The Lake District and literary classics

Tourism and literature came to the Lake District simultaneously. Thomas Gray, author of Elegy Written in a Country Church yard, was one of the first to travel there in search of the Picturesque, in October 1769. He took with him Claude glasses, slightly convex mirrors some tinted to give a golden hue in which you could view the scenery over your shoulder, enhancing its artistic qualities.

The descriptive letters that he wrote to Thomas Wharton were published in William Mason’s Life of Gray, 1775. Three years later came Thomas West’s Guide to the Lakes. With improved roads (a legacy of the 1745 rebellion, which had revealed the difficulty of rushing troops to the North), the Lakes became a favourite objective for travellers to whom the Continent was closed during the Wars with France.

‘Oh, my dear, dear aunt,’ cried Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, when the prospect of a ‘tour of pleasure’ to the Lakes was raised by Mrs Gardiner. As it turned out, they would go to Derbyshire instead, but that didn’t stop Jane Austen having fun at the expense of what was a fashionable destination. ‘Oh! What hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything.’

By coincidence, William Wordsworth grew up in Cumberland at just the time this movement was taking off. He was born in 1770, the year after Gray’s visit. Until then, this poor, inaccessible region had not been rich in literature, beyond a few local authors. That changed after December 1799, when Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, after travels which included a spell in Somerset and Germany in the company of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, decided to settle at Grasmere, near the scenes of their childhood.

Hot on their heels came Coleridge, his high spirits not always being shared by William, who on at least one occasion preferred, in Dorothy’s words, ‘feasting with silence’ to continuing a walk. They thrilled to the scenery, minutely observing the effect of breezes on the surface of the lakes and enumerating the different shades of the vegetation, and admired the stolid independence of the Statesmen (a local equivalent of yeomen) who farmed there. ‘My dear fellow,’ Coleridge told Humphry Davy in 1800, ‘I would that I could wrap up the view from my House in a pill of opium, & send it to you.’

Recommended videos for you

In 1817, the Edinburgh Review coined the term Lake Poets to describe a group which by then also included Thomas de Quincey, who would write Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, and Robert Southey, Poet Laureate. Southey took what had previously been Coleridge’s home in Keswick, where, as well as his own family, he supported the wife and family whom Coleridge had abandoned.

By the time John Ruskin was a child in the 1820s, even his religious and far-from-romantic parents felt compelled to visit although, admittedly, his father, a sherry merchant, could call on some of his customers while they were there. At home in Denmark Hill, a southern suburb of London, the most exciting event of the day was the arrival of the dustcart, giving the little boy something to watch from his nursery window; not surprisingly, the expansiveness of Nature that he experienced in the Lake District made a heady impression. Being taken to the brow of Friar’s Crag on Derwentwater by his nurse formed one of his first memories, and as he remembered in Modern Painters joy that he took in the mossy roots, as he looked over the crag onto the lake, explains his subsequent love of twining roots and trees.

In later life, the association with his child-hood reinforced its power over his soul. In 1871, he bought the cottage that he would develop into his home, Brantwood, overlooking Coniston Water. Natural beauty was, to Ruskin, an antidote to the moral and physical ugliness of the Industrial Revolution; it also provided a balm for his own increasingly unsettled mind. It was under Ruskin’s inspiration that the National Trust was established in 1895, by, among others, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, a vicar near Windermere.

Two other townies followed in the footsteps of the sage. Beatrix Potter, born in South Kensington, settled at Hill Top in Sawrey in 1905, having holidayed in the Lake District with her parents. It provided some of the background imagery for her books. Towards the end of her life, she followed the Ruskinian mission of buying 4,000 acres of hill farm, which she left to the National Trust.

Arthur Ransome, who grew up in Leeds, also developed his love of the Lakes from family holidays spent on Coniston Water. After some years in post-revolutionary Russia, where he knew Lenin, Ransome returned to the Lakes as the setting for Swallows and Amazons. Ruskin would have approved of the unspoken assumption that children are better for adventures that are lived outdoors, amid Nature, in which the acquisition of practical skills, from sailing to building blast furnaces, is highly rated.

E. M. Forster came here in 1907. ‘It rains all night and every day,’ he said, as might others, adding philosophically, ‘but not always all day.’ ‘Ah, dearest Grasmere!’ exclaims Mrs Moore in A Passage to India. ‘Romantic yet manageable, it sprang from a kindlier planet.’

The landscape inspired not only words, but also images, as a new exhibition at the Wordsworth Museum ( reveals, until October 4. ‘Edward Lear, the landscape artist: Tours of Ireland and the Lake District’ presents for the first time his many letters and watercolours from his visit, wittily depicting the region’s inhospitable weather: ‘Day after day incessant torrents flood the land.’ And writers continue to draw on the inspiration of an area that is now as rich in cultural association as it is in native beauty: Melvyn Bragg’s ‘Cumbrian Trilogy’ was published between 1969 and 1980.

* For more stories like this every week, subscribe and save