Simon Bennett, owner of Augill Castle, reflects on one of Cumbria’s most difficult seasons and why you should fall for the fells this spring.
Not since the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 has Cumbria and the Lake District so badly needed the support of those who love it.
As the county opens up for a new season, flinging open our windows and doors at the first, welcome signs of spring – curlews and lapwings circling overhead, fields filling with a new generation of lambs, every bank covered by snowdrops and daffodils – our roads are emptier, our byways quieter.
The Lake District is no stranger to literary motifs. Its brooding fells, endlessly changing skies and fathomless lakes and tarns inspired the likes of Wordsworth, Ruskin and Coleridge, Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome and countless others since.
One particular bon mot with no less a luminous provenance sums up this wild corner of England as well as any. From the father of fell walking, Alfred Wainwright, ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing.’
Anyone who has spent any time in the Lakes can attest to the enduring truth behind this seemingly flippant observation and many a visitor will paraphrase Mark Twain by adding, ‘if you don’t like the weather in the Lakes, just wait a few minutes,’ usually with fondness; with a sense of irony only if they haven’t taken Wainwright’s sensible packing advice.
But repeat all this to residents of Cumbria this winter and you might get more than the usual wry smile and knowing nod.
This winter there really has been bad weather.
On the weekend of December 4 & 5 Storm Desmond dumped the UK’s highest recorded rainfall at Honister in the heart of the Lake District. Thirteen and a half inches fell in just 24 hours.
For those who were flooded, who lost their businesses or were forced out of their homes, it has been nothing short of devastating. But this is a vast county. River plains flood, not the fells, upland moorland and rolling hills which are our backbone. And that same water which caught us unawares feeds the beating heart of this place – the rivers are the life-givers, the blood supply of the Lakes.
This is a county of resilient people. For centuries Cumbrians have hewn the unforgiving landscape to make a precarious living from the land, harnessing nature in order to become, if not its master, certainly not its slave.
Thanks to millions of pounds worth of flood defences, there was less destruction that there would otherwise have been allowing the most badly affected areas to stay open for business in the run up to Christmas and to recover subsequently far quicker than might have been the case.
These are communities not to be beaten by the elements which have shaped the unique landscape of which they are a part. But in 2016 a new adversary has emerged stronger than ever before. For those of us who rely on visitors to the county the negative public perception of the county’s predicament, whipped up by a hysterical media is endangering our livelihoods. At a time when we need to be recovering and rebuilding, we find ourselves more helpless than ever.
Water was here long before men. It is never far away. The people, places, sights, tastes and adventures that the Lake District has to offer that have been shaped by it are still here and need visitors to return to ensure the landscape so beloved of so many continues to prosper.
Find the very best boltholes from which to marvel at Cumbria’s dramatic landscape with its rolling hills, crystal lakes and hard-earned optimism: www.sawdays.co.uk/Cumbria
Simon Bennett is owner of Augill Castle near Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria’s magnificent Eden Valley, featured by Sawday’s since 1998. Simon wrote about his experiences of running the castle in Undressed For Dinner, voted Lakeland Book of the Year in 2014. The sequel, Stop For Breakfast is due to be published later this year.