The Tale of Oat Cake Crag - By Susan Wittig Albert


The Professor Is Perplexed

In the northwestern corner of England, in the Land Between the Lakes, March is a month of uncertain weather. One day brings snow and sharp frosts, the next offers mild temperatures and misty fog, and then it turns off blustery, wild, and wet. And whilst the distant fells may shiver under snowy shawls and mufflers of winter-brown bracken, the high mountain becks are festooned with frosty icicles, and the wind howls through the rock cairns, the lower dales hold the promise of green, and on the brightest days, the blue lakes and tarns reflect the bluest of blue skies. In fact, it might be said that March is a month of all weathers, occurring altogether at once.

Our story takes place in March 1912. The previous year had brought many changes to England, including the coronation of a new king. George V had been crowned in June, and the twin villages of Near and Far Sawrey had celebrated the momentous event with a great flower show and a fair. There was a merry-go-round with wooden horses and camels and swans for the children, a concert by the Village Volunteer Band (Lester Barrow on trombone, Lawrence Baldwin on coronet, Tyler Taylor and Clyde Clinder on clarinet, and Sam Stern on the concertina), and a spirited dance exhibition by the Hawkshead Morris Men, kitted out for the occasion in gay vests, ties, sashes, and hats.

After the almost unbearable excitement of this grand event, it had been hard for the village to return to the everyday work of gardening, dairying, haying, and harvesting. But they managed somehow and life went on as usual, more or less. Vicar Sackett performed two marriages in July and August; several new babies were born in September; and in October, three new cottages went up on the outskirts of Far Sawrey, on land that had once been a sheep meadow. New people were moving to the Land Between the Lakes, and some of them brought new ideas and new ways of doing things, which did not sit well with the local folk.

November and December passed without any excitement whatever in the village, although there was plenty going on elsewhere. Captain Miles Woodcock (who serves as justice of the peace for Near and Far Sawrey) read in The Times that the Admiralty, now under the direction of Mr. Winston Churchill, was readying itself for military action against the German Navy, should the need arise. Two new super-dreadnoughts had just been commissioned, with four more planned for 1912. The prospect of a German attack against Belgium (which was what the Admiralty seemed to most fear) was unsettling, not the sort of thing one likes to read in one’s newspaper at one’s breakfast table on a peaceful Monday morning. But the captain was so blissfully happy with his new wife—the former Miss Margaret Nash, head teacher at Sawrey School—that he was able to put his concerns aside, at least for the moment. (If you have not read The Tale of Applebeck Orchard, you might put the title on your reading list, for it tells the story of how this confirmed bachelor came to propose—on his knees, amidst pieces of broken crockery and a spreading puddle of tea and milk—to Miss Nash.)

The new year brought storms, and as usual in the winter, the villagers kept to their firesides as much as possible. January, like the previous months, crept by without incident, except that one of the Braithwaite boys slid down Stony Lane on his toboggan, crashed into the stone wall in front of High Green Gate, and broke his nose. In February, the Windermere ferry suffered a boiler breakdown and was closed for repairs for nearly a week, forcing everyone to stay on one side of the lake or the other, or travel all the way down to the south end, across the River Leven on Newby Bridge, and back again. It was very inconvenient, and all were glad when Henry Stubbs got the ferry operating again, especially because February was cold, and Newby Bridge was six long miles away.

Now it is March, and the weather has warmed. The month has so far been mild, with a snowfall that quickly melted away. On days when the sky is not gray with scudding clouds and the air not thick with mist, the sun is pleased to shed a little extra light on the pleasant landscape below, to warm the red-berried hollies and the backs of wooly gray sheep grazing the hillsides. In