Thomas West’s Guide to the Lakes

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Maggie Smith was right to insist her room had a view. We pay a premium for hotel rooms with stunning vistas and would Helena Bonham-Carter think Florence so sublime overlooking the Pensione Bertolini’s car-park?

Merchant-Ivory’s film of E M Forster’s novel grants us an insight into the Grand Tour, the Gap Year for Victorian well-to-do’s in search of enlightenment.

The 18th century witnessed the dawning of a British love affair with the landscape and natural scenery that continues today. The picturesque became a sought-after aesthetic ideal and influential cultural movement.

The Birth of the Picturesque

Both at home and abroad, British travellers had an appetite for the sublime and the merchandise that came with it. From the paintings of Claude Lorrain, the travelogues of William Gilpin and Edmund Burke’s famous 1757 kick-starter, The Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

But the end of the 18th Century was a time of conflict. The air hung heavy with the cannon smoke of French & American Revolutions as well as the chimneys of the new manufactories.

As Britain lost her Colonies, the Dutch mobilised for the 4th Anglo-Dutch war. At home, two-hundred and eighty-five citizens were killed in the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots. Suddenly, European travel became more hazardous and for those in search of the picturesque, it was time for a staycation.

The Reverend Thomas West

Thomas West was born into 1720 Scotland. Ordained as a Catholic Priest, he travelled widely throughout Europe. West specialised in natural philosophy and on returning to the UK in 1774, settled at Tytup Hall in South Cumbria. He spent the rest of his life in dedication to the knowledge and exploration of his natural environment. In 1778, West published his second book, A Guide to the Lakes of Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancashire, the first-ever formal guide book to the Lake District.

Wordsworth’s revolutionary fire had been doused ‘with anger vexed, with disappointment sore’ by his experiences in France. His halcyon days at Dove Cottage still twenty-one years ahead. Coleridge & Southey’s Pantisocratic pipe-dream had been supplanted by domesticity in Nether Stowey and Keswick. The Lake Poets made the Lake District famous, but it was Thomas West’s Guide that inspired them.  

Stations of the Cross

The fourteen Catholic devotions commemorate Christ’s last day on Earth. The devotions, or stations, focus on specific events of His last day. Each station of the cross formed a mini-pilgrimage for the worshipper to meditate on. Prayers are recited and the pilgrim moves to the next station until all fourteen are complete.

Thomas West transplanted this pilgrimage onto the lakes and mountains of the Lake District. His stations became viewpoints that offered in so sublime a style, with such beautiful colourings of rock, wood and water. His pilgrimage formed a loose anti-clockwise circuit via Hawkshead, Ambleside, Keswick, Penrith, Shap and Kendal, taking in all the major lakes.

Thomas West's Guide to the Lakes
Winandermere Lake from Calgarth
Aquatint from West’s 6th Edition of the Guide

West recommends his pilgrims travel the country roads by post-chaise, stopping at each Lake in turn. The tourist alights from the coach, stands on West’s carefully selected station and turn their back to the view!

West is writing for the experienced traveller. The picturesque painters of the time, Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin used a monochrome wash to darken their foregrounds, white chalk to highlight background light. They established perspective not by compositional lines, but by gradations of tone governed by light.

And so the Claude Glass is invented. A Landscape Glass that would be both dark, to appreciate the view in the sunshine, and convex, to distance the view and frame, as in a painting. West’s pilgrims didn’t bother with the actual view. They would turn their back, look at the reflection in their glass and, in as sublime a language as possible, reflect on their observations. Today, we take a selfie.

Thomas West's Guide to the Lakes
Crosthwaite’s 1783 Map of Bassenthwaite
Armathwaite Hall and West’s first Station.


It is a long title: 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 by the author of The antiquities of Furness. 

Published by Richardson and Urquhart in London and W. Pennington in Kendal, it runs to 203 pages. West opts for a Latin inscription from Horace as his epigraph: 

Quis nom malarum, quas amor curas habe. Haec inter obliviscitur? [Who, amid employments such as these, does not forget the anxious cares which love carries in its train?]

The first edition sells out quickly and a second edition is prepared, but there are problems alluded to in the new preface:

‘The speedy sale of the first edition of this work has induced the publishers to use their best endeavours to make the present one still more worthy of public encouragement, by subjecting it to such alterations and improvements as were judged necessary to complete its design.’

West loved his antiquities and the first edition carried long overbearing prose pieces on the ruins encountered. Less antiquity, more views Mr West! It was probably the omission of his beloved antiquities that killed him. Devastatingly, Thomas West died on 10th July 1779, before the second edition was published.

The Second Edition

The publishers hastily amend the preface: 

Mr WEST died the 10th of July, 1779, at the ancient seat of the Stricklands, at Sizergh, in Westmorland, in the sixty-third year of his age; and, according to his request, was interred in the choir, or chapel, belonging to the Strickland Family in Kendal Church. As he was a man of worth as well as ingenuity, this further short memorial of his exit will not need an apology.’

For the second (1780) and all future editions of West’s Guide, the epigraph is changed to the more accessible John Milton:

For nature here, Wanton’d as in her prime, and played at will Her virgin fancies Wild above rule or art [and beauteous form’d] A happy rural seat of various view – Paradise Lost: Book V

The task of updating future editions falls to Mr Cockin of Burton-in-Kendal. More views are added, and a better-structured tour is created. Additional essays are appended and eighteen aquatint prints break up the text. The last edition is printed in 1823.

Thomas West's Guide to the Lakes
John Ogilby Strip Map 1675 | Turnpike road from Keswick to Bassenthwaite
The AA Road atlas of the day

Thomas West’s Guide Today

The etymology of the word ‘view’ gives us a clue to its true meaning. In use since the 15th Century, *view comes to us via the proto-indo-European root of language. From *Wied – “to see”; it splits into multi-lingual fractals; Sanskrit *veda – “I know;”, the Old Irish *fis – “vision,”, and the Old English *Witan – “to know.”

So to view is to acquire wisdom and I wondered whether Thomas West’s views were still visible today? Are the famous stations of the 18th Century picturesque, over which poets, painters & guide book writers swooned, still the same as our 20th Century views that tourists see today through very different Landscape Glasses?

I was determined to find out, by revisiting the stations lake by lake.

West’s Guide Revisited – Bassenthwaite

One comment

  1. Hello! I have enjoyed your article about Thomas West and was hoping to read the link on revisiting the lakes. Sadly the link is broken. Is there somewhere I can read it? Thank you! Jo x @healthyhappy50

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