“Caution! Fast Rising Tides! Hidden Channels! Quicksand!” The simple white sign, with its bold black lettering, seems oddly out of place posted along the Victorian-era Promenade of Grange-Over-Sands, a sleepy seaside town on the southern border of England’s Lake District National Park. While the warnings might evoke the sinister setting of an Indiana Jones action flick, the broad paved path which skirts the grassy marshland of Morecambe Bay would appear to provide the perfect family day out.
There’s a little girl with blonde pigtails wobbling along on her Pepto-pink bike, pint-sized roller-bladers as padded against bumps and bruises as the Michelin Man, and proud parents pushing prams plumped with mewling babies. With all the lolling-tongued canines straining at their leashes, there might, admittedly, be a slight risk of stepping in a steaming pile of unpleasantness—although with plaques threatening £1000 fines for “non-removal” of dog droppings (illustrated by a stooping stick figure with a shovel poised beneath his pup’s pert behind), I would wager that is unlikely.
Yet as I discover on a seven-day walking tour with English Lakeland Ramblers, during which we’ll meander nearly 40 miles on foot through the southern part of the rural county of Cumbria, the Lake District isn’t as blissfully serene as it might seem on its surface. While the Promenade itself is safe enough, Morecambe Bay has indeed claimed many lives, most notably killing at least 21 Chinese cockerel pickers in 2004 when they were caught by the incoming tide.
Mother Nature is a fierce, mercurial force, particularly here in the lakes. But at least, according to our guide Janet Niepokojezyeka, “there’s nothing in Britain today that would attack a human.”
So, no salivating grizzlies or coyotes to contend with on our walks—and the only venomous snake is the adder. Given my extremely optimistic (i.e. always half-full) bladder, my biggest concern is coming across a patch of stinging nettle during my frequent “spend-a-penny” sprees in the forest.
There is also the more insidious risk of melancholy amid the misty mountains. Some of the Lake District’s most famous literary figures experienced bouts of depression and even madness.
John Ruskin, the renowned Victorian art critic, watercolorist, and philanthropist, pretty much lost the plot in later life, as we learn during a visit to Brantwood, his home overlooking Coniston Water.
In a letter to his friend, now displayed in the bedroom where he laid awake imagining dancing demons, Ruskin wrote: “Let me very strongly warn you from the whirlpool edge. The drain in the middle is gloomier than I can tell you.”
Chalk it up to the weather. William Wordsworth, who was born and died in the Lake District, famously wrote, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” But surveying the stormy skies over the valleys and hills (or “fells,” as they’re known here), I find it’s only the fleeting sunbeams that are scarce. The clouds have plenty of company.
And yet, I come to realize—succumbing, perhaps, to a meteorological form of Stockholm Syndrome–that’s actually part of Cumbria’s appeal.
On by far the wettest day of the week, as pouring rain drips down our faces and snakes inside our “waterproof” jackets and trousers, we pass an improbably cheerful man going the other way.
“Proper Lake District weather,” he says with a huge grin, hooking his thumbs through the straps of his backpack. “That’s what you come here for, innit?” More than once, we’ll hear the refrain, “Ah well, without the rain, we wouldn’t have the lakes!”
Sixteen lakes and several smaller bodies of water in the higher elevations, known as “tarns,” dot the glacial landscape.
We enjoy many a picnic lunch, perched on low stone walls beside Mother Nature’s placid mirrors, which reflect the surrounding hills.
We pause to photograph centuries-old arched stone bridges, stroll alongside perfectly clear streams cutting through fairytale woodlands carpeted by springy moss, and pick our way down slippery rocks beside spectacular, swift-running waterfalls.
The scenery ranges from rolling green hills, far more populated by sheep and cows than humans, to craggy, barren highlands, as epitomized by Hard Knott, a 549 meter (1800 foot) peak accessed by the steepest—and one of the windiest roads—in the Lake District.
“It’s grim up here,” admits Anne Strange, taking over guiding duties for the day, as she leads us past the knee high ruins of a Roman fort towards a cliff edge. “But it can be magical. I’d like to be up here in a thunderstorm.”
It is, perhaps, the mercurial, unpredictable, and ever-changing nature of the Lake District that proves its greatest charm, and which attracts travelers from abroad as well as Brits. As we descend one afternoon into the bucolic valley of Little Langdale, we fall into step with Brian and Kathy West, who have come from Whitby, about three hours away.
“We used to live in the Pyrenees,” reveals Brian, tossing a stick for Charlie, his border collie/German shepherd mix, to retrieve. “You can walk there for four or five hours and look at the same thing. But in the Lake District, every corner you turn, there’s a different view. It’s a great way to unwind,” he says, “as long as you don’t mind getting wet.”
Related links: “Cornwall: A Walk on the Wild Side of England” http://amylaughinghouse.com/?p=927