Never has a landscape radiated such a mythical layer of beauty and romanticism in equal measure. For centuries the Lake District has drawn crowds, from writers and painters to adventurers and record breakers. Composed of a dozen or more picturesque lakes surrounded by brooding fells, thundering waterfalls, sleepy Tolkienesque villages and vibrant market towns filled to the brim with backpackers. Its compact size, combined with its accessibility make it the perfect getaway destination for a long weekend of outdoor pursuits.
It’s easy to see why writers are drawn here; the awe-inspiring landscape is enough to convince even the most creatively illiterate of putting pen to paper. So, after 56,000 steps, 650 photos, and 25 miles of walking up hills and down village streets, Maria and I have made an attempt to do just that and record our short agenda, hoping to give you inspiration for an adventurous weekend in the Lakes.
Friday, July – Arriving in Windermere
At 9 am we packed our Mini Countryman before setting off from our home, according to Google maps we would make Windermere in just shy of 3.5 hours. Thankfully living in Edinburgh and getting to the Lake District is as simple as hopping in the car and getting out again once the green hues of the mountains become even more vibrant.
Having only been to the Lake District once before, we made a conscious decision to establish ourselves in one of the more tourist-friendly towns in the National Park. Windermere is effectively the basecamp for many keen hikers looking to make the most of their time in the district. Surrounded by numerous mountain peaks, the busy little town is one of the most central and convenient locations to commence a weekend in the Lakes.
Heading towards our accomodation we cruised down 150 miles of monotonous tarmac composed of 3 lane motorways and winding B roads until suddenly the landscape transformed as if we had crossed some imaginary threshold. Beyond this illusory wall lay dozens of misty mountains, shimmering lakes and green valleys that appeared to have come from the pages of a fairytale.
Our plan was to make our way to a little B&B hidden somewhere between Bowness-on-Windermere and Windermere itself called The Coach House. Situated on the aptly named Lake Road, it was apparently built in the 1890s from local stone gathered from nearby quarries. Resembling the cold surface of a drystone wall from the outside, the guest house was, to the contrary, warm and inviting with a bright entry hall, dining area and a short flight of stairs leading to several cosy bedrooms.
After dropping our gear off and having a brief chat with the lovely owners we set off to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the little lakeside town. Walking towards the centre it seemed we had chosen the wrong time of year to visit this particular 19th-century-holiday destination. According to the government’s own information, the national park receives on average around 40 thousand visitors a day, Windermere alone attracts one hundred thousand. Crowds are drawn to see the traditional ferries that work the lake itself. Although realising the town was far too busy for us, Bowness-on-Windermere offers a lot for those aiming to use the village as a launching point for daily excursions. Abound by numerous outdoor retailers, cosy tea houses, old fashioned British pubs and numerous takeaways there is ample opportunity to find everything one needs without having to venture to the next town or indeed too far from the hotel!
Saturday, July – Making our way up the Old Man of Coniston
It was 7 am on a Saturday morning and we aimed to tackle the iconic Old Man of Coniston, a mountain in the Furness Fells region of the Lake District. At 2,634 feet high it lay just west of the village of Coniston and the lake, Coniston Water, made famous by the record-breaking Donald Campbell and his jet-powered Bluebird.
If you hadn’t already guessed, like several of the Lake District peaks, the Old Man of Coniston is a must for many outdoor lovers, the route being a popular introduction for first time visitors to the National Park, attracting tens of thousands of walkers every year, thanks largely in part to its beautiful panoramic views and peaceful atmosphere.
We found the best point of access to be on Walna Scar, after a steep drive up a narrow leafy tarmacked road we discovered an adjoining pothole covered carpark equaling to the surface of the moon in its appearance and texture. From here we chose the most direct route up the mountain, although a number of options were available we had aimed to maximise our time in the lake district. With that in mind, we set our sights squarely on the summit and set off for the peak. Starting on what was possibly the most popular trail to the top, the steep hike would wind through beautiful rocky outcrops and rolling fern-covered slopes, the low cloud and mist rising from between the valleys and hills made the magic and mystery of the lakes that much more palatable.
As we crept our way further and further up towards the peak we met our first major landmark. Several stone buildings and large, old rust coloured cables stood idle, a monstrous relic from a pully system once used to ferry slate down the precarious valley sides. What was once a symbol of humankind’s ingenuity and industrial endeavour was now a scar on the pristine green mountain, nestled below the Old Man’s northern face. Occasionally we glanced upwards towards our destination, the mountain seemingly peaceful, resting against a mottled grey sky unaware of civilisation’s centuries-old assault against its flanks.
Passing the man-made slate outcrops that, from a distance at least, now resembled a cluster of Himalayan temples, we made our way to one of the first significant natural milestones. Low Water, an ancient and shimmering Corrie Tarn carved over millennia by continuous abrasion from glacial movement, the small lake stood idle and mirror-like in the recess of the hill. We stopped for a few moments to hydrate, observing the stillness of the water before pressing upwards.
Our final ascent towards the summit would be marked by a series of serpent-like paths, winding carefully and slowly to the peak. Huge slab-like portions of rock, exposed to the elements and unearthed by thousands upon thousands of footsteps stood like an ancient staircase from one of JRR Tolkien’s books. Great stone monoliths stretched upwards against the otherwise uniform scree that blanketed the surrounding hillsides as we scramble the last few hundred feet to the plateaued summit. At the very peak of the fell we were met with a unique feature in the form of a man-made slate platform topped by a large domed cairn. Sheltering behind it, another group of hikers sat perched around the stone structure like birds huddled together on a telephone wire, the air much colder now. Looking northward, dark rain-filled clouds began to roll in across the tops of the neighbouring mountains and filtered through low-level valleys making their way toward us.
We took a well-earned break at the top, sitting amongst scattered boulders at the opposite end of the summit from which we came. Away from the busy cairn, we replenished our energy by snacking on apples and sipping water as we admired the views. Nearby sheep grazed on the lush green grass and wandered freely from slope to slope. From our idyllic vantage point, we could see our next obstacle, a huge ridge comprised of Dow Crag, Buck Pike and Brown Pike, a range of magnificent green and grey hurdles rising from the surrounding landscape before descending quickly to rejoin Walna Scar road.
As our temperatures dropped from both our idleness and from the incoming cloud we took additional layers out of our backpacks and put them on before setting off in the direction of the neighbouring peaks. More than a few yards in the opposite direction to where we had made the summit of the mountain we were met by a large valley containing another Tarn. The crumbling path continued down the semi-steep sides of the huge glacial hollow, which contained at its base, the tranquillity of Goat’s Water.
Striding past the distinct geological milestone to our left we began to climb once more up the flank of the mountain. Ahead of us lay a steep gravelly, boulder-strewn path that crept upwards until finally, its definition began to wane and its edges began to blur into grassy surroundings. Picking our way through an increasingly dense field of scree the green surrounds gave way to more rocks and boulders. Stepping from stone to stone we paused briefly to note the large jagged formations protruding from the patchwork of greys and green ahead. Like monstrous spikes from the back of a huge dragon, Dow Crag arose from its slumber and pierced the low cloud. The ridge ran almost the full length of the mountain’s peak and two choices lay before us. Either, we scramble up and over the rocky arête and traverse its stair-like surface carefully picking our way across to the other side or we go around its base on a level grassy hillside. As more clouds drew in and the rain began to fall a little more heavily, we chose the latter to avoid the slippery rocks and perilous cliff edge that overhung Goats Water. Joining the grazing sheep on the grassy slope we followed what remained of the path along the winding ridge as it continued to step down towards the gravel trail that would lead us back to our starting point.
As we made our gradual descent from the ridge the misty veils obstructing our scenic views began to shift, we were now descending below the belt of cloud that clung to the top of the mountain. Following a long winding path, we crossed Torver Beck as it tumbled swiftly out of Goat’s Water. Picking our way through the terrain we noted the blots of grey giving way to large swathes of green as the rock became scarce and the plant life grew more abundant. Like a thick forest, rich green ferns began to spring from the rolling foothills that encircled the foundations of the Old Man.
As we trudge the last few feet to our start point we arrive full circle, one giant loop later, drenched by the pouring rain but exhilarated by our efforts.
Route: There are several routes to choose from. A relatively straightforward hike to the summit of the Old Man can be made by following a map or any of the well-trodden paths. To make your way back, descend past Goats Water, then following Walna Scar Road to the car park or to Bowmanstead then back to Coniston. Alternatively, combine with a longer walk over Dow Crag. Use OS Map OL6.
Gear: Bring lots of layers for unpredictable weather, even in the height of summer. For rough terrain, invest in a solid pair of walking boots!
Supplies: Bring plenty of water for the hike to the peak and back and some snacks for when you get there!
Sunday, July – Derwentwater
Derwentwater is one of the most picturesque lakes within the district, home to a handful of islands scattered across a crystal clear surface. Forged by enormous glaciers which split through the country’s landscape long ago. Derwentwater appears as a glinting mirror nestled amongst the natural barriers of mountain peaks and woodland.
It’s easy to forget the time as you explore its atmospheric waterways and inlets. The best way to travel through this beautiful corner of Lakeland is not by car, or even by foot but on water. The environment and the character of the surroundings warrant a slower method of travel, one that allows for an appreciation of place and moment.
As we left the shallows of the shoreline the gravel and plant life below the ice-like surface of the lake began to dissolve into darkness as the water started to take on a peaty tea-like appearance. Our Canadian style two-person canoe would glide effortlessly across the placid surface of the water inches away from sunken tree trunks and submerged boulders.
As we drifted away from the shore the only sound to be heard was that of the water dripping from our paddles as we directed ourselves out into the open water. The further we travelled from the pebbled beaches, the darker the water became until it felt as if we had strayed into the centre of a tremendous black hole and the depths of the abyss had suddenly come up to meet us. For a moment we sat in the middle of the pitch blackness of the open water, caught halfway between the pier from which we cast off and the island of which we where heading. As we neared our destination the floor of the lake came up to meet us rapidly and we found ourselves once again floating narrowly above Derwentwater’s silty bottom. Piloting our canoe towards the bank of the densely tree-filled island we used a final burst of energy, running the bow of the craft into the pebbly, gravely flank of the refuge where it finally came to rest. This was St Herbert’s Island, the largest of the islands on Derwentwater covering between four to five acres in total. Named after a saint who brought Christianity to the area in 685 AD. St Herbert used the island as a hermitage. After his passing, it became a place of pilgrimage, and St. Herbert’s cell can still be identified amongst the undergrowth to this day. We spent a good few hours on the lake before making our way back across its length, traversing from shore to shore in a zig-zag fashion as if to make the most of our canoe rental and our time on the water.
Route: The beauty of being on the water is what you can go in any direction you choose.
Gear: As always, bring lots of layers for unpredictable weather, even in the height of summer. A spare set of trousers may be useful!
Supplies: Bring plenty of water, especially if you are out during summer and make sure you use sun cream before setting off for the day.
Tips: Try and keep clear of motorised vessels, specifically ferries that operate on the lake and move across if from pier to pier.
Monday, July – Catbells
On our last day on the Fells before heading back home to Edinburgh we were determined to squeeze in one last hike. According to regular visitors, no trip to this picturesque corner of Britain is complete without a quick scramble up Catbells. Conveniently located on our route northward the 1479ft peak overlooks Derwent Water and provides stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
A relentless gravel path, numerous false peaks and an almost verticle scramble to reach the summit lay ahead of us. The guidebook we had picked up upon our arrival had indicated that Catbells was a hill suitable for all levels of experience, from children to the elderly.
Demonstrating a number of the key traits and characteristics encountered on many of the taller mountains Catbells featured steep slopes, exposed peaks and rocky crags. Starting from Hawes End, its 451m summit can be made in, apparently, just a few hours, with various routes back down again.
Our aim was simple, hike up Catbells as quickly as possible and come down again equally as fast. For the most part, Catbells offered a pleasant, yet energetic hike. From the moment the hill sprouted from the earth, it took an almost vertical incline straight up to its peak. The most challenging section, however, was the almost sheer rocky outcrop that required a short scramble and some carefully placed footwork to reach the top. After a brief wrangle with vertigo on what looked like crumbling naturally formed steps of the Acropolis, we made it to the summit. As the clouds parted we were met with unimaginable views of the surrounding hills, mountains and valleys. A fleeting glimpse to the north revealed Skiddaw and the wide saddleback of Blencathra dominating an expansive skyline. Nestled below the looming peaks, Keswick, a tiny and shimmering outpost in a sea of countryside, whilst behind lay the fells of Maiden Moor and High Spy. No sooner had we stopped to admire the view had the clouds rolled back in again and twirled their way across the emerald green landscape.
We took the arrival of the clouds as a sign and made our way back down the opposite side of the mountain before the weather closed in. Just like The Old Man of Coniston, we looped back to where we had left our car.
Gear: We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. Layer up, buttercup!
Supplies: Bring plenty of water and snacks for recharging your batteries and enjoying the views.
Tips: Take your time on the areas where you may need to scramble, even though this route is marked as a great starting place for beginners, the rocks can be uneven and slippery!
Getting to the Lakes
The main railway stations (Penrith, Oxenholme and Kendal) are all served by Virgin Trains and the branch line to Windermere. CrossCountry trains connect with these routes in the South West, Midlands and North East. From Edinburgh and Glasgow, it takes a few hours by car and is a pleasant drive through the beautiful British countryside.
The best time to go
April and May are great for wildlife and slightly less busy. In winter, the high, snow-covered fells are the preserve of those with experience.
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