Sunday, 2 May 2010

cumbria and the lake district

I am about to travel to my home town in England, where I will spend the summer. I shall continue to post regularly, although there is likely to be some change of emphasis and subject matter. In particular, look out for Comparative Advantage, an assessment of potential rivalry between India and China, and On Democracy, the subject of which should be obvious; both have been started and when finished are likely to be quite long. The remaining posts based on my recent visit to Beijing will appear towards the end of this week. Those of you who enjoy my posts about Hong Kong should not be disappointed: while I'm away, I plan to mine my huge collection of Hong Kong photographs to present a few photo essays about the territory.

Meanwhile, I offer you an essay about my home county, so that you will know more about where I come from (if interested). It was written originally for the blog of a strongly Anglophile American lady and was (I assume) for a mainly American audience.

I was born in the small market town of Penrith, in the northern English county of Cumberland, in 1946 (this is the same Cumberland that gave its name, via that of the notorious butcher of Culloden, to the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains). Together with Westmorland, the Furness district of Lancashire and a small part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, Cumberland became part of the larger administrative unit of Cumbria in 1974.

Penrith lies in the valley of the River Eden, which separates the Pennines (the ‘backbone of England’) from the Cumbrian Mountains, a region better known as the Lake District, Lakeland or just simply ‘the Lakes’ and designated a national park in 1951. The rocks that form the main mountain mass are more than 400 million years old, but the contemporary landscape is of much more recent origin. The main valleys are distinctively U-shaped in cross-section, indicating that the principal shaping agent has been glaciation (during the last Ice Age), while so-called hanging valleys mark the location of small tributary glaciers. These have steep, rocky sides and often contain tiny lakes, while the long, narrow lakes in the main valleys are the result of glacial over-deepening. Occasionally, one lake has become two (e.g., Buttermere and Crummock Water), divided by the gradual accumulation of alluvial deposits from streams running off the surrounding hillsides. And smooth, ice-planed rock outcrops can be seen everywhere.

The Lake District bears the scars of human impact going back millennia. The natural vegetation is oak and birch woodland, but apart from relict patches in some of the valleys, all the trees are long gone, cut down during the Stone Age by people using axes that were fashioned from a particularly hard rock that is found on the slopes of Pike o’ Stickle in Langdale and Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England. Remains of tree trunks can still be seen preserved in some of the upland peat bogs, while evidence of Stone, Bronze and Iron Age activity, such as stone circles and small earthworks, is common on some of the lower hills.

The Romans left their indelible mark on these mountains: the ruins of a second-century fort on the Eskdale side of Hardknott Pass guard terrain so rugged that a modern road was not built over the pass until the Second World War, and then only to provide tanks with field practice before being shipped off to see real action elsewhere. Parts of the old Roman road can still be seen, and it must be one of the very few examples of a Roman road that is not straight. Further east, the road runs over a mountain that today bears the name High Street. This road is also testament to how different the district must have looked 2,000 years ago, because there are now much easier ways to reach the Roman port of Ravenglass, which is one terminus of a popular narrow-gauge railway that runs up Eskdale and is known locally as La’al Ratty. The Ratty has its own historical credentials: it was built to transport iron ore from mines in the valley to feed the long defunct iron and steel industry of West Cumberland. It now transports only tourists.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the indigenous Celts formed the independent kingdom of Rheged, but their influence on modern toponymy has been relatively slight. Although most rivers have names derived from Cumbric, the Brythonic language spoken in the region at this time, few place names are of Brythonic origin; the main examples are Penrith and Carlisle (the county town). The names of a few mountains, notably Blencathra, Helvellyn and Glaramara, also derive from Cumbric, which was still spoken in Cumbria as late as the eleventh century.

Other peoples began to settle in the area in the period between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans in the eleventh century. Settlers of Norse origin were first, arriving by sea from bases already established in Ireland and the Isle of Man. Their influence can be seen in settlement names such as Seathwaite, Stonethwaite and Watendlath in Borrowdale, and in the generic names of many topographic features: a tarn is a small lake; beck is the local word for a stream; a gill (mistakenly altered to ghyll by Victorian antiquarians) is a gully or ravine; fell is the local word for a mountain (as in Bowfell, Scafell and the catch-all phrase ‘the fells’); a pike is a peak (as in Dollywaggon Pike, the Langdale Pikes, Fleetwith Pike); and a force is a waterfall (Aira Force, popular with visitors, is a spectacular sight when the beck is in spate).

The Danes arrived later, travelling overland from the kingdom of Northumbria in northeast England. They appear to have settled mainly in the Eden valley and on the northern plain. There is a large cluster of their villages, with names like Langwathby, Lazonby, Glassonby and Melmerby, to the east of Penrith.

The Saxons, speaking a language now referred to by scholars as Old English, also moved into Cumbria, although the distribution of place names suggests that they came later than the Norse settlers. For example, there are fewer Saxon villages in the Penrith area, although Skelton, Stainton and Askham rival the Norse villages in size. And the suffix –mere, which is seen in the name of several lakes, is also of Germanic origin, while one of the main towns in the Lake District, Keswick, has a name that means ‘cheese farm’ in Old English, so the evidence from place names suggests an admixture of cultures during this period.

During the Middle Ages, Cistercian monasteries such as Furness Abbey grazed sheep on the fells, which prevented regeneration of the natural vegetation. They thus accumulated vast wealth from the mediaeval wool trade. This wealth was eventually confiscated by a greedy king, Henry VIII, in the sixteenth century.

Later in the same century, miners were brought in from Germany to gain access to extensive mineral deposits that occurred throughout the district, there being no local expertise at the time. Nowadays, it is quite a sobering experience to stand in an underground cavern where once there had been copper, lead or zinc ore, knowing that the miners who dug this ore had only candles for illumination and would never have been able to see the vast scale of their excavations. However, it should be noted that these abandoned mines are extremely dangerous places that should not be entered unless you’re absolutely certain you know what you’re doing. The last three mines to operate here closed during the second half of the twentieth century.

Railway mania reached the Lake District in the mid-nineteenth century. The branch line to Windermere, on the shores of the lake of the same name, was built mainly to serve tourists and is still in existence, but the line to Coniston was built to service the copper mines and slate quarries in the area, only later developing its tourist traffic. It closed in 1962. However, the biggest line here was the CK&PR (Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith Railway), which was built originally to haul coke from northeast England for the iron and steel industry in West Cumberland but in its heyday also carried the Lakes Express from London Euston as part of its passenger traffic. It featured a series of testing gradients between Penrith and Keswick, reaching a height of 886 feet above sea level at Troutbeck. Sadly, the increase in private car ownership proved fatal to its continued use. The notorious Beeching Report of 1963 recommended closure, and the line west of Keswick was closed in 1966. The Penrith–Keswick section was closed in 1972, and many of the bridges were demolished, but had this section remained open, there is little doubt that it would now be a major tourist attraction, with grand views of Blencathra to the north and the Helvellyn range to the south.

During the late nineteenth century, a new type of exploitation appeared with the surreptitious acquisition of land around Thirlmere by Manchester Corporation, which then proceeded to dam the lake to create a reservoir to supply water to the city. Manchester did it again in the twentieth century, damming Haweswater to increase its size and drowning the village of Mardale in the process. Only a vigorous protest campaign led by famous QC Norman Birkett prevented a similar fate befalling Ullswater, one of the most popular lakes with tourists and one of only three lakes on which steamers run.

It was also in the late nineteenth century that the world’s first ever rock climb was accomplished: an ascent of Napes Needle, a 70-foot monolith on the side of Great Gable. This activity remains extremely popular, so much so that on a rare sunny summer Sunday, despite the 90-minute uphill slog to get there, you might have to queue for up to six hours to climb The Crack (very severe) on Gimmer Crag in Langdale. This classic of the 1920s is one of my personal favourites: I’ve climbed it several times, but only ever on a weekday!

Nowadays, the local economy is heavily reliant on tourism: during the summer, the total population of the county doubles. Most come to view the picturesque scenery, but a complaint I’ve heard often concerns the rain. But what do people expect? The Lake District is the wettest part of England, and the weather is a direct result of the mountainous terrain. In fact, for locals like myself, the Lake District is at its most beautiful in the rain, although I’m bound to add that rain does put the kibosh on any rock-climbing plans.

However, the national park authorities did miss a golden opportunity to rid the fells of sheep once and for all following the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. Unfortunately, “sheep farming remains important…for preserving the landscape which visitors want to see” (Wikipedia). To which I can only reply: “Bollocks! The fells have been severely overgrazed for centuries, and I’m not the only one who would like to have seen the natural vegetation return.” Even though that was never going to happen in my lifetime. But the Lake District as a series of pretty, chocolate-box landscapes is in my opinion a very shallow perception; there is much to the Lakes that will repay a more intimate acquaintance.

Finally, I couldn’t close this brief description of my native county without a nod towards its greatest food delicacy, the Cumberland sausage. Many years ago, I read an article in Reader’s Digest extolling the virtues of German and Italian sausages. It ended with a dismissive (but totally justified) put-down of the British banger; however, there was no mention of Cumberland sausages, which are made in a single length and then cut to order. Even with the cornucopia of food delights available in Hong Kong I miss them, and they are the first thing my wife, who is Chinese, expects to eat when she’s over in the UK. There is only one rule to bear in mind with Cumberland sausage: never buy it from a supermarket. Every local butcher has his own recipe, so there is some variation in flavour, but my personal recommendation is Gordon Clark’s in Great Dockray, the central marketplace in Penrith. Absolutely delicious grilled, with mashed potato and mushroom gravy.


  1. Sorry, off topic.
    I could not email you directly, so I must ask you here.
    Could you do a piece on China, economy,environment, resources, etc.
    I would love to hear your view on this.

  2. Considering I never once stayed conscious in an English history lesson, I must say, I'm surprised I read through this. It was absolutely fascinating though.

    I've been harbouring plans to move near Penrith for a while now, (I'm sick of the South-West, and would like somewhere a little more natural, and rainy, which I'm under the assumption it will be!)though I shamefully haven't looked into it's history beyond the last twenty years.

    I'd love to try the sausages, were I not a life-long vegetarian. Perhaps I'm yet to be converted.

    Thank you for this. It was ironically well-timed for me, and fantastically engaging.

    I hope you enjoy your time back home! x


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