Walking With Wordsworth: Visiting England's Lake District
The Woods consent to guide Everton and me at a somewhat slower pace up the 2,539-foot summit of Harter Fell in the eastern Lake District. We begin in the hamlet of Sadgill among small woodlots and meadows, passing, as Wordsworth described it in his little Guide to the Lakes (published anonymously, as an introduction to another book, in 1810), “along narrow lanes, enclosed by thickly lichened walls, tufted with wild flowers and crested by hedges.” We follow the River Sprint into Longsleddale Valley and turn west into the steeper and treeless terrain of Gatescarth Pass.
On a rocky precipice at about 1,400 feet, we take a break to look northeast into the ravine below, where Haweswater, a vast reservoir, shimmers. Over the next half-mile we climb another thousand feet across rocks and high grasses, our only company the ubiquitous black-faced Swaledale sheep that graze the Lake District slopes. From the summit of Harter Fell we look down 2,000 feet into a shadowy and seemingly primeval crater, a glacial cirque that envelopes a 200-foot-deep tarn called Blea Water.
And then, “with inaudible motion,” a Wordsworthian “vapor” surrounds us. All depths and distances disappear. So, if I’m not attentive, do Matt and Lynne. The mist is heavy. The rocks are slick and the steep sloping ground soaked. To keep oriented as we descend, Matt, who’s by now just a hazy silhouette, follows an old fence line. As we come down out of the fog the stone farmhouses and ancient oaks of Sadgill appear, the day brightens, and I see why Wordsworth liked fall in the Lake District most of all: “the brilliant green of the meadows, the sparkling purity of the stream…the autumnal tints of the copses.”
Over the next days I gain very different views of the Lake District in the company of conservationists working with the National Trust. Founded in 1895 by Hardwicke Rawnsley, a bearded Anglican priest, and two other Victorian philanthropists, the organization sought to buy up undeveloped land and failing farms in order to protect the Lake District from the impending depredations of industrial and real estate development.
Wordsworth had foreseen the problem, much of which stemmed from his own lavish Lakeland paeans. By 1835, when his lakes guide was in its fifth printing (no longer anonymously, his poetry and fame by now firmly established), guesthouses had sprung up and land speculators were already anticipating their windfall once the train tracks reached the Lake District.
It’s a dilemma that every writer of travel to remote places recognizes: write well about it and they will come. And if they come in large enough numbers, they’re sure to alter the very nature of the place that made it worth writing about to begin with.
“The lakes,” Wordsworth wrote, “had now become celebrated; visitors flocked hither from all parts of England . . . and [the lakes] were instantly defaced by the intrusion.”
The onslaught, he realized, threatened not only his peace and quiet but, more important, the cultural and farming traditions that had, almost as much as the glaciers, shaped the region’s landscape.
While 885 square miles of the Lake District has been a national park since 1951, the designation does not bring with it the kinds of protections that it would in the United States. More than 42,000 people live within the park boundaries. The three million sheep that graze its meadows and hills are outnumbered only by the 15.8 million tourists who visit each year. (Roughly a quarter the size of Yellowstone’s 3,472 square miles, the district has more than four times the foot traffic.)
And many of the visitors, says National Trust archeologist Jamie Lund, expect to see unchanged the scenes they’ve read about or seen in paintings and photographs—less a living environment than a kind of museum of landscapes. The National Trust, in fact, maintains a registry of “iconic landscapes”—views and vistas protected not necessarily for their natural or ecological attributes but for their evocation of the picturesque.
But these inspiring landscapes were themselves the result of a long history of natural and unnatural forces. Many of the iconic barren slopes were once covered to within a couple hundred feet of their ridges by Atlantic oak forest, part of a northern forest that once extended from Scotland as far south as the northern coasts of France and Spain. The deforestation began with the earliest Neolithic settlers and continued through the Industrial Revolution. Railroads, which brought tourists to the region, also hauled out slate, granite, limestone, lead, zinc, and iron ore from quarries and mines dug into the Lake District’s variegated geology.
As the forests vanished the sheep herds grew. Allowed to graze openly on the hillsides, they devoured tree seedlings along with the grasses and left the upper mountain slopes bare but for dense stands of bracken—the only green thing, it seemed, not to their liking.
By Wordsworth’s time most of the native forest was gone: “The want most felt . . . is that of timber trees. There are few magnificent ones to be found near any of the lakes; and unless greater care be taken, there will, in a short time, scarcely be left an ancient oak that would repay the cost of felling.”
And yet even as we walk along the meandering Coledale, the view down the scoured valley to the village and Bassenthwaite Lake is a picture postcard, another of what Lund calls “chocolate box landscapes.”