We’ve just arrived at Intake Farm in Littlebeck, just a few miles in from the sea at Whitby–a stunningly beautiful setting after another stunningly beautiful walk. As I walked in the side door after taking off my boots, I noticed a “rag rug” of the kind I had first seen at Dove Cottage. “Oh, a rag rug,” I said, more or less to myself. Judith Ventress, our cheerful and very friendly hostess, overheard me and immediately started telling me about Alice, the 93-year-old woman who had just died, and who had made all the rugs for her. “Clippy mats,” she called them, and then explained that in Whitby they’re called “proggy mats.” “They should be proddy mats,” she said, “because you prod the fabric through the backing,” but “somehow they became proggy mats. I don’t know how.”
Alice, who had served as the housekeeper for Judith’s husband Robert’s uncle, had lived at Intake Farm for sixty years. In his will, the uncle had said Alice could stay on in the house; when Robert and Judith moved in, she lived with them, though in a separate part of the house. In 1995, she left, to live in a cottage for elderly people. “She still made a mat every winter. Just a doormat, because that’s all she could handle.” These mats are made by poking strips of worn fabric through a burlap backing; elaborate designs are often made, and they are a wonderful use of old material, including the sacks that were cut to create the backing. “But now we had to go and buy the hessian in the shops in Whidby,” Judith told me. “Alice didn’t like that. It spoiled the fun, she thought.”
Judith showed me a lovely picture of Alice as a young girl, before giving me the code to her wifi hub. And so here I am now in an upstairs bedroom of this large stone farmhouse (on a working farm–cattle and sheep), on a beautiful sunny afternoon, our penultimate day of the walk.
We walked just eight miles today, through astonishingly varied terrain: first a climb up stone steps to a path high above the Esk River, in a very green, wet wood, leading us from Glaisdale to Egton Bridge. At Egton Bridge, “nicknamed the village the Reformation forgot,” we visited St. Hedda’s Roman Catholic Church, a nineteenth-century structure that also commemorates the life of a celebrated Catholic martyr, Nicholas Postgate who was “hung, drawn and quartered” in 1579.
We then moved on to a permissive path through Egton Estates, slowly making our way (still along the Esk) to Grosmont, another beautiful village that is home to a revived Victorian steam railway. As we approached the town, the railroad crossing barriers were down, and we watched a train roll inn. Thrilling. Tea-shops abounded and invited us to stop; we chose the Hazelwood, a lovely spot with a garden (with a large hazel tree) and a pleasant windowed room.
Over quiche and salad Jim got to telling me the story of Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies, which he had read as a child. Earlier he had mentioned The Wind in the Willows and Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass as books that had given him ideas about what it was to walk across the English landscape. As he talked I suddenly teared up: I understood in an instant why it was that I had felt it so important to take this trip. For I too had grown up reading nineteenth-century British novels (though different ones) and had formed my ideas about life and landscape from them. And then for nineteen years I taught Victorian literature in Oklahoma and New Orleans.
When I moved back to New York in 2005, I stopped teaching the writers I loved so much, turning instead to other (also interesting, but different) texts and topics. Packing up my Victorian novels and poetry and prose when I left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina I had sobbed, knowing that I wouldn’t be teaching them anymore. And now after seven years away, I realize that I don’t want to–or have to–live without them. Taking this walk has brought my old friends back to me, and I look forward to deepening our relationship once again.
And then, hearing at intervals the steam whistle in the distance–we made the steep, long, lovely climb up and out of Grosmont, back onto moorland, where we saw again the sea, and the ancient abbey at Whidby (think Dracula and Caedmon). This time the sun was shining and the water was distinctly blue. Beautiful. We walked a good distance along the moor, paralleling the coast, while also able to look back towards the vales and moors we had traversed over the past few days. The scent of heather and the bleating of sheep accompanied us, as we eventually came to the A169 and a shortcut through farmland (High and Low Quebec) to Intake Farm.
Jim has gone off to explore the nearby village of Littlebeck. I’m planning to settle in for a bath, a book, and maybe some more tea. We’ll be having a homemade dinner here at the farm, at 7 p.m. I can already smell something delicious cooking!