Walking Class Hero: In search of the picturesque
For the last couple of weeks of our sorry soggy summer, just like Doctor Syntax I found myself in search of the picturesque. I journeyed north and west to the Lake District for some hill walking and scenery ogling. Unlike the good doctor, I wasn’t ‘stopt by highwaymen’ en route, in fact, the only thing that mugged me was the weather and that was a serial offender.
“I’ll prose it here, I’ll verse it there,
And picturesque it everywhere”
These days it seems impossible to divorce the Lakes from Romanticism. With its emphasis on natural and emotional themes, it began in the late 18th century as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment’s worship of reason. All sorts of aspects of modern life still seem to be absolutely infused with Romanticism. The notion that the seaside is a place that you go for health, for relaxation, for your holidays, was an innovation of the Romantic period. Equally, the idea of walking in the mountains and hills, taking a sense of spiritual sustenance from the sublime, is something that emerges with Romanticism.
Many modern attitudes to do with the relationship between society and the environment are so strongly shaped by Romanticism. If you think of the Lake District as a phenomenon, most of the land is owned by the National Trust, and the Lake District is defined — in terms of planning — as a National Park. And it isn’t that much of a reach to trace the origins of both the National Trust and the National Parks system directly back to Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes which, amongst other things, lauds the pastoral over the urban.
The scenery I’d come to admire of brooding, forbidding hills is undeniably exhilarating. As I understand it they were laid down about 2 million years ago during the last major glaciation period when much of the northern hemisphere was covered in ice sheets grinding slowly southwards. It’s worth noting that geologists refer to this as the modern era. About 12,000 years ago, a mere blink of the eye to the self-same geologists, these glaciers began receding and the result of this physical activity is the lakes, fells, tarns, ridges and hills of the Lake District.
While we’re on the subject of geology, take a look around the hills and many seem to have a reddish tinge. Indeed pick up any map of the Lake District and you’ll find the odd red tarn or red fell or red top or red something dotted throughout the National Park. Well about 200 million years ago the land mass that is now northwest England was part of one super continent and positioned on the equator. It was unsurprisingly a desert and this is when all the red earth you can see at various places in the UK was formed. No wonder 2 million years ago is modern to geologists.
We stayed at Wast Water, New Dungeon Ghyll and Ravenglass during the trip – and it rained everywhere. On a rare sunny day I saw my first ever adder in the wild basking on the beach near Ravenglass, stood in a downpour and watched seals swimming off the coast at Walney Island and tried my best to remember the names of peaks everywhere. And, of course, went on some great walks, including a stretch of the Cumbria Coastal Way which I can recommend.
The highlight was probably the trip up Crinkle Crags ascending via Cold Pike and then down past Red Tarn. This included an unscheduled detour off the Crags when during a steady downpour we took a wrong path that led us down a steep scramble to nowhere near where we wanted to be. The scramble, unsurprisingly, was no less steep when we had to retrace our steps. That evening we had a couple of pints in the Old Dungeon Ghyll where the beer was average but the folk group rehearsing in the bar played a rousing version of For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her.
It may just have been the weather but sometimes I question the worth of hill walking. One of our days included an abortive trip up Scafell Pike – I still haven’t made the summit. The route includes much scrambling, a couple of steep climbs (up 200 metres in a 300 metre stretch) which completely rule out any conversation and you quickly reach the mist line which restricts any view to 2 or 3 metres maximum around you. But having said all that I suppose there is nothing like being out on the hills.
Finally a quick word about the recent Cabinet reshuffle and particularly the chief new face at DEFRA. The appointment of Owen Paterson MP – staunch right winger, self confessed climate change skeptic, former member of the CLA – as Secretary of State seems to signify nothing less than a declaration of war on the environment. You don’t have to spend much time interrogating the internet to discover his, what can only be charitably described, less than progressive stance, on a host of environmental issues. He is probably most infamous for urging the government to axe all energy subsidies, accelerate the development of shale gas projects, and urgently investigate airport expansion.
There’s plenty here to send a chill down the spine of green business leaders and environmental NGOs, and judging by Paterson’s right-wing views and voting record, our fears may well prove justified. Who’d have thought we’d be looking back fondly on Caroline Spelman’s tenure? Despite her mishandling of the forest sell-off and reticence towards embracing bold policy proposals she did make the case for green growth and understood the inherent value of sustainable development and biodiversity protection.
From the picturesque to the grotesque maybe?
- The Ramblers
- Doctor Syntax
- William Combe
- Age of Enlightenment
- William Wordsworth
- Lake District National Park
- National Trust
- Geologic timescale
- Wast Water
- New Dungeon Ghyll
- Old Dungeon Ghyll
- Walney Island
- Crinkle Crags
- Scafell Pike
- Cumbrian Coastal Way
- Owen Paterson MP
Kris Buckle – Picturesque
Keane – Strangeland – Bonus Track
Paul McCartney & Wings – Maybe I’m Amazed
Gordon Giltrap & Rick Wake… – By Angle Tarn
Blur – For Tomorrow
Simon & Garfunkel – For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her