Lakes District National Park

The Lake District is one of England's very few mountainous regions. In fact, all the land in England that is higher than 3000 feet lies within the Lake District National Park.

 

Many of the geographical features in the Lake District are the result of periods of glaciation, the most recent of which ended 15 000 years ago. Retreating glaciers carved out the huge, wide 'U-shaped' valleys, impressive lakes and deep corries which characterise this landscape.


It was during Roman Times that farming became established as an industry, with sheep soon becoming the most profitable commodity. There are several breeds associated with the Lake District, of which the best-known is the tough Herdwick, built to withstand harsh weather conditions. The Herdwick sheep, which are born black and become white, were introduced by early Norsemen settlers, and Scandinavian place names such as fjell (mountain), thwaite (clearing) and keld (spring) can be found throughout the Lake District. Sheep farming remains crucial to the area today, not just in terms of the economy but also for the role it plays in maintaining the kind of landscape tourists pay to come and see; a landscape synonymous with dry stone walls and rough-grazed slopes.

During the Middle Ages these inaccessible lakes and mountains were home to poor rural communities who relied on wool, crops and leather for their livelihoods, until mining and quarrying led to a new-found prosperity in the mid 16th century. There is evidence of mining in the Lake District as far back as the 12th century, and some believe that the industry dates all the way back to Roman Times, but it was not until the 16th century that mining superseded farming as the dominant industry.

 

The mining of coal dates back to the 13th century when the monks of St Bees Abbey supervised the opening of coal mines at Arrowthwaite, and the Lake District's long association with coal mining only ended when Haig Pit, Cumbria's last deep coal mine, closed in 1986. Slate continues to be mined today at the top of Honister Pass, while Graphite, another of the materials with which the Lake District became heavily associated, is the focus of the Cumberland Pencil Museum which celebrates the worldwide influence of the Keswick Pencil Industry, founded more than 350 years ago.

With mining and industrialisation came railways. The Kendal and Windermere Railway was the first to penetrate this hitherto inaccessible region, reaching Kendal in 1846 and Windermere in 1847. The railways were soon supplemented by steamer boats on all the major lakes, such as UllswaterWindermereConiston Water and Derwent Water. Although the railways and steamer boats were built with traditional industry in mind they inadvertently encouraged the expansion of another industry, one that had been quietly taking root since the first visitors arrived in the 17th century and is now easily the biggest source of income for the Lake District: tourism. Today, Windermere Lake Steamers are the UK's second most popular charging tourist attraction.

Early visitors were struck by the imposing, almost threatening quality of the landscape. The most famous of these pioneering travellers was a woman, Celia Fiennes, who in 1698 rode on horseback through Kendal and over Kirkstone Pass into Patterdale. She described it in terms both admiring and forbidding. 'As I walked down at this place I was walled on both sides by those inaccessible high rocky barren hills which hang over one's head in some places and appear very terrible.' Daniel Defoe, who visited in the early 18th century, called it 'the wildest, most barren and frightful of any (place) that I have passed over in England, or even Wales.'

The era of modern tourism probably began some years later in 1778 when Father Thomas West produced the Lake District's very first tourist handbook, 'A Guide to the Lakes'. He listed what he called 'stations', which were viewpoints where tourists could enjoy the best views of the landscape and apply the aesthetic values of their time. Buildings were sometimes erected to help this process and the remains of Claife Station, below Claife Heights on the western shore of Windermere, can still be visited today.

By the end of the 19th century, partly due to wars in continental Europe and partly due to the attention given to the region by literary figures such as William WordsworthSamuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Gray, the Lake District was becoming hugely popular with travellers. In 1810 Wordsworth published his 'Guide to the Lakes', which went into its 5th edition in 1835.

In the 1950s Alfred Wainwright published the famous 'Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells' which are still used by many today and are currently being revised. The Pictorial Guide is a guidebook in the modern style, with detailed information on 214 peaks across the region and carefully hand-drawn maps and panoramas.

 

This, coupled with the dawn of the motor car, meant that by the 1960s many parts of the Lake District had already become seriously congested as the roads proved far too narrow to cope with the influx of tourist traffic. By the end of the 20th century the Lake District had become one of Britain's best-loved tourist destinations, welcoming somewhere in the region of fourteen million visitors every year!

The Lake District's National Park status, bestowed in 1951, goes some way towards protecting the landscape from excessive commercial and industrial exploitation.