They jet to the Lake District in their thousands from airports such as New York’s JFK and Tokyo’s Narita International, landing at Heathrow and boarding the train to Windermere station, e-reader screens aglow with guidebook details.
But as long ago as 1888, guidebooks such as The English Lake District by MJB Baddeley were kindling interest in the region. “As we leave the train,” it reads, “we are sensible of a change almost magical. The comparatively cold and dull ridges of Kent Dale have vanished in a moment, giving place to the richly wooded hills, which descend in graceful and ever-varying slopes to the shores of Windermere.
“Directly in front are Claife Heights, backed by the skyline of Coniston Old Man and Wetherlam. Rigg’s Windermere Hotel, a well-known and excellent hostelry, is only a few yards above Windermere station.”
Some 120 years later, visitors are still “sensible of a change almost magical”. Even the Windermere Hotel on the brow still looks over the glittering pendant of 11-mile long Windermere, England’s greatest lake. Above all this is Orrest Head, an emerald-green fell and a favourite of mine that also captivated Alfred Wainwright. “It was a moment of magic, a revelation so unexpected that I stood transfixed, unable to believe my eyes,” he wrote. “I saw mountain ranges, one after another, the nearer starkly etched, those beyond fading into the blue distance – a glorious panorama that held me enthralled.”
And that’s just when you arrive. I always find the best way to explore the the region is to find a blend of the traditional tourist routes with a few adventures into the wild. So let me whisk you first through the heart of the region and then take you into Wordsworth’s most treasured dales, each of which has a different hue.
For many visitors, the first stop is Bowness-on-Windermere – inspiration for bustling ‘Rio’ in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Cruises from here sail to Lakeside to the south or Ambleside to the north, each at opposite ends of this Windermere, passing wooded islands midway. This is my favourite way to get to grips with this sinuous body of water – you could spend an entire holiday in its environs.
There is also a ferry from Bowness to Far Sawrey on the western shore. From here, the obvious stop is Beatrix Potter’s 17th-century farmhouse of Hill Top at Near Sawrey. It was here the author, actually Mrs William Heelis, who farmed with a sack over her shoulders on wet days, lived with the characters she created such as Jemima Puddle-Duck and Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. Her cottage garden still grows a haphazard mix of flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables just as it should.
Busy Hawkshead village nearby is a car-free maze of alleyways, ginnels and quiet corners: tea shops’ final frontier, I like to think. Wordsworth attended the grammar school here, which is now a museum. You can see his desk, resplendent with his name carved into the wood. Many visitors hurry on to Coniston Water to the west, missing the quiet, wildfowl-haunted waters of Esthwaite. If you ever need a break for a picnic, remember its quiet shores.
An early fell-runner
Coniston was a quarry town. The copper mines were revived in Jacobean times and still pockmark the fells. But across its eponymous lake is Brantwood, home of visionary and patron to the arts, John Ruskin. He would run up Coniston Old Man after first rowing across the lake. Lakeland’s first fell runner I wonder?
Neighbouring Nibthwaite at the southern end of Coniston Water is one of my favourite Lakeland corners. It was the heart of Swallows and Amazons, with the rocky atoll of Peel Island close by being the intriguing trigger for Wildcat Island. Nearby in 1967, Donald Campbell tragically met his death when his speedboat Bluebird flipped doing 300mph. Today, you can take a very slow trip on Coniston Water by Gondola, a luxury steam-driven yacht from yesteryear, and feel yourself sinking into a delicious Swallows and Amazons summer.
These scenes depict the heart of the Lake District – a typical visit to the region, worthy yet ultimately only an appetiser for those who seek a deeper enchantment.
So if you have more time, follow me – you don’t have to travel far to find landscapes almost entirely to yourself. Wordsworth likened his treasured dales – such as Wasdale, Ennerdale, Buttermere, Borrowdale Langdale, Eskdale – to the spokes of a wheel radiating out from Esk Hause, a saddle near the summit of boulder-strewn Scafell Pike, at 978m (3,210ft) England’s highest peak.
The finest of these valleys, I believe, is Wasdale. Here you’ll find the highest mountain, the smallest church, the deepest lake and the finest view in England (as voted on in the 2007 ITV series Britain’ s Favourite View). In Wasdale Head, it holds the birthplace of British mountaineering when Walter Parry Haskett Smith became the first man to scale Napes Needle solo in 1886 after tossing a pebble on to the unseen summit to check it was flat. Wastwater arrows its way beneath the towering screes towards a distant Yewbarrow, Kirkfell, Great Gable, Lingmell and Scafell Pike.
Delectable too, I always think, is Ennerdale, the only Lakeland valley with no access for cars. Wild Ennerdale a partnership between local people and organisations led by the National Trust, Forestry Commission and United Utilities looks just that. Feral.
Beyond Scarth Gap Pass is the next spoke of the wondrous wheel: Buttermere. As the Normans found when they were ambushed by the locals, it is uniquely placed. The dalehead remained a stronghold long after the Conquest and is still hermetically sealed by rugged skylines; its three lakes Buttermere, Crummock Water and Loweswater are a string of pearls. How Buttermere reigns, especially with anglers who fish for the charr, a relative of the salmon, believed to have been here since the last ice age. The lake lies in a basin ringed by mountains, its shores well-wooded with Scotch fir and larch trees and circled by a galvanising footpath.
Over the famous Honister Pass is Borrowdale, where it is said locals built a wall to keep the cuckoo in the valley. One local, po-faced, told me recently they are still building it. Derwentwater stretches for three wooded and cragged miles, with the hamlet of Seathwaite being the wettest spot in England, recording 609cm (240in) of rain a year on average.
Besides cuckoos, Borrowdale has a wealth of other wildlife. If you walk from from Ashness Bridge under Falcon Crag, I’ll bet you’ll see buzzards, peregrine falcons and sparrowhawks. Pied flycatchers, great spotted woodpeckers, red deer, roe deer and red squirrels can all be spotted in the dale’s glorious oakwood glades.
And beyond? Bassenthwaite Lake is a must; the only so-called ‘lake’ in Lakeland. Fed by the River Derwent, this waterway, with its dorsal fins of racing yachts complements the height of Skiddaw, at 931m (3,054ft), above. Fish-eating ospreys with a 1.5m (5ft) wingspan can be seen from roadside viewpoints on the surrounding mountains as they rear chicks in the treetops come April. And if the wilds get too much, descend on Keswick, a town of character and charm to soothe the blistered foot and parched throat.
Continuing round Wordsworth’s spokes of a wheel, the A591 road from Keswick to Windermere alongside Thirlmere, Grasmere and Rydal Water has been voted Britain’s Favourite Road (A591) for its thrilling views of fell and water – and with Helvellyn’s fearsome summit ever-looming.
Time to read Wordsworth’s lyric ode to daffodils on your e-reader. Below is Grasmere, where the great poet lived in Dove Cottage for eight years, and a little further along, Rydal. Here he spent 37 years in Rydal Mount by his beloved Dora’s Field, just now golden with his favourite blooms.
Beyond Helvellyn, on the blind side as it were, are more countless acres of wild fells running riot to the east.
These are bleak, barren hills of wild beauty where the peregrine falcon and buzzard rule. For years it has been a haunt of a golden eagle, now 15 years old and still waiting for a mate to appear, though hopes are fading. And here were come to the final spoke of the wheel: Ullswater, England’s second longest lake. It harbours delights such as acclaimed Sharrow Bay restaurant, long-lost Martindale and Sandwick Bay.
A steamer calls at nearby Howtown to connect with Patterdale at one end of the lake and Pooley Bridge at the other. To get your breath back as you return full circle, pull in on the top of Kirkstone Pass. Phew. What views! The pub here is centuries old. And below? The road passes Jesus church in Troutbeck, where the electrifying stained-glass east window was created by pre-Raphaelite artists William Morris, Ford Madox Brown and Sir Edward Burne-Jones. You can almost pick the flowers with every vein standing out on each ivy leaf.
So there you have it: Wordsorth, Wainwright, Ruskin, Morris – they all knew a thing about beauty and they all agreed that the Lake District has it more than anywhere else. But I’ll leave the final say to the legendary Borrowdale cuckoo. When he was asked where he craved to see foreign parts, he said, “Not at all, foreign parts come to see us.”