Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Lakes and a memorable but baleful thought from Thomas More

The Lake District has to be one of the most spectacularly beautiful areas of Britain.

Worth the climb: view of Lake Windermere from one of the hilltops.
The weather’s true to form, too

Of course, it contains a lot of lakes, and lakes contain a lot of water, and that water has to come from somewhere. If you go there expecting constant sun and high temperatures, you’re likely to be disappointed. Fortunately, when Danielle and I went there last weekend, we had no such foolhardy expectations, so we weren’t downhearted when some of the fresh supplies for the lakes got dumped on our heads while we were being enchanted by the countryside.

Janka and I being enchanted by the bluebells in the Lakeland woods

As it happened, we got only a few showers, and no sustained rain until we were actually in the car heading home, a stroke of luck we don’t usually enjoy on this kind of outing. That was particularly satisfying for me since the weathermen had forecast an uninterrupted downpour for pretty much the whole weekend. I’m always delighted to confirm my belief that these guys can be relied on for only one thing, which is that they’ll be wrong nine times out of ten.

As well as the lakes themselves, the region is also well populated by animals, above all by sheep. In fact it reminds me of the only bit of that great book, Thomas More’s Utopia, that I can actually remember forty years on. Classics are supposed to improve the mind and I read it as a teenager full of reverence and looking forward to the lasting wisdom it would give me, so it’s a little disappointing that the only thing that’s left a trace is his remark about ferocious sheep. In Gilbert Burnet’s English it reads:

‘The increase of pasture,’ said I, ‘by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns.’

Of course, it’s a pretty striking image, sheep devouring people. In fact, if you read the sentence carelessly and get thrown by one of the commas, it looks as though they’re devouring unpeople too, which is an interesting idea. I’ve had colleagues I’d like to think of as ‘unpeople’, and they wouldn’t be missed if sheep devoured them.
I suppose it’s the image of voracious sheep that’s kept that passage alive in my mind, when the far greater points of wisdom and insight Utopia no doubt contains have faded completely from it.

Lakeland certainly seems well devoured by sheep. They’re everywhere.

Fortunately, Danielle really likes them. I do too, although to be honest I’m quite partial to them in the form of mutton or lamb – devouring them back, as it were, trying to get revenge on their species for mine (and for the unpeople too, of course).

Danielle’s a talented photographer. Her flair shines through the visual record of the weekend she kept. Here are some samples. See if you can spot what I like to think of as the Thomas More theme.

Devourers of men and unpeople at bay

A well earned rest from all that devouring

The voracious beasts are everywhere, there's no escape

Ferocious devourers rounding on us


Anonymous said...

Absolutely stunning pics of the District and of sheep, voracious or otherwise.
Also loved the bluebells, although that's one of the things I miss from BEDS.

David Beeson said...

Ah, yes - Ashridge was wonderful, wasn't it?

Awoogamuffin said...

That sentence really is quite ambiguous - I fell for thinking the sheep were eating unpeople... would it be wrong to put a comma between "men" and "and". It seems more understandable that way, but the ways of commas are mysterious and beyond my understanding.

David Beeson said...

I have to confess I was caught by the ambiguity - I spent a while trying to work out who the 'unpeople' were. I think there's actually a comma too many: remove the one after 'unpeople' and it becomes clearer. That's seventeenth century punctuation for you (the translation is seventeenth; the original, in Latin, is from the early sixteenth). It was only when I checked the original that I realised I was misreading the English. My Latin is rubbish but even I could see 'depopulate' in 'oppida uastent ac depopulentur' - it's pretty easy to spot and suddenly 'unpeople' is clear.