The best of the Lake District

"Чтобы жить счастливо, я должен быть в согласии с миром. А это ведь и значит «быть счастливым»." Людвиг Витгенштейн ©
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A large part of my childhood was spent in the English Lakes, with never a mention of abroad. Other Manchester families went to Europe and even the USA, but to us travel was something that started at junction 19 of the M6 and ended 80 minutes later in Ullswater. Strangely, it never got boring. The multifarious landscape of the Lakes is one of its miracles: mountain passes and tarns; ruddy weeded wild-grass moors and conical pikes; pretty rivers and winter-flooded marshlands and scree dotted with free-roaming Herdwick sheep that look wild as hell; verges of sweet September wild parsley and elderflower and even sweeter posters in bus stops for am-dram productions of Arsenic and Old Lace.

  • The best of the Lake District

    Strange events and mysteries are everywhere, from the village submerged under Thirlmere to the melancholy sundial in memory of some long-dead Bengal lancer at St Johns in the Vale near the Castelrigg stone circle, and ancient coffin trails under Rydale Mount running bleakly west to the Nab Scar. As for the weather, this is a region that brings out the vigour of those who visit. Rain on the ferries labouring across Windermere and Coniston Water, and rain obscuring the tiny figures on distant fells and spurting down the genteel buildings of Keswick. But when the sun does come out and the whole place explodes with foliage, everything seems hilarious. Naked babies playing in the pebbled pools along Coniston wave euphoric fingers towards the peaks of the Blawith Fells; cyclists puff past the Whinlatter Forest where mushrooms glimmer in the roots.

    The Lake District didn’t even get its name until 1730. These remote northern counties of Cumberland, bordered by the Irish Sea and the Pennines, were considered lost, barren frontier counties sheltering desperados. But by 1802, the place had become a cultural phenomenon, made suddenly famous by some of our very best painters and poets, and beloved for its scenic walks (see our guide to the best walks in the Lake District). The District’s valleys only add up to a distance of 33 miles west to east and yet, bar the dog days, the place seems able to absorb everyone. It’s the second great miracle of the region, and not fully comprehensible – a party trick on the scale of Penn and Teller.

    Pictured: a view of Buttermere and Crummock Water from Hay Stacks, in the Lake District

  • The best of the Lake District


    The Black Bull

    A market-town-handsome, unspoiled 17th-century Cumbrian coaching inn, The Black Bull (pictured above) stands in the centre of the venerable literary town of Sedbergh, where even bus stops house shelves of second-hand editions for passers-by in sudden need of Wordsworth. There’s a jolly buzz in town about the food at the Bull – Japanese-German chef Nina Ratcliffe, who runs the inn with her locally born husband James, serves well-sourced, animal-welfare-conscious dishes with the occasional Asian touch, all kitchen-garden vegetables and foraged berries, as fresh and peppery-sweet as the rain-plump grass all the way up Winder Fell just beyond, with its countless swooping blackbirds. A Victorian tiled floor and deep-wood pub-bar might be oppressive if it weren’t for the enormous windows and red leather seats and bunches of wild flowers hanging from beams. Up the stairs are 18 bedrooms with inimitable, Norse-resonant Cumbrian names such as Frostrow and Tarn Rigg, and solid sunlight falls in from an old, gigantic atrium window patterned with a couple of contemplative bulls. There are big, soft beds, throws and cushions made of Herdwick wool, and a truly covetable, subtle bathroom range called Petrichor (meaning ‘the smell of rain’), concocted exclusively for the Bull by The Sedbergh Soap Company, that made me think of tender watercress shoots and buttercups. At breakfast guests are encouraged to take home-baked jam doughnuts and scones away with them, should hunger strike later on. One of many successful touches.

    Read our full review of The Black Bull

    The Black Bull hotel review

Address: The Black Bull, 44 Main Street, Sedbergh, Cumbria, LA10

Telephone: +44 15396 20264


Prices: Doubles from £125


Howthwaite stands on a ridge overlooking the lake and village of Grasmere, and it’s a perfect, largely unaltered example of the kind of solid villa built when the Lake District was establishing itself as a paradise for the likes of Beatrix Potter. Contemplatively quiet and gorgeously simple, the sloping gardens run steeply into those at the back of no less than Dove Cottage on the road below. ‘This, our little domestic slip of mountain’, wrote the 29-year-old William Wordsworth of these very gardens when he rented Dove Cottage for £8 a year with his sister Dorothy from 1799 to 1808, staking out beans behind his back door (they’re still there). He would lie motionless on his bed with an uninterrupted and worshipful view of the lake he loved the most. When other houses were built later, somewhat obscuring his view, WW vociferously complained, worrying about over-development and over-gentrification and fuss and noise in an endearingly bustling, local warrior way. He preferred to live and write plainly; it felt more moral.

Gossel Riding

The same Westmerian family that built Lakeland churches in the 16th century and Windermere’s pretty railway station crafted – and that is the word – Gossel Ridding in 1908. As a child, George Henry Pattinson would tend his father’s sheep on a hill above Windermere, casting his eyes longingly down over the lake and up Troutbeck Valley. The view was impossibly lovely, and he wanted to possess it or frame it at least in the window of the house that he built when he was older. Leased now in its entirety for weddings or parties, Gossel Ridding is Arts and Crafts perfection: a carved oak interior from one vast tree rescued from the garden after a storm and rooms for billiards and reading. Over a century later, George’s view remains undisturbed. Simultaneously awe-inspiring and comely, wild but flawlessly composed, it enjoys the epic tenderness of spring green and September orange in the sunsets stretching vast and away to the Langdales and down the meandering lake to the south.

Address: Gossel Riding, Craig Walk, Bowness-on-Windermere, LA23

Telephone: +44 7810 091008


Prices: Three nights cost £4,500, sleeps 13

Canopy & Stars

Wooden cabin on the river’s edge I think the Lake District’s particularly romantic air of magical isolation and spiritual elevation comes from being not just all about water, but wrapped on all sides by that element too: The Solway Firth, Morecombe Bay, the Cumberland coast and the River Eden, where in a January storm I stayed at The Lodge, pictured, a perfectly private, stove-warmed, frontier-style wooden cabin hand-carved from larch on the banks of its tributory, the Eamont. The river was so high it rushed by in a frenzy, salmon somewhere deep beneath the spinning underboil.

Address: Canopy & Stars, Merchants House, Wapping Road, Bristol, BS1

Telephone: +44 117 204 7830


Prices: The Lodge sleeps 6, for £270 per night

  • The best of the Lake District

    Where to eat in the Lake District

    Queen’s Head Inn, Penrith

    In the Lake District, eat pie. Specifically a table-groaning, orgiastic, Cumbrian blow-out of a pie handmade on the premises by a publican/pie-man wearing a jolly blue-striped apron, rugger arms propped briefly on the bar for a breather, serving whisky and lemonade to a group of delirious pensioners pie-stuffed during a Wednesday lunchtime binge. People come for miles for the award-winning black-pudding pie (and local game pie and lamb and mint) at the Queen’s Head Inn, with its interior of dark-singed oak and a fireplace carved in 1719. The crust falls across you like a pavement. Time thickens, and pet dogs beg shamelessly for morsels. All the talk is of pie: Pony Club reunion suppers that didn’t quite hit the pie-nail on the pie-head; whether certain members of the royal family might be tempted to enjoy this chicken and mushroom. Prince Charles came here once, someone says, and had a whisky. But this was before he married Camilla. Oh, and that poor Duchess. She’s a lovely girl.

    Address: Queen’s Head Inn, Tirril, Penrith, CA10

    Telephone: +44 1768 863219


    The Jumble Room, Grasmere

    Fine dining hit the Lakes 10 years ago with chefs sending forth amuse-bouches of pea-ice to diners previously content with things dipped in puddles of Hellmann’s. There are now as many farmers’ markets and food festivals and awards in Cumbria as the Cotswolds and you can eat as daintily or as ethically or locally sourced as you could wish in restaurants and country- house hotels where waiters loom like footmen and crystal glasses are perpetually being raised in appreciation. If, like me, 10-course homages to the majesty of appetite leave you flattened, then the Jumble Room, pictured, hidden down a lane in a Grasmere village, redresses the balance: casual but still birthday-special, with delicate, delicious starters (spiced almond fritters) and don’t-mess-with-us puddings.

    Address: The Jumble Room, Langdale Road, Grasmere, Ambleside, LA22

    Telephone: +44 15394 35188


    The Drunken Duck, near Ambleside

    A beautifully renovated hill-bound pub that brews its own ale and serves a devastating smoked-haddock-and-cheese soufflé to barristers who’ve floored it up the M6 in vintage Austins, as well as locals giving off a whiff of sheep. The views of Langdale Pike and Black Crag out the back of The Drunken Duck compete with the pub’s mini-tarn and family of otters playing insouciantly on a central island. It has the best beer garden in England, even if you’re sitting in a gale with your newspaper wrapped around your face.

    Address: The Drunken Duck, Barngates, Ambleside, LA22

    Telephone: +44 15394 36347


    The Pheasant, Bassenthwaite Lake

    Genteelly crumbling, discreetly peeling, The Pheasant is old fashioned in the very best way, with wives of county farmers enveloped in clouds of Shalimar and brigadiers pulling Nuremberg Remembered from the bookshelves. Wellingtons, however encrusted, are tolerated in the dining and sitting rooms, and actively welcomed in the snug, with its walls the colour of a bison after more than four centuries of fire and pipe smoke.

    Address: The Pheasant, Bassenthwaite Lake, Cockermouth CA13

    Telephone: +44 17687 76234


    The George & Dragon, Clifton

    Owned and run by the son of local gentry, with produce from nearby Askham Hall, the George & Dragon puts everyone in a doting mood. Cumbrian grandmothers, usually unsentimental, shrug off their windbreakers and go through the menu with delighted astonishment. The staff are all teenagers from nearby villages, swiping each other with tea towels and jogging to and from the kitchen where lunch dishes tinkle into the very late afternoon and start up again for supper: there are always happy people here enjoying Bloody Mary’s and cake or something on toast. The 12 B&B rooms upstairs are all very chic.

  • The best of the Lake District

    What to see in the Lake District

    Church with tawny owl and creeping buttercup

    Of the 1,200 medieval churches in the UK, the Lakeland ones are the most rugged and touching. The dramatically squat and ungilded 1573 mini-barn at Matterdale stands on a spot where there has been a place of worship for more than a thousand years. Many of the inscriptions are completely worn away, leaving an enigmatic barnacled nothingness, elevating them in meaning and authority to standing stones. Hidden in the perpetual dusk under a yew, a tawny owl shelters, sleepily eyeing the elder and lady fern, mouse-ear and sorrel, and the distant mist-shrouded peaks of High Seat and Loadpot Hill – a view that hasn’t changed in 450 million years.

    Museum with boots on the wrong feet

    There is no more lovely or eccentric a museum in the country than the Ruskin in Coniston, just a short walk from the lake: it has more than a touch of the school history project. Here find a Grizedale boar ‘fashioned out of mud and roots’, goggles for climbing in the Alps (‘date unknown’) and a full-sized model of the rock climber Alan Hargreaves, with his real-life boots touchingly fixed onto the wrong feet. There’s also a stuffed brown trout and a photograph of the speed-record-breaker Donald Campbell pushing his daughter down a lane with wheels string-tied to her sandals. Prize exhibit is the wooden sail boatMavis, aka the original Amazon in the magical children’s books by the fell-scaling Arthur Ransome.

    Address: The Ruskin Museum, Coniston, Cumbria, LA21

    Telephone: +44 15394 41164


    Village shops with sausages and hair pins

    The kooky but invaluable village shops of the Lakes are worth a tour alone. Sharmans of Glen Ridding for Dunlop wellies, second-hand copies of Brian Keenan and ginger pudding. Hutchinson’s in Coniston for cocktail cherries, award-winning Cumberland sausage and a used garden shed (‘will do work on it’). The tiny Lorton’s in Allerdale for anti-tangle combs, combination padlocks and a powdered caramel rice dessert wedged down the side of the window, decades-bleached by the sun. But the one in Patterdale (pictured) stands out for its sherbet bonbons, eight-shot ring caps, black hairpins and water blasters. As well as compasses, desiccated coconut, every fuse known to science, good cheap wine, fresh rolls and a whole Post Office half-hidden behind a heartbreaking hikers’ notice board (‘Rachel Moodly really is on the way’) pinned with a richly coloured and highly covetable relief map of the district.

    Tarn with mythical fish

    Buttermere is the nicest lake to swim in: it has the softest water and a little family of goats that live on the shore. You can hire boats on many lakes or catch gondolas or ferries; there were pleasure barges on Ullswater as early as 1773. But if you brave Skiddaw – a northern borderland mostly neglected, even by the District’s champion Wainwright – you will find a tarn east of Saddleback mountain that in a Walter Scott poem houses two mythical fish (‘The undying fish that swim/in Bowscale tarn did wait on him’). Someone told me that when a diver dipped here he found two prehistoric trees petrified in its depths. That sounds about right. This is the most haunted part of the Lakes, dotted with the remains of Roman forts.Bowscale Tarn, a wild, crag-encircled sheet of blue water, can be found if you walk up from Mungrisdale past the Bannerdale Crags, and keep walking. The track to the tarn is dusty in summer and satisfyingly tough in winter – always lonely, apart from the snipe and stonechats calling to each other along the ridge. The blue Pennines lie 30 miles away. Walk on and up for an hour and a half, and there it is. You won’t see it until you’re virtually in.

    Published in Condé Nast Traveller September 2013

    Pictured: Patterdale, Cumbria