The Northwest Part I: The Popular Lake District
When the Pennines were squeezed up to form the backbone of northern England the counties to the cast (though they did not exist at the time) got a bigger share of moorland and fell than the counties to the west.
As if to compensate for this lopsided territorial division, a featureless area near the Irish Sea coast erupted to create England’s only mountainous region, a miniature Switzerland of incomparable beauty – the Lake District.
It is not a large area – Switzerland itself is 25 times larger – and from the 3118 – foot (950 m) peak of Helvellyn, it is possible on a clear day to see it all – and beyond to the hills of Scotland and the Irish Sea.
It is difficult to capture the grandeur of Windermere in one photograph. Not only is the scene changeable; placid one minute, tempestuous the next. The different views of the lake contrast wildly too; lakeside from the town of Windermere itself or up on a craggy rock, looking down on the lake, or even peering up at one of the ten spectacular waterfalls. Each has its own charm.
This picture captures my favourite parts of Windermere. This is just south of Lily Tarn. The view down the lake, with Ambleside just peeking into view on the left, ties all of the Lake District together, its epic scope and craggy loveliness, but also connected to its people.
Within the Lake District’s 700 square miles there are some 100 peaks over 2000 feet (600 m), 15 lakes (Windermere is over 10 miles long) and ten spectacular waterfalls: a concentration of scenic raw materials that would be hard to duplicate anywhere.
For much of the year the Lake District is thronged with tourists and the M6 motorway, which slices through the north-west region from the West Midlands to the Scottish border, brings an ever-growing stream from the south to enjoy its beauty. 200 years ago its virtues were unsung and its peaks and valleys unvisited.
Then, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a young man who was born and brought up near Grasmere appointed himself what today would be known as the area’s Public Relations Officer. He wrote a masterly ‘Guide to the Lakes’ which was published in 1810 under his own name: William
In it he wrote that the whole area was ‘capable of satisfying the most intense cravings for the tranquil and the lovely and the perfect to which man, the noblest of her creatures, is subject’. Lofty idealism of this calibre was exactly what the early Victorians needed to inspire their romantic enthusiasm for nature. The rush to Lakeland was begun.
Scafell Pike, to the east of Grasmere, is England’s highest peak (978 m). Named Scafell Pike because it is the highest point of Sca Fell (964 m). This is the rugged end of the Lake District, far from its gentle and wooded valleys with their tinkling burns. Here scree and stone prevail, high above Wast Water.
John Ruskin, the leading Victorian art critic, was pessimistic about the region’s future. In a letter to Canon Rawnsley he said: ‘It’s all of no use. You will soon have a tourist railway up Scafell, and another up Helvellyn, and another up Skiddaw, and then a connecting line all round.’ Happily Ruskin’s worst fears have not been fulfilled.