Kevin Saving on
A Walk Around The Lakes
by Hunter Davies
Frances Lincoln (2009)
pp 339, RRP: £9.99
Fell-Walking And All That
Some might consider Hunter Davies' decision to authorise another edition of this classic guide to the history, topography and prominent personalities of the Lake District (originally published thirty years ago and re-issued here with a new introduction) to be merely 'rapacious'. For myself, I hope only that his work will now find a new generation of appreciative readers. Davies, a long-term Cumbrian, spent a whole year touring this ruggedly beautiful locality (back in 1978) walking its heights, 'checking out' its 'tourist attractions', meeting some of its celebrated - and some of its not-quite-so-celebrated - denizens. The resultant book furnishes a snapshot of provincial Lakeland life in the late Seventies, replete with well-researched, and unfailingly entertaining, diversions into the less-recent past. If, at times, one might wish for some evidence of an 'update' (2009 no longer finds Donald Campbell's remains languishing amid the wreckage of his Bluebird at the bottom of Coniston, for example) at other points it is pleasing to find reminiscences of, say, Alfred Wainwright (he of Wainwright's Walks). This Johnsonian character, now deceased, was - for all his pre-eminence in his field - very much a determinedly private individual.
A Walk Around The Lakes is the slightly-younger sister to Davies' equally erudite and informative A Walk Along the Wall ('about' Hadrian's wall and of which, incidentally, Alfred Wainwright was a fan). The two writers seem to have coincided, also, on the most important recipe for successful fell-walking: comfort. Nowadays you can see so many folk kitted-out with the very latest in hi-tec walking boots, hi-visibility anoraks and sat-navs, and - often - they appear to be indulging more in some strange combination of fashion-parade and 'mission-statement' than in preparation for an enjoyable out-door pastime.
Davies is the most companionable of companions. He 'fills in' our knowledge of Beatrix Potter, for instance, by 'interviewing' - well, really just chatting to - one of her old shepherds. Potter (or 'Mrs Heelis', the proprietor of Hill Top Farm, near Sawty) had 'a bit of a thing' about Herdwick sheep, which - it is thought - are descended from Spanish beasts shipwrecked at the time of the Armada. For technical reasons these weren't really 'viable' on Hill Tops' lush, lowland pastures and the locals would tell her this (stories of her 'expertise' as a farmer are rather exaggerated). Nonetheless, Potter would resist the entreaties of her workers, to the effect that she was ruining herself financially, with the (kindly) admonition 'Don't you worry...it's only a hobby'.
Over-arching the rest of this publication is the story of William Wordsworth - possibly the region's most famous son and, probably, the one who did - and still does - the most to popularise it. Anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with this poet's opinions and personality might be well-advised to start here. Eschewing the means of a conventional biography, Davies 'opens the lid' on this self-confident, self-centred and (ultimately) self-satisfied man. It is fascinating to hear of Wordsworth fulminating, in later life, in opposition to the Kendal and Windermere railway which, he feared, might bring the lower classes to his beloved home-patch; or, ranting against the same white-washed cottages that we now deem so 'picturesque' - yet to him represented the equivalent of a 'blot on the landscape'. The hypocrisy (acknowledged even in his own lifetime) of a man who'd started his political life as a radical but ended it arguing that the poor would be unable to benefit 'mentally and morally' from The Lakes - and could only ruin them for the educated classes - is staggering. Especially as his own Guide to the Lakes (1822, and one of the earliest) had been a 'best-seller' and accrued more money for him than his poetry. The rest of the Wordsworthian 'set' (Coleridge, Southey, De Quincey, Dorothy and Mary) are accorded their due - and it is particularly pleasing to read Davies expatiating upon the Cartoon-Hero qualities of S.T. Coleridge as a fell- walker (his was the first recorded ascent of Scafell Pike). Evidently he was the best walker and climber of all the Lake Poets (though all were enthusiasts) as well as having been very likely the 'nicest' of them, too.
An engaging, opinionated, 'rambling' - in the best sense - model of its kind (as likely to treat of Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling as the Windscale Nuclear reactor), this paperback is the ideal holiday read to take to The Lakes - for 'tourists' an 'purists' alike.
Kevin Saving © 2009