It’s 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 it for myself…
By Jim Ferri
I was driving south from Glasgow to London and had given myself about 36 hours to get a taste of England’s famous Lake District in Cumbria, the northern English county snuggled up against the Scottish border.
I had been driving south on the M6 through mile after mile of monotonous rolling hills, and when I finally exited in the direction of the lakes was surprised how dramatically the landscape changed within minutes.
Long low hills quickly morphed into a rugged land of forests and streams and sheep-speckled pastures. My ribbon of road took me around lakes and through little stone villages, up across mountainsides and heather-flocked moors through a bucolic countryside I hadn’t even imagined existed an hour earlier.
Roots in Victorian England
The British consider the Lake District the most beautiful area of England. It’s a love affair that has continued since Victorian times when railroads made the area more accessible to the affluent of London. They quickly christened it the most fashionable place to vacation in Britain.
Today many remnants of that Victorian invasion remain, thanks in great part to the region being protected as a National Park, the largest in the UK. Many homes and inns, as well as vast expanses of farmland and forest, remain much as they were in that Victorian heyday.
Thankfully you don’t find any large hotel chains or brand-name restaurants in the Lake District, only a multitude of B&Bs, small hotels and cozy inns, as well as an abundance of local pubs and restaurants scattered throughout small towns and little farming communities.
Lake District National Park
Although the Lake District National Park isn’t large by some standards – it can be crossed by car in only an hour or so – it contains 16 major lakes and numerous smaller expanses of water.
And though its mountains, known locally as “fells,” aren’t as lofty as those in many other countries (its highest peaks out at only 3,210 feet) they are still regal enough to lure photographers, and sufficiently challenging to entice trekkers.
They come here 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. It’s estimated that eight million trekkers take to these paths each year.
I’d often be driving along a country road and 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 all about had left them all there.
Even those that don’t hike can still enjoy the beauty of the park since steamers ply the lakes at a very 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 whether you tour the Lake District by foot, car, or steamer, you’ll find the region to have a near-magical calming effect on you, although that calm can wane in the summer when cars, buses and hoards of tourists arrive.
Since I had planned my trip to the Lake District only a few days before my arrival in the high season and 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 the town of Windermere, a popular tourist locale.
It was quite comfortable, a superior double room with a 4-poster king bed and owners were quite friendly and accommodating, as well.
Bowness-on-Windermere was a good 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 central area of the park.
The Cultural Side
Many British know Bowness-on-Windermere as the home of the World of Beatrix Potter, the attraction that brings the classic tales Peter Rabbit to life.
Of greater renown, however, 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. It remains a pilgrimage site for devotees today.
Grasmere is a little gem of a town, set in a glen with fells all about it, with everything so 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 picture-perfect and fitting setting for the remains of the great poet.
The whole area, in fact, was picture-perfect, right down to the Grasmere Gingerbread Shop near St. Oswald, which has been selling its legendary gingerbread cookies since 1854.
A Morning Drive
When I set out early the next morning, I set off for the Coniston, a little town to the west, which I chose at random only because it appeared to be an interesting waypoint on my mini-tour of the park.
I enjoyed the drive as the road meandered about the beautiful countryside with its pasturelands contained by neat little stonewalls below fells in the distance. At one place I stopped where a horse was grazing in a pasture, and when I called out he ambled over to allow me to pat his head.
Further on, as the road twisted and turned, I soon realized that though the distances between the towns were relatively short, the roads were exceptionally winding and hilly, often making the journey three times longer than expected.
And there were other impediments, as well. At one point I was caught up in a small traffic tie-up, caused by a road crew trimming roadside trees from the top of a double-decker bus with half its upper roof open.
At the wheel was a neatly dressed driver in a white shirt and tie seated 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 where I wanted to go, I made a detour to seek it out, if 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 ways,” he told me. “It’s back about 2 miles that way.” I turned the car around and after backtracking, 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 town nonetheless, just a solitary little hotel surrounded by a beautiful countryside of stonewall-rimmed pastures, all capped by an azure sky swept with whisps of cloud.
At that moment for me, it was another “loveliest spot that man hath ever found.”
In fact, during those 36 hours, I came across many of those spots, all uniquely lovely in their own way.
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