Our good fortune continues into Day 2 of our Lakes exploration: with searing summer heat and blue skies greeting us as we stop off at Sizergh Barn for breakfast on the way to Windermere. Though it’s early morning, there are already quite a few people milling around the carpark. We visit the farm shop and are immediately distracted by the wonderful array of local produce ornately arranged in the farm’s beautifully converted barn. We chat briefly to Ruth, one of Sizergh Barn’s employees, who tells us about the trail and seasonal programme events they put on before we head upstairs to the tearoom.
Sizergh Barn’s passion for slow food becomes immediately apparent once you venture into the tearoom and glance out of the far windows to the working dairy below. The milk in our tea certainly doesn’t have to travel far! We enjoy tea and a lovely freshly cooked breakfast before plotting the day’s activities. Though it’s still fairly early, we only just escape without endangering our waistbands and sampling the delicious looking cakes and scones. After another chat with the lovely shop staff we head out to start our exploration.
The rising sun helps highlight bright wildflowers growing on the roadside and the looming hills glow with an almost green luminosity against the brilliant blue sky. It’s safe to say that the Lakes looks incredible at all times throughout the year, but seeing it in peak summer really does convey its status as a part of the British isle without parallel. We’re clearly not the only ones to think this, as we soon join a procession of slow-moving summer traffic in an attempt to navigate Windermere.
Undoubtedly one of, if not the single most popular destination in the Lakes – due to its accessible location, literary celebration in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and because, well, it really is just that nice – Windermere is a magnet for holidaymakers looking to enjoy the Lakes’ more civilised corners: boutique shops, high-end eateries and more, or those looking for a pit-stop before heading off the beaten path. Needless to say the local office is very busy, so we grab a few moments to chat to Tina and Terezia from the team before heading out of town for a better vantage point from which to admire the lake.
Few appreciations of the beauty of Windermere are as welcome as those from the garden terrace of the Holbeck Ghyll country house with a cup of tea in your hand. In truth, we could have been sat on wet grass under a black cloud and the majesty of our surroundings would have been equally impressive – as a sailboat glides slowly over the waters in a natural amphitheatre shaped by the trees rising from the hillside below – but we’re not here to do things by halves.
As if aware of our rising levels of self-satisfaction, Nature sends a dark grey cloud rolling in over the bluff. It’s an intensely dramatic sight and so enthralling that we nearly get caught in a brief shower as we make our way back to the car heading around the northern tip of Lake Windermere through Ambleside to Coniston. The Lakes is always keen to offer surprises, it seems.
The sun emerges from the cloud and presents us with an incredible view of Wetherlam, the most northerly of the fells surrounding Coniston. Perhaps it’s in contrast to Windermere, or maybe just a pre-lunch lull, but the town is delightfully tranquil. We take a slow walk through town and down a quiet footpath to sit by the Bluebird Café (named after Donal Campbell’s heroic yet ill-fated attempt to break the World Water Speed Record in 1967) next to the lake’s waters.
The Lake’s shores are incredibly popular, with many ducks being fed, dogs swimming, children playing and grown-ups relaxing by the waterside. I start chatting to Andrew who sits down on the bench next to me. He followed the lure of the Lake District down from Scotland and has now been living so long in Coniston that he refers to the year he moved instead of the years he’s been (it helps him feel younger, he tells me). A large steam powered gondola approaches the shore in silence and, as he explains the process in almost minute detail, it’s clear that his passion for this glorious region is undiminished since he moved (1983 for the record). What’s more it’s clear from the contentedness on the faces of all those around that it’s increasingly contagious.
In contrast to the gentle affability of Coniston, the drive up through the Great Langdale offers incredibly dramatic scenery and a twisty road with some pulse-raising gradients. As driver, I’m a little too preoccupied to pay much notice to the abundance of bucolic charm that surrounds us but, aware that I’m missing out, I pull over to the roadside to stretch my legs and gaze over the gorgeous green mountains and piles of scree glowing grey in the sun before continuing the ascent. We pass Blea Tarn slowly and see a couple enjoying a quiet picnic on the shore, the only audience to this incredible natural wonder, and it becomes clear that the Lake District offers something for everyone; you just have to invest your time in discovering it.
We descend into the Langdale Valley and arrived at the Old Dungeon Ghyll, a haven for walkers, climbers and those who need to regain their composure after the drive. Raven Crag rises majestically behind and soon our attentions are stolen by small figures half way up the face. It takes longer than it probably should to recognise the form of two climbers slowly making their way up to the top. It’s a delightful contrast to those enjoying their lunches in the open air at the foot of the crag and reaffirms the diverse charms that the region offers. Still fuelled by all the tea we’ve consumed, we spend a few more moments admiring the efforts of the climbers, before continuing the drive to Ambleside.
Families gather on White Platts green in the centre of Ambleside to play crazy golf in the afternoon sun as the spire of St Mary’s Church rises behind. It’s the kind of quintessentially English scene that you thought didn’t exist beyond memories of idyllic childhoods, the pages of novels, or Sunday evening TV programmes. It really is quite a heartening sight and despite its obvious popularity, we feel like we’ve discovered a hidden holiday gem.
The town of Ambleside offers an assortment of other charms: lovely pubs, great restaurants, shops and cinemas, one of which we stop at one for lunch. Zefferellis is something of an Ambleside institution, screening the latest films, serving delicious vegetarian cuisine and showcasing live music in the lounge upstairs. Aware that we’ve eaten pretty much everything that didn’t move within some of the Lakes’ finest eateries in the past couple of days, we order salad and sit on a roadside terrace as people amble slowly through the warm glow of a stunning summer afternoon. You might be tempted, as we were, to assume that this is how the town received its name, however it’s actually the Old Norse translation of ‘river – sandbank – summer pasture’ (another one for the pub quiz!).
Our next stop is Wordsworth’s cottage on the edge of Grasmere. Sadly it’s not on our books, but that doesn’t stop us exploring the garden of Dove Cottage with Paul Kleian from the Wordsworth Trust. Paul points out the old well hidden in the garden, smoke devil chimneys and ‘The Lion and the Lamb’ gazing down from the top of Helm Crag. It’s hardly surprising that Wordsworth found so much inspiration in his surroundings; it really is a beautiful location that still maintains an air of tranquillity despite being one of the Lake District’s premier destinations – as the car park attests. Time is running away with us so we bid Paul farewell and head back. We don’t manage to stay in the car long, however, and soon make a stop at the Hawkshead Brewery in Staveley.
Since 2002 The Hawkshead Brewery has been brewing beers of distinction that represent the diverse charms and unfettered glory of the surroundings. And though it has moved over Windermere from its former location at the head of Esthwaite Water, its large current location allowed the construction of a lively beer hall which, on a late Friday afternoon in peak summer, is positively thriving. It turns out that the brewery is also hosting a weekend music festival. Unfortunately we are unable to stay but it just reinforces the idea that the Lakes is a region that is bound to surprise and delight – no matter how well you know it.
Though we’ve spent the past couple of days chasing its many charms, we feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface. We imagine what we could see in a week. After that the holiday plans begin to formulate and I know I’ll be back soon, because I’m sure it will look amazing in the autumn.