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.
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.”
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.
After spending the night in Nether Wasdale, I embark the next morning for Wasdale Head. The narrow road runs along the northwest shore of Wast Water, in the Lake District’s southwest, England’s deepest lake (the floor of the 243-foot-deep lake is below sea level). On the opposite shore, steep scree-covered slopes rise to the 2,000-foot peak of Illgill Head. But it is the sight of the mountains enclosing the bifurcated Wasdale Valley that makes this an iconic Lake District destination. (In 2007 it was voted Britain’s favorite view.)
Looking northeast up from the valley floor one faces, left to right, Red Pike, Kirk Fell, and Great Gable, three of the Lake District’s high peaks. Then, finally, Scafell Pike, at 3,210 feet, England’s highest, and the mountain Coleridge first climbed in 1802. These mountains rise steeply up from the valley, their rugged summits connected by a narrow ridgeline. Reaching the footpath the walking is easier, but soon I begin a steep haul toward the 2,600-foot summit. With about 600 feet to go, the winds pick up and I decide not to hazard the high ridge.
From where I stand the view north is over a precipitous drop into the Liza Valley, the river winding its way west across the rolling moraines to Ennerdale Water. The view back down is just as spectacular. Sunlit for the moment, the great sweep of the green valley spreads out from between the gray mountains; the streams meander then cascade then meander again toward the lake. The scene shows “every possible embellishment of beauty . . . which light and shadow can bestow.”
That is, after all, the Lake District’s legacy. To find in nature, as Wordsworth wrote, “a never-failing principle of joy and purest passion,” one that “intermingles with those works of man.”
MAKING THE TRIP: England’s Lake District
The Lake District is accessible by road and train, although there is no major airport nearby. Both Glasgow and Manchester, served by major U.S. carriers as well as British Airways, are about two hours away on main roads.
While it’s best to have a car, remember that Lake District roads are narrow and winding and have frequent pullouts to allow oncoming cars to pass. It can be a little harrowing if you’re not adept at driving on the left. The major towns of Grasmere, Windermere, and Ambleside have plenty of accommodations, but if you’re going in the spring or summer, book well ahead of time. Many of the old inns outside the main towns are charming establishments that have a pub and provide bed and board.
Most paths are well marked. Still, trail and topographic maps that can be picked up in local shops are advisable. Weather is the walker’s greatest challenge. No matter what the forecast says, always have rain gear, a windbreaker, and enough food and water to sit out one of the deep fogs that can envelope the fell tops. Even though the highest fells are only about 3,000 feet, the ridgelines can be narrow, the rocks slippery, and the drop-offs precipitous. One of the most famous fell walkers was Alfred Wainwright (1907–1991), who, during the 1950s and 1960s, compiled the seven-volume Pictorial Guides to the Fells, with detailed, hand-drawn maps and descriptions of hundreds of Lake District walks. Abridged versions are available.
Good sources for birdwatchers are The Cumbria Wildlife Trust; Birds of the Lake District, by W.R. Mitchell; and the Lake District Osprey Project’s website. That group even runs an “osprey bus” that takes visitors to the best viewing sites.
Try the National Trust and the Lake District National Park. Of the many sites devoted to fell walking in the Lake District, a good place to start is this one, which features detailed maps, directions, and walk times.