This Christmas my thoughts go out to the people of Cockermouth, perhaps my favourite little town in all England, as it was Wordsworth’s. Especially I think of its small shopkeepers, for what makes the town so delightful is its many tiny businesses, selling unusual and curious goods. So well-mannered and friendly are the people who serve in these shops that making a purchase, however modest, is a pleasure in itself. Most of them have been flooded, the stock ruined.
Wordsworth was born there, and ‘fair seed-time had my soul’. He recalls, in ‘The Prelude’, walking, aged five, along the banks of the Derwent, ‘behind my Father’s House… along the margin of our Terrace Walk’. It is all still there, exactly as he knew it, for the floods happily have not damaged the house. He called the Derwent ‘fairest of all rivers’ and ‘beauteous stream’, and recalls its ‘quiet murmurs’ blending ‘with my nurse’s song’. Wordsworth was thoughtful, but could also be a ferocious little boy, killing all the white butterflies, believing them to be Frenchmen, the national enemy. He was always what we would call Politically Incorrect, writing dozens of passionate letters defending the doomed Anglican establishments of Ireland and Wales, and composing at least 14 sonnets in favour of capital punishment.
He also wrote about the ancient castle which overlooks Cockermouth. I stay there on my visits. It is half a melancholy ruin, where the present chatelaine, Lady Egremont, has created an enchanting garden, and half a Georgian house, full of treasures. Turner was a visitor, and busy with his paints: I have followed in his footsteps and tried my hand at all his viewpoints. The castle looks down on the little town, and from it you can see the junction of the two rivers, where the Cocker joins the Derwent. These normally placid streams, where salmon abound — Bing Crosby used to fish here, crooning as he cast his flies — can become raging torrents, without warning, when the rains pour into the mountain becks which feed them.
I wish the global warming fanatics would not add to the unhappiness of the Cockermouth people by arguing that the flood there proves their quasi-religious beliefs. (I remember, a dozen years ago, the same fanatics arguing that ‘emissions’ and ‘the greenhouse effect’ would lead to endless droughts.) The Lake District has always experienced sudden, unpredictable downpours, when it is not so much rain as great oceans of water that pour down out of the sky. I have known the place for 70 years and the weather has not changed — it has always been astounding in its variety, and often violent. When I first stayed at Stool End Farm in 1941, the locals recalled a time when the entire Langdale Valley was a temporary lake caused by floods. In the past floods have joined together Buttermere and Crummock lakes into one huge mere, and unified Thirlmere periodically long before Manchester Corporation turned it into one big reservoir. They say locally that Grasmere Lake and Rydal Water have been turned into one by flooding, and that is hard to believe. But nature is all-powerful, more so than man with his puny activities.
It is amazing what a Lakeland storm will do. In December 1883, one uprooted the immense Borrowdale yew tree which Wordsworth described, and carried it into the lake. The very bilberries which I used to pick testify to the force of the winds. They are only a few inches high, but their roots go sometimes ten or 20 feet into the ground, to frustrate the tempests. On 22 August 1749 there was a sudden cataclysm in St John’s Vale, when a waterspout tore down the fells and wreaked ‘horrid havoc’. Houses were filled with sand to the first storey and ‘thousands of prodigious stones were piled upon each other to the height of 11 yards’. Some rocks hurled into the vale were so big ‘ten horses could not move them’.
Many of the features of the District were created by storms. I recall a ‘dry delta’ on the slopes above Lanthwaite Green, and discovered it was created by a flood on 9 September 1760, when a water spout on Grasmoor, rushing into Crummock Lake, created a river ‘five or six yards deep and nearly 100 yards across’.
The number of the Lake District’s countless bridges which have been ruined by storms cannot be counted. Skelwith Bridge was wrecked in 1890 and, seven years later, Goody Bridge at Grasmere, both well known to Wordsworth. Not far from Cockermouth, I often walked on the Prospect Bridge across the Derwent. That was swept away in the autumn floods of 1954, and replaced by a curious suspension bridge open only to pedestrians. Of course the huge lorries now permitted by greedy EU rules do not help with ancient stone bridges built to carry 15th-century horses and carts.
Part of the trouble is that the prodigious amount of rain which falls on the Lakes does not do so evenly. Seathwaite has often ten times the rainfall in Keswick or Cockermouth. Above it, one of the rain gauges, known as the Stye, can record 175 inches, or even 200 in a year. It compares with an annual rainfall average of less than 20 inches at the mouth of the Thames. Keswick has 57 and the Vale of Lorton 54. In the central part of the Lake District it rains, on average, 225 days in the year. But half the annual rainfall can be concentrated into a single month, and a quarter into a week. Sudden downpours create waterfalls known as ‘forces’. Tempestuous streams appear, disappear, then reappear without warning. The mountainside shifts, and thousands of tons of rock, stones and shingle move irresistibly down in a single night. With the worst, highly localised tempests, the most elaborate precautions cannot avail, as the recent experience of Cockermouth shows.
In the Lake District, weather, and not least violent weather, is inseparable from beauty. The most dramatic valley is Wastdale. At its head stand the mightiest peaks, Great Gable and Scafell. Its lake is the deepest. By its side are the Screes, a phenomenon unique in Europe, where thousands of acres of stones and rocks of all sizes, from gigantic to minute, are engaged in a slow, invisible declension towards the deep waters. Sunshine sucks up the vapours from the lake, clouds form, become riotous and threatening, finally discharge themselves on to the tops, then the waters, becoming streams, carry back the liquid into the lake, together with huge quantities of solid material. All the magnificent landscape has been created by weather, especially storms. There is no absolute distinction between mountaintop, hillside, stream and lake and what lies within and below the lake: it depends on the proportions of rock, soil and water in any particular spot, and these change all the time, usually with infinite slowness, sometimes with terrifying speed. It can look still, but never is. Sky, mountain, scree, stream, lake move all the time, as nature asserts its muscle-power, and creates the living landscape which one loves.
Storms are part of this organic life, creative as well as destructive. This Christmas, I sorrow for the people who dwell at the blissful, but sometimes deadly, junction of the Derwent and the Cocker, but the princely motions of the weather are the penalty they pay for living in one of the most beautiful and exciting places on earth.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 19, 2009