As a boy-meets-girl story, the relationship between the "Maid of Buttermere" and Colonel Alexander Augustus Hope is profoundly flawed. She was a shepherdess by the name of Mary Robinson, who lived at the Fish Inn on the banks of Buttermere. She was possessed of such beauty that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge sang her praises. "Colonel Hope" was really John Hatfield, a con man and bigamist.
After a courtship at the start of the 19th century, amid the glorious landscapes of the north-west lakes, they married. But Hatfield was soon exposed and arrested. He escaped, and became something of a celebrity while on the run, but was recaptured and hanged at Carlisle Castle. Mary remarried and lived a long and happy life.
Melvyn Bragg turned their story into enthralling historical fiction, with his novel The Maid of Buttermere - later turned into a stage play. And the setting provides a suitably dramatic location for exploring a rarely travelled corner of the Lake District.
The approach to Buttermere is a spectacle in itself. From Keswick, at the heart of the lakes, you travel west to Braithwaite then join the B5292 - more inspiringly known as Whinlatter Pass. The road swoops high above forests and pastures, then flutters down to Lorton. Mary and the "Colonel" began their brief married life at the church here, close to the banks of the river Cocker. Cross the river - by car, bike or on foot – and you start following one of the loveliest stretches of the C2C bicycle route. This pioneering pedalling trail links the Irish and North Seas.
A placid country lane delves through gentle woodland. In a village with the charming name of Thackthwaite, you might chance to see a red squirrel. (I did, and I'm no David Attenborough.) After a couple of miles of classic English countryside, you reach the hamlet of Loweswater, whose main attraction is Kirkstile Inn.
Even on a lunchtime in February, with a fair amount of lively weather, the pub was thronged. The age-old beams and sturdy stone offered shelter on a blustery day, and laughter and good conversation echoed through the centuries. Try the tatie pot (pronounced "tatty"): lamb stewed slowly and indulgently, local vegetables and a peppery black pudding, with a side dish of red cabbage offering a complement in taste and texture. The upholstery has a cheerful embroidery of leaves and blooms (or are they hops?). Perhaps it's a nod to Cumbria's contribution to the Arts and Crafts movement. "A lovely place to restore and refresh in the midst of nature’s glory," as I wrote in the visitors' book.
Being a proper inn, accommodation is offered (together with a big airing room in the event that your clothing needs drying). "We're comfortable, not chic," Karen Jackson of the Kirkstile Inn told me. "There's no mobile reception. People come here to switch off, literally."
If you are staying the night or someone else is driving, the temptation to work your way through the beers must be strong. Langdale ("a delicious bitter with the flavour of English fruit") was the silver award winner for the 2012 golden ale of Britain, while Grasmoor Dark Ale is aptly described as "Christmas pudding in a glass".
The main attraction in the Lake District, of course, is to explore the great outdoors. To find the heart of the story you can head down the eastern shore of Crummock Water to Buttermere - both the village of that name, and the body of water. The Fish Inn is still standing proudly by the water's edge "surrounded by lush flood meadows, watered by nearby falls and tumultuously clear fell becks, sweet in its grasslands and serene in its views," as Bragg – who lives nearby – portrays it. A description like that demands a modest adventure into the hills. Fortunately, the National Trust provides such a thing in the shape of a solid two-hour walk through captivating scenery. From the trust’s handily located car park at the northern end of Buttermere, you climb over a stile and start heading steeply but surely up a path.
Swiftly you find yourself in the middle of a Romantic painting, with rock cushioned by turf and embroidered by heather. On the neighouring fells, you see how the vegetation thins out towards the peak - which, at this time of year, may still be anointed by a dusting of snow.
On my hike, the skies began heavy with cloud, but a strip of sunlight began to prise its way through the grey – first as a pale stripe clambering up the fells, later as a dazzle that enriched the scene like Technicolor. And what a scene. You soon reach a ridge path, that invites you to gaze down into Rannerdale – known as "the secret valley", and where a carpet of bluebells appears each spring.
Your target is Rannerdale Knotts, an appropriately knotty summit that provides a 360-degree panorama to set your spirits soaring. The horizon is corrugated by England's mightiest mountains. As the land beneath you falls away, it softens into farmland, woodland and Lakeland.
Take care with your footing as you scamper down towards Crummock Water, because the view will tempt your eye away from the rough path. Cross the road and walk beside the shore of the lake, along a proper beach that must be perfect for paddling in summer. A bridge carries you over a fast-flowing beck before the path turns inland, climbing again through the woods of Nether How back to your starting point – which is also where another concise, exciting journey begins to the final resting place of the Maid of Buttermere.
From the village of Buttermere, a lane turns sharply uphill, through a gate that is closed when snow makes the road impassable. Cyclists and motorists are equally enthused by the twisting track as it clambers over a pass, softening as it descends to the dainty pleasures of Keswick.
Continuing north, the brooding hulk of Skiddaw has blocked every prospective road-builder, so instead the northbound traveller must edge around the massif, once again on the C2C route. Through villages with names straight from a work of fiction – Mungrisdale, Mosedale and Hesket Newmarket – you reach the quiet village of Caldbeck. Here, St Kentigern's churchyard straggles down to the stream. Mary Robinson's gravestone is among the faded monuments of those who lived amid these blessed landscapes. Caldbeck has plenty more to detain the visitor, with a watermill, café and even a Fair World shop, but back in Hesket Newmarket there is an equally intriguing attraction: the nation's first co-operatively owned pub.
The Old Crown has been part of the community for centuries – so much so, that when there was a threat that it might be turned into holiday cottages, the community conducted a largescale whip-round and bought it. Skiddaw ale, which has travelled no further than the microbrewery in the back yard, is tasty and fresh – the ideal beer for raising a glass to the Maid of Buttermere, and the explorations she inspires.
Eating and drinking there
The National Trust Buttermere to Rannerdale route can be found here: bit.ly/ButterWalk
Getting there and getting around
For a county of half-a-million people, Cumbria is remarkably well served by trains. The West Coast Main Line cuts north-south; Virgin Trains and First TransPennine Express call at Oxenholme Lake District, Penrith and Carlisle stations.
From Oxenholme, a branch line extends via Kendal to Windermere; when it was built in 1847, Wordsworth railed against it, but today the line thrives (and offers direct trains to and from Manchester airport).
The Furness Line runs from Arnside via Ulverston to Barrow, where it connects with the Cumbrian Coast Line via Whitehaven to Carlisle. Two other lines run from Carlisle: east via Brampton to Newcastle, and southeast via Appleby to Leeds – the celebrated Settle-to-Carlisle line across the Pennines. Call 0845-748 4950 or see nationalrail.co.uk for times and fares.
Public transport within the Lake District National Park is mostly by bus, and the main operator is Stagecoach; see bit.ly/LakesBus for an excellent map of services. Route 555 is the spine – running north from Lancaster via Kendal, Windermere, Ambleside and Grasmere to Keswick.
The Windermere Ferry slices from east to west across the lake at its midpoint between Bowness and Far Sawrey, and has been operating for more than five centuries. The present vessel, Mallard (pictured), takes hikers, cyclists, vehicles and horses across the lake. See bit.ly/ WindFerry for times and fares.
More extensive journeys are available from Windermere Lake Cruises, Ullswater Steamers, Coniston Launch and the Keswick Launch Co.