Covering almost a thousand square miles, the Lake District is the biggest national park in England. Visited by 20 million people each year, the vast and rugged landscape holds a unique place in British life. Windermere is the largest body of fresh water in England, and Scafell Pike the highest mountain. There's incredible wildlife too, and a strong movement to return much more of the park to its original, forested and wilder form.
But 40,000 people also live within the park's borders, most of them earning a living from tourism, hospitality and farming. What feels like a timeless and serene landscape, where Wordsworth once wandered among the daffodils, is actually a complex and fascinating living environment, with competing interests impacted by issues like environmentalism, the decline of traditional industries, and soaring house prices.
Over three episodes, Simon will use the Lake District as a springboard to explore the fascinating and remote county it sits in. Stretching from Lancashire to the Scottish Borders, Cumbria is a unique and beautiful county which can sometimes feel cut off, and ignored by the rest of the country. It's a place of genuine extremes, where the world's largest nuclear processing facility looks out on one of the biggest offshore wind farms in Europe, and is home to proud industrial towns like Barrow.
Following his success in uncovering hidden Cornwall, in this series Simon will meet the people of Cumbria in all their variety, from submarine workers to hill farmers and, with his trademark mix of warmth and humour, bring the Sunday night audience revealing new insights into a part of Britain we all thought we knew.
The Lakes with Simon Reeve is produced by The Garden Productions for BBC Two. It is written and presented by Simon Reeve, Executive Produced by Sam Bagnall and Series Produced and Directed by Chris Mitchell. The Commissioning Editor for BBC Current Affairs is Gian Quaglieni.
Interview with Simone Reeve
Why the Lake District?
The Lake District in Cumbria is a part of the world we think we know so well, where there's a very simple picture-postcard image with hills and lakes and forests, and we wanted to try and give people a few surprises about this area and find stories people haven't heard before. I knew a little bit about it already, but I still thought it was an area that I'd love to rediscover and learn about.
Also, I tend to go on foreign exotic adventures, and as global travel wasn't possible during lockdown we wanted to find somewhere fascinating and beautiful, closer to home. And my goodness, the Lake District certainly delivers on that.
Were you disappointed to be going to the Lake District instead of somewhere exotic abroad?
Not at all. I can go on a journey in my own country and see somewhere completely spectacular, be surprised by the landscapes, inspired by the people and frankly, astonished by some of their stories.
Have you been to the Lake District before?
I've been maybe a dozen times over the years but never really scratched the surface. I wouldn't say I knew it well. As soon as I started filming I realised I knew nothing, but that's the whole beauty of these journeys. I learned so much.
What was the most surprising thing you learnt about The Lake District?
I thought of the Lake District as being quite cut off from the rest of the country and actually, it has the key elements to life going forward in the UK. They're producing huge amounts of energy - that we all rely on - just off the coastline in some of the world's biggest offshore wind farms, and the farming in the Lake District, these are all really important for the country. More than anything it was the people of Cumbria who were a joy and a surprise. I hope we celebrate that in this series.
I felt like I was in a sci-fi film because off the coast of Cumbria, is the energy coast, where you've got the second biggest offshore wind farm on planet earth. It looks like you've gone through a portal to the future, slightly offshore and slightly out of sight as a result, but we don't really realise what's been going on. These enormous areas have been converted into creating renewable energy.
What do you think viewers will find surprising?
If we can still give people a few surprises on their own island, that's a good thing. During the series, I get into situations where one minute I'm with a young sheep farmer, the next I'm experiencing a live-fire police training facility, and then I'm river re-wiggling. There are some proper extremes and it was great to capture on film.
Did the journey change your opinion of the Lake District?
My preconceptions before filming this was just the landscape really, just the stereotypes. I didn't see the people living there. I really didn't know much at all about the wider county of Cumbria. And am I ashamed of that? Not really. I think everybody has preconceptions and stereotypes about places and maybe we can all have a bit of a limited gaze. Quite understandably, our focus as visitors is of those views in The Lake District, and we don't necessarily think of it as being a place where people live and work. We don't think about Cumbria around it.
The biggest surprises for me came just north of the town of Barrow along the coast, where there is this incredible land of enormous, towering sand dunes which is still part of the National Park. You would think you were in another more exotic country, you wouldn't think you're inside the Lake District National Park and just on our own coastline.
Did you learn anything new?
Oh, so much. I hadn't fully understood what Sellafield - the most contaminated and toxic industrial site in Europe - actually is. And it's on the coast of Cumbria, just a short drive from the National Park. We were allowed to see parts of Sellafield that have never been filmed before, and it was a proper spine-chilling experience to go into the heart of this contaminated zone. I found it otherworldly and surreal, combined with the knowledge that you are basically inside a place with elements of Chernobyl about it. But it was a fascinating place to visit.
I also hadn't adequately realised how the landscape of the Lake District has been shaped by humans for such a long time, it is a precious human landscape and it's an industrial landscape. Farmers have shaped the land over hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, and they deserve respect and a lot of gratitude for that, because it's partly how we've fed and clothed Britain. It's really important we remember that.
As a nation, we should acknowledge the debt we owe to farmers but also work out what we want them to do going forward, for the future of our countryside and so they farm and produce our food in a sustainable and responsible way. Hearing their stories, I think they showed another side because their voices aren't often heard in the whole debate and we need to recognise that we don't just want to turf the farmers out and let everything go to rewilding.
I also hadn't fully appreciated just how hundreds and hundreds of miles of British rivers have been artificially straightened over the centuries. Rivers don't run straight. But we straightened them so that we could drain the land for farming and to grow more food. However that's been a catastrophe for biodiversity. That also means water flows really quickly. And that's part of the reason why some areas like Carlisle, for example, experience flooding. It turns out thousands of miles of British rivers have been artificially straightened, and there's now an increasing move towards 're-wiggling' them, to reduce flooding and increase biodiversity.
How did you find your encounters with the people you met along the way?
I think one of the most inspiring encounters I had was with an 18 year-old young farmer, called Angus, whose parents had passed away rather tragically rather close together and he's been left running a 1,500 acre farm, all on his own. He's helped by a couple of even younger teenage friends from school.
Angus is an amazing, incredible, standout character. I thought he was a really impressive young man who has been left with an astonishing responsibility and is trying to try to rise to a very difficult challenge. And this lad, Angus, was dealing with it so calmly and his friends were cracking on with him as well. I was so impressed by him and by them. It made me think back to when I was his age, how impossible that situation would have been for me and what a credit he was to his family and somebody who gave me real hope for the future. He and his friends are capable of such amazing feats. They're so magnificent. He was a really standout character for me who will stick in my mind for a long time - so young, so brilliant and I felt really privileged to have met them and to see what they're doing. I just thought, this is part of the future of Britain.
Can you share any other personal highlights from filming the series?
I loved going for a wild swim in Buttermere, which felt like the coldest Lake on planet Earth but it's definitely one of the hidden jewels of the Lake District. I properly felt the chill doing that. But I loved it. It was a beautiful thing to do, in a place that felt it was created for a movie!
What new insights do you hope to bring to viewers about the Lake District?
Hopefully people will realise that actually, human beings live there - it's not just a tourist theme park. There are stories about the lives being lived, farmers who struggle to have an existence there. It is one of the hardest areas of the country to farm high in the fells. Hopefully people will be more sympathetic to the struggles of our farmers by watching the programmes.
We travelled up the coast of Cumbria, to the other side of the National Park - a part of the country that doesn't appear on the TV screens, that can get a little bit forgotten. There are great landscapes and stories there. There's the incredible sand dunes on the Cumbrian coast - giant ranges of sand dunes that not everybody knows about, which are actually inside the National Park. Not a lot of people know it has this coastline to it. And then beyond that, of course there's Sellafield, where people have a vague idea that something is happening but they're not sure what.
Any stand out places in the Lake District we should look out for?
Buttermere. My jaw properly dropped when we went to Buttermere, when I went for wild swim. It was so chilly in there but it was so worth it. It's so invigorating, but doing it in Buttermere, where the whole view all the way around is as good as anything you can see anywhere on the planet, is an experience I'll remember forever.