Exploring England 2012: The Lakes District in Cumbria – Part 1

Friday, Jul 13, 2012 at 15:51


Cumbria in the NW corner of England includes the Lake District National Park, an area just 30 miles across, that contains England's highest mountains and some of her biggest and deepest lakes. Its dramatic landscape was shaped by the massive erosive forces of the glaciers and ice sheets of the Ice Ages during the past 500,000 years. Having heard so much about the great beauty of this area, it was time to go and see for ourselves.

Another train trip, this time an early start but no dramas, took us from London to Carlisle near the Scottish border. From there we would collect a car and start our Cumbrian adventure.

Leaving London early in the morning there had been the usual light showers and the sky was overcast. As we travelled north the country seemed to become wetter and more hilly. From the train Rob pointed out ancient burial mounds on the skyline, and numerous examples of medieval ploughing which leaves a distinctive pattern of ripples or parallel mounds on the ground surface.

Our car pick up had to happen before the midday close on Saturday. It was once again a straightforward process and we were soon on our way. But first a stop-off at a big 24 hour Tescos to stock up on food. Rob was slightly familiar with the roads so did most of the driving while he was with us.

He was keen to show us some of the ancient sites so our first visit was to see the remains of a small Roman guardhouse on Hadrians Wall. Begun in AD 122, during the rule of the Roman emperor Hadrian, the wall was a 120km long fortification that stretched right across Britain. The reason for its construction is the subject of debate – possibly to demonstrate the power of Rome, to control the movement of people and ensure that taxes were paid, and as a defensive measure against “barbarians” from the north. The wall, much of which still exists, was made from squared stone and measured 3 metres wide and five to six metres high. Every couple of kilometres there was a small fort-like structure to house a few dozen troops.

It was one of these guardhouses that we now went to see. A walk up a grassy hill rewarded us with magnificent views over the surrounding countryside, and even a hint of snow on a distant northern peak. And there was the wall, running along the crest of a ridge, utilising the defensive advantage of the steep slope where the ground dropped away on the northern side. Not much more than the foundations of the guardhouse remained, but still, after 2 thousand years even that much was pretty impressive.

The wind was quite strong and chilly so it was a relief to be off the ridge and back in the warmth of the car. Then it was on to see two of the big Roman forts along the wall – Housesteads and Vindolanda. Sixteen of these forts were built to house about 1000 troops, and today 2000 years later, the remains of barracks, granaries and even latrines are easily seen. Housesteads sits high up on a ridge with commanding views over the surrounding country. Vindolana spread out over an even larger area in a picturesque valley. The granaries were interesting, in that the stone floor was raised on low stone piers allowing fires to be lit underneath the floor to keep the grain dry and prevent it going mouldy. Small on-site museums showed how the fort would have looked and operated and displayed objects recovered during archaeological investigations there.

Our final stop for the day was at Castlerigg, one of several stone circles that dot Cumbria. The circle was raised in Neolithic times about 3000BC. Made of about 40 big stones it is about 30 metres across and situated in a breathtakingly beautiful spot surrounded by high hills. Its purpose is not clear but may have been a place where different tribes met to trade goods, including stone axes. Whatever its purpose people occupying the site would have had ample warning of anyone approaching given the commanding views over high moors, valleys and hills.

With the sun just breaking through the clouds we set off to find our cottage at Troutbeck in the hills above Lake Windemere. The drive south took us through beautiful scenery of lakes and hills, and the ever-present drystone walls. We found Troutbeck perched on the side of steep green hills and our stone cottage was all we could have hoped for, comfortable and warm. Our bedroom window looked across the narrow main road into a garden full of colour from rhododendrons and clematis, while from the front door there were stunning views down the valley. And it was very quiet.

The next morning the weather smiled – the sun was out and, remarkably, remained out for the rest of our stay in the Lakes District! Rob had sightseeing plans for us, so off we went, down the steep winding road towards Ambleside. Our first stop was at Elterwater, a small lake with lovely reflections, geese, swans and ducks. We walked the path that ran beside the water, admiring the cottages tucked into the folds of the valleys – which one would suit us? Bluebells grew under the trees and we began to notice the wonderful yellow-green light in the woodlands that were just coming into full leaf.

Then along narrow winding roads between stone walls - in places two cars cannot pass, so one or other has to back to a wider spot. Over Wrynose Pass the road is winding and narrow, the hillsides falling steeply away from the road. Signs warned of 30% slopes – fortunately these really steep sections were fairly short. Our little car handled them without too much difficulty, but first gear got a workout. Then down the other side following an old Roman road over which slaves used to haul supplies, all the way to Wrynose Bottom (just love these names).

Then we were climbing again this time over Hardknott Pass, the highest pass in England. The views over the huge glacier carved valleys and surrounding peaks were magnificent, especially on this clear day. But although there were stone walls almost everywhere – even right over the top of the ridges – there were few walls or safety railings on this heartstopping road. At the top we stopped to admire the view, big broad valleys, rocky ridges and Scafell Pike (the highest peak in England) not far away. Up here the ground was wet and peaty and a small waterfall had cut a little gorge where it tumbled down off the high moors. A few shaggy sheep negotiated near vertical rock faces, and kept out of the way of labouring vehicles.

Descending the equally steep western side of the pass we were able to tear our eyes from the road long enough to glimpse the remains of another Roman fort that stood guard over the pass, surely a bleak and lonely place even in good weather.

It was something of a relief to be down into the green valleys again, and soon we were turning towards Wasdale, running along the edge of Wastwater, a stark and bare landscape framing a stunningly beautiful lake. Huge scree slopes slid down into the clear water and the reflections of the hills made a dramatic scene. With some difficulty we found a spot to park – for although remote there were still a few people about - and spent a while just soaking up this spectacular place. And after that the curiosity kicked in and we looked more closely at the landscape, and realised what a great place it was to see the effects of glaciers, with hanging valleys created by tributary glaciers very easy to see.

We continued to the head of the lake – Wasdale Head – where there was a delightful inn said to be the most remote pub in England. England's highest mountain, the deepest lake, the smallest Church, and even the world's biggest liar (so it was claimed!) can all be found in this tranquil corner of the Lake District. Although the inn caters for walkers and climbers for us it was the perfect place for lunch, and another hearty traditional roast beef meal.

We needed a bit of a walk after all that food. There was plenty to see as we strolled - a pretty stream and old stone bridge beside the inn, lots of stone walls enclosing lush green paddocks and sheep with black lambs. Nearby was St. Olafs, the smallest church in England and about 1000 years old, built of stone and with a very low roof. Rob had to duck his head.

It seemed a pity to leave that tranquil place, but there was more country still to see. We retraced our track past the lake then headed towards the coast, catching a brief glimpse of Muncaster Castle. Out in the Irish Sea was a veritable forest of wind turbines. We were on wider roads for a while until we turned off to have a look at Sunkenkirk stone circle. This was up a rough gravel road, but worth the effort to get there. It was of similar size to Castlerigg but had more stones placed closer together. There was no-one else there, just a few sheep grazing among the stones, so we could spend few moments trying to visualise what it might have been like there thousands of years ago.

On our way home we called in to Coniston and had a short walk beside Coniston Water, before completing our trip through some beautiful forests filled with pale green light.

To round out the day we opted to sample the ales at the pub in Troutbeck, the “Mortal Man” just a few minutes walk from our cottage. On our walk we passed many more stone cottages and barns, one marked with the date 1611, with the road flanked by almost continuous stone walls. There were some colourful gardens, and at intervals we saw water troughs built into the stone walls, and fed by water constantly seeping out of the hillside.

As we reached the pub we saw an amazing sight – a campervan fitted with a chimney in the back from which smoke was curling. We would have loved to have a closer look but the owners were nowhere to be seen.

The pub was great, very cosy and friendly with wonderful views down the valley. The beer tasted pretty good too, despite being a bit flat and not very cold. We wandered home while the last light flushed some distant hills reluctant to end such a memorable day.

The following morning we realised that we had forgotten to bring the technology that we use to transfer photos from the camera onto the laptop. So we decided to try to find somewhere to buy a replacement – our camera cards would surely not hold all the photos that we would want to take.

So with a warm sunny day forecast we set out towards Keswick going over the Kirkstone Pass and via Ullswater. There were glorious views as we descended from the pass towards the little Brothers Water that lay beneath towering hills. On this descent there were stone walls lining the road, perhaps to give us some sense of security against the steep slope. We stopped at Ullswater to look at the lake, with its little islands and sailing boats, from the vantage point of the pier from where tour boats operate. Further around the lake were more vantage points; not surprisingly there were many houses nestled in lush gardens, hardly visible from the road, but beautifully situated close to the lake. We kept reminding ourselves that it would be cold in winter!

Leaving Ullswater we headed north towards “the other” Troutbeck, then turned west towards Keswick. Since the sun was shining we decided to take a short detour and go into Castlerigg and have another look at the stone circle in sunlight. What a surprise awaited us. We found the circle and its surrounds occupied with white clad and be-ribboned “pagans” doing some ceremonial performance about creation, watched by a large gathering of curious cattle and apparently bemused tourists. We could identify with the latter group, while not wishing to discount sincerely held beliefs of those performing their rituals there.

Into Keswick a bustling, attractive town with a central market from which cars had been banished. In short order we found a car park and the stores that we needed, including one that stocked a card reader. Hooray! Shopping done and postcards bought we then found a park with seats where we could have lunch. The seats were right beside the bowling greens so we were entertained by preparations for the afternoon’s tournament.

From Keswick we headed towards Buttermere, but first there was another steep climb and sharp descent with more wonderful views. Moss Force (force = waterfall) tumbled off the moors right at the top of the climb. Down in Buttermere, a tourist hamlet bustling with tourists, we found some shade and enjoyed a cup of tea while we watched novice campers deepen their sunburn while trying to pitch their tent. How different from the Australian way – when the sun shines an Australian looks for shade, but the English strip off their shirts and bask in the sun for maximum exposure!

There is a walking path running right around the small lake, and although we would not have time to do the whole walk we set out to see as much as we could. The first part of the walk took us beside hedgerows through lush paddocks with white sheep. The shores of the lake are quite parklike, even having a few park benches, and the track is wide and well used. A small bridge took us over the stream of very clear water that runs from Buttermere to CrummockWater and on to the walking track on the more wooded southern shore. Here there was the cheerful noise of a cascade of water tumbling down over rocks towards the stream below, a wonderful sight in the bright sunlight. Suddenly a very different noise interrupted the tranquillity as an airforce jet swooped down low over the lake. We soon learnt that this is a common occurrence as the hills and valleys of the Lakes District provide an excellent training ground.

We walked some distance down the path through the forest that was a mixture of deciduous trees and conifers. Young ferns with coiled fronds covered the ground under the trees and there were occasional patches of bluebells. And everything suffused with that wonderful greenish light. All too soon it was time to retrace our steps across the bridge and beside the hedgerows back to the car.

Then we were climbing up the Honister Pass through a forbidding craggy landscape of stark rock ridges. Right at the top of the pass is the Honister slate mine – we had seen it featured on some TV show – so we stopped to have a look. The parking area was on a slate walled terrace that almost overhung the road and there was an incredible array of slate products to see, and possibly buy – from tables and garden seats to house nameplates and chips to mulch the garden. We thought that a lovely polished slate table might be a bit big for the car. The mine was much further up the hillside, via a steep 4WD track.

Once down in the valleys again we rounded out the day with a drive home along the shore of Derwent Water and then Thirlmere, for more beautiful vistas of water and forest. It has been sunny all day, so given that this is one of the wettest places in Britain we reckoned that we had been very fortunate weatherwise.

Our heads whirled with all the wonderful sights and experiences that we have crammed into the last three days. We wondered if we could maintain this pace for another week!

{Did you know? You can click on the images to super-size them!}
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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