The Lake District is my home from home. I have been coming here for years, the first time on a family holiday when I was eight or so. I became entranced by the rugged beauty of the places, the clearness of the rivers, the colours and roundness of the stones, the single-word poems that were the place names: Skiddaw, Seathwaite, Threlkeld, Seatoller, Blencathra, Honister, Manesty…
It became my place, and I keep coming back, and always the same route to the same place. The train up from London takes you to Penrith, when the views of distant hills announce the majesty that is to come. The bus takes you through the winding roads and increasing hills, where epic slopes of bracken, grass and scree tower over the plain homes of those sheltering beneath in the villages along the way. The homes all have whitewashed walls with grey slate roofs. The grander hotels, churches and civic buildings are all slate, but there is no brick. You know this is somewhere else. Down the hill you come, and there is Keswick, the town from which expeditions begin, nestled in the middle of the major lakes – specifically, to the north of Derwentwater.
It’s exactly as it was the last time. The same shops seem to have lasted for decades – principally mountaineering stores, tea rooms and trinket stores offering all manner of unnecessary objects formed out of slate, and dreadful art. It’s a practical, accommodating town, perfectly adjusted to its central function as the fulcrum for exploration of the Lake District, yet convincing you of its status of an ordinary place just going about its business as well.
You proceed through Keswick, following the road that winds to the right past the final shops and cafes, going through an ugly tunnel, past Hope Park with its all-weather ice cream parlour and crazy golf, and along the path that leads you to the shore of the lake. Derwentwater announces itself in stages, the view obscured by trees on the promontory on which you find yourself. Proceed further, woodland to the left of you, water to the right, til the land rises slightly, and you come to a fenced-off point where the path circles back on itself, and the lake opens out to the most astonishing of views. You are at Friar’s Crag.
The view is stupendous. If the build-up through the trees with glimpses of the lake to the right-hand side is like a rising crescendo of music, the culmination is not some crashing grand chord, but silence. It is a silence that comes from awe, but also from the stillness.
John Ruskin called the view from Friar’s Crag “one of the three most beautiful scenes in Europe”, recalling (in Modern Painters) that the view was one of the first things he could remember, having been taken there as a child and experiencing “intense joy mingled with awe”. His devotion to the spot has been rewarded by a monument in his name close by the viewing area. For there is a viewing area; that circular path around a clump of trees, with a prominent bench not so much a place from which to enjoy the view as a part of the view itself, in how it invites the idea of the view.
From this viewpoint you see the water arrayed before you. To the left and right are Lord’s Island and St Herbert’s Island. On the eastern and western shores are the heights of Ashness Fell and Cat Bells, ringing the lake until they fall away at the furthest point. The V-shaped cleft they leave is interrupted by Castle Crag, the point to which the eye is irresistibly drawn. In the fading light of an evening it is this protuberance that catches the dying sunlight, the fells to the side surrendering to darkness while the centre remains bathed in light.
The distant feature so framed is called the Jaws of Borrowdale, the name perhaps a leftover from a time when visitors to the area, in thrall to romantic ideas of landscape, found the Lake District’s rock formations terrifying. Beyond those jaws lies Borrowdale, the most beautiful patch of land imaginable. It is the goal for a many a traveller, whose journey begins at Friar’s Crag, where mind and heart are made up to go on that quest.
The view delights, and invites. You do not just take in the greatness of the panorama, but place yourself within it, crossing that water or traversing those heights with the goal of getting to that promised land. Perhaps that is a way to define great landscape art. The ordinary landscape present you with a vision; the great landscape makes you see yourself within it, as playing a crucial part in its construction. The picture’s mystery is resolved by our potential to become part of it, to venture within and towards that horizon. The view of nature is not the same as the view recreated within a frame, of course. But what the natural view demands is what the art must then encapsulate. Art fulfils our need, and our longing, to be a part of the picture. When we can see ourselves as being part of it, then we know that we belong.
The greatness of a view such as at Friar’s Crag must be that it makes artists of us all. It makes us see that much more, makes us understand our role as viewers. Because we are there, we complete the picture.