This is a landscape of breathtaking beauty: of still lakes, surrounded by forest and fells; of tranquil valleys and jagged summits; of plunging cascades and remote, reed-fringed tarns. Its pleasures are timeless, whether you’re idling on a rowing boat on Windermere or following in the footsteps of Wordsworth.
Windermere & Bowness
It is the best of the Lakes and the worst of the Lakes, the most popular and the most deplored, the cheapest and the dearest. In some parts it is horribly crowded, in others highly exclusive. There’s not much middle ground with England’s biggest lake: most people love it or hate it.
Windermere anchors the southern end of the Lake District – and as most visitors arrive from the south, funnelling in from the M6 to the conjoined twin towns of Windermere and Bowness, these tourist honeypots are where almost everyone experiences their first, rather untypical taste of the Lakes.
While it may be tempting to push straight on to more isolated spots, there is plenty to enjoy around Windermere, from a treasury of Arts and Crafts architecture and a clutch of museums and attractions to extravagant hotels and restaurants – not forgetting the great lake itself.
Things to do
Cruise Lake Windermere
For more than a century, sightseers have queued on Bowness pier to board the 1891 MV Tern, or its equally handsome 1930s sister ships, MV Teal and MV Swan. Despite their vintage good looks, they are diesel-powered and sail the length of the lake all year. You can also hire motor boats and rowing boats.
Amid the chaff of Windermere’s commercial heart, Francine’s is a delightful little find. The specials board includes plenty of game in season, while the herby spaghetti marinara, loaded with clams, mussels, plump prawns and sea bream, epitomises the kitchen’s generous approach. Earlier in the day, drop by for cooked breakfasts or simple lunches. 27 Main Road, Windermere (015394 44088, www.francinesrestaurantwindermere.co.uk).
Where to stay
Available to rent out in its entirety, this seven-bedroom Arts and Crafts house offers a heady blend of classic craftsmanship and modern gloss. Outside, beyond the elegant terrace, stretch eight acres of lawns, woodland and meadows. Prices, as you might expect, are eye-watering – especially if you take up any of the little extras, such as the private chef, yoga sessions or yacht hire.
Set close to the head of Lake Windermere, Ambleside is one of the great crossroads of the Lakes – which means everybody pitches up here sooner or later. Although it has some delightful attributes and excellent nearby excursions, it’s not the prettiest town in the Lake District.
Instead, it is best embraced as the most well equipped and cosmopolitan centre that the National Park has to offer, with a plethora of pubs and restaurants, and an embarrassment of outdoor equipment shops. With the beating heart of a market town and an industrial past that runs deep, there’s a lot more to Ambleside than meets the eye from the viewpoint of a summer traffic jam.
A mile outside town, Waterhead stands on Windermere’s shore: from here, you can catch a steamer from the pier or hire a smaller boat to make your own exploration.
Things to do
Learn to waterski
Pretty much every variety of messing about on the water is covered at this centre on the eastern edge of Windermere, attached to the Low Wood Hotel. Options include wakeboarding, wakesurfing, kneeboarding, canoeing, kayaking and dinghy sailing, and tuition is available. The centre still offers waterskiing, despite the new Windermere speed limit of ten knots; fine for learners, but not quite so much fun for the proficient. Rowing boats and motorboats (again, note the speed limit) can also be hired for a turn around the lake.
Low Wood Watersports CentreLow Wood, LA23 1LP (015394 39441, www.elh.co.uk/watersports). Open Easter-Sept times vary, phone for details. Lessons from £15. Hire from £16/2hrs.
Where to eat
This inviting restaurant incorporates an arthouse cinema. The emphasis is on ambitious, Mediterranean-influenced vegetarian food: shallot and thyme tarte tatin to start, perhaps, followed by radicchio, walnut and pear ‘cannolli’ with poached pears and gorgonzola sauce. It also offers film and dinner deals, check online for details.
This lovely, cream-painted old farmhouse stands on the delightful back road that climbs from between Clappersgate and Skelwith Bridge to take in Loughrigg Tarn and High Close. It’s perfectly positioned for walks through the unspoiled countryside or fell climbing to Grasmere and Rydal; at the same time, it’s only a mile from Ambleside. Run by Dorothy Wrathall for nearly 40 years, it feels like an idyll from a different age. There are three double bedrooms, two bathrooms (not en suite) and a residents’ lounge.
That Coniston Water enjoys such a distinct identity is largely down to three dead men: John Ruskin, Arthur Ransome and Donald Campbell. The third largest lake in the Lake District is indelibly associated with Ruskin, the great prophet of social reform and his lakeside home Brantwood; with the children’s escapism of Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons novels; and with Campbell’s dramatic 300mph death in his somersaulting, jet-propelled Bluebird hydroplane.
There’s much more of interest, of course. Boating opportunities include the National Trust’s historic Steam Yacht Gondola, Lakeland’s most exquisite vessel, while hikers can tackle the iconic peak of the Old Man of Coniston. Beatrix Potter gets a look-in too at Yew Tree Farm (015394 41433, www.yewtree-farm.com), a guesthouse that is in some ways superior to anything on her formal tourist itinerary. And the Ruskin Museum (www.ruskinmuseum.com) in Coniston village expertly and engagingly pulls together all the disparate threads of geology, literature and world water speed records.
Finally, a short drive south, just outside the National Park, is the pleasant market town of Ulverston, whose attractions include Quaker and Buddhist centres, England’s shortest canal and an eccentric museum devoted to Hollywood comedy duo Laurel and Hardy (01229 582292, www.laurel-and-hardy.co.uk).
Things to do
Climb the Old Man
The high point of the Furness Fells that separate Coniston Water from the Duddon Valley, the Old Man lies a couple of miles west of Coniston village. At 2,634 feet, it’s the 12th highest peak in England, with sterling views from the top to Duddon Valley and Dow Crag across Goat’s Water tarn, and even as far as the Isle of Man and Blackpool Tower.
Jump in a gondola
The National Trust’s wood-burning, steam-powered gondola is the superstar attraction on Coniston Water. The sumptuously upholstered vessel was built in 1859 for the Furness Railway Company for visitors who had travelled to the Lake District on the railway. Now you can sit in the first-class saloon or out on deck as the gondola glides sllently across the lake.
With proper leaf tea, a classy coffee selection (all organic and Fairtrade), delicious cakes and scones and a friendly, no-rush vibe, this daytime-only café has got it right. Enjoy lunch – perhaps butternut squash risotto or mushrooms stuffed with stilton and redcurrants – by the old range in the cosy downstairs room or upstairs, where there are high beams, Moroccan lanterns and a marble fireplace. There’s also a cute back garden. Children are well looked after with miniature tea-time trays.
A true one-off: the chance to sleep in Brantwood, in a self-catering apartment on the upper floor of John Ruskin’s former home. The accommodation is simple – a double bedroom, kitchen-diner and drawing room – but offers great views across the lake. When the sightseers have left, you can wander the gardens in peace and stroll down to the little harbour built by Ruskin. Brantwood, East of the Lake, LA21 8AD (015394 41396, www.brantwood.org.uk). Rates £750 per week.
Grasmere & Rydal
Grasmere sits almost at the centre of the National Park, at a natural dividing line between north and south Lakeland. The setting of Grasmere Lake and its slightly smaller adjoining sister, Rydal Water, is utterly beautiful – from the swans posing on the water to the stunning backdrop of Helm Crag, with the Lion and the Lamb outcrop and Dunmail Raise. Although its endlessly varied vistas have inspired the likes of Turner and Constable, Grasmere owes its international fame not to art but to poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey and Robert Southey were among the literary greats inspired by the area, but it is William Wordsworth, above all, whose name is linked with that of Grasmere. The Cumbrian-born Romantic poet lived and wrote here, and is buried in the village he described as ‘the loveliest spot that man hath ever found’.
Things to do
Get wordy with Wordsworth's poetry
Based at Dove Cottage, the Wordsworth Trust arranges events throughout the year. In addition to highly regarded talks and poetry readings, there are regular workshops (which in the past have ranged from beadwork and embroidery to making your own leather-bound notebook) and special children’s activities during the school holidays. Mid January, meanwhile, brings the annual Arts & Book Festival, a scholarly weekend of talks, readings and workshops. Wordsworth Trust Events015394 35544, www.wordsworth.org.uk.
Where to eat
Tucked away on a back lane and an enduring favourite with locals, this informal eaterie is the safest bet in Grasmere. Its two cosy dining rooms are decorated in eclectic, exuberant style; space is limited, so book ahead. Good wine, a homely vibe and decent value for money knocks Grasmere’s more pretentious eateries into a cocked hat.
Langdale Road, Grasmere, LA22 9SU (015394 35188, www.thejumbleroom.co.uk). Lunch served noon-2.30pm Sat, Sun. Dinner served 5-10pm Mon, Wed-Sun.
Where to stay
Cote How Organic Guest House & Tea Room
This superior B&B is one of only three Soil Association-registered organic guesthouses in the UK, where everything from the beer to the baking powder is organic. The three bedrooms are decorated in elegantly traditional style. The Rydal Suite features a kingsize bed and cosy bathrobes. The sitting room has a piano, games, books and an honesty bar, but no TV. Instead, enjoy the abundant birdlife in the grounds, keeping an eye out for roe deer, or borrow a kayak from the old boathouse. Note that the guesthouse only allows over-12s. Rydal, LA22 9LW (015394 32765, www.cotehow.co.uk). Rates £45-£80 double incl breakfast.
Hawkshead & Esthwaite Water
At first sight the countryside between Windermere and Coniston Water appears dominated by forestry, with the two great estates of Grizedale and Graythwaite clogging the map with seemingly impenetrable green, but when it opens up the National Trust are stewards of much lovely countryside that has a timeless calm. There’s nothing wild or mountainous about the landscape, but it’s exceedingly easy on the eye. Visitors flock in from Ambleside or the Windermere Ferry in formidable numbers.
Few destinations in the Lake District are as deservedly popular as the tourist magnet of Tarn Hows, the epicentre of Beatrix Potter’s world at Hill Top, the Grizedale sculpture trail and the picturesque old market centre of Hawkshead. But it’s also easy to wander a little more lonely up to Latterbarrow and Claife Heights, to row a boat among the water lilies on Esthwaite Water, or to saunter through the lordly grounds of Graythwaite Hall or Wray Castle.
Things to do
This modest townhouse is the best place in the Lake District (along with the Armitt Collection in Ambleside) to appreciate what a talented illustrator and artist Potter was. The display of watercolours and original sketches for her stories changes regularly. The most notable gap in the collection is the original work for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which is kept in the archive of Potter’s publisher, Frederick Warne. Not that Peter Rabbit imagery is hard to find in Hawkshead.
Beatrix Potter GalleryMain Street, Hawkshead, LS22 0NS (015394 36355, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-beatrixpottergallery). Open June-Aug 10.30am-5pm Mon-Thur, Sat, Sun. Apr, May, Sept, Oct 11am-5pm Mon-Thur, Sat, Sun. Mar 11am-3.30pm Mon-Thur, Sat, Sun. Admission £4.40; £2.10 reductions; £10.50 family.
Be a monkey for the day
Surveying Grizedale Forest from ground level is all well and good, but the Go Ape! outpost offers a loftier – and far more thrilling – perspective. Ladders, ropes, walkways and zipwires weave through the trees at positively dizzying heights: you’re given a half-hour briefing and training session before being let loose amid the treetops, and are securely strapped into a safety harness. Check online for the minimum age and height restrictions. Nervous parents should bear in mind that under-18s must be supervised (and not from the ground, either).
Go Ape! Grizedale Forest, LA22 0QJ (0845 643 90860, www.goape.co.uk). Open Feb, Mar, Nov 8am-dusk Sat, Sun. Apr-Oct 8am-6pm Mon, Wed-Sun. Admission £30; £20 reductions.
Where to eat
Since Stephanie and Peter Barton took over the Duck in the mid 1970s, it has grown from an ordinary inn at a minor crossroads between Hawkshead and Ambleside into the Lake District’s most famous gastropub. It’s probably its most sought-after weekend stay too, with a six-month waiting list. If the pewter tankards and corny ‘Wanted’ posters are a bit passé, modern sophistication is evident in the chalky green colour scheme, Brathay slate bar and funky leather bar stools. Prices are fair too. It’s a class act, and significantly better value than some of Windermere’s fancier dining rooms. Barngates, LA22 0NG (015394 36347, www.drunkenduckinn.co.uk). Rates £95-£275 per room incl breakfast and afternoon tea. Open 11am-11pm daily. Lunch served noon-3pm, dinner served 6.30-9pm daily.
Where to stay
‘Wow’ is the usual response to the utterly indulgent two-bedroom B&B that Chrissy and Andy Hill have created at their home, a former hunting lodge on the Wray Castle estate. Each suite has its own entrance from a garden that delivers a long-distance view to the Kirkstone Pass. The rooms, all rugs and polished floorboards, are hyper-glamorous: think rococo headboards, top-of-the-range kingsize beds, flatscreen TVs and iPod docking stations. Outgate, LA22 0JP (015394 36088, www.randypike.co.uk). Rates £180-£200 double incl breakfast.
Eskdale & the High Passes
Fasten your seatbelt for the most thrilling drive in the Lake District, up and down one of the steepest roads in England. For centuries, the route that the Romans called the Tenth Highway, linking the forts at Ambleside, Hardknott and Ravenglass, was nothing more than a packhorse trail. Although a tarmac surface was laid after World War II, it remains a twisting, numberless, single-track road. Nonetheless, it is the only way through from the heart of the Lakes to Eskdale, Ravenglass and the Cumbrian coast, with two exhilarating high passes at Wrynose and Hardknott, a series of engaging diversions and a dramatic mountain fort that must have been one of the most godforsaken postings in the Roman Empire.
Stretching down from the mountains to the coast at Ravenglass, where the River Esk meets the sea, Eskdale is one of the loveliest landscapes in Lakeland. Even Wainwright was awed by its beauty, declaring it to be ‘the finest of all valleys for those whose special joy is to travel on foot’.
Things to do
Ride the rail
Opened in May 1875, La’al Ratty was England’s first narrow-gauge railway. It may look like a dinky model railway, but it had a serious purpose, transporting iron ore from the mine near Boot to the harbour at Ravenglass, some seven miles down the dale. Today, Ratty takes passengers on a sublime 40-minute steam or diesel-powered jaunt through some of Cumbria’s loveliest countryside.
Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway01229 717171, www.ravenglass-railway.co.uk. Open varies, check website for details. Tickets Unlimited travel £11.20; free-£5.60 reductions; £29 family. Single £6.60; free-£3.30 reductions.
Where to eat
The Penningtons of Muncaster Castle have done a fine job of upgrading this white-painted inn on the seafront at Ravenglass. It’s now the best place to eat in town – though competition, it must be admitted, is limited. The modern bar, with its potted palms and moody monochrome photographs, serves superior pub food all day. The hotel’s 21 rooms are also in an inoffensively contemporary vein, with neutral tones, free Wi-Fi and flatscreen TVs. Ravenglass, CA18 1SD (01229 717222, www.penningtonhotels.com). Rates £110-£130 double inc breakfast. Breakfast served 7-9am, lunch served noon-5pm, dinner served 5-9pm daily.
Where to stay
Wha House Farm
The first farm on the left as you drop into Eskdale from Hardknott, this is as authentic a hill farm (and B&B) as you could wish for. Owned by the National Trust, it is run by David and Marie Crowe, who keep seven working sheepdogs. The setting is tranquil, and there’s a huge telescope for gazing at the uncontaminated night sky and spotting mountain rescue teams training on Hare Crag.
Keswick and Derwentwater, town and lake, are the cornerstones of the northern Lake District. Keswick has culture, literature and history in spades, much of it packed into an eclectic array of museums, while Derwentwater, ‘the Queen of the Lakes’, is for many the most beautiful lake of them all. Touched by the mystery and magic of Castlerigg Stone Circle and the grit of old mines and quarries, they are also the twin launch pads for two exceptional journeys into Newlands Valley and Borrowdale. There are famous waterfalls at Lodore and Moss Force, picture-postcard scenes at Ashness Bridge and Watendlath Tarn, and an abundance of wildlife in the sky, the oak woods and even underwater. Above all, though, visitors are dwarfed by the mountains and fells whose names are indelibly associated with the Lake District – Skiddaw, Helvellyn and Catbells among them.
Things to do
Watch a play
This lottery-funded, 400-seat theatre was built in 1999, and is irresistibly situated just outside town on Derwentwater’s shore. It runs a year-round programme, ranging from musicals, comedy, operetta and talks through to crowd-pleasing farces and challenging contemporary drama. The theatre also hosts the Keswick Film Festival, the Jazz Festival, the Mountain Festival and Words by the Water – a ten-day literary festival whose 2010 line-up included Martin Bell, Brian Keenan and Penelope Lively. Theatre by the LakeLakeside, Keswick, CA12 5DJ (017687 74411, www.theatrebythelake.com). Open Box office 9.30am-8pm daily. Tickets vary, phone or check website for details.
Where to eat
Good Taste Café
Peter Sidwell is something of a celebrity chef around Keswick, with a couple of books, a cookery school, a catering company and a consultancy service to his name, so it’s a surprise to find that he runs his empire from this compact deli/café on Lake Road. Of course, size doesn’t matter a jot when he can produce food of this quality. Stock up for a picnic, or head upstairs to a relaxed space with pine tables and chairs, squashy leather sofas, shelves of cookery books and piles of newspapers and magazines.
19 Lake Road, Keswick, CA12 5BS (017687 75973, www.simplygoodtaste.co.uk). Food served 8.30am-4.30pm Mon-Sat. No credit cards.
Where to stay
This 14-room guesthouse, handily located between the town centre and the lake, has been comprehensively upgraded to an impressive standard. The bedroom furniture was made by a local craftsman, while Herdwick wool rugs dot the natural wood and Kirkstone slate floors. The beds, with goosedown quilts and Egyptian cotton sheets, are inviting, and the bathrooms gorgeous. The charming attic room has views across Derwentwater to Catbells and Causey Pike. 5-7 The Heads, Keswick, CA12 5ES (017687 72417, www.howekeld.co.uk). Rates £90-£130 double incl breakfast.
The definitive guide to one of England's most beautiful areas, exploring its majestic fells and lakes, sheltered valleys and dramatic high passes. Cultural events and attractions are covered alongside our pick of Lakeland's pubs, restaurants and accommodation, from idyllic campsites and classic fell-walkers' inns to romantic lakeside hideaways. Providing information and inspiration, the Time Out Lake District guide is invaluable, whether you're a resident, a regular visitor or new to this breathtakingly lovely region.