I know it seems strange but I have actually been asked on two separate occasions as to whether I was Scottish. Now regular readers will know that under all this grey fur hides a slightly paunchy middle-aged Chinese Malaysian. So you might be wondering if these two persons were escapees from the mad house or were inebriated by a few wee drams of Scotland’s best Scotch Whiskey. But no. The reason for their puzzled faces and curious question is that at one time I spoke as if “Ah was born a wee bairn oan th’ windswept scottish highlands“. “Still dornt kin? Ah cannae make it clearer than thes……Ah spick loch scottie th’ wee engineer frae Star Trek”. Okay before I go overboard …… let’s go on with my tale.
There is a reason for this strange phenomena …….. when one enters the “Dark Hole of Bowness-on-Windermere”, one does not come out of it unaffected. But more about this at the end of the post.
I spent 5 years in United Kingdom leading up to my completion of my degree in Biochemistry. Before going there, I was your typical country bumpkin who had never even been out of the country before …… not even to neighboring Singapore. I did get some pre-conceptions about life in UK from reading books and novels. From those readings, the things that stuck in my mind most was the bleak and windswept Yorkshire Moors of Wuthering Heights; the gentle hills and lakes of the Lake District which was home to Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit and the remote Scottish coast near the Isle of Skye which was the location of Camusfearna from the book “Ring of Bright Water“.
So during my second summer there, when looking for some work to help pay the bills, I suddenly had the idea of combining my work quest with my hopes of visiting one of these iconic places. Together with my friend, James, also from Malaysia, we got a job as housekeeping staff at a guest house in the Lake District.
In those days, there were no super highways reaching that part of England and many went there by train, arriving at Windermere station which is still quite a distance from Windermere Lake. The town is actually Bowness-on- Windermere (Windermere is actually the name of the lake). We walked the entire distance down to the lake and then followed the lakeside trail out of town and past the line of cars waiting to catch the small ferry across the lake and a few minutes later, we arrived at a wonderfully quaint guest house which was called Meadowcroft. There is still a guest house in Windermere by that name but I do not believe that it is the same one.
The place was really an old farmer’s home which had been converted into the guest house with about 8 rooms. It was run by a young couple who had a 5 year old son. Apart from ourselves, who were basically the summer reinforcements, the only other person was this middle-aged Scottish woman named Agnes.
Our typical day consisted of waking up at about 6.30 in the morning so that we could assist in getting the breakfast ready as well as packed lunches for guests that had requested it. Breakfast was served between 7.30 and 9.30 am and then we helped clean up in the eating area and also cleaning the common areas. Later in the morning, we would either help clean the rooms and make the beds or do the washing of plates and cutlery. The place was also a working farm although it was small scale and so we would also then help on the farm. If we were lucky, some days, the boss would let us off by about 2.30 pm after lunch and we would not be required back until 5.30 pm and so we would cram in as much hiking and sightseeing that we could. We were also given a day off once a week which was so precious and highly anticipated. Work resumed at night with the evening meal and washing up and then the nightcap of coffee, tea or hot chocolate and then washing up. We’d finally crawl into bed all tired out at about 11pm.
Having to walk everywhere meant that we did not get to go very far from Meadowcroft but we could follow the lakeside to the south, we could climb the Fell immediately behind and to the east, we managed to take the ferry across the lake and tramp around Beatrix Potter’s house in Far Sawrey, we even managed to catch a bus to quaint town of Keswick on Derwentwater Lake. It’s strange that I have few vivid images of all these places in my head but my memory is instead, more of a feeling of general and complete wellness and of being alive.
But, I do have vivid memories of the “Dark Hole of Bowness-on-Windermere”! One of the least popular of all the chores was doing the washing up. The dirty dishes were brought in and the organic wastes had to be separated form the rest (for food for farm animals). Next, they were rinsed and then placed into a large scale dishwasher. We then had to run the dishwasher which sprayed the plates and cutlery with hot soapy water and then rinse it with hot clean water. Both times, steam fills this tiny room and the place gets really uncomfortably hot and incredibly humid. We then had to dry the dishes and cutlery in that hot humid environment. It was inhumane conditions which brought to mind the story of the Dark Hole of Calcutta when in 1756, the Nawab of Bengal had British prisoners (including women and children) placed into a tiny prison with only a couple of small barred windows for ventilation. It is believed that 146 prisoners was placed into a cell intended for just 4-5 people and as a result of the heat, humidity and lack of air, 123 were dead by the next day.
Okay, there were usually only two of us but it was still quite unpleasant. Eventually, James took to dodging dishwashing duty by volunteering to do almost anything else which resulted in myself and Agnes being incarcerated repeatedly in our Bowness torture chamber. Yet, it was in those times of enforced confinement and mutual suffering that Agnes and I had some really wonderful and open conversations about ourselves, our hopes and our beliefs. I don’t remember much of what we shared but I have a strong almost physical memory of the heat, the humidity, the smell of soapy water and a sense of a rare and wonderful connection with a fellow human being.
Now Agnes had a very, very broad and infectious Scottish accent and so with the repeated subjection together to the Dark Hole of Bowness, I finally emerged not only with dishpan hands, a soap induced itch and possibly ringworm but I was speaking Scottish to boot.