After a lifetime of imaginings and seeing other people’s travel photos, of growing up reading books about children’s sailing adventures there and poets writing there, after receiving Christmas cards from cousins living there, I finally made my first trip to the Lake District of Northwest England, and it did not disappoint.
It’s difficult in words to do justice to the many soft but bold colors of the heath and the scree and the mountains and the lakes, the light that constantly changes as you move from lakeside to woods to deep valleys and open mountain tops, the pretty villages nestled by lakes and rivers, the lake ferries gliding past mysterious little islands. My camera worked hard but couldn’t really capture the beauty.
In the few days I had I was lucky enough to be driven around by a local. My cousin lives on a farm in a small town called Greystoke—just outside the Lake District. The one claim to fame this town has is that Edgar Burroughs made Greystoke Castle the birthplace of Tarzan, hero of book and silver screen. The castle is still there, and privately occupied (first by 18 generations of the de Greystoke family and then by 14 generations of the Howard family who still live there today) but Tarzan himself is yet to be seen.
Located about 460 km (300 miles) north of London, the Lake District is England’s biggest national park. In truth there is only one lake in the whole place, Bassenthwaite Lake, all the rest are called mere or water, such as Windermere and Derwent Water. But regardless of name, there are many lakes dotted through the area including Wast Water, England’s deepest lake. Also England’s highest peak is here: Scafell Pike which attracts thousands of hikers every year.
We explored the northern end of the Lakes in the couple of days driving, around Ullswater, Keswick, and Derwent Water.
Sweet treats in Ullswater
Ullswater is 7 ½ miles long, the second largest of the lakes, but it is far less visited by tourists than the largest lake, Windermere. This is because you can get to Windermere by train (and to the town of Kendal on the same branch line from Oxenholme which connects to London Euston) while Ullswater and the other towns and lakes can be reached only by bus or private car. If you really want to explore the best way to do it is to hire a car, but there is plenty to do and see just around Windermere including lake cruises, a steamboat museum, the popular World of Beatrix Potter, and Blackwell Arts and Crafts historic house. But for me, all that is for next time; this visit I was at Ullswater.
Ullswater was my first view of one of the lakes and I was immediately enchanted. It was so beautiful with the silver water and steeply rising hills and green farmlands, plus woods, and then we reached the pretty town of Pooley Bridge which sits at the north end of the lake, where we did what every Lakes visitor must do—we had an ice cream. I’m not sure why this is such a thing but it was delicious and nearly everyone else wandering around the small village and over to the lake was also eating an ice cream cone; it wasn’t even summer yet. In fact we were lucky enough to have sunny days, trees coming into bud and leaf, but still snow on the tops of the craggy peaks.
The other traditional taste experience is Kendal Mint Cake which is popular with climbers and hikers for its energy: it’s basically sugar, glucose, water, and peppermint. It was first developed in 1869 in Kendal and three companies there still make it. Sir Ernest Shackleton took mint cake to the Antarctic in 1914 and Sir Edmund Hillary even took some up Mount Everest in 1953. You either love it or hate it.
At the other end of Ullswater—reached by traditional steamboat (although these days they have more sophisticated engines)—is Glenridding, popular with walkers heading up Helvellyn, the third highest peak in England.
My cousin took us to a little place she knows called Lucy’s Wood near a tiny village called Dockray. If you’re looking for a special place for a short, gentle walk or to just sit and look at the fells view, walk by a small river, perhaps even dip into its pristine waters, this is a place worth finding. The wood was planted about 15 years ago in memory of a girl called Lucy and the traditional barn on the land has been restored as a place of contemplation and hosts a concert series over summer: this year it’s jazz, classical cello, acoustic rock and a folk music day. There are benches dotted throughout the wood plus prayer bells. It gave me a great sense of the community living here, especially the makeshift flag next to the river which apparently is raised in warning when one of the locals decides to take a skinny-dip!
Childhood memories in Derwent Water
Our next lake was Derwent Water and here I had another childhood flashback to my prized box of Derwent coloring pencils I’d had as a child. My cousin had a surprise in store for me. Heading into the town of Keswick, the district’s busiest northernmost town, we went to the Pencil Museum. There we say how my beloved pencils were made and I bought some more. Not just for pencil-lovers, this place is a major attraction here and gives a great history of the district.
Keswick gives a good idea of what the Lakes are all about these days: tearooms and shops selling hiking equipment. There’s also a car museum if you fancy seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Batmobile, or Herbie the Love Bug.
Just east of Keswick, on the road to Naddle Bridge, is another of those places so particular to England: Castlerigg Stone Circle. Three or four thousand years ago, the local inhabitants created a circle of 38 standing stones, some of them over 7ft (2m) high. Its meaning remains a mystery but it’s pretty spectacular to stand in the middle with the peaks and fells of the Lakes rising around you.
Outdoor adventures in the Lakes District
From Derwent Water we headed up to a slate mine high on the fells, passing from dark woods up to mountains with no trees but plenty of colored heather and rocky crags. Honister Slate Mine is England’s last working slate mine and you can take a tour deep into the mountains where slate has been mined since Roman times—that’s 900 years! They also have England’s first Via Ferrata which is a walk/climb along the old Victorian Miner’s Path using a harness and safety cables. You’ll even get to the summit of Fleetwith Pike (2,126 ft). There’s a rambler bus that does a circuit around Honister Pass and youth hostels nearby so although quite remote this area is easily accessible.
If you like climbing, then head to Langdale Pikes, peaks which surround the valley of Great Langdale. You’ll get some of the best views of the district from here and can even access the highest peak of all, Scafell Pike, from a route starting here. From the heathers of the high fells you can look down on the silvery lakes and green pastures below past the rocky Langdale Screes which are the waste chippings of a Neolithic axe factory!
One of the great things about the lakes is the tucked away villages nestled near the lakes; so many of these have great little traditional pubs with excellent food and atmosphere. We went for lunch at the cosy Kirkstile Inn beside Loweswater and it was great. They’ve won awards for their food and even brew their own beer.
If you want to see the lakes without lots of other people surrounding you, head to Wast Water, the most remote and deepest. You have to get here from the coast road or via Hardknott Pass, its inaccessibility being one of its greatest attractions. Huddling beneath the height of Scafell Range there’s a youth hostel and a camping ground as well as hotels. This is the part of the Lakes people come for solitude and serious hiking.
I only had a long weekend in the Lake District—three days—it wasn’t enough but it was a start. And I’ll be back again. Perhaps this time I’ll get to sail on Coniston Water where my favorite childhood book Swallows and Amazons was set, or at least take a ferry across the lake.