Neighbourhood Watch: Keswick

A market town that has stunning views, great walks, cute cottages, good schools and smart restaurants – what's not to like? By Jonathan Christie
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The Independent Online

So it's official. According to ITV's The Nation's Favourite View, Wastwater in the Lake District has Britain's most-loved vista. For the thousands of holidaymakers who flock to the area every year, this comes as no surprise, but what are the Lakeland towns like to live in? Are they just tourist stopovers that lie empty during the winter months, or do they manage to remain living places all year round?

One of the prettiest has to be Keswick. There aren't many towns in Britain that are surrounded by lush woodland as well as high peaks, and it's this sense of being enclosed by the huge bulk of Skiddaw on one side and the stillness of Derwentwater on the other that sets Keswick apart.

It's a busy market town with a population of about 4,500 and while the tourists come and go, Keswick's permanent community gets on with life. The local Borrowdale stone is very prominent, having a green-blue-grey hue that changes with the light and weather. Solid, vernacular buildings, often with deep green woodwork or guttering, jumble the streets as evidence of a Victorian boom. The result is a rich tapestry of shapes and sizes – there's definitely something for everyone.

House prices tend to average about £60,000 above the national average, but this is a distortion of the truth. In previous years, the typical house-hunter was looking for a stone cottage, next to a lake, with half a mile of driveway. These properties carry a huge premium and don't represent the housing stock of the town itself. Canny buyers should look closer at Keswick to find the period gems and cute cottages that offer much better value.

History suggests that the town was originally named "Cese-wic". But the discovery of black lead in the 16th century sparked off a pencil-making industry still going strong to this day and, bizarrely, Keswick is the proud home of the world's largest pencil. But it's tourism that dominates now. The town is large enough to cope with the influx of walkers – unlike the smaller village of Grasmere nearby – and the mix of shops indicates the importance of the seasonal in-comers.

Outdoor clothing is easily found but then so is the chemist, baker and stationers. The pace of life is slower, the houses are pretty, the shops are thriving, and some of our best countryside is on your doorstep. Do you need to tick any more boxes?

Your kind of people?

The good folk of Keswick enjoy their annual celebrations with the film, beer and jazz festivals all drawing thousands of people to the area. May sees the town's half-marathon loop through the folds and fells of Borrowdale and back, while the less physical take in a season at the Theatre by the Lake or hit the cinema. There are various pubs, cafés and restaurants, with a wide selection of tastes catered for including the smart Morrels restaurant and the fusion of Lemon & Lime, both on Lake Road. If it's an old-fashioned cuppa you're after, take it in style at the sedate Skiddaw Hotel on Main Street.

Can you shop 'til you drop?

The year of 1276 saw Edward I grant the town its market charter, and the bustling Saturday market continues to this day. High quality offerings are to found at the excellent Booths, the Waitrose of the North, and the best Aberdeen Angus steak is to be had at Thomason's Butchers on Station Street. For outdoor gear, the oldest, and the best, is still George Fisher's Climbing Shop.

Green and pleasant?

In the centre of Keswick the Moot Hall dominates the pretty market square. The lack of cars here is a welcome relief. Fitz Park, only a short stroll away, offers a manicured contrast to the surrounding wilderness with the River Greta snaking round an ornamental garden.

Do the schools make the grade?

Keswick's local primary, Braithwaite CofE, holds its own against the national average or, if you don't mind a longer school run, Lorton school (seven miles away) achieves top marks. Keswick secondary has a 72 per cent pass rate at GCSE, well above the average for a comprehensive, while potential high-flyers will find that the mixed foundation school Queen Elizabeth Grammar enjoyed a 100 per cent GCSE pass rate in 2006.

What's nearby?

The most obvious local attractions are the soaring mountains themselves. Grab yourself a Wainwright guide and an OS map and hit the slopes. There's something for every level of walker from the gentle climb of Helm's Crag to the main trophy of Scafell Pike, the highest peak in England. Whether messing about on the lakes or following the heritage trails of Beatrix Potter and Wordsworth, it's not all for the tourists, and out of season, you'll pretty much have the place to yourself. The M6 runs within striking distance of Keswick as does the West Coast Main Line station at Penrith.


For sale

Mountain views - £985,000

This vast, seven-bedroomed country house has its own sweeping drive and nine acres of grounds. It's a few miles from Keswick and, as well as six reception rooms, there's a separate cottage and spectacular views of Skiddaw.

Carter Jonas: 01539 722 592;

Letting potential - £256,000

This charming, four-bedroom terrace house is constructed of local stone and still retains its Victorian sash windows. It has three floors, a 23-foot living room and there's a large, shared garden.

Keswick Estate Agents: 01768 775 252;

Victorian grandeur - £410,000

This four-bedroom house has generous rooms and an Aga in the kitchen. Outbuildings, off-road parking and a delightful view over Fitz Park make this an ideal family home with B&B potential.

Keswick Estate Agents, as above