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The Lake poets' Cumbria: Wander lonely – and happily – as a cloud

Not all writers loved the Lake District. In his A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1722, Daniel Defoe said he found the Cumberland and Westmorland hills "high and formidable" with "a kind of unhospitable terror in them". They were, he said, "all barren and wild, of no use or advantage either to man or beast".

To later British writers they represented the Sublime and the Picturesque. Romantic travellers experienced a pagan awe in contemplating craggy rocks and soaring eminences. Visitors to Cumberland queued to drink in the majesty of Skiddaw, the looming threat of Helvellyn. And no poet ever found more divinity in a landscape than William Wordsworth found in the Lake District. For him, every rock and stream, valley and waterfall was infused with a "pantheistic" energy – not just a pretty sight, but an active power that could influence, even educate, mankind.

You can see why. However much I visit the place, I'm always bowled over by its beauty. From the front lawn of Holbeck Ghyll, the country house hotel that was the Earl of Lonsdale's shooting lodge in the 1880s, the view over Lake Windermere is stunning, taking in Belle Isle, Claife Heights and the looming threat of Langdale Pikes in the distance. You could spend days standing and gazing, reciting poetry, trying the cream teas and the venison steaks (Lake gastronomy has much improved) but the hotel thoughtfully thrusts a dozen suggested walks and drives into your hands: Tarn Hows, Coniston, Troutbeck. Literary pilgrims will take the Windermere ferry at Bowness (it runs every 20 minutes) and plunge into Wordsworthland.

You start at Hawkshead, where young William attended school, aged eight, after his mother died. He was born in 1770 in Cockermouth, scene of last year's lethal Cumbrian floods, though in his day only the "beauteous stream" of the Derwent flowed past the family garden. Much of the idealised childhood scenes of The Prelude can be traced to this town. Today, it's a dark, slightly forbidding place of ancient cottages, cobblestones, archways and a score of gift shops. From spring to autumn, you can visit William's school, now a Museum, and see the desk into which he carved the letters "WW". The house where he stayed, in a winding backstreet, is now a B&B.

North from Hawkshead, en route to bustling, modern Ambleside, you must look for The Drunken Duck in Barngates, one of the most popular gastropubs in the District. Sunday lunch with gigantic Yorkshire puddings is washed down by the local Cracker and Taglag ales.

North again from Ambleside, you pass the turning to Rydal Mount (where Wordsworth passed his latter days) and head for Grasmere. Dove Cottage is the holies of holies for the Wordsworth devotee. Its tiny rooms are panelled in dark wood, with low ceilings and an air of chronic claustrophobia. Here's the little hearth on which his sister Dorothy knocked up three meals a day. Here's the narrow bed which William shared with his wife, Mary, here's the chair in which he sat to compose poetry, and here (still working, amazingly) is the cuckoo clock with which he used to beguile visitors. And in a cabinet, here are the opium scales used by Thomas De Quincey, who took over the cottage after the Wordsworths left. Intriguing to think what a drug den it once was, when Coleridge and De Quincey both came a-calling.

William, Dorothy and Mary lived here from 1799 to 1808, in conditions close to poverty. The fire in their bedroom smoked unhealthily. The children slept in a room lined with newspaper. It's hardly surprising they spent as much time as possible out of doors. William and Dorothy were phenomenal walkers. De Quincey, in Recollection of the Lake Poets, calculates that Wordsworth's legs "must have traversed a distance of 175 to 180,000 English miles". Their walks inspired his poetry. We know the exact moment when Wordsworth first saw his immortal daffodils because Dorothy recorded it in her Journals.

She and William were walking on the shore of Ullswater Lake, south of Glencoyne Beck, on 15 April, 1802. The wind was furious, the bay was stormy. "When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park," Dorothy wrote, "we saw a few daffodils close to the water ... as we went along, there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore ... I never saw daffodils so beautiful..."

Grasmere itself is rather a vexation to the spirit today, its winding streets crammed with touristy nonsense. Past Sarah Nelson's crowded gingerbread shop, in what used to be a schoolroom where William taught, you walk left through the churchyard and find the great man buried with his wife under a simple headstone; Dorothy's grave is next door.

Only then should you visit Rydal Mount, the handsome 16th-century house with its air of bourgeois opulence. The attic room is a mini-museum with letters from his children and a map of his travels in Cumbria. But this also represents where Wordsworth was, imaginatively speaking, buried alive. After he became Poet Laureate, he never wrote another line of verse. His spirit is far more vividly alive in Hawkshead and Grasmere – and, of course, in the scenery he worshipped. The best way to chase his inspiration is by restless travelling – a boat ride down Lake Windermere, up the hill to the divide between Grasmere and Rydal Water, or west from Grasmere to explore the jaw-dropping bulk of the Langdale Pikes. That's where you'll feel the Wordsworthian conviction that all of nature is "one life, within us and abroad" – before you turn round and head back, for beer and duck confit at the Eltermere Inn.

John Walsh stayed at the Holbeck Ghyll Country House Hotel in Windermere, Cumbria; 01539 432375, holbeckghyll.com

Cumbria: views, ale & walks

* Gilpin Lake House on Windermere is the latest project from England's current "Small Hotel of the Year" (Gilpin Lodge Country House Hotel). This lake house has six plush suites, a spa with swimming pool and hot tub set on a private lake; gilpinlodge.co.uk.

* June 2011 will see the opening of the new Roman Frontier Gallery at Tullie Museum and Art Gallery, in Carlisle. The innovative gallery, set around a Grade I Listed Jacobean building, will tell the story of the 400-year period of Roman occupation at the empire's northern-most frontier; tulliehouse.co.uk.

* The Plough Inn & Restaurant, in Lupton, comes to us from the people behind the Michelin Pub of the Year 2009 (the Punchbowl Inn, Crosthwaite). This new inn has wood-burning stoves, antique furniture and wine caves, plus a varied menu from seafood to hearty steak or a Moroccan kebab; theploughatlupton.co.uk.

* Opening this spring, Hart Barn is a stylish conversion spread over three floors. This retreat for two has a double-height living room with superb views across the Patterdale Valley and mountains; hartbarn.co.uk.

* Jennings Adventure Ale Trails is a new range of walking trails complete with online accommodation bookings, backed by Cumbria Tourism. Choose from six routes of varied lengths (two to four days) and landscapes (Borrowdale, Rydal, Grasmere, Threlkeld, Helvellyn and Ambleside) and overnight in the county's best pubs; golakes.co.uk/jennings.