The Lake District Guide

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Social History Of The Lake District - Part 1

Through The Lake District on a Side Saddle!

Tourism, travelling for the mere pleasure of it, is relatively a new activity of mankind. It is in the 20th century that the pastime received it impetus due to the technological advancement in the modes of travel and the value attached to leisure time activities by modern man. Except for rare individuals goaded by the urge to explore the world around them, most people remained rooted to their homes.

Early travellers were mostly men. However, Lake District can boast of stout-hearted woman who pioneered one of the earliest documented journeys to the place. She is Celia Fiennes. She recorded her trip in the close of 17th century to the Lake Districts on a side saddle accompanied by only two or three servants in Great Journey to Newcastle and Cornwall. Close on her heels an array of great travellers flooded the Lake District and their memoirs inspired an exodus of nature lovers which made the Lake Districts a dream destination of many discerning travellers.

Fiennes feat as a woman traveller could be better understood in the backdrop of taboo ridden England of 17th and 18th centuries. The society was man centred. In the English houses men’s actions dominated and women were in the bowers knitting socks and making plum puddings. To travel side saddled was mandatory for women to maintain her image of the modest and the refined lady. Boys of noble linage travelled in Europe as the final bout of their finishing school. Fiennes travels were audacious for women to undertake in the England of those days. When questioned about her motivation for riding through the counties back in 1600s, her reply smacks the revolutionary and the patriot in her: it “cures the itch of overvaluing foreign parts”.

The role of Celia Fiennes, the lady on a side saddle, as the pioneer who discovered the breadth taking beauty of the primordial and pristine lake districts is due to her knowledge of every inch of England. She knew every English shire from Land’s End to Liddisdale. The other travellers who wrote on England, mostly foreigners, had a custom approach as in modern tailor made tours who wrote only about what is apparent and what is man made. The domestic charm of the beauty of the landscape never lured them. They did not delve deep to unearth the amazing treasures of nature, hidden in the recesses of the country noted for its humid climate and the dwellers of boorish nature and uncouth speech.

The modern tourist is an insulated traveller protected from the vagaries of climate and man made dangers. But back in the past risks were almost imminent. Celia Fiennes mentions of her providential escape from the snares of highwaymen. One can imagine the demands travel would make on the energies of even the robust of men. When we look at the travels of the lady on a side saddle, in the backdrop of 17th and 18th century, her travels stand out as a unique feat of an adventurous foray into men’s territory.

2 Women’s Vote and The Lake District

Women got the right to vote in England on equal terms with men only in 1928. This was the result of a struggle and the Lake District was the hotbed of that effort for securing votes for women.

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) did pioneering work as a writer in creating awareness on the plight of women. Her article, On Female Education (1823), anonymously published in the journal, Monthly Repository created a stir among the discerning readers. In 1845 she made Ambleside her home where she spent the greater part of her life. The name of her house was “The Knoll”. In 1866, she together with Elizabeth Garret Anderson, Emily Davies, Dorothea Beale and Francis Mary Buss submitted the petition asking Parliament to give women the vote. Martineau came to Ambleside to convalesce on the salubrious shores of Windermere. Captivated by the ravishing beauty of the lake she made the place her home. She purchased the land and designed the structure with the help of local tradesmen. The Knoll was the haunt of celebrated writers. Their presence and the enchanting scenery inspired her creativity. Occasional tea or dinner parties while provided gastronomic delight became opportunities for meeting great minds, Wordsworth and Coleridge among them. A novel feature of these gatherings were the planting of saplings by the participants and these now grown into full blown trees, offer an enduring feast to the visitors with the accompanying echoes of the English Romanticism.

In the second phase of the struggle for women’s voting rights there were two strands - a militant form of feminism and more democratic one. In the latter, the name of Catherine E Marshall (1880-1961) looms large. She is intimately connected with Lake District. She was reared in a dwelling called Hawse End, a house built of solid stone, in the serene wooded lands on the fringe of Derwentwater. In the house she did not grow as the typical decorous Victorian lady but lived a tomboyish and active outdoor life. Later when she became energetically involved in the movement for voting for women, Hawse End became the vortex of activity in the Lake District. One of the guests at Hawse End in 1900 was Annie Besant, the well-known Theosophist. However, Beatrix Potter, who was captivated by the primordial charm of the Lake District and worked tiresomely for its conservation, kept aloof from the burning contemporary issue of women’s voting.