Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017
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A Stroll By The Lake

Wander lonely as a cloud in the region that inspired some of England's greatest poets and painters -- the Lake District

For more than 200 years England's Lake District has attracted and captivated visitors. The legendary beauty of its lakes and mountains has been an unfailing source of inspiration for some of the greatest names in English art and literature.

This crown jewel of the English landscape is located in the county of Cumbria in northwest England. The Lake District National Park covers 2280 square kilometres, but this relatively small area contains an astonishing

variety of scenery. There are impressive mountains (Scafell Pike, at 978 metres, is England's highest peak), a unique constellation of lakes and tarns (steep-banked lakes), ancient woods (the habitat of roe deer, red squirrel and pine marten), waterfalls, lush meadows, remote stone farmhouses and bustling towns. There are spectacular views from high mountain passes like Hardknott and Honister, where the songs of the pipit and skylark are carried on the wind.

The Lake District is one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations. Day-trippers, vacationers, rock climbers, sailing enthusiasts, geologists, botanists, writers, artists and photographers pass through it at a rate of 13 million a year, generating revenues of $2.2 billion. Last year that cataract of visitors dried up suddenly when Cumbria was stricken by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the early spring.

For seven traumatic months Cumbrian farmers watched helplessly as vast numbers of their sheep and cattle were killed and incinerated. In Cumbria infected farms were isolated, roads and footpaths were closed. Visitors were frightened away and the related industries of farming and tourism -- vital to the Cumbrian economy -- were devastated. The foot-and-mouth epidemic was finally brought under control in the fall, and the long nightmare came to an end.

When I visited the Lake District in October, fat, healthy-looking sheep and cattle grazed in pastures and on hillsides. The footpaths and hiking trails were open again, giving free access to the incomparable moors, called "fells" in Cumbria. Tourists were returning to the region and were received with warmth and gratitude.

Poets and Painters
The Lake District owes its immense popularity to one of the most influential of the English poets, William Wordsworth (1770-1850). In verse and prose Wordsworth wrote of the region's lakes and mountains with an intensity and passion that transcended mere physical description. By adding a spiritual dimension to the landscape, he revolutionized the 19th-century perception of nature in England and created a mystique of the Lake District which has endured to the present day. Wordsworth was also the author of the Guide To The Lakes, published in 1810, which became a bestseller and laid the foundation of the modern tourist industry in Cumbria.

William and his sister Dorothy were born in the Cumbrian town of Cockermouth and spent most of their long lives among the lakes, first at Dove Cottage in Grasmere and later at Rydal Mount near Ambleside. They are both buried, with Wordsworth's wife Mary, in St Oswald's churchyard, Grasmere, beside the River Rothay. Wordsworth's homes and his grave have become shrines for literary pilgrims from all over the world.

The Lake District is haunted by literary ghosts. Famous residents include the English Lake poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writer Thomas de Quincey and noted Victorian social critic and art historian, John Ruskin. Brantwood, Ruskin's beautiful home, overlooks Coniston Water where the elegantly refurbished steam yacht Gondola sails in the shadow of a mountain called the Old Man of Coniston. In the late 18th century, Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley visited the area, the latter staying for a year. Almost a century later, writer Charles Dickens and poet laureate Lord Tennyson came on extended visits. Tennyson used Bassenthwaite Lake as the setting for the throwing of King Arthur's sword Excalibur in his ambitious Idylls of the King.

The Lake District has always been a magnet for artists who cannot resist the challenge of its colours and the quality of its rapidly-changing light. The great 19th-century landscape painter J.M.W. Turner was 22 when he made his first trip to the area in 1797. He travelled light, with only a change of linen, an umbrella, a flute and essential art supplies. He sometimes covered more than 40 kilometres on foot in a day. During his tour he produced radiant oils and superb watercolours of Buttermere, Ullswater, Windermere and the Coniston fells. His great contemporary John Constable visited the Lake District in 1806, and made some 70 sketches and watercolours. "The finest scenery that ever was," he noted on one of his drawings.

 

Peter Rabbit's Home
In Hill Top, her cottage in Near Sawrey, Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), a writer and illustrator of genius, created immortal characters like Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Squirrel Nutkin, who have delighted children for a hundred years. Potter used details of Hill Top in many of her illustrations, and scenes from Sawrey and the surrounding countryside are featured in some of her stories.

The Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead is housed in her husband's former law offices. Potter's exquisite watercolours are displayed in four rooms under museum conditions and are changed every season, so that all 500 can be seen in turn.

Hill Top is now owned by England's conservation authority, the National Trust, and receives 70,000 visitors each year. The numbers will increase substantially in the coming months, since October 2002 marks the centenary of the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The National Trust is planning a programme of events to celebrate. The Beatrix Potter Society's 10th International Conference will be held in Ambleside from August 15 to 20, and will discuss the genesis and future of Potter's books around the world. In addition, the World of Beatrix Potter, a popular attraction in Bowness-on-Windermere, which brings Potter characters to life in an indoor recreation of the Lakeland countryside, will feature a Peter Rabbit Centenary Clock.

A far-sighted conservationist, Potter used the huge royalties from her best-selling books to finance farming activities and land purchases. Over 30 years, she built up an estate of 14 farms and numerous cottages over nearly 2500 hectares, all of which she bequeathed to the National Trust, which is the largest landowner in the region.

The appeal of the Lake District lies not only in its sublime scenery and the richness of its literary, artistic and historic associations, but in the life and character of the local people. The shepherds, farmers, quarrymen, foresters, weavers and other rural craftsmen represent the true heart of the Lake country. Stoical and elemental, they earn a hard living from the land. They maintain the local dialect derived from Old Norse as well as traditional local sports: wrestling, fell-running, hound trailing and hunting on foot.

A country walk
My guide to the Lakes was Tom McCafferty, a native Cumbrian with an extensive knowledge of the area. As well as taking me to extraordinarily beautiful scenic locations, Tom introduced me to local food specialities like the oatmeal-based Grasmere Gingerbread, the distinctive coils of Cumberland Sausage and Windermere Char, a fish whose delicate pink flesh is delicious. In season from July to October, it is traditionally eaten grilled, potted or in a pie.

We spent the first day of my tour in Buttermere Valley amid some of the grandest and wildest scenery in Cumbria. The lake was a dazzle of silver under a luminous vapour of rain. Running down the steep fell-side, 214 metres high, was a ribbon of white water, as delicate as a bridal veil, with the unromantic name of Sour Milk Gill.

On subsequent days we visited peaceful hill farms with emerald pastures full of grazing sheep, and intricate networks of dry-stone walls; many lakes and tarns; famous landmarks like the Ashness Bridge and the curious little Bridge House in Ambleside.

Rydal Water, fringed with golden reeds, was particularly lovely, with the variegated colours of its mountains reflecting in the mirror of the lake. I lingered at Ashness Bridge, on the narrow, winding Watendlath Road in Borrowdale, delighting in its backdrop of heather- and bracken-covered mountains and the view of Derwent Water and distant Bassenthwaite Lake. I'd been looking forward to seeing Tarn Hows, a celebrated beauty spot, and I was not disappointed. Set among the soaring, heavily wooded Coniston fells, the tarn is one of the most attractive in the Lake District and is usually very crowded in the summer months. Bridge House, a tiny two-room house built in the 17th century on a stone bridge over Stock Beck in Ambleside, is an intriguing architectural curiosity. It was occupied by a chair-repairer and his family in the 19th century and is now used by the National Trust as an information centre.

Tom suggested that we take a cruise on Windermere. This 17-kilometre lake is the longest in England. While waiting for the lake steamer to depart from Bowness-on-Windermere we went down to the water's edge to hand-feed the swans which have become quite tame.

The weather is always unpredictable in the Lake District and, soon after we left Bowness, the sky darkened and black thunderclouds, driven by Atlantic winds, brought heavy rain. We retreated below deck and stayed there for the rest of the cruise, while the rain drummed on the roof of the cabin with the force of a monsoon. The lake looked like hammered pewter, and the mountains disappeared in a white mist. Two hours later, the storm passed and the sky cleared, unveiling a day of blue and gold. Sunlight played on the steep fells, and the lake sparkled like crushed sapphires.

That afternoon we headed for Ullswater. It was here that Wordsworth, walking on the northern banks of the lake with his sister Dorothy on April 15, 1802, saw the host of daffodils that inspired his famous poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," one of the most anthologized poems in the English language.

Water, and the sounds of water, are the fell-walker's constant companions. The fells are combed with fast-flowing streams, sometimes concealed, sometimes rocky or tree-lined, with waterfalls making dramatic interludes in the water's constant music.

Fell-walking is one of the best ways to experience the many moods of the Lake District, where the weather can change from mist to sudden showers to prodigal sunshine within the space of a few hours. The landscape, too, changes as one climbs the fells above the lakes. There is always something here to delight the eye and touch: the rich russet of October bracken and tawny grasses, the subtle pinks and subdued violets of rock and slate, sunlight sweeping over the steep fell-sides, the wind ruffling the surface of a lake or the feel and texture of the springy turf that covers the glacial moraine.

The Lake District offers more than the gift of tranquillity. Here on the heights, even during the peak of the tourist season, it is still possible to find solitude and peace.

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