The Lake District: A Literary Dream

What is there to say about the Lake District that hasn’t already been said? This is the region that inspired William Wordsworth and other romantic poets, as well as the charming characters created by Beatrix Potter. So in this post, I’ll use their words where mine won’t suffice.

To begin, an excerpt from Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet expresses her excitement to travel to the lakes: 

‘Oh, my dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, ‘what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.’

Dude. She’s basically an olden-day travel blogger. This is how I feel when I jot down notes in my journal every evening during trips!

Our first stop of the day was Near Sawrey, where Beatrix Potter lived. She was a foremost figure in creating the National Trust, bequeathing her own property, Hill Top, to the Trust with the requirement that her house and garden be preserved just as they were a hundred years ago. The result is gorgeous. It’s a small and relatively quick stop to make, but absolutely lovely, and even inspiring. I want her life. And her talent.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, visiting this area in 1855, remarked:

I question whether any part of the world looks so beautiful as England—this part of England, at least—on a fine summer morning. It makes one think the more cheerfully of human life to see such a bright universal verdure; such sweet, rural, peaceful, flower-bordered cottages… and such nice villas along the roadside, so tastefully contrived for comfort and beauty, and adorned more and more, year after year, with the care and after-thought of people who mean to live in them a great while, and feel as if their children might live in them also—and so they plant trees to overshadow their walks, and train ivy and all beautiful vines up their walls, and thus live for the future in another sense than we Americans do. And the climate helps them out, and makes everything moist, and green, and full of tender life….

There is also, of course, a yard full of the cutest little bunnies.

Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were—

Flopsy,
Mopsy,
Cotton-tail,
and Peter.

Her sister-in-law, Mrs. Rebeccah Puddle-duck, was perfectly willing to leave the hatching to some one else—’I have not the patience to sit on a nest for twenty-eight days; and no more have you, Jemima. You would let them go cold; you know you would!’

‘I wish to hatch my own eggs; I will hatch them all by myself,’ quacked
Jemima Puddle-duck.

We stopped for lunch and tea on a terrace overlooking Esthwaite, which is basically a small pond.

Next stop, Lake Windermere! England’s largest lake, it’s quite narrow across but extends a long way, looking almost like a boomerang.

I think it’s more common to visit Windermere from the east side (where the town of Windermere is) or from the north (via Ambleside), but we actually came from the west by way of Wray Castle, a short drive from Near Sawrey. Wray Castle was a private estate built by James Dawson (another founder of the National Trust, I believe), who also constructed St. Margaret’s Church nearby in a similar style. The chapel is very quiet and tucked away, particularly since services are no longer held here.

 

One of Wordsworth‘s most famous poems:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
in such a jocund company:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
what wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Daffodils are no longer in bloom, but here we saw a field of wispy bluebells.

View of Windermere from Wray Castle.

We headed back home to hike the fields and mountains behind where we were staying. Compared to the stillness and the feeling of having all this area to ourselves, the buzzing of boats and tourists at crowd-friendly Windermere actually felt distracting!

A tree to write poems under if ever there was one.

Wordsworth, writing at age sixteen:

Dear native regions, I foretell,
From what I feel at this farewell,
That, whereso’er my steps may tend,
And whenso’er my course shall end,
If in that hour a single tie
Survive of local sympathy,
My soul will cast the backward view,
The longing look alone on you.

Thus, while the Sun sinks down to rest
Far in the regions of the west,
Though to the vale no parting beam
Be given, not one memorial gleam,
A lingering light he fondly throws
On the dear hills where he first rose.

It was actually Wordsworth whose poetry romanticized and popularized the Lake District as we now know it. Prior to his fame, the Lake District was considered an ‘unnatural and frightening’ landscape.

Daniel Defoe, writing in the early 1700s:

Nor were the hills high and formidable only, but they had a kind of unhospitable terror in them… all barren and wild… the wildest, most barren and frightful [region in all of England and Wales].

 

By the by, if I seem knowledgeable, I owe much of the credit to our lovely host K, a book publisher who made available to us a whole range of books about the Lake District, from literary excerpts to the craft of stonewall building and the wildflowers that grow in the area. The process of building these walls—without any mortar!—is pretty fascinating. Also noteworthy is the fact that most of these walls, ancient-looking as they are, were built between 1750-1850.

The sun came out just around sundown, casting a lovely golden hue on these wildflower-laced hedges.

And a red telephone booth! There’s one in EVERY town, no matter how small.

We had dinner at the prize-winning Blacksmiths Arms. K told us that the sheep bred all over these hills are mostly raised for meat (not so much for their wool). Which means that mutton is the locally sourced, fresh specialty. A little sad, given how much we liked all the sheep we met. But it had to be done. Here, roast rump of lamb. Melts in your mouth. Seriously. Who knew pub food could be this good.

Our last morning, we headed out early to return the car in Kendal, then walked around the town on a delightfully warm and sunny day. By now, six days into our trip, I felt like we’d been to a different world, of a distant time, and I was reluctant to go back to London.

I’ll give the closing words to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who as a fellow American eloquently encapsulates the wonderment I felt while visiting the Lake District:

The day after we came, we climbed a high and pretty steep hill, through a path shadowed with trees and shrubbery, up to a tower, from the summit of which we had a wide view of mountain scenery and the greater part of Windermere. The lake is a lovely little pool among the hills, long and narrow, beautifully indented with tiny bays and headlands; and when we saw it, it was one smile…. On the rudest surface of English earth, there is seen the effect of centuries of civilization, so that you do not quite get at naked Nature anywhere. And then every point of beauty is so well known, and has been described so much, that one must needs look through other people’s eyes, and feel as if he were seeing a picture rather than reality. Man has, in short, entire possession of Nature here, and I should think young men might sometimes wish for a fresher draught. But an American likes it.

Couldn’t have spoken a truer word. As C and I took photos, we’d comment that the pictures don’t look real! It’s the very feeling Hawthorne describes—this beauty is realer than real, because I’ve heard about it so many times, yet upon seeing it in person, its beauty is no less diminished.

The Lake District lives up to the hype. It’s hyperreal. Sublime, in fact. And it’s not to be missed if you’re planning a trip to the UK!

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10 thoughts on “The Lake District: A Literary Dream

  1. A very comprehensive literary tour of the Lake District! You couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful time to visit, I think, with the promise of summer to come, and the gaiety of spring flowers. And the most magnificent mossy trees – I did admire them most of all!

    1. So true! And I agree with you about the trees—they’re so elegant and full. And it’s just the right time of year for the trees, too, because you can still see all the beautiful shapes of the branches behind the spring green fringe. I’m sure they’ll look even more full-bodied when all the leaves come out, but I love the silhouettes.

  2. Ah! So lovely! When I visited Lake Windermere a few years ago, my friend (and English major) pulled out a book of Wordsworth poems and read to us while we sat by the shore. Thanks for putting in the time and effort to share your journeys :)

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