The Best of...The Lake District
The Lake District is England’s most celebrated, most visited and most hyped scenic region, and as the embodiment of the nation’s romantic imagination, from the Lake Poets to Beatrix Potter, everyone should, and does, visit the Lake District at least once in their lives. In fact, it’s hard to think of a region in England with a similar breadth of scenery - wild fells to walled grazing land, glacial lakes to forested valleys, steeply pitched mountains to tumbling waterfalls in such a small area - just thirty miles across - which makes it easy to see a great deal of the Lake District in just a few days. Despite the twelve million visitors a year who pour in to experience its famous lakes, it’s relatively easy to escape the crowds by climbing to the higher fells or exploring more remote valleys. Or choose to come in the early spring, late autumn or winter and even the most beaten paths and sights can be refreshingly uncluttered.
If time is tight, you should head straight for Windermere, the region’s largest and most famous lake, taking the breathtaking A592 over the 1481 feet high Kirkstone Pass. The Windermere Iron Steamboat Company has steamers which call at all points north and south. The lakes towns - Windermere, Bowness and, especially, Ambleside - which group together on its northeast shore, are the regions obvious starting-points, their slate-grey streets part of the most characteristic profiles of lakeland settlement. The towns are perfect for afternoon wandering, with shops, boutiques and restaurants here to suit all pockets and tastes. Shoreline attractions on Windermere include the family-friendly National Park’s Lake District Visitor Centre at Brockhole, and Blackwell, whose restored Arts and Crafts interior is one of England’s architectural gems. Access to the fells is easy, and there are many circular walks. Try the walk up to Orrest Head, just to the north of Windermere town. This was the first climb made by the young Alfred Wainwright - one that, in his own words, cast a spell that changed his life. Another straightforward walk, the climb to Stockghyll Force, is literally on Ambleside’s doorstep. Most people go from Windermere to nearby Grasmere and the famous Wordsworth houses of Rydal Mount and Dove Cottage, or to pretty Hawkshead and Beatrix Potter’s house at Hill Top.
Although it’s not possible to see everything the Lake District has to offer in one trip, if you have more time to spare, pick and choose from the area’s other great charms. Kentmere is an unsung gem and only twenty minutes drive from Windermere. Coniston sits at the head of Coniston Water which boasts the big draw of Brantwood, once home to John Ruskin. Nearby natural attractions include Grizedale Forest, where you can hike or cycle the shaded trails, and Tarn Hows, many visitor’s favourite splash of water. There are renowned hikes, peaks and tarns in central Langdale - and arguably, the finest hikers’ inn in the region (the Old Dungeon Ghyll). To pamper yourself after a day’s hiking, try the spa at Langdale Hotel & Country Club, which includes a superb swimming pool, solarium and steam room.
For more dramatic scenery, head north, where four peaks - Scafell Pike, Scafell, Helvellyn and Skiddaw - top out at over 3000 feet, and several other equally famous mountains (including Great Gable, the birthplace of British mountaineering, and Blencathra) don’t lag far behind. The quite different lakes of Derwent Water and Ullswater provide superb backdrops for a day’s cruising and walking. Keswick, the main town in the north, has real year-round character, and makes a handy starting-point for exploring the precipitous delights of Borrowdale, the forested Whinlatter Pass, or around the little-visited but stunning Back o’Skiddaw. The dramatically sited standing stones at Castlerigg, above Keswick, are a worthwhile detour, the most prominent reminder of lakeland’s ancient inhabitants. The summer crowds thin out in the western side of the Park. Although Buttermere and Crummock Water are popular, Wast Water, Ennerdale Water and Loweswater lie further off the beaten track. All these lakes provide superb walking, leisure and sports opportunities.
One should not forget the imprint made by industry, not least the fact that the region gave us the humble pencil from graphite extraction at Borrowdale. The Derwent Pencil Museum in Keswick traces the history of the pencil, and is a must-see for children in your party. Mining significantly altered the contours of the land, and the new Keswick Mining Museum (formerly at Threlkeld Quarry), depicts the impact the industry had on the local way of life, and boasts the finest collection of its kind in the UK. A couple of the former majestic railway lines cutting through the fells - Ravenglass to Eskdale, and Lakeside to Haverthwaite - have been converted and offer an alternative take on the scenery - by steam.
Finally, if you choose to come to the lakes in the summer, why not combine your stay with one of the regions annual events, such as the esteemed Keswick Jazz Festival in May, or the numerous country and agricultural shows which provide a fascinating snapshot of traditional rural life in the region.