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Culture and climate change in literary Lakeland

The great landscapes of the Lake District have been shaped by the words of poets, but they’ve also been shaped by human actions – not always for the good, says NICK MATTHEWS

I HAVE been holidaying in the Lake District for about 20 years, and I find it endlessly fascinating. 

Simon Schama, in his book Landscape and Memory, says that “landscapes are culture before they are nature — constructs of the imagination projected onto wood, water and rock.”

If the perception of any place is shaped by culture it is the Lakes. 

These days people who have seen the Lakes on TV turn up to enjoy a totally unspoilt natural landscape. Yet the truth is the place is totally man (and sheep) made. 

It has only survived as a tourist spot because of the way it has been portrayed by writers and artists. Hard to imagine now, but in 1724 Daniel Defoe described the area as “the wildest, most barren and frightful of any I have passed over in England.”

By 1820 when Wordsworth published his A Guide to the District of the Lakes in the North of England, perceptions had begun to change. Thanks to war with the French, wealthy tourists denied the joys of the “grand tour” set out to see the picturesque in their own land. 

The poetry of Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth promoted the Lakes like the best travel brochure which means now the Lakes have been a tourist destination for 200 years. 

As John Ruskin says, if you don’t just look but see it is apparent that this unspoilt wilderness has been shaped by human hand. Not just in the form of industry or spoil from mining but by the way the land was enclosed, as sheep became more valuable than people. 

I was reminded of this on a visit to the refurbished Wordsworth Museum at Dove Cottage in Grasmere. There is a splendid exhibition celebrating Wordsworth’s sonnet sequence down the River Duddon. 

The set of 33 sonnets mapping an imaginary walk down the river is beautifully illustrated with some delightful textile art by Flax, a south Cumbria textile group. 

The curators may be disappointed but I found the reply to Wordsworth, to the River Duddon, (from Five Rivers) by West Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson the high point of the exhibition. 

Wordsworth had a long life and, as Jonathan Bate points out in his recent biography, Radical Wordsworth (2020), the best of his work was in short bursts in his youth.

The Wordsworth of these sonnets is a “middle-aged Rydal landlord with a doting sister and a pension on the civil list” as Nicholson’s poem points out. 

The suspicion is that by this time Wordsworth’s fame was such that he was being paid by the yard. In reading the 33 sonnets they do sound like doggerel. The thing that most annoys Nicholson is the second sonnet. 

It begins:

Child of the clouds! Remote from every taint
Of sordid industry thy lot is cast

Now this wasn’t true even in Wordsworth’s day. Norman Nicholson (1914-87) lived his whole life in the west Cumbrian town of Millom, a town that grew around its ironworks at the mouth of the Duddon. 

Like Wordsworth, he wrote a guide to the Lakes. Unlike Wordsworth, he showed that the landscape and human action were intertwined. 

From the back of his house, he saw a living landscape, “cliffs of a slag bank, and bigger than the trunks of the larches were the chimney-stacks of the old furnaces. And only a little further the pit-shafts and spoil-heaps of an iron mine and a cargo pier jutting out into the estuary.” (Portrait of the Lakes, 1963).

In his poetry he captures the stark beauty of this landscape: 

For I who’ve lived for more than thirty years 
Upon your shore, have seen the slagbanks slant
Like screes sheer into the sand, and seen the tide
Purple with ore back up the muddy gullies
And wiped the sinter dust from the farmyard damsons.

In the conclusion to Portrait of The Lakes he makes a plea: “I do not want the Lakes to be turned into a museum. I do not want to see them smothered in good taste, embalmed in admiration.” 

In many ways this is the theme of this year’s Wainwright Prize winner English Pastoral (2020) by James Rebanks, whose family have been farming the Cumbrian fells for generations.  

This is much more than a second volume to his earlier book The Shepherd’s Life (2015). It is a “more grown-up effort … it’s me reckoning with all the big stuff that is going on at the moment, and some of our flaws and limitations — the complexities of what it is to actually live on the land. 

“They’re complicated needs — we need food, and we need nature, and we need trees and fields … So it’s all about quite a small farm, and quite a small life and a small community, but I think it touches on a lot of the bigger issues,” says Rebanks.

In their way Wordsworth, Nicholson and Rebanks are profoundly political writers — they each warn us of how people can become alienated from the landscape. 

Men like Benny Rothman, who led the mass trespasses to gain access to these hills for working-class people, and Canon Rawnsley, who formed the National Trust to protect our heritage, understood the value of us being in these landscapes for our emotional wellbeing. 

What Wordsworth, or perhaps even Nicholson, never understood and Rebanks is now grappling with is that the human hand which is now shaping these hills is more difficult to protect our landscapes from — with the new threat of human-made climate change. 

If we wish to continue to enjoy the sheer pleasure and freedom of being in these grand places, we must make a greater effort to protect them. 

In the 19th century, Ruskin launched an attack on the utilitarian economists of his day from his lair above Lake Coniston in his great Essay, Unto this Last (1862): “There is no wealth but life,” he said.

Today we truly know that contemporary capitalist wealth accumulation is no longer compatible with a healthy planet. Man and nature are one. There can be no wealth without life, all life.

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