The Lake District - Vignettes and Views

April 15th, 2009 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in England, The Lake District, Wild places 1 Comment »


The Lake District lies in Northwest England, in the county of Cumbria. It is my favourite holiday getaway in all of England, a place we have visited again and again, and which I know we will continue to visit. It is difficult to describe the beauty and the attraction of the area without recourse to cliché - the rugged grandeur of the fells and bare desolation of the moors contrast with the gentle green of wooded valleys and the deep blue serenity of the lakes. Streams and waterfalls tumble down rocky gullies, to empty into the lakes, or into rivers that wind softly across flat valley floors. Within an area that is only 33 miles across and 40 miles long, lie England’s tallest mountains and deepest lakes.

A rough map of the Lake District, not to scaleThe Lake District landscape that we see today is mainly the result of glaciation. The centre of the region is Scafell, a volcanic dome shaped before the last Ice Age, when glaciers flowed off its sides to form their U-shaped valleys. As the glaciers melted, terminal moraines of sediment dammed the meltwater, so that the valleys and their lakes now radiate in all directions from the central core of Scafell. The tallest summit is Scafell Pike (3,210ft) - this is England’s highest mountain. Other peaks are Scafell (3,162 ft.) and Helvellyn (3,118 ft.) To the north softer rocks give more rounded hills like Skiddaw (3,054 ft.) and Blencathra (2,847 ft.) In the south, lower hills surround the lakes of Windermere, Esthwaite Water and Coniston Water. Windermere, at 10.5 miles long, is England’s longest lake, and Wast Water, at 243 feet, its deepest lake.

Human activities have also shaped the region. Before New Stone Age settlers moved into the area, the higher ground was covered with pine and birch, while the valleys were thick with oak and alder. The Stone Age peoples began to clear the hills of forests, a process which was continued by the Romans. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the region was invaded by the Norse Vikings, who cleared most of the forest for farmland. The Norsemen left their mark on the local dialect: here a mountain is a ‘fell’, a waterfall is a ‘force’, streams are ‘becks’ and the suffix ‘-thwaite’ means a clearing.

The abbeys of Furness and Byland exploited the area for sheep farming - this continued the deforestation and cropped the hills of their wild flowers. Charcoal making and the extraction of copper and graphite further changed the vegetation and the shape of the land. These activities became uneconomic after the 1870s and labour was diverted into slate and stone quarries.

In 1951, 866 sq. mi. of the Lake District was designated England’s largest national park. The Forestry Commission has planted conifers over large areas, though leaving the central fell region in its deforested state with some deciduous woodland. Traditional forms of agriculture such as cattle and sheep rearing have been intensified.  Lake Thirlmere is used as a reservoir, meeting the increased demand for water by industrial northwest England.

The Lake District was also the home of William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850). Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey were together known as the Lake Poets. Thomas de Quincey, critic and essayist and remembered mainly for his Confessions of an Opium Eater, was also a resident of the District.  The area also attracted literary immigrants including the art critic and social philosopher John Ruskin, and children’s writers Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter.

I am not quite sure how best to describe a holiday among the Lakes. The experiences are so varied that it is hard to put them under any one category.

The summit of Cat BellsTake, for example, our first experience of fellwalking, to the summit of Cat Bells. We were quite unprepared for the walk, and I, for one, had no idea of what the ascent involved. We started up the path that led to the summit. It seemed an easy enough walk at first, the path rising gently up the mountainside. A little further on the path turned sharply, becoming significantly steeper and more difficult; we decided to explore just a little bit more, quite sure that we would turn back in a few minutes. Instead, we found ourselves climbing higher and higher; somewhere along the way, we had fallen under the spell of the fells and so, instead of wishing to turn back, we found ourselves determined to walk to the summit. Atul bounded ahead, the girls following more sedately. I brought up the rear - huffing and puffing and cursing my lack of physical fitness. Walkers who had already made the ascent and were now on their way down were full of encouragement - ‘it gets easier further on’, ‘this is the hardest bit’, ‘you’re almost there’, ‘oh, you can do it’, and so on. And so we persevered.

The higher we climbed the more rugged became the land. Behind us lay the deep blue of Derwent Water; above us rose the bare and barren fell. A grey sheep grazed placidly on the fellside, pausing in its meal to stare at our clumsy scramble up the path. Some forty minutes later, we saw the summit of Cat Bells straight ahead of us. The path had turned again, and flattened into a broad and gentle walk. A final scramble over bare rock brought us to the summit - as we stood there, at the top of our first fell, the tiredness fell away. Gently rolling farmland fell away on three sides, while on the fourth lay the serene Derwent Water. In the distance rose other peaks, purple against the blue sky. We truly felt on top of the world.

The path beyond the summit - Cat BellsCat Bells
From the summit of Catbells, the path down.

And then there was the drive through Hardknott Pass, which, at a gradient of 1:3, is Britain’s steepest road. I did not like the idea of such a steep ascent in our ancient car, but Atul was confident the car would make it, and it did, with mild protests.

At Hardknott Pass
At Hardknott Pass

It had been raining the previous night, and the sky was still overcast. The fells were still covered with last year’s bracken, dead and brown, but which, rain-drenched, now shone rust-red against moss and purple heather. I marvelled at the harmony of colours, subtle, vibrant, perfect together. The bright green of the farms below seemed loud and overdone against the muted glory of the fells.

The remains of the Roman fort, Hardknott Pass

On the other side of Hardknott Pass lie the remains of a Roman fort. The fort was built sometime in the first or second century AD. It was manned by five hundred infantry, to keep the hostile tribes of the area at bay. It was a small fort; the outlines of it walls and buildings can be clearly seen today. It must have been a hard posting for the troops stationed there, on the outskirts of the Empire, in a cold, damp and hostile land, ringed by brooding peaks and barren moors.

Towards the north of the Lake District, lies the massive bulk of Skiddaw. We decided to drive through the valleys that circle it. On that drive came one of the high points of our holiday - for on the moor between Mosedale and Mungrisdale, we came across a small herd of wild fell ponies.

Fell ponies on the way from Mosedale to Mungrisdale

I had read about fell ponies, but knowing how rare they had become, I had not expected to see any. The ponies were a dark tan, almost black, small and shaggy, and very pretty. The herd included at least one foal, so little that it was almost completely hidden among the stalks of dry bracken.

An important and, for me, mandatory part of every visit to the Lakes is a visit to the stone circle at Castlerigg, above the town of Keswick.

Castlerigg stone circle
The Castlerigg stone circle. This picture was taken nine years ago, late one summer afternoon

This is perhaps the most beautiful Megalithic site in Britain. The circle, a hundred feet in diameter and made up of thirty-eight chunks of Borrowdale volcanic rock, stands upon a quiet moor, ringed by brooding peaks and rugged mountains. Another ten blocks of stone form the unusually shaped, rectangular sanctuary within the circle. The stones were set here sometime between 2500 and 1500 BC. Those interested in the history and folklore of stone circles have conjectured intensely about their purpose. Why did their makers create these circles? Why did they set them exactly where they did? Some scholars say that such circles mark the site of markets and gathering points, some say that they are temples; some suggest that they were massive computers used for calculating the movement of the sun and stars.

Castlerigg stone circleAs I stand at the centre of the Castlerigg circle, I watch the sun set across moor and fell. I realise that the stones at Castlerigg reflect their immediate landscape, and that I am standing inside not one, but two stone circles: that formed by the stones set upon the moor four thousand years ago by Bronze Age man, and that formed by the great hulks of stone, the purple peaks and desolate moors of Blencathra, Clough Head, Helvellyn, Cat Bells, Grassmoor, Grisedale Pike, Skiddaw, formed millions of years ago by the action of volcanoes and glaciers, which ring the smaller circle of stones upon the moor. The builders of Castlerigg, whoever they were, must have been people who understood the mysteries of this earth, who honoured their world and loved it.

Of all the Lakes, Ullswater is the darkest, and therefore, to me, the most attractive.It winds deep and mysterious for seven and a half miles between sheer fells and high, wild moors.

Rough sketch of Ullswater, not to scale
Sketch of Ullswater, not to scale

At the northern end of the lake lies the settlement of Pooley Bridge, against a backdrop of green meadows and gentle limestone hills. In the middle reaches of the lake, the fells rise steeply from the water’s edge, massive and overwhelming. On the western side of the lake lies the shore where Wordsworth saw his daffodils - ‘Beside the lake, beneath the trees, / Fluttering and dancing in the breeze’. And towards its southern end looms the dark and majestic Helvellyn, a fitting backdrop to the brooding beauty of Ullswater.

Helvellyn at twilight, from the shores of Thirlmere
Helvellyn at twilight, from the shores of Thirlmere

To me, Helvellyn is the most fascinating of all the peaks in the Lake District. Though it is not the highest, it seems to me to be the most forbidding, the most hostile. It rises wild and cruel between the lakes, with Ullswater to its west, Thirlmere to its east. We wanted a clear view of the summit, and a view if possible, of the infamous Striding Edge, the ridge that leads up to the summit and which is considered one of the toughest fell walks in the Lake District. So, on our last evening amidst the Lakes, we drove to Thirlmere, a long, placid lake that is used as a reservoir; it is fringed with woods, and lies at the foot of Helvellyn, close to the pretty village of Grasmere. The sun was setting, and the fells glowed red in its light, but Helvellyn remained dark and brooding. From the far side of Thirlmere, through the trees that grow along the lake, we finally had a clear view of the summit of Helvellyn. This winter’s snow still gleamed silver upon its flanks.

We gazed at the mountain in silence, and after a while, resumed our drive around the lake. It was twilight now, and suddenly, from out of the woods, bounded a deer across our path - a perfect farewell from the Lakes.

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A walk into the past

November 19th, 2007 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in London, Napoleon, The Tudors, Wild places 2 Comments »


It is quiet on the Common, and very beautiful. The sun is shining warm and mellow out of a clear blue sky, gilding the trees with gold. The grass is still green and patterned with the gold and silver of fallen leaves. A bird calls, a squirrel rustles amongst the trees. It is autumn now - the time of year that I love best, especially when I can be out for a walk on the Common.

Perhaps it was a day as beautiful as this when, nine hundred years ago, Gilbert the Norman first viewed his new estate of Merton. He was an important man at court, and King Henry I had given him many honours - made him Sheriff of Surrey and Sheriff of Huntingdon and also given him the Manor of Merton. Maybe it was Merton’s beauty that made him decide to live here  - because, unlike other lords of the manor, Gilbert did live on his estate.

Gilbert was also a devout man, and in 1117 he founded Merton Priory with the help of the Canons of Huntingdon. Hence Canon Hill, the origin of the name of my Common, Cannon Hill Common. It has nothing to do with guns, though antiaircraft guns were installed here during the Second World War.

The Canons did not like the site chosen by Gilbert, and moved the Priory to the banks of the river Wandle. Gilbert used to take a great personal interest in the Priory - he would visit the Canons frequently, always making sure that they were never in want. He ensured an increase in the Priory’s wealth and lands through his contacts at court. It was said that Queen Matilda herself had visited the Priory with her son - who was later drowned at sea while trying to save his sister’s life. Gilbert finally became a Canon himself and joined Merton Priory, where he died. Strangely though, he is not buried here.

Today nothing remains of Gilbert’s beautiful Priory except a single archway. Merton Priory was destroyed in the 16th century during the reign of Henry VIII. 

Henry VIII broke away from the Pope and set up the Church of England with himself as its head.  This made it possible for him to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. It also made him rich, because he could now claim for himself the wealth of the old monasteries, most of which he demolished. One such casualty was Merton Priory.

The Priory was pulled down and its stones used to construct the foundations of the Nonesuch Palace at Epsom. Henry VIII built this palace for his third wife, Jane Seymour and lost interest in it after her death in 1537. More than a hundred years later, Charles II gave the palace to one of his various mistresses. This lady had no use for it, and the building was torn down. The stones used to build Merton Priory were used for other buildings one of which is the bandstand at Epsom.  And that is where they are today. On the original site of the Priory there now stands a large supermarket.

The lands of the Priory passed into rich private hands. One Richard Thornton bought the area where the Common is today as well as the adjoining lands in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Richard Thornton was called the ‘unknown millionaire’ - when he died he left behind a fortune of three million pounds, most of which went to his relatives and was soon wasted. Richard Thornton built a large mansion, Cannon Hill House in 1770 for himself, his ‘housekeeper’, his children and his sister and her family. The earth for the bricks came out of the Common - Thornton filled the hole he had dug with water and stocked it with fish. The lake still attracts ducks and geese and sometimes swans, though fishing is no longer allowed there. Cannon Hill House was demolished towards the end of the 19th century.

Richard Thornton’s origins were humble. His father was a poor Yorkshire farmer, and Richard himself made his money running the blockade imposed upon British ships by Napoleon. He supplied hemp procured from the Baltic to British ships. His great opportunity came in 1812 when he became the first person to know of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia through one of his ships. He sold his hemp at very high prices and made his fortune before the news of Napoleon’s retreat brought down the price of hemp in Britain.

Thornton was a generous man and did much for the villagers and the surrounding areas. However, he is remembered today only by a single road named after him, Thornton Road, in Wimbledon, where he had held some property.

In 1924, George Blay, the man who is responsible for what the area looks like today, bought the estate. He undertook to build two thousand houses in the area, leaving seventy-five acres of open ground as a common. He received a government subsidy of £75.00 for every house that he constructed. The houses were designed by an architect called Taylor, who has not been heard of before or since. The housing estate was completed in 1939.The houses sold for £700.00 to £910.00. Each house had a front and rear garden, but the kitchens were small and not very well designed. I ought to know - I live in a Blay house! Blay had sold 54 acres of open ground to the local authorities for £17,500 in 1925 - and it is this land which is called Cannon Hill Common today. Blay disappears into history with his fortune - no records tell where he went or what he did after this project.

Today Cannon Hill Common is owned and managed by Merton Council. It is not a common in the strictest sense of the word, but more an unfenced park. It consists of woodland, meadows and the lake created by Richard Thornton. Oak and horse chestnut, willow, birch and ash are some of the trees that grow here. Many species of birds live and breed here. The red fox can also be seen, usually in the evenings but sometimes during the day as well.

The Common lies behind my house, and has given me many hours of peace and beauty.

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