Literature and art

The dramatic beauty of Borrowdale has enticed artists and writers throughout the centuries, each hoping to capture its scenic grandeur on canvas and through the written word.

Early travel writers led the way, followed by the Romantic Poets (William Wordsworth, Robert Southey and others) and eminent artists including JMW Turner, John Constable and Alfred Heaton Cooper. Each was to contribute their personal ‘take’ on the landscape and to capture impressions for future generations to appreciate.


The first writers to explore Borrowdale in the 1760s felt they were entering a wild place, fraught with unknown dangers. Their first impressions on approaching the craggy scenery of the valley were summarised by Thomas Gray (1769) as: ‘that turbulent chaos of mountain behind mountain, rolled in confusion’ and the need to ‘hasten on in silence’, while William Gilpin (1772) emotively described the lake as ‘Beauty lying in the lap of Horrour’.

The undertones of danger lurking amid great beauty unleashed a great curiosity about the valley. People came to seek out awe-inspiring elements of the landscape and to be ‘pleasurably frightened’. The giant Bowder Stone was described as a ‘ship upon its keel’, while Lodore Falls were dubbed ‘the Niagara of Derwentwater’.

Borrowdale and the Bowder Stone by JB Pyne

In 1778 Thomas West identified several ‘viewing stations’ from which to admire the scenery at a safe distance. Visitors’ appreciation of the landscape was often aided by use of the Claude Glass, whereby the view was framed backwards through a mirror to enhance its picturesque qualities. Castle Crag in Borrowdale was one of these ‘stations’, with others around the shores of Derwentwater.


Hot on the heels of the early writers came the Romantic Poets. William Wordsworth stayed at the Royal Oak in Rosthwaite in 1812. During his stay, he visited the ancient yew trees at the head of the valley:

those fraternal Four of Borrowdale,
Joined in one solemn and capacious grove;
Huge trunks! and each particular trunk a growth
Of intertwisted fibres serpentine

Lodore falls

Engraving of Lodore Falls by AH Cooper (Heaton Cooper Studio)

Robert Southey penned ‘The Cataract of Lodore’ in 1820 to explain to his young son how the water comes down at Lodore. The poem gradually widens in imitation of a waterfall.

Collecting, projecting
Receding and speeding
And shocking and rocking,
And darting and parting,
And threading and spreading,
And whizzing and hissing . . .
All at once and all o’er, with a mighty uproar,
. . . This way the Water comes down at Lodore

Hugh Walpole after buying Brackenburn at the southern end of the lake in 1923 wrote ‘In this valley, I have found the whole world’. Here he penned his great family saga – The Herries Chronicles – set largely within Borrowdale. Fold Head Farm at Watendlath, for example, features as the home of Judith Paris (daughter of Rogue Herries).


With the development of landscape art from the mid-1700s, artists came to Borrowdale in search of the sublime and picturesque and to capture the essence of both in their paintings. John ‘Warwick’ Smith (1749–1831) and Joseph Farington (1747–1821) were among the first to produce engravings based on their paintings. Some artists grossly exaggerated features of the landscape to enhance the ‘horror’ of it. Others, such as William Green (1760–1823) and JB Pyne (1800–1870) produced more faithful representations.

JMW Turner (1775–1851) was the first to successfully capture the drama of Lakeland scenery through use of vivid colour and light. John Constable (1776–1837) was also influenced by the variable weather of Borrowdale and made sketches of its changing moods.

Borrowdale was a favoured location for Alfred Heaton Cooper (1864–1929), who produced many evocative paintings of its scenery. His son, William Heaton Cooper (1903–95) by contrast, painted many restful scenes around Derwentwater. Engraving of Borrowdale Yews Borrowdale and the Bowder Stone by JB Pyne Grange Bridge by Joseph Farington Derwentwater by Turner (British Museum)

Pictures sourced by Anna Gray