Walking With Wordsworth: Visiting England's Lake District
Overhead, scudding on the fierce winds that sweep into the valley and make it hard for us to even walk, I see a half-dozen peregrines flying to and from perches in the black wall. Once endangered—like the region’s now-restored osprey populations—by the use of pesticides and human persecution, the peregrines in the region now represent the greatest density of breeding peregrine pairs in Europe. (There are 100 here; the whole United Kingdom has 1,400.) The birds’ major threat is now from humans who shoot or poison them for fear they will attack their prized racing pigeons.
John Hooson, an ecologist with the Trust, has hopes that a new era of sensibility is arising. Subsidies that kept sheep numbers high are changing. A couple of farmers have begun raising cattle. The use of chemical fertilizers is being reduced. Otters have returned to the streams following the ban on DDT pesticides that once killed off the osprey. Some lakeshores and woodlands, once manicured to maintain their picture-book appearance, are being allowed to “go wild,” leaving natural succession to take place.
The most vigorous attempt to restore the natural forest is at Ennerdale, a long, narrow lake in the district’s farthest-west corner. For the adventurous walker a trail from here runs some 200 miles across the north of England to the North Sea.
“This was once a magnificent wild and remote valley,” says Jeremy Barlow, then in charge of the Trust’s Ennerdale project and now general manager for the entire eastern Lake District. “Salmon and sea trout ran up from the sea into Ennerdale Lake, and in November the rivers were black with spawning char.”
The ruin of Ennerdale was the Sitka spruce plantations planted after World War I, when the nation faced a timber shortage. The spruce grew fast but, being a nonnative species, had little value to wildlife.
Now, as the spruce stands are cut or die off, they are no longer being replaced. The hope is that the native Atlantic coast forest will regenerate and that, with it, the lake char, red deer, and red grouse will return. Instead of sheep that destroy tree seedlings, herders are encouraged to raise black Galloway cattle, a breed that predates the Roman occupation and whose heavy hooves break up the soil and allow seedlings to sprout.
I walk the low ground along the lake’s perimeter toward its source, the river Liza. Along the river, many of the 60-year-old spruce stands have been recently clearcut. My boots sink into the sodden ground. That this is not your picturesque Lake District scene makes it seem somehow more authentic. On the first rise of hills above the lakeshore, new old forest is already taking shape, an expression of, as Wordsworth put it, “the fine gradations by which in Nature one thing passes away into another. . . .”
Change, even in the Lake District, is inevitable. Understanding this was key to the success of one of the district’s most curious and successful champions.
On my walk past an old stone farmhouse just on the edge of the village of Near Sawrey, the view of green rolling meadows gives me a feeling of being in a place where the miniature had been transformed to life size. I’d never been here, but I had seen this village and these fields before, on pages I’d turned in my childhood and turned again for my children, watercolor landscapes inhabited by the likes of The Flopsy Bunnies and Jemima Puddle-Duck and her brood. At the house across the way I recognized the trellis and the garden path with its neat rows of vegetables.
This was Hill Top Farm, where Beatrix Potter wrote and painted, and where her studies of the natural history of the Lake District led her to develop a conservation ethic far ahead of her time.
In the 1890s, then in her twenties, Potter seemed to have set upon a career as a naturalist and biological illustrator. Her studies (both artistic and scientific) of fungi had led her to understand the nature of their reproduction (spores and mycelia were something new at that time) and to present a scientific paper on the symbiosis of fungi and algae in lichen. Treated, however, with what she called “contemptuous incredulity” by the professional scientific establishment, she returned to the Lake District, where her family spent their summers, and focused on her children’s illustrations. By 1905 her series of children’s books that began with Peter Rabbit had given her a new career and a personal wealth beyond even that she was born into.
She purchased Hill Top Farm and soon joined Hardwicke Rawnsley in his effort to protect the Lake District’s nature. Potter herself began buying up failing farms that she kept operating, sometimes managing them herself, and even raising her own flocks of Herdwick sheep. The National Trust thrived. When Potter died in 1943 she left it 4,000 acres, including Hill Top Farm.
Crossing the southern Lake District from Grasmere to Wasdale by car proves to be a nerve-racking experience. It requires a drive along what one guidebook calls, with a bit too much English reserve, a “challenging road.” Instead I find a winding single lane with roller-coaster descents, hairpin curves, no shoulders, few retaining walls, and dizzying drop-offs. When I reach the halfway point just below the 2,000-foot summits of Hard Knott and Harter Fell, I stop as much to still my nerves as to take in the view from the ruins of a Roman garrison that once housed the 500 infantrymen of Hadrian’s Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians.