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The unique literary heritage of England’s Lake District

Posted in America, British Cities, British Countryside, British Towns, English Literature, Geography, Historical articles, History on Friday, 27 April 2012

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This edited article about Cumbria originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 696 published on 17 May 1975.

Wordsworth, picture, image, illustration

William Wordsworth at Dove Cottage by Harry Green

John Paul Jones, his cocked hat set firmly on his head, his sword swinging at his waist, ran up the companion way of his ship, “Ranger”, as it swept smoothly before the breeze into a quiet English harbour.

A number of British vessels were at anchor and Jones could just see them in the moonlight.

He rapped a sharp order to the gunners to prime their cannons and take aim. Suddenly, there was a succession of loud reports, and red flashes illuminated the ships gently straining at their anchors.

“Fire,” shouted Jones again. And once more the cannons boomed, their projectiles striking their targets squarely. Suddenly, as if a switch had been thrown, the ships burst into flames one by one, and the red glow lit up the guns of the shore battery.

At a command from Jones, the gunners switched their aim to the shore cannons and soon put them out of action.

By now, the whole town was aroused, and ships which had not been hit in the earlier attack began putting to sea. Realising that he was about to be very speedily outnumbered, Jones turned and ran – and peace once again returned to the quiet harbour.

Jones was an American privateer who created havoc around the coast of Britain during the American War of Independence. And this attack in 1778 was upon Whitehaven, a town upon the coast of Cumbria, a county created in April last year.

It consists of the lake counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, together with the Furness area of Lancashire. And its name is that of the ancient kingdom of Cumbria, which was ruled during the 10th century by courageous and colourful kings. Within it are Morecambe Bay, the Cumberland coast, the Western Pennines and the Lake District National Park, England’s largest park which contains some of the finest scenery in Europe. Lakes, castles, mountains and buildings of exceptional historic interest make Cumbria a county of unequalled beauty, and one with fascinating links with the past.

Perhaps the most famous of these is Hadrian’s Wall, which was begun in the early 120s AD and completed by 138. The most elaborate defence conceived by the Romans, the wall was originally constructed of stone and turf and ran from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth, some seventy three miles.

Set into the wall at regular intervals were forts, milecastles and turrets. Among the greatest of the forts was Birdoswald, the remains of which can be seen by visitors. At the eastern gateway, one can see the wheel ruts made centuries ago by chariots ridden by soldiers in this busy garrison.

Standing near the western end of Hadrian’s wall is Carlisle which has been, since Roman times, a very important defence and trading centre. But these links with a warlike past seem completely out-of-keeping with the spirit of the county of today, with its majestic mountains and vast, peaceful lakes.

The tranquility this setting provides has drawn many famous writers and poets to the Lake District. Among them were William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Tennyson, Keats, Charlotte Bronte and many others.

Among the more recent writers was Beatrix Potter, who died in her beloved Lakeland in 1943 at the age of 77, a resolute, untidy, rather crusty old lady, arguing about her sheep and secretly feeding the mice in the wainscoting. She had her home in the Lake District for the last thirty years of her life.

Tourists go today to visit her house at Hill Top, Sawrey, and to see the other things for which Cumbria is famous, such as Lake Ullswater and its white-sailed yachts, the winter skiers on the snow-clad mountainsides, the ancient churches and fortresses, and the flowers and the forests which add a softening touch to the sometimes stark beauty of the lakes and mountains.

Children play on the sands, ride on the narrow gauge Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway or go exploring among the ruins of an ancient abbey. For Cumbria is a county which is a playground for those who love mountains and lakes, and a place of adventure for those who explore its history.

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