The active and organised resistance to railway expansion in the Lake District of the 1880s was founded on a small number of campaigns whose origin goes back to the 1840s. The western end of the Maryport-Carlisle line, connecting collieries and quarries to the harbour, was the first line to open in 1840. Passenger traffic started in 1845 when the line was extended through Aspatria and Wigton. Neither of these developments were noteworthy or controversial. Two new railway developments in the mid-1840s, however, brought the first whiff of protest and both involved William Wordsworth, a fact that gave the protests more prominence than would otherwise have been the case.
The first assault was in 1844 when the Furness Railway applied for permission to construct a line from Dalton to Barrow which would skirt the ancient Furness Abbey. The protest was fairly muted and included Wordsworth penning two sonnets titled ‘At Furness Abbey’. The first extols the old ruin and its natural interaction with Nature as the ivy ‘clasps the sacred Ruin’. The second contrasts the railway labourers who treat the ruin with homage as opposed to the railway capitalists, the ‘Profane Despoilers’, who are only interested in making money.
In the same year, the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway were authorised to build a line between the two towns. The chosen route was to pass through the small village of Oxenholme, rather than the larger town of Kendal, the latter being served by a branch line from Oxenholme. Cornelius Nicholson, a local paper manufacturer, proposed extending the line from Kendal to Ambleside. This proposed extension aroused the wrath of a number of local landowners, road-carriers, and William Wordsworth. Most of the landowners were solely concerned with the impact of the railway on their land and property. The road-carriers could see their business suffering. Wordsworth, however, had a different perspective. He was not against railways in principle but saw that any line to Ambleside would likely be a precursor to further extension into the heart of the Lake District through his beloved Grasmere and onwards to Keswick. He believed wholeheartedly that such an area of unparalleled beauty and unique way-of-life should be safeguarded for ever. He also envisaged the railways bringing large numbers of tourists and visitors which would change the environment beyond recognition.
In addition to penning his famous sonnet beginning ‘Is then no nook of English ground secure / From rash assault?’ Wordsworth took his protest to the national press. He lobbied members of Parliament. Even though he was criticised, and even satirised, as being elitist and out-of-touch with the times, he sought to get his message across. In the 1840s, his views found little support. They were, however, in many respects, ahead of their times and fell on more fertile ground thirty years later. As it happened, mainly on the high cost involved, the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway Company decided to terminate the line from Kendal at the hamlet of Birthwaite which in due course became Windermere station. The Kendal-Windermere branch line was opened in April 1847. In its first year of operation, the line carried ten times the passenger numbers that had paid road-tolls on the Kendal-Windermere turnpike just a few years previously.
New railways were built in the Lake District during the next twenty years, mainly along the western seaboard to service the mines and quarries. By the 1870s railways had been laid around most of the perimeter of the Lake counties. However it was the completion of the Cockermouth-Keswick-Penrith line in 1865 that once again provided a stimulus for those keen to investigate the options for linking the north and south sides of the counties by extending the line from Kendal through Ambleside, Wordsworth’s great fear. During 1875, rumours began to circulate of such an investigation. Robert Somervell, a local shoe manufacturer and lover of the lakes remembered:
It was in 1875 that vague talk was in the air of a possible extension of the railway from Windermere to Ambleside, and perhaps further. It was the period of inflated trade that followed the Franco-Prussian War, and pig-iron had soared to such a price that the small deposit of ore in the side of Helvellyn, just above Grasmere, was being worked in spite of the fact that it had to be carted eight miles to the railway. I saw it being done.1
The effect on him was electrifying: ‘I felt, like Elihu in the book of Job, that I must speak out, or burst’.2 Without any blueprint to guide him, Somervell was stung into action. He wrote a protest letter setting out arguments against the proposed railway. His view was that since all parts of the District were not far from a railway station the line was not needed. In addition, the development would turn the Lake District into another ‘Black Country’. He appended a petition to his protest letter for people to sign, the intention being to present the petition to Parliament in the event that any Bill for railway extension was put forward. Working on his own initiative he went about gaining as many local signatures as possible by asking people to sign the petition.
And so it was that John Ruskin entered the fray. In 1874, Ruskin had declined the offer of a gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects in protest at a number of public atrocities, one of which was the building of the railway line by Furness Abbey. Somervell was well aware of the importance of having Ruskin as a supporter and later commented in his autobiography how reading Ruskin in the early 1870s had changed his life. Ruskin sent a volley of letters to various newspapers supporting the protest and the petition. Discussions in the newspapers rumbled on for a number of months. Three to four thousand signatures were obtained but no Bill was put before Parliament.
In 1876 Somervell published a pamphlet, A Protest against the Extension of Railways in the Lake District, in which he marshalled his arguments against the expansion, reprinted a number of newspaper articles that supported his protest, and added a Preface by Ruskin. In the pamphlet he uses Wordsworth to martial arguments against any further railway expansion. Allowing hordes of visitors to swarm across the countryside will not only destroy the latter but it will fail to educate the visitors. He denies the argument that he wants to retain the natural beauty for the exclusive use of a privileged few but he does admit that he is against the masses coming on their ‘cheap trips’.
Ruskin’s ‘Preface’ in Somervell’s pamphlet is dated 22nd June, 1876. He spares no punches in giving full vitriol to his distaste for any further encroachment of the railways into the Lake District. Railway expansion to the interior will only worsen the situation that exists now whereby:
the stupid herds of modern tourists let themselves be emptied, like coals from a sack, at Windermere and Keswick. Having got there, what the new railway has to do is to shovel those who have come to Keswick, to Windermere—and to shovel those who have come to Windermere, to Keswick. And what then?3
Ruskin’s view is that the railways won’t enable such people to appreciate the surroundings anyway. All that it will do is:
to open taverns and skittle grounds round Grasmere, which will soon, then, be nothing but a pool of drainage, with a beach of broken gingerbeer bottles; and their minds will be no more improved by contemplating the scenery of such a lake than of Blackpool.4
Somervell admits that the pamphlet only sold a few copies and that he was left with a large bill. Nevertheless he should be given credit, even though no specific Railway Bill was forthcoming, in raising the spectre of railway expansion in the Lake District and providing a template on which future protests could learn. The mass mobilisation of interested people, the value of newspaper support, and the importance of getting influential persons such as Ruskin on one’s side, were lessons that had been used in the past and were to prove essential in the future. There were very few people at this time who saw the Lake District as a national treasure that should be protected for future generations. Somervell’s protest is a justifiable part of what eventually led to this view. One writer has noted that:
their [Ruskin’s and Somervell’s] action in advancing conservation issues against commerce and enterprise was an important milestone in the development of what today we would call the environmental lobby.5
Although Hardwicke did not participate in the above protest he and Somervell were to become firm friends. Somervell was a friend of the Fletcher family and first met Hardwicke when the latter was recuperating from illness with the Fletchers in the autumn of 1875.
- Somervell, Robert. Robert Somervell, for Thirty-Three Years Assistant Master and Bursar at Harrow School. Chapters of an Autobiography. Edited with additional material by his sons. London: Faber and Faber, 1935, p. 51.
- ibid, p. 51.
- Somervell, Robert. A Protest against the Extension of the Railways in the Lake District. Windermere: J Garnett, 1876, p. 5.
- ibid, p. 6.
- Smith, Dick. Kendal and Windermere Railway. Cumbrian Railways Association, 2002, p. 40
Next: Thirlmere, 1876-1879