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A pilgrimage to the place that inspired the Romantics

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For Wordsworth, it was ''unity sublime,'' for Coleridge, ''a cabinet of beauties.'' Visitors ever since have fumbled for epithets to celebrate England's Lake District, 900 square miles of rugged grandeur at the heart of Cumbria.

With its fells and dales and mountains heaving out of a lake-scattered landscape, its scale - literally and figuratively - is heroic.

It's a truism in travel that one can't visit the Lake District without colliding with literature, nor travel to its literary haunts without being awed by the landscape that inspired so many English writers. The beauty of the district remains uncompromised. Today visitors see what Wordsworth and Ruskin saw 150 years ago: slate-faced cottages nestled in dales, sheep cropping on fells burnished with autumn bracken, stone walls cascading over those same fells. And always, the lakes themselves, their tear-shaped surfaces corrugated by wind.

Walking its trails, sailing its waters, we discover what Wordsworth knew instinctively: Nature is the last uncorrupted frontier of modern life. It's this purity, suggested in landscape, that we crave.

An equal, if not greater, lure is the Lake District's literary heritage. Most popular, of course, are the homes of the Lake poets - Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, and their adjuncts, De Quincey and Dorothy Wordsworth. Yet literary lore goes beyond the romantics. The list is overwhelming. It's here that Defoe tackled his journals; where Keats journeyed to meet Wordsworth; where Charlotte Bronte first met her biographer, Mrs. Gaskell; where Ruskin meditated on art; where Beatrix Potter, an ardent Lake District preservationist, wrote her children's books.

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