English Lake District’s poetic landscape

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Victor Block

The Lake District offers a network of well-marked hiking trails through the highest mountains in England and past 16 bodies of water. Several small towns have preserved the homes of famous poets and writers who lived and wrote in the area.
Photo by Victor Block

Viewing a high country landscape accentuated by a blanket of yellow, the poet William Wordsworth in 1804 described what he saw as “a host of golden daffodils.”

To Alfred Lord Tennyson, people walking in the same region “by zigzag paths, and juts of pointed rock, came on the shining levels of the lake.”

When I arrived in the northwest corner of England that has prompted poets and other writers to wax so eloquently, it didn’t take long to understand why. The name of the area itself, English Lake District, sets the imagination roaming. Yet images conjured up in the mind often pale in comparison to the reality.

Nestled in the county of Cumbria, the Lake District is many things to many people. Begin with the magnificent scenery of lakes and rugged mountains, thick forests and rolling fields outlined by meticulously built stone walls and hedge rows, where countless sheep graze contentedly. Lace the setting with river valleys, and embellish the picture with a stunning coastline.

Add the region’s intriguing history and rich cultural heritage, and it becomes clear why last year it was voted the leading destination in the United Kingdom by readers of Wanderlust Magazine.

Given this inspirational environment, it’s little wonder that world-famous poets, novelists and other writers were moved to create some of their best-loved works while living or visiting there.

Land of lakes and mountains

In a somewhat ironic nod to the British fondness for quaint and colorful terms, only one of the 16 major bodies of water in the region — Bassenthwaite, itself a challenging tongue twister — is actually called a lake. The others are known as waters, tarns and meres.

Whatever their designation, they’re squeezed between the highest mountains in the country, filling valleys that were carved out by the advance and retreat of glaciers over some two million years.

Of interest and appeal to anyone planning to visit the Lake District is the fact that so much natural beauty is contained in an area only about 35 miles wide and slightly more from north to south.

Even in such a compact area, each body of water claims its own unique appeal and attractions. At 11 miles in length, Windermere is England’s longest lake and the most popular to visit. The shore is lined by Victorian mansions that were built for wealthy families during the late 18th to early 19th centuries, a number of which now serve as guest houses and small hotels. Windermere is one of several lakes that can be explored on sightseeing cruises.

Given the name, it’s no surprise that Bassenthwaite once was called Bass Lake, and that it still provides anglers with good catches. A more ominous story is told about Wastwater, a deep lake where bodies have been found deposited in its dark depths.

Steam boats connect tourist villages that overlook Ullswater. Landlubbers may prefer the gentle 6.5-mile foot path that joins the towns.

Another walking trail circles Grasmere, and during summer a stony beach at the south end is popular with locals. William Wordsworth, who lived in the town of Grasmere for 14 years, described it as “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found.”

Roaming by foot

Easy walking and moderate hiking attract many visitors to the Lake District, and tempt those who go there for other reasons. An extensive network of well-marked trails criss-crosses the area, and small wooden “Foot Path” signs are encountered throughout the region.

There are paths suitable for every ability, preference and level of stamina. A common sight is people of all ages wearing hiking clothes, many toting walking sticks and often carrying a knapsack stuffed with a picnic lunch.

“Welcome Hikers” signs hang outside some Bed and Breakfast accommodations and small hotels, and stores sell books and booklets describing walks for people with a specific interest, such as through woodlands, to waterfalls and past pubs.

A welcome, if to me somewhat quaint, system in England, called the “Right to Roam,” provides public access to both public and private land for recreational purposes. While it applies primarily to uncultivated areas, it also includes some farms.

As a result, hiking trails often lead past farm houses, skirt fields planted with crops and cut across meadows filled with grazing sheep. Here and there, an enterprising farmer has opened a small tea room in his house or barn to earn a few British pounds from hikers seeking bit of rest and refreshment.

Many hikes leave from or to inviting towns that grace the Lake District, and which provide yet another reason to visit there. Whether walking or driving, pausing to stroll through some of these villages becomes another memorable experience.

Exploring picturesque towns

The once-dilapidated 19th century Augill Castle in England’s Lake District was turned into a bed and breakfast 15 years ago, and features 10 rooms, as well as a small estate house for rent. The Lake District, very popular with tourists, has many quaint B&Bs and charming inns.
Photo by Victor Block

As with the scenery, the choice of hikes and other aspects of the region, variety is the name of the game when exploring the communities.

Although Kendal is largely a manufacturing town, its convenient location has earned it the unofficial title of “Gateway to the Lakes.” A warren of narrow fortified alleyways in the oldest neighborhood recalls a period of some 300 years, beginning in the 13th century, when they provided safety for residents from English and Scottish raiding parties that attacked communities on both sides of those countries’ common border.

Many buildings in Kendal were constructed of locally quarried grey limestone, which accounts for its nickname, “Auld grey town.” Other attractions include the ruins of several castles, the newest of which was built in the late 12th century.

The adjoining resort towns of Windermere and Bowness offer a long list of recreational activities for vacationers. The Bowness waterfront on Lake Windermere is lined by restaurants and shops. Nearby is the Hole I’th Wall, a 16th-century pub so named, the story goes, for an opening made by a blacksmith who worked next door through which he retrieved his pints of ale.

Keswick was granted a king’s charter as a market town in 1276, and its marketplace has remained in operation since then. It became a popular vacation destination in the 18th century, and today tourism continues to be its principal industry.

Borrowdale is recognized as one of the most beautiful of the Lake District communities. It lies in a river valley beneath wooded fells (hills) and Scafell Pike — not exactly an Everest, but at a height of 3,210 feet, the tallest mountain in England.

Where writers wrote

The charming village of Grasmere loses some of its appeal during summer, when hordes of sightseers arrive to visit landmarks associated with its most famous former resident, William Wordsworth.

It is one of a number of towns in the area that relate chapters in the story of the so-called Lake Poets. They were a group of writers who lived in the Lake District around the turn of the 19th century and, inspired by its beauty, described it in their works.

The three main Lake Poets were William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who penned “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and Robert Southey, perhaps best known as the author of “The Story of the Three Bears,” the precursor to the Goldilocks story.

A number of other poets and writers also drew inspiration from the region, and their words of admiration and adoration did much to put the Lake District on the destination map of a growing wave of visitors.

The places associated with this group of talented wordsmiths are as varied as the attractions that draw people to the area. Wordsworth lived in a cottage at the edge of Grasmere from 1799 to 1808, and spent the final 37 years of his life in a rambling old house in the village of Rydal.

Both Coleridge and Southey lived for some time in Keswick. Other well-known poets and writers visited the Lake District, which served to embellish its reputation even more. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who was Poet Laureate of Great Britain during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, spent his honeymoon at Coniston, and John Ruskin helped to popularize the village after he purchased a mansion nearby.

Today, a growing number of travelers are following the footsteps of those creative types to create their own memories in and of the English Lake District. They’re discovering the reasons why that tiny locale has for centuries so entranced those who visit and live there.

If you go

England being England, where you stay can become part of the travel experience. Scattered about the Lake District are top-rate hotels, small inns and, of course, charming B&Bs.

Question: When does a hotel room have its own turret? Answer: When it’s in a mid-19th century castle. Augill Castle in Kirby lives up to its promise of “a modern brand of dressed down hospitality: unstuffy, informal, but decadently comfortable.” Rooms furnished with family antiques, an honesty bar, and even a 12-seat cinema room are among touches that make a stay memorable. A heated indoor swimming pool is an added amenity.

Rates for two begin at about $260, depending upon the exchange rate. For more information, log onto www.stayinacastle.com or call 01768-341-937.

How could you not wish to overnight at a bed & breakfast quaintly named the Rumdoodle? It promises guests “a little bit of luxury, a little bit of whimsy and a whole lot of fun.” The quintessentially English lodging is tucked along a quiet residential street in Windermere, and accommodations come with a bountiful, belt-stretching British breakfast.

The establishment’s charming, if curious, name refers to a book titled The Ascent of the Rumdoodle, a hilarious tale of several bumbling British mountaineers who set off to ascend a fictitious mountain. In addition to the B&B’s name, its nine bedrooms are identified with characters in the book, and walls are adorned by drawings and quotes from the volume.

Rates begin at about $120. For more information, log onto www.rumdoodlewindermere.com or call 01539-967-445.

Dining focuses on locally grown ingredients and items with a distinct Lake District history. Herdwick lamb has a distinctive full flavor, Cumberland pork sausage comes in a distinctive rolled coil, Kendal mint cake is a favorite with afternoon tea, and Grasmere gingerbread is still made following the original 1854 recipe.

Romney’s in Kendal serves traditional pub food in a setting that is more restaurant-like. Specialties include fish and chips and lamb casserole with dumplings (each $15). For more information, log onto romneys kendal.com or call 01539-720-956.

The Lamplighter in Windermere meets every criteria of “fine dining,” focusing on straightforward preparation that brings out natural flavors. Entrees, all served with sides, include Cumberland sausage ($18) and cheese and onion pie ($20). For more information, log onto lamplighterdining rooms.com or call 01539-443-547.

Trains connect London with the Lake District. It takes about 3½ hours to travel from London to Oxenholme.

For information about visiting the Lake District, log onto golakes.co.uk or call 01539-822-222.