Aira Force is hidden beneath a strip of thick deciduous woodland on the banks of Ullswater. The waterfall drops 70 feet from the beck above, forcing itself through a narrow opening in the limestone, framed above and below by two humpbacked footbridges. It was near this spot that William and Dorothy Wordsworth saw their crowd of golden daffodils. The waterfall itself features in a handful of his poems; in ‘The Somnambulist’, the ‘drooping Emma’, separated from her lover, Sir Eglamore, begins to sleepwalk, drawn by the mesmerising sound of the beck:
The moon is not more pure
That shines aloft, while through the wood
She thrids her way, the sounding Flood
Her melancholy lure!
The modern idea of the Lake District derives from the Romantic poets. Before they reimagined it, most people had feared and avoided the landscape of what is now Cumbria.
It wasn’t hard to see why last week, as I trod carefully across the slippery bridge at the top of the falls. Storm Eva had followed close behind Storm Desmond, bringing unprecedented rain. The beck was full, and flowing with great force; at times, the water looked almost as if it were boiling, in great natural cauldrons, bubbling and churning as gallons of water per second rushed through the cracks between the rocks. The water was brown, full of topsoil pulled from the upland fells and crags. The storms had flooded whole towns in Cumbria: Carlisle and Appleby were inundated, as the large upland catchment areas, bare from sheep grazing, channelled vast quantities of water into the populated towns built up around the rivers. Residents were stoical through experience; this is the third once-in-a-lifetime flood in a decade.
The local MPs Tim Farron and Rory Stewart have been quick to pull on their wellington boots and strike heroic poses. Both have praised the resilience of their rural constituents, many of whom have worked to help rescue efforts, filling in the gaps of a receding state. Neither, however, has owned up to his role in maintaining a decrepit approach to water management in his community. Farron yesterday attacked David Cameron for making cuts to flood defence budgets and the Environment Agency, cheerfully eliding the Lib Dems’ role in coalition austerity policies. He rightly called the government to account for not applying for EU Solidarity funding to repair the A591 – on current estimates, fixing the road will take months rather than weeks – but he is somewhat less forthcoming on flood prevention.
He has consistently advocated against increasing upland vegetation growth, which would have held large amounts of water in the uplands. Reforestation, along with decreased dredging and allowing rivers to take their own course, could have significantly slowed the surge of water that hit the towns. For a decade, a group of organisations, including the Forestry Commission, United Utilities and the National Trust, have been experimenting with such an approach in Ennerdale, with remarkable success. In the rest of the county, meanwhile, we continue to subsidise upland sheep farmers to produce methane and denude the landscape.
The rationale behind Farron and Stewart’s opposition to the Ennerdale policy lies in the obsession with maintaining a very specific idea of ‘nature’ in the Lake District: an idea stuck in the 19th century, when the bare uplands had been thoroughly degraded by sheep farming. The romantic ideology of ‘tradition’ comes out quite clearly in Stewart’s writing; in a blogpost written in 2014, he pulls out all the clichés of homespun wisdom: a distrust of poncily dressed off-comers with their fancy London words; an insistence on traditional farming techniques long after the reason for their development has been lost: on emphasis on patrilineal land ownership – it’s an outdated caricature of Cumbrianness played to the gallery, disguising the material interests of subsidy-dependence that shape upland farming. Stewart rejects the arguments of United Utilities because their policy of land management is not poetic enough, too focused on science instead of ‘the beauty of farmed land’. He calls their language ‘dry’; many Cumbrians wouldn’t mind a little dry language right now.
This isn't to say that traditional sheep-farming needs to be abandoned entirely. It isn't an all-or-nothing question. But Romantic visions may be best left to poetry and museums, such as the Wordsworth House museum in Cockermouth – currently closed until March 2016, due to flooding.