Excerpt: Low Mountains or High Tea

The following is an excerpt from Low Mountains or High Tea: Misadventures in Britain’s National Parks (September 2019) by adventurer, mountaineer, and travel writer Steve Sieberson. His last book was The Naked Mountaineer: Misadventures of an Alpine Traveler (Nebraska, 2014).

Our map indicated that a mile or two east of the M6 we would be entering the Yorkshire Dales National Park. This was an exciting prospect because when Americans hear the words national parks, we envision spectacular wilderness preserved intact, places where visitors can sample nature’s finest vistas and get close to geysers, waterfalls, and wildlife. We think of the enduring symbols of our parks, the rangers in their loden green uniforms and campaign hats, and of course their mascot, Smokey Bear. And so, as we left the motorway, I expected to find a park entrance station where we would pay a fee and an avuncular fellow with a white mustache would hand us a map and litterbag. I anticipated large billboards telling us to “mind the wildlife.” There was none of that. If there was so much as a sign indicating the park boundary, we didn’t notice it. Instead, we just proceeded eastward on a small two-lane highway, the A684. The village of Sedbergh was supposed to have a National Park Centre, but we missed that as well. Beyond the village we drove through hills and dales (ahhh, Dales!), winding this way and that, steadily climbing into country where sheep and cows grazed in pastures enclosed by hedgerows and stone walls. There were no forests, no waterfalls, and no bears.

It turns out that a national park in the UK is quite a different beast than the American variety. Britain has little true wilderness, so its parks must accommodate both scenery and human activity. Land is designated as a park for protection of its flora and fauna but also its cultural heritage, and it is managed to allow agriculture and commercial activity. Thus, every preserve has natural beauty but is also crisscrossed by roads and dotted with towns and farms, and since it sports little signage, it is most easily identified as a colored blob on the map. Also, while the American National Park Service is a federal agency with an organizational hierarchy, the British parks are separately managed by local councils. Overall, the closest American equivalent is New York’s Adirondack Park, which is managed not by the federal government but by a state agency and is home to 130,000 permanent residents and more than a hundred towns and villages.

It was a lovely late afternoon as we traversed the verdant landscape, crossing from west to east with the sun behind us. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate the experience. I was tired from jet lag, unsure of what the summer would bring, and petrified every time we met an oncoming car or truck along a narrow road on which everyone was driving down the middle. At one point I pulled onto a scenic turnout, not to admire the view but just to compose myself. The Italian Woman wasn’t feeling much better; she evidently found it highly unnerving to be sitting in the left front seat with no steering wheel to hang onto. I noticed that on every curve, her feet were compulsively probing for a phantom brake pedal.

The town of Leyburn would be largely ignored if it weren’t located just at the eastern edge of the national park. It does provide a base for exploring the eastern Dales, but the town itself offers only the basic amenities—a few pubs and restaurants, two outdoor shops, a supermarket, that sort of thing. We were disappointed that our first home in the UK wasn’t a picture postcard village, but thanks to our arrangement with Collett’s, we would stay in Leyburn for two weeks.

What was perfect was Eastfield Lodge, a first-rate b&b. It had only eight sleeping rooms, a cozy living room that they called the “lounge,” and a cheery dining room with a view across the valley to a row of green hills. Vic, the long-haired manager who bore a comforting resemblance to a pop culture Jesus, told us that there were two things that would make our stay memorable. First, his breakfasts. He showed us the list of the available dishes, all of which were made with local, organic ingredients. Eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, sausage . . . wait a minute, what was this? Vic sensed our skepticism but assured us that his morning meal was superior to any other.

Vic’s other point of pride was that we were at ground zero for the finest country walking in all of England. He took us into a library room where there was an array of guidebooks and maps, any of which we could borrow. He also said he would help us plan our walks every day. The Italian Woman and I were enthusiastic about this prospect, ready to get some fresh air after five months of subways and nightlife in Madrid.

Before turning in, we walked into the village center to Saffron, a Bangladeshi restaurant. It sounded like an improvement over fish and chips, and it was. I’ll never remember the name of what we ordered, but the mix of spices was so complex and exotic that it felt like eating a symphonic production of Sheherazade.

This being a Wednesday evening and still in May, Saffron was nearly empty. As a result, we could eavesdrop on the two English couples at the next table. We gleaned that they were from somewhere south of Yorkshire, here on a brief getaway. They were all retired from something or other, and their chief activity seemed to be gardening. Their conversation was rather subdued until one of the women suddenly perked up.

Woman: Oh, Roger, do tell them what happened last week.

Roger: Really, most remarkable, what.

Woman: You simply cahn’t imagine what he saw.

Roger: I was in the wood behind our house, and there it was!

Woman: The most extraordinary thing.

Roger: Are you ready for this? A green woodpecker.

Other woman: You must be joking.

Other man: I’ve never heard of such a thing in those parts, much less seen one.

Roger: I still cahn’t believe it myself.

Woman: Wasn’t I right? The most extraordinary thing.

In the scheme of things, what I just described may not seem of much consequence. To most of us, it is a bit silly to think that a person could get excited about seeing a bird, and the lives of Roger and his companions sounded rather dull. And yet the interchange was highly significant. You see, we had understood every word.

In all of our travels and living abroad, communication had been a constant challenge—one that we had voluntarily taken on, but a challenge nevertheless. We had always tried to learn enough of a country’s language to accomplish basic tasks, but the exchange of ideas with locals was invariably elementary, often accomplished with one or two words and a variety of improvised gestures. Also, we could never know whether the person we were talking with was sophisticated or crude, sincere or dismissive. We existed in a nuance vacuum. Even if we were modestly fluent— as with my fading Dutch and my wife’s rusty Italian—or if we found a local who had mastered English as a second language, there was still a noticeable lack of depth in our exchanges. It was comforting from time to time to bump into an American or other native English speaker, but we didn’t journey abroad to interact with our own kind, and we didn’t seek them out.

At Saffron it struck me that our three-month tour of Britain would be unlike our visits to other places. The summer would offer us the opportunity to understand more than a few phrases and to more deeply grasp the subtleties of what was being said. There are real cultural differences between the United States and the United Kingdom, but the way we organize our thoughts and express ourselves is largely the same. Language is identity, and in a linguistic sense we had come home.

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