Sometimes you just have to accept that stereotypes exist for a reason. I step on to my Windermere-bound branch-line train to the sight of three Japanese women taking selfies with a bunch of plastic daffodils and a copy of The Tales of Beatrix Potter. In a twinkling it’s clear how much of the outside world sees this glorious corner of the UK. Leaving the station I pick up my hire car and turn south, headed for Sizergh Castle and Garden, near Kendal, which last year was embraced in an expanded Lake District National Park.
Sizergh is reached by a beautiful drive along the rural A5074 that winds downhill through the Lyth Valley, cutting tightly through steep fells before opening out on to plains of farmland. The feeling of entering a hinterland is reinforced by the raven, then the buzzard, that swoop ahead along the remote road. A farm has stood at Sizergh since the 13th century and some of its woodlands are much, much older. There’s a castle, although this one leans more to the stately home genre, rather than the sort where you pour brimstone from the ramparts.
I take a walk. From the visitor centre I follow the signs for Holeslack and, at the crest of a short hill, take in a glorious view. To the north-west, across the Lyth Valley, much of the Lakes’ iconic topography is lined up for inspection: Bowfell, the Langdale Pikes and the Old Man of Coniston. Turning on a sixpence I follow the unmistakeable ridgeline of the Pennines to the east. I’d hiked for nearly two miles and had the views to myself. I’m left wondering how crowd-free the rest of the Lake District might be had Wordsworth’s poetic muse landed upon another part of Britain.
For much of our past, this part of the world was named Westmorland, and in search of something just as ancient, I walk through an orchard and the remains of a piggery and into Holeslack woodland. Turning right up a narrow track I find it: a yew tree thought to be 1,600 years old, meaning it was already more than a sapling when the Romans packed their vellum suitcases. I try hugging its vast girth but reach barely a quarter around the trunk. Nothing grows in the shade cast by its gnarled prehensile arms: it’s a little spooky.
I return to the altogether less nightmarish world of Sizergh’s National Trust tearoom and order a Lancashire, rather than a cream, tea (Lancashire cheese and fruitcake replace scones and jam). As I munch, I’m struck by the unusual experience of having walked in the Lake District without having to clamber up a high fell.
I retreat to my hotel, above Lake Windermere. Lindeth Howe is a gorgeous 19th-century building with a snug bar and fine restaurant where chef Christopher Davies’s menu cautions diners to watch out for buckshot in the venison, while the Cumbrian cheeses served for dessert are mouth-watering slices of smoked Eden valley brie and a local tongue-tickler called blacksticks blue.
The hotel also happens to have been part of Beatrix Potter’s extensive property portfolio and was bought for her mother. There is more, I learn, to Potter than Samuel Whiskers and Tom Kitten, and in this year, the 150th anniversary of her birth, I plan to discover more the next day.
I hadn’t expected to start my day with an earnest discussion about Jemima Puddleduck but I put it down to the joys of travel. The earnestness comes from John Moffat, property manager for the National Trust at Hill Top, once Beatrix Potter’s home, which she bequeathed to the trust, along with 4,000 acres and 15 farms. John is keen to raise awareness of how important she was in framing how the Lake District looks today.
“A lot of people know about her through her characters, but she had a second half to her life,” he explains. In 1913 Potter cut back on her story writing and threw herself into farm ownership, to the extent that she was known locally as Mrs Heelis, adopting her husband’s name. The modern-day equivalent would be for JK Rowling to bin her quill and turn to farming a croft in the Hebrides.
“She’d be out on the hills, working her stock, guiding the sheepdogs,” says John. “What she did was so revolutionary. The area faced threats of industrialisation, valleys were being flooded for reservoirs, old houses knocked down. She was supportive of traditional ways of farming, of rearing Herdwick sheep which came over with the Vikings, the narrow canalised rivers and the hedgerows that give the Lakes that picture-postcard appearance. You don’t do her justice if you don’t know about that part of her life.”
For most of us, though, Potter is still inseparable from delightful memories of childhood and I’m drawn to her house in Near Sawrey above the western shore of Lake Windermere. The village is a collection of Grade II-listed houses and Hill Top is approached along a garden path captured in her drawings. Inside, the house is intriguing, surprisingly gloomy with low ceilings and solid walls. My guide Roisin points out the wonky floorboard, through which Samuel Whiskers was rumbled by John Joiner as he was about to turn Tom Kitten into a roly-poly pudding.
Leaving Hill Top, I wander down to the shores of Windermere through a rugged landscape of lumps and bumps that gives way to woods of ash and beech. In neighbouring Far Sawrey, the continuous drystone walls occasionally burst into works of art, morphing into gothic arches, filigree flourishes and slate fretwork.
Just above the shoreline stands an unusual lookout, the Claife Viewing Station. This fort-like summer pavilion was built in the gothic revival style with crenulated walls and I clamber up for a glorious and unimpeded view of Windermere. Coloured glass has been retrofitted around the station’s former windows in homage to the Claude glass — a portable artist’s device — that was originally deployed to soften the impact of the landscape. In Victorian times it was feared that views as sensational as this could cause weaker souls to faint.
I continue to Ambleside at the head of Lake Windermere. Undeniably, the town gets too busy for its own good in high season but between the china and fudge shops lurk art galleries offering more than chocolate-box covers, and the minuscule Fred Holdsworth bookshop, so stuffed with Lake District maps and books I suspect the overspill must be stored up the chimney.
It’s time for dinner. I’ve long felt that Ambleside is proof that there are only so many ways — if pleasurable — for a chef to reinvent the wheel: traditional fare such as a curl of Cumberland sausage is ubiquitous, except these days it’s served with piccalilli. But the Old Stamp House Restaurant is different: located in a cellar, this was once an office where Wordsworth worked as a clerk. Today it’s a subterranean gem run by the Blackburn brothers: Craig (front of house), Ryan (head chef) and Daniel (tables). “We all went to the same school in Langdale, in the heart of the Lakes,” says Craig, and they’re on a mission to promote local food. The tasting menu encapsulates this philosophy, featuring berries foraged from the fells, shanks of local Herdwick sheep soaked in a mead veloute, a malted bread baked with Sneck Lifter ale from the local brewery and a pepperbread from Whitehaven. The cellar kitchen is so small that to ensure the quality of the food, they only take one reservation every 15 minutes throughout the evening. I wonder what happens if customers turn up late or are slow or fast eaters.
I head further north, beyond Keswick, to something I suspect Mrs Heelis would have frowned upon. In the shadow of Skiddaw, the Lakes’ sixth highest mountain, I find the area’s first distillery. The tour of The Lakes Distillery proves to be great fun, with Willy Wonka-ish undertones in the form of the gleaming 4m high copper whisky stills, known as Susan and Rachel, that bring the mash of barley, yeast and water from Derwent water together. “They’re objets d’art,” says my guide Andrew, nodding admiringly at them. You get to nose around the barrels too. “They just lie here on the shelves, sleeping,” Andrew adds dreamily.
I resist the traditional sampling as I’ve a walk planned, a little to the south in Glenridding, the tiniest of villages perched by Ullswater. It’s the lift-off venue for walks into the deep fells but I’ve something more modest in mind and head up the valley before following a series of switchbacks up through bracken. In just a few minutes I’m repaid with a fetching view of Ullswater and walking through a gate, I reach a wooded glade, at the centre of which lies Lanty’s tarn. Lilliputian and enchanting, the mirror-like waters seem still even in high winds; it feels like a scene from Narnia.
I round off my long weekend with a trip on a steamer along Ullswater. The service has run since 1849 and is a life-affirming way to pass a couple of hours with the gentle stutter of the engines as an accompaniment to the fells that rise abruptly from the shoreline. Ullswater manages to be idyllic and a little edgy at the same time, partly on account of the hotpot of volcanic rocks, slate and limestone that coalesce in brooding colours along its shores. Wordsworth knew these waters too, though he wasn’t always in a position to get too poetic about things. When he was ‘a young man’, goes the account, he stole a rowing boat and bumped it into Place Fell on the far side of the lake. I decide to look at him in a whole new light.
The main railway stations (Penrith, Oxenholme and Kendal) are all served by Virgin Trains and the branch line to Windermere. CrossCountry trains coannect with these routes in the South West, Midlands and North East.
A car is handy in the Lakes. Hire car co-operative Co-Wheels offers pay-as-you-drive hybrid vehicles at the region’s train stations. Alternatively, 16 bus routes cover the main areas of interest, with additional hopper routes from Easter until September. golakes.co.uk/travel/by-bus.aspx
When to go
April and May are great for wildlife and slightly less busy. In winter, the high, snow-covered fells are the preserve of those with experience and high road routes such as the Kirkstone and Hardknott Passes can be cut off by snow and ice.
How to do it
Lindeth Howe Country House Hotel offers two nights with entrance fees to Hill Top, Sizergh, The Lakes Distillery, Ullswater steamer, dinner at the Old Stamp House Restaurant and fuel costs around £540 for two people.
Mountain Goat alternatively offer a range of day tours of the Lakes from £30 per person.
Published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)