Celebrating The Lake District

The UK's first four National Parks turned 70 in 2021. One of these, The Lake District, retains a peerless power to draw generations of creatives, adventurers – and crowds.

A distinctively Lakeland landing jetty on Coniston Water, in the Southern Lake District. 

Photograph by JLImages, Alamy
Published 23 Dec 2021, 17:47 GMT, Updated 7 Jan 2022, 11:14 GMT

“I DO NOT indeed know of any tract of country 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 the landscape.”

So wrote William Wordsworth, who – as well as being a poet, intellectual and pioneer of the Romantic movement – was also enthusiastically Cumbrian. It’s little known that the man responsible for such immortal works as The Prelude and the Lyrical Ballads also authored one of the most influential guidebooks to what we now know as The Lake District, in which the above passage appeared. First published in 1810, in its introduction, Wordsworth described his intention to ‘furnish a Guide or Companion for the Minds of Persons of taste, and feeling for Landscape, who might be inclined to explore the District of the Lakes with that degree of attention to which its beauty may fairly lay claim.’  

The resulting book – A Guide Through the District of the Lakes in the North of England, with a description of the scenery etc, for the use of tourists and residents, to give it its complete title – wasn’t the first guidebook of its type. But it was probably the first to draw the many and varied appeals of this wild and beguiling territory of north-west England into a single volume. How fitting, too, that it was written by not only a poet, but one who would come to epitomise the region most stereotypically associated with the more whimsical of wanderers.

From the slopes of Great Hell Gate on Great Gable, a view of England's highest mountains and deepest lake. Scafell Pike's and Scafell's summits are, respectively, the left and right highmost summits in the massif to the left, while the smear of Wast Water can be seen in the distance.  

Photograph by Stewart Smith, Alamy

Blea Tarn in late autumn, reflecting the summits of the Langdale Pikes – a distinctive fist of mountains in the central Lake District where axe heads were quarried from the sharp local 'greenstone' by ancient settlers.

Photograph by Robert Garrigus, Alamy

Cathedral Cave was once an old slate quarry, and is now owned by the National Trust. The dramatic cavern is supported by a natural pillar of stone, as was typical of such excavations. Much like those of North Wales, many of the houses in the Lake District are built entirely of this locally-hewn stone.

Photograph by Paul Richardson, Alamy

In the book, Wordsworth also described his home county as ‘a sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest, who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.’ It would prove a pithy and prescient prediction: in 2021 the Lake District celebrated its 70th anniversary as a National Park.

A landscape legacy

By the time Wordsworth was lyricising himself into history from his home in Grasmere, the appeal of the ‘District of the Lakes’ was hardly a secret. Artists keen to capitalise on the combination of ‘beauty, horror and immensity’, as writer John Brown put it in the 1750s, had been long-flocking, enraptured by the area’s encapsulation of the blossoming Romantic movement – and its followers’ appreciation of vertiginously brooding, visually discordant landscapes.

Curiosities such as the Claude Glass – an artist’s tool made comprised of a mirror that reflected landscapes in a darkened and theatricalised manner for copying to canvas – became talismans of a breed of tourist thrilled to walk the line between artistic beauty and elemental terror.

Where images ended, words continued: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Harriet Martineau, William and Dorothy Wordsworth – and later John Ruskin, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome and John Cunliffe all wrote prolifically of the landscape that would inspire works from The Prelude and Swallows and Amazons to Peter Rabbit and Postman Pat.

“At 2,362 square kilometres – that’s a London-and-a-half – the Lakes is large enough to be spacious, yet at the same time surprisingly compact for the amount it contains.”

Of the above luminaries, only Wordsworth was born in the area; and the Lake District’s magnetism for drawing in outsiders – both short term and long term – has only strengthened as the centuries have passed.

Fortune in geography

This appeal has everything to do with the region’s remarkable geography. A roughly circular designation once comprised of three historical counties – Lancashire, Westmorland and Cumberland – in 1974 the Lake District was assimilated into the new county of Cumbria, in which it now entirely sits. At 2,362 square kilometres – that’s a London-and-a-half – it’s large enough to be spacious, yet at the same time surprisingly compact for the amount it contains. It is the largest British national park south of Scotland.

Look at a map and it’s not difficult to see where it got its name: the sixteen eponymous lakes, which include England’s biggest in Windermere (15 square kilometres), the deepest in Wast Water (79 metres deep), and a slew of candidates for its most romantic, from the island-studded Derwent Water, the pier-festooned Coniston Water and the secluded and deep-nestled Buttermere. Regard a map and you realise these spiral from the centre of the Lake District in a wheel-like whorl, further dampened by countless smaller ‘tarns’ filling dips and scoops. And all of it surrounded by arguably the region’s more entitled geographical claim to the National Park’s title. For despite its watery moniker, off the map and on the ground, the Lake District’s most obvious features are its mountains.   

A view of Keswick, in the northern Lake District, at dusk from the promontory of Latrigg. 

Photograph by Loop Images Ltd, Alamy

The much-photographed Duke of Portland boathouse, on the shores of Ullswater. 

Photograph by Matt Gibson, Alamy

Autumn colour layers the Screes above Wast Water, in the Western Fells of the Lake District. The valley – despite its iconic views – is one of the most remote in the Lake District. 

Photograph by Guy Edwardes, Alamy

The mountain district

Arranged in loops, studded out in lines above plunging valleys or crowded around lakes, the mountains of the Lake District make the area a draw for adventurers of every kind. These range from country ‘bimblers’ to scramblers who love to spend the day alongside the thrill of a drop, to runners, climbers and wild campers. All English ground above 3,000ft lies within the Lake District, in the heights of the Scafells, Helvellyn and Skiddaw, all of which offer strikingly different views from their respective compass points. Over 200 additional summits of note spread across the national park, between them peering down on every lake, rising around every valley and providing a backdrop to town and village that can be achingly pretty, intimidatingly sheer or quietly majestic, depending on the season, the light, or perhaps the mood of the observer.

“Their forms are endlessly diversified, sweeping easily or boldly in simple majesty, abrupt and precipitous, or soft and elegant,” wrote Wordsworth in his Guide. “They are individually inferior to the most celebrated of those in some other parts of this island… [but] in the beauty and variety of their surfaces and colours, they are surpassed by none.”

Recreational rock climbing was arguably born in 1826 on Pillar Rock, amongst the crags of the western fells – the distinctive local quip for the hills, itself from the Norse fjall, ‘mountain.’ Developing from a handy knack amongst shepherds for rescuing sheep to a sporting end in itself, the mountains above the hamlet of Wasdale Head stand as a temple to the earliest proponents of the pastime – and also as the memorial to a generation cut down too soon.

A view from Westmorland Cairn on the summit of Great Gable, to Wast Water. This mountain was central to the 'great gift' made by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club to the nation, in memory of the fallen of World War One. 

Photograph by Simon Ingram

A ‘great gift’

It’s fair to say Britain was late on the act with its national parks. In the U.S. Yellowstone National Park had become the world’s first in 1872 almost 80 years before the U.K. But the particular challenges of the British landscape (namely, its size, population density and complex land ownership) meant that a similar level of defacto preservation of ‘wilderness‘ wasn’t possible at scale without turfing out residents or repossessing land.

Instead, the Lake District’s case for becoming a national park was strengthened by an act of memorial: three landowners who made a bequeath to the nation in the shape of the highest ground in the country and its immediate surroundings. First came Scafell Pike, at 978 metres (3,209ft) England’s highest mountain – gifted to the National Trust on Peace Day in 1919 by Lord Leaconfield, “in perpetual memory of the men of the Lake District who fell for God and King, for freedom, peace and right in the Great War.” Soon after, a dozen summits surrounding the mountain were added to that memory by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club, who followed Leaconfield’s lead. This contiguous swath of upland – containing England’s most spectacular ground – was completed when Castle Crag was added by a the local Hamer family in 1920.

The dedication was made official in a ceremony on top of the mountain of Great Gable four years later, when mountaineer and poet Geoffrey Winthrop Young read a speech to dedicate the landscape to those “who surrendered their part in the fellowship of hill and wind, and sunshine, that the freedom of this land, the freedom of our spirit, should endure.”

The donation, the ‘great gift,’ as it became known, was described as the grandest war memorial in the world. And this, combined with agitations for freer access to the countryside – largely centred around The Peak District, and its landmark protection status – cemented the Lake District’s case for similar enshrinement. This came to pass on 9 May 1951, when it became the UK’s second National Park.

A view from Crinkle Crags to Great Langdale, with its mix of rugged hills and pastoral lowland, considered one of the Lake District's most quintessential valleys. 

Photograph by Rebecca Cole, Alamy

Riders ascend Hardknott Pass during the Fred Whitton Challenge, a 180km/112 mile ride in the Lake District. Hardknott Fort, which lies off the steep and infamously hazardous road, dates back to Roman times. 

Photograph by Jon Sparks, Alamy

The dramatically situated Castlerigg Stone Circle lies just outside of Keswick. The precise age and purpose of the circle is obscure, though it is thought to date from at least 3,000BC, making it one of the oldest in England, and is likely to have changed purpose through the centuries.   

Photograph by Loop Images Ltd, Alamy

A modern picture

Today, like all British national parks, the Lake District’s ownership is a patchwork. Around a quarter is owned by the National Trust, over half in private ownership and the rest divided between various bodies such as the Forestry Commission, water company United Utilities and the national park Authority itself – the latter of which owns just 4% of the park’s land. 25 organisations forming the Lake District National Park Partnership collectively manage it.

“This last year has shown us how much people value this protected, national landscape and how important it has been for everyone’s wellbeing.” Says Richard Leafe, Chief Executive of the Lake District National Park. “National Parks were created to protect iconic landscapes and to ensure they’re accessible to everyone – something that’s hugely relevant 70 years on.”

Leafe cites opening up 48 miles of routes accessible by wheelchair, or those with limited mobility or families in pushchairs (named ‘miles without stiles’), committing the authority up to be net carbon zero by 2025 and becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017 as three of recent highlights in the park’s 70 year history. As to his own happy place within the National Park, Leafe is reluctant to commit. “I’d find it hard to pick just one,” he says. “I enjoy everything from swimming in the lakes, to walking or running in the fells and, in the winter, skiing – when we have snow.”

The weather is indeed a preoccupation in the Lakes – understandable for a region home to England’s rainiest settlement (Seathwaite, with over 3 metres per year) – and the principle activities are outdoors. It’s consequently something taken seriously by local authorities, who employ a hardy band of ‘felltop assessors’ to climb the central peak of Helvellyn every day during winter for the purposes of a forecast of unimpeachable nuance. Jon Bennett is one.

Lakeland icons Sphinx Rock (left) said to resemble a carved face from one direction, and a crouched cat from another, with Wast Water beyond; and Napes Needle, which became an early lightning rod for sport climbing, when W P Haskett-Smith free-soloed to its top in 1886.

Photograph by Stewart Smith, Alamy left and John Oakey, Alamy right

“Weather and underfoot conditions on the Lakeland fells can change dramatically not only during the season, but daily and even hourly. It’s why we provide the service,” he says of the Lake District’s Weatherline forecasts, which detail underfoot conditions on some of the highest ground in the District during the year’s most tempestuous months. “During the season, which for us runs between 1 Dec and Easter, the fells can be anything from spring-like with no snow or ice whatsoever to completely alpine.” The reports, which contain details of snow, wind chill, the presence of ice and sometimes counter-intuitive local temperature quirks – common with temperate mountain microclimates – are posted daily. “I am now on my 14th season,” says Bennett, “and it is still a source of great motivation and satisfaction when walkers contact us to thank us for the service.”

‘Character training’

Despite the weather, or perhaps because of it, the Lake District – along with other national parks – has long found purpose as an educational or therapeutic tools. These days, this is extended to adults who might use the hills and lakes as natural assets for ‘team building’, but concerning the practise of introducing young people to the outdoors, the once-inescapable term was ‘character building.’ In 1951 – the same year National Park status was granted – youth trust Outward Bound also caused a stir by offering their first course to women at the organisation’s Mountain Base in Eskdale. Around this time, the centre’s warden was venerated mountaineer Eric Shipton, with the organisation’s goal – ‘inspire young people to defy their limitations so they become strong, resilient and curious, ready for the challenges of life’. Today many such centres, many hit hard by COVID-19, remain instrumental in introducing under-privileged, minority or urban-centred children to the outdoors.

Winter snow hangs over the summit ridge of Blencathra, a sentinel mountain in the Northern Lake District overlooking Derwent Water and the town of Keswick. Beyond are the crumpled outlines of the western fells.

Photograph by Stewart Smith, Alamy

The Langdale Pikes, as seen across the misty Grizedale Forest. 

Photograph by Duncan Shaw, Alamy

“National Parks were created to protect iconic landscapes and to ensure they’re accessible to everyone – something that’s hugely relevant 70 years on.”

Richard Leafe

Then there are the young people electing to spend their most formative education in the national park amongst the landscape that has energised others for centuries. “Students learn in inspiring locations, sensitively used to develop an adventurous lifestyle and its associated benefits to health and wellbeing,” says Mark Lawton, Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for the University of Cumbria’s Institute of Science and Environment, based in Ambleside. “For some students this involves spending time on their own in a special place… whilst for others there is the need to 'feed the rat' and be more adventurous.”

“One of my areas of study includes exploring the therapeutic benefits of spending time in nature has on calming our minds and re-centring us,” says Megan Hine, who is an author, producer and adventure survival consultant for TV shows such as Running Wild with Bear Grylls. She graduated from the university with a degree in Outdoor Studies in 2006. “Studying in Ambleside was a blessing,” she says. “I was out and about in the landscape everyday climbing, biking and running… It had a huge impact on shaping my own future.”

“The landscape of the Lake District captures the imagination,” adds Hine, “and whether you scale mountains or enjoy watching them from the windows of a café, they will help create the most fantastic memories.”

The wild within

The Lakes is, however, not without its critics. Some see its grazed upland scenery as anything but natural – rather an over-cultivated, agricultural landscape ornament where once there was wild heath, forest and a more tooth-and-claw natural order. Others are trying to find a way to balance the dials of what there once was, with what there now necessarily is.

Mist rises from the shores of Ullswater around a clutch of old-growth woodland. William Wordsworth was inspired to write his poem 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' (later shortened to Daffodils) after walking along the lakeshore of this large lake – at nine miles in length, the District's second-largest after Windermere. 

Photograph by Drew Buckley, Alamy

The Lake District by numbers

Surface area: 912 square miles
Counties: Cumbria
Highest point: Scafell Pike 3,209 ft (978m)
Visitors: 16-19 million per year
Public rights of way: 1,990 miles

“I would like to see a national park with a much healthier landscape for wildlife, where species and habitats are increasing rather than being in decline,” says Rob Dixon, founder of ecology and habitat management consultancy Wild Lakeland. “Nature has been lost from many areas in the recent past due to an intensification of land management practices and habitat degradation. We are now at a crossroads with the biodiversity and climate crisis [where] large-scale habitat restoration is needed to reverse these declines.”

He describes habitats such as upland oak woodlands, wood pasture, acid grassland and blanket bog as being critical to the ‘visual landscape that so many people love’ – and that restoration of habitats for wildlife such as red squirrels, badgers and the golden eagle, which until recently had a solitary English stronghold above Haweswater in the Lakes, often come with concerns about balancing other rural interests.

Rewilding in the Lake District often becomes contentious when there is an idea of significant landscape change from what exists today,” adds Dixon.The national park also has a long heritage of pastoral hill farming… however there is most certainly enough space for both, and everything in between too. They both just have to be done in the right places.” Citing the need for a more diverse and proportionate range of land uses – from traditional farming to managed woodlands and wild areas – he thinks “perhaps the largest, and most sustainable at scale habitat restoration will come from a shift towards regenerative and nature-friendly farming.

Fell runners on the way up to Butter Crag at the 2010 Grasmere Show. Fell running is the Lakeland-specific version of trail running.

Photograph by steve harling, Alamy

Above Coniston, shepherds conduct a fell gather of Herdwick and Swaledale sheep, 2019. Sheep farming in the Lake District has a long and controversial history, as in Scotland – with local breeds hardy and built for life in the extreme weather of the high fell. 

Photograph by John Bentley, Alamy

The Kirkstone Pass Inn twinkles at the summit of its namesake pass amidst winter snowfall. The inn – dating from 1496 – was once a critical shelter on the trade route between Windermere and Glenridding. At 454m above sea level it is amongst the highest pubs in England. 

Photograph by Ashley Cooper, Alamy

Then there’s the other modern complaint few can fail to be aware of on a summer’s day. “For all its visual glory, the Lake District is painfully modest in its dimensions – just 39 miles top to bottom, 33 miles across at its widest point,” wrote Bill Bryson in his 1994 National Geographic dispatch from the Lake District, Beauty Besieged, “and for much of the year, even more painfully crowded.”  

At that time, the Lakes saw around 12 million visitors a year; today, the number of people now annually negotiating the National Park’s necessarily narrow, winding roads has risen to 19 million. These flock in high season to a national park that isn’t really on the way to anywhere, therefore lacks major infrastructure such as motorways or a rail network. People come to climb the fells, nicknamed ‘Wainwrights’ after the celebrated guidebook writer who catalogued and popularised 214 of them. Visitors come to enjoy postcard-perfect villages built with chirpy local slate, tackle high-energy pursuits such as ghyll scrambling, trail running and rock climbing, sail boats, tour historic sites and sip cream teas.

All of which has made many of the National Park’s 40,478 permanent residents highly reliant on tourism – providing around £3bn per year – a figure impacted recently by the pandemic, and a serious of devastating extreme weather events. In November 2009 one of these saw the level of Windermere rise by 157cm in a single week; Another – 2015’s Storm Desmond, caused the collapse of the critical A591 road into the lake of Thirlmere, crippling travel around the region for both residents and visitors for six months.

The power to inspire

Whilst the Romantics have moved on, creatives continue to find their own more modern interpretation of the Lakes’ ability to inspire.

“I think the Lake District appeals to writers because it's a place in the in-between: a blend of wild and agricultural, on the border between England and Scotland, a place you can visit quite easily – but with the illusion of being cut off from the world,” says Katie Hale, an award-winning writer born in Cumbria, whose literary residencies have included at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. “Hovering between states in this way, it allows the writer to write their own version of the Lake District into being.”

“For me, the Lake District is the place I grew up not quite in, but on the edge of,” Hale adds. “It's inspiring because it's tied to memory: My own, but also folk memory, the stories people tell about these places. Look beyond the tea towels and picture-perfect views, and the Lake District teems with stories.”  

“It is a dream location,” says photographer Daniel Toal, who was born in South Cumbria and now works amongst the mountains of the Lake District. “The hills, the valleys and lakes provide incredible scenery all year round and the forests and woodlands provide shelter and sanctuary even on the wettest days.”

“I began educating myself hoping to gain a better understanding of where I am and what I am seeing,” he adds. “The unique environments and geological regions, the numerous species of birds, wildlife and insects, tree species, flora and so much more. From then on I started to slow down on my walks. There is a lot more to explore in the Lake District than hills, valleys and lakes.”

Gallery: Vintage National Geographic pictures of the Lake District

Any walk along Grasmere’s streets of art shops and galleries will confirm that the visual arts are alive and well in the Lake District. And cameos from arguably England’s most famous national park often appear in unexpected places: The lakes of Thirlmere and Derwent Water and peaks including Raven Crag and Blencathra pop up in scenes behind X-wing fighters in the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The region is an Instagram hit, with over 3 million tags, versus old-timer Yellowstone’s 1.8 million; and Taylor Swift’s 2021 track The Lakes contains the linesTake me to the lakes where all the poets went to die… Those Windermere peaks look like a perfect place to cry.’

Proof, perhaps, that whilst national park status helps preserve the cultural and natural heritage of a region, the appeal of these landscapes will always find its own way to evolve.     

This article was updated to include comments from Katie Hale. 

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