Last week, I was planning to explore the Lake District and the Pennines during a work trip I was taking to the north of England. But alas, unusually strong storms settled across the country. Instead I spent most of my time battling through winds and rain on the road between each location.
So we needed an alternative to our dreamy long walks we had been planning. On the day, we decided it would be best to just take a drive. I thought it would be a bit boring, just driving through the countryside when there were so many places to explore by foot – then I remembered how much I loved the long days of driving through Iceland, and thought, actually, this might be nicer than I expected.
We set off from the north of the Lake District for our little detour into the ‘interior’ of the national park. I had been to the Lake District a few times before; I’ve walked up Coniston and explored around Lake Windermere several times, so I thought I knew quite a lot about it and that it was a mostly ‘human’ affected location, not really any wildness about it at all. I was so wrong!
The drive started unsteadily over flooded roads through pretty countryside lanes, not unlike the depths of Devon, and I started seriously questioning my judgement and feeling very glad I had my good steady family car, which I always borrowed for drives (we nickname her ‘Vivian’), rather than a rental car that would take a few days to understand fully. She’s a little car, but I struggled pulling her fully into the sides of roads, so small they were on stretches.
And then suddenly we opened up onto a mountain pass. I shifted to a low gear and slowly headed down the road, creeping around the left side of the cliff. The mountains just broke apart and collapsed into a long, low valley. And all around us – I didn’t know if it was caused by the rain, or a normal feature – were waterfalls, everywhere, on each turn we made. It was the same sheer green and waterfalls that astonished me in the south of Iceland, actually. Except in Iceland I had a nice, mostly flat road to admire the cliffs from afar, and here I was driving down them!
I exclaimed as we were driving up to this one waterfall near Buttermere – I found later it had the name, ‘Moss Force’. I just had to stop and see it properly. I opened the door and it almost flew off in my hands – I had underestimated the scale of the gales around me, as I was mostly sheltered in my little car by the banks I had been driving against, and the low speed I had been taking! Pretty much everything inside my car tried to blow itself out of the door, so after sorting everything out, I went to take a couple of quick pictures – not many, as I was freezing within seconds, otherwise I would have taken some time over them. The wind had changed by the time I returned to the car, and the same door I had so easily fallen out of was now a bit of a trial to get open, and in fact I was pushed out of the way by the wind and just fell over.
I’m so happy I took this little venture out into the Lake District, even if it took all my patience to drive through it carefully and without flooding Vivian. It’s very easy to write off England as not having very much worth to see, compared to other places in the world. Fair enough – it’ll never be the same spectacular sights as other countries, and our mountains aren’t the highest, and our wildlife isn’t as diverse. But there is certainly something ‘wild’ left in the Lake District, even if it’s only on a rough and stormy day, even if it’s on a day where there’s no one else around.
Wilderness. Wildness. What is that? Always there is this debate on wilderness and whether there’s any wild spaces left in the world, let alone in Britain. These are formed by the ideas about different degrees of wilderness – what’s a real wilderness and what’s a wilderness experience? James Fenton writes a lot about this. He’s spoken about how it can be evaluated it by factors, such as the amount of people present, the climate, the size of the place, how many human artefacts are present. And if these all measure out in a certain way – if there’s rough weather and large expanse, or if there’s no one around and no presence of human activity – then a place can be described as ‘wild’. The more we try to be objective, the more we fall back into subjectivity. For example, the Lake District is notoriously not wild, because it’s gone through centuries of agriculture. So what about if we left it for fifty, a hundred years – would it be wild then? What if I came to the Lake District not knowing anything about the landscape and its history, and just assumed everything around me was purely ‘natural’ and unaltered (whatever that means)? What about the fact that every place in the world has probably felt the hand of humans in some way, directly or indirectly, and that so many species of plants, fruits, vegetables, flowers have been tempered by the hand of a human? Is a place ‘natural’, ‘wild’, ‘authentic’, just based on our knowledge or lack of knowledge of it?
So if a wilderness is subjective, then for me, a wilderness is somewhere where I feel ‘free’. It is somewhere I feel more alive, and not just in the way in which I find a new place, but in a lost and finding way, where I find something of myself I didn’t realise would be here, that I didn’t realise was missing until I found it. Maybe it’s under a mossy rock, or down the view of a valley, or in the temper of the winds across my skin. It’s a recollection of a sensation I think I lost before I ever knew what it was, or maybe a recollection of something passed down through generations, that I know by instinct rather than by memory. In that way, maybe a wilderness doesn’t always have to be a place that has been unchanged by humans, but more a place where humans themselves can be changed. And if so, then I’m sure there are many wildernesses left in our own countries and in our entire world, waiting not just to be discovered, but to be discovered in an entirely new way. Perhaps there is room for explorers, not to conquer new territories and discover new shores, but to create revolutions on how we view and care for the land that we’ve already found.