Cumbria and the Lake District Travel Guide
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The Lake District is England’s most hyped scenic area, and for good reasons. Within an area a mere thirty miles across, sixteen major lakes are squeezed between the country’s highest mountains – an almost alpine landscape of glistening water, dramatic valleys and picturesque stone-built villages.
Most of what people refer to as the Lake District lies within the Lake District National Park, which, in turn, falls entirely within the northwestern county of Cumbria. The capital of county Cumbria, Carlisle, bears traces of a pedigree that stretches back to Roman times, and the isolated western coast as well as the eastern market towns like Kendal and Penrith counter the notion that Cumbria is not all about its lakes. For practical and inspirational travel information for the Lake District in Cumbria, check out our list of best places in the Lake District and the travel guide Rough Guide Staycations: The Lake District.
Given a week you could easily see most of the famous settlements and lakes – a circuit taking in the towns of Ambleside, Windermere and Bowness, all on Windermere, the Wordsworth houses in Grasmere, and the more dramatic northern scenery near Keswick and Ullswater would give you a fair sample of the whole. But it’s away from the crowds that the Lakes really begin to pay dividends, in the dramatic valleys of Langdale and Eskdale, for example, while over on the coast are more off-the-beaten-track destinations, like the estuary village of Ravenglass – access point for the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway – and the attractive Georgian port of Whitehaven.
The town Bowness-on-Windermere – to give it its full title – spills back from its lakeside piers in a series of terraces lined with guesthouses and hotels. There’s been a village here since the fifteenth century and a ferry service across the lake for almost as long – these days, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bowness begins and ends with its best-known attraction, the World of Beatrix Potter.
The lake Windermere is the heavyweight of Lake District waters: it is is ten and a half miles long, a mile wide in parts and a shade over 200ft deep. On a busy summer’s day, crowds swirl around the trinket shops, cafés, ice-cream stalls and lakeside seats, but you can easily escape out on to the water or into the hills, and there are attractions around town to fill a rainy day.
For many, the Lakes proper begin with Windermere, though Windermere town was all but non-existent until 1847 when a railway terminal was built here, making England’s longest lake (after which the town is named) an easily accessible resort. Windermere remains the transport hub for the southern lakes, but there’s precious little else to keep you in the slate-grey streets.
All the traffic pours a mile downhill to Windermere’s older twin town, Bowness, actually on the lake, but you should at least stay long enough to make the twenty-minute stroll up through the woods to OrrestHead (784ft), from where you get a 360 degree panorama from the Yorkshire fells to Morecambe Bay. The path begins by the Windermere Hotel on the A591, across from Windermere train station.
Five miles northwest of Windermere, Ambleside is a first-class base for walkers, who are catered for by a large number of outdoors shops. The town centre consists of a cluster of grey-green stone houses, shops, pubs and B&Bs hugging a circular one-way system, which loops round just south of the narrow gully of stony Stock Ghyll.
Huge car parks soak up the day-trip trade, but actually Ambleside improves the longer you spend here, with some enjoyable local walks and also the best selection of accommodation and restaurants in the area. The rest of town lies a mile south at Waterhead, where the cruise boats dock, overlooked by the grass banks and spreading trees of Borrans Park.
The county capital of Cumbria and its only city, Carlisle is also the repository of much of the region’s history, its strategic location having been fought over for more than 2000 years, since the construction of Hadrian’s Wall – part of which survives at nearby Birdoswald Fort.
The later struggle with the Scots defined the very nature of Carlisle as a border city: William Wallace was repelled in 1297 and Robert the Bruce eighteen years later, but Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops took Carlisle in 1745 after a six-day siege, holding it for six weeks before surrendering to the Duke of Cumberland. It’s not surprising, then, that the city trumpets itself as “historic Carlisle”, and is well worth a night’s stop. Edinburgh is under two hours north, and Carlisle is also the terminus of the historic Settle to Carlisle Railway.
A public walkway from outside Tullie House crosses to Carlisle Castle. With a thousand years of military occupation of the site, it’s loaded with significance – not least as the place where, in 1568, Elizabeth I kept Mary Queen of Scots as her “guest”. Guided tours help bring the history to life; don’t leave without climbing to the battlements for a view of the Carlisle rooftops.
Around eighteen miles southwest of Kendal, and sheltered several miles inland from Morecambe Bay, the pretty village of Cartmel is something of an upmarket getaway, with its Michelin-starred restaurant-with-rooms, winding country lanes and cobbled market square brimming with inns and antique shops. You’re in luck if you’re looking to buy a handmade dolls’ house or embroidered footstool, while in the Cartmel Village Shop on the square they sell the finest sticky-toffee pudding known to humanity. Quite what the original monks of Cartmel would have made of all this is anyone’s guess – the village first grew up around its twelfth-century Augustinian priory and is still dominated by the proud Church of St Mary and St Michael.
There’s a lot to admire about the attractive small town and market centre of Cockermouth – impressive Georgian facades, tree-lined streets and riverside setting – and there’s no shortage of local attractions, not least the logical first stop on the Wordsworth trail, namely the house where the future poet was born. In the smartened up Market Place (now with monthly farmers’ markets) there are more reminders of bygone days, including a pavement plaque teaching you the basics of talking Cumbrian.
The Wordsworth House, where William and sister Dorothy spent their first few years, is presented as a functioning eighteenth-century home – with a costumed cook sharing recipes in the kitchen and a clerk completing the ledger with quill and ink. It’s an education, in the best sense, and a really excellent visit.
Coniston Water is not one of the most immediately imposing of the lakes, yet it has a quiet beauty that sets it apart from the more popular destinations. The nineteenth-century art critic and social reformer John Ruskin made the lake his home, and today his isolated house, Brantwood, on the northeastern shore, provides the most obvious target for a day-trip. Arthur Ransome was also a frequent visitor, his local memories and experiences providing much of the detail in his famous Swallows and Amazons children’s books.
Sited on a hillside above the eastern shore of Coniston Water, Brantwood was home to John Ruskin from 1872 until his death in 1900. Ruskin was the champion of J.M.W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites and foremost Victorian proponent of the supremacy of Gothic architecture. His study and dining room boast superlative lake views, bettered only by those from the Turret Room where he used to sit in later life in his bathchair.
The surviving Turners from Ruskin’s own art collection are on show, and other exhibition rooms and galleries display Ruskin-related arts and crafts, while the excellent Jumping Jenny Tearooms – named after Ruskin’s boat – has an outdoor terrace with lake views. Meanwhile, paths wind through the lakeside meadows and into the various gardens, some based on Ruskin’s own plans – his slate seat is sited in the Professor’s Garden.
On January 4, 1967, Donald Campbell set out to better his own world water-speed record (276mph, set three years earlier in Australia) on the glass-like surface of Coniston Water. Just as his jet-powered Bluebird hit an estimated 320mph, however, a patch of turbulence sent it into a somersault. Campbell was killed immediately and his body and boat lay undisturbed at the bottom of the lake until both were retrieved in 2001. Campbell’s grave is in the small village cemetery behind the Crown Hotel, while the reconstructed Bluebird is displayed in a purpose-built gallery at the local museum, where you can find out more about Campbell and that fateful day.
Eskdale is perhaps the prettiest of the unsung Lake District valleys, reached on a long and twisting drive from Ambleside, over the dramatic Hardknott Pass. It can also be accessed from the Cumbrian coast by the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway – either route ends up in the heart of superb walking country around the dead-end hamlet of Boot.
Here, there’s an old mill to explore and several local hikes, not to mention the three-mile walk or drive back out of the valley to the superbly sited Hardknott Roman Fort (always open; free), which commands a strategic and panoramic position. There’s plenty of rustic, hideaway accommodation in Eskdale, including a great selection of old inns – if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-track stay in the rural western Lakes, with walks off the doorstep, you won’t find better.
Four miles northwest of Ambleside, the village of Grasmere consists of an intimate cluster of grey-stone houses on the old packhorse road that runs beside the babbling River Rothay. Pretty it certainly is, but it loses some of its charm in high summer thanks to the hordes who descend on the trail of the village’s most famous former resident, William Wordsworth (1770–1850). The poet, his wife Mary, sister Dorothy and other members of his family are buried beneath the yews in St Oswald’s churchyard, around which the river makes a sinuous curl.
There’s little else to the village, save its gift shops, galleries, tearooms and hotels, though the lake is just a ten-minute walk away, down Redbank; tremendous views unfold from Loughrigg Terrace, on its southern reaches. A four-mile circuit of Grasmere and adjacent Rydal Water takes around two hours, with the route passing Wordsworth haunts Rydal Mount and Dove Cottage.
Dove Cottage, home to William and Dorothy Wordsworth from 1799 to 1808, was the place where Wordsworth wrote some of his best poetry. Guides, bursting with anecdotes, lead you around the cottage rooms, little changed now but for the addition of electricity and internal plumbing. In the adjacent museum are paintings, manuscripts (including that of “Daffodils”) and mementos of the so-called “Lake Poets”, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as well as “opium-eater” Thomas De Quincey who also lived in the cottage for several years.
At Dove Cottage Wordsworth had been a largely unknown poet of straitened means, but by 1813 he’d written several of his greatest works (though not all had yet been published) and had been appointed Westmorland’s Distributor of Stamps, a salaried position which allowed him to take up the rent of a comfortable family house. Rydal Mount remained Wordsworth’s home from 1813 until his death in 1850, and the house is owned by descendants of the poet. You’re free to wander around what is essentially still a family home, as well as explore Wordworth’s cherished garden.
Three miles west of Ambleside along the A593, Skelwith Bridge marks the start of Great Langdale, a U-shaped glacial valley overlooked by the prominent rocky summits of the Langdale Pikes, the most popular of the central Lakeland fells. You can get to the pretty village of Elterwater – where there’s a tiny village green overlooked by the excellent Britannia Inn – by bus (17min); the bus then continues on to the Old Dungeon Ghyll hotel at the head of the valley (30min).
Three miles from Elterwater, at Stickle Ghyll car park, Harrison Stickle (2414ft), Pike of Stickle (2326ft) and Pavey Ark (2297ft) form a dramatic backdrop, though many walkers go no further than the hour-long climb to Stickle Tarn from Stickle Ghyll. Another car park, a mile further west up the valley road by the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, is the starting point for a series of more hardcore hikes to resonant Lakeland peaks like Crinkle Crags (2816ft) or Bowfell (2960ft).
Hawkshead, midway between Coniston and Ambleside, wears its beauty well, its patchwork of cottages and cobbles backed by woods and fells and barely affected by modern intrusions. Huge car parks at the village edge take the strain, and when the crowds of day-trippers leave, Hawkshead regains its natural tranquillity. It’s a major stop on both the Beatrix Potter and Wordsworth trails (Potter’s house, Hill Top, is nearby, while William and his brother went to school here), and makes a handy base for days out in Grizedale Forest.
The best local walk is to lovely Tarn Hows, a body of water surrounded by spruce and pine and circled by paths and picnic spots. It’s two miles from Hawkshead on country lanes and paths; it takes about an hour to walk around the tarn.
Grizedale Forest extends over the fells separating Coniston Water and Hawkshead from Windermere, and the picnic spots, open-air sculptures, children’s activities, cycle trails and tree-top adventure course make for a great day out away from the main lakes. The best starting point is the Grizedale Forest Centre, where there’s a café and information point.
Go Ape, a high-ropes adventure course in the thick of Grizedale Forest, has you frolicking in the tree canopy for a couple of hours. You get a quick safety briefing and then make your own way around the fixed-ropes course – fantastic fun involving zip-wires, Tarzan-swings and aerial walkways.
The self-billed “Gateway to the Lakes” (though nearly ten miles from Windermere), Kendal is the largest of the southern Cumbrian towns. It offers rewarding rambles around the “yards” and “ginnels” on both sides of Highgate and Stricklandgate, the main streets, and while the old Market Place long since succumbed to development, traditional stalls still do business outside the Westmorland Shopping Centre every Wednesday and Saturday, which are good days to visit.
Outside Kendal, the main trips are to the stately homes of Sizergh Castle and Levens Hall, just a few miles to the south, both of which have beautifully kept gardens.
Standing on the shores of Derwent Water, the market town of Keswick makes a good base for exploring the northern Lake District, particularly delightful Borrowdale to the south of town or the heights of Skiddaw (3053ft) and Blencathra (2847ft), which loom over Keswick to the north. Granted its market charter by Edward I in 1276 – market day is Saturday – Keswick was an important wool and leather centre until around 1500, when these trades were supplanted by the discovery of local graphite. Keswick went on to become an important pencil-making town; the entertaining Cumberland Pencil Museum, across the river tells the whole story.
Ringed by peaks and crags, the tranquil waters and lakeside paths of Buttermere make a popular day-trip from Keswick, with the best approach being the sweeping descent into the valley from Honister Pass. There’s no real village here – just a few houses and farms, a couple of hotels and a youth hostel, a café and large car park. The four-mile, round-lake stroll circling Buttermere shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours; you can always detour up Scarth Gap to the peak known as Haystacks (1900ft) if you want more of a climb and views.
Near the head of Borrowdale at Seatoller, the B5289 road cuts west, snaking up and over the dramatic Honister Pass, en route to Buttermere. At the top lie the unassuming buildings of Honister Slate Mine – an unexpectedly great place for daredevil adventurers with its deep mine tours and mountain activities. Come suitably clothed – it’s either wet or windy up here at the best of times.
Honister features England’s first Via Ferrata – a dramatic Alpine-style three-hour mountain climb using a fixed cableway and harness, which allows visitors to follow the old miners’ route up the exposed face of Fleetwith Pike (2126ft), the peak that’s right above the mines. It’s terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure – though you don’t need climbing experience to do it, you should check out the photos and videos on the website first to see what you’re in for.
The nearest town to Ullswater is Penrith, just four miles from the head of the lake. Its brisk streets have more in common with the towns of the North Pennines than the stone villages of south Cumbria. The local building materials emphasize the geographic shift, with its deep-red buildings erected from the same rust-red sandstone used to construct Penrith Castle in the fourteenth century; this is now a romantic, crumbling ruin, opposite the train station. The town itself is at its best in the narrow streets, arcades and alleys off Market Square, and around St Andrew’s churchyard, where the so-called “Giant’s Grave” is actually a collection of pre-Norman crosses and “hogback” tombstones.
Potfest, Europe’s biggest ceramics show, takes place in Penrith over two consecutive weekends (late July/early Aug). The first is Potfest in the Park, with ceramics on display in marquees in front of Hutton-in-the-Forest country house, as well as larger sculptural works laid out in the lovely grounds. This is followed by the highly unusual Potfest in the Pens, which sees potters displaying their creations in the unlikely setting of the covered pens at Penrith’s cattle market, just outside town on the A66. Here, the public can talk to the artists, learn about what inspires them and even sign up for free classes.
A sleepy coastal village at the estuary of three rivers, the Esk, Mite and Irt, Ravenglass is best known for being the starting point for the wonderful narrow-gauge Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. It’s worth taking some time to look around, though, before hopping on the train or heading out to Muncaster Castle, the other main local attraction. The single main street preserves a row of characterful nineteenth-century cottages facing out across the estuarine mud flats and dunes – the northern section, across the Esk, is a nature reserve where black-headed gulls and terns are often seen (get there by crossing over the mainline railway footbridge).
Opened in 1875 to carry ore from the Eskdale mines to the coastal railway, the 15-inch-gauge track of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway winds seven miles up through the Eskdale Valley to Dalegarth Station near Boot. The ticket lets you break your journey and get off and take a walk from one of the half-dozen stations en route; the full return journey, without a break, takes an hour and forty minutes. Another really good day out is to take your bike up on the train and cycle back from Dalegarth down the traffic-free Eskdale Trail.
Wordsworth declared Ullswater “the happiest combination of beauty and grandeur, which any of the Lakes affords”, a judgement that still holds good. At almost eight miles, it’s the second longest lake in the national park, with a dramatic serpentine shape that’s overlooked by soaring fells, none higher than the challenging reaches of Helvellyn (3114ft), the most popular of the four 3000ft mountains in Cumbria.
Cruises depart from the tiny village of Glenridding, at the southern foot of the lake. Meanwhile, at Gowbarrow Park, three miles north of Glenridding, the hillside still blazes green and gold in spring, as it was doing when the Wordsworths visited in April 1802; it’s thought that Dorothy’s recollections of the visit in her diary inspired William to write his famous “Daffodils” poem. The car park and tearooms here mark the start of a walk up to the 70ft falls of Aira Force.
Around twenty miles up the coast from Ravenglass, some fine Georgian houses mark out the centre of Whitehaven – one of the few grid-planned towns in England and easily the most interesting destination on Cumbria’s west coast. Whitehaven had long had a trade in coal, but its rapid economic expansion was largely due to the booming slave trade – the town spent a brief period during the eighteenth century as one of Britain’s busiest ports, importing sugar, rum, spices, tea, timber and tobacco.
For practical and inspirational travel information for the Lake District in Cumbria, check out the the travel guide Rough Guide Staycations: The Lake District.
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