Thanks to having been privileged to represent mountain rescue on a number of occasions, I’ve met some pretty amazing people, been invited to things I’d never have been invited to otherwise, in places I might never have seen.
I’ve eaten dinner on the Cutty Sark, nibbled cucumber sandwiches at Buckingham Palace, quaffed champagne in the sunshine watching Wills and Harry play a few chukkas, and swayed the night away just feet from the stage at the Queen’s Jubilee concert. And now I’ve partied on Derwent Island too (so much closer to home!), to celebrate our friend Roy getting a Mountain Rescue Distinguished Service Award (DSA).
It’s not often you get the chance to visit the island – the largest of four in Derwent Water at around 250m long by 150m at its widest point – much less as an exclusive party guest. Owned by the National Trust, Derwent Island is the private home to current Trust tenants Ron and Lou Clark and is the only inhabited island in the Lake District which opens to visitors – for just five days a year, strictly by timed ticket only (two and a half hours including ‘a 45-minute guided tour of the main rooms in the Georgian mansion, the remainder free to explore the island at your own pace’).
Sadly, darkness was descending fast, last Friday evening, as our open-topped ‘taxi’ (a red rubber boat with an outboard motor and wooden planks laid across for seats) chugged us across the gently lapping waters of the lake towards the twinkling lights of the jetty – reflecting as we chugged, how fortunate that Wednesday’s blustering torrents hadn’t lingered on an extra two days, for what might have been an altogether different experience. Rather, it felt warm. The sky was clear, the mountains already fading to silhouette.
We’ve got a lot to thank him for, the Gremlin and me. ‘Ranger Roy’. National Trust and mountain rescue Roy. Because without Roy, we might never have met. Not properly. What with me living in Manchester and him in Cumbria.
Roy it was who somehow persuaded the Climbing Gremlin to join a mountain rescue ‘display team’ at an Outdoors Show at the NEC, six years ago. I’d met Roy at the previous year’s show – whilst promoting Mountain Rescue England and Wales (and selling a few books) – and he suggested what we really needed was something to draw the crowds, something like a bunch of rufty-tufty rescuers demonstrating stretcher lowering from the lofty rafters of the exhibition hall. No sooner having volunteered to the task, he set about making it happen. Which, says his partner Jan, is what Roy does. With such ease and aplomb. He takes ideas and drives them forward. He makes things happen. He’s also had a hand in some 1400 rescues during his thirty-year service, many as deputy team leader of Keswick Mountain Rescue Team. That’s a lot of lives saved.
When first informed of his ‘big shiny medal’ (as he likes to call this really quite special award), the response from Mr Henderson was an immediate ‘No thanks!’ But then he spoke to Jan and a few other rescue pals – the prevailing gist of whose responses, I gather, was ‘Don’t be stupid!’ – and decided to graciously accept. After all, with only 68 awarded in the 58 years since its inception, it puts him up there with the founding fathers of the modern mountain rescue service, a not inconsiderable achievement.
The award was presented by Mike Nixon MBE, who was team leader when Roy joined, and a man for whom he has huge respect. Mike himself clocked up a remarkable sixty years of active service with the Keswick team, having joined in the early-fifties. He too received the DSA in 2002 (the 49th recipient), and took part in maybe 2500 rescue operations over those sixty years. (See what I mean about amazing people).
But the other hero of the evening was the house itself. Rather unfairly derided by Wordsworth as ‘a pimple’, destroying as it did his view of the lake, Derwent House boasts a rich history. It even has a ghost – a young girl, they say – who periodically gazes from a bedroom window across the manicured gardens to the lake.
In medieval times (my Yorkshire readers will be intrigued to hear), the island was owned by the monks of Fountains Abbey, more than 100 miles away but, when Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries, it became a royal estate. In 1569, German miners brought in to extract graphite from the hills were quartered here, it’s said, ‘to protect them from xenophobic locals’. They built a camp on the island, grew vegetables, kept animals and even brewed beer.
The present house dates from 1776, when Joseph Pocklington, an eccentric banker from Newark, built a home and several follies including a druid’s circle (now gone), a boathouse (currently demolished with plans to replace), and a chapel. He also established a cannon emplacement, for his annual Battle of Derwent Water when, ‘draped in general’s gold braid, he defended the island from a mock attack by hired villagers’ (presumably now only pretending to be xenophobic locals).
In 1844, it was sold to Henry Marshall, a wealthy Yorkshire flax spinner. Architect Anthony Salvin – who had also worked for Marshall’s brother William at Patterdale Hall and another brother John at Castlerigg Manor, Keswick – added two wings to the house, creating the Italianate look it has today. He also added a large dining room wing and a three-storey tower.
Marshall built five houses all told. This was the smallest, because it was harder to get building materials to the island, but he kept it the longest and came to Derwent Island in the winter ‘to avoid the smog of coal fires’.
Sir Robert Hunter, Octavia Hill and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley – who founded the National Trust – were frequent guests. And in 1951, Henry’s grandson Denis Marshall gave the property to the Trust.
Over recent years, the house and island have been home to a number of National Trust tenants – Lou and Ron the most recent. When the Trust advertised for new tenants three years ago, one tabloid described it as the chance to ‘live a castaway lifestyle’ – something of a stretch, unless your definition of castaway life is having a Landseer in your hallway, a 200-inch Dutch master over the stairwell (in terms of bragging rights, the Victorian equivalent to ‘my telly’s bigger than yours’), a stuffed wild boar at the top of the stairs, a grand piano in the drawing room and your milk delivered by canoe.
Besides paying an annual rent to the Trust, whoever takes on the tenancy has to agree to open up to visitors for five days of the year (those ticketed tours) and undertake training in how to look after the many antiques, works of art and furniture in the Grade 2 listed house. During their time there, they also carry out renovation work – pouring money and love into it in equal measure. But it’s also their home and an extremely welcoming one at that.
It is clearly a huge privilege to live there. It was certainly a huge privilige to be a guest at such a special celebration. And if you get the chance next year, check out the National Trust website and sign up for one of those tours. You won’t be disappointed.
Bags of cash
Meanwhile, a letter in our Times & Star this week, urging the ‘pencil-chewing think tanks’ who decided ‘let’s charge for the carrier bag’ to cease spending their time on ‘silly nothingness’, surely missed the point entirely?
According to a Third Sector study in June, in the first six months, the scheme had not only dramatically reduced plastic bag use at the major supermarkets, but also raised almost £23m for charity. Got to be worth 5p a bag?