The English Lakes: A History

The Lake District has been fought over and revelled in. Jonathan Bate enjoys a tale of a little paradise

April 29, 2010

When Daniel Defoe toured the whole island of Great Britain in the 1720s, he passed rapidly through the Lake District. The hills of Westmorland and Cumberland were, he argued, "all barren and wild, of no use or advantage either to man or beast".

Just after the Second World War, a middle-aged housewife from Barrow-in-Furness called Nella Last took a day trip to Windermere and was amazed at the number of people from the great industrial towns and cities of South Lancashire who had done the same. "My deep love of the Lakes never makes me want to shut out trippers," she wrote in her diary, "come and share it - hold up your arms to the everlasting hills and draw their peace and beauty and healing calm into your tired minds." Ian Thompson's handsomely illustrated The English Lakes: A History tells the story of the journey from Defoe's disgust to Last's rapture.

The process began as a domestication of the European Grand Tour of the 18th-century nobility and gentry. The breakthrough came when the poet and Cambridge academic Thomas Gray felt a shiver of slightly fearful delight on penetrating Borrowdale. He wrote up his Lake District tour in the 1760s, at just the time when the "sublime" was becoming a fashionable topic in aesthetic theory. Before long, there was a flood of guidebooks, the most successful being Thomas West's 1778 A Guide to the Lakes, in Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancashire.

Then along came William Gilpin with his theory of the "picturesque". The idea was to turn a landscape into a work of art. Gilpin told you the location of all the "stations" - we now call them "viewpoints" - where the lakes and mountains were composed to best advantage. We take a photograph or buy a postcard. Gilpin's readers equipped themselves with the "Claude glass" - a small mirror with filters to tint the light - enabling one to frame the landscape and make it look like a painting by Claude Lorrain. For this to work, you had to stand with your back to the view.

William Wordsworth is at the centre of the story because he wrote with incomparable intensity and feeling about dwelling among the lakes and fells, rather than merely visiting them as a tourist. His own Guide to the Lakes of 1810 is in a similar vein to the critique of "picturesque" attitudes in his poetry. It is a pioneering discourse on sustainability, which gives particular attention to the ecological damage wrought by dense conifer plantations.

Wordsworth described the Lake District as "a sort of national property" and there is a direct line of descent from his work to one of the founders of the National Trust, Canon Rawnsley, and ultimately to the 1945 Labour government's designation of the Lake District as a National Park. We often think of the National Trust as an organisation devoted primarily to the preservation of the great houses that once belonged to the families of the kind of people who went on Grand Tours. But that was a 1930s departure from the original aims of the trust, which were closely bound to open spaces and the preservation of aesthetically pleasing landscapes. Indeed, one of the primary impulses that led to the formation of the trust was the news that the field by Ullswater where Wordsworth had seen the daffodils bobbing in the breeze was about to be sold off for a development of holiday villas. It was preserved for the nation, along with a number of other sites with special Wordsworthian associations.

The story gets really interesting when different needs start competing with each other. Having extolled the beauty and solitariness of the lakes, Wordsworth opposed the extension of the railway to Low Wood at the head of Windermere. Was that in order to preserve the landscape? Or because he didn't want a smelly mass of factory workers from Manchester taking day trips into his own backyard?

And then there was the question of water supply. Just up the road from Wordsworth's Grasmere was the beautiful lake of Wythburn. Manchester needed water, so in 1879 a bill was passed ordering the transformation of Wythburn and its surroundings into the giant Thirlmere reservoir. The (unsuccessful) campaign against this development was one of the earliest examples of an organised environmental protest movement, as is shown in Harriet Ritvo's excellent 2009 study, The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism, which shows how this whole subject can be studied at a more rigorous level than that of Thompson.

The history of changing attitudes to the Lake District is a path almost as well trodden by scholars as the (now severely eroded) route up Catbells above Derwentwater. Still, Thompson does a very effective job in putting the story across to general readers, with well-chosen anecdotes and embracing most of the key players from John Ruskin and the Arnold family to Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome. We hear about the reckless chaps who pioneered rock climbing and the solidarity of the ramblers whose mass trespasses opened the fells to ordinary people, affirming the belief that this little paradise really is the property of us all, whatever the problems of environmental management that brings.

The English Lakes: A History

By Ian Thompson

Bloomsbury, 352pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780747598381

Published 1 April 2010

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