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Travel: A lakeside break; Peter Beal explores the beauty and peace of the Lake District.

Byline: Peter Beal

THE hard toil up the lower slopes of the Fairfield Horseshoe was well worth it as the blue expanse of Windermere and its surrounding fells gradually appeared below like a landscape painting.

The guru of fell-walking, the late AW Wainwright, praised this as one of his favourite Lake District routes, and rightly so. At some 11 miles long, and with around 3, 500ft of climbing towards the top of majestic Fairfield, the walk is a strenuous day out, but well within the capabilities of a moderately fit walker.

The rewards are spectacular as the flanks of the Horseshoe's first peak, Low Pike, are tackled. The distinct outlines of the Langdale Pikes can be seen beyond the northern end of England's largest lake.

Further in the distance England's highest mountain, Scafell Pike, stands out among the panorama of fells, and on a clear day, like this, Morecambe Bay shimmers distantly to the west.

Balmy days of continuous sunshine are rare indeed among the breathtaking scenery of this, England's most beautiful walking country, and are to be savoured.

If there is a down-side of this part of the world it is the crowds that throng the bustling lakeside towns of Ambleside, Windermere and Bowness in spring and summer. But a few minutes stiff walking up Ambleside's steep narrow lanes towards the centuries-old High Sweden Bridge, the alluring fells beyond, and the town's galleries, cafes and outdoor shops, could be a thousand miles away.

After three hours of steady climbing, we emerged on the grassy, rounded summit of 2, 864ft Fairfield with unrival led views of the Lake District peaks in all directions.

In poor conditions, this is no place for the unprepared or illequipped. To the north and northeast of the plateau, precipitous drops demand careful compass work to descend safely in mist.

There are no such problems today, with the downhill return route to the south over Great Rigg and Heron Pike from where there are fine views of Grasmere 1, 000ft below, visible all the way down. It is an undemanding and delightful descent, until the final steep drop from Nab Scar, which reminds tired legs of mileage just covered.

A final mile through the pleasant meadows around Rydal Hall and we are back in Ambleside, from where a short walk takes us back to the delights of our hotel, the newly-refurbished Waterhead on the northern tip of Windermere.

The attractive Lakeland stone Waterhead has reopened after a pounds 2. 7m renovation to become Lakeland's first four-star ``town house'' hotel and it lives up to its billing, nestling on the lakeside with charming views of the fells opposite.

Its modern rooms are each named after waterfalls in the District. Ours is Moss Force, a fall at the head of the remote Newlands Valley between Keswick and Buttermere, of which a picture by a local photographer adorns the wall. A giant wall-mounted flat screen TV, a CD and DVD player with a selection of discs available free of charge, internet access, a king-size bed and a sumptuously appointed bathroom with a heated slate floor and a raised glass basin all add to the sense of understated luxury.

After a rigorous day on the fells, puritanical souls can be offended by such luxury. It wasn't like this when I first came to the Lake District as a teenager to sleep in soggy tents and freezing youth hostels. But sitting on the balcony of our room in the sunshine, looking over the Waterhead Bay marina and sharing a bottle of chilled white wine before dinner -- well, you can soon get used to it.

The hotel restaurant, where a meal with inventive mini-dishes served between the three courses is a value-for-money pounds 30 per head, combines modern cuisine with traditional dishes.

Starters included seared sliced Queen scallops and local goat's cheese, while main courses featured pave of Cumbrian fell-bred beef fillet, Grizedale venison steak, served with raspberries and apricots in a red wine reduction and pan-fried red mullet with seared oranges. With a side of delicious thick chips.

The restaurant and the adjoining airy lounge bar, with a strik-ing Lakeland slate water feature, also have some of the most genuinely friendly hotel staff I have ever met.

Next day, after a traditional Cumbrian breakfast accompanied by a weather forecast -- accurate as it turned out -- from the cheery staff, we headed for the lakeside, sore legs from the previous day's climbing urging us towards a more leisurely pace.

There are a host of attractions within a short drive of the Waterhead and Ambleside, many reachable by shuttle bus or motorcruiser.

In nearby Grasmere is Dove Cottage, William Wordsworth's home between 1799 and 1808, and the Wordsworth museum.

A short distance away is his lesser known former home of Rydal Mount and its gardens.

To the south, between Windermere and Ambleside, is the Lake District Visitor Centre at Brock-hole, with interactive exhibitions and audio-visual programmes providing a good starting point to explore the area.

Children love the World of Beatrix Potter attraction, an indoor creation of the Lakeland countryside and author's famous characters. We took the lazy option and decided on a cruise, using a 24 hour Freedom of the Lake ticket (pounds 12) which allows passengers to hop on and off the historic fleet of vessels that ply Windermerebetween Waterhead, Bowness and the southern tip at Lakeside.

From there the Lakeside andHaverthwaite steam railway runs to Newby bridge.

On all the boats an excellent commentary provides a history of this part of the world, ``discovered'' as a tourist destination for the privileged and wealthy almost 200 years ago -- and today remains one of the country's greatest places for a perfect weekend.

CAPTION(S):

Autumn at Grasmere in the Lake District; Lake Windermere; Bowness in the Lake District
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Oct 30, 2004
Words:965
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