Lonely planet: A weekend in foot-and-mouth country

John Harris finds the Dunkirk spirit (and something more malevolent) haunting the pubs, tearooms and tourist attractions of Cumbria. But where are all the people?
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There was a time when meadow, grove and stream

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream

The earth and every common sight

To me did seem

Apparelled in celestial light -

The glory and the freshness of a dream./ Turn wheresoe'er I may,

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more

Wordsworth: 'Ode (Intimations of Immortality)'

Friday 23 March, 8.15am

I awake in Cheshire, 90 minutes' drive from the Lakes. Turning on the radio, almost the first voice I hear is that of the Environment Minister Michael Meacher exhorting Britain's urban-dwellers - in a tone that reminds me of a teacher who can't keep order - to jump into their hatchbacks, hurry over to the nearest beauty spot and enjoy a weekend sitting in local tea shops. Well, there's a coincidence, as that's just what I am setting out to do.

To prepare myself for the experience ahead, I have another scan of the Government's "Visiting the Countryside - How You Can Help" advert. So, to recap: "You can freely drive, cycle and walk along tarmac roads and visit country towns, villages and seaside resorts. Most footpaths are currently closed, but some may open soon. Where sites are open, you can also stay in caravans or tents, or go sailing, rowing or canoeing."

Just to make doubly sure, I phone the Lake District National Park Authority dedicated helpline. The conversation goes like this:

I'm thinking of coming to the Lake District this weekend.

"Oh, we'd love you to come. Please come."

All right then, I will. But there's absolutely no grassland open anywhere, though, right? It's just that I've got this expensive new pair of Karrimor walking boots that I need to break in.

"Well, you can walk on the parks in the towns, such as Rothay Park in Ambleside."

Right! Hiking possibilities ahoy! And how long would it take to get from one end of that park to the other?

"Oh... er... 10 minutes."

Not much that, is it?

"No, it's not. It's not."

9.35am

Undaunted, and having persuaded my brother Hywel to come along as navigator, bringing his acoustic guitar as a boredom-killing device, I begin the drive up the M6. On the day we arrive, the South and Central Lakes are still free of foot-and-mouth. So, although gates and stiles are festooned with stripy tape and a distinct atmosphere of crisis prevails, there is no sign of bovine genocide. The fells, as we soon discover, look as majestic as ever - though there is something very odd about surveying scenery that you can't go anywhere near. Even when you're law-abidingly keeping to the A roads, it makes you feel like you're trespassing: you tend to talk in whispers and tiptoe everywhere.

Our first stop-off is at Windermere. I need some thick socks, so I pop in to the Crescent Peak outdoor clothing shop, where a forlorn assistant points me in the direction of a pair of red ones. She shows me the diary in which the shop's takings are logged. This week, they fall just shy of £50: my socks thus represent 10 per cent of the total. "It's dead," she says, her eyes cast down. "I sold one fleece this morning, and that's it. There's just nobody about."

1.30pm

Over in the bar of the Greywall Hotel, 20 or so people sit having their lunch. In the course of sandwiches and a very profitable go on the fruit machine, we meet Louis the barman, who tells us that there'd usually be well over 100 people in here. He also has more alarming information to pass on.

"I know farmers who are saying that if they catch anyone on their land, they're going to shoot them," he says. "German, French, Japanese... all kinds of people are just straying on. One guy I know has put his son on one of them quadrabikes with a gun. It's not loaded, but he thinks it'll get the message over. What are you lads doing today then?"

"Avoiding farmers' sons on quadrabikes," replies my brother, grimly.

2.50pm

Some places, it seems, are not quite as deserted as others. Bowness - an archetypal lakeside tourist trap - is sprinkled with day-trippers and stoic holidaymakers, such as Phil and Barbara from Wigan. They own a holiday home near Kirkby Lonsdale, and they're at the start of a long weekend in the company of Barbara's parents. "There are worse places to be on Friday afternoon," says Phil, gesturing at the idyllic expanse in front of us. His only worry is whether he'll be able to cycle on open fell roads without annoying farmers. I think about repeating the quadrabike story, but don't want to spoil the enjoyment of his '99.

Five minutes later, we have a quick skim of The Cumberland News - featuring a specially written piece "by" Tony Blair. "There is still much to see and do and see," he says. "Businesses are keen to welcome sensible visitors."

I'm not sure whether 30 minutes spent playing Air Hockey and Tekken 3 in Bowness's amusement arcade is the kind of thing he has in mind, but it passes the time.

5pm

We begin the journey to tonight's hotel, the Woolpack, in Boot, up in Eskdale. Tonight, we represent two thirds of their guest numbers, though a gaggle of local drinkers keeps the bar till ringing. The mushroom and brie stroganoff is a treat, as is the cosy feeling that comes from spending an evening at an isolated hotel in the shadow of Harter Fell. There is real enjoyment to be had in coming here in such trying circumstances, because a) You get the welcome of all welcomes, where e'er you go, and b) there's a kind of smug, war correspondent-type glow to be had from being here at all (although six pints of Jennings' bitter may also explain the latter).

No that such talk means much to Chris Morrison, the landlord. "The way it's looking at the moment," he says, "at some point in 2005 I might have a few weeks when my bank account is in the positive. If I carry on trading like this, by February 2002 I'll be £85,000 to £100,000 in the red."

After the fifth pint of Jennings', my brother enters the bar clutching his guitar, a bloke from the local youth hostel (closed, inevitably) brings out his violin, and Chris plays the penny whistle. By 3am, we are all howling along to a very apposite reading of Bob Dylan's "I Shall be Released".

Saturday 24 March, 9.45am

I have a hangover. By way of head-clearance, we decide to cross the Hard Knott Pass, and indulge a few of my Lombard-RAC fantasies before setting out on a brief "tarmac walk". Unfortunately, though charging up a 1:6 hill in first gear is something of a giggle, pacing the mountain roads is nixed by the fact that each and every parking space - owned by the National Trust - has been shut.

Worse still, continuing our journey to Ambleside is rendered impossible by a closed road in Cockley Beck, where a rather shabby-looking sign - with the words "road" and "closed" hacked from different places - sits on the verge. Reluctantly, I take two Nurofen and point the car in the direction of Broughton-in-Furness, thereby doubling the length of the journey. So much for being able to "freely drive, cycle and walk along tarmac roads".

12pm

I have unwittingly managed to create a bit of a ruckus in Coniston's Tourist Information Office, by asking about the closed road. "All the roads are open," says a man called Bob, from behind the counter. Politely, I give him the evidence to the contrary.

Bob then calls his superiors on a special hotline and has a frantic chat, and returns. "That's not official," he says, sheepishly. "That sign's been put up by a farmer."

Right. And could you really walk on the road they've put the sign on, even with Mr Meacher's "you can walk on any tarmac road" soundbite?

"Well, they're fell roads. They haven't got any walls on either side of them, so you're asked not to walk on them."

Asked? That sounds a bit ambiguous. So you're within your rights to do so?

"You are," says Bob. "But I'd really advise you not to, because you might be met with... belligerence."

2.15pm

The rest of Coniston is very quiet indeed. At the Crown Hotel, the landlady, Mrs Tiidus, has a barful of locals gearing up for the England vs Finland football match, and a deserted hotel and restaurant. Understandably, she is rueing the cost of a recent renovation, along with the fact that the brewery expects the usual level of rent.

She has been here for more than 20 years. "And I've said to myself," she says, "that if I hadn't been doing this for that long, I'd have packed it in by now." She spits out sentences like that with venom, but I also notice her eyes are welling up. In fact, after a trip to the deserted Lakeland House tea shop, where the proprietor all but pleads with us to write something positive, the whole scene becomes heartbreaking.

If there is to be a summer election, party apparatchiks should bear one thing in mind. Visiting people such as Mrs Tiidus and asking them about their voting intentions would be a little like asking a starving man if he fancied listening to some music.

6.30pm

The Rough Guide To Britain describes the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel in Great Langdale as "superbly isolated" and "peerless". On both counts, it has a point: sitting under Raven Crag, below the Langdale Pikes, it has an oasis-like ambience, only heightened by its stone-floored hikers' bar and luxurious guests' lounge. Better still, its rates are a dream: £34 per person per night, with en-suite bathroom.

The landlord, Neil Walmsley, says his takings are 80 per cent down - though tonight, he's fortunate enough to be laying on the facilities for a 50th-birthday party. The hikers' bar is thus teeming with children, youths, parents and pensioners - while Neil (on mandolin and fiddle) and three of his musically accomplished neighbours play gaelic folk and bluegrass music, and the Jennings' flows like water.

Upon our arrival, we'd been invited to join them for "a twang". So it is that by 2am I am delivering gravel-throated versions of "Blue Suede Shoes", "Twist and Shout" and "In the Midnight Hour" while people dance around the bar. Music night, we are told later, is on the first Wednesday of every month. I think I'll be coming back.

Sunday 25 March, 12pm

I am hungover again. Having profusely thanked the staff of the Old Dungeon Ghyll, we drive to Grasmere, which is surprisingly busy, though we have breakfast in yet another deserted tea shop. It's here that we meet Joe Arthy, the genial proprietor of the Lakes Crafts and Antiques Gallery.

Easter, he says, will mark a real watershed: "By then, I don't know how the economy will stand it. And it's not just businesses round here. Think about what's happening to all the outdoor shops here - the people who are making the stuff in Manchester and Blackburn aren't getting the orders now. They'll be laying people off soon."

Most worryingly, Joe has heard rumours of a foot-and-mouth case in the Duddon valley, near the site of the "road closed" sign. The same whispers eddy around a nearby knick-knack shop. Thus, we head south with a very ominous feeling indeed.

By Sunday evening, the talk has been confirmed: foot-and-mouth has arrived in the South Lakes. In response, on past form at least, Michael Meacher will presumably be instructed to heighten the pitch of his exhortations, while the few holidaymakers who are philanthropic or optimistic (or both) make plans for next weekend.

And they'll have a good time, within reason - for despite everything, there's a welcome in these hills. But when I crawl into bed, one image is fixed in my mind: Mrs Tiidus, staring out of the window at those deserted Coniston lanes, dabbing her face with a tissue, wondering what happened to her livelihood.

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