Few parts of Britain have been as much described, poeticised, romanticised or celebrated as the Lake District. Melvyn Bragg, a Cumberland lad from the lakeland’s fringe follows in the footsteps of his fellow countrymen Gilpin and Wordsworth, and a whole host of priests, antiquarians, hacks and ramblers, to rediscover this miniature mountain range famous for its fells and pencils, its poets and mint cake, its lakes, its sausages and its rainfall.
Bragg explains that Land of the Lakes represents an exploration of the landscape, in which he has set many of his novels, ‘to discover the reality which had underpinned the fiction.’ He rushes the reader through the Cumbrian geology, history, sports, society, legends, artists, writers and language, enthusing at every turn and identifying romantically with ‘the independent free-ranging, Viking qualities’ that are ‘the spinal cord of the Cumbrian body’.
The book is written in an easy-reading, anecdotal style, full of entertaining tales of Cumbrian characters, like the wrestling devotee who tried to prove the divine origins of his sport by reference to the struggle between Jacob and the angel in the Bible. And in an attempt to convince us of the liveliness of the Cumbrian dialect Bragg includes a list of some hundred odd words which mean to beat, eg ‘fluet’ – a very severe castigation. But the strongest element of the book is its illustration. There is almost a picture per page, not just of the lakeland scenery, but of early maps, carvings, photographs from archives and, most interesting of all, a comprehensive range of etchings and paintings demonstrating the varied images that artists, good and indifferent, have created of the Lakeland; from unhistorical battles with Highlanders to work by Kurt Schwitters.
In the countryside, and in his nostalgic view of its inhabitants, he sees a performance and continuity that is missing from city life in the atomic age. As he admits, he is not the first writer to find hope in or to impose his vision on the Lake District.