I lived here once, in the “Purple House.” From 1985 to 1988 I rented a room, with a view across the Newlands Valley to Cat Bells and Maiden Moor. Keswick was a 5 mile bus ride away on the Mountain Goat from Buttermere in summer, and over an hour’s walk in winter. Summer and winter when the bus service was canceled. This is me, 25 years younger and a lot fitter, standing outside Rigg Beck.
I learned only today that on June 30, 2008, Rigg Beck burned down. It was a shock so deep I can’t stop thinking about it. It feels like a bereavement, as if a part of my life has died. And it has.
I can’t talk about Rigg Beck without talking about Varya Vergauwen, who later changed her name to Varya Vee. She was our landlady. Since she bought the house (formerly a hotel) in 1956, and raised 10 children there, it’s been a rooming house. Varya energetically trawled for artistic types (she was a daughter of the Bloomsbury Group after all). Actors from the Century Theatre in Keswick were her bread and butter during the summer repertory season, including Bob Hoskins and Victoria Wood. Ted Hughes came in 1962, after Sylvia Plath‘s suicide, with Assia Wevill who was the woman he left her for. Varya made him write a poem in her guest book. I’ve read it – not his best but he must have been under stress, and it was impossible to refuse her.
In the meantime, Rigg Beck was becoming dilapidated, and Varya hated spending money. By the time I was lured from London in 1985, the house was on its last legs. When you opened the front door, the smell of cabbage and dry rot wafted out. We few, we happy few, were unemployed, underemployed, fully employed, but above all poor, and the last of the hippies. It was a good time to be high in the hills in that strange house, and I have never again felt so free from the cares of the world.
I moved out in 1988, and emigrated to Seattle the following year. I was bored. It’s as simple and incomprehensible as that. Since then, boredom has been conspicuous by its absence and peace of mind a whill o’ the whisp. America does that to its immigrants.
I returned in 1991 with Martha, my housemate in Seattle, for a holiday. Only Varya was there, Rigg Beck was filthy, and there were mouse droppings in our room. We couldn’t stay. Varya is now, I think, in a nursing home in Kendal. I find it almost impossible to imagine her separated from Rigg Beck.
If you are curious, here is a gallery of photos taken by Jane Wright inside the house after it became derelict. The Mountain View room was mine. Friends of Rigg Beck made a valiant effort to save it, but to no avail.