Grasmere, Coniston, Windermere… if they were three high school girls running for prettiest prom queen, it would be tough call as to who would win. And these were just a few of the many idyllic Lake District villages we visited.
William Wordsworth portrays his beloved homeland as:
“Majesty, and beauty and repose,
A blended holiness of earth and sky.”
The problem with this area is that it’s all so breathtakingly gorgeous, so undeniably natural, so unique with its constantly changing terrain, that you really need to spend at least a week there, since the best way to experience the flower-filled fields, jewel-toned lakes, heather-clad moors and time-stood-still villages is by foot– which brings us to the second problem.
My sis and I have always loved to hike on our vacations but since we are both cursed with a ridiculously poor sense of direction (a gene thing?) we have never taken ourselves on a multiday walk, knowing the embarrassing outcome well in advance. However, while researching the Lake District as a potential side trip for our recent UK girlfriend getaway trip, I kept coming across rave reviews about English Lakeland Ramblers, a company that has specialized in walking tours throughout England and Scotland for over 25 years. I checked them out and was suitably impressed with the caliber of inns they used, their knowledgeable Blue Badge guides (Britain’s premier guiding qualification) and that they could accommodate full or half day walkers. Due to time restraints we were only able to join them for the first half of their week long, Inn-to-Inn, Lake District walk, but I figured that would be plenty for us, since we’re hardly in the Sir Edmund Hillary class.
Fast forward to four days later. Sis and I are now totally relaxed with a Zen-high from our all-day walks over gorgeous terrain, followed by great sleeps at all three comfy/luxe inns. The best part is that we also lost a pound or two even though we indulged in gourmet meals daily, featuring local ingredients presented with great skill and affection.
Over hill, over dale, over lavender-colored moors and lush forest trails… we only wished we could have kept marching on the rest of the week with our thoroughly delightful group of fellow ramblers. While I‘m sure that other Rambler groups had more lofty goals, such as climbing Scafell Pike, the area’s highest peak, our like-minded group’s mission was to identify the area’s very best sticky toffee pudding, said to have been developed at the Lake District’s Sharrow Bay Country House in 1960.
Much of the success of our all-too-short- journey was Tom McCafferty, our hysterically funny, amazingly knowledgeable, Blue-Badge guide (Britain’s premier guiding qualification) who kept us thoroughly entertained while educating us on the local history, geography and all sorts of miscellaneous Jeopardy quiz type facts. Since Tom had recently retired from the Cumbrian County’s Police Force after 28 years of service, and I’m addicted to BBC crime shows, anytime there was a lull, I’d beg Tom for a juicy story. I don’t want to blow his cover as a tough inspector, but when he finished telling us a life-threatening, heart- pounding story about how he single-handedly stopped a major break-in, armed just with his truncheon and torch, only to find out that the culprit was a hedgehog with his head stuck in a tin can, it was a wee bit hard to stop laughing at him.
Our walks were invigorating, but not taxing. The anticipation of what matchless pleasure was hiding around each turn never grew old; whether it was coming out of the woods to find a pasture filled with snappy black and white Galloway Beltie cows or gazing upon a pristine body of water surrounded by verdant greenery seldom seen without a little Photoshop help, to having Tom point out that the narrow openings in the windy stone walls, which four toffee puds later we could barely slip through, are humorously referred to as a “Fat Man’s Agony” made the trek effortless.
It’s rare that a tour meets all our expectations, but Sis and I were both extremely impressed with Ramblers and would absolutely join them again. Our band of ten (all well-traveled Americans consisting of two couples, two friends, a mom and daughter and sis and me) became fast friends, so there was always someone interesting to chat with along the trails, although it was also perfect form if you wanted to hike in solitude. It was such a pleasure not to have to schlep our luggage, or hassle with transportation, restaurant and hotel reservations, knowing that at the end of a magical day our bags were waiting for us at our four star inn as was a delish dinner.
Grange-over-Sands is a charming town filled with beautiful gardens, interesting shops and a unique mile-long Victorian promenade. We stayed at The Grange, a gracious 4 star, Italian-styled hotel built in 1866. The Health & Leisure Suite offers a heated swimming pool, Jacuzzi, steam, sauna and fitness center. The romantic, candlelit Carriages Restaurant serves a 5-course table d’hôte menu, using locally sourced ingredients.
One standout starter was the pastry bundles of hot baked figs stuffed with goat cheese and sprinkled with garden fresh herbs and pine nuts.
The Swan Hotel
The Swan Hotel overlooks the southern tip of Lake Windermere in Cumbria. This luxury boutique property was erected in 1623, as a farm and alehouse, but it has undergone many changes over the years. The hotel’s grand Georgian façade was added in 1766 to attract affluent passengers passing through on the Royal Mail stagecoach. About 15 years later the hotel was granted its first full license on the condition of “no harboring of women of notoriously bad fame” among other rules. All the food is top notch, particularly the morning eggs bennie. Belly up to the lively bar for a pint of Dickie Doodle or peruse their extensive wine list which has some superb vintages.
The private Waterhead Hotel, a popular stop for the last century, is just a ten minute walk to the appealing village of Coniston where Tennyson spent his honeymoon, Turner painted the mountain scenery, Arthur Ransome used Coniston Water as the setting for Swallows and Amazons and Donald Campbell died whilst attempting to break his world water speed record. Pay your respects by stopping in at the Black Bull Pub for a pint of local Bluebird (named after Donald Campbell’s ill-fated boat).
Our favorite sightseeing stops
Guided Boat Trip
We took a guided boat trip on the pristine Coniston Lake that dropped us off at John Ruskin’s (profound writer, artist, horticulturalist and social reformer) former home, the 250-acre Brantwood estate. After touring the home and gardens you’ll gain fascinating insights into the life and mind of Ruskin, one of the most influential and inspiring minds of the Victorian Age.
Even though Hawkshead was filled with tourists “mucking about the higgly piggle streets” (one of Tom’s colorful expressions) this picturesque, medieval town, has remained largely untouched for the past 300 years.
Pop in for a chat with David Warren, the fab docent at Hawkshead Grammar School, which was founded in 1585 by the Archbishop of York. He regaled us with tales from back in the day, when William Wordsworth attended. He told us the boys attended the private school from 6 am to 5 pm, studied only Latin, Greek and mathematics, and that students were given 3 pints of beer a day, since the drinking water was bad.
Hill Top Farm
Stop in at Hill Top Farm, Beatrix Potter’s beloved Lakeland house, which became the setting for many of the characters in her children’s tales. Tour the English gardens and her cozy cottage, where you’ll see the desk where she wrote Pigling Bland “in an awful hurry and a scramble.” It gives hope to struggling writers to read the many rejection letters this acclaimed author received from her editor. (The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter was rejected so many times she decided to self-publish 250 copies. It has now sold 45 million.)