I was almost crawling. One foot forward, a hand out in front. The other foot searching around for a firm setting to keep me moving along the arete. It was exhilarating, yet, if my eyes strayed over the 150- to 200-meter drop on either side of me, a little unnerving, too.
My late-spring scramble across Striding Edge toward the summit of Helvellyn, England’s third highest peak, took me over one of the United Kingdom’s most popular mountain walks. Apart from giving me a chance to conquer a challenging mountain ridge, it also enabled me to look across some of the most picturesque scenery in Lake District National Park.
Barren, craggy hillsides bearing down over valleys full of green fields, stone walls, and dark, shimmering lakes. It was just the kind of intoxicating mixture of adventure and scenery that had inspired and enthused a whole generation of Romantic Movement writers and poets, including Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Horrified by the early stages of industrialization in Britain, they wrote in appreciation of a natural world away from railways and urban sprawl. In his autobiographical poem, The Prelude, Wordsworth wrote:
From the vast city, where I long had pined.
A discontented sojourner: now free,
free as a bird to settle where I will.
Yet while their inspiration may have been distinct from the factories and mills of Britain’s towns and cities, the Lake District was far from free from the influences of humans. As a heavily farmed landscape it was, and is, anything but a wilderness. Its geology may have been created by glaciers, but its landscape bears the scars of humans – in its roads, footpaths, fields and, most of all, in the absence of its original trees and indigenous forests.
I may have felt wildness as I scrambled up the mountain – just as the poets did when they wrote about their climbing adventures from the late eighteenth century onwards – but that did not mean I was actually looking upon a natural, wild, landscape. “Everyone, from Roman soldiers to Scandinavian settlers, medieval monks, eighteenth-century tourists to nineteenth-century industrialists and water engineers, has left their mark on the Lakes,” says John Darlington from the National Trust, which owns one-fifth of the land in the region.
Back in the late eighteenth century, as author Robert Macfarlane explains in Mountains of the Mind, meadows, grazing fields, and croplands were still considered the ideal components of a landscape. “Natural scenery was appreciated largely for the extent to which it spoke of agricultural fecundity,” he writes.
For modern-day conservationists, however, the lack of wild nature in the Lake District conjures up despair. “I see it as one of the most depressing landscapes in Europe,” writes the journalist George Monbiot in his recent book Feral. “The celebrated fells have been thoroughly sheep-wrecked: the forests that once covered them have been reduced by the white plague to bare rock and bowling green….You’ll see more wildlife in Birmingham.”
Monbiot fears that a recent application by the region for World Heritage status will now fix this manufactured landscape in perpetuity. It may have inspired the Romantic Movement’s appreciation for wild nature and the beginnings of a conservation movement in the UK, argues Monbiot, but it isn’t the kind of landscape we should be maintaining.
Not that tourists to the region seem to mind. The Lake District still remains the most popular national park in the UK, with more than 14 million visitors a year. And, ironically, although it has come to dominate the landscape, the contribution of farming to the local economy is dwarfed by the $1.5 billion-a-year tourism industry.
Would my own visit have been enhanced by looking down on indigenous forests and wildlife instead of sheep? Perhaps. But I am also grateful to still be able to walk this common land. And for that I owe at least some thanks to those Romantic poets, misguided or not.
Tom Levitt is a former deputy editor at The Ecologist magazine. Follow him @tom_levitt
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