The Ballards - The Lake District


As The Lake District is on the North West coast of England, like Manchester and Liverpool it is the recipient of a great deal of rainfall off the Irish Sea, which means that 9 days out of 10 it's going to be raining and the visibility will be awful.

British holidaymakers (until the last 20 years starved of affordable holiday sun) used to call it "bracing"; now they just call it "expensive, wet and cold", and go to Turkey instead, which is good for the Lake District but bad for global CO2 emissions.

I visited the Lake District first in 1982 on a flying visit to the BNFL site at Windscale (now Sellafield) where I had applied for a Work Experience posting in this officially "most out of the way in case of accidents" place in the UK. I ended up passing the interview but the job was later withdrawn because I failed to pass the requisite exams (or maybe I failed to glow in the dark...). However, it made for a pleasant couple of all-expenses-paid days in the Lakes.

As it was Easter (but an unseasonably warm and very calm, dry period) the place was deserted, and the roads fun to blast down. Because of the proximity to Barrow-in-Furness, where they make all the submarines, and Windscale, the UK Government had, in a rare moment of transport generosity, decreed that the roads would be Improved such that heavy equipment could actually get there. So I had wide, sweeping, empty pre-Gatso A and B roads, no Nissan Micras, and lots of passing places (but sadly, no Porsche). See also Scotland, with particular reference to the A9...

The landscape was formed during many Geological Periods (and is best explained here...) and consists of rolling hills and deep lakes (Coniston Water is so deep it took them 40 years to find the remains of poor Donald Campbell, the Water World Speed record holder, after he crashed).

The scenery is similar to the Isle of Man which is hardly surprising as they are virtually next door. These days the landscape is dictated by Tourism, forestry and sheep farming, so the natural forests are contained and regularly farmed.
It looks Natural, but like most modern landscapes, it's an unnatural facsimile of what used to be there.
Urbanites should bear that in mind when preaching to rural people on rural habits such as fox-hunting and hare-coursing. In return, of course, country-dwellers should limit their criticism of urban habits such as hotting, armed robbery, road-rage, cottaging and street riots.....

The other lake no one know about

Nessie and I went for a Long Weekend at Easter in 1995 (it was all we could afford) and of course it rained most of the time. Next time Turkey, methought....

Windermere is big on boats, for which we have to thank Arthur Ransome and his Swallows and Amazon books (yes, I know they were set in the Norfolk Broads...). Sailing doesn't interest me, unless it's over 25 knots and requires a wet suit, so these gin palaces don't float my boat. But the walking is great.

Behind the rolling hills lie mountains, which you can glimpse to the North (for serious walkers only, which counts us out...), but the hills around the Lakes are great for daytrippers like us, who want to walk up and down hills, take some photos, get a bit lost and ooh and aah at the views for an hour or two then go and have a socking great lunch to undo all the good we've just done ourselves.

The weather steadfastly refused to clear, so we wrapped up and walked anyway.Orienteering lessons learned at school (thank you for that, The Duke of Edinburgh!) have ensured we always have a plan, a good map, waterproofs, a compass, a chocolate bar, a mobile phone and latterly a GPS.
Be Prepared, that's the Ethic.

So we didn't get lost, which was a tiny bit less fun, but meant we got back to our hotel dry, tired and ready for Cream Teas...

The Windermere Authorities have now decreed a hugely controversial 10mph speed limit for powered craft on Lake Windermere which I think, on balance, is a good idea provided one of the other Lakes, say Coniston, retains the ability for people to do stupid things with jetskis and powerboats. After all, part of The Lakes' attraction is their tranquility.

But I'm sure Donald Campbell wouldn't approve.

Away from the Lakeshore, the scenery is more agricultural. Very little arable farming is apparent as the soil is of poor quality and the majority of the available land is vertiginous, but there are plenty of sheep all over the area.

The majority of the fields are divided by labour-intensive (both to build and to maintain) dry stone walls, which remain, on the whole, in good repair, and are a good way of using up the stone collected from the fields in the first place.

Where farmers have got lazy the walls have been topped with the ubiquitous barbed wire strung between short-lived wooden posts, which seems a shame, but sheep are buggers and will get out of anywhere. Can't say I blame them, really.

The Industrial heritage of the area is well documented and sanitised for the tourists.

We stumbled across a wonderful old bobbin mill at Stott Park, which differs from the majority in that it is a working museum actually still making bobbins commercially, and you can still make bobbins on the 19th Century machine tools (albeit powered by some very 20th Century electric motors).
Great fun and, most importantly, not weather-dependant!

Satterthwait bobbin mill

The Lake District's other export is of course Beatrix Potter, and you can still visit her house and see her garden, with a Mr Mcgregor-like spade stuck in the ground. Appealing, especially to the hordes of Japanese with video cameras.

Her stories have a timeless appeal to young children: my grandmother had a set and used to read them to our children (not bad, having stories read to you by your great-grandmother) who absolutely loved them.

Where are the rabbits?

Get off the beaten track and the views are wonderful, the mud slippery and the stone walls rough on the knees. The paths are well-signposted and the barbed wire is sharp. The hills are steep but the views at the top are well worth the expenditure of puff to get there.

I dread to think what the roads are like in High Summer, especially the Windermere Ferry, which seems like an anachronism, with pensioners in Nissan Micras, Midlanders in caravans and Japanese in air-conditioned Kassböhrer coaches every 50 yards, but at Easter they are empty, fast and challenging. The fact that they always seem to be wet only adds to the fun...

Looking North towards Windermere

I seem fated to visit The Lake District only ever at Easter in the rain.

In 2005 a colleague and I installed broadband to all the Fire Stations in Cumbria the week before Easter, so I had another excuse to blast around the county in the rain, this time in a recently-acquired 6-cylinder BMW 3-Series Touring. It would be a good test of its dynamic abilities and, in those pre-GPS days, my map-reading...

Landscape near Cockermouth

Based in Cockermouth we quartered the countryside, visiting all the weird, out of the way villages with volunteer fire stations hidden away, some of them very hard to find. Armed with a Master key and alarm code, we installed routers and tested the broadband links, often in cold, empty, echoing stations. A bit spooky, really.....

The weather was truly awful all week, as expected, and herculean amounts of water descended upon us as we travelled between the stations. The Lake District receives the greatest rainfall of any part of England, and this certainly proved it.

Fortunately the weather kept the Nissan Micras, the air-conditioned Kassböhrer coaches and the blasted caravans away, so mostly we had clear runs and only met the occasional tractor. We drove in mist and fog, and ocasionally snow in the uplands, and never-ending drizzle in the Lakes area, and never once saw the sun until the last day as we were leaving.

We saw a grittier side of Cumbria: it is officially an economically-deprived area and a net exporter of jobs and people.

Quietly, there is poverty in the small villages, amongst the ubiquitous pebble-dashed bungalows and the back-to-back tenements. The gritty Northern temperament with it's disdain for our "soft" Southern sensibilities was there as well.

Postbox near Gilcrux

We saw speed camera warning signs everywhere, but not one fixed camera. I am forced to assume the cameras are mobile, but we never saw one; I suspect they emerge when the tourists do, and let the locals alone for the rest of the year.

Due to the aforementioned complete lack of any road infrastructure expenditure since what feels like the 12th century it's quite hard to drive very fast in Cumbria unless you are on the M6: the roads do not lend themselves to driving very fast, except the glorious A66(T) from Penrith to Cockermouth which is improved, beautifully graded and wide enough with long enough sight lines to ease overtaking. In the light traffic we could make consistently good times on that road to and from Cockermouth without risking anything silly.

Ullswater road

Many of the farmers supplement their meagre(-ish) sheep husbanding income with tourist-related activities such as campsites and B&Bs: this is the future, of course.

Sheep can be more cheaply reared in NZ and Oz and shipped in dead or alive, so once the EC Subsidies have dried up expect to see less sheep farming, more Set Aside and more tourists (those that don't mind the rain and the prices, of course.....).

Steamer, Ullswater

We both survived the week: Jamie didn't crash his Nissan 300ZX twin-turbo despite several times turning up at the hotel with steam coming off the brakes (he wrote it off later, but not in the Lake District), neither of us got any speeding tickets (some surprise there, actually), the BMW never put a foot wrong even under some severe provocation so my respect for German auto-engineering increased enormously, and the Cumbria Fire Brigade got their broadband links.

Road, Souther Fell

We had a fun week and got to see some remote parts of Cumbria few outsiders have seen. Some of the Fire Stations hadn't been touched since the 1960's and you do get the feeling the whole thing is run on a bit of a shoe string, especially in the more rural areas.

But my desire to holiday in The Lakes was reduced even further; who wants to get wet every day?

Ullswater panorama

Souther Fell