Written by Basak Tanulku
Independent scholar based in Istanbul with a PhD in Sociology from Lancaster University 

The Lake District is in the North physically, but a landscape’s physical location does not always correlate to its culture and identity. In this piece, I will look at some physical and cultural elements of this landscape and then try to locate them in the North-South axis.

To understand the Lake District, we should first look at Cumbria, a county which consists of three parts, with each corresponding to particular economic sectors and culture. West Cumbria could be viewed as a working-class landscape, where Barrow-in-Furness is the central city. It is known as a hub of the ship and submarine industry. Smaller towns along the Irish Sea coast, such as Whitehaven and Workington are identified by their fishing and mining industries. North and East Cumbria, which are remote and more inaccessible, are more characterised by farming and a rural way of life, except the city of Carlisle.

The centre of Cumbria hosts the Lake District, which is perhaps an exception in the North; it is neither a working-class nor a post-industrial landscape. It is a national park which has been recently decorated with the status of UNESCO world heritage site under the category of “cultural landscape” bringing together a variety of amenities, activities, food, and crafts, which cannot be explicitly regarded as Northern or Southern. Everything here looks promoted, made, and performed for visitors. In this sense, being a national park exempts the Lake District from being judged by the standards of the North/South divide.

As put forward by Lancaster-based sociologist John Urry in 1995, the Lake District is distinct from both the industrial towns and the countryside of the North. At first sight, the Lake District is more diverse and vibrant than other parts of the North. The Lake District, evident from its name, is a landscape of lakes as well as fells, tarns, rivers, and the Irish Sea coast.

The Lake District is characterised by its small size: there are no mountains just “fells”, and no lakes just “waters” and “tarns”. Its built environment is consistent with its geography. Having visited many times over the years, the first thing I noticed was the general lack of really large structures, such as mansions or castles. Like its fells and waters, its built environment is characterised by ‘smallness’: small homes, bridges, and roads. Instead of large cathedrals of churches, there are chapels. Instead of steel or glass, local stones such as limestone, slate and granite shape the built environment in cottage homes, barns, packhorse bridges and terraced houses. Its built environment has a natural aesthetic, and natural stones allow many structures to grow vegetation, allowing nature to mix into the built environment.

Does the Lake District belong to the South? Being a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site makes it a target of upper and middle classes across the world. The exclusivity of the region to particular group of visitors has been mentioned in different studies: John Urry stated that the Lake District targets white, educated professionals. In contrast, the working classes, ethnic minorities and people without cars are perhaps more excluded from the area. More recently, the Lake District National Park Authorities’ Chief Executive Richard Leafe stated that the Lake District could be more inclusive.

Recently, the Lake District has also experienced a decline of local economic sectors, and an increase in the service sector catering for the visitor economy. At the same time, the Lake District, like other rural landscapes, has experienced steady gentrification in part through construction of second homes, which are often left vacant; the conversion of barns or farms for newcomers; and an increase in local services targeting these new demographics. These factors, as a result, have led to a gradual change in the demographics, infrastructure and the built environment, and sometimes political attitude, creating tensions within the local communities.

The Lake District is not only a destination for outdoor activities such as hiking, fell walking, and rock climbing. Instead, since the advent of Picturesque and Romantic movements, it has become a refined landscape made famous by artists such as Wordsworth, John Ruskin and Beatrix Potter.

But, the Lake District does not look like the South in many ways either. An essential element of the Lake District is its heritage from Neolithic or Early Bronze Ages, such as stone circles, and sites haunted by ghosts of historical or mythical figures such as King Arthur. Again, its diverse physical geography (fells, lakes) is different from that of the South.

The culture, demography and practices have also, through the years, been very different from the South: as an example, local Cumbrians were known as “Men of the North” (or Northern Welsh), and the region was left relatively autonomous from any significant religious or political authorities. Instead, it has been shaped by hill farming practised by independent farmers (yeomen). The Lake District is also distinct regarding land use – it has the largest area of farming commons in the country.

Physical borders divide, exclude and create tension. Cumbria was a borderland, first, between the Roman Empire and the North via Hadrian’s Wall. And then, between England and Scotland, which created turmoil for centuries. All those features put the Lake District in an ambivalent position across the North/South divide within the UK, having a great impact on its cultural identity.

Aside from these historical facts, and economic and social information, there are some things that are just too difficult to measure or explain. We sense attachment to certain places, and not just where we were born, or make a living; but where we love, become excited, and where we feel that we truly 'live'.

More than a decade ago, on Bus 555, I took a trip to the Lake District. It has become my Route 66: adventure and ambition colliding in a landscape. This short route has become a journey into my inner self, a quest for escape and solitude. Am I Northern? I do not know, but whenever I plan to visit this paradise, this heaven in the Lake District, I become happy.

Am I a Northerner? Not born and bred, but I think have become one.