Climbing the steps into Kenneth Wilson’s sitting room, you’re struck immediately by the prominence of wood. The mature trees themselves, beyond his windows and balcony, waving in the wind like demented orchestra conductors. The beautifully-crafted desk which Kenneth made from Cumaru, a Brazilian hardwood, and the rustic stools and coffee tables whose tops are made from an Arizona Cypress cut down a few years ago in his garden. Their legs are, variously, hazel, beech, sycamore, birch.
And yes, Kenneth, one time Anglican vicar, now poet and cellist, built the tree house himself. “No, I wasn’t trained in woodwork. I just made it up as I went along. Like just about everything I do,” he says.
Kenneth is back home at Renwick in the Eden Valley after the musical odyssey which took him in three stages – three movements, he called them, obviously – through England, then France and finally to Italy where he played his cello in front of St Peter’s Basilica with the written permission of the Vatican City police.
“I had to ask, nicely. If I’d just started playing I would have ended up in an Italian jail before you could say arrivederci.”
His beloved cello, Libre, is also back with him, and on display alongside a more polished model. The bicycle, on which he rode for more than 1800 miles, was still in Rome waiting to be “posted” back home; Kenneth himself came back by train.
He’s been living in the tree house for 18 months, after initially moving into a yurt when the nearby family home became just too big when all the family moved away. “That was lovely in summer, but not so lovely in winter.” The big house is now let as holiday apartments, and Kenneth has all the home comforts he could need – as well as an astonishing view, and the treetops for neighbours.
It was on a bike ride from this home, with Hadrian’s Wall somewhere to the left, that Kenneth became conscious that, therefore, Rome must be somewhere to the right, and so the seed of a crazy idea was sown. “I wanted to do more busking, I like busking, and I’d outgrown the centre of Penrith. The idea grew, that I could cycle to Rome and busk along the way.” The word pilgrimage is circumnavigated: “Though I used to be a vicar, I’m not religious any more, but I’m very conscious of the sacredness of places. I’m always reflecting on what I’m doing, so I did learn something from the journey each day.” Not least that it takes a long time to recover from 40 consecutive days of strenuous exercise. Some days, he says, were quite stressful, too hot, too windy. “A couple of days, the temperature was over 40 degrees. Cycling in that was no fun. And I was conscious that I was completely on my own, carrying my own luggage, with no backup. It did get lonely.”
The tiredness at the end of each day meant that Kenneth’s original plan, to arrive in a town or a village, play some music in the centre, with a note pinned nearby asking for accommodation, fell apart. Often he arrived too late to play, and ended up booking into a hotel. “The further south I went, the less structured things were. I often had friends to stay with in England, I had a few friends to stay with in France, I knew no-one in Italy.” But he knew that flexibility was the key. “If you have a very strict plan and you decide exactly how things are going to happen, that’s a recipe for disaster. Whatever happens on a journey like this, you deal with it. And that includes what music to play. I’d look at the audience and decide what to play, and in what order. Often if there was an informal concert, there would be more people than the organisers had expected.”
There were many highlights, though, from the kindness of strangers who invited him to play in their gardens, to the friend who cooked a three course meal on a camping stove at the top of a col. Before he left the UK, he was invited to play at a service in Canterbury cathedral, and was sent on his way with the bishop’s blessing. At his destination in Rome, he gave a private concert for the Mayor’s Diplomatic Ambassador. “On the roof of the Musei Capitolini, in the sunshine, with the ancient city spread out below us.”
Kenneth played his cello at the summit of the Col de L’Iseran, at 9,068 feet the highest paved pass in the Alps, as well as in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, though the police forbade him to play in front of the Pantheon in Rome. So he went around all the other iconic places, and many little hidden corners, “shamelessly blocking the tourist traffic, and playing Bach, and Debussy, and old English folk tunes that may or may not have been written by Henry VIII, and Irish love songs, and anything else I could think of, trying to get it into my head that I was in Rome.” Where his daughter Jenny lives, working for the UN world food programme.
He stayed for a few days, surrounded by “pizzas and ice cream and fountains and the Tiber, and history, and and Empire. And tourists who seemed sometimes to want a break from all that just to listen to a cello playing in the shade. I was sitting in a heap, reflecting that I’d ridden 40 days, and 1800 miles, and climbed the height of approximately 3.3 Everests to get here. And feeling that odd mixture of finality, and mortality, and emptiness, and accomplishment, that goes with the reaching of a goal.”
So what next? There will be a book, of which almost half is done already. Kenneth has published two previous books, Orange Dust: Journeys After the Buddha, and a book of poems, The Definitions of Kitchen Verbs. There will be other adventures, though another bike marathon is unlikely; Kenneth is developing carpel tunnel problems in his wrist, which would affect his music, and the cello is more important than the bike. “Or perhaps I will take the cello to India and play there?” For now, he’s content to sit above the trees in the wooded grounds of Ravenbridge Mill, where he built a wooden footbridge across the river Raven. And planted 17,000 of those trees.