UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the Lake District: Key sites to visit
27 February 2018
The very words “UNESCO World Heritage Site” tend to conjure up images of Egypt’s pyramids, The Grand Canyon and Hadrian’s Wall. However, as of 2017, the Lake District now has official status as one of the globe’s great historic treasures. Understandably, we're delighted with the recognition. But what does the award mean for the future of the National Park? And where should you visit to experience the Lake District’s remarkable natural and man-made history?
Who is UNESCO and what is an official World Heritage Site?
UNESCO (the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation) is a body which promotes peace, cooperation and cultural understanding worldwide. This includes giving special status to locations that are worthy of international recognition, protection and preservation, as laid out in the organization’s special terms laid out in 1972.
These awards are not handed out lightly; there are only 31 in the UK, which include Stonehenge, Kew Gardens and the Tower of London. Among the key aims of UNESCO are preserving places of unique cultural and ecological value. Crucially, in the case of the Lake District, this means maintaining a “sustainable relationship between humans and nature”. This is something that has to continue sensitively and successfully for the region as we know it to continue to thrive.
Places of Special Interest and significance to visit in the Lake District
Of course, to the visitor this special UNESCO status is not so much about terms and policies, but a wide range of amazing places to visit. Locations that tell us exactly why the Lake District is so special. Depending on your interests and where you decide to stay and explore, there are all sorts of famous and remarkable locations you might enjoy. Here are just some which come highly recommended:
Where to visit for: WILDLIFE
The landscape of the Lake District has evolved over millennia, not by natural means alone but as the result of interaction between farming and the pre-existing landscape. It is always a balancing act between agriculture, tourism and the natural world, but there have been some excellent recent successes, including the return of breeding Ospreys to the area.
The lakes themselves offer some of the least disturbed habitat, with a huge range of resident and migrating birds. There are also surviving woodlands though. Boathouse Field, at the top of Lake Windermere, combines both these habitats, with reedwarblers, woodpeckers and various other species present.
If you want to see rich carpets of bluebells and wild garlic, however, along with idyllic woodland trails and a rich variety of flora and fauna, Dorothy Farrer’s Spring Wood is truly beautiful too. http://www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk is a great resource for other ideas, including walks, species to spot from glow worms to goldcrests.
Places to visit for UNIQUE LANDMARKS AND GEOLOGY
For a taste of the heights and spectacular views that inspired so many visitors, from tourists to literary giants, you simply must get up into the fells and mountains. Indeed, in spite of the name “Lake District” many visitors come specifically to venture into the heights. Geologically, the area is characterised by huge volcanic rock formations and deep valleys. The most spectacular examples of the Lake District's craggy granite peaks are at locations such as Ennerdale, Eskdale and Carrock Fell.
For the best views of all, Scalfell Pike is the highest point. You needn’t hike all day for some fresh air and solitude though, because others such as Alcock Tarn are reachable within a walk of only an hour or so. Of course, if you’re feeling really ambitious, the Lake District is a popular place on the Three Peaks Challenge (the scaling of the highest mountains in Wales, England and Scotland, one after another).
As for the lakes themselves, Windermere is England's natural lake- and Cumbria dominates the top five list. There are numerous viewpoints to take in the beauty of the waters, but best of all is to get afloat! This could mean a scenic cruise, or even getting wet; our blog on water-based activities has plenty of ideas here.
Where to visit for ART and LITERATURE
Today’s visitor might think that our collective love of landscape was as old as the hills, but in reality the very way in which we view the outdoors (and will travel many miles from towns and cities to reach the national parks!) was heavily influenced by the arts.
Literary figures such as the romantic poet William Wordsworth created an emotional and spiritual connection through verse and prose that inspired countless early tourists. Today you can still visit Dove Cottage (above) near Rothay Garden in Grasmere, where the Lake District’s most famous poet lived. Other writers are many and although we might not think of them all as high literature, so many helped change our connection with the natural world. Children's author and illustrator Beatrix Potter is a point in case, who contributed real life conservation work behind the fantastical adventures of her animal characters.
The Heaton Cooper Studio, still a creative hub for painters and art lovers alike (Image: Heaton Cooper Facebook Page)
The visual arts have also played a key part of the deep connection we continue to have with nature, landscape and the elements, it cannot be denied. Painters such as William Heaton Cooper were struck by its vast open spaces, dramatic climate and great natural contrasts. Not far from our doorstep, the Heaton Cooper Studio in Grasmere continues to exhibit classic and contemporary art alike, along with materials for budding painters. Other galleries and exhibition spaces can be found in our blog post on great Lake District art sites.
Where to visit for FARMING, FOOD & DRINK
Traditional sheep farming has been part and parcel of life in the Lake District for well over a thousand years. Look out for special Cumbrian breeds of sheep such as the Herdwick (above) when on your travels.
Even in today’s world of cheap imported yarns, there is still a place for quality Cumbrian Wool too; at outlets such as Herdy (Grasmere) you can still buy cosy garments made with the real thing. Similarly, the region’s unique food and drink are a must sample when you visit. There are various farmers markets and tasting experiences to enjoy too (see our blog on Lake District food and drink highlights for some great things to try and sites to visit).
Should you wish to get closer to farm animals and those who can tell you all about them, there are also still a few working farms to visit in the Lake District. Lakeland Maze Farm Park is one option, near Kendal, where you can feed the animals and families can enjoy mazes and other activities in the fresh air.
Where to visit for LOCAL CULTURE, TRADITIONS & FESTIVALS
Of course, regional character and heritage are not just a case of famous places, landmarks or architecture; just as important are customs and ways of life. In today’s rapidly changing world, old traditions are especially precious in the Lake District. There are still plenty of local, independent and family run businesses throughout Cumbria, from Keswick, via Grasmere, to Kendal.
But for a taste of living history, our annual festivals are perhaps the most colourful examples of local culture. If you get the chance, events such as the Ambleside Games, Rushbearing Ceremony and summer music festivals are a must. Our previous blog on annual Lake District Festivals is well worth a read on this topic.