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England’s Lake District and Wordsworth Country (8:09)

England

The sublime Lake District that inspired Wordsworth draws visitors today for its natural beauty, hiking trails, and warm-hearted farmers happy to talk about shearing sheep. We take a slate-mine tour, learn about cricket, and marvel at a prehistoric stone circle.

Complete Video Script

A short drive south from Keswick takes us through the very countryside that inspired England’s great Romantic poets. The greatest of those was William Wordsworth who lived here, in Dove Cottage. Wordsworth spent his most productive years — 1799 to 1808 — in this humble stone house. This is where he married, had kids, and wrote much of his best poetry. In these cramped and simple quarters, Woodsworth practiced his philosophy of plain living and high thinking.

The adjacent museum displays original writings, sketches, and personal items that give another peek into the life and world of the poet. His well-stamped passport and his well-worn little suitcase are proof he packed light and traveled far and wide. Notebook in hand, he wandered across England and through Europe on what would become the Romantic grand tour.

Until then, almost nobody climbed a mountain just because it was there — but Wordsworth did. He’d wander “lonely as a cloud” through the countryside, finding inspiration lost in the awe-inspiring immensity of nature. If appreciating nature became a religion in 19th century England, Wordsworth was its prophet.

With the advent of the industrial age, machines were taming nature and factory hours were taming free spirits. The Romantic movement — led by artists and writers like Wordsworth — was a reaction against this. Romanticism celebrated nature… making it almost a religion. People came here as if on a pilgrimage. And, like the poets, after communing with nature… they'd be inspired and reflect on the meaning of life.

While Wordsworth would likely be appalled at the speedy convenience of it all, drivers can enjoy car touring. From Keswick, a scenic 20 mile loop south reveals the essence of Lake District charms.

Newlands Valley is a majestic place. If it had a lake, it would be packed with tourists. But it doesn’t — and it isn’t. The valley is dotted with old, family-run farms. With tough times for small farms, most of the wives supplement the family income by running B&Bs. Many farms in the valley rent rooms.

I've been recommending the Keskadale farm in my Britain guidebook for over twenty years. Margaret Harryman's welcome is as warm as ever and staying in her B&B, there's no doubt, you really are on a working farm. Their son, Sean, will some day run the farm. One thing he's already in charge of is shearing the sheep. Each of their 1500 sheep need to be sheared each summer.

Rick: Why do you have to shear the sheep?
Margaret: Well, for husbandry reasons and for the welfare of the sheep and they’re sheared when it’s warm weather and it’s a great releif for the sheep to be sheared.

But the fleeces are no longer the money-maker they once were. In fact, recently, prices were so low farmers here just burned the wool. Today, with new uses for this natural fiber, wool prices are higher so Sean and his dad collect the fleeces into bales.

Rick: Does it hurt the sheep?
Margaret: No, no, no it’s very therapeutic, it just glides by the skin so it doesn’t hurt them at all.

Therapeutic?

When car touring, make a point to stop and get out. From the Newlands Pass summit, take a rewarding little walk to a frisky waterfall.

From here, the road descends, winding scenically past a farm hamlet and to delightful Buttermere — with its popular lakeside trail. Our loop then climbs rugged Honnister Pass — with its wild and weather-beaten charm.

At the summit stands the Honister Slate Mine. England’s last still-functioning slate mine offers tours. You'll put on a hard hat …. load onto a bus for a short climb…. then learn about the region's slate industry from an enthusiastic guide.

Guide: What we describe that rock as is green gold. It’s called green gold, because it represents today, the finest roofing slate in the world. It is the number one, the Rolls Royce of slate. On that rock on the far side as we looked when we were down below there are little stone huts that the miners used to live because what we have to remember here is pre-first world war through the history of mining; if you worked here, you lived here. Right this way, folks….

Narrow shafts lead deep into the evocative Victorian mine. You’ll be thankful for your helmet … standing inside the mountain, surrounded by slate scrap and the beams of a dozen headlamps, you'll learn the back-story of the stone that roofs so much of England.

Guide: Imagine you’re eight or ten years old working underground for ten to fourteen hours a day and your job was to assist your father and your elder brothers in drilling the rock. I think you’re going to get the hang of this very quickly, folks, because you can imagine there’s somebody at the end of this one with a large sledgehammer and each time you…

I don’t know about you, but a tour like that makes me glad I work and live above ground in the 21st century.

Rick: “Freedom…”

Completing our loop, we pass humble hamlets and the lush Borrowdale Valley — always open for serendipity.

Coming upon an inviting gathering, we pull over and find ourselves at a cricket match — complete with Cumbrian sausage on the grill and a keg of the local brew. The gang gathered here bragged their field was named England's most beautiful cricket pitch — and I can see why.

And this gave me yet another chance to understand this bewildering national pastime.

Rick: So, the pitcher is called a bowler.
Cricket Watcher: Yes, he is.
Rick: Are you a bowler, our pitcher’s a bowler. And what do you call your batter?
Cricket Watcher: The batter.
Rick: Alright. So now is that a point?
Cricket Watcher: That’s a fall. Fall runs. If he hits it over the boundary which is the white line in front of us here, he gets fall.
Rick: You know, I’m still confused. I’m still confused. But I’m less confused than I was a few minutes ago.
Cricket Watcher: Good. Right. Well if anybody can confuse anybody I can.
Rick: Well, you’re doing a good job.

These valleys have sustained communities here for longer than you might imagine. Just outside of Keswick stands the Castlerigg Stone Circle. Like a mini-Stonehenge drenched in Lake District beauty, it was built over 4000 years ago to function as a celestial calendar.

Imagine ancient people filling this clearing in spring to celebrate fertility, in late summer for the harvest, and in winter for the solstice. Festival dates were dictated by how the sun rose and set in relation to these stones which were aligned with the surrounding peaks.

For maximum goose pimples, as they say in England, be here after everyone's left and the mystical place is all yours.