Rating England: No 5 Cumbria - Off the fells and into the dining room

Fantastic views, fresh air and exercise - but the real point of climbing is the huge meal that follows, and the Lakes can take care of that

A THUMBNAIL sketch of the Lake District draws the north as wildly beautiful, the west as majestically remote, the south as pretty but touristy and the east, the Eden Valley, as the undiscovered gem. And, everywhere, mountains and sheep. The whole area retains an old-fashioned charm that remains, for the most part, unfazed by the tourists' stare. This article concentrates on the north and east.

WHERE TO START, in the best walking area in the country? Apart from Wainwright, a good guide is Best Walks in The Lake District by Frank Duerden (Constable). Walking the Great Views by Roland Smith (David and Charles) includes some of the Lakeland classics and themes walks according to geology, legends, literature and monumental views.

The slacker walker, who wants maximum view for minimum puff, should go to Cat Bells, the deservedly popular "family fell" where Beatrix Potter set Mrs Tiggywinkle. The route up is easy to follow and rewarded with incredible views of the wind-blown light and islands of Derwentwater on one side and the Newlands Valley on the other. All around are fells of such grandeur and personality that you could spend hours letting your eyes wander slowly over their shapes. Nearby, Keswick's quintessential local museum has a Victorian seven-octave xylophone made out of Skiddaw slate, which you are still allowed to play.

In the Eden valley, the walks at the Nunnery, romantically landscaped in the 18th century, include a dramatic waterfall, the Eden River gorge and quiet woodlands.

THE FARMHOUSE Kitchen at the Nunnery (01768 898537) has good local ingredients, cakes and newspapers. This is the venue for a long, extraordinary stop- off: the weekend historic food courses run by Ivan Day (01931 716266). These explore authentic period cookery and produce some of the most interesting and exciting food I've ever eaten, including proper, succulent roasts, spit-roasted before a fire, and exquisite 18th-century biscuits and confectionery.

The Hesket Newmarket Brewery (016974 78066) was set up by Jim Fernley, a former maths lecturer who spent a sabbatical looking at small breweries and then set up his own. Most of the beers are named after various fells but the most popular was created to fete his mother-in-law: Dorris' 90th Birthday Ale. There are tours of the brewery on Wednesdays and on other days for groups of 10 or more. All the beers are served at the village pub, The Old Crown Inn (016974 78288).

The Duke's Head in Armathwaite serves good food, such as potted shrimps from Morecambe Bay, seasoned with mace and served hot, and delicious roast duck. Here, and elsewhere in the north, look out for the superior Seabrooks crisps.

THE BEST FOOD is often the simplest and the freshest, produced with care and generosity. La Casa Verde in Melkinthorpe (01931 712404)) serves just this, and with the style and spirit of Italian al fresco dining. This is a place where you can sit on a balcony eating crisp-crusted pizza made in a wood-fired oven followed by rich, nubbly Italian cakes. There is Italian opera to make your spirit soar, good espresso and views across to mountains. Is this Umbria, or Cumbria? Peter Stott, the owner, built the oven and restaurant himself as part of the remarkable Larch Cottage Nurseries, full of statues and stained glass as well as plants. Ingredients are organic, when possible, and prices amazingly reasonable for such quality. An asparagus and blue cheese pizza and fresh, interesting salads, including the springiest of spinach leaves, cost pounds 4.95; a delicious chocolate and hazelnut cake was pounds 1.75.

A more old-fashioned, blow-out form of Lakeland eating is in the country house hotel. Two notable ones are on either side of Ullswater, perhaps the most beautiful of the lakes. Andrew McGeorge, a Cumbrian native, has cooked at the Rampsbeck Hotel in Watermillock (01768 486442) for 10 years while imported chefs have tired of sheep and rain and run off to London. Many of his dishes have a good twist. An Amaretto souffle came with a Florentine ice-cream, and a herb salad served with red mullet had the aniseed fragrance of tarragon. Set menus (including a vegetarian one) cost pounds 25 or pounds 38. It is an unstuffy place in a glorious position. I loved my waitress for singing as she walked down the corridor and admitting that a glorious sunrise could distract her and the guests from the business of breakfast.

Sharrow Bay is an English institution, celebrating its 50th birthday, that runs with the well-oiled smoothness of a Victorian household stuffed with servants (there are 53 staff and room for 50 guests). There is very much a Sharrow Bay Way, with its own plush patina. Dinner starts with drinks in front of the picture postcard window, looking onto Ullswater and tumbling layers of mountains, and proceeds through to puddings you have seen on display on the way into the dining room. My most memorable course in the pounds 45.25 set menu, was the starter of duck foie gras on stuffed pigs totters with pease pudding.

THE TOFFEE SHOP in Penrith (01768 862008) simply makes three kinds of superb fudge - butter, chocolate and mint - and two types of toffee, butter and treacle, using exactly the same recipe as the woman who set up the business 80 years ago. Grahams in Penrith is a period piece of a shop selling many of the best Cumbrian foods, including Woodall's hams and bacons, the sticky toffee pudding made at Cartmell post office and Thornby Moor Dairy cheeses. The lakeland Herdwick lamb, fed on the heather and other flora of the fells, can be sent by mail order or bought in Calthwaite at Angus Quality Meats (01768 885384). The Watermill at Little Salkeld (01768 881523) has a craft shop, great flours and interesting booklets explaining organic flour, baking and milling. The style is apparent from the moment you go through the pink door.

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