Lake District: Beauty besieged
BY Bill Bryson
2nd Oct 2023 Lifestyle
7 min read
In this article taken from the RD Archives, August 1995, Bill Bryson tells of the beauty of the Lake District, from Romantic poets to running farmers and the area's relationship with the National Trust
One brush with its unspoiled fells and I was hooked. But so are hordes of tourists, bureaucrats and second-home owners who flock to the sublime Lake District every year.
They started coming before 8am, drawn by the hope of a fine day. By 10:30am the pavements of the lakeside town of Bowness-on-Windermere were thronged with tourists and the roads were busy with vehicles, most full of bouncing children and a dad saying, "I told you we should have started earlier."
Another summer weekend in the Lake District was under way.
Few places offer more visual glory than this corner of north-west England—a national park since 1951—with its hundreds of lakes and tarns, its rugged peaks, high moors and wandering vales.
"Few places offer more visual glory than this corner of north-west England, with rugged peaks, high moors and wandering vales"
Yet it is painfully modest in its dimensions—just 39 miles from top to bottom, 33 miles across at its widest point—and often even more painfully crowded, with some 12 million visitors every year.
Even in the still repose of Patterdale, a tightly confined valley of low white farmhouses and small fields 12 miles from Bowness, their effect is felt.
"We get around 100,000 visitors across our land every year," says Alan Wear, who farms 1,700 acres with his brother.
"If just one in a thousand fails to shut a gate, that's 100 times we have to go out and round up our sheep."
He'd recently found seven ewes, all carrying lambs, drowned in a steam. "Somebody obviously let a dog run free. Dog naturally chased sheep, an sheep panicked and jumped in back trying to get away—t'owner probably thought dog was just having a bit of harmless sport."
Surprisingly, much of the Lake District is relatively untrammelled. "The problem isn't so much that there are too many visitors, but that there are too many visitors in too few places," says climber Chris Bonington in his secluded cottage near Caldbeck on the park's serene northern fringe.
"Up here we hardly see outsiders from one week to the next. There are lots of fantastically beautiful places here, but they involve a longer drive."
A Londoner by birth, Bonington has lived around the Lakes since 1974. "The area may not be as dramatic as the Alps or Himalayas, but that is what appeals to me," he says. "You feel you can be part of it."
If any person can be said to be responsible for the special place Lakeland holds in our affections, it is the poet William Wordsworth, who lived there most of his life and drew inspiration from the landscape. His fellow poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge followed him to the lakes and soon, it seemed, so did every writer and artist in Britain.
Wordsworth spent his eight most productive years in tiny white Dove Cottage, near Grasmere. He was a demon walker and thought nothing of walking the 13 miles to Keswick to visit Coleridge. His friend Thomas De Quincey calculated that in his long life Wordsworth walked some 180,000 miles.
Inspired by this, I decided to take up a long-standing offer from an old friend, John Price, to walk up 2,960 foot Bow Fell. I asked if it was a hard climb. "Nah, just an amble," he said.
Early on a cold Saturday in February, we fell in with a straggly army of walkers as we started up the grassy lower sloped of Great Langdale. We climbed into ever bleaker terrain, picking our way over rocks and scree, until we were up among the ragged shreds of cloud that hung over the valley floor perhaps 1,000 ft below. The views were sensational—the jagged peaks of the Langdale Pikes crowding against the narrow valley laced with stone-walled fields.
As we pressed on, the air filled with swirling particles of ice that hit the skin like razor nicks. By the time we reached Three Tarns, just short of the summit, the weather was truly menacing, with thick fog, pelting sleet and ferocious gusts of wind that made me stumble and gasp.
"Walking in the high fells was one of the most exhilarating experiences"
When we returned to base four hours later, I was stiff with cold and ached in every movable part, but I was hooked. Walking in the high fells was one of the most exhilarating experiences imaginable. It left me with a new appreciation of the splendour of the Lake District landscape and a profound respect for Joss Naylor, one of the greatest fell runners of all time.
Fell running—scrambling up and down mountains, often at considerable peril to life and limb—is one of several sports keenly supported in the Lake District and little known outside of it.
In 1976, in a feat still spoken of with aw, Joss Naylor ran 108 miles in just under 24 hours, covering 38,000 feet of ascent and descent and scaling 72 summits, all more than 2,000 feet high.
Some of the run was done by moonlight, all of it over uneven ground. He was 40 years old at the time.
Sitting beside a wall of trophies in Wasdale Head farmhouse, Naylor merely says, "I was running well that year, could've done it again the next day with a bite to eat and a few hours' sleep."
Naylor might have been a great marathon runner, but he has to make a living, and for a hill farmer in the Lake District that isn't easy. He has 1,500 of the region's hardy but not notably productive Herdwick sheep, but even with extensive government grants he says it is difficult to make ends meet.
Until he retired recently, he had a full-time job as a maintenance man at a nearby power station, regularly following an all-night shift with a full day's work on the farm.
Life is not made any easier by being played out in the spotlight of a national park. "Hardly a week goes by that you don't have some authority poking his nose into your business," he says.
"Neighbour of mine not long ago had some naturalists 'discover' a rare patch of wildflowers on his land. They told him that on no account should he spread fertiliser on it because it would ruin the flowers, which surprised him because he'd been spreading it for 25 years.
So he stopped, and the next thing you know the wildflowers are all gone. The sheep, you see, got interested in that patch because it didn't have fertiliser on it and cleared every bit of it. These college folk may know flowers, but they don't know sheep."
More and more farmers are calling it a day; their numbers declined by eight per cent in the 1980s. "A farmer can sell his property," notes John Toothill, chief officer of the National Park Authority, "bank the proceeds, and live far more comfortably off the interest than he can by chasing after Herdwick sheep in all weathers."
The problem is that the person who buys the farm will more likely than not be a well-heeled urbanite who has no particular interest in managing the land. Since the 1960s hundreds of outsides have bought property as second homes, driving prices beyond what many locals can afford and robbing villages of much of their life; many are half empty through the winter.
There is simmering resentment against the "offcomers", as they are known. One farmer told me: "I had an offcomer banging on door t'other day complaining that my rooster was waking him up of a morning. You wonder, well, if you don't like the country, why on earth did you buy a place in it?"
It's all a far cry from the Lake District that Beatrix Potter adored early this century. At Hill Top, her bucolic hideaway in Near Sawrey, she created Peter Rabbit and dozens of other children's story characters and used the considerable wealth it brought her to buy properties in the Lakes in the hopes of saving them from overdevelopment.
"At her death Beatrix Potter left 15 farms and some 4,000 acres to the National trust "
At her death in 1943 she left 15 farms and some 4,000 acres to the National trust. Her husband left a further seven properties. Their bequests substantially increased the National trust's holdings and helped set in motion the drive to preserve this delicate landscape, which ultimately led to the national park's creation.
"We work together with the national park, since our interests are very much the same—to maintain the beauty of the Lake District and to help visitors enjoy the experience," Oliver Maurice, regional director of the National Trust in the Lake District, told me.
"But we are two quite separate bodies." The National trust is responsible only for the parts it owns—140,000 acres in all, about a quarter of the total area. The National Park Authority, on the other hand, is responsible for the upkeep and well-being of the whole park.
John Toothill's total annual budget is £5.4 million. From that he must manage the park, run ten information centres, pay 121 full-time staff (plus an additional 40 in summer), implement educational programmes, maintain equipment and vehicles, fund improvements to the landscape, and act as the local planning authority.
I ask if he finds the job discouraging. "Oh no," he says without hesitation. 'One thing you learn is just how passionately people feel about the Lakes. Do you know, our 350 volunteer wardens work hundreds of hours a year without a penny of pay."
He shows a measure of passion of his own. "Millions of people come here every year, and still find a countryside that is largely unspoiled and often incomparably beautiful. We have problems, certainly, but they are the problems of success."
It was a thought that stayed with me when I made a second, farewell ascent up Bow Fell. It was a fine September Saturday, and the walkers were even more numerous than they had been seven months earlier.
At the summit, I counted 34 other people eating packed lunches, studying maps or quietly talking about fell-top adventures. A few nodded to me, as if welcoming me to a select club. There was a kind of unspoken comraderie among us. As I ate my sandwiches, more walkers arrived, looking quietly exhilarated. With a nod, I enrolled them in our little club.
It occurred to me that it has been this way on Bow Fell for decades and will be for decades to come. I liked that very much—the idea that you can have an experience you share with millions, yet which is also somehow profoundly personal. That, I decided, is the special enchantment of the Lake District.
This piece, taken from the RD Archives, August 1995, was originally published in the National Geographic.
Banner credit: James53145
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