Letter published in The New Scientist, 2nd June, 1994.
In the edition of May 28th you published a letter from Alison Brooks saying that there are people who believe that the general level of happiness can be raised by the improvement of social conditions. Don’t such people realise that improvements of this sort can only make people happier until the novelty wears off and the new conditions become the norm?
The only way that the average level of happiness can be raised in the long term is by discovering the physical or chemical processes that underlie changes of mood and learning to control them. If ever this happens it will be, quite simply, the greatest discovery in the history of the world.
Letter published in Punch, 11th September, 1996.
In view of the confusion that sometimes arises over the periods of English architecture, I thought you might like to publish the following explanation:
English architecture may be divided into Roman, Saxon, Norman, Early English, Decorated, Perpendicular, Tudor, Georgian and Victorian. Roman architecture is that of Rome, which is in Italy, and therefore not found in England. Saxon architecture is that of Saxony, which is in Germany, and therefore not found in England. Norman architecture is that of Normandy, which is in France, and therefore not found in England. Early English architecture is everything that was built in England before 8.0 in the morning. Decorated is self-explanatory and refers to everything built in England except for twentieth-century council houses, which are undecorated. Perpendicular is likewise self-explanatory and refers to everything built in England, the one building that is not perpendicular being the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is in Italy. Tudor architecture is that built by Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but as none of these was a builder, it is not found in England. Georgian and Victorian architecture are not found in England for the same reason.
I hope that this clears everything up.
This is the version that was submitted; the published version was slightly different and, in my opinion, not so good. In 1996 I wrote to Jim Watson, the author of a book of Lakeland panoramas, and received a reply saying that the day he got my letter he read my article in Punch. If he hadn’t noticed it I would probably never have known that the article had been published.
To the Guinness Book of Records, 21st July, 1996:
From 1970 until 1979 I devoted my life to the production of a series of guides to the views from mountaintops in Britain. In the 1980 edition of the Snowdon panorama I wrote that I had come to the conclusion that the greatest distance visible on land anywhere in Britain is that from Snowdon to the Merrick in southern Scotland. The distance is 231.87 km, or 144.08 miles.
For many years mine were the only publications of this type available. Then, in 1994, Jonathan de Ferranti started producing panoramas in greater numbers using a computer. He also worked out that the greatest distance visible in Britain is that from Snowdon to the Merrick, although at the time he had not seen any of my panoramas.
With two people arriving independently at the same conclusion, it seems to me that this record should now be regarded as a fact, and I wondered if you might consider it worth mentioning in The Guinness Book of Records.
To the Guinness Book of Records, 7th October, 1997:
On reading the 1998 edition of the Guinness Book of Records I was very pleased to see that you were able to mention on page 214 that the greatest distance visible in Britain is that from Snowdon to the Merrick. On the other hand, I was very disappointed to see that the distance is given as 144.08 km or 89.5 miles. In my letter of 21st July, 1996 I made it clear that the distance is 231.87 km or 144.08 miles. A quick glance at any small-scale map would be sufficient to show that 89 miles is too short. Norris McWhirter would never have let a mistake like that get through.
Jonathan de Ferranti shows Snowdon on his Merrick panorama, but he does not show the Merrick on his Snowdon panorama because he feels that it is too close to Lamachan Hill to be distinguishable. I therefore suggest that in the next edition the paragraph should be rephrased:
‘The longest line of sight in the British Isles is 231.87 km (144 miles). In exceptionally clear weather it is possible to see Snowdon, Gwynedd, Wales from the summit of the Merrick, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.’
The record was never mentioned again in the book.
To Answers Please, the John Dunn Show, Radio 2, 4th September, 1996 (not broadcast):
The recent repeat of a radio programme made by Percy Edwards in the 1970s means that there must exist in the B.B.C. a recording of that programme. Do recordings exist of all radio programmes, or only some of them? Are there any records of which programmes have been kept and which have been lost? Are these records accessible to members of the public?
In the past ten or fifteen years nearly all the films that I remember from my youth have been shown on television, even those which the reviewers regard as being not worth seeing. When are we going to hear all the old radio programmes again?
In the next three letters the questions were provided by other readers of the New Scientist magazine, and I suggested appropriate answers, but none of them was published.
To The Last Word, the New Scientist, 6th August, 1994:
Q: Can anyone explain in simple and common-sense terms why there is simultaneously a high tide on both sides of the earth?
A: Many people are puzzled by this, but the explanation is really quite simple. On the side of the earth closest to the Moon the water is attracted to the Moon slightly more than the earth as a whole because it is nearer. Therefore the sea swells up on that side. On the side of the earth farthest from the Moon the water is attracted to the Moon slightly less than the earth as a whole because it is farther away. Therefore the sea on that side also swells up.
To The Last Word, the New Scientist, 20th February, 1995:
Q: Why do people say ‘um’ or ‘er’ when hesitating in their speech?
A: ‘Um’ and ‘er’ are the two most undervalued words in the English language. They mean ‘Don’t say anything, I’m thinking what to say next.’ The two seconds’ thinking time that results is nothing like long enough, but it is better than nothing.
To The Last Word, the New Scientist, 4th November, 1995:
Q: Is it true that the living outnumber the dead?
A: The number of people living is now about five or six thousand million. This number can never catch up with the number of dead people, which is now around a hundred thousand million. If the population levels off at ten thousand million and the earth remains inhabitable for a thousand million years, as is thought likely, the people of the past and present will be outnumbered by those who are yet to be born by a factor of about a million. The story of the human race is only just beginning.
Letters to the Editor, the New Scientist, 20th January, 1998:
(This letter was not published, but there was a letter from someone else making the same point.)
In the article ‘That’s amazing, isn’t it?’ the authors claim that the number of games of bridge played worldwide is so huge that every few weeks a hand may be expected to occur in which each player is dealt a complete suit. This is quite impossible, because the odds against it happening are of the order of 1027 to one against, whereas the number of hands dealt in the course of a year is no more than 1010 or 1011. It is quite possible, however, that once every few weeks someone switches a carefully sorted pack of cards with one that has just been shuffled while the attention of the players is diverted.
I might have added that anyone doing this should ensure that when a hand is picked up the cards are not in numerical order. If the ace is followed by the king and then the queen and so on nobody will believe that it was accidental.