Yes, I walked alone (nearly)

Jonathan Gregson followed his own rules and avoided the rambling hordes on his first visit to the Lake District

Strange to say, but until quite recently the Lake District was for me a terra incognita. I spent no childhood holidays there, and so had no golden-tinged memories of how the Lakes once were, long before they qualified as the most visited "beauty spot" in Europe. Nor had I ever visited them in adult life. Which left me, as an inveterate traveller, better acquainted with Patagonia or the New Guinea Highlands, than with Wordsworth Country. In this, my upside-down world view, I knew more of Timbuktu than of Keswick, while my closest association with Windermere was through staying at the Windamere (sic) Hotel in Darjeeling, India.

How could I have left this land of green valleys and soaring peaks unvisited when it lay so close at hand? I had driven right past on my way to numerous Scottish weddings and Hogmanay celebrations. And yet, according to my internal maps, the Lake District remained as blank a space as the interior of Africa was to 18th-century cartographers.

Perhaps my reason for putting things off was that, like so many first- time explorers, I had heard adverse reports about "local conditions". Whereas my father spoke fondly of his own childhood holidays beside Windermere and Derwent Water, more recent visitors warned of 10-mile traffic jams along the approach roads, of once tranquil villages now corralled by coach- and car-parks, their high streets lined with vendors of all that is kitsch or twee. One spoke of the hills being so densely packed with Bank Holiday ramblers, all kitted out in day-glow purple and yellow weatherproofs, that from a distance it seemed the flowering heather and gorse were themselves on the move.

Such reports of touristic overgrazing made me wonder whether, in today's Lake District, there was any room left to "wander lonely as a cloud". Or was it more a case of "you'll never walk alone"? To find out for myself, I set off up the motorway on the eve of last August Bank Holiday. As I approached Penrith, the volume of traffic started building up. Clearly, I needed a master plan of some sort if I was to avoid getting entangled in long tailbacks.

As a general rule, if you want to stay clear of the crowds then it's best to stick to the periphery. So I ruled out the central lakes, running down from Bassenthwaite to Windermere, and headed instead for a large empty-looking area of high ground to the northeast. There, on the lee side of a great, rounded massif known alternatively as Blencathra or Saddleback, I found an inn perched above a delightful stream where I enquired about a room. "You're in luck," I was told. "We're normally booked weeks in advance, but there's been a cancellation."

So overjoyed was I at this good fortune that I set out on what looked like an easy circular walk. Wild moorland begins right on the doorstep, and within minutes I was climbing beside swift-flowing streams. True, I was not the only walker on those trails. For the first half-hour, a cavalcade of well-equipped hikers, plastic-wrapped Ordnance Survey maps dangling from their necks, stomped past. Obviously they had all spent the day up on the heights around Blencathra and were now on their way down to Mungrisdale and a well-earned tea. I seemed to be the only person still climbing, though there were still three or four daylight hours left. The heather-clad fells closed in around me, and I was alone, apart from the black-faced sheep.

Quite by accident, I had discovered a second principle of how to avoid the maddening crowds. I set out when everyone else was heading for home. The same principle applies as when commuting against the main flow of traffic. Of course, I didn't have time to climb any of the taller fells, and when I fetched up at the Mill Inn it was dark and my stomach was rumbling. But I had had my first taste of these uplands, with only a pair of buzzards as companions - and this on a Bank Holiday weekend.

Where to move on to the next day posed a more difficult challenge. I drove into Keswick before breakfast to load up with petrol, more detailed maps, and information about local events. Already the town's one-way system was clogged with coaches and caravans, and I saw quite enough tea and souvenir shoppes of the Beatrix Potter variety to stay well clear of the place. Back at the Mill Inn, I sifted through my new information as I consumed a hefty breakfast, my attention being drawn to listings of agricultural fairs, sheep dog trials and the like. If one had to be in a crowd, these at least promised to be a mainly local crowd.

I settled upon the sheepdog trials at Kentmere, at the end of a side valley above Windermere. To get there required driving south to Ullswater and over the Kirkstone Pass. Ullswater provided my first glimpse of a decent sized lake, and very impressive it was, hemmed in by steep hills. But every car-park along the lake shore was filled to overflowing, and at Glenridding there were queues for everything - boat-cruises, picture postcards, suntan lotions. I continued at a funereal pace over the pass, mutely cursing the caravan ahead. I gratefully took the first side road, which allowed me to escape the procession.

The sheepdog trials were very much a local affair. From the familiar cries of encouragement or consolation bellowed across a couple of hedgerows, it was apparent that half the spectators were close relatives of the contestants. Prize rams and ewes were on display in temporary pens, and assorted waterproof boots and jackets in utilitarian greens and browns were being sold off at rock-bottom prices, along with industrial sacks of dog biscuit and pony nuts.

But this was nothing to compare with the country show at Muncaster, on the Monday, which attracts a much larger crowd and features a range of events from dry-stone walling through to judging all manner of livestock - sheep, fancy breeds of poultry, horses, hounds, Cumberland terriers. I chose Muncaster because it lies at the western edge of the Lake District, with lovely valley walks around Eskdale or challenging climbs up to Great Gable or England's highest point at Scafell, setting out from Wasdale Head. To reach this, "the birthplace of English mountaineering", you pass beside Wast Water, the deepest, starkest and, to my mind, the most dramatic lake.

I cannot claim that on one of the busiest weekends of the year, I found total solitude. There were rock-climbers up in those crags, and their misfortune or incompetence had the rescue helicopter out more than once. As I sat beside Wass Water, a pair of neoprene-clad divers bubbled up from its depths. The steep single-track road over Hard Knott Pass offered spectacular views, but it also required much reversing to allow the oncoming file of traffic room to squeeze past.

And yet my ploy of sticking to the peripheries had, in the main, worked. I had tramped alone through swathes of purple heather; caught sight of a blue tarn hidden away in an upland valley; and hit upon remote hostelries where I had downed well-earned pints of bitter and copious portions of Cumberland sausage and game stew. And I knew, as I headed down the M6 with the home-going hordes, that, like Wordsworth, I too would recollect these Lakeland scenes in tranquillity. Even though it had been a Bank Holiday.

The Mill Inn, Mungrisdale (tel: 017687 796321) charges pounds 29.50 per person b&b. The Wasdale Head Inn (tel: 019467 26229) costs pounds 39 b&b.

Suggested Topics
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Exhibition Content Developer

    £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in South Kensington, this prestigi...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - major leisure brand

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Partner

    £25000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Partner is required to ...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn