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About the Lake District

Grasmere
Grasmere

The Lake District is an area in the far north west corner of England sandwiched between Hadrian's Wall to the north and the great conurbations of Manchester and Liverpool to the south. With so many people on its doorstep and a varied beauty to attract them it is little wonder that it is the busiest National Park in the UK, outstripping its near neighbour the Yorkshire Dales by a third. Nearly 15 million people visited the area in 2009 and the number is growing each year. They come for almost as many reasons. Some to visit the places associated with the great Lakeland poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, or the stories of author and conservationist Beatrix Potter. Others to climb its mountains or fish its lakes.

So how many lakes does The Lakes have? It is a bit of a trick question! The answer is one. Although it is home to many waters, meres and tarns, only Bassenthwaite Lake near Keswick in the north of the area has lake in its title. Otherwise there are 16 bodies of water that are considered to be the main lakes. Wast Water at 79m deep and Windermere at 18km long are respectively the deepest and longest natural lakes in England.

It is also home to Scafell Pike which at 978m is the highest mountain in England, and is included on the controversial National 3 Peaks Challenge.

The Lakes

Many of the visitors come to climb the mountains, or as we call them Fells which comes, like many of Lakeland's words, from the Old Norse for mountain - fjallr. Arguably it was a certain Alfred Wainwright whose Pictorial Guides boosted the popularity of climbing them. His guides, 7 of them, minutely explored each chosen fell with detailed maps and hand drawn illustrations. And so listed they became the Wainwrights. 20 years after his passing people still flock to the fells to 'bag' them all.

At the end of last Pictorial Guide Wainwright wrote:

The fleeting hours of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal. Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits. These are for the seeking, and those who seek and find while there is yet time will be blessed both in mind and body.

Without the fells there wouldn't be the lakes. The prevailing weather comes from the west, across the sea. As this moisture laden air meets the fells it must either funnel through the passes, or climb to clear the higher fells. As it does so the air temperature cools, and cold air cannot contain as much moisture as warm air so it loses it by raining. This fills the lakes and tarns with water, saturates the peaty high upland moors, and drives the becks into spate. Of course it can happen to fall on you too! The rain gauge on Seathwaite Fell has recorded a few records in its time. The highest rainfall over 24 hours of 316mm. During the 3 days of 17th to the 20th of November 2009 it recorded over 450mm of rain. So it can be with little surprise that Cumbria within which the Lakes stand is the wettest county in England.

Landscape

We like to think of the Lake District landscape as a natural beauty, untainted by the ravages of man. However, over the centuries man has always modified his environment for better or worse. The Lake District today is a product of both natural and man-made processes, forever evolving. We have always used our surroundings to supply our needs, whether it is food or stone for buildings.

To find the origins of the landscape one would have to go back to the formation of the planet and understand how the ice ages modified the land. The scientific study of this is called geomorphology and is a bit too much for this article! There are many resources on the internet, or books, if you want to find further detailed reading. We'll mention in our walks where we find interesting features that we with our limited knowledge can identify.

So having moved through a few hundred million years of history with a wave of the hand, where are we? Well, we are at the point where we have a mixed landscape of mountains, lakes, boggy moorlands, and of course forests.

Herdwick Sheep and juniper bushes
Herdwick ewes

Farming happens all over, even high in the fells, with the tough Herdwick and Swaledale sheep. Over the centuries, generation after generation, both these particular breeds have become 'hefted' to their home territory and are at their happiest in the fells with little need for fences to keep them there.

In some valleys, and fells, well above the usual fields fluffy Galloway cows roam throughout much of the year even into winter when diary breeds have long departed their lowland fields for the confines of the cow sheds to sit out the cold and damp. One such place is around Over Beck and Dore Head below Yewbarrow. Many walkers have been surprised to find cattle so high and such a remote place. Another is Ennerdale where there are 3 herds that graze the valley and forest all year. Introduced to help the Wild Ennerdale project they trample thick bracken and break up the ground which helps new tree seedlings establish and grow, to encourage a greater diversity of flora.

Mines and quarries to extract minerals and materials from the layers of rock deep underground have largely come and gone. Only handful are still worked today. Their remains are a scattered indication of man's influence on the landscape. In some ways they scar and deform the landscape, yet they are a fascinating insight into our history. Take a walk up to the top of The Old Man of Coniston, for example, and on the way you can't help but wonder at the twisted remains of an aerial ropeway used to transport ore from the mines deep within the fell. Or looking up to the roof of the Cathedral Cavern near Tilburthwaite, held up by a pillar of rock, a strangely beautiful man made quarry.

Our influence is by no measure limited to the land. The lakes themselves have seen man change them. Building dams across the outflow of many to form larger reservoirs, some to provide drinking water for the growing cities. Thirlmere was dammed by the Manchester Corporation, flooding what was then Leathes Water, in the 1890's. Others to provide a consistent supply of water to power rock crushing mills before the days of the internal combustion engine, or mains electricity.

Going in the other direction at some point Hayswater above the village of Hartsop in the east of the district was dammed and became part of the local fresh water supply. However over the summer of 2014 the dam was dismantled and the water level allowed to drop and return to its natural level thus returning it to being the high mountain tarn it once was. Our influence undone, at least to an extent, and the landscape evolves another little bit.