High, Mighty and Irresistible -- Why We Love the Lakes; NATURAL HISTORY

Article excerpt

Byline: BY VAL HENNESSY

THE ENGLISH LAKES BY IAN THOMPSON (Bloomsbury [pounds sterling]25) THE hills are alive with the sound of waterfalls, brooks and the chomping sheep who maintain the billiardtable smoothness of the grassy slopes.

Ian Thompson's gorgeous photographs in his history of the Lake District depict a tourist honeypot of spectacular scenery and awesome loveliness, whose resident population of 43,000 have learnt to accommodate eight million visitors each year. Discover the Lakes and you fall in love. Even if it's raining.

This most cherished of English landscapes, as Thompson explains, evolved as a result of volcanoes as powerful as Etna and Vesuvius, followed by movement of the earth's crust and slithering glaciers. Until the 18th century, this miniature version of the Alps was considered a no-go area, grim, dangerous and uninhabitable.

Then it was discovered by imaginative types in search of the Picturesque.

Thomas Gray (of the famous Elegy in a Country Churchyard) arrived in 1769, did ten days of timid walking, sent home rapturous reports and, inadvertently, cranked the tourist engine into life.

Soon literary giants were striding about the hills in droves. Keats reached the summit of Skiddaw. Dickens and Wilkie Collins tackled Helvellyn. Wordsworth, the Lake District's most famous son, was fortunate indeed to be able to wander 'lonely as a cloud' through the nodding daffs long before the craggy ridges became dotted with the glow of high-visibility fellwalkers' waterproofs.

He and his sister Dorothy settled there, in various houses, attracting like-minded scribes such as Coleridge, Southey and De Quincey to tramp across the fells for poetic inspiration. Poor old Coleridge, out in all weathers, discovered that the Cumbrian landscape was inseparable from the damp Cumbrian weather. Smitten with swelling knees, a dodgy stomach, rheumatic pains, gout and asthma, he resorted to laudanum (opium in alcohol), the universal painkiller.

DESPITE his afflictions, he once walked 263 miles in eight days, some of it barefoot, after he burnt his shoes while drying them by a fire. Once he'd discovered Kendal Black Drop, which was stronger than ordinary laudanum, he became hopelessly addicted, consuming a pint a day and outstaying his welcome with the Wordsworths.

In later years, Wordsworth, his poetic gift deserting him, was plagued by visitors eager to meet the great man. On average, 800 fans a season would arrive to chat and be shown around his garden. In her 40s, sister Dorothy would still routinely walk 20 miles in an afternoon.

Artists, too, arrived to set up their easels and capture nature in the raw. Even though it rained every day, Turner, in 1797, painted the rocks, water, air and light, capturing the district's essential mood. Constable produced a series of studies in pencil and wash, of clouds and meteorological effects, describing the area as having 'the finest scenery there ever was'.

One artist, Charles Gough, disappeared while sketching in Patterdale. Three months later, his skeleton was discovered, with his faithful dog, Foxey, alive beside him. …