We reach Wastwater late in the day. A long drive through Hardknott Pass, barely a human met; just shaggy Highland cattle in the valley, curious and watchful, reluctant to move from the road.
The walls of Wastwater slice straight down into the dark depths, plunging 50 feet below sea level, while the murmuring surface of the lake rises 200 feet above it. Evening is coming as we arrive at the rocks that are striped charcoal black, grey and deep blue.
The water glistens cold silver at first, though as the sun sinks down through the gloaming and dusk it will darken and deepen to a mythical shade. If ever there was a place where old souls walked, it would be here. I imagine the ferryman bringing his boat to the shore for a one-way ride to the afterlife, and hear the slow splash of his oar.
We leave the car and walk across the tough grass and rocks to look over the edge. There are no people around, except those few staying at the guesthouse at the far edge of the lake. But we are watched by the dark eyes of the roaming sheep.
Mildly disturbed by our presence, some skitter away. Others remain seated, keeping a close eye on us, ready to race at any moment. By their nature you’d think there were wolves waiting for them in the undergrowth, but there have been no wolves in these parts for hundreds of years.
They remind me of Sheep in Fog – the poem written by Sylvia Plath, just weeks before she took her own life.
Sheep In Fog
The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.
The train leaves a line of breath.
Horse the colour of rust,
Hooves, dolorous bells -
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,
A flower left out.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.
by Sylvia Plath
In the spreading ink, we watch a procession of lights move in a line up Scafell Pike; brave souls making the climb up the highest mountain in England in the cold of night.
As we drive away over through the narrow roads we have to stop. Scores of unexpected sheep appear, spot-lit in the car’s headlights, all settled in the road. Even as the rumbling vehicle approaches they are reluctant to leave. Perhaps the concrete has been warmed through the day and so makes a cosy resting place for the night.
They scatter and their eyes reflect back the car's lights, a disquieting spell giving these benign sheep a look of malevolence. I think of the Jonathon Glazer video for Radiohead’s Karma Police. I suppose all headlights in the wilderness at night are like this, though. Making sinister what darkness was quietly keeping to herself.