National Geographic : 1994 Aug
By BILL BRYSON Photographs by ANNIE GRIFFITHS BELT HEY STARTED COMING a little before 8 a.m., drawn by a watery sun and the hope of a fine day. By 9, when the shops began to open, the lakeside town of Bowness on Windermere, in - the heart of England's Lake District, was beginning to feel busy. By 10:30 the sidewalks were thronged with tourists, and every road into town was backed up with hundreds of vehicles, most bearing a backseat full of bouncing children and a front seat with a dad saying, "I told you we should have started earlier." Another summer week end in the Lake District was under way. Few places anywhere offer a more beguiling interplay of hills, lakes, and soft green valleys than this small corner of northwest England in the county of Cumbria. The rugged peaks, wild, high moors, and wandering vales contain a dra ma and grandeur elsewhere lacking in the tranquil landscape of England and have provided inspiration for generations of poets and artists. But for all its visual glory, the Lake District is painfully modest in its dimensions -just 39 miles from top to bottom, 33 miles across at its widest point- and, for much of the year, even more painfully crowded. Some 12 million visitors, roughly a quarter of England's population, pour into this compact landscape every year. That is more than four times the number of people who visit America's Yellowstone National Park, and in an area just a quarter the size. From Easter to late September, but increasingly in the off season as well, they come to exult in the storied landscape or simply to putter about in the shops and museums of the little towns that line the lakefronts or lie scattered across the val leys. What they find, all too often, is thousands of others-as many as 250,000 on the busiest days-trying to do the same thing. On a summer Saturday in Bowness, there seems no question of it. "I can't explain it," a bobby remarked to me in a tone of wonder as we watched the shuf fling masses of day-trippers. "It's like they want to be with thousands of other people. There's miles and miles of glorious countryside all around here where you can walk all day and scarcely see a soul, but they don't seem to want that." Even on a weekday in June, long before the late-July start of school vacations that marks the beginning of the Lake District's most frantic six weeks, Bowness was looking lively. Buses from all over the north of England were disgorging streams of mostly elderly visitors, and the cafes and tearooms were doing a brisk business. I had to wait ten minutes for a seat at one and was asked if I minded shar ing a table with strangers. I did not. My dining partners were a young family from Lancashire, Alan and Brenda and their two small sons, Darren and Danny, who were up for the day. "We come once or twice a year," Alan explained. "The kids love it," Brenda BILL BRYSON, a transplanted American living in the north of England, keeps his cross Atlantic connection strong; he has just completed a book about the English language in America. His latest article for NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC was on the flood in his hometown, Des Moines, Iowa (January 1994). Among ANNIE GRIFFITHS BELT'S previous photo graphic credits is "To Scotland Afoot Along the Pennine Way" in the March 1986 issue.