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Literature & Walking in the Lake District - Following Wordsworth & Ruskin in spectacular countryside

Wordsworth, Ruskin and Beatrix Potter, their homes and surrounding countryside, combined with five country walks.

Led by acclaimed writer and biographer Dr Charles Nicholl in 2016, and by Ruskin specialist Christopher Newall in 2017.

Stay in a hotel overlooking Lake Windermere.

  • John Ruskin’s house at Brantwood, after a drawing by L. J. Hilliard.
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Overview

For over two hundred years, tourism, agriculture and industry have enjoyed a synergy in the English Lakes thanks in part to its rich and diverse geology. The striking contrasts between fell and dale are apparent to all visitors, the result of glacial action during the last few thousand years, when the snow and ice melting around very hard rocks formed lakes in the valleys left below.

This sheer natural splendour caught the attention of the wider world by two revolutions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; firstly artistic, as learned English gentlemen travelled to the Lake District to see the ‘picturesque’ landscapes of European masters like Poussin, Lorraine and Rosa, and secondly industrial. A network of roads was built to improve communications, and by 1768 a road north through Westmorland and Cumberland had been built, providing open road to privately-owned carriages. The idea of touring the Lakes for artistic purposes took hold – the poet Thomas Gray travelled between Keswick and Lancaster in late 1769, observing and commenting on the scenery. His account, published in 1775, was received to great acclaim and the region soon became a popular destination for the ‘touring’ classes, particularly as travelling to continental Europe was impossible.

William and Dorothy Wordsworth returned to their childhood roots (he was born in Cockermouth and educated at Hawkshead) when they moved to Dove Cottage in Grasmere in 1799. From this modest two-storey house he spent many hours walking: to and from Rydal, to Ambleside and to Keswick, the home of Coleridge and Robert Southey. Dorothy recorded his many walks in her Journal; indeed the day that they first saw those daffodils on the shores of Ullswater Lake in April 1802 is immortalised with her diary entry: ‘I never saw daffodils so beautiful’.

Wordsworth’s poetry and essays had a deep impact on other artists, notably John Ruskin. His long poem The Excursion, an essay on the virtues of mankind, and in particular Wordsworth’s social concern and eagerness to promote respect between humans and the rural landscape, chimed with Ruskin’s conservationist views. Ruskin had visited the Lakes many times before making his home at Brantwood on Coniston Water, from where he would observe the colour of the sky and bemoan changes to the rural idyll that he attributed to human intervention through the local quarrying industry.

The arrival of the steam engine and the first railway into the Lakes in 1847 vexed both men, and as the tourist numbers accumulated year on year, they became increasingly vocal about man-made structures damaging and destroying what they considered the delicate balance between man and nature that defined the Lake District. Beatrix Potter also championed traditional artisanship, and after settling in Hawkshead in the 1900s, used the proceeds from her books to buy properties and land to save them from development. A large part of her estate was left to the National Trust, which was co-founded by her friend H.D. Rawnsley in the 1880s.

The Lake District became one of the UK’s first National Parks in 1951, after nearly a century of campaigning. Today its enduring beauty and rich history continue to attract many visitors, but the vast landscapes ensure there is space for reflection and rejuvenation for everyone. This short tour picks the region’s literary highlights and intersperses them with moderate walks, no more than four miles in distance, and with limited ascents, so that it can be enjoyed by everyone who is used to country walks of up to three hours.

Day 1

The coach leaves Oxenholme Lake District Railway Station at 2.40pm (c. 2 hours 40 minutes from London on the West Coast line). Blackwell was designed by the Arts and Crafts architect, M. H. Baillie Scott, in 1898 as a holiday home for Manchester brewer, Sir Edward Holt. With spectacular views of Lake Windermere, it is a wonderful example of Arts and Crafts architecture. In 1999 it was saved by the Lakeland Arts Trust. Drive to the hotel where all four nights are spent.

Day 2

A full day in the footsteps of Wordsworth. Beginning at Rydal Mount, the Wordsworth family home from 1813–50, this elegant house and fine gardens welcomed many literary visitors. Walk along the ‘Coffin Route’: coffin bearers used this path from Rydal to Grasmere before the main road was built and heavy flattened stone slabs still intermittently line the path. Following a lecture at the Jerwood Centre from an expert speaker, visit Dove Cottage, the Wordsworths’ first Lakes home which subsequently belonged to Thomas de Quincey. Walk to the thriving town of Grasmere for independent exploration, rich with literary connections. Return to Rydal Mount along Loughrigg Terrace, a raised footpath which traverses the slope of Loughrigg Fell above Rydal Water. Total for both walks along footpaths and country lanes of 5½ miles, moderate–strenuous in places with some uneven ground and two short climbs.

Day 3

Drive to the pier at Coniston for the passenger ferry across Lake Coniston, the setting for Arthur Ransome’s novel Swallows and Amazons, and the best way to arrive at John Ruskin’s home from 1872 to 1900. The house has an extensive literary history and a major collection of Ruskin’s drawings, paintings, and scientific collections; it also contains his original furniture and his boat and Brougham carriage are displayed in outhouses. An afternoon walk of 4 miles mostly level on footpaths and country tracks, easy underfoot, with a short ascent from Brantwood through Monks Coniston and the restored walled garden to Coniston.

Day 4

Tarn Hows is a picturesque man-made lake built on land donated by Beatrix Potter. A moderate walk around the lake, with a refreshment break en route, before descending to Hawkshead. Visit Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s 17th-century farmhouse, before driving to Hawkshead to see Wordsworth’s grammar school. There is also the opportunity to visit the Beatrix Potter gallery.

Day 5

Set in 17 acres above Windermere, Holehird Gardens are some of the finest gardens in England and home to the national collections of Astilbe, Hydrangea and Polystichum Ferns. Walk a total of 2 miles along grassy paths through fields, with steep ascents in places up to Orrest Head, at 784 feet above sea level, with magnificent views of Lake Windermere. Return to Oxenholme train station by 2.15pm.

Price

Two sharing: £1,430. Single occupancy: £1,590.

Included

Private coach throughout; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 1 lunch and 3 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; the services of the lecturer and tour manager. 

Accommodation

Waterhead, Ambleside: 4-star modern, comfortable hotel on the shore of Lake Windermere.

How strenuous?

This is a walking tour: it is essential for participants to be in good physical condition and to be used to country walking. There are some short but steep uphill sections and terrain can be uneven and slippery in wet weather. There are five walks (two on one day) of no more than 4 miles or 2½ hours in length. Average distance by coach per day: 21 miles.

Group size

Between 10 and 22 participants.

'It was well-planned and the walking was not too arduous, with plenty of time to enjoy the surroundings en route.'

'Everyone in the group was so friendly and interesting. I had been slightly apprehensive about being a lone traveller, but there really was no need.'

'A very enjoyable holiday with a well thought out combination of walks and visits.'

'Very interesting itinerary - the right mix of literature and walking and time to enjoy it all and absorb everything including the beautiful scenery.'

'This tour was magical with the culture, walking and warm sunshine in the beautiful English Lake District. A delight to remember.'