The Complete Guide To: Cumbria

Hike to your heart's content, feast on great local produce, admire the lakes and potter in the footsteps of Beatrix. You'll be as inspired as Wordsworth by this vast and varied region, says Cathy Packe


YOU MEAN THE LAKE DISTRICT?

That's only part of it. Although the Lake District National Park covers a large part of the county, Cumbria has far more to offer than lakes and mountains. There is a long coastline punctuated by isolated beaches and headlands; the Eden Valley, with its mountain walks and gentle rivers; and the largest town, Carlisle, close to the western end of Hadrian's Wall.

Carlisle is England's full stop, historically the custodian of the border with Scotland - or, for three centuries, the lawless "Debatable Lands". The city has long been on the edge. It grew up as the lowest bridging point over the river Eden, at the head of the Solway Firth, and stands at the western end of the narrowest neck of land between the Irish Sea and the North Sea.

The city's turbulent history is traced at Tullie House (01228 534 781; www.tulliehouse.co.uk; open daily, admission adults £5.20). A series of dramatic exhibits tells the story of the city with flair, but the free-access areas should not be overlooked: busts of Roman, Celtic and Scottish figures, the latter being Robert Burns, for whom Carlisle was a more accessible city than the Scots capital, Edinburgh.

Most of the 16 million or so visitors who head for the north-west corner of England each year, though, are attracted by the Lake District, west of the M6 and stretching from Caldbeck in the north as far as Lindale in the south. The area is sparsely populated: only around 40,000 people live in a space equivalent to the area withinthe M25. So even at the height of the summer season, it is still possible to find an isolated hillside or deserted footpath.

IDEAL FOR WANDERING LONELY AS A CLOUD?

There are more than 2,000 miles of footpaths in the Lake District alone, so this is perfect walking country: it would be possible to hike six miles a day for 10 years and never walk along the same stretch of path twice. The classic hike through a beautiful county is the Cumbria Way, a 68-mile walk across the heart of the Lake District, starting in Ulverston and ending in Carlisle (most people prefer to make the journey in this direction). It grazes Coniston, scales Stake Pass and flanks Derwentwater, ending with a rewarding canter into the city. And with England's five highest peaks, including the tallest, Scafell Pike, all in the Lakes, there are plenty of high-level challenges too.

Information on specific routes is available from local tourist offices ( www.golakes.co.uk); the Ordnance Survey Explorer maps are also extremely useful to walkers ( www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk).

It is possible to walk throughout the year, although even in summer, weather conditions can change suddenly. To check the weather forecast, call the Lake District Weatherline on 0870 055 0575 ( www.lake-district.gov.uk/weatherline).

Walking in Cumbria will always be synonymous with Alfred Wainwright. Born and bred in Blackburn, he took a holiday in the Lake District at the age of 23, about which he later wrote: "that week changed my life". His seven-volume guide covers the 214 fells of the Lake District. He was also the creator of the Coast to Coast Walk, a footpath which starts at St Bees Head on the Cumbrian coast, crosses the Lake District National Park, and ends 192 miles later at Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire. Alfred Wainwright died in 1991, and his ashes were scattered on his favourite mountain, Haystacks, above the village of Buttermere.

AND WHERE DID WORDSWORTH WANDER?

Lakeland's most famous poet got his inspiration from the landscape around his home in Grasmere. He was born on the coast, on Main Street in Cockermouth. Wordsworth House (01900 820 884; www.wordsworthhouse.org.uk), as his birthplace is now known, is open to the public, and actors in costume help to recreate life as it might have been during the 1770s, when Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived here. Admission is £4.90, and the house opens 11am-4.30pm Monday-Saturday, from 26 March until 27 October. Wordsworth went to school in Hawkshead before moving to the West Country, but all his childhood memories were of the Lakes, and when he found that Dove Cottage in Grasmere was available to rent, he seized the chance to go back home. Wordsworth was a great walker, thinking nothing of a 20-mile trek over the mountains as far as Keswick. He composed poetry in his head which he then dictated to the ladies of the house on his return.

Dove Cottage (01539 435 544; www.wordsworth.org.uk) is open to the public 9.30am-5.30pm daily, and admission costs £6.20. Visitors can tour the rooms in which he lived, and also visit the modern, purpose-built museum that houses a collection of Wordsworth's manuscripts, personal possessions and memorabilia.

The host of golden daffodils that feature in his famous poem were the result of a spring stroll around Ullswater. But a couple of miles from Grasmere is Dora's Field, a patch of ground next to the church at Rydal where he intended to build a house for his daughter. After she died, William and his wife planted hundreds of daffodils in her memory; which still bloom there in the spring.

WHICH LAKES SHOULD I HEAD FOR?

There are 16 to choose from, so it depends what you are looking for. The deepest is Wastwater and the longest, Windermere: almost 11 miles from north to south, it contains 14 islands, only one of which, Belle Isle, is inhabited. Coniston was the lake on which Donald Campbell attempted to break the world water-speed record and where he died 40 years ago this year. The same lake was an inspiration to the children's writer, Arthur Ransome, who turned it into the fictional North Country Lake in his Swallows and Amazons series.

Boat services operate on the larger lakes; on Windermere, for example, a car ferry (0870 608 2608) takes passengers from Far Sawrey to Bowness, a five-minute trip that saves a 14-mile road journey around the top of the lake. Windermere Lake Cruises (01539 440 345; www.windermere-lakecruises.co.uk) operates several services a day, every day except Christmas, linking Lakeside, Bowness and Waterhead near Ambleside. A ticket giving unlimited travel for 24 hours costs £14.

Solar-powered launches are operated on Coniston Water (01539 436 216; www.conistonlaunch.co.uk), while old-fashioned steamers sail the length of Ullswater (01768 482 229; www.ullswater-steamers.co.uk). Sightseeing cruises operate on Derwentwater, where it is also possible to hire rowing boats (£8.50 per hour) or cabin cruisers (£22 per hour). These are all available from Keswick Launch (01768 772 263; www.keswick-launch.co.uk).

There are no cruises on some of the smaller lakes, but there are plenty of other activities. At Ridding Wood on Esthwaite Water, for example, there is a trout farm (01539 436 541; www.hawksheadtrout.com), and fishing permits are available from the Boat House, either in advance or after 9am each day. Esthwaite Water also attracts artists, and is recognisable in Beatrix Potter'sThe Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher.

SO I CAN'T AVOID BEATRIX POTTER?

No - if only because, were it not for Miss Potter, the area would be a very different place today. She did a lot for the Lake District, according to Megan Doole of the National Trust, the organisation which, on her death, inherited 14 farms and more than 4,000 acres of land which she owned.

"From the 1920s, the Lake District was threatened by holiday home development," explains Doole. "She actively started buying a lot of land because she wanted the old hill-farming tradition to stay, as well as the local breed of sheep, the Herdwicks, and all the spectacular views."

Among Beatrix Potter's purchases was the Monk Coniston Estate which includes Tarn Hows, one of the most scenic spots in the area, and a popular place for walkers, who can choose between the mountain slopes, or the shore of Coniston Water.

The best-known Beatrix Potter attraction is Hill Top (01539 436 269; www.nationaltrust.org.uk), the farmhouse in Near Sawrey that she bought in 1905, while she was still living in London. It now opens 10.30am-4.30pm Saturday-Thursday from 28 May-31 August; Saturday-Wednesday from 31 March-27 May and 1 September-21 October; and daily 22-28 October. Admission is £5.40.

The Beatrix Potter Gallery on Main Street in Hawkshead (01539 436 355; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) is housed in what were once the offices of her husband, William Heelis. The gallery contains a changing selection of the watercolours and sketches with which the writer illustrated her books.

If pictures are not enough, there is a three-dimensional adaptation of all the tales at the World of Beatrix Potter in the Old Laundry at Bowness-on-Windermere (01539 488 444; www.hop-skip-jump.com). It opens 10am-5.30pm daily in summer, until 4.30pm in winter, and admission is £6.

ANY OTHER FAMILY ATTRACTIONS?

One of the most enjoyable experiences, as long as you are of an adventurous disposition, is Go Ape (0870 458 9189; www.goape.co.uk), a challenging series of zip-wire slides, rope bridges and tarzan swings that will convey you through Grizedale Forest, 40 feet up in the trees. Participants must be at least 10 years old and 4ft 7in tall. Go Ape opens daily from 23 March until 2 November, 10-25 February, and weekends in November. Admission is £25.

Younger - or more nervous - families might prefer the gentler attractions of Muncaster (01229 717 614; www.muncaster.co.uk), with its owl centre, * * maze and 800-year-old castle. Located close to Ravenglass, it opens 10.30am-6pm daily from 10 February-4 November; the castle opens noon-5pm Sunday-Friday. Admission is £7 for the grounds, £9.50 if you visit the castle.

While you are in Ravenglass, it would be a shame to miss the opportunity for a trip on the lovely narrow gauge railway (01229 717 171; www.ravenglass-railway.co.uk). Built to transport granite from the inland quarries to the coast, it was rescued by a group of railway enthusiasts when the quarries closed down, and now takes visitors on a scenic ride as far as Eskdale, at a top speed of 15mph. Trains operate daily from mid-March to early November, as well as weekends and school holidays during winter. Return tickets costs £9.60, although some people prefer to take a one-way trip, returning on foot or by bike.

ANY OTHER WAYS TO GET AROUND?

A paperback, Getting Around Cumbria and the Lake District, will make life much easier for anyone who wisely decides to tackle Cumbria by public transport, rather than by car. It contains comprehensive details of bus, postbus, train and ferry services in the county. The core route is the 555 bus, which runs regularly between Keswick and Kendal, via Ambleside and Grasmere.

Much of the scenery that so attracted Wordsworth and the other Lakeland poets, such as Coleridge and Southey, lies along this route. You can get the guide free from tourist information offices; but given the possible changes to services you are advised to call the Cumbria Traveline on 08706 082 608 before setting out.

For those who like the idea of travelling by road, but don't want to negotiate the steep mountain passes and narrow lanes themselves, Mountain Goat (01539 445 161; www.mountain-goat.com) can offer guided sightseeing trips by car or minibus. The drivers are knowledgeable and are happy to adapt any itinerary to suit their passengers. Half-day tours are available from £18.95.

You could, of course, cycle. First, establish whether the wind is blowing more from the west (the prevailing direction) than the east; if so, start on the east coast, not the west. The C2C is one of Britain's classic bike rides, taking you from the Irish Sea, at either Whitehaven or Workington, to the North Sea across the brutal spine of the Pennines, including plenty of rewarding off-road stretches. To cover the ground in two days is tough; in one day, almost impossible (but not impossible enough to deter some incredibly fit and mad cyclists).

CAN I GET A DECENT MEAL?

Certainly - and the choice is enormous. At one end of the scale, four Cumbrian restaurants, all with hotels attached, have Michelin stars: Gilpin Lodge (01539 488 818; www.gilpinlodge.co.uk) and Holbeck Ghyll (01539 432 375; www.holbeckghyll.com), both near Windermere; L'Enclume at Cartmel (01539 536 362; www.lenclume.co.uk); and Sharrow Bay, on the shores of Ullswater (01768 486 301; www.sharrowbay.co.uk). There is also a good choice of gastropubs in the region, one of the most popular of which is the Drunken Duck, near Coniston Water (01539 436 347; www.drunkenduckinn.co.uk). But good quality food is widely available in Cumbria these days, whether you are looking for real Cumberland sausage or jams and chutneys made from locally grown fruit. The policy of Lucy Nicholson, who runs Lucy's of Ambleside, is to source locally, which she thinks is important to the people who buy from her deli and café on Church Street (01539 431 191; www.lucysofambleside.co.uk) and eat in her bistro at 2 St Mary's Lane (01539 434 666). "Cumbria offers wonderful Herdwick lamb great cheeses and fabulous organic farms."

GOOD PLACES TO STAY?

There is a wide choice of accommodation, from cosy cottages to luxurious country house hotels, including the place where Beatrix Potter spent her holidays as a child. Lindeth Howe, on Lindeth Drive at Longtail Hill on Windermere (01539 445 759; www.lindeth-howe.co.uk) was later bought by the writer for her mother, and is now a beautiful hotel set in six acres of private gardens.

Traditional coaching inns include the King's Head at Thirlmere (01768 772 393) and the Travellers' Rest at Grasmere (01539 435 604).

Farm-stays of various kinds, from bed and breakfast to self-catering, are available through websites such as www.luxuryinafarm.co.uk and www.golakes.co.uk/enjoythefarm.

ANY CULTURAL ATTRACTIONS?

Most people go to Cumbria to enjoy the outdoor life, but there are a couple of real cultural treasures that should be on any visitor's itinerary. One is Blackwell (01539 446 139; www.blackwell.org.uk), on the shores of Windermere at Bowness. Built as a holiday home - albeit a rather elaborate one - for a brewing family from Manchester, it was designed by the architect Baillie Scott in the Arts and Crafts style. Its grand Main Hall, with its wood panelling and first-floor gallery contrasts with the lightness of the White Drawing Room, which has a spectacular view over the lake. It opens 10.30am-4pm daily, until 5pm from April to October, and admission is £5.45. Ruskin's own home, Brantwood (01539 441 396; www.brantwood.org.uk), overlooks Coniston and is set in a 250-acre estate. Its seven rooms are furnished with their original furniture, and many of Ruskin's personal possessions. It opens 11am-5.30pm daily from mid-March to mid-October, and 11am-4.30pm Wednesday-Sunday the rest of the year; admission £5.95.

You can download or view Simon Calder's film on Cumbria at www.independent.co.uk/thelakes

WORKING UP A THIRST

There is a growing number of breweries in the region, most of them small establishments like the Hawkshead Brewery (01539 822 644; www.hawksheadbrewery.co.uk), based in the Mill Yard in Staveley, which was founded five years ago by Alex Brodie. As head brewer, Brodie is constantly aiming to add to his range, which currently includes five regular beers. Thes can be sampled in his on-site beer hall and in a number of local hostelries.

He welcomes the growth of the small, independent brewery as a return to the days before the monopolies and mergers culture took over.

"We small brewers are taking back our national drink," he says, "returning us to a time when, once again, there's a brewery in every town or every village."

Not quite every village yet - but there are already 22 independent breweries in Cumbria.

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