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The Lake District, Cumbria

The Lake District in England's north west, is only about forty miles across. If you got up early you could probably walk across the whole area in a day. But as William Wordsworth, the Lake District's most famous resident has observed, there is so much variety in this small area that it is almost a world within itself: "I do not know of any tract of country in which, in so narrow a compass, may be found an equal variety in the influences of light and shadow upon the sublime and beautiful features" (Guide To The Lakes, 1810). Variety really is the key to the Lakes. There are pastures, pleasant hills, wild fells, peaceful lakes, isolated tarns, and busy resorts. The climate is extremely variable and different conditions can be found by driving just a few miles. The Lake District has been a popular destination since the beginning of tourism in the UK. Thomas Pennant produced what was in effect the first tourist guide with his Tour of Scotland in 1772. This was soon followed by Thomas West's guides to the Lake District published in 1778, which sold in huge quantities. Both West and Pennant were scholars and had spent much time guiding young nobles around their Grand Tour of Europe. Now they were turning their attention to their own country.




The Lake District was part of the cult of nature which grew up in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a cult that could only really become established once man's influence over nature had been confirmed. Previously nature had generally been viewed with suspicion or downright fear, since the natural world held so many uncontrollable dangers. The Lake District, for all it's well deserved fame as a place of natural beauty, is not a "natural" environment. If humans didn't live in Britain the Lake District would be covered in woodland. The original Wildwood in this area was cut down thousands of years ago, and the present appearance of the Lakes has been largely shaped by the keeping of Herdwick sheep. The sheep crop the grass closely, and unlike cattle they put nothing back as manure; all the minerals they take from feeding go into their wool. This process of taking a lot without returning much has left the ground open and prone to erosion. As Hunter Davis puts it: "After sheep have grazed heavily, land once fit for oaks, which is how it once was, is only good enough for bracken" (A Walk Around The Lakes P95). When the Forestry Commission came to plant areas of the Lakes with conifers there were complaints from conservationists. In reality the trees represented a more natural landscape than the one preceding it.




The Lake District is not a place of "natural" beauty: it is rather a place where man and nature coming together has produced a remarkably beautiful landscape. It is almost a Capability Brown park. Indeed the beautiful Tarn Hows near Coniston, one of the most visited places in the Lakes, was created in the nineteenth century by damming a stream and joining together three swampy pools. The Tarn and all its surrounding landscaping are man made parkland. Although the rest of the Lakes show a more indirect human influence, their appearance is still largely determined by man. I like to think of the Lakes as Coleridge's fantastical world of Xanadu, a place full of measureless chasms and natural wonders, which are nevertheless part of the great Pleasure Dome built for Kubla Khan. Conservation has always been a hot topic in the Lakes, with Wordsworth leading campaigns to stop the masses coming in, and Canon Rawnsley setting up the National Trust here. But the lakes are what they are because of mans' activities.


It is often claimed that tourism threatens the Lake District. In fact attempts to preserve the Lakes are made because they are considered beautiful by so many people. Hectic though it does get on a Spring Bank Holiday in some Lakeland spots, tourism helps to save what it threatens to destroy. If there was no tourism, then there would be a greater likelihood that the land would be used for something else, by an industry with less of a vested interest in keeping the place looking beautiful.




In his Guide to the Lakes, Wordsworth suggested starting a tour of the Lake District at Windermere. The railway ends here, a memorial to Wordsworth's objections to the railway going any further. Bowness on Windermere is the Lakes most popular resort with over ten thousand boats registered. Numerous water sports are on offer. In the middle of Lake Windermere is Belle Isle, which can be visited by a ferry. There is a circular Georgian house on the island. According to Wordsworth, Mr English, the original owner, was the first man to move to the Lakes for the sake of the scenery. Brockhole Information Centre on the shores of Windermere is the National Trust's popular Lake District visitors' centre. There is an adventure playground, a shop, a restaurant, gardens and information archive. Educational activities are also well catered for.




Address: Lake District Visitor Centre, Brockhole, Windermere, Cumbria LA23 1LJ


telephone: 015394 46601


web site:




Wordsworth was sent to school in Hawkshead following the death of his mother. Wordsworth's first known poems were written to celebrate the bicentenary of Hawkshead Grammar School.

Hawkshead is right in the heart of the Lake District, beside Esthwaite Water, and within easy walking distance of Windermere and Coniston. Hawkshead is the most beautifully preserved town in the Lakes, with seventeenth century timber framed buildings and some impressive houses built for wealthy wool merchants. The Grammar School survives and is now a museum.

Hawkshead Grammar School has facilities for educational visits related to the Lakeland poets.

Opening Times: Please use contact details below.


telephone: 015394 36735

web site:




Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth on 7th April 1770. The Wordsworth's house is the grandest in the town, and came with his father's job, working for the powerful Lowther family. The house can be visited, and it is much as it was when Wordsworth lived there.

Opening Times: Opening hours at National Trust properties can be complex. Please use contact details below.

Address: Wordsworth House, Main Street, Cockermouth CA13 9RX


telephone: 01900 824805


web site:




There are wonderful walks around Coniston. At the head of the lake there is a view, looking towards the Old Man of Coniston, that Wordsworth loved. Most of the lake shore is now owned by the National Trust or the Forestry Commission and is open to the public. There are three islands, and one of these, Peel Island, is the model for Wild Cat Island in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. Coniston was the place where Donald Campbell was killed attempting to break the water speed record in his boat Bluebird in 1967.

Brantwood in Coniston was the home of John Ruskin, patron of the arts, painter, countryside planner, and admirer of women who were too young for him. The house is now a museum to his life and work.

Opening Times: For Brantwood please use contact details below.

Address: Brantwood, Coniston, Cumbria LA21 8AD


telephone: 015394 41396

fax: 015394 41263


web site:







Dove Cottage

Grasmere is where Wordsworth settled in 1799. He lived first at Dove Cottage, and after fulminating against the building of a new large house in the village, was forced to swallow his pride and move into the house, Allen Bank, with his growing family in 1808. It was at Allen Bank that the famous Lake Poet partnership between Wordsworth and Coleridge came to an end. After a period of wanderings, Coleridge had returned to the Lakes and stayed with the Wordsworths at Allen Bank for eighteen months. The final row is supposed to have involved Wordsworth calling Coleridge "a rotten drunkard" who had "rotted his entrails out of intemperance". In 1813 Wordsworth moved into his last house, Rydal Mount.

Both Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount can be visited. Dove Cottage runs an extensive programme of activities and tours aimed at families, schools and groups. For schools there are resource packs, workshops and guided tours. Much of this is geared towards the National Curriculum. Rydal Mount, within walking distance of Dove Cottage, along the shores of Grasmere, offers guided tours. For more details click on the links.

There are easy walks around Grasmere, but the town is well situated for more ambitious fell walks on Scafell, Helvellyn, and Langdale Pikes.




Keswick is an excellent central base from which to explore the Lakes. Getting to the secluded western lakes, such as Wastwater, Ennerdale and Buttermere is difficult from Windermere, but fairly easy from Keswick.

Keswick has the world's oldest, and first, pencil factory. There is a popular museum dedicated to pencils, which contains the worlds longest pencil. There is also the Fitz Park Museum dedicated to the Lake Land group of writers, which contains letters and manuscripts by Wordsworth, Robert Southey, John Ruskin, Thomas de Quincey and others. The original copy of the children's story The Three Bears by Robert Southey can be seen here.

Keswick has many easy walks, the most popular taking a course along the shores of Derwent Water to Friar's Crag. There are memorial stones to John Ruskin and Canon Rawnsley. Cat Bells at the western side of Derwent Water is an excellent choice for an easy fell walk, or for people who have not done much fell walking before. Beatrix Potter loved Cat Bells. Skiddaw near Keswick is also a relatively easy walk, inspite of being one of the highest peaks in the Lakes. The top of Skiddaw, incidentally is the place where the Southeys, the Coleridges and the Wordsworths had a bonfire party to celebrate victory at Waterloo in 1815.

Tennyson was staying with a friend on the shores of Bassenthwaite near Keswick when he was writing his King Arthur fantasy Idylls of the King. Views of Bassenthwaite inspired scenes where the Lady of the Lake takes back Excalibur from the injured Arthur.




Coleridge, before destroying his health with drink and drugs, was a man of action. He would go out onto the fells for days at a time, and was the first non-Lake District resident to climb Scafell. He would sometimes climb Helvellyn at night (not to be recommended), and did so on the night he made his way from Keswick to Grasmere to read the Wordsworths the latest part of his poem Christabell. William's sister Dorothy cooked him a chop as he read.

Ennerdale was one of Coleridge's favourite places. This is the most westerly of the lakes, and as in Coleridge's day it is hard to get to. It is the only lake without a road, and getting to it involves parking at Bowness Knot, which is near the lake, and walking.

Coleridge would not recognise Ennerdale today, as it has been widely planted with conifers by the Forestry Commission



The Valley of Buttermere has three lakes where the fells come straight down to the water's edge. It is a beautiful area, and the five mile walk around Buttermere takes about two hours.

The topography of the narrow valley meant it was easy to defend following the Norman invasion of 1066. The English made Buttermere their secret headquarters following the invasion, and staged a counter attack from here. The Normans were never able to capture the valley.

Buttermere was also well known in the nineteenth century as the home of the Beauty of Buttermere. The Beauty was a woman called Mary Robinson who was tricked into marriage by a confidence trickster, calling himself the Hon Augustus Hope. The police soon caught up with Hope and revealed him as a swindler who had many wives and fatherless children. The case was quite sensational, and thousands of people came to Buttermere to see the Beauty. Mary was daughter of the owner of the Royal Oak where she worked as a waitress. The story ended well for Mary, since the business the scandal generated for Buttermere and the Royal Oak was huge. Mary is mentioned, as the Maid of Buttermere, in Wordsworth's The Prelude.



Fell Walking and General Guides

The Lake District has many general guide books dedicated to it. If you are interested in walking the fells the best guides remain Wainwright's guides. Wainwright, from Blackburn, moved to the Lakes and spent thirteen years walking every fell. His handwritten guide books, originally published privately, are wonderfully individual, informative and entertaining.

Nobody can compete with Wainwright when it comes to giving advice on fell walking. I will leave a final word on general guidance to walking in the Lake District to him. Just remember that Wainwright knew the fells better than anyone, and if you are new to fell walking you must take care, and take advice from your guide books on safe routes. Also be aware that the weather can be unpredictable, and even on a nice day you should prepare for cold at the top of a high fell. That said I'll hand you over to Wainwright:

"Comfort is the thing. Wear shoes or sandals or go barefoot if these suit you better. Comfort includes keeping warm and dry but ways of achieving it differ greatly... You see hikers starting forth for a day on the hills burdened as though they were starting a six month expedition to Antarctica. They are grim and anguished when they ought to be carefree and smiling. The fells are not monsters but amiable giants. You can romp over them and pull the hairs on their chests and shout in their ears and treat them rough and they won't mind a bit. Go amongst them as you go amongst friends."




©2006 InfoBritain (updated 01/13)