Lake District roads and railways

in Road

Surprisingly, little has been written about the effects of roads, canals and railways on landscapes despite the fact that communica¬tions are a vital component of landscape development. The prolific railway literature tends to concentrate on minute detail of the lines, engines, stations and rolling stock, but it usually says little about precisely why the lines were needed, and next to nothing about the effects which the lines had on the areas which they served; the canal literature is not dissimilar. But roads, and their effects on the land¬scape, have been almost totally ignored, despite (and probably because of) their commonplace nature.

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The various means of transport employed in and around the Lake District over the last 2,000 years have been a fundamental part of the overall economic, social and political development of the area, and therefore of its landscape as well. For example the Roman roads were part of a military defensive system serving numerous forts; the con¬tinuing importance of these roads is reflected in how many of them are still in use today. More recently the turnpikes, canals and railways were built to allow easier movement of agricultural and industrial products to and between the rapidly growing towns, and the improved accessibility drastically altered both town and country. Transport routes themselves barely altered the landscape but because they were an integral part of the economic changes, many other features of the landscape were often significantly changed as a result of improvements in communications.

Thus, without building their roads the Romans would not have been able to defend this northwestern corner of their empire, the medieval towns would not have been able to trade and grow, from Elizabethan times wool would not have been able to reach and to be traded from the market at Kendal, and the first tourists would never have got anywhere near the Lakes. Without the canals the movement of heavy goods to and from Kendal in particular would not have been possible, and the consequent early development of towns, industry and mining would have been much delayed. And finally the railways, also built to carry coal and iron, were eventually important in opening up the Lakes to many more tourists, bringing them quickly and cheaply to Windermere, Coniston and Keswick.

But the Lake District does not easily lend itself to the building of lines of communication. The level of economic (and sometimes political) demand for transport determines whether or not lines of communica¬tion are built, but the landscape then imposes constraints on their routes. And in mountainous terrain the choice of routes is especially difficult for canals and railways. In the Lake District the net result is that roads have always provided the backbone of communications; the canals are peripheral (none lying within the National Park), and the railways, although of great importance for a hundred years or so, barely penetrated into the area, and are now reduced to little more than a ring of lines around the Lakes.

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This article was published on 2010/10/08