What is it about the Lake District? The weather is often filthy, the locals are famously surly (‘sup up and sod off’ reads the sign above the bar) and its lakes are dwarfed by the great waterways of the Alps. And yet I’ve been walking here more times than I can count. From childhood camping trips to grown-up get-aways, from tents and caravans to timeshares, I’ve measured out the holidays of half a lifetime in the Lakes. Its towns are humdrum, its altitudes are modest. So why do I keep coming back?
For me, and countless weekend walkers like me, the main attraction of the Lake District is its artificiality. These bare fells were forested until our forebears cleared them to make fields for sheep. The sheep no longer pay their way, and tourism is taking over. But the Lake District has always been a theme park, ever since Londoners like John Ruskin settled here. A bonsai Scottish Highlands, squeezed into one corner of an English county, its wilderness has been tamed and trammelled by generations of townies. The rural idyll of Beatrix Potter (another Londoner) and Alfred Wainwright (born in Blackburn) is an urban fantasy of what the countryside ought to look like — whimsical, impractical and, to my mind, more beautiful than anywhere else on earth.
For serious hikers (unlike me) the terrain is generally very easy. You can make it harder if you want to, but there’s no earthly need. I’ve done a few tough hikes here (well, tough for me) — up Helvellyn and the like — but from where I’m sitting (in a Lakeland tea shop, usually, eating a big slice of cake) that’s really not the point. Scafell Pike is England’s tallest peak, but it’s easily trumped by Snowden and Ben Nevis. It’d be a mere foothill in the Alps. No, what’s so special about the Lake District is that it’s so compact. You can start off in one valley, after a (traditionally awful) pub lunch in a (traditionally unfriendly) village pub, climb a hill, drink in the view, stagger down the other side, and wind up in a completely different valley just a few hours later. What makes this truly magical is that the landscape is so subtle — and yet so varied — that each little valley seems like a separate world.
‘Walking in the Lake District’ is actually a bit of a misnomer. As any pub bore will tell you, only one of these glacial puddles (Bassenthwaite) is actually a lake. And though some hardy hikers (like my mum) set out to walk the lot, most walkers have a favourite lake. Daytrippers dawdle round Windermere, adventurers head out to Wast Water. When I was young, I adored the rugged banks of Ullswater. When my children were younger, I preferred the gentler shores of Grasmere. Nowadays I’m drawn towards the soft green hills around Coniston. This is where Ruskin made his home, in a splendid house called Brantwood, with what must be one of the finest views in England. He never saw it before he bought it — but in a way he didn’t need to. From William Wordsworth to Melvyn Bragg, from Arthur Ransome to Hunter Davies, the Lake District has always been less of a place than an idea.