guided walks, navigation training and landscape interpretation from John Nash (background image: "The Langdale Pikes")

The Lake District - a special landscape


Why do around 14 million people a year visit this small area? Why do people who have never considered themselves to be walkers, find themselves irresistibly drawn to head off into our countryside and to climb our fellsides? Why for centuries have poets, artists and authors found the area a source of inspiration? Ask most people, and they simply answer, "scenery". But it's the unique character of the scenery that's important.

First, there is the appeal of lakes and mountains, heightened when they occur in combination and display such a considerable diversity (reflecting a varied underlying geology). The Lake District landscape is relatively wild, but not forbidding. The mountains, known locally as fells, are the backdrop to a mosaic of well-kept farms, woods, villages and hamlets. Everywhere there is evidence of man's settlement and influence on the landscape from as far back as the Stone Age. Yet there is also a wide variety of wildlife habitat, some of which is quite rare. This great diversity adds very much to the area's attractiveness.

Then there is scale and accessibility. The mountains are so well-proportioned that they give the impression of being much higher than they really are. And though the Lake District is the birthplace of rock climbing (which developed here in the 1800s), with careful route choice there is no major summit that cannot be reached in a day simply by walking. Indeed, no part of the Lake District is more than 3 miles from a road, or requires an uphill climb of more than 3000 feet from road level to reach it. And the walker is hardly ever without good and ever-changing views.

There is also the confidence that comes from the availability of excellent maps and guidebooks, the existence of around 1900 miles of public path, and, from 2005, the designation of over 500 square miles as "Access Land" over which normally the public has a right to roam freely. Unfortunately, these opportunities can also result in over-confidence, keeping the area's many voluntary mountain rescue team's busy, although the number of deaths and injuries each year is tiny when set in the context of the area's many millions of visitors.

Geology and landform

Most of the Lake District's bedrock was laid down between 400 million and 500 million years ago. The rugged heart of the Lake District is made up of the hard Borrowdale Volcanic rocks, which, as the name suggests, were formery molten rocks thrust up through volcanic action. But the steep-sided but less knobbly northern fells are the oldest rocks, laid down in shallow seas around 500 million years ago, and altered by heat and pressure to form Skiddaw slates. In the lower, but often still rugged, hills in south of the area, most of the rocks are Silurian slates, derived from sediments laid down on the sea bed around 400 million years ago.

During the ice ages of the last million years, glaciers ground down the rocks to leave the present steep sided valleys radiating from the centre of the area like the spokes of a wheel, and scooped out the lake basins.

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Recent History

As the last ice age receded, only about 10,000 years ago, forests advanced, and in warmer periods may have reached almost to the fell tops. There is evidence of colonisation by Stone Age man by about 3000 BC. Not only was there the first forest clearance for farming around this time, but nodes of volcanic tuff workable into sharp stone axes were quarried high in the central fells. Stone axe heads from this area have been found in significant numbers in southern England, suggesting an important export trade. Stone circles such as those at Castlerigg and Swinside, are further evidence of a settled, ordered, community.

During the Bronze Age, a favourable climate led to farming communities developing in areas that have since returned to near wilderness, leaving just a few mounds and small piles of rubble as the only visible remains. The enormous ring of rubble at 2000 feet altitude, encircling the summit of Carrock Fell, is the remains of a major Iron Age hill fort. Later, the Romans built roads into the heart of the Lake District, protected by a series of forts, the best known of which is Hardknott overlooking Eskdale.

The centuries immediately after the collapse of the Roman Empire are known as the Dark Ages. Basically, we don't know much about them, although surviving Celtic and Old English place names suggests new Anglo Saxon settlers adding to rather than displacing earlier communities. But most names on the Lake District map - of mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, towns and villages - are of Norse origin. Settlers of Norwegian descent began to arrive in the area some time shortly after 900 AD and presumably found it much to their liking. Many Lake District farms have a "bank barn" set into the hillside to allow access to both floors from ground level. Banks barns are typical of Scandinavian farms and their presence here is therefore assumed to be part of our Norse legacy. And some of the local dialect words certainly are.

A few paragraphs cannot do justice to the last thousand years of Lake District history, so here are just a few of the more significant aspects.

During the 1100s, the Lake District became firmly established as part of England. This was the period when enormous estates, owned by monasteries, were developed. Large flocks of sheep were kept and wool and woollen cloth became a major export industry. Some of the drystone walls (i.e. without mortar), so characteristic of the present day landscape, were estate boundary walls, dating from that time. It was also the continuous grazing of the fell pastures by large flocks of sheep that prevented them from reverting to woodland, resulting in the present open fell landscape.

In the 1500s, mining became an important industry - for copper, lead, iron and graphite - which continued into the last century. Many mining remains can be seen today, often in very remote locations. Ore smelting meant a big demand for wood for charcoal, leading both to further loss of some woodlands, but also more sustainable management of others. Woodland also supported manufacturing industry - for such items as, bobbins, baskets and broom handles - well into the last century (until the arrival of cheap plastics).

During the 1600s and 1700s farmhouses and barns were rebuilt in stone. Rebuilding dates were commonly boldly inscribed on the outside of the buildings (often on door lintels). Many such inscriptions can still be seen.

The trend towards slate-roofed stone buildings resulted in a substantial quarrying industry. Several slate quarries are still worked, though today largely for cut stone for head offices and overseas palaces rather than domestic roofing slate.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850), perhaps England's best-known poet, was a native of the Lake District, and gained much of his inspiration from its landscape and people. His house at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, is a major tourist attraction.

During the 1800s, a succession of poets and artists were enthusiastic visitors to the area, putting it on the tourist map. But it was the mid-century development of railways that led to the development of a substantial tourism industry, an industry that in time became the area's main source of employment. Today though, most visitors arrive by car.

The combination of large numbers of people considering the Lake District to be a very beautiful area and the many and varied threats to the landscape (and especially reservoir construction and commercial forestry) led to demands for special protection, which culminated in 1951 in it's designation as a national park.

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The combination of wild fells, lakes, woods and farms and the varying underlying geology has resulted in a diverse wildlife. Relics of the last Ice Age still exist - arctic and alpine plants on the highest fell tops, rare fish such as arctic charr, schelly and vendace in the lakes. Native red squirrels, lost from most of England, are a relatively common sight, especially in the north of the area. Thirty years ago, the area was Europe's last stronghold of the peregrine falcon, though as a result of better conservation policies it has since spread or been reintroduced to many other areas. Golden Eagles and Ospreys, once extinct in the area, have also bred again in recent years.

Plants which predate man's clearance of the mountain woods survive in gills (ravines) and on ledges where sheep cannot reach them. Different densities of grazing animals in different areas have resulted in very different "man-made" landscapes even on uncultivated fellsides - some dominated by heather and bilberry, some by coarse grasses and, on the lower slopes, bracken. Sphagnum moss thrives on the extensive areas of acid and waterlogged soil, where insect-eating plants such as butterwort and sundew are also common.

Although almost none of the area's original woodland survives, there are many woods described as "ancient semi-natural". These tend to be dominated by sessile oak, but birch, ash and rowan are also very common.

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Conserving the Lake District's special qualities

It might be thought that conserving the Lake District while providing for its enjoyment by millions of people and meeting the needs of its 40,000 or so residents is an impossible task, but the record so far is largely to the contrary. Despite the occasional blot on the landscape, it remains superbly beautiful after nearly two centuries as a major tourist destination. Since national park designation in 1951 the resident population has remained stable at around 40,000 and unemployment has remained low. And since long before national park designation, indeed even as far back as the nineteenth century, developments that threatened to harm the Lake District often resulted in national controversy. Any that went ahead were generally modified so as to have a much-reduced impact. Without this constant vigilance and lobbying by individuals and conservation organisations (such as the Friends of the Lake District) there would probably be no national park and the Lake District would have fallen prey to new reservoirs and high voltage powerlines, retirement bungalows by the thousand and spruce trees by the million. National Park status has also meant more resources to deal with the impact of the millions of visitors, from repairing heavily eroded fellside paths to educating visitors about how to use the countryside responsibly.

In recent decades, people have also become much more conscious of less sudden changes, for example, the neglect and gradual loss of native woodlands, and, on the fells, the loss of plant diversity as a result of a large increase in sheep numbers. Assisted by changes in Government policies, great efforts have been made locally to reverse such trends, with growing success.

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The future

Some issues never seem to go away - for example how to cope with too many people visiting at the same time, stretching the capacity of everything from roads to pubs to sewage works; and how to house local people in the face of unaffordable house prices arising from the huge demand for holiday and retirement homes. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect final solutions to such problems, but action will continue to be taken to try and ease them. The future of the farmed landscape will also continue to be very much a live issue, especially in the light of recent and expected future changes in European Union agricultural policies. But if global warming is not tackled huge changes will follow and almost certainly for the worse, not just to the Lake District's landscape and wildlife but also in the lives of its residents and visitors. In that respect the Lake District is but a microcosm of the planet. The future of our environment, at whatever scale, depends on how much we all cherish and look after it.

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