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article imageCounting Sheep In The Timeless Charm Of The Lake District

By Anke Rees     Jul 13, 2002 in Lifestyle
WINDERMERE (dpa) - Ask the average Englishman which part of his country has the finest scenery and he's likely to name the Lake District.
Although only 160 kilometres north of the Manchester conurbation, this is a region that still looks like something out of a fairytale. Narrow, shimmering blue lakes nestle amid forests, streams snake their way via waterfalls and moss-encrusted stone bridges and everywhere you look there are sheep, castles and stone houses.
If Harry Potter didn't actually hail from somewhere else you would expect to find the Hogwarts school of magic just around the corner.
Foot and mouth disease wrought havoc here in 2001. Roads were closed, the sights shut down for the duration and a third of tourists stayed away. "It was a hard time since most of the 42,000 residents of the Lakes live from tourism," said Alan King of the Cumbria Tourist Board.
"Since September 2001 though the tourists have come back and everything is running normally - you'd think there had never been a problem."
The sector now reckons with seeing as many tourists as in its heyday, an average of 3.85 million stays a year, spread across 800 hotels and 1,000 other forms of accommodation. The region also expects 15 million daytrippers.
England's largest designated National Park measures just 50 by 50 kilometres and belongs to the county of Cumbria. Despite the compact dimensions it still manages to convey a feeling of being a Big Country, a wilderness - far from large towns and cities and the country's main arterial roads even in July and August, the peak season.
The essence of the Lake District lies are its volcanic hills grouped around Scafell Pike. The peak measures only 987 metres and may not seem tall compared to other famous European mountains but it is the tallest in England. Actually it's rather untypical for this country. Instead of a gently rounded hill, the Pike is partly jagged and raw and high enough to be out of bounds in bad weather to all but the most experienced hikers.
Behind each of these volcanic peaks there is a view of a handsome elongated valley with its own stretch of water. The 12 large lakes, several smaller ones and numerous large ponds are what gave the Lake District its name. On the largest lakes like Windermere ferries ply for trade.
Mike Bevans, an expert on the area and the proprietor of the Linthwaite House Hotels, one of six luxury hostelries in the region, says: "Everyone who comes here falls in love with the landscape and starts wanting to 'collect' the sights. Some want to have seen all the waterfalls, other all the views from the peaks and others all the lakes - I've even come across some who wanted to count all the sheep!"
Accomplishing that would call for a keen eye and remarkable numerical skills since the sheep run around freely. One in two of the Lakeland dwellers makes money from agriculture and livestock, principally sheep.
Around 1,000 sheep share 500 hectares of land although land usage calculations are tricky here because of the numerous peaks. "Not even the authorities know exactly," says Derek Scrimgour, shepherd and sheep dog trainer.
The Scotsman has lived here for 16 years and has 20 Border Collies. He has trained 500 already. The black and white dogs are known the world over. They dart across the fields worrying their charges into line in response to the whistles and brief calls of their masters. They know which way to drive the sheep, when they need to get a move on and how to catch up with an errant sheep.
The canine dashing about has become a regular sport, the Sheep Dog Trials which have even made prime time television. For years a programme called "One man and His Dog" delighted viewers. The programme was taken off the air a few years ago after being deemed old-fashioned but a storm of protest meant it will probably never vanish form the schedules again.
The region has a few linguistic peculiarities too. Placenames and the dialect are a mixture of old English and Norse. A hill is a "fell", a "mere" is by the water and a pond is a "tarn".
As for eating, those with a sweet tooth might like to try a piece of gingerbread or some of the famous Kendal Mint Cake. This is not something for afternoon tea but a high energy mint bar designed to power hikers through the hills.
Those who pull faces at the extra sweet taste might want to take part in the local "Gurning" contest where the aim is to pull the most grotesque grimace. The "World's Biggest Liar" contest is also open to allcomers.
The Lakes are just that bit different from anywhere else and visitors should be prepared to hear that virtually every house is in some way "haunted" regardless of whether it is a stately hotel or a snack bar. Alan King from the tourists authority can confirm that.
"We're really well off for ghosts here," he enthused. The talk is a phantom horseman complete with coffin at Skorefor Pike or a whole army of ghosts at Souter Fell.
The most famous apparition in the Lake District even found its way into the pages of the Oxford Dictionary. Tom Skelton, former court fool at Muncaster Castle used to direct travellers to nearby quicksand and was said to have beheaded a rival. Look up a word for mischief and you'll come across the word "tomfoolery."
Ravenglass Castle has been owned by the same family for 800 years and seems to have had its fair share of ghosts. Guests tell of the whispering walls, cries of a baby and the sound of a lullaby being sung. Owner Patrick Duff-Pennington says he is so used to hearing the sound of footsteps when he goes to the library that he does not pay much attention anymore. The park with its 40 owls is open to the public.
The Lake District is not only famous for its landscape but for numerous artists who were inspired by these parts. Poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and philosopher John Ruskin (1819-1900) lived in the region along with sculptor Henry Moore.
For adults with a nostalgia for their childhood and kids too a museum in Bowness-on-Windermere offers a satisfying day out. The World of Beatrix Potter celebrates the centenary of the authoress who first published the tales of Peter Rabbit and his animal pals 100 years ago. It is still the number one bestselling children's book in Britain and has introduced millions to the timeless charm of the Lakes.
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