There are few sights more beautiful than Lake Windermere at sunrise, when mist hangs over the mirrorlike surface, still undisturbed by the first of the day’s sailings. With the fells, trees and clouds reflected on the unbroken water, it is easy to understand why the poet William Wordsworth, who lived in the Lake District, was moved to describe it as the “most beautiful spot that God hath found”.
Windermere, at 18km in length, is the largest lake in England, and has been a favourite of holidaymakers ever since the British holiday has existed. It became a tourist hotspot after the Kendal and Windermere Railway opened in 1847 during a period of early Victorian expansion, and has grown in popularity ever since.
Last year, more than 19 million tourists visited the Lake District, bringing in £1.4bn in revenue. Many foreign tourists visit the region, which became a national park in 1951 and was belatedly awarded Unesco World Heritage status last year.
The overwhelming majority of visitors are British (just one in seven is from overseas), often travelling from neighbouring counties to enjoy the wilderness of the Lake District as well as its fine pubs and unbeatable walks.
For an area as remote as the Lake District, parts of it are surprisingly accessible, even without a car. On a recent trip, we took the three-a-half-hour train journey from London, changing at Oxenholme Lake District for the branch line to Windermere, and staying in Bowness-on-Windermere, a charming slate-stone built town which is home to just 4,000 people and sits on the banks of the lake. It is also home to The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction, which details the work of the children’s author and her conservation work in Lakeland.
Reopened in 2017 following a multimillion pound refurbishment, Hydro Hotel is one of Windermere’s oldest hotels. Pick rooms at the front with views over Bowness and Windermere (squirehotels.co.uk/hydro).
The Langdale Chase, a Grade II listed country house, was built in 1895. This pretty hotel is found in peaceful Ambleside and just moments from the water (langdalechase.co.uk).
With spectacular views over the lake and fells, Linthwaite House Hotel is one of the most luxurious options in the Lake District. Prices start from £215 a night (linthwaitehouse.com).
We stayed at the recently renovated Hydro Hotel, a grand Victorian mansion, which offered views of the tranquil lake from our north-west facing room. It is just a five-minute walk from Bowness town centre, which, despite the tourists, offers a slice of authentic Cumbrian life – particularly in its pubs – with sweet shops selling Kendal mint cake and fudge. A highlight is Hole In T’ Wall, which dates back to 1612. With lowbeamed ceilings, wood panelling, local ales, and all sorts of curiosities, such as china cups and taxidermy hanging from hooks and sitting on shelves, it is one of the best old-style inns anywhere in the country.
Bowness has a number of good restaurants, serving mostly British, Italian or Indian food, but, of course, the real draw of the area is its natural beauty. One of the best ways to experience it is to take a lake cruise, ranging from 45 minutes to three hours. They are unsurprisingly popular: Windermere Lake Cruises carried 1.6m visitors last year, so it is best to rise early while the lake is still clear, save for the pretty sailboats, which drift elegantly across the water. It is a different scene to 20 years ago, when powerboaters and water-skiers whisked across the water before a controversial 10-knot (18.5kmh) speed limit was introduced, enforced by national park rangers using radar equipment. Two decades on, most locals still hold strong opinions on the by-law.
We took the boat from Bowness Pier, passing Belle Island, the largest of 18 islands in the lake, then the Hawkshead and Claife viewing point on our right, and down to Windermere’s most southerly tip, Lakeside. Here, we joined the scenic Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway, an old-style steam train, which offers panoramic views over the fells and woods. Later we visited the Lakeland Motor Museum, which houses 140 classic cars and motorbikes covering everything from a 1930s Derby-built Bentley to a 1952 TVR 2 (the only one of its type) and a gull-winged Delorean.
While Wordsworth, John Ruskin and Beatrix Potter are the literary giants most commonly associated with Lakeland, it is Alfred Wainwright, the author and fellwalker, who perhaps best captured the area’s outstanding beauty. His sevenvolume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells is still regarded as the definitive guide to walking the region, and no trip to Windermere, or beyond, would be the same without his sage advice. Such is the book’s influence, much of the region now bears its author’s name: the 214 Lake District fells described within are now known as Wainwrights. Hike to where his love affair began: “Quite suddenly,” he wrote of Orrest Head, a hill to the east of Windermere that he scaled on his first visit, “we emerged from the trees and were on a bare headland, and, as though a curtain had dramatically been torn aside, beheld a truly magnificent view.”
Unsurprisingly, many of the tourists who visit Windermere are walkers, but, despite the area’s popularity, it is not difficult, after a few correct turns, to find yourself away from the tourist trails, enjoying the fells to yourself.
If you are hoping to go further afield, but do not have a car, Mountain Goat offers great tours around the region: we used its services to visit Hawkshead, a quaint village, overlooked by a 16th century church and home to Wordsworth’s grammar school and the charming Minstrels Gallery tearooms; Tarn Hows, another breathtaking body of water, originally three separate tarns before a dam flooded the land; and Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s delightful, rickety house, which she bought in 1906 and left to the National Trust. When she married, she moved but did not go far – you can see her marital home beyond trees and a slate-stone wall on the opposite fell. It is no surprise she did not want to leave this captivating region. ABTAmag.com
Where to eat
Porto features a creative modern menu using British ingredients. It is devised by head chef Slav Miskiewicz, who trained under Steven Doherty at the two-Michelin star Le Gavroche. The beef cheek and fillet tail with black pudding bon bon, truffle potato and red wine sauce is particularly good.
Cedar Manor Hotel and Restaurant, aside from being an elegant five-star hotel, also houses a AA Rosette eatery. Head chef Roger Pergl-Wilson cooks up innovative dishes and British classics. Many of the ingredients used come from Cumbria and Yorkshire.
Hrishikesh Desai’s one-Michelin starred Hrishi serves some of the Lake District’s best food, including a remarkable take on the traditional Cumbrian afternoon tea (“Posh scran,” as he puts it). The seven-course tasting menu, featuring Cartmel Valley venison, is rightly celebrated (but, at £90, not cheap).