Three hundred years ago mountains were looked on as objects of “distaste: they were described as ‘nature’s shames’, ‘warts’. ‘wens’, ‘monstrous excresences’, ‘barren deformities’, ‘impostumes’, ‘the rubbish of the earth’.” And they were. They produced nothing, they were uninhabitable and uninhabited and they were a hindrance to transport. At the end of the nineteenth century, John Ruskin was declaring that, “Mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery”. It was a revolutionary change in attitude and the Lake District was at the heart of that change.
Early travellers to the Lakes, like Ralph Thoresby, found a place “full of horror: dreadful fells, hideous wastes, horrid waterfalls, terrible rocks, and ghastly precipices”.
And then the change took place. A stage coach known as The Flying Machine offered the first regular service over Shap in 1763 and within two decades over four hundred miles of turnpike roads had been constructed. The Lakes were accessible to the gentlefolk of the south, and they came, at first in their hundreds and then in their thousands and when the railways reached Kendal and Carlisle, the Lake District became the playground for the people pent in the industrial cities.
The first tourists viewed the hills from a safe distance. Like a modern day visitor with his camera, they framed the views before them with a Claude glass, transforming the irregularities of nature into a harmonised picture.
The first person to describe actually climbing a mountain was Joseph Budworth in 1792. The Langdale shepherd boy who guided him to the top of Pike of Stickle was baffled: “Ith the neome o’fackins, wat a broughtin you here?” Budworth’s answer, “Curiosity” typified the spirit of the age – people wanted to travel and experience new things and Cumberland and Westmorland were felt to be distant, strange, almost exotic places.
Facilities for the tourist were not always of the best. Wordsworth was forced to share a bed with a Scotch pedlar in Rosthwaite, Eliza Lynn Linton found a gin-sodden parson in her bed and John Keats shared his bed with “many fleas” when he slept the night in Wythburn. The food, however, was generally good, plain and plentiful.
Others started to provide more varied facilities. The enterprising Peter Crosthwaite opened a “Cabinet of Curiosities” in Keswick and Joseph Pocklington staged mock naval battles on Derwentwater. The curious explorers were becoming holiday makers.
Guides led the tourists on their donkeys up onto the high fells and to each of the seething cataracts. They visited Castlerigg and Long Meg and marvelled at the other antiquities of the area. They painted and botanised and generally found much to please them.
The ladies “in their long flowing skirts and Roman boots and fashionable bonnets” would climb the mountain tops. On the top of Fairfield, governess Ellen Weeton enjoyed a hearty picnic of “veal, ham, chicken, gooseberry pies, bread, cheese, butter, hung leg of mutton, wine, porter, rum, brandy and bitters”. They knew how to enjoy themselves and, fortunately, they had servants to carry the food.
So many books on tourism in the Lakes have been about the artists and writers and their response to the scenery or they have drawn their picture of the development of tourism from the numerous guidebooks that were published. Robert Gambles has cast his net wider, seeking to provide a picture of the life of the tourist, the things they were interested in, the way they travelled, what they did and the ways in which they came to enjoy these barren wastes.
Escape to the Lakes is an elegantly written and deeply informed book that adds significantly to our understanding of how people came to appreciate our beautiful county.