Early Tourism

by Christopher Donaldson

Banner Image: Etching of William Westall's Ullswater from Gowbarrow Park, published by Rudolph Ackerman in 1834. Courtesy of Christopher Donaldson

Tourists have long flocked to Ullswater. The valley became one of the principal gateways to the Lake District during the 1700s. The poet Thomas Gray (1716–1771) entered the region via Ullswater in 1769. He rhapsodised about the beauty of the valley, describing the lake ‘as a blue mirror, with winding shores […] covered with green enclosures’.

These words drew many other likeminded visitors. The painter Joseph Farington (1747–1821) followed in Gray’s footsteps in the 1770s, and he made frequent visits thereafter. The artist and Anglican cleric William Gilpin (1724–1804) came in 1772. He declared he ‘was more pleased with Ulleswater [sic], than with any lake [he] had seen’.

The accounts of Gray, Gilpin and Farington are representative of the vogue for the Picturesque that drew many tourists to the Lake District during the 1700s. But these men were hardly the first notable visitors to Ullswater. Celia Fiennes (1662–1741) came in 1698. She and her companions coursed hares in Gowbarrow Park, which she described as ‘a fine fforest [sic]’.

Farington Pooley Bridge © Greg Page-Turner www.artwarefineart.com

Sixty-four years earlier, three army officers visited Gowbarrow on their tour of the North. These men were guests of Lord William Howard (1563–1640) at nearby Greystocke Castle, and they claimed the park was ‘a solitary wilderness’ full of ‘hideous, hanging Hills, and great Pooles’.

‘Hideous’, here, is used in the old sense, meaning ‘huge’ or ‘immense’, and although tastes changed between the 1600s and 1700s, the accounts of various tourists affirm that Ullswater’s immensity continued to impress. Gilpin declared that no lake was ‘so beautifully sublime’. Similarly, Henry Hobhouse (1742–1792) compared Derwentwater and Ullswater, observing that the ‘one excels by the multitude, the other by the magnitude of its objects’.

Peter Crosthwaite’s Accurate MAP of the beautiful Lake of Ulles-Water (1783). Courtesy of Cumbria County Council

Ullswater was documented at length in Thomas West’s Guide to the Lakes in 1778. This was the first guidebook to the Lake District, and in it West (c.1720–1779) pointed out noteworthy viewpoints (or ‘stations’) around the valley, ‘from which’, he wrote, ‘result many a truly pleasing picture.’ Five years later, these stations appeared on the tourist maps sold by Peter Crosthwaite (1735–1808), proprietor of the region’s first commercial museum.

In addition to West’s stations, Crosthwaite’s map of Ullswater marked other attractions, including Lyulph’s Tower and several boathouses, where visitors could borrow ‘barges’. According to William Hutchinson (1732–1814), one of the Duke of Portland’s barges ‘was provided with six brass cannon’, which were fired to create entertaining echoes.

Crosthwaite’s map also marked Aira Force, which along with Gowbarrow Park, was celebrated in the next generation by William Wordsworth (1770–1850). His Guide and poetry drew many visitors to the valley, and continue to do so. By the 1850s, when a steamer service began to run on Ullswater, some tourists felt sites like Aira Force were too crowded.

In 1855, the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) declared that he had enjoyed seeing ‘Airey Force’, but he felt as if he were ‘eating from the same dish as a multitude of other people.’

By Christopher Donaldson


Christopher Donaldson, Robert Dunning and Angus J. L Winchester (eds), Henry Hobhouse Tour Through Cumbria in 1774 (Kendal: Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2018)

Celia Fiennes, Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary [1698], ed. by E. W. Griffiths (London: Field and Tuer, 1888)

William Gilpin, Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, 2 vols (London: R. Blamire, 1786)

Thomas Gray, The Poems of Mr. Gray, to which are Prefixed Memoirs of his Life and Writings, ed. by W, Mason (York: A Ward, 1775)

William Hutchinson, , An Excursion to the Lakes in Westmorland and Cumberland; With a Tour through Part of the Northern Counties in the Years 1773 and 1774, 2 vols (London: J. Wilkie, 1776)

Thomas West, A Guide to the Lakes: Dedicated to the Lovers of Landscape Studies, and to All who Have Visited, Or Intend to Visit the Lakes in Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancashire (London, Richardson and Urquhart, 1778)

L. G. Wickham-Legg (ed.), A Relation of a Short Survey of 26 Counties [1634] (Robinson & Co, London, 1904)

Thomas Woodson and Bill Ellis (eds), The English Notebooks 1853-1856, The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, vol. 21 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1997)

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