Cumbria, you’re a bit of all right. Here are my favourite walks, wild swims, campsites and cycle routes in the land of lofty fells and deep blue waters, plus a stay at the Beech Hill Hotel on the banks of Windermere.
This was my first real visit to Cumbria, if you don’t count looking longingly over at its cool waters and green hills from a hot car on the way to Scotland. I’ve long been desperate to explore its valleys, to walk up the intriguingly named Catbells to drink in the view and to take a dip in the many tarns and pools which dot the rolling land so loved by Wainwright, Wordsworth, Potter and pretty much all the Romantic poets. And now by me.
Charlie and I went exploring on an unusually hot weekend in May. Keswick and Ambleside were rather too full of overheated families to be charming, but the joy of Lakeland is that in five minutes you can be away from civilization and lost in the wild places. And whilst there are famous places of great beauty it would be rude not to visit – Buttermere, Windermere, the dizzy heights of Scafell Pike and Helvellyn – the greatest pleasure for me was picking an unknown yet likely looking pool (or pot, as they’re called round these parts) on the map and driving to it along the winding lanes flanked with high stone walls past rolling hills and an endless number of appealing cottage pubs.
There’s space for everyone in the Lakes, and they sell massive bars of Kendal Mint Cake in the shops. Basically, Cumbria is my heaven. Here are my favourites spots, from ghostly underwater villages to the best cafe in town.
An easy and family-friendly tramp, the mile up Catbells (walk from Keswick and it’s a little longer through lovely shady woods) rewards you from the start with panoramic views across the hills and of the tiny white boats sailing on mirror-like Derwentwater. At the top there’s a welcome breeze – you can sit and watch paragliders ride the thermals before heading down the other side and walking back along the water’s edge, stopping at the tiny beaches to dip your toes in the lake.
Hike up from Haweswater (where the ghost of the village of Mardale Green, now a little Atlantis, shows murkily below the water) and along the ridge for incredible views from the High Street. It might like it sound be busy, but this gorgeous fell named for the Roman Road which crosses the summit is utterly peaceful if you don’t mind sharing your walk with curious sheep.
In search of Beatrix Potter:
Potter spend her childhood in the Lakes and they are the setting for many of her books. Now her charming 17th-century farmhouse Hill Top is open to visitors – wander around and then explore the landscape which inspired her much-loved woodland characters. Follow a bridleway from the house for the reward of beautiful views of Wise Een Tarn, then walk through the dappled shade of Claife Forest before arriving in Hawkshead village in time for tea and cake.
Derwentwater: For a quick stretch of the legs cycle the length of Derwentwater along the Borrowdale road, below Catbells. Make it a longer loop by turning right at the end of the lake towards Braithwaite and then head back to Keswick for a celebratory pint.
Coast to Coast: I’m itching to cycle the breadth of Britain with my cycling partner in crime, Mary, mainly because the first big chunk of the route ambles through the glorious Lakes.
Hardknott Pass: Fancy a proper challenge? This incredible climb was built in the 2nd century by the Romans – a backbreaking task, as it’s a 2.25km stretch with a height gain of 298m. They say if you can ride this, you can ride anything. Just watch out for sheep grazing on the switchbacks.
Loughrigg Tarn: If these tough times have you yearning for a simpler way of life then you’ll find respite at this utterly peaceful pool, lined with trees and with lovely open meadow behind it for warming up in the sun after a dip. We bathed under the jagged skyline of Langdale Pikes and helped a gaggle of kids search for tadpoles in the shallows. And if you can’t bear to leave after a day of the life aquatic then the wonderful Lower Tarn Campsite is nearby.
Tongue Pot: I just like saying Tongue Pot. Do give it a try. A necklace of deep pools in a narrow valley, the pots are full of deep, clear water and you’re likely to have this wonderful spot to yourself in spring or autumn.
Blackmoss Pot: Bet you didn’t know you could go cliff jumping in the Lake Distict. This fairytale pool is shadowed by craggy rocks perfect for leaping off into the sundappled depths (a great place to play about with a GoPro). One for adrenaline junkies.
We stayed at the Beech Hill Hotel, a great base for exploring the Lakes. Rooms are pleasant and the hotel’s lounge and restaurant are sweetly old-fashioned (think stag heads and lot of dark wood) but the standout factors here are the charming, helpful staff and the incredible views across Windemere. Sit out on the terrace with a glass of wine and watch the sun turn the sky above the lake orange and pink. Oh and there’s also a brand new and rather gorgeous spa, complete with hot tub overlooking the water to rest your tired feet in after a day hiking. Doubles from £115.
Tarn Foot Campsite:
Swap five stars for three billion of them and sleep in one of the prettiest camping sites I ever did see. Loughrigg Tarn’s campsite is sometimes listed it as ‘basic’ but what that really means is that it’s cheap, quiet, overflowing with wild flowers in spring and caters only to tents. It’s a minute’s walk from Loughrigg Tarn, ideal for a morning dip to shake those camping cobwebs away. Go now before everyone does.
WHERE TO EAT
The Brown Horse: A venerable, heavy-beamed coaching inn with bags of charm and a menu full of pub grub favourites. The perfect place to warm up by an open fire after a bracing winter walk, and you can kip there afterwards.
Rattle Gill Cafe: The definition of cute coffee shop and well worth a pitstop after ambling in Ambleside. Try the black spicy beans followed with a doorstop slice of the day’s homemade cake.
Old Keswickian: Eating fish and chips from this long-standing establishment is a rite of passage if you’re in Cumbria. Perfect as a pitstop after taking on gruelling Lake climbs on your bike.
Charlie and I tested out some fabulous kit from Salewa whilst we rambled in the fells.
Salewa Pedroc PTC Alpha jacket with Polartec, £150: Charlie helpfully modelled (and then didn’t want to give back) this fantastic jacket, which ticks all the boxes for hikers. Clever Polartec technology regulates your body temperature as you warm up, and the wonderfully soft fabric keeps you cosy when still but is breathable and comfortable as you get active. The outer layer repels water and provides good wind protection. At £150 the Pedroc is a stiff price for a mid layer, but if you’re planning an active year this will work well alone in summer and as part of a layering system in winter.
Salewa APEX 15 BP rucksack, £68: Sleek, surprisingly spacious and so comfortable you can barely feel it on, this backpack is the perfect choice for day hikes in the hills or a cycle along the lanes. The tough outer shell will take a lot of abuse and inner pockets store away valuables – a versatile bit of kit for summer adventures with enough space for a waterproof, water and snacks.
Other essentials: Pack sturdy hiking boots, a reliable waterproof jacket, fleecy layers for chilly evenings, walking sandals for hot days, a swimming costume and an OS map and compass – signal is notoriously patchy up in the fells.