Walking With Wordsworth: Visiting England's Lake District
“A wild scene of crag and mountain,” the roughly thousand square miles that comprise England’s Lake District inspired the ideals of the Romantic era and formed the roots of the environmental movement.
With Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal in hand, I set out from Grasmere village toward Easedale Tarn along the trail that begins not far from the stone cottage in the English Lake District that she shared with her brother, William. I cross a swift, stony stream named Sour Milk Ghyll and emerge from a small stand of trees into open and rain-soaked meadows. I find it as she described it, a “valley of streams and islands”: lone old oaks secure the hillocks and embankments, and a labyrinth of dry-stone walls frames the low pasturelands.
The winding path steepens, levels, and then steepens again. As I summit its final rise a picture-book panorama opens up: a spectacular hanging valley, a sprawling lake bordered by boggy treeless plain, a glacial amphitheater surrounded by high, sharp peaks. It’s been more than 200 years since the Wordsworths visited, and it’s still a “wild scene of crag and mountain.”
The Wordsworths came often to Easedale Tarn, to write, gather mosses (some 600 species of mosses and liverworts thrive in the soggy climes of the Lake District), seek solitude, and, as William put it, to find “a not unpleasing sadness.” I am here on a kind of pilgrimage. As someone who has spent a lifetime writing on nature, the legacy of the Lake District looms large. The environmental movement can trace its roots back to these thousand square miles bordering the Irish Sea in England’s far northwest, just south of Scotland. Here 14 lakes—among them Windermere, England’s largest—radiate from a hub of ragged, glacier-carved mountains that include, at just above 3,000 feet, the country’s highest peaks.
Stark and treeless, their profiles sculpted by North Atlantic storms that bring frequent gale-force winds and up to 140 inches of rain a year, the summits harbor subarctic habitats. Peregrines dwell in their inaccessible cliffs. Peat bogs and deep tarns lie in the upland hollows. Streams meander across rumpled moraines. Ice-age fish endure in the cold lakes. For the walker—the English rarely use the word hike—hundreds of miles of “footpaths” and “bridleways” wind across pasturelands, along miles of dry-stone walls, through heath and dense bracken stands; they traverse the treeless ridgelines and follow ancient Roman trade and military routes that still lead as far as England’s east coast. Paths of even earlier origin end up at 5,000-year-old Neolithic stone circles.
In this landscape that Wordsworth found so perfect for elegiacal brooding, he and his sister (herself a remarkable and too-often-neglected writer), along with a frequently disconsolate, lovesick, or opium-possessed Samuel Coleridge, lived in poor obscurity, wrote poetry, detailed in diaries their long and often withering Lake District rambles, and reflected on the state of Man and Nature. Their conviction that the experience of nature could lift the human spirit, imbue it with a new awareness of life, love, self, and, ultimately, beauty, inspired many: the Romantic poets, English artists such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, American painters of the Hudson River School, artists and photographers of the American West, and writers and naturalists from Henry David Thoreau to John Burroughs, John Muir to Edward Abbey.
Neither scientist nor trained naturalist, Wordsworth’s legacy was wonderment: at the “beauty, dignity, and splendour” nature’s forms and colors display. “I do not indeed know any tract of country,” he wrote, “in which, within so narrow a compass, may be found an equal variety in the influences of light and shadow upon the sublime or beautiful features of landscape.” As here in Easedale Tarn, where, near sunset, a breeze picks up and clouds and mist reshape the panorama.
This time of year dusk comes early. William and Dorothy referred to Easedale’s vale as the “Black Quarter” for how quickly storms sunk it into darkness. In a matter of minutes the distant ridgeline vanishes. The clouds descend. The wind whips up whitecaps on the waters that have been so eerily calm. In the gathering fog I wind my way back, realizing that Wordsworth’s “brooding” mists and “black and sullen” tarns were more than poetic conceits. For him the thoughts and feelings nature evoked were actually there in nature, and nowhere, for him, more vibrantly than in the Lake District.
Nature, in the Lake District, can be capricious. Anyone who has spent time on the “fells” (the ancient Norse word for mountainsides that’s still used today) will tell you of sudden storms, flash floods, and dense fogs that stranded them for hours on precarious outcrops, unable to see well enough to descend. The valleys can be 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the slopes above. Winds can drive temperatures below freezing at almost any time of year.
With photographer Macduff Everton we drive to meet his friends Lynne and Matt Woods, who live in the small village of Skelsmergh, near Kendal, just southeast of the Lake District. Lynne, a schoolteacher, and Matt, an engineer and photographer, have lived in or around the Lake District for almost all their lives. They are both tall and lean, avid bikers and experienced fell walkers. Matt is also a fell runner—an elite and unique class of Lake District athlete who finds merely walking the fells’ rocky ascents far too tame. The current 24-hour fell record holder ran up and down 77 Lake District peaks—a combined ascent of almost 40,000 feet—in 23 hours and 47 minutes.