Gateway to the Classics: The Counties of England by Charlotte Mason
The Counties of England by  Charlotte Mason

Cumberland and Westmoreland

I. The Lake District

The lake district lies within the southern half of Cumberland, the western half of Westmoreland, and the piece of Lancashire known as Furness.

This is the playground of England, whither the young men go to climb the mountains, and young and old to be refreshed by the ever-changing beauty of lake and fell. In the season there are always tourists about, knapsack on shoulder, who make their way on foot, or by the pleasant old stage-coach; railways have only penetrated into the beautiful valleys in a few-places as yet.

The market-place of Keswick or of Ambleside is a merry scene on a bright morning, when the coaches are about to start. There they are: Ullswater coach, Coniston coach, Windermere coach, Keswick coach—each with its four fine horses. The gay passengers crowd round, everybody mounts to the top, ladies and all—happy they who get the front seats—and, with a merry blast of the horn, off goes the coach.

Not leaving us in the market-place, though; we have secured the box-seat on the Keswick coach.

By the way, what a pleasant village, or rather town, Ambleside is,—built of the dark blue-grey rock of the slate mountains, and standing in an open valley with towering mountains round it. Every village nestles in its own dale in this lake country; and a hardy, upright race the dalesmen are. In the rural villages many of [them are shepherds, for shepherding is the only kind of farm work possible among the mountains.

The road to Keswick leads between fells fringed with larch trees, and is bordered by the Eotha river, until we reach Eydal Water,—a fairy mere, with little, green, tree-shaded islands dotted over it, and with mountain shadows, and cloud shadows, and gleaming lights upon its waters. That rock, looking over the little lake, is "Wordsworth's Seat," and on the slope of the fell is Kydal Mount, which was the home of this "Lake Poet."

Mr. Wordsworth was a great walker; he wandered among the dales, and climbed the fells, and knew every mile of the beautiful lake country; and the beauty of it all was the joy of his life, and filled his heart with deep holy thoughts, some of which he has put into sweet words for our enjoyment.

Even the musical names of the fells were a delight to him. He tells us how, when he and a lady friend were walking forth one day, the lady laughed aloud, and,—

"The rock, like something starting from a sleep,

Tookup the lady's voice, and laugh'd again:

That ancient woman, seated on Helm Crag,

Was ready with her cavern: Hammar Scar,

And the tall steep of Silver How, sent forth

A noise of laughter; southern Loughrigg  heard,

And Fairfield  answered with a mountain tone:

Helvellyn  far into the clear blue sky

Carried the lady's voice; old Skiddaw  blew

His speaking trumpet; back out of the clouds

Of Glaramara  southward came the voice,

And Kirkstone  tossed it from his misty head."

It is not always quite so easy to wake the echoes; but the report of a gun, or the baying of the hounds, or, better still, the pealing thunder, is carried from hill to hill as was this lady's laugh.

The road leads us on by Grasmere, which lies at the foot of Silver How. It is another lovely mere, larger than Eydal, set in a soft green vale, hemmed in by rugged mountains. The grave of Wordsworth is in the village churchyard. Under Helm Crag we go; the vale narrows; the mountains become steep and rugged, with streams of boulders down their slopes; and, presently, we are under "the dark brow of the mighty Helvellyn."

II. Helvellyn

Helvellyn is the monarch of the lake mountains: Sea Fell is a hundred feet higher; Skiddaw, Sea Fell, and Helvellyn are all over 3000 feet; but neither of the others is such a big, swelling, giant of a mountain as Helvellyn.

We are too close to the Monarch to see his crown: our road lies under his vast shoulder; but we cannot pass him by. We must leave our box-seat, and breast the hill, prepared for two or three hours' hard climbing.

The best way to see the mountain in its grandeur is to follow the track which leads up by the Bed Tarn. A tarn  is a small mere, or lake, high up among the mountains. This Bed Tarn lies in a dip about 600 feet from the summit. It is shut in between two sloping walls of rock, the Striding Edge, and the Swirral Edge,—edges  indeed, for they are simply steep, narrow, broken pathways on the top of each wall of rock. If you are a good climber, and not apt to become giddy, you may make your way up by one of these edges; but beware of a false step on either side of the narrow pathway; one suoh step, and you are plunged down a precipice of a hundred feet.

There is a touching tale of a traveller who attempted the passage on a snowy day and fell. Wordsworth tells the story in the poem beginning—

"A barking sound the shepherd hears."

On the summit of the mountain there is an awful stillness; not an insect hums in the air; we no longer hear the roar of the mountain torrents; not a blade of grass is to be seen; cushions, or tufts of moss, parched and brown, appear between the huge blocks and stones that lie in heaps on all sides; the snow lies here for half the year.

III. Derwent Water

Coming down from Helvellyn, we are again in a "smiling valley," with its beautiful lake—Thirlmere this time, from which it has been proposed to bring water to Manchester.

At the head of Thirlmere the road turns, and we get a peep down the sweet Vale of St. John's, watered by the Greta river. We round the fells on our left, and Derwent Water and Keswick town lie below; and, farther on, towering Skiddaw and Bassenthwaite Water.

Beautiful Derwent Water!—the fairest of all the lakes, many people think—with its green shores and fringing trees, its islets and its mountain background; but perhaps Ullswater, on the other side of Helvellyn, has a wilder beauty.

Southey, another lake poet, less famous than Wordsworth, had his dwelling at Keswick, the bright little town which stands on the lake.

He tells us how the waters come down at Lodore, the waterfall at the head of the lake:—

* * * * *

"Retreating and beating and meeting and sheeting,

Delaying and straying and playing and spraying,

Advancing and prancing and glancing and dancing,

Recoiling, turmoiling, and toiling and boiling,

And dashing and flashing and splashing and clashing;

And so, never ending, but always descending,

Sounds and motions for ever and ever are blending,

All at once and all o'er, with a mighty uproar,

And this way the water comes down at Lodore."

And at many another force  in this land of waterfalls,—Airey Force, Sour Milk Force (white as milk), Stock Ghyl—for the rivers gather their waters on the high mountains, and have often to fall down steep walls of rock before they reach the valleys.

At the head of Borrow-dale, the dale in which Derwent Water lies, there is a mine of plumbago, or black-lead—so at least it is called. There is a pencil-factory there, where you may buy pencils marked with your own name in gold letters.

But we have no room to speak of half that is to be seen in this beautiful land of lakes; not of Windermere itself, the largest of the lakes—eleven miles long, and about three-quarters of a mile across—which lies chiefly in Furness; nor of Coniston Water, nor Coniston Old Man, nor of any of the Furness Fells; nor of Wild Wast Water, nor of Buttermere.

It is very pleasant to know your mountains; to be able to pick out one giant shape from another; to know that the Great Gable is something like the gable of a house; that Saddleback rises like a saddle; that High Street is a high straight ridge, like a street up aloft; that the Pillar is rather like a pillar; and that the Pikes—Sea Fell Pikes and Langdale Pikes—are pairs of giants with rounded heads, that you may always recognise. But it is the mass, the strength of the everlasting hills about you everywhere; the purple haze, the bloom, on the mountains, lit up gloriously at sunrise and sunset; the valleys, and the lakes, and the torrents,—these are some of the things that make up the joy and beauty of a mountain country.

In the distance it is impossible to tell how the mountain-slopes are covered; they lie, calm and grand, with their outlines softened by a veil of haze, purple, or rosy, or soft grey. But draw near, and you find the slopes fringed with larches, or carpeted with bracken—a carpet of warm, reddish gold in the autumn. Down many of the bleaker hills are streams of broken rock, which look as if a high wind would bring them pouring into the valleys. The lower slopes are usually covered with short turf, and divided into pastures by rough stone walls. The shepherd and his wise dog and the mountain sheep are, for the most part, the only wanderers on these lonely hills.

There are fewer people in this Lake District than in any other part of England of the same size. Men cannot till the fells, or live upon them; and these great rugged mountain masses spread over the whole district. They do not run in chains, but are grouped, rising behind and around one another like huge land-billows.

Between each pair of long mountain ridges is a dale, long and narrow, with green meadows and trees. The villages are in these dales, and the lowest part of each dale, or valley, is usually filled with water, forming a lake, set like a gem in the green vale, bright and clear and glittering in the sunshine. A river brings water to the lake, and a river carries to the sea what water there is to spare when the bed of the lake is full; that is, when the wafer in the lake rises nearly as high as the land of the valley round it. Thus, the Leven carries off the waters of Windermere; the Derwent, those of Bassenthwaite and Derwent Water. The mountain valleys in which the lakes lie are often at a great height above the surrounding land, and the rivers which drain them sometimes reach the lower land by sudden falls  or leaps over steep faces of rock. This is one cause of the numerous falls or forces  of this region, though it more often happens that the river reaches the level of the lake by a fall from above. Sometimes, as in Scale Force, the fall is double; the water reaches a level, and then there is another break in the rock, and down it pours again.

IV. The Farming And Mining Districts

There are two fertile valleys in Westmoreland—the Vale of Eden, in which Appleby, the county town, stands; and the Yale of Kendal, which is a very old town upon the Kent, where the wool of the mountain sheep is manufactured. The rest of the county is entirely filled with the Fells, or with the bleak Moors on the east, the continuation of the Pennine Chain.

Cross Fell, 2900 feet, the highest point in the range, is in Cumberland. In the dreary moors about Alton, farther north, there are important lead mines, and silver is found with the lead. Lead is also found in the Cumbrian or Lake Mountains, the dark rock of which is quarried for building purposes.

The Eden, the only considerable river in the two counties, flows north through a flat farming district, and winds round the old castle of "merrie Carlisle"—"merrie" in the days of border warfare, and now a busy town with glass, cotton, and iron works. It has a very large railway station, for the lines of four important companies meet here. Penrith and Wigton are market towns. .

A coal-field stretches from Wigton to Whitehaven. Maryport, Workington, and Whitehaven are all busy towns among the collieries, which run out in some places two or three miles under the Irish Sea; the colliers can hear the sea rolling overhead as they are at work.

A little south of Whitehaven is the red headland of St. Bees, the finest on this coast, where the clifiEs are washed by a stormy sea, which has strewn the beach with huge rock boulders. The Solway Frith, into which the Eden flows, divides Cumberland from the Scotch county of Dumfries.

Like Northumberland and Durham, this county belonged to the debatable border-land. The border warfare was carried as far as Appleby, which was twice besieged by the Scots. Carlisle was often occupied by them, and at one time, for twenty years, they held the whole of Cumberland and Westmoreland (1135–1157).

There are still round towers along the border which remain from those stormy days. Cumberland contains part of the Roman wall, which ends on the shores of the Solway Frith. More interesting remains still are those of three Druid temples, which are circles formed of huge blocks of stone planted upright in the ground; the largest of these stone circles, called "Long Meg and her Daughters," is near Penrith. "Long Meg" is a lady some six yards high.

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