The Lake District
Since my mother’s side of the family has strong connections with the Lake District, it gives me the opportunity to write about this loveliest of areas, and to include some of my favourite pictures.
The first evidence we have of man living in this area is that of Neolithic man. The remains of an axe factory dating back to 4000 BC were discovered near Langdale Pikes. It is clear that the manufacture of stone tools (used mainly for tree-felling and killing of animals) was a thriving industry, as tools from Langdale have been discovered at numerous other sites around Britain. By 2000 BC, the countryside had developed into a fertile agricultural region, ground being cleared and trees felled for this purpose. Copper, lead and iron ore were mined and the pottery industry gained importance.
Following the Roman conquest of England in 43 AD Cumbria remained independent of Roman rule for some time.The Romans marched their armies into Cumbria under Julius Agricola in 79 A.D., and subjugated the native Celtic Brigantes tribes, conquering the whole of the territory.
Evidence of Roman occupation dates back to 1 AD, as evidenced by the extensive remains of the fort at Galava. Galava fort is thought to have been constructed in 90 AD and later extended by Hadrian. It was linked by road to the important port of Ravenglass, as well as to Hadrian’s Wall, the boundary of the Roman Empire.
Establishing a fort at Watercrook, near Kendal, they built a road to the naval base at Ravenglass, over the high fells of Wrynose and Hardknott passes. Cohort forts were built along the road to control and dominate the area and strengthen lines of communication. The vast Hard Knott Roman Fort, or Mediobocdum as it was known to the Romans, stands on a bleak plateau, commanding a strategic position below Hard Knott Pass covering three acres.
Between 300 and 400 AD, when the Roman occupation of Britain ended, the region came under the control of Furness Abbey. Farming continued to prosper, with the introduction of the hardy mountain sheep, while small foundries were built to smelt the iron ore. By 1000 AD, the area was inhabited by a thriving farming population who built the dry stone walls, such a distinctive feature today, as boundaries to control grazing. The most significant event of this period was the Viking invasion.
The Norsemen clearly dominated the area, giving names to places and natural features, names which are still used today. Gradually they integrated with the indigenous population. To what extent their brutal invasion methods initially affected local people here is not known. Their use of high summer pastures in their native lands was introduced here and what we know today as intake (cleared grazing land on the lower slopes of the fells) was probably Viking in its beginnings. The famous Herdwick breed of Lake District sheep is said to have been introduced by Vikings. Amid the territorial chaos following Viking invasion and rule, there were battles among warring ‘kings’. One famous site is at the top of Dunmail Raise on the main road north of Grasmere. This was the scene of a bloody battle in 945 AD for control of Cumbria between King Dunmail, the last King of Cumbria, against the united forces of Malcolm, the King of Scotland and Edmund, a Saxon King. Dunmail was defeated and slain there according to some accounts, while Cumbria was given to the Scots.
The Vikings bestowed on the area many of its distinctively Norse place names. Streams are termed becks, from the Norse ‘bekr’, waterfalls are forces from the Norse ‘foss’, ‘thorpe’, a hamlet, fell derives from “fjall” the Norse word for hill, and small lakes are termed tarns which derives from ‘tjorn’. ‘Thwaite’ in Old Norse means clearing and ‘saeter’ summer pastures.
The Viking influence lingered in the isolated backwater of the Lake District until the Middle Ages. A Norse-English mixture of languages continued to be spoken there until at least the 12th Century . A Viking political system is displayed in the existence of several Thing mounds throughout the area.
Changing attitudes to the Lake District
The speed with which sensibilities changed in the 18th century can be seen in the two contrasting descriptions which follow; to the first author, the Lake District represented a vision almost of Hell, a wild, primeval country in which the hand of man could scarcely be seen, in contrast to the neat fields and orchards of the south-east. To the second author, the countryside was as God had left it, unsullied by the changes and deprivations of man.
Daniel Defoe, in his three volume travel book, “Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain”, published between 1724 and 1727, observed: “Here we entred Westmoreland, a country eminent only for being the wildest, most barren and frightful of any that I have passed over in England, or even in Wales it self…. But ’tis of no advantage to represent horror, as the character of a country, in the middle of all the frightful appearances to the right and left…. seeing nothing round me, in many places, but unpassable hills, whose tops, covered with snow, seemed to tell us all the pleasant part of England was at an end.”
William Wordsworth saw things very differently:
Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the image of a star
That gleam’d upon the ice: and oftentimes
When we had given our bodies to the wind,
And all the shadowy banks, on either side,
Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still
The rapid line of motion; then at once
Have I, reclining back upon my heels,
Stopp’d short, yet still the solitary Cliffs
Wheeled by me, even as if the earth had roll’d
With visible motion her diurnal round;
Behind me did they stretch in solemn train
Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watch’d
Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep.
Names of the Lakes
There are perhaps 17 bodies of water in the Lake District that are usually considered to be lakes, as opposed to tarns. Size isn’t everything, as the largest of the tarns is bigger than the smallest of the lakes. Then again, only one lake – Bassenthwaite – actually has the word “Lake” in its name… They are known instead as “meres” (Windermere, Grasmere, Thirlmere) or “waters” (Ullswater, Wastwater, Coniston Water).
Bassenthwaite is both of one of the largest and shallowest lakes in the region, and also a village that lies a little over a mile to the northeast of it, after which the lake is named. “Thwaite” comes from an old Norse word meaning “meadow”, so the name means something like “Bastun’s meadow”.
The lake, owned by the National Park Authority, is 4 miles long and 3/4 mile wide, but only 70 ft. deep. It is the most northerly of the lakes, and has no major settlements on its shores.
Dorothy Wordsworth referred to Brothers Water as “. . the glittering lively lake. . .”. It was mainly the setting with which she was enthralled. Today, the lake is not so popular, being shallow and full of reeds. In July water lilies are in bloom. Fishermen like the lake for its resident trout population.
Its name used to be Broad Water but apparently changed when, in the 19th century, two brothers drowned in the lake.
Buttermere – the lake by the dairy pastures – is 1 1/2 miles long, 3/4 of a mile wide and 75 feet deep. The classic combination of lakes and mountains has made this popular with visitors since the beginning of tourism in the Lake District. A visit to Buttermere is principally for its natural attractions – as the area offers some of the best walking country in Lakeland. There is a footpath running round the perimeter of the lake, and lovely walks to the summits of Haystacks and Red Pike.
Also deriving from the Anglo-Saxon, Coniston’s name was probably originally Cyning’s ton, meaning “the king’s manor”.
At five miles long, and with a maximum depth of 184 feet, Coniston Water is the third largest of the lakes. It provided an important fish source for the monks of Furness Abbey who owned the lake and much of the surrounding land in the 13th and 14th Centuries. More recently Coniston Water was used to transport slate and ore from the many mines worked in the Coppermines Valley above Coniston village.
Once part of Buttermere, but now separated from it by an alluvial plain, the name Crummock appears to mean “crooked river”, referring to the river Cocker, which flows through it. Then again, as a surname, it means “crooked oak”, and may well refer to a distinctive tree that once stood in the vicinity.
Named after the river Derwent, which drains through it on its course towards the Irish Sea, the name is a corruption of the Celtic dwr-gent, meaning “clear water”. It is still possible to see today how the lake, and the river, acquired such a name, as the water remains crystal-clear. Another theory has the origin in the old word for an oak, derw, meaning that the lake and its river were in a region abundant in oak trees.
Elterwater is a small lake that lies half a mile (800 m) south-east of the village of the same name. Both are situated in valley of Great Langdale. Only a quarter of the houses in Elterwater are permanently occupied, the rest being holiday cottages.
The river Brathay which provides outflow from Elterwater, flows south to join Lake Windermere, near Ambleside.
Another name that invokes a Viking chieftain, Ennerdale was once “Anenderdale”, the dale (or valley) of Anundar.
Ennerdale is the most westerly of the lakes, and the most remote, so it offers, even in high season, a place to escape. It is a deep glacial lake, 2.5 miles long 3/4 mile wide and 148 feet deep. The water is exceptionally clear, and contains a variety of fish. It serves as a reservoir for the coastal towns of West Cumbria, and is the only lake that does not have a road running alongside it.
Esthwaite Water is flanked by the more well-known (and larger) lakes of Windermere and Coniston Water. As such, Esthwaite is not troubled by too many visitors, despite the fact that Hawkshead sits at the northern tip of the lake and receives many thousands of tourists every year.
Esthwaite Water is the most nutrient-rich of all the lakes and consequently holds many fish. The lake is a haven for wildlife, and in summer is carpeted with waterlilies.
One of the more obvious derivations, Grasmere simply means the grassy lake, denoting a lake with grassy shores.
Grasmere at 1 mile long, half a mile wide and 75 feet deep, would be an attractive and popular tourist area even without its Wordsworth connections. ‘The most loveliest spot that man hath found’ was Wordsworth’s famous description of the area of Lakeland that he most loved.
From hafr, Old Norse for “goat”, this is the goat’s lake. The name probably relates to some individual whose nickname this was (as in “the old goat”!).
Haweswater is now one of the largest lakes at 4 miles long and 1/2 mile wide, and has a maximum depth of 200 feet. It is a reservoir for Manchester, for which all the farms and houses of the villages of Mardale and Measand, and the Dun Bull Inn were pulled down. Coffins were removed from the graveyard, and buried elsewhere, and Mardale church was demolished.
The name derives from an Old Norse compound word, laufsaer, meaning “leafy”, so this is the leafy lake.
Nestled in a wooded valley in the far west of the Lake District, in the Vale of Lorton, Loweswater is a peaceful lake that is often bypassed. At approximately 1 mile in length, 1/2 mile wide and 60 feet deep, it provides an excellent lake circuit for walkers.
Loweswater is unique within the Lake District, as it is the only lake that drains towards the center of Lakeland – to Crummock Water to which it was once joined to.
Like the place name Ryedale, this name means “the valley of rye”, denoting a place where that cereal crop was grown.
Rydal Water, which bears the nickname ‘skaters pond’, was once referred to as ‘Rothaymere’. The lake is one of the smallest and shallowest but prettiest of the sixteen lakes and is smaller in area than some of the tarns.
From the Old English thyrel, meaning “gap”, the name refers to the fact that this lake once narrowed to a strip at its centre, where it could be crossed over a wooden bridge.
Thirlmere, at 3.5 miles long, 1.2 mile wide and 158 feet deep, it was purchased by Manchester Waterworks in 1889. The area was dammed with a dam whose greatest height is 104 feet, and the area became one vast reservoir. In the process, the settlements of Armboth and Wythburn were submerged, the only remaining building being the little church at Wythburn.
Probably another of those Viking chieftains, Ulfr gave his name to one of the most picturesque lakes in the region.
Ullswater is the second largest lake at 7.5 miles long. on average 3/4 mile wide and with a maximum depth of 205 feet. It has three distinct bends giving it a dog’s leg appearance.
Ullswater is clear but deep, and in the deepest part lives a curious fish called the skelly, a sort of freshwater herring.
From Wasdale, the valley with the lake, this name has become something of a tautology in its history. It is now the lake of the valley with a lake.
Situated in the Wasdale Valley, Wastwater is 3 miles long, half a mile wide and 260 feet deep, and the deepest of all the lakes.
It is also is perhaps the most awe-inspiring of all the lakes. It is urrounded by mountains – Red Pike, Kirk Fell, Great Gable, Lingmell and Scafell Pike – England’s highest mountain.
Vinandr is the Old Norseman who gave his name to the most famous of the Lakes, Vinandr’s lake.
Windermere, at 10.5 miles long, one mile wide and 220 feet deep, is the largest natural lake in England, and is fed by numerous rivers. The Romans built their fort of GALAVA at its northern end (Waterhead), and it has always been an important waterway for movement of heavy materials.
And which lake is the most beautiful? It’s entirely a matter of personal choice.