If anyone knew the hills and dales of old Cumberland County like the back of his hand, it was Alfred Wainwright.
The late author of classic guidebooks to more than 200 Lakeland hills summed up their fascination with typical lyricism: “It is the haunting beauty that haunts the mind … scenes that pass through the inner eye like a beauty show “.
Wainwright was still happily rolling over them in 1974 when Cumberland (along with neighboring Westmorland) ceased to exist as an administrative county and became part of the greater county of Cumbria – a decision which was reversed this year but is still causing headaches. head. This made no difference to Wainwright, who took the broader view: “The fleeting hour in the life of those who love the hills runs out quickly, but the hills are eternal. There will always be the lonely crest, the dancing back, the silent forest…”
Unfortunately they were not always so peaceful. The county formed in the 12th century had the misfortune to be bordered by Scotland, which periodically claimed it, and throughout the Middle Ages the tides of war shifted to and fro over its lonely hills. The last serious fighting on English soil occurred in the county during the retreat of Prince Charles Stuart’s Jacobite army in 1745.
The highlanders were then pursued by the notorious Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, to Culloden where he ordered his men to show no respite in the ensuing massacre and duly bayoneted the wounded survivors.
He proceeded to rid the highlands of rebellious clans by hanging men, imprisoning women, burning their settlements and confiscating their livestock, leaving behind an abandoned land scourged by fire and sword. This earned him the eternal hatred of the Scots as “Butcher Cumberland”.
When a young painter named John Constable showed up in 1806, peace had returned to the Lakeland vistas which he hailed as “the most beautiful scenery that ever was”.
He was referring in particular to Borrowdale, a remote glen on the southern banks of Derwent Water which is often referred to in walking guides as England’s most beautiful. The secondary road that leads you from Keswick bodes well. A yew warning sign is followed by twists and turns leading to thickly forested hills, and under rain-laden skies, cloud-shrouded crags conjure images of German legends. There is a feeling of entering a secret place.
From the hamlet of Seatoller a well-trodden path ascends to panoramas that have stopped the artist in his tracks. One day I followed them to see a patchwork of green fields, dry stone walls and farm buildings crossed by a meandering river, guarded by ramparts of hills that rise towards the wild grandeur of the Borrowdale Fells.
From the top of Castle Crag, a wooded cairn rising sharply from the valley, the terrain slopes down to views of Derwent Water, but the lasting impression is of the rich chiaroscuro of stormy weather on the high cliffs reminiscent of the drama of Constable’s paintings. The effect remains, as he noted, “extraordinary”.
His art and Wordsworth’s poems inevitably drew crowds to a remote corner of England which now draws 15 million visitors a year. But it’s still easy to escape the madding crowd and savor the wild and lonely beauty of the hills on foot, by bike and by boat.
In The Wind in the Willows, Water Rat observed, “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that is half as good as just messing with boats.” He could have talked of cruising about Windermere in a red rowboat, which I once found myself in.
A few strokes of the oars on calm, dark waters took me to another world, away from busy streets and souvenir shops. Here was only the crunch of oars and the lapping of blades in the water. Gannets dived for snacks to go and swallows darted across the water for the hell of it, and I drifted among them like Sir David Attenborough.
My navigation was easy enough. Stay close to the west bank and pass through slate boathouses and a succession of woods that look like fairy valleys. In the shallows a traditional white-hulled wooden sloop called Thetis sat at anchor, and I promptly declared her the finest dreamboat on the lakes.
On the way back, a replica of a gaff-rigged Cape cutter with tan sails passed, followed by a gaggle of dinghies with brightly colored sails and children. Then a pair of swans flew overhead, their wings beating rhythmically in the still air.
At Ullswater I found a replica of a Loch Broom mail boat, a sturdy broad-beamed beauty with tan sails in an old gaff rig, just like her ancestors built for the stormy lochs of western Scotland.
Ullswater is nearly as long as Windermere, but is quieter and more relaxed, with dramatic scenery reminiscent of the Trossachs. Here I set sail with my future wife for Norfolk Island, a grand name for an outcrop of rock and scrub that provided a leeward beach to moor and pack a picnic lunch.
Above us soared the heights of Sheffield Pike, and we had the southern part of the loch pretty much to ourselves, apart from two other mail boats, who happily came to lend a hand when I couldn’t figure out how to set the sails. For future reference, waving a half-finished sandwich in the air is an effective distress signal.
Two wheels offer another quiet but more strenuous way to explore old Cumberland’s quieter slopes. From Penrith – now, to the dismay of the locals, part of Westmorland and Furness Council – it’s remarkable how quickly the hubbub of the M6 gives way to birdsong in the quiet country lanes. Within a couple of miles you are in a world of hedges and dry stone walls bright with wildflowers and sheep grazing in green fields that look like landscape art.
This is a land of peace and plenty, of old stone barns and Union flags flying above rustic pubs, and road signs measuring distances in quarters of a mile and warning motorists to slow down for horses and red squirrels. It’s farming country where cars are few and far between and you’re more likely to encounter a tractor than a tour coach.
A joy of cycling is discovering hidden treasures, such as the magnificent interior of St Mary & St Michael’s Priory Church in the hamlet of Cartmel. With monumental Norman arches, vaulted ceilings and impressive stained glass windows, it is a masterpiece of religious devotion which has served as a spiritual refuge for generations of monks, pilgrims and other travellers. It’s atmospheric and moving, and I’ve never even heard of it.
You can also load your bikes onto the wagons of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, in which the world’s two oldest narrow-gauge steam locomotives travel seven miles from the coast to the start of what Wainwright has lauded as ‘the most beautiful of all the valleys… this perfect arcadia in the hills.
The two-wheeled descent to the sands of Ravenglass passes through sun-dappled woodland echoing with birdsong, along the banks of streams ablaze with yellow gorse and hillside farms where sheep graze and buzzards soar above the crags.
Despite the ongoing saga on its borders, the timeless charm of the county remains the same. Even Wainwright occasionally found himself speechless: “How can I put into words the joys of a walk over country like this; the scenes that delight the eye, the blissful peace of mind, the sheer exuberance that fills your soul as you tread on solid ground… there are stirrings in your soul that are beyond the power of my pen to describe.