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 TGO 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 brought it to my attention 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 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 Keat's 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 utilitarian approach to the countryside in sway and there also has been 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 All of that seems to have been replaced by aesthetic appreciation of places like the Lake District and what their quieter spots have to offer the human spirit.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.

Today, much of tourism marketing features the Lake District so we get 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. That means that attractions like Levens Hall, an Elizabethan mansion near Kendal with a topiary in its garden dating back hundreds of years, do not get overlooked. Then, there are other delights such as Howgill Fells and the North Pennines for those seeking uncrowded quarters.

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. Others are known to serve Derwentwater and Ullswater 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 very much of the domestication that mankind has brought to lower reaches. That isn't to say that we haven't had any effect at higher levels because so many feet thread on some fellside paths that erosion is becoming a major problem. That means that something has be done about these with 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.

Seeking Quieter Corners

Believe it or not, the Lake District has had an industrial past and evidence of that can be found around Coniston even today. Also, the Honister Pass has seen slate mining too and removal of ore was the reason for the creation of the Ravenglass & Eskdale railway line in the first place. That has been humanised a fair bit since those days.

A strong motivation for setting up many a national park though is to conserve an area of outstanding natural beauty for generations to come. As if to emphasise how important that is, we have controversies about the siting of electricity-generating wind turbines on hillsides with many a location arousing objections from those who are partial to the delights of hill country.

In the case of the Lake District though, there is another need. One only has venture there during the English summer school holidays to see that it can get overrun in places. 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.

Then, there are the hordes that congregate around honeypots such as AmblesideConiston or Keswick without ever venturing that far away from human settlements. Some don't appear to 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 and the National Park Authority isn't rolling in money at the moment and neither are the county and borough councils. 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.

All of this adds to the effect of an increasing tendency for holidaying in the U.K. during these times of austere uncertainty so it's time that we sought out the less frequented parts. Finding emptier places has its own problems as they get jealously guarded by those who favour them and they can keep these to themselves. The National Park's western reaches strike me as offering opportunities for escaping the madding crowds and even alluring Buttermere can be counted among these. However, it's relative inaccessibility by public transport means that it has been spaces to the east that I have found. Kentmere and Longsleddale are two excellent examples and walks including both can fit in the astonishing Orrest Head too. East of Ullswater is good too, especially with the latest eastward extension of the National Park. Picking a quiet time to visit will help too since you can have good moments at any time of year.

Away from the Lakes

If you really wish to escape to where more solitude is on offer, there are places to the west and the east of the Lake District that will fit the bill. For instance, a look at the Visit Eden website will show you delights that range from Ullswater in the east of the Lake District National Park to places in the North Pennines like Alston and Nenthead.

The county also includes another national park, that of the Yorkshire Dales. It has been expanded in recent years to include the whole of the Howgill Fells near the town of Sedbergh (apparently pronounced as "Sed-berr" and not "Se-berreh" as you have been tempted to do). For many years the aforementioned great humpy whalebacks only got partial protection in spite of how they loom over the nearby West Coast Mainline and M6.

Another possibility is nearby Kirkby Stephen and it usefully is served by the Settle-Carlisle railway. It is in the heart of its own hill country and is a Walkers are Welcome town, apparently the only one in Cumbria and with a website inviting outdoors folk. Even so, this still is a quiter part of Cumbria so you also will escape crowds hereabouts.

Further north of Kirkby Stephen, there is Appleby-in-Westmorland where such sights as High Cup Nick in the North Pennines are a matter of miles away. Dufton is nearer to those wilder aspects again and is a stopping point on the Pennine Way with a northeastward or southwestward walk between there and Teesdale passing though some pretty empty moorland.

To the south of Sedbergh, Kirkby Lonsdale is another corner offering a quieter slice of life though Lancashire is as much nearby as Yorkshire. The River Lune passes this way and Ingleton is not far away either. Since the railway that passes this way is defunct, you need to use buses from Lancaster unless you have your own means of transport.

All in all, there are plenty of quieter places around Cumbria if you know where to look and that includes the coast where you will find the Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty where plenty of wildfowl are to be found and where Hadrian's Wall meets the sea. The latter is a reminder that this is a border county that has reminders of centuries of conflict like the castle in the heart of Carlisle. The Lake District is a world away from all this and is the county's main visitor magnet but it is not the only delight for a visitor. There is plenty to find with a spot of application to the task.