Last Updated on August 17, 2022
In England, the Lake District is an area of dramatic beauty, with heather-covered moors and soaring fells, deep-green forests, and shimmering lakes. It’s the countryside of Wordsworth and Beatrice Potter, the most beautiful place in England, say the British. I had to see the attractions of the Lake District for myself…
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
By Jim Ferri
I always wanted to visit the Lake District, England’s largest National Park.
It’s in Cumbria, the northwest county snuggled up against the Scottish border, about a five-hour drive from London.
What piqued my interest was all I had heard of it over the years as having the most beautiful natural scenery in all of England.
One week, having to drive from Glasgow south to London, I saw my chance. With a couple of free days before my flight back home from Heathrow, I decided to pay a quick visit to the Lake District.
My plan was quite simple – just to get off the Motorway and drive about a bit for a day and a half to see the attractions of the Lake District.
It turned out to be an exceptional 36 hours. As a matter of fact, I found it so beautiful and interesting I very much want to return sometime in the future.
The Lake District in England and its Victorian Roots
Driving south from Scotland on the M6 through mile after mile of monotonous rolling hills, I was surprised how dramatically the landscape changed within minutes of leaving the Motorway.
Long low hills quickly morphed into a rugged land of forests, streams, and sheep-speckled pastures.
My ribbon of road took me around lakes and through little stone villages, up across mountainsides and heather-flecked moors. It was a bucolic countryside I hadn’t even imagined existed an hour earlier. It was a wonderful introduction to the attractions of the Lake District, since it still looked exactly as it must have in Victorian times.
In fact, the British love of the Lake District began in Victorian times after railroads made the area more accessible to the London elite. It wasn’t long before it became the most fashionable place to vacation in Britain.
Today many remnants of that Victorian invasion remain, thanks in significant part to the region becoming a National Park. Many shops and inns and vast expanses of farmland and forest remain much as they were in that Victorian heyday.
You don’t find hotel chains or brand-name restaurants here, only a multitude of B&Bs, small hotels, and cozy inns. There’s also an abundance of local pubs and restaurants scattered throughout small towns and little farming communities.
The Lake District National Park
The Lake District National Park isn’t large by some standards. It’s only 912 square miles (2362 square kilometers) – which you can drive in only an hour or so.
But within that condensed area are numerous mountains and 16 major lakes. It’s all pretty spectacular wherever you look, and is one of the top 10 places to visit in England.
Its mountains, known locally as “fells,” aren’t as lofty as those in many other countries. In fact, its highest, Scafell Pike, is only 3,210 feet. But they’re still regal enough to lure hordes of photographers and other travelers.
The fells are also sufficiently challenging to entice hikers. They come in droves to hike the park’s incredible 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) of public rights of way, some of it beyond the park boundary in Cumbria. Eight million trekkers take to the paths in England’s Lake District each year.
Several times while driving, I’d come across a line of a dozen or more cars, all parked along the side of the road, with no one around. People who’d gone hiking up in the pastures and fells had left them there.
Many people enjoy the park’s beauty on the old steamers that ply the lakes at a leisurely pace. Others, like myself, stick to the road; at one point, I passed a tweed-capped driver behind the wheel of an antique sports car, looking as if he had driven off the screen of a 1950’s movie.
But regardless of what attractions of the Lake District you seek – and whether you travel by foot, car, or steamer – you’ll find the region to have a near-magical calming effect on you. However, that calm can wane in the summer when cars, buses, and hordes of tourists arrive.
Another Attraction of the Lake District: Windermere
Since I had planned my trip to the Lake District only a few days before my arrival in the high season, I was surprised to find a room for only $123 for the night. It was at the 10-room Westbourne B&B in Bowness-on-Windermere, just outside of Windermere, a popular tourist locale.
It was pretty comfortable, a superior double room with a 4-poster king bed and owners who were exceptionally friendly and accommodating, as well.
Bowness-on-Windermere was an excellent place to drop anchor for my abbreviated stay since it was an easy drive up and down Lake Windermere, which provided an appetizer-size view of the park.
Ambleside, a bit smaller and at the top of the lake, is another good place to use as a base since it’s also well located to see the main sights in the park’s central area.
The Cultural Side of the Lake District in England
Many of the British know Bowness-on-Windermere as the home of the World of Beatrix Potter, the attraction that brings the classic tales of Peter Rabbit to life.
However, of greater renown is “Dove Cottage” in Grasmere, home to renowned poet William Wordsworth, about a half-hour or so ride away north of Ambleside.
Wordsworth considered Grasmere the “loveliest spot that man hath ever found,” and the cottage was his inspirational home during his most creative period. A pilgrimage site for devotees today, here Wordsworth welcomed such literary greats as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott.
Grasmere is a little gem of a town. Set in a glen with fells all about it, it’s picture-perfect, right down to the stone walls that slice the mountainsides into neat little rectangles of pasture.
I visited Wordsworth’s grave in St. Oswald’s Churchyard in Grasmere, a fitting setting for the remains of the great poet. Inside the church, his prayerbook is ensconced in a glass case. On the grounds outside are eight yew trees the poet planted, one now marking his grave.
The whole area, in fact, is picture-perfect, right down to the Grasmere Gingerbread Shop near St. Oswald, which has been selling its legendary gingerbread cookies since 1854. A sign on the wall informs you that “This shop was the village school 1660-1854.” It’s the village school where Wordsworth taught.
A Morning Drive About the District
I set out the following day for the town of Coniston. It’s a small village, which I chose only because it appeared to be an interesting waypoint on my mini-tour of the park.
The town, at the head of Coniston Water, is in the heart of the fells, below the 2600+ft (802 m) Old Man of Coniston fell.
From it, you can take the Victorian steam yacht Gondola, so named for its high prow. The 45-minute roundtrip from Coniston Pier across the lake to Brantwood will allow you to better enjoy the beauty of the lake.
If you’re energetic, instead rent a canoe, kayak, or rowboat from the Coniston Boating Center at the pier.
I enjoyed the drive as I meandered about the beautiful countryside. It was specked with slate-roofed houses and pastureland neatly contained by little stonewalls below fells in the distance.
At one place, I stopped where a horse was grazing in a pasture. When I called out, it ambled over to allow me to pat its head. An unanticipated attraction of the District, I thought.
It wasn’t long before I realized that although distances were short, the road was exceptionally winding and hilly. It often made my journey much longer than expected.
And there were also other impediments. At one point, I was caught up in a minor traffic tie-up caused by a road crew trimming roadside trees. The trimming was being done from the top of a double-decker bus with half its upper roof open.
At the wheel a neatly dressed driver in white shirt and tie sat below the sign “Sorry, not in service.” Even out here in the hinterlands, it all looked so proper.
In Search of Borrowdale
Later on, while glancing at the map, I saw a town called Borrowdale. Since it was only a few miles from Keswick, my destination, I made a detour to seek it out. It was only because I was intrigued by its name.
Driving on and on and passing only an occasional car along the way, I had no success in finding it. After a while, I spotted a man out walking his dog and stopped to ask how much further it was.
“Oh, you passed it back a way,” he told me. “It’s back about 2 miles that way.” After backtracking, I turned the car around and quickly realized why I had overshot it; the town did not have a signpost and seemed to be populated by only a single hotel.
But it was a beautiful tiny town nonetheless…just that solitary little hotel surrounded by the beautiful countryside of stonewall-rimmed pastures, all capped by an azure sky swept with wisps of cloud. And not a tourist in sight.
Bustling Little Keswick
Keswick, on the other hand, is a bustling little town. On the lake Derwent Water, the three fells around it add to its beauty and attracts the crowds.
Adding to its magnetism is a cultural vitality, another attraction of the Lake District. This vitality blossoms through a local drama company, giving performances in the Theatre by the Lake, and art galleries all about. It’s a charming town of pubs and shops with flowers everywhere you look.
East of Keswick, however, you can see the evidence that the Victorians weren’t the first to discover the Lake District.
On the A591 that connects the town with Grasmere, you’ll find the astronomically aligned Castlerigg Stone Circle. It’s a ring of 38 large ancient stones dating to 3000BC and one of the most significant stone circles in all of Britain.
Like everything else in the Lake District, about it are beautiful rolling hills and dramatic fells.
Another “loveliest spot that man hath ever found.”
If you go:
Biskey Howe Road
Bowness-on-Windermere LA23 2JR
Tel: +44 153 944 3625
The World Of Beatrix Potter
Bowness-on-Windermere LA23 3BX
Tel: +44 844 504 1233