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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.