The New Zealand tourism board won’t thank me for saying this, but I reckon Peter Jackson could have saved a lot of time and effort by filming the Lord of the Rings in the Lake District. It really does have it all: cloud-scraping mountains, lush green valleys and a whole host of rivers, meres, tarns and waters. (Bassenthwaite is the only actual ‘lake’ in the Lake District. You’re welcome, pub quiz fans.)
The Lakes also happen to be one of the UK’s best places for getting outdoors, and there are plenty of campsites (wild or otherwise). However if you’re looking for something a bit cosier after a long day of adventuring, then the beautiful Campbell Cottage could be the perfect choice.
Campbell is one of five self-catering cottages nestled on the quiet north-eastern shoulder of Coniston Water. It’s named for Donald Campbell – the British speed record breaker who sadly died on the lake while attempting to reclaim his water speed title. Momento mori aside, the house itself is a cosy little retreat with everything you’d need for a couple, small family or 2-3 friends (as in this case).
Inside, you’ll find two comfy bedrooms (one double, one twin), a living/dining room and a swish galley kitchen. Word of warning for tall people: you’ll need to remember to duck when you’re heading to raid the kitchen– the doorway is pretty low. On the plus side, the cottage is all on one level so you don’t have to contend with stairs after a long day of walking.
Campbell’s real selling point, however, is the outside space. We were a little short of sunny mornings on our trip, but luckier guests could enjoy lazy mornings in the courtyard garden with tea, pastries, and a spectacular view over the Furness Fells.
If you don’t fancy straying far from these luxuries then there’s plenty to experience within walking distance. Grizedale Forest is a 5-minute stroll up the road, with miles of footpaths and mountain biking trails. Alternatively you can head the other way towards the head of the lake, where cutting through Monk Coniston car park will give you access to the lakeshore – perfect for an easy evening stroll.
Although we spent as little time inside as possible over the week, we were grateful to have somewhere warm and comfy to rest our aching muscles. If – like me – you’re a little masochistic and want your holidays to be as tiring as possible, then here’s a suggested itinerary:
Things to do
Day 1: Keep it local
Walk to Coniston village and find the Boating and Bike Hire centre on the lakeshore. Spend a couple of hours messing about in a rowing boat, or opt for pedal power and cycle along the shoreline Torver village and back.
For a spot of lunch, head to the cosy but modern Bluebird Café – right next to the bike hire centre. Top tip: definitely try their milkshakes – the best you’ll ever taste (I had three).
For an afternoon stroll, try the 6km circular loop up to Tarn Hows lake. Once there, head down the track signposted Tom Gill falls – the rocky going is worth it for the sight of the main waterfall plunging about 30ft down a cliff face. Further downstream the torrent calms slightly, making for some good paddling territory.
Bluebird Cafe: www.thebluebirdcafe.co.uk
Boat and Bike Hire Centre: www.conistonboatingcentre.co.uk
Day 2: or whenever it’s raining
Spoiler alert: it rains in the Lake District. Fortunately there are plenty of places undercover to make a tactical retreat (and I don’t just mean the nearest pub).
Beatrix Potter was a passionate protector of the Lake District landscape, and you can’t visit the Lakes without hearing about her. Visit her famous home Hill Top, tucked away in the quiet village of Near Sawrey, and the Beatrix Potter Gallery in nearby Hawkshead to learn about her life as authoress-cum-hill farmer (and champion breeder of Herdwick sheep).
Still raining? Seek shelter in pretty Ambleside with its abundance of outdoorsy shops. The simply-named ‘Climber’s Shop’ is my favourite (though it also covers running, hiking and much more).
If you do buy some new gear, then where better to test it out than Ambleside’s climbing wall? Experienced climbers can sign in and have a play on the routes, while beginners can book onto a skills course with one of the wall’s qualified instructors to learn the basics. (Advance booking required for courses – subject to availability).
To re-fuel, head to the Apple Pie café to tuck into delicious lunches, cakes and drinks. The hot chocolate is a great way to warm up on a dreck day.
Hill Top: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hill-top
Apple Pie Cafe: www.applepieambleside.co.uk
Day 3: A bit of fell walking
The jewels in Coniston’s crown are without a doubt the Furness Fells, which loom high over the village at the northern end of the lake. The tallest of the peaks is the ‘Old Man of Coniston’ at 803m high, which makes for a great day’s hike.
Drive to the ‘Walna Scar’ car park, which gives you a 200m head-start on the ascent. It’s a reasonably strenuous climb over loose scree and rugged rock ‘steps’, not to mention rusted cables left over from tin mining works, which lend a slightly eerie sense of history to the place.
It’s all worth the effort though – make sure to pick a clear day, or stop just below the cloud cover, and you’ll be able to picnic while enjoying spectacular views over the whole 8km stretch of the lake -and even as far as Windermere.
It’s possible to descend the same way you came up, but a more interesting route is to head off the back of the summit. Follow the path as it gradually bears left down into the valley, and then left again to walk alongside ‘Goat Water’. Again you’ll need to be comfortable with scrambling over rocks – but at least you’ll earn an extra slice of cake.
Time: about 3 hours, more if you stop at the summit.
Route: www.walklakes.co.uk/walk_2.html for the first part, then use OS map OL6 to work out the path from the summit down past Goats Water (just to the right of Dow Crag)
Day 4: England’s adventure capital
Keswick is arguably the ‘adventure capital’ of England. The town itself has plenty of outdoor shops to stock up in, and cafes where you can fuel up and plan adventures.
Keen hikers are catered for with the peaks of Skiddaw and Blencathra, but for a slightly easier walk try the circular trail from Walla Crag to Ashness Bridge. There’s a sustained up-hill trek at the start, but it’s worth it for the views from the top of the crag. From here it’s an easy romp across moorland to Ashness, where you can cool your feet in the river.
It wouldn’t be the Lake District without water, and luckily Keswick is right next to one of the best lakes in the region. Derwentwater is great for swimmers, boaters and anglers, and at its southern tip lies the Borrowdale valley – possibly the most picturesque in all of Cumbria. Definitely worth exploring if you’ve got time.
Day 5: the big one
It’s hard to visit the Lake District without getting the urge to climb Scafell Pike. At 978m the peak towers over the picturesque Wasdale valley, although the summit itself isn’t that attractive – to put it in Lord of the Rings terms it’s pretty much ‘Hobbiton at the bottom, Mordor at the top’. Still, at least you get the chance to be highest person in England for a bit (altitudinally-speaking).
There are several routes up to the top, but the most straightforward begins from Wasdale Head and climbs up to the summit via Lingmell col. Although this is the ‘easy’ route it’s still not one for the faint-hearted – it’s a tough uphill slog and requires scrambling in some sections, but comes with a great sense of achievement at the top.
If the sun’s out you’ll probably be a sweaty mess by the time you get back to the valley floor, but luckily you’re right next to England’s deepest lake for a dip. Drive a little way back down the lake to Overbeck’s Bridge – there’s a small pebbly beach here where you can paddle or swim and enjoy views back up to the mountain tops.
Feeling thirsty? You’re in luck – the region’s best pub is only a half hour drive away from Wasdale. You’ll need a bit of bravery though, as the most direct route is via the rugged Hardknott Pass with its hairpin bends and max gradient of 33%. It’s best avoided in poor weather, but on a good day it provides some fun driving, particularly if you take a diversion at the far end into the stunning Langdale valley. This is also where you’ll find the Sticklebarn Tavern – a cosy country pub run by the National Trust, with the best beer garden view I’ve ever seen. Grab a pint, kick back and relax.
Scafell Pike route: www.walklakes.co.uk/walk_158.html
Day 6: relax with a swim
By now you’ve probably earned a day of rest. Head back to the lakeshore at Coniston, where you’ll find the launching jetties for the lake’s scenic cruise boats. The highlight is probably the National Trust’s ‘Steam Yacht Gondola’ – a rebuilt Victorian-era steam cruiser that provided part of the inspiration for Captain Flint’s houseboat in Swallows and Amazons.
Alternatively you can opt for one of the slightly less stylish, but equally fun ‘Coniston Launch’ ferries, which offer a hop on/hop off ticket system so you can discover different bits of the lakeshore and get a ride home later. We opted to get a one-way ticket to Torver common, a quiet little spot where we could indulge in a spot of wild swimming and canon-balling off the jetty before strolling back along the shoreline to the village. Don’t forget to take a picnic so you can make a day of it.
For another (or additional) swimming spot, drive from the cottage down the eastern edge of the lake to a small walled meadow signposted ‘Low Peel’ (use OS map OL6 to help find it). There is a lay-by just across the road, otherwise park Dodgson Woods car park 1km up the road. Wander across the meadow, through the woods and down to the lakeshore, where you’ll see the beautiful wooded mound of Peel Island just 100m offshore.
This enticing place was the inspiration for Ransome’s ‘Wild Cat Island’ and still allows public access – so makes a great incentive for braving the deep and chilly waters. Don’t forget though that only strong swimmers should attempt the crossing – preferably with a wetsuit and floatation device!
Steam Yacht Gondola: cruises run between April and October, from £11 for adults (10% discount for NT members). www.nationaltrust.org.uk/steam-yacht-gondola