Writers And Writing in the Lake District

View of Lake Windermere, from above Waterhead.

The Lake District, in the north-west of England, is the country’s largest national park at over 2,362 sq.km, similar in size to the Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, US.

So what drew so many Victoria authors to the area?

William Wordsworth

The famous poet, William Wordsworth, was born and raised on the edge of the Lake District, and attended grammar school in Hawkshead, near Lake Windermere.  After studying in Cambridge, and renting a cottage in Dorset, he moved to Grasmere, north of Windermere, with his sister, Dorothy and rented Dove Cottage.

We walked from Ambleside, on the shores of Lake Windermere, to Dove Cottage along the ‘coffin road’.  This ancient route was used to transfer dead bodies to consecrated ground at St Oswald’s Church.  It also Rydall Mount where Wordsworth lived with his wife and sister, until his death in 1850, at the age of 80.

Rydall Mount, view from the Coffin Road and Dave Cottage, Grasmere

The sunshine may have been tinged with clouds after early morning showers, but this made our walk even more atmospheric as I viewed the countryside, little changed since Wordsworth was alive and wrote his famous poem, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought.
In 1820 Wordworth wrote his Guide to the Lakes in 1820, in which he suggested the area become ‘a sort of national property’.  Interest in the area grow amongst rich Victorians seeking escape from the noise and dirt of expanding industrialised cities and in 1845 they started arriving by railway.

It is clear from the architecture of the towns, and the large houses built on the lake shores, that the area grew hugely in popularity during the Victorian era.  The rich were probably trying to escape the noise and dirt of expanding industrial cities and their journeys were made easier when passenger trains started in 1850.

Paradoxically, whilst Wordsworth had encouraged these visitors with his poems and guide, he objected to expansion of the railways.  He was joined in his opinion that the area would be ruined by too many people by fellow writer, John Ruskin, and Harrow school master, Robert Somervell.  A side note -  Winston Churchill praised Somervell as the man who taught him the most precious heritage, the English Language.

Beatrix Potter

The children’s author, and accomplished artist, first visited the Lake District, where she would make her home, when she was 16.  Her father rented Wray Castle in 1886 on the shores of Lake Windermere for a family holiday.

Wray Castle, its entrance hall and catching the ferry to it from Waterhead, Lake Windermere

Some of Beatrix’s father’s photos were displayed in the castle, depicting her as fun loving with a wry smile, despite the strictness of Victorian etiquette. 

She started sketching and on subsequent holidays, around Lake Derwentwater, she started writing about a mischievous rabbit, Peter, for younger relatives.

Many more characters and stories were conceived around Derwentwater including one of my favourites, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, a hedgehog-washerwoman, based on Beatrix’s own washerwoman, Kitty MacDonald. 

I also had a soft toy Mr Tod, the suave fox who tried to trick Jemima Puddle-Duck.

In 1905, with the proceeds of her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she bought Hill Top Farm. Still living in London, she retreated to Hill Top to write and draw. 

Beatrix Potter with her prize winning Herdwick sheep

In 1923, she bought another, much larger farm, and others followed.  She managed them and employed a shepherd to help breed and save a local sheep breed, Herdwicks. 

There are many in the Lake District now and they are engaging with exceptionally cute and enquiring faces.

Arthur Ransome

The author of the wonderful children’s adventure books, Swallows and Amazons, was born in Leeds but he went to school in Windermere and learned to sail on Lake Coniston.  The fictional lake of his books is thought to be a combination of Windermere and Coniston.

When we took the ferry across Windermere, to Wray Castle, passing elegant sailing boats and small rowing boats, I could imagine his factious Walker and Blackett children stopping to explore islands, or sail into the middle of the lake.

Ferry across Lake Windermere, and boating on Lake Coniston

Two of the rowing boats used in the 1216 adaption of the film are in display in the Windermere Jetty Museum, along with other historic boats which have sailed on the lake.

Derwent Pencil Museum, Keswick

On a day we expected rain, we drove half an hour north of Lake Windermere to Keswick, on the northern shore of Derwentwater.

This small but busy town, full of outdoor clothing shops,  and some which would be more at home in Cornwall, was once home to the dangerous and illicit trade of a graphite.  Graphite once attracted higher prices than diamonds, with which is shares a molecular structure, but Graphite’s carbon atoms are layered and it is slippery to touch.

Derwent Pencil Museum, Pencil Sculptures and a fantastic Pencil Case!

Fun Facts About Pencils, learned at the Derwent Pencil Museum:

  • ‘Pencil’ comes from the French word ‘pincel’, meaning ‘small paint brush’.
  • 14,000,000,000 pencils are made every year, enough to circumnavigate the earth 62 times.
  • Graphite mining in Borrowdale began c. 1555, and it remains the only area of graphite mines in the UK.
  • The phrase ‘black market’ comes from smuggling graphite, as it marked the smugglers hands, so everyone knew what they’d been up to.
  • In the 1700s graphite would have cost the equivalent of £1,500 per kg in today’s market, and was moved from Keswick to the Tower of London by armed stagecoaches.
  • The graphite grading scale is known as ‘HB’ where ‘H’ represents the hardness and ‘B’ how black it is.
  • On average, a pencil can be sharpened 17 times, and draw a line 35 miles long, and write 45,000 words.  So that’s the length of some novels, and I’m sure I sharpen my pencils, which I use for writing all my notes, at least 17 times.  I become very attached to them!
  • In WW2, special pencils were made with a hidden department for a tissue paper map, and a compass was secured in the end.  They were distributed to prisoner of war camps to help the inmates escape.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my brief literary tour of the Lake District, and who knows, I may include some of these places and facts in a future book!

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