Illustration for farming and forestry nature recovery

Lake District Special Qualities

All National Parks in England and Wales have two main purposes:

  • Conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage.
  • Promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of national parks by the public.

Here are the special qualities for the Lake District, the reasons why this area is a National Park. When UNESCO made the Lake District a World Heritage Site, some parts of these special qualities also became its attributes of Outstanding Universal Value, these are part of the reasons why it is a World Heritage Site and are shown in bold below.

1. A world class cultural landscape

The English Lake District is a self-contained mountain area whose narrow, radiating glaciated valleys, steep fells and slender lakes exhibit an extraordinary beauty and harmony. This landscape reflects an outstanding fusion between a distinctive communal farming system that has persisted for at least a millennium with improvements of villas, picturesque planting and gardens during the 18th and 19th centuries. This combination has attracted and inspired writers and artists of global stature. The landscape also manifests the success of the conservation movement that it stimulated, a movement based on the idea of landscape as a human response to our environment. This cultural force has had world-wide ramifications. The diversity of the landscape is key to its beauty and significance and includes coast, lakes, distinctive farmland, fell, woodland, industrial activity and settlement. Each of the thirteen valleys of the Lake District has an individual distinctiveness based on landform, biodiversity and cultural heritage. The character of the Lake District cultural landscape has evolved slowly over many centuries and will continue to evolve in the future under the influence of the knowledge and skills of the local community.

2. Complex geology and geomorphology

The geology of the national park is complex and varied. Its rocks provide a dramatic record of nearly 500 million years of the Earth’s history with evidence of colliding continents, violent volcanic activity, deep oceans, tropical seas and the scouring e€ects of thick ice-sheets which produced the familiar characteristics of the Lake District’s glacial topography. The highest mountains and deepest lakes in England are found here. Creation of stone stripes on mountain plateaus due to freeze/thaw action, sediment transport in rivers, and mobile sand dunes demonstrate some of the active geomorphological processes that continue to shape the landscape. The geology of the National Park has been investigated and studied since the 18th century. Work in the Lake District helped the first geologists (such as Adam Sedgwick) to establish some of the foundations on which modern geology and geomorphology is based. Some Lake District geological sites provide international “reference types” and many exposures continue to provide important sites for study and research. The diversity of rock and minerals has given rise to a rich mining and quarrying history. Stone axe production dates back to the Neolithic period, while industrial scale mining for ores of iron, copper, lead and for graphite began during the medieval period. Contemporary slate quarrying continues this long established activity. These local natural resources have strongly influenced the built environment and the wider landscape, with local slate, limestone and granite featuring in buildings, bridges, and walls.

3. Rich archaeology and historic landscape

There have been people in the Lake District since the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, and the landscape reflects a long history of settlement, agriculture and industry. The opportunities for farming have varied over time and there are extensive traces of prehistoric settlements and field systems in the valleys and on the lower fells as a result of warmer climatic conditions several thousand years ago. Important prehistoric sites include Neolithic stone circles, rock art, and stone axe quarries; Bronze Age settlements, field systems and burial monuments; and numerous enclosed settlements of the Iron Age. The Romans constructed an impressive network of roads and forts including Hardknott and Ravenglass, which forms part of the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site. Important early medieval sites include small, heavily defended hillforts, the remains of an Anglian monastery at Dacre and fine early stone crosses including the example at Irton. In the 10th century an immigration of Norse settlers resulted in additions to the repertoire of ecclesiastical sculpture including the Gosforth cross and numerous decorated hog-back tombstones. The place-names which also resulted from this episode of Norse settlement are one of the most enduring historical legacies and now form part of the distinctive character of the Lake District’s cultural landscape.

By the time of the Norman conquest at the end of the 11th century the fertile land in the Lake District valleys was separated from the open fell by a stone wall known as a ‘ring garth’ which enclosed a large common field that was cultivated in strips. Over the following 500 years stone walled ‘intakes’ were added to the outside of the ring garth for additional cultivation and grazing of stock. This pattern of land use is key to the character of the Lake District landscape and many walls of medieval origin are still in use today.

The gifting of land in the Lake District to monasteries including Furness and Fountains Abbeys from the 12th century led to the development of sheep farming for the production of wool for export and also to increased iron smelting using the abundant local raw materials. Two monasteries were founded within the Lake District, at Shap and in the Calder valley, and the larger monastic institutions located outside the area established sheep farms or ‘granges’ in order to manage their extensive flocks.

The absence of a resident aristocracy in the central Lake District valleys coupled with the legal securing of customary tenure in the early 17th century ensured the survival of a traditional society of yeoman farmers known in the Lake District as ‘Statesmen’. Many of the ‘Statesmen’ families remained on their farms for generations and from the 17th century their prosperity resulted in a confidence to invest in new farm houses and other agricultural buildings built of stone.

Various factors have encouraged the development of local industries in the Lake District including the availability of metal ores and raw materials from the extensive native woodland. The high rainfall in the Lake District has also assisted the production of water power as a prime source of energy crucial for mining and a variety of milling processes. The exploitation of these natural resources together with industrial processing and the accommodation of workers have had a significant impact on the shaping of the Lake District landscape.

Significant mining of metal ores in the Lake District took place from at least as early as 1000 AD and was developed on a truly industrial scale from the Elizabethan period following the establishment of the Mines Royal. Mining continued to develop from the 18th century and reached a peak in the later 19th and early 20th centuries followed by a decline which saw the last mineral mine close in 1990. Slate quarrying also took place on a small scale from the medieval period and developed as a major local industry from the 18th century. Although it too has declined, several slate quarries are still active in the Lake District. Other important industrial archaeological monuments include blast furnaces of the 18th to 20th centuries and bobbin mills and gunpowder works of similar date.

4. Unique farming heritage and concentration of common land

The pastoral system that has evolved in the Lake District for over a thousand years and its continuation by today’s farmers maintains a unique farming legacy. A clear pattern of land use and enclosure has developed which is dictated by the topography and characterised by in-bye (including pastures and hay meadows), in-take, out-gang and open fell. The Lake District has the largest concentration of common land in Britain, and possibly Western Europe, with a continuing tradition of hefted grazing and collective management. This is characterised by landlords’ flocks, hefted livestock, communal gathers, and the use of traditional breeds, including Herdwick sheep and fell ponies. Many farming families can trace their ties to the landscape over hundreds of years and the social and cultural elements of the pastoral system are still evident today in the pattern of farm tenure with collective communal grazing, shepherds’ meets, local dialect and language and traditions such as agricultural shows and distinctive local sports.

The stone farm houses, barns and walls of the Lake District have been hand-built by generations of farming families and continue to be maintained as a result of knowledge and skills inherent in the local community. These skills also extend to management of the wider local environment, including traditional practices such as hedge laying, pollarding and coppicing of woodland and quarrying of local building materials.

5. The high fells

The Lake District includes the highest land in England. These mountains, known as “fells” are rich in wildlife, full of archaeological sites and are predominantly open, common  land and an integral part of the hill farming system. For centuries people have come to walk and climb on them and still do to “get away from it all” and experience a feeling of wildness. Alfred Wainwright popularised walking on them in his iconic guides in the 1960s. The fells have inspired numerous writers and painters including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Turner and Constable and continue provide a focus for contemporary artists including painters, photographers and creative writers. The fells peaks, crags and passes define the valleys, shed the waters and shape the communities in the valleys below. The fells’ characters vary across the Lake District based mainly on geology from the smooth, rounded Silurian slates to the craggy Borrowdale Volcanics.

6. Wealth of habitats and wildlife

The Lake District supports a unique assemblage of wildlife and habitats. The habitats which we see today have been developing since the retreat of the glaciers 10,000 years ago and are a response to a complex underlying geology, geomorphological processes, altitude, climate and the history of human land management. The earliest human influences to vegetation began in Neolithic times. Small areas of clearance are reflected in the pollen record. As cultivation and grazing increased, woodland gave way to more grassland communities. Much later, woodland industry modified the species composition of many of our woodlands.

Many of the habitats and species found in the Lake District are recognised in their own right for their biodiversity importance at an international level with almost 20% of the National Park area being designated for its biodiversity value. In addition, some of the species that occur here are of European importance. There is an abundance of freshwater habitats, including lakes, tarns and rivers each of which reflect their distinct valley catchments. Vegetation transitions from mountain top to valley bottom boast moss and lichen heath on the highest plateaus, replaced by dwarf shrub heath, juniper scrub, tall herb ledge and scree vegetation lower down. Blanket bog and wet heath can also be found where conditions allow. Upland oak wood survives in some places to the natural tree line and is extensive in some valleys. On the valley bottoms, upland hay meadows and pastures reflect pastoral management. On the fringes of the park, limestone pavements, grasslands and woodland add to the diversity and in low lying and coastal areas lowland raised mires, sand dunes, dune heaths, saltmarsh, mudflats and honey comb reefs occur.

Each of these habitats is represented by a suite of species, some of which are considered to be particularly important. This may be because they are rare or scarce or because they are in decline and vulnerable to threat (or both). Examples include: red squirrel, natterjack toad, freshwater mussel, mountain ringlet, Duke of Burgundy, floating water plantain, high brown fritillary, vendace, schelly, downy willow, and bog orchid.

7. Mosaic of lakes, tarns, rivers and coast

The National Park has a rich variety of becks, rivers, lakes, tarns and coast. They are internationally important because of their water quality, range of habitats, and species, such as vendace, arctic charr, and schelly. The plants and animals they support depend on the diferences in water chemistry which in turn are influenced by the variations of the underlying geology. Becks and rivers connect upland catchments and open water to the sea, allowing migrating Atlantic salmon to thrive alongside otters, freshwater mussel and white clawed crayfish. The transition from open water to dryer ground adds diversity with reed beds, tall herb fens and wet woodland. Through analysis of their sediments, the lakes and tarns provide a unique record of the climatic and environmental changes which have occurred over time. Although each river and lake has its own distinct identity, together with their catchment of mountains, woodland and farmland, they collectively contribute to the high quality scenery and natural resource which is so distinctively ‘The Lake District’ and unique in England. The becks and rivers of the Lake District have been harnessed to provide power for a variety of industries and, from the 19th century, the need for fresh water for expanding cities in North West England has resulted in modification of a number of the major lakes.

The Lake District can also celebrate the heritage of 100 years of scientific investigation into lake and stream ecology, and the biological function of freshwater systems, which is recognised throughout the world. The Freshwater Biological Association with its world class library is located on the shores of Windermere.

8. Extensive seminatural woodlands

The semi-natural woodlands add texture, colour and variety to the landscape and some are internationally important habitats. They provide a home for native animals and plants, and define the character of many valleys in the Lake District. The high rainfall in the core of the National Park favours woodlands rich in Atlantic mosses and liverworts, ferns and lichens. The limestone on the fringes of the National Park also supports distinctive woodland types and wood pasture, pollards and old coppice woodland contain one of the greatest concentrations of ancient trees in Europe and form a living record of past land use, part of the rich cultural landscape. The Lake District woods have been used for centuries as a source of raw materials for local industries. Coppiced wood was used for producing charcoal which fuelled iron production from the medieval period until the 20th century. It also provided the raw material for making bobbins for the Lancashire cotton industry. Oak bark was used in tanneries in the Lake District into the late 19th century and oak swill baskets are a traditional product of the area. Some of these traditional industries still survive and the Lake District’s woodland is increasingly valued for carbon sequestration and storage and as a source of renewable woodfuel and wood products. Recent woodland regeneration schemes on the fellsides are adding a new generation of woodlands into the landscape.

9. Distinctive buildings and settlement character

The local architecture varies from the traditional vernacular buildings with related characteristics to more formal, “polite” architectural styles associated with Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian period, including those from the Classical, Gothic and Arts and Crafts movements. Materials and details are a common link between contrasting building types and styles. Local materials include a wide range of building stones such  as slate stone, volcanic boulders and cobbles, limestone and sandstone depending on the varied local geology. The extensive use and distinctive character of Cumbrian slate for roofing is a unifying feature, with finishes such as lime wash and details in dressed sandstone, granite and limestone adding variety and interest.

Vernacular buildings have a simple functional character and often rugged appearance using local materials, with some displaying varying degrees of modification to more “polite” styles of more formal appearance. Vernacular buildings come in a variety of distinctive forms, such as traditional yeoman farmhouses, long houses, bank barns, hogg houses, and peat houses. There is also a distinctive range of buildings associated with trade, mining and industry, such as bobbin mills, lime kilns and packhorse bridges. Local vernacular features include “spinning” galleries, massive round chimneys, deep eaves, crow-stepped gables and walling styles and are frequently a response to the harsh character of the local climate and topography. The Lake District contains some fine examples of villa architecture, following industrialisation in northern England and also by the arrival of the railway in the mid-19th century. Villa development, in styles fashionable at the time, was frequently designed to respond to and even modify the landscape, epitomising an era of power and wealth, yet with increasing concern with art, aesthetics and quality of life.

Many towns, villages and hamlets have a range of building types and styles and a distinctive spatial and townscape character depending on their history and development. The network of dry stone walls, hedgerows, lanes, footpaths and the surviving field patterns form a visual and historic link between settlement and countryside. The survival of a dispersed network of vernacular farm building groups, often relatively unaltered by more recent development, is an important component of this special quality. A diverse range of historic settlements types have emerged within a relatively small geographical area. This diversity is strongly related to the historic opportunities and constraints of the varied landscape, topography and geology. Consequently, the National Park has examples of market towns, with burgage plots arranged around a market place; agricultural villages with historic field patterns, some with village greens; industrial and mining settlements with terraces of workers housing; politely planned Georgian towns and villages guided by a wealthy patron; and Victorian new towns, suburbs, and tourist resorts, especially following the arrival of the railway.

10. A source of artistic inspiration

The unique beauty of the Lake District’s distinctive pastoral landscape has inspired generations of artists and writers. The influence of Picturesque aesthetics led to the physical embellishment of the landscape through construction of villas and gardens, designed landscapes and planting schemes. The Romantic movement transformed this into a new and influential view of the relationship between humans and landscape. This included the possibility of a sustainable relationship between humans and nature, the value of landscape for restoring the human spirit and the intrinsic value of scenic and cultural landscape. This was fundamental to the formation and sharing of globally important ideas of the need to protect such landscapes. Key writers and artists of the 18th and 19th centuries associated with the Lake District include William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Constable, J M W Turner and John Ruskin. This tradition continued into the 20th century with such figures as Kurt Schwitters, Alfred and William Heaton Cooper and Norman Nicholson. It is nurtured today and for the future through the agency of various organisations including the Wordsworth Trust, the Brantwood Trust, Grizedale Arts, the Lake Artists Society and through a number of established festivals including Words by the Water and the Kendal Mountain Festival.

11. A model for protecting cultural landscapes

In parallel with the aesthetic appreciation of the “natural beauty” of the Lake District from the 18th century onwards, there also developed an understanding of its vulnerability to forces of change as a result of emerging industrialisation, tree-felling, and landscape enclosure. This combination of ideas gave rise to the idea that valued landscapes could be nurtured and protected, encapsulated in William Wordsworth’s famous statement of 1835 that the Lake District should be deemed “a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”. The early conservation battles to protect the Lake District, although sometimes unsuccessful, as in the case of the Thirlmere reservoir, began a chain of events which established the Lake District as the birth-place of an innovative conservation movement committed to the defence of its landscape and communities. One strand of this movement led directly to the creation of the National Trust and protection of the Lake District landscape through the acquisition of key farms, fell land and historic houses. Figures such as Beatrix Potter, G M Trevelyan and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley played an important role in this regard. This has influenced similar models of heritage conservation, secured through protective ownership, elsewhere in Britain and abroad. Another strand of conservation action to emerge from experience in the Lake District was the formation of campaigning groups such as Friends of the Lake District, which won a significant battle in 1936 to prevent commercial a£orestation in the central fells. This strand led to the formal designation of protected landscapes at both national and international levels; the Lake District was at the origin of UK national parks based on the “natural beauty” of these cultural landscapes, and influenced the idea of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Protected Areas Category V, Protected Landscapes/Seascapes. It was also instrumental in bringing about a third strand: the creation by UNESCO of the World Heritage Cultural Landscape category in 1992.

12. A long tradition of tourism and outdoor activities

The diverse Lake District landscape provides opportunities for a wide range of sporting and recreational activities on land and water. Some of these, such as fell running, are part of traditional local culture. The National Park has the highest concentration of outdoor activity centres in the UK. The birth of recreational rock climbing in England is attributed to the Lake District with the ascent of Napes Needle in the 1880’s amongst one of the earliest recorded routes. There is a tradition of unrestricted access to the fells together with an historical network of roads, tracks and footpaths. As a result the Lake District has become a focal point for recreational walking, beginning with the involvement of the Romantic movement with the landscape and the perambulations of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The history of tourism can be traced back to the Picturesque fascination with the Lake District landscape and its potential for aesthetic experiences. This led to the production of early guide books which included the positions of ”viewing stations” around the major lakes which were followed by Wordsworth’s celebrated Guide through the District of the Lakes of 1835 and in the 20th century by the guides of more recent writers including Wainwright.

The coming of the railway to the Lake District in the mid-19th century extended the opportunity to visit the area to a much wider part of society and was the catalyst for a tradition of tourism which continues today.

Traditional tourist attractions include lake cruises on launches and steamers on the larger lakes, a unique resource in inland England and Wales, and current water-based recreational activities include sailing, motor boating, canoeing, and open water swimming which is growing increasingly popular. Three of the larger lakes have been used since the early 20th century for water speed record attempts. In recent years mountain biking has become another major sporting activity utilising the Public Rights of Way network and Grizedale and Whinlatter forests.

13. Opportunities for quiet enjoyment

The tranquillity of the fells, valleys and lakes gives a sense of space and freedom. The open character of the uplands, and the absence of modern development, is especially important. To walk freely across the fells, or climb their crags, is liberating and gives a sense of discovery and achievement. There is a feeling of wildness, offering personal challenges for some and impressive open views for everyone. To many people the Lake District is a safe place to explore: it is possible to feel remote, yet know that the nearest settlement is never far away. These characteristics provide important opportunities for spiritual refreshment: a release from the pressures of modern day life and a contrast to the noise and bustle experienced elsewhere. These are all vital components of the concept of quiet enjoyment and can be found in many places across the whole of the National Park. The value of the Lake District landscape for spiritual nourishment, originating in the Romantic recognition of the capacity of landscape to nurture and stimulate imagination, creativity and spirit, was recognised by the gift of the highest mountain land in England to the National Trust as a memorial to those who perished fighting in World War 1.