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How poets and painters of the past put the Lake District on the map

With its rolling hills, fresh water lakes and family attractions, it’s not hard to see why the Lake District is the UK’s most popular national park. Every year more than 18m people take a trip there to enjoy the stunning scenery.

Those numbers are now set to soar, as the area recently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, joining iconic locations like the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and the Great Barrier Reef.

The fascination with Lake District isn’t just a modern one, it first emerged as a tourist destination as far back as the late 18th century. Artists and writers, drawn to the region’s dramatic scenery, arrived alongside the tourists. They helped to increase the Lake District’s notoriety, and shaped the way the landscape was managed. The region quickly became fashionable among aficionados of the picturesque.

For many, the Lakes District’s appeal lay in its striking visual dynamism: its ability, under the influence of the weather, the season, and the time of day, to change dramatically from scenes of beauty to spectacles of sublimity. This meant that artists could sketch drastically different views of the same scene.

Thomas Allom, the English architect, artist, and topographical illustrator captured the changes in mood at Ullswater in the 1830s. Guides to the Lakes, Author provided
From peaceful and picturesque and to stormy and sublime. Guide to the Lakes., Author provided

Even more than artists such as Thomas Allom, writers contributed immeasurably to the region’s fame. From Romantic writers, such as William and Dorothy Wordsworth, to eminent Victorians, like John Ruskin and Harriet Martineau, the Lake District has been home to an array of literary celebrities. Some of these writers, notably Wordsworth and Martineau, even published guidebooks which proved highly popular and influential.

Then there were the icons of 20th century children’s literature. Writers including Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome – of Swallows and Amazons fame – brought the region to life for new generations in famous works that are still loved by children (and adults).

Visitor hotspots

Thanks to our new research, we now know that (not unlike today) visitors to the Lake District in the past mainly devoted their attention to places near to Bowness, Ambleside and Keswick, as well as the heart of Wordsworth Country around Grasmere.

Our work involved looking at publications by famous Lakeland writers, such as the Wordsworths, and by important but less well-known authors, like Celia Fiennes (an ancestor of Ralph and Ranulph).

To find out where these literary travellers of the past visited in the Lake District our research used exploratory mapping methods to analyse a collection of historical writing about the region.

Our research maps show where writers dared to roam. Author provided

The collection contains some novels and place-specific poetry, but it mostly comprises travel narratives and guidebooks – as these sorts of publications were especially pivotal to the growth of the Lake District’s reputation as a tourist destination. And studying the places these works mention can tell us a great deal about how travellers experienced the Lake District in the past – and how they have influenced understandings of nature and landscape to this day.

Off the beaten track

While our research shows that the places most Lake District visitors travelled in the 18th and 19th centuries are still among the more popular tourist haunts today, we can also learn a great deal from considering the blank spaces on these maps.

For instance, the mountainous region in the Western Lakes that includes the Scafell massif was less frequently discussed and visited. These sorts of localities maintained a reputation for being a wilderness – somewhere that might trap you if you went too far away from the beaten track.

View of the Scafell massif from Yewbarrow, Wasdale, Cumbria. Dougsim, CC BY-NC-SA

But today, the sheer number of visitors to even these more remote areas of the Lake District mean that this cherished landscape is threatened by the very thing that economically sustains it: tourism.

The Three Peaks Challenge, for example, is a way many people encounter Scafell – it has been estimated that a population the size of Detroit attempts the challenge every year. These vast numbers have serious consequences for the mountain’s environment, which is why, in awarding World Heritage Site status, the UNESCO committee made two recommendations. These were that the effect of tourist activities be monitored, and that conservation efforts in the region be improved.

It is hoped this new status will maintain the Lake District as an important place for visitors to experience the great outdoors – following in the footsteps of the great writers and artists. But more than that, hopefully it will also mean more resources, care and attention to help the landscape, and the communities that live there, to flourish.

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