IN the Lake District, David Robinson discovers St Bega and understands the magic that so inspired Tennyson
Unlike a load of places I could mention in Scotland, the Lake District has always been good at niche marketing. Go to a sweetshop in Keswick and they won’t just sell you Belgian chocolates, but bars with a wrapping based on the local Ordnance Survey map. Go to the tourist information office and they won’t just sell you the OS map, but laminated cards with about 20 different local walks on them. And whether you want a guide for the best places for disabled people to stay or which inns allow you to bring your dog, it’s all there too.
Not that marketing always tells the whole story. At the Sun Inn in Bassenthwaite the other day, I ordered a pint of Bassenthwaite Beauty. It seemed the right thing to do: supporting the local brewery and all that. “Where’s it made?” I asked. “That?” said the barmaid. “That’s from Wolverhampton.”
In Bassenthwaite, the local saint is Bega. There are all kinds of legends about her, some of which may be down to medieval marketing. Apparently, she fled from Northern Ireland because her father wanted to marry her off to a Viking warlord. She landed on the Cumbrian coast, and made her way inland, wanting to found a convent. It was winter, and God told her to build on the only place that didn’t have any snow. Some say this was in the 7th century, others the end of the 9th, and today’s medievalists reckon that there might not have been an actual St Bega at all, but some kind of local cult based on a bracelet (“beag” in Old English) instead.
Why am I telling you all this? Because there is a small church named after St Bega by Bassenthwaite Lake, and its setting is so magical that you’d almost believe anything about it. Was it the only place with no snow when an Irish nun walked over the Honister Pass around 890AD? I don’t know, but I do know that the young Melvyn Bragg would row across the lake to it because this small 10th century lakeside church surrounded by nothing but fields seemed at once holy and mysterious: indeed, he wrote about it in his novel Credo.
Over a century earlier, it had cast a similar spell over the young Alfred Tennyson. In 1835, a few years after finishing Cambridge, he visited a fellow student who lived at Mireside, a country house overlooking St Bega’s church and Bassenthwaite Lake. While he was there, he wrote a few poems.
The following week, he was out rowing on Lake Windermere when he told another friend about the poems he’d written. “Resting on our oars and looking on the lake unruffled and clear, he quoted from the lines he had lately read to us from the Morte d’Arthur and of the lonely Lady of the Lake and Excalibur.” When he’d finished, he turned to his friend, Edward FitzGerald (Read The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam? That was him). “Not bad, that, Fitz, is it?” he said.
They all visited Mirehouse, all these eminent Victorians: Tennyson of course (he came back on honeymoon in 1850), Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Froude, Southey.
There was something about the place – “manor from heaven” Bragg calls it – that drew them there, and indeed it has only been sold once since it was built in 1666. And there’s something about St Bega’s church in the fields too: whatever about the person who founded it, whether she was a saint or not, the building itself has an aura of calmness and peace about it that register even on agnostic antennae.
So no, I don’t find it remotely implausible that it was here that Tennyson imagined Mallory’s wounded king dying under a winter moon and tingling stars as Sir Belvedere finally, at the third attempt, threw the most beautiful sword in the world into a lake (this lake?) before sending Guinevere off to live in a convent (this church?).
All of this is just over a couple of meadows from the excellent Ravenstone Lodge, on the lower slopes of “one of the finest mountains of the earth” as Carlyle called Skiddaw.
A privately owned nine-roomed hotel, it has fantastic views, excellent food in both restaurant and coach house bistro, and is way better value than I’ve ever come across in the more crowded central Lakes and it’s less than three hours from Edinburgh.
And if you think all of this is too English, then let me remind you of one important detail. In Mallory’s Arthurian tales – published by Caxton back in 1485 – who was appointed king after King Arthur’s death? Constantine, son of King Carados of Scotland. So get down the M6, turn right at Carlisle, head down the A591 and make the most of it. This land is our land too.
• Rooms at Ravenstone Lodge range from £65 per night for a standard double (based on two people sharing) midweek in November and December to a rack rate of £100 and from £100-£140 for a luxury double. Further information on 017687 76629, firstname.lastname@example.org and www.ravenstonelodge.co.uk