No part of the country is more distinguished by its sublimity’, mused the grand old bard of the lakes, William Wordsworth, and a couple of centuries on his words still ring true. In terms of natural splendor, nowhere in England can compare to the Lake District. For centuries, poets, painters, and perambulators alike have been flocking here in search of inspiration and escape, and it’s still the nation’s favorite place to revel in the majesty of the English landscape. The main draw here is undoubtedly the Lake District National Park – England’s largest, at 885 sq miles. Every bend in the road reveals more eye-popping views: deep valleys, plunging passes, glittering lakes, whitewashed inns, barren hills. But it’s worth exploring beyond the national park’s boundaries too: the old towns of Carlisle, Kendal, and Penrith are full of historical interest and Cumbria’s coast has a windswept charm all of its own.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Stretching for 10.5 miles between Ambleside and Newby Bridge, Windermere isn’t just the queen of Lake District lakes – it’s also the largest body of water anywhere in England, closer in stature to a Scottish loch. It’s been a center for tourism since the first trains chugged into town in 1847 and it’s still one of the national park’s busiest spots. Confusingly, the town of Windermere is split in two: Bowness-on-Windermere (usually shortened to Bowness) sits on the lake’s eastern shore, while Windermere Town is actually 1.5 miles inland, at the top of a steep hill called Lake Road. Accommodation (and parking) can be hard to come by during holidays and busy periods, so plan accordingly.
Set at the confluence of the River Cocker and River Derwent, the Georgian town of Cockermouth is best known as the birthplace of William Wordsworth and the home base of the renowned Jenning’s Brewery. Unfortunately, its position beside two major rivers means it has suffered serious flooding – most recently in 2009 and 2015 when much of the town center was swamped.
The most northerly of the Lake District’s major towns, Keswick has perhaps the most beautiful location of all: encircled by cloud-capped fells and nestled alongside the idyllic, island-studded lake of Derwentwater, a silvery curve crisscrossed by puttering cruise boats. It’s also brilliantly positioned for further adventures into the nearby valleys of Borrowdale and Buttermere. Sadly, the town suffered heavy damage during the 2015 floods when the rivers Greta and Derwent burst their banks; the lake level rose by roughly a meter and the A591 between Keswick and Grasmere was partially washed away, effectively cutting off the north and south halves of the national park. Many businesses found themselves under meters of water and two bridges on the popular Keswick to Threlkeld Railway Path vanished. The town is slowly getting back to business, but you can still expect some disruption and ongoing renovations when you visit.
Technically Kendal isn’t in the Lake District, but it’s a major gateway town. Often known as the ‘Auld Grey Town’ thanks to the somber grey stone used for many of its buildings, Kendal is a bustling shopping center with some good restaurants, a funky arts center, and intriguing museums. But it’ll forever be synonymous in many people’s minds with its famous mint cake, a staple item in the nation’s hiking packs ever since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay munched it during their ascent of Everest in 1953. Kendal is a bit low on quality sleeping options and it’s easily visited from Windermere.
While the central lakes and fells pull in a never-ending stream of visitors, surprisingly few ever make the trek west to explore Cumbria’s coastline. And that’s a shame: while it might not compare to the wild grandeur of Northumberland or the rugged splendor of Scotland’s shores, Cumbria’s coast is well worth exploring – a bleakly beautiful landscape of long sandy bays, grassy headlands, salt marshes, and seaside villages stretching all the way from Morecambe Bay to the shores of the Solway Coast. There’s an important seabird reserve at St Bees Head and the majestic grounds of Holker Hall are well worth a wander. Historically, Cumbria’s coast served the local mining, quarrying, and shipping industries and Barrow-in-Furness remains a major shipbuilding center. More controversial is the nuclear plant of Sellafield, a major employer but still dividing opinion half-a-century on from its inception.
Carlisle isn’t Britain’s prettiest city, but it has history and heritage aplenty. Precariously perched on the frontier between England and Scotland, in the area once ominously dubbed the ‘Debatable Lands’, Cumbria’s capital is a city with a notoriously stormy past: sacked by the Vikings, pillaged by the Scots and plundered by the Border Reivers, the city has been on the front line of England’s defenses for more than 1000 years. Reminders of the past are evident in its great crimson castle and cathedral, built from the same rosy-red sandstone as most of the city’s houses. On English St, you can also see two massive circular towers that once flanked the city’s gateway. The closest section of Hadrian’s Wall begins at nearby Brampton.
Just outside the borders of the national park, red-brick Penrith perhaps has more in common with the stout market towns of the Yorkshire Dales. It’s a solid, traditional place with plenty of cozy pubs and quaint teashops and a lively market on Tuesdays. It’s also the main gateway for exploring the picturesque Eden Valley.