Almost exactly one third of Cumbria’s 2636 square miles lies within the boundaries of the Lake District National Park, England’s largest National Park. It was created in 1951 to protect the area from “inappropriate development and to provide access to the land for public enjoyment”. Within its boundaries can be found some of the most dramatic scenery in England, including the highest mountain in the country, Scafell Pike (3205ft), and the largest and deepest lakes, Windermere and Wast Water respectively, along with another 14 lakes (although apart from Bassenthwaite they are called ‘meres’ or ‘waters’).
Despite the huge influx of visitors, most do not venture far from the main tourist ‘honey- pots’, so it’s still easy to find the peaceful glades and windswept, isolated fells celebrated by the Lake Poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey. Between them, this lyrical trio transformed the pervading 18th century perception of the most northwesterly corner of England as an intimidating wilderness into an appreciation of its majestic scenery. The southeastern corner of the Park is Cumbria’s best known and most popular area, with the main resort towns of Windermere, Bowness-on-Windermere and Ambleside set around Windermere itself.
Lying between the lakes and mountains of the Lake District and the sandy estuaries of Morecambe Bay, the Cartmel and Furness Peninsulas are areas of gentle moorland, craggy headlands, scattered woodlands and vast expanses of sand. The arrival of the railways in the mid 19th century saw the development of genteel resorts such as Grange-over-Sands overlooking the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay. Grange is still an elegant little town and has been spared the indignity of vast amusement parks and rows of slot machines, retaining its character as a quiet and pleasant holiday centre.
The North Cumbrian coast, from Workington in the south to the Solway Firth in the north, is one of the least known parts of this beautiful county but it certainly has a lot to offer. It is an area rich in heritage, with a network of quiet country lanes, small villages, old ports and seaside resorts. The coast’s largest town, Workington, on the site of a Roman fort, was once a busy port, prospering on coal, iron and shipping. It later became famous for fine-quality steel and, though its importance has declined, it is still the country’s largest producer of railway tracks. Further up the coast is Maryport, again a port originally built by the Romans. A short distance inland lies Cockermouth on the edge of the Lake District National Park, a pretty market town with some elegant Georgian buildings. In one of these, the town’s most famous son, the poet William Wordsworth, was born in 1770.
The northernmost stretch of coastline, around the Solway Firth, is an area of tiny villages with fortified towers standing as mute witness to the border struggles of long ago. These villages were the haunt of smugglers, wildfowlers and half-net fishermen. But what is particularly special about this coastline is its rich birdlife.
For more than 350 years the area around Carlisle was known as the Debatable Lands, a lawless region where the feared Border Reivers sacked and plundered at will. Every winter, when their own food stocks were almost depleted, armed gangs from across the border would ride southwards to seize the cattle and sheep of their more prosperous neighbours. Stealing and murdering, they wreaked havoc in this area and almost every village would have had a fortified structure, usually a pele tower, where the inhabitants and their animals could hide safely.
This is also the county of Hadrian’s Wall, the most important monument built in Britain by the Romans; many stretches of the wall are still visible, and Birdoswald and other centres give an excellent insight into Roman border life.