Celebrating Great Landscapes Week from Saturday 3 August to Friday 9 August 2019, landscape charity Friends of the Lake District reminded us that although Great Landscapes bring us opportunities to improve our physical, spiritual and mental well-being “they are also under threat and, in our busy lives, we can take for granted the true beauty and importance of what is above, below and all around us.” As part of the week-long celebration, I joined eight bloggers in answering the question: What Makes the Lake District a World Class Visitor Attraction?” We all had very different takes on this, and you can read mine here.
Setting up as a tour guide this year felt like the right thing to do after moving to Cumbria from Japan, my home for more than 20 years. I wanted to “give something back” by showing Japanese visitors to Lakeland the same level of hospitality and service I’d long enjoyed in Kyoto.
Although Kyoto is as much a world apart from the Lake District as you’d imagine, there’s something that brings these two places together, beyond their status as UNESCO heritage sites. Their humanity. Each offers outstanding natural beauty with the power take us outside ourselves. But they also offer a lived-in landscape, where there’s just as much “us” there as there is “there” to inspire. In Kyoto’s celebrated rock gardens, stones placed in a sea of gravel evoke mountains and islands, while in its tea gardens, artfully spaced stepping stones in a sea of moss persuade us to walk slowly, reverentially even, to tea houses glimpsed through fringes of bamboo and maple. In the Lake District, the craggy fell – buttoned up with bracken to its once tree-lined neck – that towers above the pastured valley beneath evokes not just nature but our humility: a product of glaciation and geology but also of people, their grazing animals, and the need to eat as well as gaze in rapture. In short, each offers a cultural landscape as much shaped by people as it has shaped and continues to shape them.
This is what brings people to Lakeland and to Kyoto. They are world-class destinations (Kyoto frequently comes top in world rankings for tourism and the city’s population doubles in size during busy holiday periods) with an enduring appeal that transcends travel trends and national boundaries. Our love affair with these places will endure as long as the things that lure us to them remain unspoiled.
In Lakeland’s case, this includes mountain peaks reflected in the stillness of Grasmere and Buttermere, lonely windswept passes, home-made scones, the “very lovely names of its mountains and valleys and lakes and rivers” given by earliest settlers and invaders “with poetry in their hearts” (Arthur Wainwright), Beatrix Potter’s famous rabbit, the cool, quiet spaces in village churches that are left open to welcome visitors during the day, drystone walls stitching up fells and fields into patchwork, curvaceous Cumberland sausages, stone and slate cottages that are as much a part of the land as the earth they stand upon, foxgloves in a country lane, clouds like bonnets on the Langdale Pikes, rhododendrons flamboyant in a dark woodland or sunny manicured garden, daffodils bouncing in the breeze on the shores of Ullswater and views that are as glorious looking down from the top of a mountain as gazing up from the bottom of a valley. These things never pall. The Lakes’ poets and painters knew this. The guidebook writers who came before and after the Romantics knew it. Ruskin, Potter and the founders of the National Trust knew it. And every visitor, whether from the UK or overseas, knows it too.
Naturally, I can’t show my Japanese guests everything in the short time most of them spend here. What I can do is help them take their time (as I keep an eye on the clock for them) to discover somewhere they’ll want to revisit. We might start, for instance, by crossing to the western shore of Windermere by boat from Bowness Pier or walking the Glebe from Bowness to catch the passenger boat to Ferry Nab. From here, there’s a gentle walk taking in Claithe Viewing Station – an 18th century viewing station offering superb views of Windermere – on up through fields and the village of Near Sawrey to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s 17th century farmhouse. Next is a detour to Moss Eccles tarn, where Potter’s ashes are scattered, or straight on by bus to Hawkshead village to take in the Beatrix Potter gallery, Hawkshead Grammar School, where William Wordsworth studied as a boy and scratched his initials on a desk, Hawkshead Church and a host of characterful tearooms and shops selling local produce.
Wordsworth enthusiasts may prefer boarding the open-top bus (in good weather, at least) to Rydal, before walking the coffin trail from Rydal Mount through to Dove Cottage – both places of pilgrimage for fans of the poet and his fellow Romantics. There’s time for an hour in Grasmere village, as well as a picnic up on Loughrigg Terrace, revelling in views of Grasmere, Rydal Water and Windermere before dropping down to walk by Rydal Water. For those with a less literary bent, there’s fun to be had in Kendal, exploring its historic yards, river and castle before a short bus ride out to visit the fabulous gardens at Levens Hall. Or further out still from the honeypot of the central Lakes, there’s the bus to Grange-over-Sands, with its ornamental gardens, views of the estuary from the promenade and Hazelmere Tearooms for a cuppa and a cake, partnered with a walk over Hampsfell, taking in 360-degree views of the Lake District fells and Morecambe Bay on the way to Cartmel with its races, ancient priory and celebrated sticky toffee pudding, local ales and nationally acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant.
You can do all this by bus, train, boat and on foot – and that’s what’s most special of all, perhaps, about the Lake District and surrounding Cumbria: you can get around without a car. Admittedly, not always quickly, easily or cheaply: train travel and shorter bus journeys can be expensive and connections between the various bus operators and train networks could be improved. Still, for the most part, you can go wherever you want either by public transport or on your own two feet. This, for me – I’m committed to sustainable transport after years of teaching environmental studies – is what makes Lakeland a truly world-class destination: one that we can all celebrate, share and enjoy while keeping it special for future generations. It is somewhere that can continue to benefit from its tourist industry without loss to itself – just as long as we all take our time to enjoy it.
See the Friends of the Lake District website for more blogs on this topic and to learn more about the charity’s 85-year-old mission to protect and enhance the Lake District and Cumbrian landscapes.