Off-peak in the Lake District

Never mind the official name; last Saturday, the national park surrounding England's lakeland was the Late District. Anyone who had not booked a space at a local campsite early enough was turned away. The narrow Victorian roads between Windermere and Bowness were gridlocked, and the schedule for the open-topped buses to William Wordsworth's former residence at Dove Cottage was in disarray.

Perhaps the poet himself was to blame: he declared the Lake District to be "national property, in which every man has a right and an interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy". (Theodore Roosevelt made a similar admonition, saying the Grand Canyon was "the one great sight which every American should see", but the great hole in the ground in Arizona is much harder to reach from big centres of population than is England's lakeland.) Yet Wordsworth was also the one who boasted of wandering "... lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o'er vales and hills". Is it possible, I speculated, to wander lonely as a cloud in the Lake District in the middle of August? Only one way to find out...

Windermere Railway station is now a supermarket, with rail passengers consigned to a bleak platform marooned amid car parks. But the grand old Windermere Hotel still stands, and just to the west of it you find a path to Orrest Head. Very soon you shrug off the noise and fumes at ground level and find yourself climbing through liberally gnarled and twisted woodland.

Within 15 purposeful minutes, you reach the summit of this decayed minor volcano - whereupon much of the North-west of England opens up before you. The peak is puny by Lake District standards, a mere 784 feet above sea level, yet lifts you enough to be able to peek east to the Pennines and south to Morecambe Bay. But your eye is captivated by the sight of Windermere stretched out in widescreen to the west - England's longest lake shimmering beneath you, heightening the impact of the fells on the far side of the water.

You are unlikely, though, to enjoy the view in the "bliss of solitude" that Wordsworth commended. On average, one new visitor arrives in the Lake District every two seconds, every day of the year, with the great majority of them concentrated in the summer months.

It takes only a tiny fraction of the temporary population to decide to tackle Orrest Head for the summit to become considerably more crowded than the security checkpoints at Heathrow. So, what does it take to go off-peak in the Lake District? Look north-east from Orrest Head, and you may find the answer.

That bare slope of a muscular fell is Applethwaite Common, wearing a scar that represents your escape route: an ancient track clawing its way across the hills into a nigh-forgotten glacial valley. And to find it, you need only take the main road one-third of a mile east from Windermere's sorry station. To the left, a sign directs you to Common Farm. A short way along this track, a 4x4 passed me - containing the only human soul I would see for the next six miles.

The track pushes north, climbing gently at first and passing a reservoir barely bigger than a bath. Following a short skirmish with a real road, it narrows, steepens and gets far more rough underfoot. The livestock who have travelled this way for centuries have had to cope with a trail fashioned from raw rock. It proves, however, extremely effective at taking you swiftly to the upwards end of a crush of contours; far below, an invitingly emerald vale is only slightly spoiled by an overbooked campsite.

Soon any pretence at pasture from the surrounding terrain is lost, as the track turns sharp right to carry you along the pass. Few pleasures in the great outdoors can match that of traversing a ridge that reveals a new valley. This one, carved in an Ice Age and now carrying the infant River Kent, seems to have little connection with the vale you have just left: empty and untouched, save for a haphazard patchwork of meadows and the occasional isolated house. And besides the fresh new view, you know it is all downhill from here.

Clattering down the rough path, I paused to drink deeply from a young, cool and clear stream - the first water for a couple of hours. This sustained me for a further 30 minutes, which is how long it took before I encountered the first humans. Unfortunately, they were dead, being the occupants of the churchyard of St Cuthbert's in the scattered village of Kentmere. A few minutes later, a car tooted past, and almost at once I met a couple of fellow hikers: rush-hour in eastern Cumbria.

Further research suggests the cloud-like loneliness I had savoured was aided by the curious bus scheduling in the valley. The good news is that it has its very own, branded bus, the Kentmere Rambler. The bad news is that it runs only on Sundays and public holidays. And if you miss the 4.55pm on Sunday, 17 September, you will have to wait eight months for the next one. Or you could do what I did, which is to descend on foot to the main road at Staveley, savouring the river's performance in picking up speed even as it widens, and the way the forest closes in - a blanket of shade and calm that will suffice for "bliss of solitude" until our favourite national park imposes a visitors' congestion charge - all proceeds towards efforts to preserve a host of daffodils.

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