Travel-Lake District: 48 hours in Cumbria

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The Independent Online
Each week, 'The Independent' provides a prescription for the perfect weekend break. This week, the heart of Cumbria, where Simon Calder spends a bracing two days

Why go now?

Daffodils: millions of them, fluttering and dancing in a Wordsworthian flourish all across this beautiful county. The last will probably expire by Easter, when - as the the stern warnings on No Parking signs imply - the visitor season begins in earnest. Or you might just want to irritate the local writer Gavin D Smith, who writes in his Alternative View of the Land of the Lakes that "The best Lake District tourists are the Norwegians. We only get eight of them a year."

Beam down

Kendal, the town saddled with the slogan "Gateway to the Lakes" is a sheep's throw from the M6, and a longish downhill walk from Oxenholme station. This itinerary is based, quite tightly, on the road that forms the spine of the Lakes: the A591, which runs from Kendal to Keswick. Much of the intense beauty of the area, which so attracted Wordsworth and his cronies, lies along (or more particularly to either side of) this road.

Check in

The Old England Hotel (01539 442444) in Bowness and the Youth Hostel in Ambleside (01539 432304) both offer a fine prospect of Windermere. Having stayed at both, bed and breakfast at the latter seems rather better value at pounds 13.65 single compared with pounds 55 single/pounds 90 double. An option at the northern end of the area is Market Place in Keswick, where competition keeps prices down, at least off-season. Blackboards outside the King's Arms (01768 772083) offer B&B at a standby rate of pounds 26 per night.

Take a ride

Traffic congestion is terrible, with most of the 15 million annual visitors arriving by car. The places recommended here can be reasonably easily reached by the 555 bus between Keswick and Kendal. Call 01228 606000 for times; note that while there are 10 departures daily Monday-Saturday, the bus runs only five times a day on Sundays.

Take a hike

Yes, but where? If you are serious hill walker, you will already have the ideas, the equipment and the 1:25,000 maps. For a gentle hike, see Matthew Brace's walk opposite; meanwhile here's a plan for more metropolitan strollers, like me: Keswick is much more of a proper town, and much less crowded, than many of the towns and villages farther south in Cumbria.

Start at the Market Place, where the handsome Rawnsley Hall holds court - and, indeed, used to be where villains were both tried and imprisoned. Waft south and you reach the breathtaking Alhambra Cinema on St John Street, whose radiant terracotta leaps out from the slate grey of the surroundings (and, probably, the sky). Continue onwards and upwards for a mile or so, and you can wander lonely as a cloud around the Castlerigg stone circle. Or head the other way, and you can sharpen up at the Cumberland Pencil Museum.

Lunch on the run

Just a few shavings away, at 32 Main Street, Keswick, the Kingfisher does the best fish and chips I could find, accompanied by tea and bread and butter, for pounds 4.25.

Cultural afternoon

Whether you yomp or take the bus, the journey south to Grasmere is superb - skirting Thirlmere (the most beautiful reservoir ever devised by Manchester Corporation), peaking at Dunmail Raise and sweeping breezily past Rydal Mount to Wordsworth's most celebrated residence, Dove Cottage. Get there before last admission (5pm) and make sure you take a tour to see where he lay "In vacant or in pensive mood", and to get the lowdown on the less humane side of the poet. Then amble along the old road over the hills to Ambleside.

Window shopping

When I reached a dozen outdoor equipment shops in Ambleside I stopped counting; this represents one for every 100 inhabitants. These establishments are always on the look-out for imaginative sales techniques; one shop has a board outside saying "I wondered lonely as a cloud, but then I thought 'Nah, stuff it' and went shopping".

An aperitif

There are only slightly fewer pubs than outdoor suppliers in Ambleside, and all of then are warm and welcoming. You could phone one of the 19 Wordsworths listed in the local directory and see if they fancy coming out for a drink. But you may decide to go for a digestif in one instead, so you can take advantage of the dinner deal.

Demure dinner

Zefferelli's, anchored to the western side of the Ambleside one-way system, is that rare combination of pizzeria and cinema. For less than pounds 15 you get a three-course dinner and a ticket for one of the two screens in the concise cinema beneath the restaurant. The sun-dried tomato in the Mediterranean pizza may be the closest you get to solar energy in the Lakes. Then you can descend to watch Titanic sink.

Sunday morning: go to church

Troutbeck is a crumpled, wind-whipped village a couple of miles inshore from Windermere, and the Jesus Church is set beneath it in the valley. It takes a while to find, but the effort is rewarded by one of the most sublime churches in England. The leading Pre-Raphaelites came here on holiday once, and left their exquisite mark on the east window, which bears Burne-Jones's and William Morris's flamboyant signatures.

A walk in the park

You're already in one. Most of this area is part of the National Park established in 1951. The finest park-within-a-park is just above Ambleside; nip up the lane between Barclay's Bank and the Market Hall, and you will reach Stock Ghyll Park, where a dramatic half-hour hike reveals a first- rate waterfall on a hillside bedecked with daffs.

The icing (or ice-pick?) on the cake

Residents of Kendal, the town apart from the Lake District proper, may by this stage be wondering impatiently just when their austere yet intricate abode will appear. The finest man-made attraction has been saved until last. Within the heavy stone of Abbot Hall, the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry tells the human history of the region with a light touch.

Best of all is the Arthur Ransome room, where the tangled affairs of the master of Lakeland prose are unravelled. The desk of the man who wrote Swallows and Amazons looks as though he has just stepped away from it for a minute; indeed, I haven't seen anything quite like it since visiting Leon Trostky's study at the revolutionary's former home in Mexico City.

Curiously, Mr Ransome married Leon Trotsky's secretary.