02 Oct 20
History of England’s Lake District
England’s Lake District is, as its name suggests, known for its many scenic lakes. But the national park also has a rich, multi-layered geologic history dating back half a billion years.
I recently returned from the UK after walking through the mountainous Lake District National Park – the first section of Wainwright’s epic Coast to Coast Path, which starts at St Bees and cuts through the heart of Lakeland on its 309km route across to Robin Hood’s Bay. To hone my navigation and map-reading skills, I used an experienced guide for some of the sections.
Our day started with a climb out of Patterdale Valley and up to Kidsty Pike (780m), the highest point on the Coast to Coast. Arriving at the edge of Kidsty Pike, we were challenged by strong wind so after taking a few photos we descended to Haweswater Lake where we had lunch while sitting against smooth, carved rock with stunning views back down the valley. It was here that my local mountain guide, Jon, shared some intriguing insights about the multi-layered geological history of the Lake District and the impact that 500 million years have had on the physical landscape of the mountains and the lakes that you’ll see here today.
All visitors to the Lake District are struck by the beauty, grandeur and variety of the scenery, but few appreciate the extent to which this has been influenced by the underlying rocks and the natural processes shaping their surface. The geology is there for all to see in the form of crags, road cuttings, and rocky knolls in abundance.
Three famous rock groups make up the major mountain ranges here. The oldest is the Skiddaw Group, formed 500 million years ago from muddy seafloor sediments. They later squeezed, compacted and uplifted as landmasses collided, developing into mountain rocks that persisted over hundreds of millions of years and are exposed in the northern fells. The Skiddaw Group forms a roughly triangular mountainous zone in the north of the park, reaching a maximum height of 931m on Skiddaw itself.
The second oldest is the Borrowdale Group, formed 450 million years ago from a volcanic eruption. These rocks formed from ash and lava are hard and resistant to erosion. They make up some of the highest mountains in the Lake District, including Helvellyn (the detour via the summit can be reached on the Grasmere to Patterdale section).
The youngest is the Windermere Group, formed 420 million years ago from erosion-prone sandstones and limestones, giving rise to the gentler scenery and landscape of southern Lakeland you see today.
Eventually, ice sheets and glaciers covered the area, with glacier erosion creating the U-shaped valleys. Once temperatures began to heat up again, ice streams and glaciers flowed outward from the central fells, becoming trapped in the valleys and forming the deep lakes for which the Lake District is famous. (The Lake District has over 14 lakes and tarns. The volcanic rock does not allow water to seep away. The high rainfall, combined with the extra deep glacial valleys means that the valleys are able to store large volumes of water.)
Many Lake District rocks have been quarried, mostly for use in the construction industry. There are many miles of drystone walls and numerous village buildings made of local stone which came from small local quarries.
As I stand in the midst of this geological wonder, immersed in Jon’s every word, I try to imagine how millions of years ago these mountain ranges once would have looked more like the Himalayas before the erosion wore the rocks down to the low-profile hills they are today.
The Lake District is often called the ‘most beautiful corner of England’ and it recently marked its first year as a World Heritage Site after receiving international acclaim as a world-class cultural landscape. Isn’t it time you strapped on your walking boots and discovered it for yourself?