There are more well-travelled TV presenters than Simon Reeve – but not many.
And so, when the man who has brought us shows from the Americas to Russia, around the Equator and the Tropics of both Capricorn and Cancer pauses to reflect, “this is as beautiful as anything I have seen, anywhere on the planet”, we should probably pay attention.
“It is one of the great wonders of the country,” he adds with a passion.
He is talking about the Lake District in Cumbria, almost 1,000 square miles of national park attracting around 20 million visitors and day-trippers a year.
But few have gone with such a determination to immerse themselves in the World Heritage Site – quite literally when he goes wild swimming – and find the hidden stories behind the picture postcard views.
In making his new three-part series The Lakes, Reeve criss-crossed the region from Barrow-in-Furness in the South to Carlisle in the North.
He also took in the wild and unspoilt Irish Sea coastline in the West to the tourist traps of Windermere and Kendal in the East via Scafell Pike.
“I’d been to the Lake District maybe a dozen times over the years,” he says.
BBC/The Garden Productions/Jackson Wardle)
“But never really scratching anything beneath the surface. I’d go for a walk maybe and then come back out again…
“So I thought I knew a bit but obviously as soon as you start filming, you realise you knew nothing.”
This is a travelogue with a message.
Glory in the drone shots of the mountains and valleys and marvel at the beauty of the iconic lakes.
But bear in mind if you want your children and grandchildren to be able to do the same then the way we interact with the landscape has to change.
“I think a lot of us treat it like a natural theme park and I understand that,” acknowledges Simon. “But we’ve got to make life there possible for locals and we’ve got to make sure it’s sustainable.”
These considerations underpin his appreciation for lakes like Buttermere (“one of the more hidden jewels”), where he takes a dip, and the view from the top of Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain (“Such a boost for the heart, for the head, for the health”).
And so, he meets those who live on and off the land and those charged with preserving this glorious part of Britain.
BBC/The Garden Productions/Jackson Wardle)
Most importantly, in his view, the farmers who “created a unique landscape, by toil and sweat, as culturally precious as some of our great buildings”.
He talks to upland sheep farmer David Thompson, earning £12,000 a year who reckons he would be “better off stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s”.
And also best-selling author and farmer James Rebanks who has abandoned certain modern farming practices, planted 6,000 trees and helped to rewild his land overlooking Ullswater – the inspiration for William Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.
The Lake District is made up of hundreds of small farms and, despite the income from tourism, the rural economy is struggling – many youngsters, unable to buy a home with prices inflated by the National Park premium, leave the area.
“We should think about that as we need them to preserve the countryside and, increasingly, bring bio-diversity back to the Lakes,” explains Simon.
For many who enjoy the national park, the scenery takes top billing with the wildlife usually a secondary attraction.
However, to many like Cumbrian-born Julie Bailey, the flora and fauna will always be the priority and she has been engaged in a battle to preserve the native but increasingly rare red squirrel.
“They are so dainty, they seem to float when they leap” says Simon, the first time he sees one. “This is one of the iconic animals of the region but it’s been wiped out in so much of the UK.”
The presenter, 49, estimates there are just 15,000 left in England.
The reds are susceptible to the squirrelpox virus transmitted by the invasive greys who outnumber them by 100-1.
Consequently, the latter are the target of humane culling as practised by Julie and her husband Phil.
Julie is saving the pelts to make a waistcoat, Phil has a fondness for squirrel curry (madras, preferably).
In the sand dunes along the 100 miles of coast between Morecambe Bay and the Scottish borders, Simon is shown a natterjack toad – one of the UK’s rarest amphibians and a protected species living in a habitat under high risk.
He also sees a small Atlantic salmon thriving in the project to rewiggle rivers around Carlisle but it is the breeding pair of ospreys nesting in the wetlands that really blows him away.
“Farming, mining, engineering rivers, building reservoirs, introducing weeds and modern mass tourism have all changed and reshaped the area and its communities,” explains Simon.
“And more than anything it’s nature that’s paid the price. Birdlife is in steady decline and the last golden eagle in Cumbria died five years ago.”
“The ospreys were wiped out as a breeding species in the early 1900s,” Paul Waterhouse from the Cumbria Wildlife Trust tells him.
BBC/The Garden Productions/Jonathan Young)
“Then a pair returned and they’ve now fledged 18 chicks on this nest… birdwatchers in West Africa even took a photograph of one [that had migrated].”
That was all made possible by the conservation work to bring the wetlands back by stopping drainage of the land.
“It’s a very inspiring and hopeful story,” notes Simon. “A lot of the time we think there’s no way back from the apocalypse we’ve inflicted on Mother Nature… perhaps some solutions and answers can be found in the Lake District.”
Peat bogs are also being restored, new breeds of cattle introduced and off the coast of Barrow one of the largest windfarms in Europe is helping to provide renewable energy.
“I’ve learnt how vital the county of Cumbria is to our national life. If we can get things right here, that gives me such hope for the future,” the host concludes.
*The Lakes with Simon Reeve airs at 9pm from Sunday on BBC Two.
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