In a National Park with so much that's amazing, how can you choose what to do? Well, this will get you started...
It’s hard to get addicted to a place. But, then, the Lake District isn’t just a place.
Taken purely on the physical attributes, it’s an extraordinary piece of geography: an upland of close-jumbled hills that climb to a proud height – the tallest ground in England – and are rent with valleys that coalesce in extremely convenient ways. The result is a true spectacle, though of a scale and structure that defies anyone not to start sliding their eyes across it in pursuit of routes. A day on those hills, two days in this valley, a long weekend across that range... And punctuating those days, crouched villages sporting tufts of wood smoke, lakes of ramshackle jetties and dawn mists, country inns, cosy B&Bs, towns of steep streets and buildings of green slate.
Yes, it’s a romantic view. But the Lakes is a romantic place. It more or less started the Romantic English art movement in the late 18th Century, when assorted dandies and travellers – for whom the traditional Alpine Grand Tour had become risky due to a troubled continent – looked closer to home for amusements of grandeur to get excited about. In the Lake District they found a compact spectacle to rival anywhere in the world for beauty, and they wasted little time in laying the poetic and artistic foundations that would soon become synonymous with the area. Wordsworth would write of ‘ridges like the waves of a tumultuous sea’. Coleridge described ‘Silver fillets of water down every mountain from top to bottom that were as fine as bridegrooms’. Beatrix Potter gave animals breeches and voices. And countless painters and poets made the Lakes their muse over the years that followed, ensuring that today many, many more go in their droves to stand in their easel-prints and see what they were all fussing about.
So that’s the cliché of the Lake District: dead poets, talking animals and too many tourists. But to only see this place as a cauldron of artistic creativity and tourism is to roundly miss the point. Because on so many other sensory tiers, the Lake District is utterly exquisite.
It has a charm that adapts to every season, from the cosy chill of winter, through to spring’s new life, the soft breezes of summer and autumn’s dense, warm glow. Aside from being compact and orderly – as opposed to the spread-out bulk of the Highlands and the chaotically flung ranges of Snowdonia – it’s bountiful with summits in a manner that belies its relatively modest size. Some of these are small enough to ascend in 20 minutes; one of them is the highest mountain in England, along with all the ground over 3,000ft in the country. All are worth climbing, if only for the dazzling scenic treat on offer even at modest elevations.
The biggest natural bodies of inland water in the land lie here, and are inexpressively varied – from the long and kinked (Windermere) to the arrow-straight (Coniston) to the woody and nebulous (Derwent Water) to the overwatched and deep (Wast Water). More than simply flooring the valleys and lending a soothing variety to the cragged uplands, these lakes gave the region its unofficial name from the trilogy of counties that once comprised it: Lancashire, Westmorland and Cumberland. Today, it is all within Cumbria. But it’s been known as the Lake District long before the National Park was established, and there’s something rather nice about that.
Over a hundred years prior to the park being designated, Wordsworth described the Lakes ‘as a sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest, who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’. The next spiritual inheritor of the region’s artistic merit – Beatrix Potter – would spend much of her later life acquiring as much of it as she could then gifting it to the nation, by way of the National Trust. Post-war saw the delicately coloured prints of William Heaton Cooper adorn the walls of countless travellers from all over the world. Then – no doubt encouraged by the quaint guidebooks of Alfred Wainwright – the walkers came, and began to explore and scratch off the summits comprising the list of 214 hills that today notionally bear his name.
In 1951 the Lake District became the second National Park to be consecrated as such in Britain – less than a month after the Peak District became the first. It was the biggest such space in Britain until 2003, when the Cairngorms trounced it to the title.
Today some folk like to rib the Lake District. They say it’s too crowded, too touristy, too twee. The hills are crawling with people, not big enough, not exciting enough. Ignore them. They are idiots who know nothing but their own over-inflated opinion. Anyone can tell you that to those who are interested in more than just a tourist experience, the Lake District is packed with entry points, secret places, quiet fells and secluded tarns that never feel the glare of a coach trip camera. Where you can walk high ridgelines with only a golden eagle for company. Where you can immerse yourself in a place by turns hard and comely, rugged and intimate, historic and very much living and breathing with today’s upland culture.
To the hillwalker, it’s like a best friend. You’ll have good days and bad days. Fall out and not speak for months, or even years. Have great days out and boring days in. Shiver, and sweat. But it will always be there for you. And you’ll always be back.
10 TOP LAKE DISTRICT EXPERIENCES
Beloved of landscape photographers and residents of Keswick – against which the lake laps at a viewpoint of sublime beauty – Derwent Water, with its ruinous jetties, surrounding hills and islands of trees, is the jewel of the northern Lakes.
Icon of rock-climbing for over 100 years, the pointed index finger of Napes Needle (left) is squirrelled among the crags of Great Gable, arguably the Lakes’ most complete and fascinating mountain. The nearby Sphinx Rock has a similarly distinctive silhouette, and the whole lot gives a panoramic view into Wasdale only a walk along the Climbers’ Traverse route can achieve.
YHA Black Sail
Sequestered and charmingly rustic (though recently revamped), Black Sail Youth Hostel is a Lakeland institution. Capable of sleeping just a dozen or so souls and accessible from Ennerdale – officially the quiet side of the Scafell bulwark – this is an once-in-a-lifetime night’s sleep beneath what Wainwright called Lakeland’s finest mile: the High Level Route between Black Sail Pass and Pillar Rock.
England’s two highest peaks stand as a twin-topped massif above one of remotest valleys in the Lake District. Gothic and muscular-feeling, they are also highly contrasting mountains: Scafell being the lower, harder and more complex; Scafell Pike being the essential high point of the country. A single long day can comfortably bag both – ideally coupled with an overnight stay in Wasdale, where campsites and a great pub await you.
The Priest’s Hole
A cave tucked high on Dove Crag near Fairfield, the Priest’s Hole is a stunning viewpoint often occupied for overnight stops by the intrepid. It takes some finding and a bit of getting to (the cave is high on a cliffside at NY 37583 10978) but once you’re in, you’re in one of the best crow’s nests in the Lakes.
Hardy denizens of the fells, Herdwicks are a type of sheep of (allegedly) Norse origin that are more or less exclusive to Lakeland. As such they are the animals you are most likely to encounter high in the hills.
Perhaps the most intimidating of the famous ‘Edges’ of Lakeland – the closest other being Striding Edge on Helvellyn – this famously intimidating but technically straightforward ascent of northern Lakeland sentinel Blencathra is a rite of passage that is as aesthetically amazing as it is satisfying to tick off.
Perhaps the most brooding of the Lakes’ many valleys, Borrowdale’s position south of Keswick put it firmly on the tourist trail when the Lake District first attracted interest. Its hanging crags and a brooding, trench-like nature give Borrowdale an ominous feel in grumpy weather. Thomas Gray was referring to this quality when he described Borrowdale as having ‘jaws’.
Wasdale Head Inn
Crouched at the end of the Wasdale valley, the rambling and historic Wasdale Head Inn is the luxurious base for any hillwalker looking for good beer and a good crowd. The point of exhale for climbers since the sport was invented, new management has given the inn a fresh lease of life. Visit the tiny St Olaf’s church nearby to see the memorial to members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club who lost their lives in World War One.
With the recipe a closely guarded secret, Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread is a local institution. The village is worth visiting anyway to appreciate the cuddlier side of the Lakes; but a box of gingerbread is a fine excuse if you need one.