Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling is the best thing in the Lake District. I lived near Wigton, just north of the fells, for two years and escaping the shadow of the clingfilm factory to witness generations of champions, all called Brocklebank, do writhy battle on the Cumbrian turf was a delight. Fools might think that the embroidered pants worn by competitors over their white suits indicate a camp, silly sport, but they are wrong. It is a noble art and its practitioners are heroes; legends of the Lakes. The terminology is as thrilling as the bouts: swinging hype, hank, cross buttock, inside click. (The latter is a particularly devilish move.)
While some would say — correctly — that no visit to the Lakes is complete without witnessing wrestling, it remains a sorry fact that most of the 16 million visitors each year will confine themselves to walking, or looking at daffodils. Sixteen million! Little wonder that the Lake District towns are always bustling, that businesses appear to thrive, and that every building seems to be a holiday home.
There is nothing new in this. The Lake District has been entertaining tourists since at least the 1770s. The landscape, with its dramatic rock and wide water, has always been seductive. To the east of the M6 lies another expanse of empty land as Cumbria clambers up the Pennines to become Northumberland — but few travellers turn that way. They are drawn to the Lakes, in search of the sublime. The tourist infrastructure helps attract them, but it is the romanticism of fell and water that ensnares the imagination.
There is nothing like the Lake District in the rest of England. The wilds of the Pennines are foreboding and austere, while the Peak District is too small in scale to astound. If you live in Scotland you might feel no need to travel to Cumbria, unless you lack for outdoor gear shops, but in England the Lake District is the one place where nature seems truly awesome. Turner came here, Constable and Girtin and Cozens too; Wordsworth, of course, and Thomas de Quincey, who wrote of the ‘dinner parties and the gaiety of soirées dansantes’ of Lakeland life among the cultured and privileged of Georgian society.
Artists, poets and walkers alike continue to find that the landscape here provokes the specific ‘way of feeling’ that Baudelaire considered crucial in romanticism. It is there in the way the trees and rocks frame views down majestic valleys, and in the play of light on distant crests. It is there in the squat stone buildings that seem to have tumbled from the rock faces and assembled themselves deep in the turf. And it is there in the swinging hype, the hank and the inside click.