Travel Jottings

Celebrating the best bits and bobs to be found while exploring Britain, Ireland and beyond. Much is inspired by real outings, whether they were walking, cycling or photographic in nature, while virtual blundering in the name of planning them has turned up some gems too. Regardless of how they were found, I hope that they keep coming so I can continue to share new things with you.

Cumbria: Created for the Sake of the Lake District?

View North from Sleet Fell, Patterdale, Cumbria, England

A few years ago, I read an article in The Great Outdoors magazine about a Lake District walk that took in the old country tops of Lancashire (Coniston Old Man), Cumberland (Scafell Pike) and Westmorland (Helvellyn). This taught me that the visitor magnet was shared between three counties prior to the 1974 local government reorganisation.

In those days, it really needed its own identity and the Lake District brand has spread far and wide. Even a rural Irish upbringing was no escape thanks to the efforts of the likes of William Wordsworth and the inclusion of their work on the secondary school English literature curriculum of the Irish Republic. Having an English teacher who, though Irish, spent some of his life in the U.K. and gained a doctorate from no less than the University of Oxford more or less guaranteed a mention of this part of the world. That a past pupil of the school that I attended ended up running a Cumbrian hotel more or less guaranteed a mention of the place as well.

Another memory from those schooldays was the celebration of wonder in the poems that we studied. My strongest memory doesn't come from Wordsworth at all but rather from Keats' To Autumn. That it was of a September when we started looking at its rich imagery possibly ensured that it got engraved in my mind even now.

The Romanticism movement was bigger than literature, apparently, and looks as if it changed human sensibilities towards hill country. If you were to read Thomas Pennant's accounts of his Scottish tours, you'd see a more utilitarian approach to the countryside in sway and there once was a superstitious fear of hilltops too. All of that seems to have been replaced by aesthetic appreciation of places like the Lake District and what their quieter spots have to offer the human spirit.

It must have thoughts like those that led partly to the formation of the first National Parks by the post-war Attlee-led Labour government. The legislation for these was passed in 1949 and the Lake District National Park came into being in 1951. That gave countryside studded with fells and lakes a single custodian, possibly for the first time. Maybe it was proper for local authority boundaries to respect this too and Cumbria came into being in 1974 to further cement things. The fact that the National Park extended east towards the Howgill Fells somewhat adds further validity to the concept though the extension to the neighbouring Yorkshire Dales National Park into Cumbria pushes things another way. Perhaps, it all is a matter of balancing priorities and deciding what is truly precious.

Both Genteel & Rugged

The character of the Lake District involves something of a dichotomy. One look at fellsides should convince anyone of their ruggedness yet a more genteel aspect seems to have developed among them too. It's almost as if humanity felt the need to tame a wilder area over the past few centuries.

The turn towards Romanticism around the tun of the nineteenth century may have been part of this. After William and Dorothy Wordsworth lived in Cumbria around this time and William very much celebrated the natural world. Robert Southey, another local, was part of this too and Samuel Taylor Coleridge made many a visit to the area.

The fact that the Wordsworths' cottage near Rydal Water still draws visitors brings us to a more domesticated view of the Lake District. Steamers still cross the bigger lakes and it was on one of these that I crossed Windermere on my very first visit there more than ten years ago, of a Saturday in September as it happened. You will find other such operators plying the waters of Coniston, Derwentwater and Ullswater so this is an option for exploring those too.

Children's literature also features this gentrification of the area to a point too with Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons telling of carefree childhood adventures on a Cumbrian lake. The impressions that other childhood tales on young imaginations transformed surroundings from what they were to something very different. Maybe that's what we all like doing, even those of us who are well beyond childhood.

The mention of children's books brings us to Beatrix Potter, who wrote and illustrated a good few in her time. Later ones even drew inspiration from the area. By then, she was becoming adept at the farming of indigenous Herdwick sheep as well as conservation at a time when that thinking was less prevalent than it is today. That her farm was left to the National Trust following her death reflects that spirit of conserving things for future generations and it acts as one of many visitor magnets in the Lake District today.

While natural beauty does draw people to this part of Cumbria, it seems that many of them spent their time savour the human footprint that has been left on the area. Literary luminaries are as major an attraction for many, for instance. Hordes seem to hang around the local towns and villages too rather than fanning out into the countryside.

Speaking of that countryside, the fact that so many choose to remain nearer human activity means that quieter corners abound for those of us seeking them. All it needs is a spot of height gain and the masses are left after you. For me, it is the natural ruggedness that draws me and not so much of the domestication that mankind has brought to lower reaches.

Challenges of Conservation

Keeping a precious and special place like the Lake District in good order takes effort for there are lots of tensions. Some like the current controversy surrounding a planned zip wire near Thirlmere are caused by economic activities and the need to earn a living. Others are caused differing visitor aspirations. Some seek peace and quiet while others are thrill seekers, a juxtaposition that does not make it easy for both to co-exist. Current restrictions on public spending are little help either, not only does this affect local councils but also the  National Park Authority too.

Visitor footfall can cause its share of troubles too. The Lake District also recently became a UNESCO World Heritage site so some warning against following the sub-optimal examples of Patagonia and Peru's Machu Pichu where restrictions on numbers have been needed. Such are the perils of having too high a profile in travel magazines that home in on such areas.

We already are forewarned about how busy things can get. It often happens during the English summer school holidays when, in spite of all efforts to promote the use of public transport, we have tailbacks on major routes leading through the National Park. Maybe, if we got the railway line between Windermere and Keswick that was successfully opposed by Wordsworth, Ruskin and others, the use of public transport would be better. Also, we lost the Whithaven-Keswick-Penrith line and that leaves me wondering how it might be taming the A66 if it escaped the attentions of Beeching's axe. There are good bus links but these aren't cheap and there is a modal change that can seem off-putting to some.

Honeypots such as AmblesideConiston or Keswick get busy at these times with many never venturing that far away from human settlements. Some may not be attracted much by immersion in more natural surroundings though accessible spots like Elterwater and Tarn Hows see their fair share of traffic too. Being accessible to all the family from the very young to the very old makes places like these very attractive to many.

Leaving the easy outdoor pickings doesn't mean that you'll escape the throng of humanity either. Heights like Helvellyn and Scafell Pike are so attractive for many that it takes its toll on the fellsides, necessitating action. The National Trust and Fix the Fells certainly play their part when it comes to fixing paths and repairing damage, contentiously in many places. Some may decry this further domestication but the combination of weather and human erosion cannot be left to their own devices either.

Three Peaks challenges are adding to this load and there is the Three Peaks Partnership that is looking into this. After all, the good folk of Wasdale and Borrowdale have to contend with night-time incursions from folk undertaking ascents of the three national tops on the island of Great Britain. Then, there's the overhead that any mishaps place on voluntary mountain rescue teams (most are like this with the exception of those formed by the armed services). Isn't it ironic that when stewardship really is needed that the stewards get underfunded? Luckily, there are other Lake District Challenges you can do so it is not as if there is no choice of such things.

It all adds a very different set of pressures from the industrial and agricultural ones that once were commonplace. The former no longer happen as much within the National Park yet evidence of such activity that can be found around Coniston even today. Some bemoan what sheep farming has done to the landscape yet it is a human influenced landscape that is being conserved and not one that is truly wild as the likes of George Monbiot and others would like it. Also, industrial heritage can be re-used for who would think now that the Ravenglass & Eskdale railway line was meant for such uses in the first place? There has been slate quarrying and lead mining in the area and nature is softening the aftermath of these over time.

It all adds up to a complex picture and a transition from a landscape exclusively supporting working lives to one where leisure time is spent. The pressures on a special lake-studded piece of hill country are ever changing. Even with attracting those who enjoy the fruits of conservation, there remains work to do to avoid such attentions causing ruination all of themselves.

Seeking Quieter Corners

With all the above, it is tempting to think that it is getting ever harder to find quieter parts of the Lake District and yet it seems that some places are not getting busier. The northern fells come to mind, perhaps because they are not as well known as others or as accessible. So many explore the tops around Skiddaw and Blencathra without giving any thought to the fells lying between there and the village of Caldbeck that you are likely to experience a pleasant quiet bit of strolling hereabouts.

Of course, careful choices regarding the time of year, day of the week and hours of the day help too. Unlike some places on Earth where there is greater distinction between seasons, the Lake District can be walked all year around. In December 2016, I enjoyed a walk from Great Langdale to Grasmere that got even better once I had passed Stickle Tarn. The route that I had picked was free ranging with scarcely anyone around and the only things left in my mind were the enjoyment of the way the fading winter sunlight played on the fellsides and overcoming the challenge of getting down to Grasmere after wandering off course. There had been a line of people going up to Stickle Tarn but they were soon lost quite easily because my route was not theirs.

The same sort of outcome was achieved around Buttermere in early July 2014 and it helped that I stayed out later in the evening. Overnighting there brought me the delight of only having a falling cascade making any noise in the valley, aside perhaps from bleating Herdwick sheep. It is an otherwise popular spot but it still was easy to lose humanity for a spot of soothing solitude.

Going east helps too for I have had delightful unintruded strolls in the vicinity of Kentmere and Longsleddale. If you really seek solitude, dales and fells to the east of Ullswater will work well too as will the latest extension to the National Park boundaries. In summary, there will remain quieter spots to relish if you take the time to get the know the area well enough to find them. Most arrive with a lot of exploration done for them in a guidebook but doing it for yourself brings real rewards.

Venturing Away from the Lakes

There is more to Cumbria than the Lake District in spite of there being websites like Lakes Online and Golakes. The latter also is known as Cumbria Tourism and there is Visit Cumbria too so the county's name is part of the scheme of things anyway. This is a part of England whose charms are not limited to its best known patch of hill country. They go beyond places on the latter's doorstep like Levens Hall, an Elizabethan mansion near Kendal with a topiary in its garden dating back hundreds of years, either. In summary, there are numerous places in north, east, south and west of the county that have plenty to offer a visitor.

This includes part of the North Pennines to the east, an area with a very different character to the Lake District. Such hills make up the eastern side of the Eden Valley, part of an area extending west as far as Ullswater. The Pennine Way long distance trail passes through such places as Dufton, Alston and Nenthead on its way between Derbyshire and the Scottish Borders. It too has its memorable highlights with High Cup Nick being particularly famed.

The Settle-Carlisle railway makes for a useful way of accessing these delights with useful stations at Appleby-in-Westmorland and Kirkby Stephen. The latter also is a Walkers are Welcome town, apparently the only one in Cumbria and with a website that is inviting outdoors folk. Along with other less frequented hills like Mallerstang, it also is not so far from the Howgill Fells near the town of Sedbergh (apparently pronounced as "Sed-berr" and not "Se-berreh" as some might be tempted to do). Many pass these shapely hummocks while travelling along the West Coast Mainline or the M6 and I wonder what proportion without give them a second glance. It is an undeserving oversight given the walking that id offered among them.

The same may afflict Kirkby Lonsdale by the River Lune. This is gentler countryside to the south of Sedbergh that has stronger associations with Lancashire or Yorkshire than the county within which it is locates. Transport links might have as much to do with this as history. The closure of its local railway line cannot have helped and you now need to use buses from Lancaster unless you have your own means of transport. That makes the place disconnected from other parts of Cumbria yet it is worth seeking and Yorkshire Dales Three Peaks country is not far away either.

Cumbria has its share of coastline too with Barrow-in-Furness and Ulverston along the shores of Morecambe Bay in the south and the Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the north. The latter is where you will find Hadrian's Wall meeting the Irish Sea. These days, there is no need for such defensive structures so it is the coastal views together with an abundance of wildfowl that will many visitors and that is no bad thing.

Apart from Hadrian's Wall, there are other reminders that this is a border county with a history of past conflict like the castle in the heart of Carlisle. That is not why nearby Kirklinton Hall fell into disrepair since it is the economic realities of the twentieth century and more recent times that saw to that. Both are reminders of the very intrusions that we seek to avoid and from which we often need to escape for a while.

For those episodes of release from everyday toil, it is good to have special places like the Lake District and other such spots. Cumbria may have a big tourism magnet but there are other localities whose explorations will repay any added application on the part of a visitor. When the main attraction is busier, it is all the better to have them.