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16 August 2016

A Beginner’s Guide To The Lake District

There’s something deeply comforting about the Lake District. Towering in rugged loveliness over the high northwest while the rest of the country busies itself with Brexit, Instagram and reality TV, its 885 square miles of fells, lakes and valleys always seem rooted in another age. If there’s one English holiday region that best fits the description of an escape, it’s here.

This is no fresh revelation, of course. The nation’s largest national park is also its most beautiful, and poets, climbers and pleasure-seekers have convened in this corner of Cumbria for centuries. But with such a diverse range of activities and attractions on offer – from ivy-clad tearooms to gnarly ridge walks – it can be hard for first-time visitors to know where to begin. Here are some pointers.

Ben Lerwill is a freelance travel writer based in Oxfordshire. His work has appeared in more than 50 publications, including National Geographic Traveller, The Times, The Independent, Wanderlust, BBC Countryfile and Time Out. 

Banner Image Credit: iStock.com/Matthew Dixon

The Showpiece Sights

Most visitors to the Lakes will have their own favoured corners (for what it’s worth, my vote goes to the devastatingly pretty valleys of Borrowdale), but there are certain spots that attract more attention than others. Windermere, being the largest lake in the region, is the most obvious draw in the south of the park, with Keswick and the adjacent Derwent Water the biggest honeypots in the north. And if you’re inclined to take a “best of” approach, other big hitters include Grasmere (home to the Wordsworth houses), Coniston Water and Ullswater.    

Windermere landscape

Image Credit: iStock.com/Bob-McCraight

Give October A Go

British weather being what it is, there are no hard and fast rules about the conditions you’ll encounter at any given time of year. What can be said with some certainty is that July and August will be among the busiest times of year, with the same being true for the week around Easter. Some would point to spring as the season when the region is at its most handsome – insert daffodils cliché here – but its blazing autumn colours can be just as impressive. It makes October a prime time to visit, particularly if you’re able to give half-term a swerve.

Take A Drive

If exploring on four wheels sounds appealing, you’re in luck – the national park is threaded with plenty of potential driving routes, some of them snaking well off the beaten track. The greatest-hits option would be the 47-mile loop that takes in Keswick, Ullswater and Ambleside, but if you’d rather beat the crowds and steer your way along tighter mountain roads there’s a rewarding 42-mile circuit that takes in Eskdale, Coniston and the Duddon Valley. Special mention also goes to the drive over Honister Pass towards Buttermere – just watch out for sheep.

Honister Pass

Image Credit: iStock.com/munro1

Step Onto The Fells

Of course, to really get a sense for the Lake District’s wild side – blustery wind in your hair, boots on your feet, afternoon sun spilling across the fells – you’ll likely want to take a hike or two. Helvellyn and England’s highest mountain Scafell Pike are the two summits most likely to appeal to peak-baggers, while the ever-popular Cat Bells is a more manageable climb above Derwent Water. Elsewhere, the stunning 18-mile Woolpack Walk is a high-altitude circuit best filed under “extreme”, while Stock Ghyll Force is a straightforward but dramatic waterfall hike.

Literary Lakeland

The Lake District has always inspired writers and poets, from William Wordsworth and John Ruskin to Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome, whose ageless Swallows and Amazons was recently made into a feature film for the second time. Not forgetting, of course, the inimitable Alfred Wainwright, whose seven-volume guidebook to walking the fells remains a masterpiece of its kind. Wordsworth, however, has the most visitor-friendly legacy, and his former residence Dove Cottage continues to attract droves of dreamy-minded tourists year-round. The man himself lived in the cottage from 1799 to 1808, and wrote prolifically while here.

Dove Cottage

Image Credit: iStock.com/AndyRoland

On The Water

There are various options if you want to get out onto the lakes themselves. Cruises and ferry services are available on Windermere, Ullswater, Derwent Water and Coniston Water. Ullswater is particularly notable for its converted vintage steamers – in service since the mid-1800s – while Coniston Water also offers kayak, dinghy and boat rental. And if you’d rather go without a vessel altogether, swimming is allowed in all four of the lakes mentioned above, as well as in several other, quieter spots (Bassenthwaite, Buttermere, Crummock Water, Grasmere, Loweswater, Rydal Water and Wast Water). The obvious caveat: they get seriously chilly by late autumn.     

Delve Into The Past

Shocking though it is to believe, the Lake District didn’t suddenly spring into being when romantic-era wordsmiths put quill to paper. There are various reminders of the region’s more ancient past, not least the enigmatic Castlerigg Stone Circle, a cluster of 38 standing stones thought to date back four or five thousand years. A few millennia later the Romans also had the good sense to settle in the area, leaving remains such as the gloriously located Hardknott Roman Fort.

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Image Credit: iStock.com/ATGImages

Get Active

It’s very easy to come here and do little more than sample cream teas and gaze across the water – but it’s not nearly as much fun as getting the blood pumping. Today’s Lake District has evolved into an outdoor playground of considerable scope, with mountain biking, climbing, kayaking, scrambling, canyoning, windsurfing, paddle boarding and sailing all among the pick’n’mix of different thrills on offer. Arguably the pick of the bunch is the via ferrata at Honister Slate Mine, the first of its kind in the UK and a pulse-raising proposition if ever there was.

Refuel In Style

The fells and valleys might stand stock still from decade to decade, but the same can’t be said of the local food scene. Cumberland sausages? Kendal Mint Cake? Yesterday’s news. Culinary tourism has hit Lakeland in a big way – prime picks include the Drunken Duck Inn near Hawkshead, the Michelin-starred Samling Hotel near Ambleside and the hugely creative L’Enclume in Cartmel, a village also known for its farmers’ markets and artisan food producers. It sits a little way outside the national park itself, but the rewards are self-evident.

Cartmel canal

Image Credit: iStock.com/Kevin Eaves

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