The highest peaks are catching the last rays of sun as it dips in the west, sending the land into shadow. It’s just before 4pm and I’m looking over lines of grey on green, each fell writing itself on those beyond it, lines of light and dark writing the passing of time, another day’s turn.
I turn to face the sun, a dazzling glare shining through the cold wind that’s biting my face. My shadow stretches out behind me, a brief imprint on a frosted land. Way down in the valley, the first of the night’s chimneys have been lit. White smoke curls catlike above a grey lake.
I watch the sun melt over the fells to the west oozing gold along the ridged horizon. I turn back to look west and north. From my vantage point on the summit of Dollywagon Pike, I scan the ridge that leads to Helvellyn, England’s second highest peak, and the sudden falls of rock plummeting above coves and isolated tarns. Catsycam sends its pointed summit into the pinking sky, and Striding Edge, with its sheer stone face, looks as untameable as ever. Now that the sun has sunk below the horizon, the land has taken on a gentleness: the valleys release a subtle ice-green glow, as if giving back the last of the day’s light, and Ullswater is pink. The sky is working its slow sure way through the spectrum from volcano red to blueberry grey.
We are the only people up here now. We met a few groups of walkers earlier, but they took themselves off the cold heights before the light faded. We’re cold, but delighted to be out here: we have a habit of staying out that little bit longer, or going that little bit further, because it is in the threshold moments, and the unexpected places, that the elements make themselves felt most keenly, and we get a deeper sense of the landscape, ourselves, and our connection to what’s around us.
We love this place, and we love the feeling of being out with the elements. Not all feelings are positive, of course – it’s a wide collection embracing joy, frustration, effort, pride, concern, care, curiosity, fear, wonder, companionship, smallness, humility, connection. Together all of these emotions, impulses and impressions, and many others, are, ultimately, energising: with them comes a sense of life and aliveness.
Twenty-five years ago I moved to the Lake District, drawn by its landscape. The plan was to stay for just a while. But, after a lifetime of wandering and moving, I finally felt at home, and I haven’t left. Similarly, Rob moved here because he loves the place. For the first ten years, I lapped up the beauty, the challenge of long walks, the closeness of the community hugged by the valley sides. I was in love, but I was blinkered. In 2012, when Rob and I began working with hill farmers and people whose jobs focused on environmental issues through our Land Keepers project, and later through The Long View (2015-2018), the rose tinted spectacles cleared: we saw beneath the surface as we learned from people who understand particular places well. We learned about fragile habitats, ancient woodlands, the system of hefting flocks in the hills, the pros and cons of grazing with sheep and with cattle, the challenge of supplying drinking water from the Lakeland fells, the impact of severe weather events, the value – and vulnerability – of local knowledge and village communities, the success and challenges of tourism, the skills of woodland and forest management, the long history of literature and art inspired by the landscape … we began to appreciate the Lake District as a place with a living pulse fired by intimate relationships with the land.
The Lake District is a National Park – it’s England’s most visited – and is a World Heritage Site, recognised by UNESCO as a ‘cultural landscape’. It’s a special place, and its unique, but, like any region in the UK or across the world, it’s neither simple nor perfect. Nor, without due care, is it sustainable. There are many demands on the land, and there’s a mixed story of prosperity and decline for natural habitats, for species of animals and plants, and for communities. The enigma of finding a balance is something we’ve talked about widely in the past, and we want to learn more, to enquire, to go in deeper. This land, and our perceptions and expectations of it, are shaped by centuries of human coercion. Now, in the 21st century, with a globally recognised environmental and climate crisis, it’s imperative – without losing the passion and the love – to consider multiple facets of landscape, and, as far as possible, to use information gathered from more than one source to drive decisions about how to live in and manage places that could be, ecologically rich and enriching for people.
So we begin by acknowledging complexity. Over the coming year we’ll be learning from people who have specialist insights. Among these will be land managers, foresters, soil specialists, farmers, hydrologists, and we’ll be gathering stories that reflect a love and concern for this place, bringing together, over time, the knowing and the feeling of place. And as we walk, and spend days and nights outside, we’ll be doing so with questioning minds, noticing the small details and considering the bigger picture.
On our walk today, for instance, we have passed through plantation woodland where old pine trees tower above the earth, and in clear-felled patches, birches are beginning to take root. Further up the fell, sheep graze, and trees that have been planted are each protected within its own wire cage. We began our walk on the shores of Thirlmere, whose creation through the flooding of the valley at the end of the nineteenth century meant the desertion of two villages, but offered a source of water for locals and for people as far away as Manchester. More recently, Thirlmere has grabbed the news headlines as the proposed site of a zip-wire; the plans were vehemently opposed, most vociferously because the wire and infrastructure would be an intrusion on a peaceful landscape.
The Thirlmere zipwire issue became something of a scapegoat for competing wishes in a small place; a touch-paper for voices to be raised in a polarised debate. There are paradoxes here. One is the tension between caring and sharing: millions of people want to spend time in the national park, but can this be sustained? Could a visitors’ payment scheme help to fund better infrastructure and conservation work, or would that make the area exclusive or off-putting? Tourism is the national park’s biggest source of income, but if there is a lack of affordable houses, or permanent jobs, for local residents, and numbers in schools begin to fall dangerously low, what happens to communities?
Alongside these common discussions is the frequently polarised conversation about farming in the fells: debates around ‘rewilding’, questions about grazing pressure on fragile habitats and vulnerable species, or indeed the benefits grazing can bring to biodiversity. Can livestock farming continue and thrive while the environment is also improved, both for biodiversity and for resilience in the face of severe weather events, including flooding? There are certainly farmers who are managing a variety of habitats with high levels of biodiversity and bioabundance alongside quality livestock; just as there are farms where habitats are in decline. Among other pressing issues are the challenges of increasing tree cover, re-naturalising the flow of rivers and protecting upland peat bogs from degradation.
These are some of the headline subjects, and there is no single or simple answer. When we look at pressing issues, and competing demands, we don’t see a case of this orthat, we see this andthat: a middle way that can, perhaps, be navigated, when more than one aspect is considered. Hence our imaginary division of the Lake District into twelve sections, as if a clock face, and our choice to spend each month considering a different issue.
So we’ll be walking, talking, asking, listening, and reflecting on what we learn from places and people. We’ll be meeting ecologists, foresters, people who work in tourism and in national park management; we’ll be learning from environmental scientists who are developing modelling systems to better understand, and deal with, environmental change; and we’ll be finding out, as well as facts and figures, more about the emotional sense of connection.
We come with our own knowledge, and are ready to learn. This will inevitably include having our own perceptions and ideas challenged. This is what it is to be a human being, and embracing this is one of the things that drives an artistic response. As with a walk, you set out, and even though you may have charted your route on a map, or know there will be signs to guide you, you can have no idea what you’ll experience while you’re out there, and how this may change your point of view.
As the light fades on Dollywagon Pike, the crescent moon brings a hair-thin curve of pearl to a black and red sky. The major constellations begin to show themselves; and Rob and I begin our descent. We walk for as long as we can without head torches, revelling in the magical light of the last breath of dusk. Wide boulders glow yellow with lichen, and the grass is the colour of straw. When we finally put our torches on, the light reveals a world that’s sparkling with frost, and as the darkness draws in, it brings with it the sound of waterfalls.