First-time visitor to Lakeland? From walks and waterfalls to stone circles and sticky toffee pudding, here are the leading activities and attractions
Take a boat trip on Windermere and Ullswater
Lakeland’s longest body of water, Windermere, is a ten-mile stretch populated by puttering steamers and launches departing from the busy Bowness pier. Passing the lake’s 18 islets, Windermere Lake various cruises each let passengers admire the towering, green-brown fells that rise steeply from waterside woodlands.
It’s a similar story on northerly Ullswater, whose oldest Steamer (operated by Ullswater Steamers) has been traversing the lake since 1877. Possible stops include Glenridding, from which begins a hiking route up Helvellyn (see Lace up your boots, below). Using quaint wooden boats, the Keswick Launch Co offers 50-minute voyages around isle-dotted Derwentwater while an elegant steam yacht crosses placid Coniston Water several times per day.
Learn about your vessel at the Windermere Jetty Museum
Set beside Windermere, the impressive copper-and-glass Windermere Jetty Museum delves into local nautical history.
You’ll find everything from primitive life jackets to Beatrix Potter’s uncomfortable-looking rowing boat and another 19th-century steam yacht, Esperance, which was the basis for Captain Flint’s houseboat in Arthur Ransome’s novel Swallows and Amazons.
Visit Beatrix Potter’s house
Ransome — whose set his beloved children’s adventure on Coniston Water — is just one of the famous writers to be inspired here. A second is Beatrix Potter, who crafted some of her best-known kids’ stories at Hill Top. Charmingly recapping Potter’s life, this 17th-century farmhouse remains furnished as she left it in 1943. Book well in advance, and try also to fit in The World of Beatrix Potter, a visitor centre in Bowness where characters like Peter Rabbit come to life in 3D.
Verse has always come easily here too, especially for William Wordsworth, who wrote his most famous poetry at whitewashed Dove Cottage — now open to visitors alongside a museum; look out for Thomas de Quincey’s opium scales — in Grasmere. His headstone sits in nearby St Oswald’s churchyard, while a childhood home and garden in Cockermouth, further northwest, could also be inspected.
Best food in the Lake District
Although Wordsworth labelled Grasmere as “the loveliest spot that man hath found”, this tearoom-laden village is still arguably most famous for its gingerbread shop. Queuing out of the door, omnipresent pilgrims flock here for spicy-sweet tablets made from a secret recipe devised in 1854 by one Sarah Nelson, and now faithfully followed by her descendants.
Another dentist’s nightmare tempts further south. Sticky toffee pudding supposedly hails from the Lakes — Sharrow Bay, a former hotel, claimed to have invented it — and one of Britain’s favourite examples is now made by Cartmel. The company’s shop sells those puds alongside other varieties, crumbles and sauces amid its eponymous village, down in the southern Lakes; close by is Simon Rogan’s three-Michelin-star restaurant L'Enclume. Plus, don’t forget to look out for deals and discounts on local cuisine from tastecard including Coffee Club as part of Boundless membership.
Best hikes in the Lake District
Perhaps that gluttony needs earning? The Lakes host thousands of hiking paths, with something for every level. In ascending order of difficulty, Helvellyn, the Old Man of Coniston and Scafell Pike, England’s highest peak, represent its most famous hills; consequently, they can be heaving in season. Ditto the god-given valley of Great Langdale, whose lusty peak-bagging circuits sate hardier fell walkers. Equally good for glorious views — of Buttermere lake, in this case — yet far quieter is Haystacks, a favourite of walking guide pioneer Alfred Wainwright.
Among the easier options is surmounting handsome Helm Crag from Grasmere — there are some steep sections, but you’ll only cover five miles there and back. Beda Fell, accessed via the Ullswater Steamer stop of Howtown, is another do-able climb rich in scenery.
Be wowed by waterfalls
Alternatively, you could ramble to a waterfall. About 20 minutes’ zigzagging walk uphill from the car park beside Ullswater, beautiful Aira Force shoots down for 70 feet into pools below. Look out for coins hammered into a trunk below — this is superstitiously thought to bring luck. For a longer outing of seven miles, return via Gowbarrow Fell.
Lakeland’s tallest waterfall is Scale Force, near Crummock Water. A five-mile trudge from Buttermere village’s car parks will get you to its impressive 170-foot plunge. If that sounds suspiciously like hard work, consider instead visiting Dungeon Ghyll Force’s sublime ravine — just a sounder from the ale-serving Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel and Climbers’ Bar.
Shop in Keswick
The biggest town inside the national park’s bounds, pretty Keswick is pleasingly authentic. You’ll pass farmers, find old-fashioned independent shops and, if visiting on a Thursday or Saturday, happen on a street market hawking everything from lingerie to ‘lemon cheese’ (the local take on lemon curd) around its ancient streets. Down towards Derwentwater’s shores, Hope Park has a teahouse, a good theatre and a pitch-and-putt course.
Inspect a stone circle
On a moorland plateau outside Keswick, Castlerigg is one of Britain’s most dramatically sited stone circles. Looking to the mountains of Helvellyn and High Seat as a backdrop, it also ranks among the country’s earliest, although much about the site confounds historians. At almost 100 feet in diameter, and comprising 38 surviving boulders, it’s an impressive Stonehenge of the Lakes.
Smaller in size, but boasting more stones and largely complete, is the Swinside stone circle located much further southwest. Found amid the fell of Black Combe, near Broadgate, it was lauded as "the loveliest of all the circles" in north-western Europe by British authority Aubrey Burl.
Ride a heritage railway
In its far southwest, the Lake District National Park includes a seaside stretch around the twisting River Esk’s estuary. Following that same valley is the irresistibly charming Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway — or La’al Ratty, as locals know it — a classic brass-and-wood steam choo-choo, originally erected to carry iron ore and operating partly open-topped carriages.
Nor should train buffs stop there. Running up the River Leven and timed to meet Windermere’s cruises, the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway is a shorter affair involving vintage 1950s carriages and more whistling ejections of steam.
Sprawling uphill east of Bassenthwaite lake, Dodd Wood is a good place to try and spot ospreys (April to September only; use devoted viewpoints) or red squirrels. Fine views will definitely reward anyone who makes it up to Dodd Summit.
For a chance to glimpse red deer or — if you’re incredibly lucky — England’s only golden eagles, make for Haweswater Nature Reserve: mossy woods, moorland, heath and bog site overseen by the RSPB.
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