Scaling the heights of the Lake District
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
"The form of the lake is most perfect when, ...... contemplated with that placid and quiet feeling which belongs peculiarly to the lake— as a body of still water under the influence of no current ; reflecting therefore the clouds, the light, and all the imagery of the sky and surrounding hills ; expressing also and making visible the changes of the atmosphere, and motions of the lightest breeze, and subject to agitation only from the winds" - William Wordsworth 'A guide through the district of the lakes in the north of England' 5th Ed. 1835
Stillness, peace and tranquility; nature at its most sublime; the ever-changing elements: my lasting impressions of the Lake District. Other memories include the endless scoffing of shortbread and the most sincerely hospitable and friendly people I've ever encountered. It's a wondrous place and one I know I'll come back to again and again. Home of William Wordsworth, this landscape was the inspiration behind much of his poetry. He also wrote one of the first travel guides on the region, published in 1820, which contributed much to its status as a tourist destination from that point on. I found a digitised version of the book online when I got back and it's an easy read with some beautifully poetic descriptions of the landscape, as you'd expect - link here. I've peppered this post with a few passages from the book: the pictures he paints are so evocative and his descriptions, even of dank, grey weather are so romantic that I figured it was best to let him do the talking.
Nerdy fact about the Lake District: though it has sixteen large bodies of water, only one is officially a lake by name: Lake Bassenthwaite. The others are known as meres or waters, though the difference is somewhat negligible. This is one of the nuggets of information we garnered over breakfast from Yvonne, the larger than life manager of Lyndhurst Guesthouse in Kendal, our home for four days. Lakes, meres or waters: it really doesn't matter. All you need to know is that it's a stunningly beautiful part of the world and should be on everyone's hit list. Here's what you need to know.
Four seasons in one day:
"The rain here comes down heartily, and is frequently succeeded by clear, bright weather, when every brook is vocal, and every torrent sonorous; ... Days of unsettled weather, with partial showers, are very frequent; but the showers, darkening, or brightning, as they fly from hill to hill, are not less grateful to the eye than finely interwoven passages of gay and sad music are touching to the ear".
The Lake District is not celebrated for its weather: it's known for being one of the wettest spots in the UK. We came prepared for all eventualities; a good thing as the elements changed so rapidly from one hour to the next but this phenomenon is not entirely unfamiliar to us Irish folk. Overall we were lucky and it stayed dry for our two long hiking days apart from a few scattered showers. We basked in glorious sunshine on our first evening and despite a grey start on day two with some heavy rain to start, the sun came out by mid-afternoon and the sky turned into the most fabulous shade of blue with big fluffy white clouds appearing to sit on top of the mountains.
"fleecy clouds resting upon the hill-tops; they are not easily managed in picture, with their accompaniments of blue sky; but how glorious are they in nature"
Our third day was dull and grey but as Wordsworth says, there is a wild beauty and romance in such conditions. It's all the more atmospheric for it. Bearing all this in mind, I suggest covering all eventualities in your packing and erring on the side on caution: bring sunglasses, a t-shirt, some warm layers and a raincoat. One minute you'll be sweltering, ten minutes later you could be soaked to the skin or almost blown off course with the strength of the winds as you climb higher. But most importantly of all, I cannot stress the importance of a good pair of hiking boots with ankle supports. Not runners. Proper hiking boots. Not one to mince her words, one of the first things Yvonne said to us was that she was glad to see we had sensible boots and that people were idiotic to go climbing the peaks of the Lake District without appropriate footwear. She wasn't wrong and I was very glad that we weren't considered one of those 'idiotic' types. Whew!
The Lake District is easily accessible from both Manchester and Glasgow Airports. There are frequent train services to the main town Oxenholme with connections to the likes of Kendal, Keswick, Windermere and Penrith from there. You can find out more here. We opted for Manchester and took the train from there. However if we were doing it again I would definitely hire a car. It's less than a hundred kilometres and it means you don't have to deal with the British rail system which is far from reliable. For the second time in two months this summer I experienced a pre-booked Airport train in the UK being cancelled with no prior-warning and no explanation. Thankfully we had left plenty of time to make our flight and took the train an hour later but that wouldn't have been an option for everyone. Bear in mind the trains are not cheap either. We paid about €50 each for a return train journey that took less than two hours in total. Car-hire would certainly have been cheaper, especially when you take into account the cost of the local buses between the major towns. More on that below.
Where to stay:
The Lake District is such a vast area so it depends on what part you're interested in exploring. As we were using public transport we decided to stick to the towns which were easily accessible from Oxenholme. A happy accident (a giant cock-up with accommodation on my part) meant we ended up staying in the utterly charming town of Kendal instead of our first preference which was Windermere. I couldn't recommend Kendal more highly. It's a beautiful market town and the perfect base to explore the south lakes. The river Kent runs through it and there are any number of river walks to take, which was how we spent our first evening. The gabled houses are so quintessentially English and there are flowers planted everywhere. As you can see, it's picture-postcard pretty.
Kendal is also home to the gorgeous Abbot Hall Gallery where we were lucky enough to catch an outstanding exhibition of sculpture by Elizabeth Frink and a small show featuring Rodin's The Thinker. The gallery is set in beautiful grounds, facing the river and surrounded by trees with Kendal parish church at the back. It's not a huge gallery - we managed to fit in a visit one morning before heading off on a hike - but it's well worth a visit.
Kendal has loads of great places to eat and some very cool bars, though everything closes ridiculously early, even in peak season. It's definitely early to bed and early to rise in these parts so don't expect too much in the way of wild nights out. I've included some of my top recommendations for food and drink further down.
Due to aforementioned cock-up, we found ourselves in the Lyndhurst Guesthouse on the outskirts of town, close to the river. I don't think we could've found a better place to stay for our first visit to the region. Yvonne is a seasoned hiker herself and is an absolute fount of information about walks, transport, things to do and places to eat. She's completely and utterly bonkers but in the nicest possible way. She really cares about her guests' experiences and takes care of all the small but very important things like leaving little jars of her own homemade shortbread in the room every day with more to be had downstairs in the guest area. It's a good thing we were hiking every day, that's all I can say, as I have zero will-power when it comes to shortbread. And this was the nicest shortbread I've ever had so there were vast quantities consumed on a daily basis. I am not the world's best sleeper, particularly in strange beds but I slept like the dead here. Beds were super-comfy with very good quality linen and there was a collection of delicious herbal teas available downstairs to help you to nod off. There's no need to bring heavy toiletries with you either as she provides vats of all-natural locally produced shower gels, shampoos and conditioners of excellent quality in the bathrooms. They smelled absolutely divine.
As if this wasn't enough, Yvonne has left folders in each guest room which have oodles of information about walking in the Lake District. She had printed maps, different route options and step-by-step guides with visual prompts to each walk in little plastic envelopes for you to take with you on your travels. I can't tell you how helpful this was. We only realised the myriad of options available to us when we arrived and were struggling to decide which were the best ones for us to do in the time-frame we had. All of her suggestions were spot-on and we had a different experience every day.
And then there was the breakfast. Oh my! We practically crawled out of the breakfast room each morning, stuffed to the gills with the endless variety of options available. We started with orange juice and her homemade granola which was to die for, topped with homemade natural yoghurt. That's my usual breakfast most mornings and is more than satisfying so it is somewhat mystifying to me that I was then able to put away the giant veggie breakfast you see below. It was one of the best breakfasts I've ever had - you can tell from the photo how perfect those scrambled eggs are: buttery and fluffy. The tomatoes were topped with a basil butter and the veggie sausages were the icing on the cake. All topped off with a cafetière of coffee resulting in a complete and utter food coma by 10am. It certainly kept us going until lunchtime though and was excellent hiking fuel.
You don't have to be a seasoned hiker to come here. There are walks to suit all ages and abilities, from gentle river walks to heart-bursting climbs. We tried both. We did four different hikes in three days, each one special in their own way.
Day 1: Kendal River Walk, 6kms
You can download the itinerary here:
We arrived in the afternoon to Kendal so were looking for a walk we could do with a starting point in the town. Yvonne recommended a river walk which was just perfect. This was definitely more of an amble than a hike but we were tired from travelling so this suited us fine. We had a blissful evening: the sun was shining and the landscape is idyllic. The Kendal Ramblers guide supplied to us by Yvonne was so helpful and easy to follow. The only tricky part to note is right at the beginning as it's easy to miss the entrance to Scroggs Wood. Other than that it was plain sailing. Expect lush green fields as far as they eye can see, wild flowers and envy-inducing grand country houses dotted along the route.
Day 2: Hike 1
Energised by our breakfast we felt up to two hikes on our second day. We started both walks from Windermere / Bowness-on-Windermere (the two towns are joined) about 12 kms from Kendal and we travelled on the frequent local bus that serves all the main Lake District towns. They're not cheap though. It's £11 per person for a day ticket. As I said before, a car would certainly be a cheaper and more convenient option but in saying that, buses are frequent and it meant we didn't have to deal with parking.
Tourists flock to Windermere and Bowness in droves - the lakeside view below is one of the iconic images associated with the area and the reason why I initially wanted to stay here. I was so glad however that we'd ended up staying in Kendal instead as it's a much more attractive option. Bowness and Windermere look like any UK towns with their high-street chains and souvenir shops though we did find a cool bar, a café with excellent coffee and a great ice-cream parlour. Our general perception of Bowness was as a quick-stop off place for a photo opp but that few tourists went any further than the lake shore. Coaches were regularly pulling up to the lakeside, people hopped out, took a few photos and the obligatory selfie, then got back on the bus. Meanwhile there is a viewing point of the lake at Post-Knott a mere twenty minutes' walk from the lake shore and we pretty much had it to ourselves. This was in the height of tourist season in August.
Hike 1: Post-Knott and Brant Fell
Unlike some of our fellow tourists, we actually bothered to explore the beautiful surrounding countryside. Our first hike took in Post-Knott Viewing Point and the 360 degree panorama that is Brant Fell. Utterly spectacular views. It wasn't a long hike - about 4.5 - 5kms in total - and wasn't particularly challenging either apart from maybe the very last ascent to the Fell. We took our time as the landscape is so stunning. You can see for miles from the top of Brant Fell and it gives you a sense of the scale of the lake (or should I say mere...). You can follow our itinerary here
We arrived back in Bowness in time for lunch at the terrific Folk café where I had one of the best coffees of my life. More on that in my Eating and Drinking: Pub Grub & Fine Ales section below. Caffeined up, I was ready for hike number 2.
Hike 2: West Shore Walk including Miller Ground and Adelaide Hill
I can honestly say I experienced a moment of sheer and absolute bliss on this walk. This wasn't a particularly challenging walk either, about 6.5 kms in total, but mostly flat, starting at St Martin's Parade in Bowness, following Rayrigg Road and turning through the fields onto the banks of the lake at shore level. We met few hikers on this route and as we walked through the trees there wasn't a sound to be heard other than the gentle lapping of the water on the shore. It was so peaceful. We stopped to sit on some rocks to take in the views and were promptly joined by a family of ducks.
We eventually came to a wooden jetty which we pretty much had all to ourselves. The sun was out and the sky was the most glorious shade of blue. We plonked ourselves down at the end of the pier, lay back and not to sound too hippy-ish, surrendered completely to nature. It was one of those perfect moments, legs dangling over the edge, water lapping, birds singing and surrounded by mountains. Utter bliss. It is one of most gorgeous spots you can image and quite hard to believe we were only a few kilometers from town.
On our way back to Windermere we took a short detour off the road to this fabulous viewing spot: Queen Adelaide Hill. There were a few people out walking but mostly it was cows and some very cute sheep that kept us company.
I couldn't find our exact route online but this is the closest to it here. Where our routes diverge is the point at the Windermere Hotel past St Mary's Church. From here we headed back to Windermere town centre instead of continuing to Orrest Head.
We arrived back in town ravenous and just a little bit thirsty for one of their fine local ales. It would've been rude not. On to the Crafty Baa with us.
Day 3: Loughrigg Fell - 6.5 kms
Day three started in Rydal, Ambleside, less than 20 kms away from Kendal. Before starting our hike, we headed for Rydal Mount, home to William Wordsworth for the latter part of his life from 1813 until his death in 1850. Entrance fee is £7.50 and is worth it for the glimpse it offers into the everyday life of the poet and to experience for yourself the stunning landscapes that had such an impact on him throughout his life here. The huge bay windows in the living room offer fantastic views of the gardens and the vista from both his bedroom and studio upstairs of the rolling hills and lush countryside would certainly inspire creativity.
From here we made our way to the car park at Pelter Bridge for the start of our fourth hike. This was the toughest hike of our trip as it included the ascent to Loughrigg Fell. Yvonne had recommended this route to us saying that the views were spectacular but that the climb to the Loughrigg Trig Point, the summit marker, was particularly steep. She was also good enough to mention that there is a false summit about three quarters of the way up which tricks everyone into thinking they've made it, only to look further up and realise there's a hell of a lot more climbing to go. Despite being warned about this I still jumped up and down with joy at this point, my calves crying, shouting "we're here", only to look upwards and see that this was far from the case. She did say we would be cursing her the entire way to the Trig Point but that all would be forgotten once we got there and she was dead right. It's totally worth the effort.
There is lots to see on this walk starting with the fabulous views over Rydal Water and Grasmere. We hadn't had lunch before we started this hike but brought a picnic instead. One and a half kilometres in (I know, I know) we plonked ourselves down on the grass and tucked in, enjoying the panorama before us.
The next marker on this route is Rydal Caves, definitely worth the slight detour. The last of them is the most impressive with a huge gaping entrance marked with stepping stones to bring you right into the heart of the cave. The acoustics in here are fantastic, if there are any singers in your group. We were treated to a little impromptu performance. The views of the countryside framed by the cave entrance are pretty special too.
The next part of the hike along Loughrigg Terrace is relatively easy, though it slopes gently uphill. And then for the tough bit. At the end of the Terrace, just before reaching the trees, you will see a set of man-made steps on your left-hand side leading you up a very steep uphill path. Long before you see the steps you'll hear the groaning of hikers on the path ahead of you and the swearing from those at the false summit. That's us looking very smug in pic 3 below when we finally reached the Trig Point summit. The views up here, despite the very grey afternoon, were absolutely spectacular. The icing on the cake came minutes later as we flaked out on the ground. The Red Arrows, the Royal Airforce Aerobatics Team, just happened to be flying overhead and we were treated to our own personal air show.
We arrived back at Pelter Bridge, the point at which we started, and headed straight for the nearest bar for a quick pick-me-up (ale and ice-cream) before getting the bus back to Kendal. Our chosen resting stop was the Glen Rothay, a quaint 17th century inn and hotel with lots of outdoor seating, a cosy interior with a real log fire and some tasty local ales. It's better known as the Badger Bar due to the number of four-legged friends on site and guests can see them being fed every evening on the grounds. Not only that, they have a Badger-cam set up in the back garden to allow for online viewing. We didn't get to see any as we were on a flying visit to refuel before our bus but it's definitely somewhere I'd like to spend an evening when we next come back. I imagine it must be particularly cosy in winter.
Eating and Drinking in the Lake District: Pub Grub & Fine Ales
Our food experiences here mainly involved pub grub. After a day's hiking and plenty of fresh air, all we wanted was some hearty food in a casual setting and a few local beers. Happily there were loads of options to choose from. Here are some of my favourites:
The Shakespeare Inn, Kendal
This very quickly turned into our local and we felt like part of the furniture after just four days. We stumbled upon it on our first night and it stood out to us, mainly as it was the only bar still serving at 10:30 pm. We loved this place for many reasons but mainly for the staff who were so friendly and chatty and made us feel very much at home. We got a real typical northern English welcome here and we definitely shared their sense of humour. Drinks are pretty cheap too and we had dinner here on our last night. I opted for the Cajun chicken burger and it was really tasty. They also make a mean speciality Gin & Tonic.
This was recommended to us by Yvonne in our guesthouse. We spent a great Friday night here and the bar even stayed open until 12:30 - unheard of in these parts, though it had practically emptied out by 11:30. It's a huge gastropub so it follows that their pub grub was great. My fish and chips were delicious though I'm not a fan of the English version of mushy peas. We moved into the bar for drinks afterwards and got a cosy spot in a little niche in the wall. Again the staff were cool and good fun. The food was very reasonably priced and they also have an extensive wine list.
Folk Café, St Martin's Parade, Bowness
We stopped here for lunch between our two Saturday hikes. The whole hipster coffee culture phenomenon has not really hit the Lake District yet so I was intrigued by the sign pointing the way to this café saying 'Proper coffee served here'. I am forever on a quest for the perfect cup of coffee so I practically ran in the door. There was just something about their logo design that made me think I was on to a winner. I certainly was. This has to be a contender for the best coffee I've ever had. Smooth and full of flavour and a double-shot is taken as given - I can see why they describe themselves as a craft coffee house. It was a work of art in a cup. The food was great too. I had the avocado and halloumi panino followed by a giant slice of the most divine carrot cake. It almost goes without saying at this point that the staff were fab. We loved the decor and were admiring the artwork on the wall when the waitress arrived over and started telling us all about the artist and how much she loves his prints. His name is Rob Bailey by the way.
And the award for greatest pub name goes to...
This is a totally brilliant pub and one I could happily have spent the evening in if we hadn't had to head back to Kendal to change out of very grubby clothes and hiking boots. Top of the list for our next visit. It's won loads of awards, not least the AA Best Pub in England award in 2018. Can't argue with that really can you? As you can see from the pics they have quite the selection of beers and wines to choose from. Over 100 craft beers and a massive selection of wine too, not to mention craft ciders. It's an absolute minefield trying to decide. They also serve food though we just stopped for a drink.
Using locally sourced milk and cream, this place has a huge selection of interesting ice-creams and sorbets similar to the gelato bars you'd find in Italy. We were particularly intrigued by a charcoal-black coloured ice-cream on offer which certainly didn't look very appetising but turned out to have a gentle vanilla flavour. Loads of great options to choose from.