North West Reads Book 17: The Wildwater Women by Ellie Wood
This novel focusses on the lives of four women: Abby, Lori, Rebecca and Clarissa. Abby lives in Ambleside with her young daughter, Rowan. She is a single parent; her husband, Ben, left before Rowan was born so Abby has felt the pressure of being both mother and father to her, however she does get support from Ben’s mother, Marie.
Abby pictures Ben telling her that Rowan, who is about to attend school for the first time, will be fine, but the image disappears, and Abby has to face the fact that they are on their own. Her life had become focussed on Rowan and her job at the local bakery, the Plum Pie. Her job was one she needed, being a short distance from her home and with hours that suited her as a single parent. The main downside to her job was her boss, the inappropriately named Joy. There was nothing joyous about her. Unfriendly and unsupportive, she was one of those bosses who was constantly on the lookout for any action she could criticise. To Abby, and her colleague, Tom, Joy was referred to as ‘Joyless’ and ‘the dragon’. Tom was a fabulous baker, who Joy never fully appreciated, and a good friend to Abby. He had noticed how the ‘old Abs’, the happy person he had known, had gone and was concerned that she was allowing her life to pass her by.
On that September morning as she is getting Rowan ready for school there is a knock at their door. Lori, from New York, is staying at the neighbouring holiday home, Silver Ghyll Cottage, and has called to see if Abby can help with the heater. Abby is happy to oblige and additionally makes Lori’s day by finding a phone adapter for her. After Rowan comes back from school Lori invites them round and Abby is touched by this small kindness. Lori is a glamourous lady in her 50s and owns an art gallery back home. She is overwhelmed by the beauty of the Lake District, looking at the surroundings with the eyes of the first-time visitor; she even notices the Rowan tree growing in Abby’s garden. Abby had become so used to it that she never noticed it anymore and realises that she is going from day to day not noticing her surroundings at all, she is sleepwalking through life. Her difficulty is that many of the beautiful places, tarns, woodlands, pathways, hold memories of Ben and happier times, to visit them would cause her pain; also, she feels that Rowan must come first, and she cannot spare any time for herself.
Lori, by contrast, has a zest for life and for the beauty that surrounds her. Her Grandfather came from Cumbria, Cumberland as it was back in his time, and emigrated to the United States as a young man. She had inherited a painting from him that now hangs on her wall back home. Lori knows that it is view of part of the Lake District but does not know which area it depicts. This is one of the reasons why she has come over. Abby doesn’t recognise the scene but is confident that they will be able to find out from somebody in the area. Lori’s next ambition would be one that would change Abby’s life. She had picked up a leaflet for wild water swimming and invites Abby along. Abby is not sure about going, focussed as she is on Rowan’s needs. It seems a brave thing to do, especially as autumn is approaching; the meres, tarns and lakes are very chilly in summer, never mind autumn and winter. The first meeting is at nearby Rydal Water. Abby says she’ll have a think about it before deciding.
Rebecca is a regular customer at the Plum Pie. Abby had noticed this very smartly dressed young woman who seemed very glamourous, confident and in control. This morning, however, Abby notices that she seems distracted whilst talking on her phone and picking up her order. When Abby sees Rebecca’s eyes pooling with tears she decides to put in a little extra treat for her, a slice of Borrowdale tea bread. On a subsequent visit to the shop Rebecca thanks Abby for the ‘little extra’ and tells her she is going wild water swimming as well. This decides it for Abby who resolves to go along and see what all the fuss is about. Marie is more than happy to have Rowan after school, in fact Abby realises that Rowan and Marie would like to see more of each other, so getting away for a swim is no problem.
Looking through her clothing Abby can only find a bikini, bringing up more painful memories of her time with Ben. It’ll have to do, and she sets off with Lori for Rydal. They see Rebecca when they arrive, who looks like she has stepped off the front page of Cumbria Life with her beautiful clothes and car. However, Abby notices that she seems ill at ease and very nervous. Although she has all the equipment for wild swimming, she decides to sit this one out. It occurs to Abby that she has frequently assumed that other people’s lives were better and more fulfilled than her life, but these looks can be deceptive. She discovers that Rebecca is the head receptionist at the Lovelands Hotel, which they can see from the shore of Rydal water. This was the luxury hotel where she married Ben. The job is full on and demanding and Abby notes that Rebecca does not like her job. Likewise, as Abby gets to know Lori, there are times when her happy and confident front slips and Abby can see a sadness in her expression, just for a moment, before she puts on her happy face again. She knows there are other reasons why Lori has travelled to the Lakes but respects her privacy and waits till she is ready to confide in her.
Clarissa, the organiser and leader of the swim, arrives at White Crag Car Park. She has brought a couple of extra wetsuits for Lori and Abby, much the Abby’s relief. She owns the Wild Swim Shop in Ambleside, and is practical, self-effacing, efficient and above all, kind. Her clothing, steadiness and gentle countenance remind Abby of a Herdwick sheep, a breed that has been a part of the Lake District for generations; Abby feels safe and confident with her. There’s no pressure to go into the water and Clarissa is happy for Rebecca to observe. She takes Lori and Abby on their first wild swim all the while giving advice on how to do it safely. The shock of the cold is replaced by feelings of exhilaration from swimming in such beautiful surroundings. Abby now looks properly at the place she has lived in all her life and sees it anew. The swim is just for a couple of minutes, but the affect is like magic. Abby feels a confidence that she has not felt in a long time to meet and overcome life’s obstacles. Lori just feels amazing. Even better Clarissa has hot chocolate and cake waiting for them when they’ve dressed. They agree that they must do this again.
In the wake of the swim Abby resolves to give Rowan the same experience of the Lakes District that she had had as a child and go to the all the magical and hidden places. The Sunday following the swim is a glorious day and she decides to take Rowan to one such place, High Pool Tarn, and then onto Stott Park Bobbin Mill Museum just above Windermere. At the tarn Abby sees Clarissa, Lori and Rebecca and she feels that pull towards the water and the camaraderie that has grown between them all. She is determined to swim with them again. Coniston is the next location for their swim and this time Rebecca finally takes the plunge and joins the others in the lake. Unfortunately, much to her annoyance, she is teased by a kayaker who happens to be the heir to the Lovelands Hotel, Guy Loveland. To Rebecca he is arrogant, spoilt and entitled, but Clarissa gently counsels her to be cautious about passing judgement on another. Despite this distraction, it has still been a big step forward for Rebecca. There is other good news as Clarissa recognises the part of the Lakes District depicted in Lori’s painting. Lori is delighted and suggests a trip there and maybe a swim, but Abby notices a shadow pass across her face before she returns to her usual sunny self.
As their friendship deepens with acts of kindness and support, they find the confidence to talk about past experiences, and how the contact with each other and with the countryside have helped them. Abby feels that she has started living again instead of just existing, something which her colleague Tom and her mother-in-law both notice; she is feeling happier and has a new sense of belonging to her new friends and to her beautiful home. At last she is beginning to heal and realises that her friends need her just as much as she needed them. Lori and Rebecca feel able to talk about their own difficulties and with the kindness and support of each other they are able to face them, including ones that cannot be fully overcome and have to be lived with. Behind all of this is the glorious Lake District, its picturesque beauty a balm for the troubled soul.
This is a big-hearted novel about the power of friendship, kindness and the healing power of the natural world. Ellie Wood beautifully evokes the glory of the Lake District; anyone who has visited will enjoy the descriptions of the various locations visited by the characters and recognise the pleasure and joy being there brings. It is a gentle read with the message that no matter who we are or how much the lives of others can seem to be better and more perfect than ours, we all have difficulties and challenges to face. Some of us excel at putting on a brave front, that were ‘just fine’ and can cope on our own. However, we are not superhuman and good people, good friends, can help lessen these unrealistic expectations, take the pressure away and allow life to be really lived and enjoyed.
Written by Janet - Library Assistant
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