Window on England's Lake District

Baaa-gains, B&Bs and beautiful lakes

Day One in Cumbria: it rains. Day Two: it rains. Misty. Grey. Welcome to Cumbria, which most people know as the Lake District.

Mention the wet weather to a local, though, and you get this reply: "If we didn't have the rain - we'd only be called The District!" 

To help you picture where Cumbria is, this is the knobbly bit on the western side of the 'neck' of Britain. Close to the Scottish border, visitors see plenty of similarities, but there are enough differences for a National Parks guide to bristle when we suggest some local terms sound Gaelic.

OK, he was bored, minding a gateway at one of the lakes on a hectic Bank Holiday weekend!

So, when it's clammy and cold outside in one of the country's most acknowledged beauty spots, what do you do?

I am a fan of Bargain Hunt on TV, and have watched enough episodes (OK, most of them) to realise the real bargains are not at resale level, but in the car-boot sales. I asked at our B&B in Keswick (more of that later), where to find one, and our host reeled off several nearby. We chose  Cockermouth, a sizable town half an hour or so west.

This one was still busy even though we were late. We paid our 50p each (most sales like these collect the fee and pass it on to a local charity) and walked into what is, during the week, the huge shed containing holding pens for animals at stock sales.

The place was packed with items on sale: arranged on tables, hanging on the rails or propped against them, a delightful mish-mash of regional produce..... foods....

... and genuine bargains. I couldn't resist this little lady, busily making biscuits. And just look at the price! It was also a great chance to talk to the vendors as they relaxed with a mug of tea, waiting for someone to fancy one of their wares.

The sounds in the country vary. Sometimes it's the plink of running water; other times it's birds - sometimes twittering small ones, or occasionally the mournful oo-WHO-hoo of a turtledove. There are cars, always cars in Britain, but sometimes the whisper of bicycles, and once we heard regular knocking sounds coming from the other side of the hill where we had pulled over to take a photograph.

Then this appeared over the crest: a grandfather taking his little granddaughter for a gentle buggy ride down a remote road.

The Lake District has quite a few remote roads, and as usual we tried to explore as many as possible. High in the fells, as the hills are called here, we came across this cryptic sign, so we slowed right down, both to take in the harsh beauty of the heather-covered mountains, but also being careful to watch out for the 'lambs ont road'.

Cumbria has some of Britain's highest peaks and it is the snow, falling there, that contributes, along with the rain, to helping fill the area's many lakes.

The locals are particularly proud of this breed of sheep. The Herdwick (remember that name) is a local breed, particularly liked because of its hardiness and ability to thrive on the sometimes sparse upland pastures. Their wool is also durable. Thick fibres will often protrude from knitted or woven garments, but making a protective barrier layer in blizzards, and probably the sheep's wool works in the same way for them. It is said that Herdwick sheep can survive under a blanket of snow for three days while eating their own wool!

Does this view look familiar?

Many children remember their treasured packets or tins of coloured pencils with the picture of a lake on the outside. What were they called? Lakeland, Derwent, and named for places in this area. Their manufacture - using locally mined graphite, for the 'leads' – was one of the biggest local industries. So much so, there is a Pencil Museum on the outskirts of Keswick, and this shopfront in town.

Anyone who has travelled in Scotland can see the similarity to a Scottish loch in these, although here they are definitely and firmly referred to as lakes. Scotland is only an hour's drive away after all. 

Many places are administered by the National Trust but access is open to all, and visitors love the chance to hike or cycle, or simply relax and soak up the pure air and silence. And the tranquillity.

Of course, hiking is hungry work, and you'll soon come across an occasional roadside cafe. Here, in the tiny village of Buttermere, I couldn't resist a freshly made sultana scone, served with thick cream and homemade strawberry jam - all in the course of research, you understand - while Gordon had a hearty bowl of mushroom soup. The coffee? It was excellent too. All this and the lake an easy stroll away. We'll show you that shortly.

There's that name again. And those sheep. Without realising it we were to be in the Lake District on Bank Holiday Weekend. We had left our booking late.....

....and I am sure we snared the very last room in Keswick. As the biggest town in the Lake District, and centrally located, things get very busy here during holiday periods.

We must have luckily filled a cancellation as the room, although tiny, was clean and comfortable, and our hosts of this highly rated place did everything they could to help us find our way around - even to that car-boot sale, as you know.

Keswick is a popular place to stay as it is quite central to most other parts of the Lake District and has a good number of restaurants and cafes as well as accommodation. In fact, it seems in some streets every house is a B&B or guesthouse!

There are hotels too in the centre of town. The George, established in the 17th century is the oldest in town. This sign tells one story from its history, but just imagine how many others there must be! Any guesses for what 'plumbago ore' is? Hint: you have probably used it many times when drawing or colouring in.

If you are interested, you can visit one of those mines mentioned above. Watch this VIDEO....

Britain is a nation of dog-lovers. We were to see pooches lying on the floor beside their owners' tables, in pubs and cafes, and they are overwhelmingly welcome in most places. In the background you can just see, across the square in the centre of Keswick, the Information Centre in the 16th-century Moot Hall which has also been a courthouse and gaol in its time.

The square proved to be ideal for a good old knees-up, we also discovered. These ladies are performing a traditional sort of clog dance. It seemed far too energetic, we thought, for a very warm late-summer evening.

Local sheep, goat and cow's milk cheeses are available in many places in the Lakes region, but it all comes together at this attractive specialist shop just off the main street of Keswick (by the way, it's pronounced Kezik), which also has good selections of French and other British cheeses.

Dining in Keswick offers a wide choice. One night we visited Skiddaw Hotel, the main street, seated outside watching the evening activities in the square. Another night we went Italian at Casa Bella and it was only the accents of the other diners that was the giveaway we were not in Rome. We wrapped it up with one of their gelatos too! Oh, well - 'when in Keswick', as the saying goes.....!

Great pub-grub too at the Packhorse Hotel opposite the Cheese Deli, and a memorable meal at The George Hotel (see above) made us realise that mid-range dining in Britain is both possible and often truly delicious.

So, apart from the scenery, why do people come to the Lake District? It was late-August and the sun was shining. Plus it was the last real public holiday for the year, so the hikers were out in droves. Hiking on the fells of Cumbria, the official name for the area, which includes the entire Lakes District, is a major drawcard. 

A region of hills (fells), valleys and lakes, it is a magnet for all Britons who love the open spaces, beautiful scenery, clean air and all the things you can do outdoors: photography, climbing, hiking and cycling, and water sports. When you look at it this way, it would almost be simpler to say why would you not come to the Lake District? 

And then there are moments like this - morning tea in a sunny spot in the picturesque stone village of Borrowdale.

Add picnicking to that Things To Do list, too!  Also at Borrowdale.

Other creatures like to eat too. On the shores of Derwentwater a large body of water accessible from Keswick, there is plenty to occupy for children and nature lovers.

And if you forget your own stash of suitable food for the ducks and Canada geese, then you can buy it here.

This fellow had somehow got mixed up with the crowd of species, but it reminded us that the writer and artist Beatrix Potter is a local celebrity. Her charming pictures of local animals and birds won the adoration of whole generations of children - and parents too, and turned her work in a multi-million dollar industry. Her home (the first she bought in the Lake District) Hill Top, is open to the public, and of course there is a museum and gallery there - and gift shop!

If you want to combine lake sightseeing with Beatrix Potter, then you may take the Cross Lakes Shuttle Bus from Bowness, or follow a map that takes in major  points of interest.

It somehow seemed quite appropriate that not long after seeing this goose, there was a road sign advising 'Badgers for next 1/2 mile'. Or were we maybe getting mixed up with Wind in the Willows?

Our quest on one day of our visit was to locate Grasmere Gingerbread, an iconic must-try that had been recommended to us by several locals. Its fame and importance seemed such that we were expecting a massive factory, so we confidently drove into town, with no address in hand, believing 'we could not miss it'. 

As always when you think that, it is then that you miss whatever it is you're looking for, and this time we were true to form. Having driven right through the very touristy town, choked with holiday traffic, we reached the end of town and realised we would need to ask for directions.

Now you can see how we missed seeing it. This crowd-pulling delight has only ever been made and sold from this small cottage. Service is patient and unrushed, and the queue can grow as long as it likes, because people will always wait for this....

......we did, and we bought some to munch in the car. 

Home cook Sarah Nelson may not have realised what she was doing when in 1854 she popped her first tray of gingerbread in the oven, but today the scent of baking wafts over the town, making it pretty well impossible to ignore – or resist. If only we had driven through town with the car windows down, we would have found it immediately!

If the gingerbread queue is too long when you arrive, there are a couple of ways you can fill in time. Across the road is something you wish every town would have: a Storyteller's Garden. Just imagine relaxing here in the sunshine, bathed in gingerbread aromas, being told a story by Taffy Thomas!

The other option is right next door. Wordsworth's Daffodil Garden is a rustic delight. A path leads you to a stream, and various quotes from the poet's work are inscribed on stones, encouraging visitors to pause to read them. Unfortunately we were not here in daffodil season, which would be a riot of colour. Maybe next time... 

Wordsworth gets another mention in this plaque on the side wall of the Gingerbread cottage.

Day 3: Finally, the sun comes out and it is time to visit some lakes. The busy town and port of Ambleside is at the northern end of Lake Windermere.

A number of pleasure boats ply the lakes and it's really up to you whether you take a short hop across the lake, or spend half a day lazing onboard in the sunshine.  

Of course you can always hire a rowboat and take yourself wherever you like.

There is something too for those who enjoy sailing.

For a room with a view it hardly comes any better than Low Wood Bay Resort Hotel, but if your time, or the hotel's room availability doesn't allow you to stay there...

... you can at least catch a bus from the stop outside. It's possibly the most scenic bus stop in the land ....

...because this is the view across the road. Just be warned that in peak holiday time, you may have longer than you want to look at it as you wait for a break in the holiday traffic!

This had been our first visit to the Lake District, and we had to ask why it had taken us so long to make it here.

Of course lakeside is not all about boats and water activities. There are plenty of cafes and places to stop and eat - ice cream anyone? Fish and chips? And the English sense of humour is on the menu, too, it seems.

Closer to Keswick there is something else that should not be missed. There are around 1300 rings of mysterious and ancient standing stones all over Britain, remnants of ancient rites and beliefs. Just a few miles out of town we find Castlerigg Stone Circle.

The heaviest stone has been estimated to weigh around 16 tons and the tallest stone measures approximately 2.3m high. It is thought to be one of the earliest stone circles in Britain and possibly in Europe, dating from around 3200BC.

Whatever its origin, today it is easily accessible though a roadside gate, and is a fascinating place to visit. While largely seen as a tourist spot and place for photographs, those with more religious or Druidic interests are also drawn to Castlerigg.

There is a legend - which we did not have the time to test - that no one can accurately count the number of stones in the circle. It is said that each time anyone tries to do so, they will come up with a different number. The National Trust, which administers the siteputs the official tally at forty.

One thing that rural England does particularly well is farm shops. As we drove towards the M6 from Keswick, sadly saying goodbye to the Lakes District, this place was an ideal delay. Unfortunately there wasn't time for us to stop for morning tea, although many people were doing just that.

Cocklakes Farm Shop had almost anything a hungry picnicker might want, and we loaded up with a few things for lunch. Most were locally made or grown too which was a definite plus.

There was a wide range of cheeses, so into the basket went a Cumbrian ewe's milk cheese, Eden Ivory from Appleby Creamery and a plump loaf of Lakeland Plumbread, from a bakery in Keswick. Along with some fresh local plums and apples, these became our lunch later on.

Cumberland Rum Butter was traditionally made to celebrate the birth of a child. It would be served, along with oat cakes, to well-wishers who dropped by to see the new baby. Visitors would leave a silver coin behind for the child.

By the time the child was to be christened, the butter bowl would be empty, and the silver coins put in it, then turned upside down. It was believed that the more coins that stuck, the more prosperous the child would be.

Sadly we were now in transit to our next destination, so we couldn't buy any of this. Kendal Mint Cake is a local treat and we had thoroughly enjoyed some of this a few days before, but these tubs contain a 'hard sauce' that is spooned rather than poured, and which is traditionally served with Christmas pudding or mince pies. 

Like many Australians, my heritage stems from the UK, and I took a short while to visit St Michael's church in Barton, near Tirrel, where one of my ancestors came from. The church dates from the 12th century and stands alone, flanked by fields. It is one of many thousands of old churches in England, and for those with ancestors from the vicinity, it is always worth spending some time strolling amongst the gravestones and seeing if any familiar family names appear.

Here too was a personal connection. St Andrews church in Penrith is where another ancestor was married.

A few days in the Lake District is not enough. We had seen a lot, eaten much, travelled up and down mountains and circled lakes. It is easy to see why this area is one of England's most popular destinations in all seasons, and it is already on the list as a place to which we will return.

If you visit Cumbria and look up at the fells and wonder why they appear pink, here is the reason. Heather is not only found in Scotland. Once despised for its associations with the most rugged rural poverty, it is often also associated with luck and protection, and the purple or pink heather was sometimes sent as a sign of beauty or admiration from a shy lover.

Maybe that is why so many visitors love Cumbria!

Learn more about The Lake District...........



Text and pictures: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

Sally & Gordon Hammond travelled independently in the Lake District


Please share your experiences if you have visited Cumbria and the Lakes District. How did you enjoy it?


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