Vintage roadsters wind their way up the 648-meter-high Fleetwith Pike – one of England’s steepest roads and known for its hairpin bends. It’s a chance to remember a golden age of motoring before the Lake District roads became clogged with traffic.
England – Long Read

Where Wordsworth  “wander’d lonely as a cloud”

Photo by Anna Gowthorpe

England – Long Read Where Wordsworth  “wander’d lonely as a cloud”

Hello England, where the Lake District has been pioneering tourism and conservation since the days when Victorian poet William Wordsworth made it famous. Even he protested about the number of visitors, and today it sees more than 16 million a year, but the solitude where he “wander'd lonely as a cloud” can still be found in this largest of England's national parks.

Amanda Cowley
Amanda Cowley Travel Writer

“Is this the way to Wordsworth’s grave?” asks a Japanese tourist emerging from the endless stream of coaches arriving one by one at the picture-postcard village of Grasmere in the English Lake District.

By mid-morning the place is filling up with hordes of visitors taking photos, cramming into tearooms and buying souvenirs from gift shops. Most are from the UK but, thanks to a tourist board charm offensive, an increasing number are from countries such as China and Japan.

It is a sight that might have 18th century poet William Wordsworth turning in his grave at St Oswald’s churchyard – now a must-see on the tourist map. Forget wandering “lonely as a cloud” as he wrote in his Daffodils poem – there is not much chance of that today.

I stroll around the village, admiring the tightly-clustered stone houses with grey slate roofs that have changed little since the poet’s time – unlike the traffic and the crowds. As I join the line to visit his former home, Dove Cottage, I can’t help wondering what he would have made of it all.

Around 16.4 million tourists now come to the Lake District National Park each year and it is easy to see why. This land of lakes and mountains, of towering fells and tumbling streams boasts England’s highest peak, Scafell Pike, and its deepest lake, Wastwater.

In Victorian times, the beauty of this wild and rugged terrain inspired a new generation of “Lake Poets” such as Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, and their legacy continues to inspire visitors to this day but not without a cost to the landscape itself.

Tourism in the Lake District is nothing new, reads a National Trust plaque at Castlerigg Stone Circle on a hilltop above the market town of Keswick. It was only when “Victorian visitors started chipping flakes from the stones as souvenirs” that people realized tourism could also be a threat.

Standing amid these ancient stones, set within a ring of mountains, I can sense the magic of this place where people from the past reach out to us via the monument they have left behind. Gazing across to the majestic fells of Skiddaw and Blencathra, I don’t have to be a poet to be both intrigued and inspired.

A moment later, the spell is broken as a coachload of tourists start climbing the hill towards the stones and I empathize with Wordsworth, who once sought poetic inspiration at Castlerigg only to be disappointed by the crowds. The date was 1799 and people had started traveling to the Lake District as a break from urban life.

Such frustration didn’t stop the future poet laureate writing his Guide to the Lakes, though, promoting the beauty of the natural landscape to a nation eager to escape the growing cities. His book sold rapidly and encouraged many more Victorians to walk the fells and experience “Lakeland” for themselves.

Is then no nook of English ground secure from rash assault?

It was only later that Wordsworth realized the impact his words and the resulting number of visitors would have on this quiet, rural idyll. He suggested the Lake District should become “a sort of national property” but also objected to the building of the steam railway and roads.

“Is then no nook of English ground secure from rash assault?” he wrote, while waging a literary campaign against the Kendal and Windermere Railway. To no avail. The railway reached the Lake District in 1847, bringing with it ever-increasing numbers of tourists.

Today, tourism, or rather sustainable tourism, is vital for the local economy, creating around 16,000 jobs in the 2,292-square-kilometer park and bringing in a staggering $1,800 million a year, much of which is spent on schemes to protect the landscape and preserve it for future generations.

The concept of visiting a place as a tourist, while trying to make only a positive impact on the environment, society and economy, is now big business here. So, after arriving by eco-friendly train, I hire a rather funky low-carbon, electric car and set off to explore the idea.

My education begins when I check in to the luxurious, four-star Langdale Hotel and Spa. This historic estate sits in 14 hectares of semi-ancient woodland in the beautiful Langdale Valley, renowned for its pastoral landscape and distinctive pikes. “Would you be happy to take part in our Visitor Giving Scheme by donating £2 (around $3) towards conservation projects?” asks the receptionist.

Having already bought into the hotel’s ethos of minimizing tourists’ impact by operating in a sustainable way, how could I possibly refuse?

Money raised goes to groups such as Fix The Fells (who work to restore eroded footpaths); Red Alert (a plan to save endangered red squirrels); and Nurture Lakeland, whose Love Your Lakes campaign encourages local businesses, residents and visitors to support conservation projects.

I duly hand over my cash and my journey towards becoming a sustainable tourist has begun. Strolling through the grounds of the former woolen mill towards my room, I pass its old water wheel, now used to generate power for a biomass-fuelled boiler and charging station for electric cars.

As well as discreetly fitting rooms with low-energy light bulbs and water-saving devices, the hotel also encourages guests to make use of on-site recycling facilities and to leave the car behind when exploring the local countryside by hiring a bike, using public transport or simply walking.

I cosy up to the blazing log fire

That evening, I follow this advice by wandering along the nature trail, stopping occasionally to admire the views of Loughrigg Fell and Elterwater Tarn. As the clouds darken (the average annual rainfall is over 2,000 millimeters in this region), I run for cover to the local pub, Wainwrights’ Inn.

Already bustling at seven o’clock, this traditional Lakeland pub, originally part of a 200-year-old farmhouse, is a popular retreat for walkers after a day on the Langdale fells. I tuck into homemade soup with freshly-baked bread then cosy up to the blazing log fire, leaving my umbrella to drip on the flagstone floor.

Once again, I’m delighted to do my bit for conservation by ordering a pint of Nurture Lakeland Ale. The local brewery, Jennings, donates five pence from every pint sold to help protect the landscapes of the Lake District. This may not appear much but the scheme raises around $180,000 a year.

The complex issues of encouraging business and tourism to come together for a common purpose in the Lake District falls to Karen Mitchell, the director of Nurture Lakeland, who has worked in and around nature conservation and environmentalism for most of her career.

Her office is on the edge of the national park in the historic town of Kendal, home of Kendal Mint Cake. This sugar-rich energy snack is popular with climbers, who can choose from at least 200 fell tops and ten mountains including Scafell Pike, the highest at just over 978 meters.

Karen’s job is not an easy one. “It is trying to bring business-type thinking to the natural environment and bringing the natural environment to the way business people think… and then trying to bring the two things together,” she says. “Imagine, for instance, a hotel with lots of people coming in and out. You get a bit of wear and tear. So part of their good planning is to refurbish, repair and fix things but also to add new attractions to their property.

“What I want is for them to extend that thinking to the natural environment because that’s what brings people here in the first place.” The winding footpaths on the fells are a case in point, worn down and eroded over the years by the footprints of walkers, hikers and mountain climbers.

He attracted millions of visitors to the fells

The Lake District’s most famous fellwalker, Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991), wrote a Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells to help tourists enjoy their visit. But, like the Lake Poets before him, his work indirectly damaged the upland landscape he loved by attracting millions of visitors to the fells.

More recently, the Fix The Fells project has been working to restore the footpaths that turned the fells into such a major attraction. It’s a never-ending task carried out largely by volunteers. Yet the scheme still needs to raise around $546,000 a year to keep going.

“It’s free to come into the national park and people walk on these amazing footpaths and fantastic landscapes for nothing,” says Karen. “We have got to find means of getting just a little cash out of these 16.4 million visitors. We have a long way to go but there is so much potential.”

Her favorite success story, partly funded by Nurture Lakeland, is the high-profile Lake District Osprey Watch at Bassenthwaite. But she is also passionate about the Small Grants Fund, which offers up to $1,560 to small-scale community projects that might otherwise struggle to find funding.

Dubwath Silver Meadows is a new nature reserve – a seven-hectare wetland site that was once part of Bassenthwaite Lake and is now home to a range of rare flora and fauna. Volunteers have created access-for-all boardwalks, living willow hides and replica Celtic and Norse-style shelters.

The meadowsweet grown on the reserve is used to flavor gin at the Lakes Distillery, which in turn brings in the tourists whose spending helps fund such projects. It is yet one more example of the way in which environmental projects can both benefit and benefit from local business and tourism.

“From a bit of wasteland in a neglected corner of the national park, Dubwath Silver Meadows has become a small but perfect walk used by both the local community and visitors,” says Karen, whose organization is also involved in improving water quality in the area.

“With funds from the Visitor Giving Scheme, volunteers were able to get their hands dirty and fix things. Now the meadowsweet from the nature reserve is used in the local gin, which also uses juniper berries found on the fells.”

Fringed with reed beds and wildflower meadows

Unable to resist checking this out for myself, I drive to the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake, which presents such an idyllic scene that I can totally see what all the fuss is about. Lying tranquilly under the lofty bulk of Skiddaw and fringed with reed beds and wildflower meadows, it is actually the only “true” lake – the others being meres or waters.

I arrive at the Lakes Distillery just in time for a tour and discover the renovated Victorian model farm draws its water from the River Derwent around 150 meters away. The river flows through peat in the foothills of the fells from its source at Sprinkling Tarn to produce water with the near-perfect clarity needed for distilling world-class spirits.

Model farms were designed to be beautiful as well as functional and as much thought has gone into restoring the old stone buildings as producing the malt whisky, vodka and gin. Watching the copper stills in action and drinking in the woody aroma of the casks is almost as enjoyable as the tasting session that followed.

Like many businesses here, the distillery encourages sustainable tourism by using its environment-friendly credentials to attract more visitors. The national park also hopes to take this idea forward by renewing its efforts to gain Unesco World Heritage status. It has applied twice over the past 15 years but has been knocked back on both occasions.

“The World Heritage designation could be a really interesting one in terms of what a world-class quality experience means,” says Karen. “There is an opportunity to really grasp that and showcase the sustainability side of things.

“Inevitably there are challenges with this. On the one hand, you have the carbon footprint of the visitors coming here but there are ways to try to mitigate that with infrastructure development – people can travel here from mainland Europe on the train more readily, for example.

“If you can get them to stay for longer, the carbon footprint of their stay here is less per day and international travelers are dependent on public transport when they are in the destination. And in a way that is a very useful driver for more green travel options.”

A nest of mating ospreys in the Whinlatter Forest

Early next morning, I hop into my two-seater electric car and head north to one of the biggest, and yet smallest, attractions in the whole of the Lake District. Osprey Watch, centered on a nest of mating ospreys in the Whinlatter Forest, has attracted around 500,000 visitors to date.

Getting there takes about an hour by car and not much longer by public transport; nobody travels very fast in this part of the world. Most visitors still arrive by car, so traffic jams are common on the narrow country lanes and my route also takes in busy Ambleside near Windermere, the largest of the 16 lakes.

I climb a steep path on the lower slopes of Dodd Wood, sheltered from the drizzle by a sweet-smelling canopy of fir trees and surprised now and then by a red squirrel scampering through the ferns. My destination is a small clearing on the hillside, overlooking the calm waters of Bassenthwaite Lake far below.

Arriving slightly breathless but with a growing sense of anticipation at the vantage point, I peer through telescopes and at a live camera feed staffed by volunteer guides. I can see right into the ospreys’ nest. With perfect timing, two chicks, each weighing about 40 grams, were hatched during my stay.

Ospreys were extinct in the Lake District for 150 years but, following successful breeding at Loch Garten in Scotland, the Forestry Commission and Lake District National Park decided to create nest platforms at Bassenthwaite in the hope of attracting them back.

In 2001, they came. A pair made a nest and Forestry Commission ranger Nathan Fox was there to witness it. “I was one of the staff under the tree in a tent, watching, listening and hoping,” says Nathan, whose job was to protect the birds from anyone wanting to steal their eggs.

To his astonishment (“All we wanted to do back then was to get them to breed”), people flocked to the forest to see the first chick arrive. Today, the ospreys are a big deal for the local economy, attracting thousands of tourists and bringing in an estimated $3million a year in tourism revenue.

Nathan’s role is not all about ospreys. He also has the huge task of maintaining the ecosystem of this mountain forest, whether that means managing timber production, protecting the endangered red squirrel, or even culling the roe deer to control over-population. All the venison is sold to a local game dealer.

The right balance between conservation and business

“Our job is balancing the timber production, people and recreation, and wildlife management,” says Nathan. “The protection of the environment should form part of anybody’s business plan because that’s in all of our interests. The two go very much hand in hand.”

Once again, he says, the success of sustainable tourism comes back to getting the balance right between conservation and business: “It’s vital to raise visitors’ awareness of wildlife and bio-diversity. We’ve all got a lesson to learn and we all need to be more environmentally aware.

“While it’s great to provide facilities for visitors, we need to be able to manage them. For example, we have 46 kilometers of mountain bike routes, with 120,000 visitors a year. But how many of these are actually cycling to the cycle routes? The majority of them are driving.”

On the way back to Langdale, I call once again at Grasmere. The village has been associated with the Lake Poets since Wordsworth, who lived there from 1799-1808, described it as “the fairest place on earth”.

After visiting his grave in the daffodil-fringed churchyard, I watch people lining up to buy a packet of spicy-sweet biscuits – still baked to Victorian cook Sarah Nelson’s secret recipe at The Grasmere Gingerbread Shop – just as the first Lake District tourists did in the mid-1800s.

Clutching their shopping bags, they climb back into their coaches for the journey home, having done their bit for sustainable tourism by using public transport, preserving local customs and supporting the rural economy. The poet himself would surely have approved.

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