21 May 2021
Grasmere from the Rydal Road, 1786, by Francis Towne
The varied geology of the Lake District forms England’s highest mountains and its deepest lakes. The oldest rocks in the area are the Skiddaw Group, in the north of the national park, which were formed about 500 million years ago. Humans first settled in the area around 12,000 years ago, and the plentiful natural resources – minerals, timber, and of course water – supported human development down the ages. Traces survive from most periods of settlement, from the stone circles of the late Neolithic/early Bronze age, to the place names and words brought by Norse settlers in the 10th century AD, such as ‘dale’ (valley) and ‘fell’ (hill or mountain).
"What astonishes me more than any thing is the tone, the coloring [sic], the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weed; or, if I may say so, the intellect, the countenance of such places. The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this... must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever…”
- John Keats, on seeing the waterfall at Ambleside
The works of writers like the Wordsworths and artists like Turner helped to popularise the Lakes as a fashionable place to visit as time went by. This, coupled with innovations such as steam power and the advent of the railways, helped to develop the Lakes into destination for leisure. The steam yacht Gondola, built by the Furness Railway Company, was launched on Coniston Water in 1859, as a pleasurable way for tourists arriving by rail to travel around the lake and enjoy the picturesque views. The boat was later the inspiration for Captain Flint’s houseboat in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. After falling into disrepair, the boat was restored in the 1970s and still offers cruises around Coniston Water today.
In more recent decades, the Lakes have seen further innovations. It was here that several of Donald Campbell’s seven world water speed records took place in the Bluebird K7, including his eighth attempt which ended in tragedy on Coniston Water in January 1967.
The SY Gondola on Coniston Water
“Yet more and more people are turning to the hills; they find something in these wild places that can be found nowhere else. It may be solace for some, satisfaction for others: the joy of exercising muscles that modern ways of living have cramped, perhaps; or a balm for jangled nerves in the solitude and silence of the peaks; or escape from the clamour and tumult of everyday existence.”
- Alfred Wainwright, Scafell Pike 24, Southern Fells
Beatrix Potter was famously another writer who was greatly inspired by the Lakes, but she was also heavily involved in the preservation of the landscapes and of traditional farming methods, including breeding programmes for native Herdwick sheep. Potter immortalised British wildlife in characters like Squirrel Nutkin and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. Sadly, many of these animals are becoming increasingly rare, with the hedgehog being recently classified as vulnerable to extinction. The Lake District is one of the few remaining places in England to see species such as the red squirrel. It is also home to the vendace, the rarest freshwater fish in the UK, which can only be found in Bassenthwaite Lake and Derwent Water.
Herdwick Sheep at Tilberthwaite
Higher up, the mountains and valleys are home to approximately 90 pairs of breeding peregrine falcons, and Falcon Crag near Derwent Water is an especially good place to see them. Up until a few years ago, a golden eagle pair had made their home in Haweswater, but there have been no sightings in recent years, although it is hoped that more of these magnificent birds will come back to the Lakes in the future.
“At the moment the Lake District isn’t particularly attractive to golden eagles as there is a shortage of suitable habitat and food. By restoring a range of natural habitats at Haweswater, we hope this will lead to an increase in wildlife including birds and small mammals, which would provide a sustainable food source for golden eagles.” — Lee Schofield, Senior Site Manager for RSPB Haweswater
The Lake District National Park was formed in 1951, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2017. Despite these special designations, it is a constant job to monitor and maintain the incredible biodiversity which exists in the Lakes. For example, there are ongoing projects to restore peatland landscapes, vitally important habitats which help control flooding, encourage wildlife, filter water and capture carbon. Calls for a Nature Recovery Network would mean the creation of connected spaces and 'green corridors’ to encourage wildlife to thrive.
For those planning to travel to the Lake District, there is much to look forward to especially as more attractions open up. Dove Cottage in Grasmere, home to the Wordsworths from 1799 to 1808, has reopened this week with a brand-new development to examine the life and work of William Wordsworth and his circle of other ‘Lake Poets’. For those who prefer to engage in some ‘armchair travel’, The Cumbria Wildlife Trust has a number of live webcams set up where you can take a look at ospreys, badgers and seals – more details can be found here.
Grasmere from the Rydal Road, 1786, by Francis Towne by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash
SY Gondola on Coniston Water © John Hodgson