Even the Himalayas can't compare with the beauty of Lakeland
He's explored the world's greatest landscapes, but Sir Chris Bonington's heart will always belong to the Lake District. On the eve of the Cumberland Ale Keswick Mountain Festival, he reveals his best-loved walks – and pints
Sunday 11 May 2008
There are two things I insist on doing every time I return home to the Lake District after a long trip away. The first is to climb High Pike, the fell which stands just behind my cottage near Caldbeck. It's a gentle climb and one that my dog, Jessie, and I must have walked a thousand times. The second is to head down to the nearby village of Hesket Newmarket to have a pint of locally brewed beer in the Old Crown. That's when I feel as if I've really come home.
I've seen many magnificent views in my lifetime – the Himalayas, Arctic Norway, parts of South America – but I've never seen anywhere more beautiful than the Lake District. What's so special is that this remarkable landscape is packed into a very, very small area. And it has an incredible variety of scenery – each valley has its own distinct character and there's an extraordinary range of colours that you just don't find elsewhere. Even places like Nepal have a uniformity to their colours and views.
The Lakes offer endless drama and beauty through the seasons. And it's wonderful that the hand of man has had an influence, but an influence that's in harmony with the natural beauty: the sheep, the dry-stone walls and the farmhouses all add to the picture, not detract from it.
Next week, thousands of people will visit the Cumberland Ale Keswick Mountain Festival. I will be speaking at the event this year – it is a wonderful way to find out more about walking, climbing and outdoor adventure in general. I always find time to walk in the Lakes, whether with Jessie or accompanied by friends and family. I'm not one who always follows a Wainwright route. What I love to do is explore: have a look at a good map, then get out there and do it.
One walk I'm very, very fond of is the trek up Ullock Pike to Skiddaw, the mountain that dominates Keswick. It's the best approach to Skiddaw and the summit of Ullock Pike has views across to the Vale of Keswick. There are three possible starting points: my preferred one is from Dodd Wood, which at this time of year offers a viewing point for the Bassenthwaite ospreys. These extraordinary birds return here each year – they seem to love the Lakes as much as I do.
Coledale Horseshoe is another personal favourite. Starting from the village of Braithwaite in the northern Lakes, the route takes in the summits of Grisedale Pike, Hopegill Head, Eel Crag, Sail and Outerside. Five summits in one day is a pretty considerable achievement and the views will stay with you for much longer.
On a clear day, I often head out from Seathwaite in Borrowdale to Scafell Pike. Spring is the perfect time to march up Scafell. It can get busy but I don't mind. If crowds don't appeal, there are corners of the Lakes where you can still wander as lonely as a cloud. Between Wasdale and Ennerdale there's a huge area of wild, bleak fells where you can walk all day and see no one.
For me, there's no greater escape from the world than rock climbing. When you're climbing you're just focused on the rock in front of your nose, but when it's your climbing partner's turn you have time to contemplate and enjoy the beauty below. The rock climbing in the Lakes takes me to my limit – even at my best I haven't done the hardest climbs. You can get an introductory taste of the sport at the Keswick Mountain Festival.
More often than not these days, I return to my old favourites. The place I head to more than any other is Shepherd's Crag above Derwentwater. My favourite view in the world is from the top of Shep's Crag. It's stunning; down to the lake with Catbells on the left. I've gazed across here for countless hours.
Another special view for me is from the top of Buckstone Howe above Honister Pass. I think Buttermere is a lovely valley, and it was a huge favourite of Wainwright's, too. Ennerdale is another magical place. It is here you'll find the country's finest youth hostel. Forget fancy hotels – Black Sail Youth Hostel is unique. It's a simple, seemingly unremarkable shepherd's bothy set in the most remarkable position, surrounded by some of the country's greatest peaks. Sitting outside the hostel in the evening, after a long day on the fells with the sun setting behind Great Gable, is one of life's perfect moments. Add a pint of locally brewed real ale and it's even better.
My favourite pub is my local, the Old Crown. I must confess a vested interested here, as the pub is a co-operative and I am one of the co-owners of the on-site brewery. But the beer is truly the best I've tasted and I don't think you can better the atmosphere. It's genuinely a community pub – owned and loved by local people. It's an honest and friendly place which I cherish, and the Sunday roasts are a real treat.
If I'm splashing out, my wife Wendy and I head to Lyzzick Hall in Keswick. It's all you want from a country house hotel – the service, food and style are impeccable. And when I crave Indian food, which I often do, there's no finer curry house than Lakeland Spice in Keswick. You will often find me here on a Friday evening.
Travelling so very often as I do – Australia and Nepal so far this year – you do need a sound base. The Lake District is mine. I moved here by chance only, really, because I didn't know it very well. It was just somewhere I travelled through to get to the climbing in Scotland. But my wife and I loved it instantly. The lakes, the streams, the crags and the mountains make it an unbelievably beautiful place to live and visit. I've been here, in the same house, for 35 years and I've no intention of ever leaving.
Insiders' Guide: Bonington's best of the Lakes
Cumberland Ale Keswick Mountain Festival, 14-18 May
During these action-packed five days of walks, talks and mountain-related activities you can try your hand at skills such as slacklining – an exciting sport that is similar to tightrope walking. Or try mountain biking or canoeing, learn to navigate using GPS technology, have a go at dry-stone walling or do some Nordic walking.
In addition to me, speakers at the festival include Julia Bradbury, who presented the 'Wainwright Walks' series on the BBC, and climbers Alan Hinkes and Doug Scott. A full programme of events is available on the website ( www.keswickmountainfestival.co.uk).
The Old Crown, Hesket Newmarket
Run by Malcolm and Pat Hawksworth, the pub, above, is owned by a co-operative of more than 100 local people and other supporters who saved it from the threat of closure. It serves the very best real ales, all brewed by the Hesket Newmarket Brewery which stands at the rear of pub ( www.theoldcrownpub.co.uk).
Lyzzick Hall, Keswick
A haven of loveliness set on the lower slopes of Skiddaw. The rooms are comfy and the food is country-house style with plenty of game and locally sourced fish on offer. It also has an excellent wine cellar ( www.lyzzickhall.co.uk).
Black Sail Youth Hostel, Ennerdale
This legendary youth hostel is accessible only on foot. It's back to basics in all but the views, which are five star ( www.yha.org).
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