Hiking in the Lake District

In the finest tradition of competitive living and the ‘my place is better than yours’ approach to life, Wordsworth once proclaimed of the Lake District that: “I do not indeed know any tract of country in which, within so narrow a compass, may be found an equal variety of the influences of light and shadow upon the sublime or beautiful features of landscape…This concentration of interest gives to the country a decided superiority over the most attractive districts of Scotland and Wales, especially for the pedestrian traveller.”

Whilst Wordsworth may have been a tad biased, there is much to be said for this point of view. The views from the fells are undoubtedly stunning (at least when visibility permits) and the combination of green hills and vales, rocks, mountains, lakes and tarns provide a lot to interest the hiker. So inspirational has the scenery proven that without the Lake District the world would not have known of “a host, of golden daffodils….fluttering and dancing in the breeze” or, even more importantly, of the adventures of Peter Rabbit (my own childhood favourite), Jemima Puddleduck and Squirrel Nutkin. Taking a leaf out of Wordsworth’s book we headed into the Lake District to let our legs walk and our minds wander (but, unfortunately, without quite the same consequent creative output).

Our Walks.

Without a doubt the hiker is spoilt for choice in the Lake District. We selected a few walks based on the weather for the day in question, the availability of parking (an issue in Summer as we had to abandon a couple of plans due to the lack of parking) and what interested us most. Here they are:

Scafell Pike. The hike up England’s highest mountain (978m above sea level) is on every walker’s Lake District bucket list (or at least those who have such a list). We took the corridor route out of Seathwaite Farm near Borrowdale because it was the closest start point to our accommodation. Like nearly all walks in the Lakeland Fells it is not marked and so it is essential to have (and be able to read) a map. If unsure be prepared to ask questions of other local hikers and don’t simply follow the group of hikers in front of you (we bumped into a group of Scottish gentleman who had done just this and had ended up climbing the wrong peak resulting in an ambitious decision to attempt two peaks in one day). Assuming you head up the right peak, the hike up will take around 3 to 3.5 hours and the trip down about 2 to 2.5 hours, with only one slightly tricky section in an area described to us as “the wall”. Beside the corridor route there are a number of other routes all of which converge near the top, which means that you will inevitably share the top with numerous other walkers. We certainly could not, as Wordsworth had done 200 years before, pause, and keep “silence to listen“; with the result that “no sound could be heard“.  Make sure your walk back ends up at the point you started from, otherwise it will be a lengthy and expensive ride in a taxi back to your car (a terrible mistake we made when hiking up Scafell Pike in 2001).

The 'wall' section on the corridor route
The ‘wall’ section on the corridor route
View from Scafell Pike summit
View from Scafell Pike summit
Corridor route, Scafell Pike
Corridor route, Scafell Pike

Helm Crag. Accessible from the village of Grasmere and at 405m above sea level a relatively easy and short climb.  Once on top we headed out along the ridge before descending down into the Easedale Valley and returning to Grasmere.

View from Helm Crag
View from Helm Crag

Stickle Tarn. We parked in the Dungeon Ghyll Hotel car park (cheaper than the National Trust park across the road) and headed up the stone steps of the steep path which runs alongside Stickle Ghyll to Stickle Tarn. From here you can complete a loop walk heading out over the Langdale Pikes, but a late start by us meant that we explored around the tarn and then headed back down the way we had come up.

Monk Coniston and Tarn Hows. A lovely circular low level walk of a bit over 10km suitable for days when the weather and visibility preclude a walk in the Fells. From the Coniston Water car park we headed up through a field to the walled garden of Coniston Estate, passing through the garden and estate and up through the forest to Tarn Hows. We took a circuit around the tarn (where we were joined by numerous others who had driven to the tarn) and then headed down the marked Cumbria Way to Coniston from where we followed the road back to the car.

Pen-y-Ghent. This walk was in the Yorkshire Dales rather than the Lake District but was fairly easily accessible from our base in Kendal. Pen-y-Ghent is one of the peaks in the Yorkshire Three Peaks, a 39.2km route over three peaks which hikers endeavour to complete in under 12 hours. Not having started at the crack of dawn and having decided since completing the 100 km Oxfam Trailwalker the year before to try to avoid hiking more than 25km in a day, the full route was out for us. Instead we undertook a straightforward walk from Horton-in-Ribblesdale up a marked and obvious path to the cairn at 691m above sea level before returning back the way we came.

Path up to Pen-y-Ghent
Path up to Pen-y-Ghent
Pen-y-Ghent changing weather
Pen-y-Ghent changing weather

For the non-walker.

The Lake District is a popular destination even for those who are not fixated with rambling around the countryside. Some of the other activities which can be indulged in include:

Visiting villages. The Lake District is dotted with cute, picturesque villages that include the standard fare of pubs, tearooms and shops selling knick-knacks. Our favourites were Cartmel, Grasmere and Keswick (the latter more of a small town than a village).

Culinary delights. The village of Cartmel is famous for its sticky toffee pudding and Grasmere is famous for its gingerbread. It is well worth ensuring, however, that you buy the original products. Purchase the sticky toffee pudding from the Cartmel General Store and the gingerbread from the Grasmere Gingerbread Shop, a tiny 1630’s school where Wordsworth once taught (you will know you have the right building by the queue of people out the front – formed because there is only room for two people at a time in the shop). For those philistines who look for more than merely satisfying their sweet tooth in a dining experience, L’Enclume in Cartmel has been voted No 1 Restaurant in the UK by The Good Food Guide and has two Michelin stars. Add to that four pubs, another restaurant, a bakery, brewery and cheesery and it is easy to understand why Cartmel is the food lovers mecca of the Lake District.

Cartmel General Store
Cartmel General Store

Take in the waters. Not really our thing, but various ferry services provide scenic tours of the lakes. Brave souls (given that it never seemed to get hot) even go swimming and canoeing.

Fetes and shows. A festive atmosphere descends over the Lake District in summer with a fete, show or antique fair seemingly taking place in one village or another every second day. We went very rural and took in the Rydal Sheepdog Trials.

In the steps of literary giants. William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter, John Ruskin, John ‘Postman Pat’ Cunliffe and Arthur ‘Swallows and Amazons’ Ransome all at one stage lived in and were inspired by the Lake District. You can visit locations upon which their stories or poems were based, follow the Beatrix Potter trail at Brockhole – the Lake District Visitor Centre and visit Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount where Wordsworth once lived. Even better is to walk around the Lake District with either Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes or, for the true enthusiast, Wainwright’s seven volume “A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells”.

Best time of year

Wordsworth recommended the six weeks following the first of September as the best time to visit the Lake District for “the sincere admirer of nature, who is in good health and spirits, and at liberty to make a choice“. He made this recommendation over the traditional July/August period on the basis: (a) there fewer visitors at this time; (b) there was less rain; and (c) the Autumnal colours. Having ignored his advice and travelled to the Lake District in August, we can confirm that it rained a lot and there were a lot of tourists. To his reasons for avoiding travel there in July/August we can add: (a) traffic jams; (b) the higher cost of accommodation; and (c) a lack of parking.

Getting there and around 

Whilst there are bus services and a train station in Kendal, the only sensible way to get around the Lake District and get to the start of any trails is to hire a car (in any event car hire is generally cheaper than train travel in the UK). Be warned, however, that many of the roads are narrow lanes which are often wide enough for only one car and with surrounding walls and hedges to reduce visibility. Even the ‘main’ roads are often choked with traffic. With some distance between villages and many hiking locations and indirect winding roads always assume that it will take you some time to travel to where you want to get to.

Accommodation

We stayed in a holiday cottage out of Kendal, booked through one of the innumerable holiday cottage serviced for the Lake District, and the excellent Howe Keld in Keswick.

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