Derwentwater: In the Lap of he Gods: The Story of the Men and Women who shaped paradise by Ian Hall. Orchard House Books. £10.
Ian Hall grew up in Keswick and has spent his life farming in Borrowdale. The valley is his home and Derwentwater, his Lake. He has seen the changes that have taken place over the last half century and more, changes in use and ownership, and changes in the threats and the protection offered to the environment.
In the twelfth century the valley was in the ownership of Alice de Rumilly. Then it was owned by two abbeys, by Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire and by Furness Abbey. In Elizabethan times its mineral wealth was exploited by German miners who felled the valley’s timber to feed their smelting plant in Keswick.
The timber was felled again when the area passed into the hands of Greenwich Hospital after the execution of the Jacobite rebel, Lord Derwentwater in 1716.
What we now see as a precious landscape became the focal point of a tourist revolution. The tourists followed in the wake of the poet, Thomas Gray, and the guide book writer, Father Thomas West, who nominated viewing stations for the better appreciation of the scenery.
Others, such as Joseph Pocklington, had ideas for a less meditative style of tourism, and rejoiced in the firing of cannon and the staging of mock regattas on the Lake.
In the nineteenth century, as tourism developed and expanded with the coming of the railways, Derwentwater became the scene of greater activity and was placed under greater threat.
Ian is telling the story of “the intricate cat’s cradle of owners, poets, entrepreneurs, recluses, quangoes, business men and plain workers who have aspired to keep this place the lap of the Gods, a place where all who would come to wonder, to paint, to experience adventure were, and still are, welcome.”
Today the lake and the valley are safeguarded by a composite network of stewardship. In 1951, with the establishment of The Lake District National Park, the area became subject to very tight planning controls. At the same time the National Trust acquired more of the land. Since 1995 the river and lake have been managed by the Environment Agency and, since 1990, the quango, English Nature, which has “morphed into Natural England”, “has had a huge impact on fell farming and the economics of sheep production.” These bodies “have gone a long way to mitigating the harm done by countless booted feet trampling every shoreline”, but the sheer pressure of tourism is still affecting the landscape.
Ian takes a committed position on the ongoing economy of the valley. For him the miners with their spoil heaps and those who “would string vast cables across the lakes” have “ever sought to take more than they can give”.
He finds the “narrow roads groan under the weight of passing ‘Chelsea Tractors’” as well as the increasingly larger tractors used by the farmers. The complex of authorities “seek to impose some sort of order on the increasing chaos”. He fears that we might be “in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg”.
It is a question that might well have been asked at many times in the past centuries. The valley has shown itself robust and resilient. Ian is hopeful that, “If we, the present generation of minor gods can only follow the examples of (earlier landowners like) Marshall, Gordon and Walker, then all will be well.”
In Derwentwater in the Lap of the Gods Ian Hall has provided a detailed and committed history of the paradise he loves.