It may well be England’s largest national park, but at little more than 30 miles wide it’s a drop in the ocean compared to most of its US counterparts, and small enough to get to grips with on even the shortest of trips.
Brushing up close to the Scottish border and tumbling down to Morecambe Bay in the south, the Lake District sits entirely within the northwest county of Cumbria and is one of England’s most celebrated landscapes. Sixteen major lakes and countless other bodies of water known as ‘tarns’ are surrounded by brooding mountains and forested valleys, where scree-covered crags teem with gravity-defying sheep. All this, and a string of literary associations with the Romantic poets continue to entice around 16 million visitors per year.
It’s the question we’re asked more than any other. And the answer is no. If you want to experience the grandeur of the Lakes on a short side trip from London, then it’s absolutely possible to do so without a car. In fact, the Lake District is one of the most progressive regions in the country for sustainable transport and is investing heavily in alternative ways to explore.
Obviously, if you’re planning a longer stay and want the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, then a car will be useful. But even then you don’t necessarily need your own vehicle or to go down the car hire route – other options are available. But for a short taster trip we say take the train and discover the Lakes by boat, bike, bus and on foot!
Much of the Lake District’s infrastructure and facilities are centred along the eastern shore of finger-shaped Windermere, England’s largest natural lake. Along with Ambleside on the lake’s northern tip, the linked towns of Windermere and Bowness are undeniably geared to tourists, but are still the best bet for the first time visitor. They provide excellent access to the rail network, bus routes, ferries, lake steamers and cycle paths, and have the widest range of accommodation for all budgets, from B&Bs and small hotels to grand lake view resorts. And if you’re looking for more of a rural idyll, some of the best country retreats in England are no more than a ten minute taxi ride away.
The region is by no means without cultural or historical attractions, but getting out into the great outdoors is by far the most popular reason for visiting the Lakes.
Options for exploring the Lake District on foot are plentiful, with everything from short, level walks without stiles for the less mobile, to dedicated family walks, day-long routes, challenging long distance treks and guided fell running and scrambling. Walking is easily the most popular pursuit in the Lakes and wherever you’re based there will be more stunning walking options on your doorstep than you’ll have time to experience in one visit.
Apart from the main towns in the height of summer, the Lake District is mostly quiet and rural, making it ideal for exploring by bike. A network of cycle hire outlets, bike repair shops, electric bike charging stations and mile upon mile of designated trails make cycling a genuinely practical way of getting around.
You’ll find plenty of easy tracks for beginners, families and less experienced cyclists, including several railway paths and well-maintained trails in Grizedale Forest Park. Easily accessible from Windermere is the newly-smoothed 4km Windermere West Shore Route alongside the lake, suitable for all kinds of bike. Reach Ferry House, the starting point, via the regular Windermere car ferry.
Mountain bikers will find themselves in muddy cycling heaven in the Lake District. With two of England’s most imposing summits – Skiddaw and Helvellyn – accessible by bridleway, it’s one of the UK’s best places to ride. The less fit among us needn’t feel left out either – rent electric bikes from an increasing number of venues throughout the Lakes, making puff-worthy inclines a breeze.
Besides the lovely but rather laid-back option of taking a lake cruise, there are plenty more adventurous ways to get on the water. Canoeing and kayaking are two of the most popular, and Windermere is one of the best flat paddling destinations in the UK. Rental facilities are available at Windermere Canoe Kayak at Ferry Nab, just south of Bowness, and other locations throughout the Lake, with guides available for the less confident.
More sedate attractions in the Lake District range from the modern and family friendly – the World of Beatrix Potter; the Lakes Aquarium; Brockhole visitor centre – to traditional stately homes and mansions such as Holker Hall, Wray Castle and Levens Hall.
With a roll call of literary heavyweights having called the Lake District home, it’s no surprise their respective dwellings and favoured spots have become visitor attractions in their own right too. William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top and Brantwood, former home of John Ruskin, are justifiably top of the list (all accessible by bus or bike).
The best way to discover the Lakes with someone else at the wheel is on one of the year-round daily tours offered by Mountain Goat. With 40 years experience they’re the undisputed Lakeland specialists, and if time is short there’s simply no better way to gain insight into this unforgettable landscape than with one of their knowledgeable drivers.
Our recommendation is the full-day Ten Lakes Spectacular, which includes a lake cruise and stops at some of the national park’s most fabled sites including Grasmere, the Borrowdale Valley, Buttermere and the Honister Pass. What’s more, if you’re staying in the Windermere area there’s complimentary pick-up from your accommodation.
At the top end of the scale, you simply cannot beat the space, setting and sumptuousness of the family-run and multi-award winning Gilpin Lodge and Lake House, with the six-bedroom Lake House ideal for special occasions with family and friends.
Set amid 80 acres of private grounds on the banks of its own small lake, the house oozes tranquility, with an impeccable mix of contemporary furnishings, artworks, antiques and fresh flowers. Bedrooms are light-filled and seriously large – space really is in abundance here – with vast beds seemingly taking up no room at all and warm country interiors that aren’t remotely twee.
Afternoon tea is served in the fire-lit lounge, which is full of maps, magazines and interesting knick knacks and overlooks the gardens and lake jetty. There’s a large indoor pool, sauna, and outdoor hot tub, or you can get back to nature via one of several trails in the grounds which lead to panoramic views of nearby mountain ranges.
The hotel is renowned for its modern English cuisine, and dinner at the main lodge is a real occasion, to which you are whisked by chauffeur at your leisure. Relax at the bar or explore the nooks and crannies of this equally glamorous property before settling down in one of the four separate dining rooms. Should you wish to stay somewhere slightly larger but equally mellow, the lodge itself has twenty rooms and suites. Gilpin Lodge and Lake House is located south of Windermere, about a ten minute taxi ride from the station.
Just outside Bowness, Lindeth Howe is another, larger country house retreat once owned by Beatrix Potter, with a gorgeous garden setting and fabulous views across Windermere to the mountains beyond. Swat up on Timmy Tiptoes and Pigling Bland in the hotel library; they were both illustrated here – or just admire the many subtle Potter reminders and photographs dotted about the property.
The imposing country pad has 36 modern rooms decorated in a fresh but traditional style; a number have lake views and there’s a couple of very roomy suites with ample sitting areas and fireplaces. Downstairs there’s a cosy bar where you can leaf through the menu before dinner – the Lake District has a well-deserved reputation for fine food and, along with Gilpin Lodge, Lindeth Howe’s restaurant is another highly-rated venue. The seasonal menu features a range of locally sourced produce, so we say splash out and opt for the extravagant multi-course tasting menu to get a real flavour of the creativity on offer, then burn it all off on one of the hotel’s guided walks or cycle routes.
Other nearby country retreat-style properties include The Samling just south of Ambleside; nearby Holbeck Ghyll, and Linthwaite House just south of Bowness.
For an in-town or more economical option, try the 12-room Hawksmoor Lakeland Guesthouse; Jericho’s – a restaurant with rooms on a quiet street in the centre of Windermere; Laurel Cottage, a Victorian B&B dating back to the 1890s, or The Hideway at Windermere – run by two former members of our own inflight services team!
If you’re arriving by train but feel you cannot do without a pair of wheels, consider hiring a Mini Clubman from Windermere Station via Co-wheels or a 2-seater Renault Twizy from the Langdale Hotel and Spa.
Electric and standard bikes can be hired at dozens of places throughout the Lakes; try Country Lanes at Windermere Station or the electric bike point at Windermere Canoe Kayak for starters. Gilpin Lodge also have two electric bikes for hire, and there are charging points at various locations throughout the national park.
Buses criss-cross the Lake District; one of the most popular routes is the open-top 599 Lakeland Experience from Kendal to Grasmere via Windermere Station.
Last but not least – take to the water. Ferry, cruise and steamer options are available on lakes including Windermere, Coniston, Derwentwater and Ullswater.
Lake district © iStock: DaveBolton
Lake District sunset © iStock: Tranquillian1