Rob Cowan needed a break from London, so he took a remedial ramble around Ullswater

I firmly believe there is a breaking point for all London Underground commuters and mine was at 8.38am on a Friday morning. Wedged into a neck-snapping position with an armpit against my cheek, I strained for the last few particles of oxygen only to receive a sneeze in the face. Turning to escape the repeat blast, I inhaled someone's hair, which stuck to my face like sweat-flavoured candyfloss.

By the time the carriages voided their contents at Tottenham Court Road, I knew my sanity depended upon my escaping the Smoke that night. There wasn't time for protracted discussions about where to go; this was a matter of urgency. My soul was crying out for an immediate 48-hour detox somewhere wild and rugged, somewhere I knew I could rely on: the mountainous majesty of the Lake District.

Eight hours later, plans had been rearranged and diaries hastily cleared. My fiancée Rosie and myself, as well as two equally city-weary adventurers, Tim and Lizzie, were jammed in my rusty Volkswagen with sleeping bags piled on laps, making an impromptu bolt for freedom up the M6.

The trip from London to this stunning corner of north-west England may be a bit of a schlep, but every mile chalked on the motorway seemed to strip away another layer of stress. Driving through Lune Gorge in the gathering darkness, the beautiful Howgill Fells massed around us. By the time we pulled off the A66 and joined the spectacular shore road by Ullswater, the moon was shining across the still, black surface and Lizzie, a Lake District novice, was gasping with wonder at the inky crags and twinkling farm lights.

Just beyond the village of Glenridding, I gave the suspension a shock on a rough track marked "Side Farm". Side Farm's campsite is tucked away underneath the improbably steep Plaice Fell, right on the southern bank of Ullswater. Booking in at the credit-crunching price of £10 each for two nights, we hastily erected our tents in the beam of the car headlights, which shimmered down through the trees and onto the water below. Hot power showers and clean, warm clothes felt wonderful and, cracking open a couple of local beers from the farm shop, we ambled back down the track towards the lights of Glenridding for dinner, listening to the therapeutic "baas" of sheep coming from the hills.

The Ratchers Tavern in Glenridding might not be The Ivy, but the food is reasonably-priced and designed for ravenous fell walkers. Hearty lasagne washed down with numerous pints of Jennings Cumberland Ale gave us enough energy to take the moonlit stroll back towards the campsite, when we decided on catching last orders in the Patterdale Hotel. Here we were furnished with options for plenty of possible walks for the morning. We snuggled into our sleeping bags well-watered, and drifted off in the blissful silence.

Morning came with the inevitable sounds of tent zips and the smell of cooking bacon. We rose and bought some supplies from the shop and soon had eggy bread and coffee on the go.

The views had been tantalisingly hidden in the darkness the night before, but morning brought magical and uninterrupted sweeps of Helvellyn's high summit and the crystal blue of Ullswater.

Adopting the hardy Lakeland spirit, we strapped on backpacks and walked directly up from Side Farm towards Angle Tarn on a sheer footpath that rewarded every leg-breaking yard with even more breathtaking sights. It's not hard to see why Wordsworth and Keats pounded these paths for poetic inspiration and, as we joked and puffed our way up, the stresses and strains of life seemed dwarfed by the spectacular greens, browns and blues of the fells. Stopping at the tarn, we lunched on sandwiches and thick Glenridding flapjack, before completing a fantastic seven-mile horseshoe down to Hartsop village, past Brothers Water and back to the campsite.

Rosie and Lizzie headed for hot showers but in the interests of manliness Tim and I stripped to boxers and plunged our aching limbs into Ullswater. We disguised the deep gasps of shock as whoops of joy, but the freezing water had us running out in seconds, with an invigorating adrenalin rush.

As afternoon drew into another clement, if cold, evening, we sat around the tents tasting Cumberland ales and hanging red and blue nightsticks in the trees around us. In this neon dell, Rosie cooked up a winning corn beef hash using a disposable barbecue and a camping stove, before the draw of sticky toffee pudding had us fairly jogging down to the White Lion in Patterdale. After another moonlit stagger back to the frosty tents, I barely had the strength to take my boots off. However, for the second night running, I shut my eyes and woke nine hours later feeling fully refreshed.

We struck camp with heavy hearts as the bright sun dried the morning dew. Over charred sausages, we watched a few boats tacking lazily across the lake. There was just time for us to fill our lungs with pure air via an amble along Ullswater's southern shoreline to a tree-covered promontory. Here, our frantic waving drew a horn-blast from the steamer and reduced us all to childlike giddiness.

As a restorative break, it was mission accomplished: I even felt ready to catch the Tube again.

Traveller's Guide

Side Farm Campsite (01768 482337), Patterdale, Cumbria, CA11 0NP (adult £5 per night; child £3; vehicles £2)

The Patterdale Hotel (01768 482231), Patterdale, Cumbria, CA11 0NN

The Ratchers Tavern (01768 482228), Glenridding Hotel, Glenridding, Cumbria, CA11 0PB

The White Lion (01768 482214), Patterdale Cumbria, CA11 0NW

For more information on the Lake District National Park, go to