Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Lake Country

Derwentwater, Lake Country, EnglandNorth of Lancashire, in the counties of Westmoreland and Cumberland, is the famous "Lake Country" of England. It does not cover a large area—in fact, a good pedestrian can walk from one extremity of the region to the other in a day—but its compact beauties have a charm of rugged outline and luxuriant detail that in a condensed form reproduce the Alpine lakes of Northern Italy. Derwentwater is conceded to be the finest of these English lakes, but there is also great beauty in Windermere and Ulleswater, Buttermere and Wastwater. The Derwent runs like a thread through the glassy bead of Derwentwater, a magnificent oval lake set among the hills, about three miles long and half that breadth, alongside which rises the frowning Mount Skiddaw with its pair of rounded heads. In entering the Lake Region from the Lancashire side we first come to the pretty Windermere Lake, the largest of these inland sheets of water, about ten miles long and one mile broad in the widest part. From Orrest Head, near the village of Windermere, there is a magnificent view of the lake from end to end, though tourists prefer usually to go to the village of Bowness on the bank, where steamers start at frequent intervals and make the circuit of the pretty lake. From Bowness the route is by Rydal Mount, where the poet Wordsworth lived, to Koswick, about twenty-three miles distant, on Derwentwater.

The attractive Derwent flows down through the Borrowdale Valley past Seathwaite, where for many a year there has been worked a famous mine of plumbago: we use it for lead-pencils, but our English ancestors, while making it valuable for marking their sheep, prized it still more highly as a remedy for colic and other human ills. There are several pencil-mills in the village, which, in addition to other claims for fame, is noted as one of the rainiest spots in England, the annual rainfall at Seathwaite sometimes reaching one hundred and eighty-two inches. The Derwent flows on through a gorge past the isolated pyramidal rock known as Castle Crag, and the famous Bowder Stone, which has fallen into the gorge from the crags above, to the hamlet of Grange, where a picturesque bridge spans the little river. We are told that the inhabitants once built a wall across the narrowest part of this valley: having long noticed the coincident appearance of spring and the cuckoo, they rashly concluded that the latter was the cause of the former, and that if they could only retain the bird their pleasant valley would enjoy perpetual spring; they built the wall as spring lengthened into summer, and with the autumn came the crisis. The wall had risen to a considerable height when the cuckoo with the approach of colder weather was sounding its somewhat asthmatic notes as it moved from tree to tree down the valley; it neared the wall, and as the population held their breath it suddenly flew over, and carried the spring away with it down the Derwent. Judge of the popular disgust when the sages of that region complainingly remarked that, having crossed but a few inches above the topmost stones of the wall, if the builders had only carried it a course or two higher the cuckoo might have been kept at home, and their valley thus have enjoyed a perennial spring.

The Derwent flows on along its gorge, which has been slowly ground out by a glacier in past ages, and enters the lake through the marshy, flat, reedy delta that rather detracts from the appearance of its upper end. Not far away a small waterfall comes tumbling over the crags among the foliage; this miniature Niagara has a fame almost as great as the mighty cataract of the New World, for it is the "Fall of Lodore," about which, in answer to his little boy's question, "How does the water come down at Lodore?" Southey wrote his well-known poem that is such a triumph of versification, and from which this is a quotation:

"Flying and flinging, writhing and wringing,
Eddying and whisking, spouting and frisking,
Turning and twisting
Around and around, with endless rebound,
Smiting and fighting, a sight to delight in,
Confounding, astounding.
Dizzying and deafening the ear with its sound;
All at once, and all o'er, with mighty uproar—
And this way the water conies down at Lodore."

Thus we reach the border of Derwentwater, nestling beneath the fells and crags, as its miniature surrounding mountains are called. Little wooded islets dimple the surface of the lake, in the centre being the largest, St. Herbert's Island, where once that saint lived in a solitary cell: he was the bosom friend of St. Cuthbert, the missionary of Northumberland, and made an annual pilgrimage over the Pennine Hills to visit him; loving each other in life, in death they were not divided, for Wordsworth tells us that

"These holy men both died in the same hour."

Another islet is known as Lord's Island, where now the rooks are in full possession, but where once was the home of the ill-fated Earl of Derwentwater, who was beheaded in 1716 for espousing the Pretender's cause. It is related that before his execution on Tower Hill he closely viewed the block, and finding a rough place which might offend his neck, he bade the headsman chip it off; this done, he cheerfully placed his head upon it, gave the sign, and died: his estates were forfeited and settled by the king on Greenwich Hospital. Castle Hill rises boldly on the shore above Derwent Isle, where there is a pretty residence, and every few years there is added to the other islets on the bosom of the lake the "Floating Island," a mass of vegetable matter that becomes detached from the marsh at the upper end. At Friar's Crag, beneath Castle Hill, the lake begins to narrow, and at Portinscale the Derwent flows out, receives the waters of the Greta coming from Keswick, and, after flowing a short distance through the meadow-land, expands again into Bassenthwaite Lake, a region of somewhat tamer yet still beautiful scenery.

The town of Keswick stands some distance back from the border of Derwentwater, and is noted as having been the residence of Southey. In Greta Hall, an unpretentious house in the town, Southey lived for forty years, dying there in 1843. He was laid to rest in the parish church of Crosthwaite, just outside the town. At the pretty little church there is a marble altar-tomb, the inscription on which to Southey's memory was written by Wordsworth. Greta Hall was also for three years the home of Coleridge, the two families dwelling under the same roof. Behind the modest house rises Skiddaw, the bare crags of the rounded summits being elevated over three thousand feet, and beyond it the hills and moors of the Skiddaw Forest stretch northward to the Solway, with the Scruffel Hill beyond. Upon a slope of the mountain, not far from Keswick, is a Druids' circle, whose builders scores of centuries ago watched the mists on Skiddaw's summit, as the people there do now, to foretell a change of weather as the clouds might rise or fall, for they tell us that

"If Skiddaw hath a cap,
Scruffel wots full well of that."

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