The Lake District

The Lake District

The Lake District

The Lake District

Tourist Information, Cumbria Tourist Board, Ashleigh, Winder-mere, Cumbria LA23 2AQ. 09662 4444.

Lake District National Park Centre, Brockhole, Windermere. 09662 2231.

(posted Nov 2011): Carlisle (0228 25051), Preston (0772 59014).

In my library I have a book written by John Housman, in 1802, entitled Guide to the Lakes, which begins ‘In respect to the mode of visiting the lakes, Mr West thinks, and perhaps with good taste, that Coniston Lake ought to be the first seen, and after-wards Windermere-water, Rydal-water, Grasmere-water, Leathes-water, and those in the neighbourhood of Keswick in succession; as by this course, we are led from the simple and pleasing to the grand and sublime works of nature.’

In many ways that sums up the Lake District. It does have immense variety in its scenery and, at a turn of a head, the view can change from the gentle to the staggeringly dramatic, the simple to the grand. Not, you understand, that its mountains are as brooding and awe-inspiring as those of the Highlands of Scotland, nor as wild and spectacular as those of Snowdonia. What the Lake District does have to offer are deep green valleys, flashes of lakes with forested or meadowed shores and in the middle of them tiny islands, rough moorland, smooth hills, jagged rocks, snow-topped mountains, empty fells and overfull lakeside resorts. There are no ‘theme parks’ or giant fun-fairs, no bingo halls with electronic-voiced callers, but there are boat trips on the lakes, literary footsteps in which to follow and some of the very best walking, of all kinds, in the whole of Britain.

Start your look around the Lake District at Brockhole Visitor Centre and you will be handsomely rewarded. It sets out to encourage the visitor to enjoy every aspect of the National Park with slide and tape shows, lectures and courses on and about Lakeland and lists of current events. The best times to go are during late September and early October or else May and June, though for some the very changeability of the weather is part of their enjoyment.

‘Is there no part of English ground secure from assault?’ asked Wordsworth, who was born in Cockermouth and spent most of his life in Rydal and Grasmere, as he fought against the coming of the railway. But come the railway did – though only to the hamlets of Windermere and no further. In Victorian times the lakes became an inland resort with the added attractions of mountain scenery, beaches and boat trips all enough to rival Switzerland. They provided an ideal escape. Little wonder then that returning to England in 1799 Wordsworth gathered around him a collection of like-minded writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey and Thomas de Quincey. Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Keats, Shelley and John Ruskin were among those who came for shorter visits. Now literary pilgrims crowd into their former homes.

What does it offer as a resort? Hundreds of boats are out on the lakes, water-skiers are permitted, as are speed boats; climbers make for the fells and hills, cyclists nudge each other along the roads, ponies trek and trains steam. It is the largest and most popular of all the National Parks – 866 sq miles – and if you like walking then this district provides something for everyone, from gentle strolls along country lanes to testing long distance hikes. A. Wainwright’s Lake Ditrict Fells is the guide to this; smaller and less detailed are Walk the Lakes by John Parker and John Trevelyan’s The Cumbrian Way. A Walk around the Lakes by Hunter Davies is a first class literary guide.

There has, for over two hundred years, been concern for the future of the Lake District. The conflicting demands made upon it today – its water for the big cities, its broad open spaces, mountains and hidden valleys for recreation, its fields for farms – are still concerning those who love the Lakelands but it does seem able to absorb and accommodate all of those interests, even though some conflict understandably remains. It is still possible to avoid the crowds and find somewhere to recollect and be tranquil for an hour. It is still possible to go walking and not come upon another living soul. In other words, it has lost none of it delight, charm or, for the more adventurous, its challenge. It is a place for literary pilgrims and scholars.

The London Euston to Glasgow West Coast main line skirts the east of the Lake District giving its passengers tantalising glimpses. There are stations at Lancaster, Oxenholme (where the Lake District’s sole remaining branch line – to Kendal and Windermere – starts), Penrith and, of course, Carlisle. Apart from Windermere therefore, you cannot reach the heart of the Lakes by British Rail and will need a car, though another coastal line loops round the west from Lancaster to Carlisle via Grangeover-Sands (almost a Lakeland seaside resort), Barrow-in-Furness, Ravenglass (for the miniature Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway) and the old port town of Whitehaven, and though not fast, this opens up a quite different perspective.

Many tourists follow the advice of John Housman, or even that of Wordsworth, and start at the south, either at Coniston or Windermere. The north is usually left to the hardy types, and you can reach into some of the remoter waters from the west. There are also some good places to see in the east, where my own favourite place and lake is Ullswater. It is the area which attracted the in-coming builders who put up their rather grand houses – one of which now ranks among my favourite retreats in Britain – the luxurious Sharrow Bay Hotel. Another favourite is the Miller Howe across at Windermere. Both have style, service and fine food, but then to be fair so have some other hotels in the area also.