Kate Green and Paula Lester explore the landscape that has inspired painters and poets alike for generations.
In The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson makes an interesting point about the difference between American and British national parks: in the USA, they’re majestic wildernesses in which you are not allowed to live; here, they’re smaller inhabited areas in which real life carries on—or tries to—in a part of the countryside that hap- pens to be very pretty. The natural world is stupendous in the USA, but is more accessible, more inhabitable in Britain.
The Lake District claims to be the prettiest of our national parks; having staggered off the M6, the moment at which the head of Ullswater (the second largest stretch of water in the Lakes) comes into view is truly joyous—the clean, soft beauty of it all makes the heart leap. Wordsworth was actually referring to Grasmere when he wrote ‘Majesty, and beauty, and repose,/A blended holiness of earth and sky’, but you get the idea.
There’s a temptation to see the whole Lake District in a rush, to keep driving around the next corner, but your eyes should prefereably only be glued to the road as you try to avoid scraping the car or hitting a sheep.
Venture into one of the honeypots—Keswick, Ambleside, Kendal, Bowness-on-Windermere—if you absolutely must buy fudge or a fleece, but you’ll get the most out of this magical pocket of England if you ‘wander lonely as a cloud’ with the spirits of Wordsworth, Wainwright, Ruskin, John Peel, Arthur Ransome et al as company.
What to do
Cruise on Ullswater
Take the hop-on, hop-off paddle- steamer service (dogs and bicycles welcome) or loll about for the full two-hour round trip past Helvellyn. Blissful!
(01768 482229; www.ullswater-steamers.co.uk)
Watch hound trailing
Rustic sporting occasions particular to this area in which hounds race after a smelly trail, roared on by the crowd; place your bets and take your binoculars. In Ransome’s Swallow- dale, Nancy described it as ‘the loveliest thing… each man has his own noise and each hound knows the noise that belongs to him’.
Visit Hill Top
Beatrix Potter, who perhaps did the Lake District more practical good than any other writer, bought the farm near Hawkshead with the proceeds from The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1905. Unspoilt and enchanting, but can get rather busy.
(01539 436269; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hill-top)
Visit Dove Cottage
Wordsworth produced his most inspired works in this quaint cottage in Grasmere, but one wonders how he got a moment’s peace in its cramped environs. Tours are guided, but, fear not, the guides are full of dry humour; we can’t forget the fact that the poet’s sister and muse, Dorothy, was not as fragrant as she sounds— she liked to build up a five-week layer of dirt to ward off disease and had to have all her teeth replaced by a wooden set. The museum is first class.
(01539 435544; www.wordsworth.org.uk)
Walk a Wainwright
Fell walkers owe a huge debt to the Lancastrian accountant Alfred Wainwright, who, as a 23-year-old in 1930, was ‘transfixed’ by his first sight of the Lakes: ‘Here was no painted canvas; this was real…God was in his heaven that day and I a humble worshipper.’ He dedicated his spare time to writing the seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, the invaluable guide to routes to the summits of 214 fells.
Where to stay
The famous Sharrow Bay on the shores of Ullswater, which was developed from a fisherman’s lodge in the 1840s, epitomises the country-house hotel (01768 486301; www.sharrowbay.co.uk); The Gilpin, a comfortable retreat on Windermere, now has a lakeside spa (01539 488818; www.thegilpin.co.uk); and the Drunken Duck Inn above Ambleside is justly gaining a reputation for its good food (http://drunkenduckinn.co.uk; 01539 436347).
We loved the atmosphere of The Eltermere, set in the tiny village of Elterwater in the Langdale Valley (01539 437207; www.eltermere.co.uk). A converted farmhouse, it has the feel of an ultra-luxurious sporting and walkers’ pub with 12 comfy, pretty bedrooms—some have clawfoot baths with views—a fine menu and a cosy, red-painted bar with fire, hunting prints and giant pike. Rooms from £140. Top tip: the outside bar is in shade by early evening, but 100 yards away is the welcoming Britannia Inn (01539 437210; http://thebritanniainn.com), a proper fell pub where you can blend in with walkers, their dogs and a few curious Herdwick sheep and feel like a local.