In October, the scenery of the Lake District in England is beyond compare.
“The brilliant and various colors of the fern are then in harmony with the autumnal woods; bright yellow or lemon color, at the base of the mountains, melting gradually, through orange, to a dark russet brown towards the summits,” William Wordsworth wrote in his Guide to the Lakes, first published in 1810.
The sights tucked away in the far northwest corner of England are memorable at any time of year, but the fiery-hued foliage that unfolded before my eyes during the first two weeks of October made this an especially show-stopping destination. Here are ten reasons to fall for the Lake District and its neighboring county, Northumberland.
- The Landscape. The same “delicious” views that captivated Thomas Gray in his 1769 Journal in the Lakes hooked an accountant named Alfred Wainwright so much that he daydreamed about the Lake District through the week, anticipating his weekend wanderings in what he called the most delectable corner of the country. From 1955 to 1966, Wainwright created a seven-volume set of guidebooks to the Lake District, but he continued to draw and write about the views he saw on his hikes until his death in 1991. “A walk in Lakeland is a walk in heaven,” Wainwright wrote. Drives through Lakeland are heavenly too, even when navigating hair-raising turns and relying on “passing places” to handle oncoming traffic on roads no wider than a driveway.
2. Historic Homes. From cozy cottages to Arts and Crafts showplaces, the homes here are as memorable as their settings. The dwellings of William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter may be the most well-known, but other authors lived in homes that are just as worthy of attention. Arthur Ransome based Swallows & Amazons, a 1930 children’s adventure tale, on his fond memories of childhood holidays spent at Lake Windermere. In the 17 years that followed, he wrote 11 more novels for children, drawing his own illustrations, living in the Lake District and sailing around its lakes in boats he designed and built. Hugh Walpole wrote his four-volume “Herries Chronicle” about a family’s life in the Lake District — Rogue Herries, Judith Paris, The Fortress, and Vanessa — from his Keswick home between 1927 and 1932. Harriet Martineau built her Ambleside home, The Knoll, in 1847. Inspired by its beautiful views, she wrote one of the most influential and descriptive guides to the Lake District, and held dinner parties during which noted guests like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Brontë sisters planted trees on the grounds. Today, people can rent The Knoll as a holiday cottage.
3. Sheep. They’re everywhere here, bleating at vehicles passing by, trotting down roads, endlessly grazing in fields, and leaving “meadow muffins” to dodge. With their white faces and feet and their rough-textured fleece for withstanding fierce winter weather that lightens from black to a mixture of grey and white as they age, Herdwick sheep are an endearing symbol of the Lake District. Herdwick wool is prized for its natural two-toned effect and its suitability for making durable items like carpets. Their sense of direction gives them a natural instinct to return to their “heaf,” the precise place on the fell that they were born, and they don’t wander far from it. This concentration of Herdwicks in one area has led them to be deemed at risk of extinction, and Lakelanders like Beatrix Potter are committed to looking out for them. The loveable Herdwick inspired the creation of Herdy, a Lake District company that designs and sells unique products, funds and sustainable rural community initiatives, and works with farmers who care for the region’s Herdwick sheep.
4. Surprise Views. Spend days stumbling upon one spectacular sight after another. Cross Ashness Bridge, the most photographed bridge in the Lake District, and come to a stunning “Surprise View” looking out over Derwentwater, Bassenthwaite Lake and the River Derwent to the not-so-far-off shores of Scotland. Look up at the steep crags of the Langdale Valley that challenge rock-climbers and fell-racers who scramble up and down the mountains, known in the Lake District as “fells.” Soak up the views at Blea Tarn, a mountain lake that Wordsworth described in “The Excursion” as “a liquid pool that glittered in the sun.” Make friends with a man named Jock who created a gnome garden for passers-by to enjoy. Queue up to tour the 14th-century Bridge House in Ambleside, a two-room house that has been used to store apples; to conduct the business of the neighboring woolen mill, Rattle Ghyll; as a tea room; a cobbler’s shop; as a chair-maker’s shop; and as a home to a family of eight. And be on your best behavior at Winter’s Gibbet, the gallows on which murderer William Winter’s body was hung in August 1792 and stayed there for the curious to see until the body and its clothes rotted. The gibbet itself decayed as a result of people rubbing pieces of it on their gums to cure toothaches, so a replica, complete with a wooden body used for target practice, was built around 1867. It still stands on the hills around the village of Elsdon.
5. Native Flora and Fauna. Even the most unlikely naturalists could be inspired to create a field checklist to tick off which birds, animals and plants they spot here. Scampering red squirrels and snuffly little hedgehogs threatened by extinction find a safe haven in the north of England. Belted Galloway cows have endless fields to graze. Cormorants who eat twice their weight in fish daily and whose waste is so toxic that it strips trees of leaves. Badgers. Pheasants. Bees whose skeps are protected during the winter in “bee boles,” or recessed parts of a wall.
Hillsides are filled with waist-high bracken, the native species of fern. Pineapple Mayweed. Old Man’s Beard. Sweet Cicely. Bog Myrtle. Meadowsweet. Juniper. Gorse. Heather. Butterbur, named for its leaves so large you can wrap butter in them. Rosebay Willowherb. Yew trees. Damson plums. Victoria plums, first cultivated in Sussex in the 1840s to honor the new queen. A sycamore tree so picturesque that it starred in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. Tree limbs covered with fluffy coats of lichen because the air is so pure. Teasels, once so important to Kendal’s woolen industry and the creation of the “Kendal Green” cloth referenced by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part I that they were featured on the town’s coat of arms. Rushes, whose piths create rushlights and whose stems are strewn over the floors of churches, still celebrated in Grasmere through a centuries-old custom called rush-bearing where villagers process to “The Rush-bearers’ March,” carrying garlands made of rushes as they sing a hymn to St. Oswald.
6. Mountain Goat Tours. Why wander around the Lake District “lonely as a cloud” (as Wordsworth wrote from his Grasmere home in 1804) when you can take Mountain Goat’s guided tours of the Lake District in a Mercedes mini-coach? They’re led by experienced, well-informed and entertaining driver-guides like Stephen Broughton, Jim Whitworth and Peter Nattrass, who work hard to make your holiday the best it can be. I’ll never look at a little finger the same after learning that Mr. Nattrass’s bent little finger reveals that his ancestors were Vikings. They came to England from northern Scandinavia in the 9th century, raiding, colonizing and intermarrying enough to produce a deformity in their male descendants called “Dupuytren’s affliction.”
7. The National Trust. Founded in 1895 to conserve Great Britain’s heritage, the National Trust protects some priceless historic houses, gardens, monuments, and greenspaces with help from famous people like Beatrix Potter and regular ones like us. Contribute to the cause through its wonderful shops, where you can purchase unique items like recycled woolen rugs and garden items. Make a minimal donation, where you’ll be thanked with a pin of its iconic oak leaf and acorn logo, which has reinforced its symbolic messages of Britishness, heritage, nature and growth since 1936. And stop by its nifty vans that pop up in all the right places, where you can pick your fill of printed material like The Little Book of Great Walks Near You: The North; Amazing Things To Do in the Lakes, which includes downloadable walks and other suggestions for planning your day; and 50 Things To Do Before You’re 11 ¾, an adventure scrapbook where children can tick off things like picking blackberries growing in the wild and playing conkers, a traditional British game played in the fall using the seeds of horse chestnut trees.
8. Derwent Pencils. Great English artists like John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough and J.M.W. Turner were regular visitors to the Lake District, filling sketchbooks with drawings of its picturesque landscapes. Artists of all skills can incorporate the Lake District into their work by using pencils made from the pure natural graphite deposits that were discovered in Borrowdale, in the Lake District county of Cumberland, around 1500. A lucrative pencil manufacturing factory was founded in Keswick in 1832, and it continues to make the “Derwent” line of fine art pencils today. Visitors to the Cumberland Pencil Museum in Keswick can watch pencils being made, attend drawing workshops led by professional artists, and tour a museum exhibit on the top-secret pencil that World War II Royal Air Force pilots carried with them on all of their missions.
9. Churches. From an abundance of houses of worship honoring the resident St. Cuthbert to those named more generically for St. Michael and All Angels, the churches here are works of art. Make a pilgrimage to noted cathedrals, but the best churches may be the ones you stumble upon, like the 16th-century St. Anthony’s Church in Cartmell Fell. Here, find centuries-old marks made on benches made by students learning fractions and multiplication, as well as a more recent mosaic of St. Anthony of Egypt and his trademark pig, sheep, swallows, cows, daffodils and other much-loved symbols of the Lake District.
10. Food. Develop a taste for these local favorites: Grasmere gingerbread. Cumberland sausage. Sticky Toffee Pudding. Ham and cheese toasties. Jacket potatoes topped with coleslaw and cheddar cheese. Apple and sultana cakes. Salt and vinegar crisps. Scones. St. Cuthbert Cake. Ginger beer. Victorian lemonade. Dandelion and Burdock, a soft drink infused with dandelion leaves and burdock root, sweetened with pear juice and spiced with ginger and anise. Coniston Brewing Company’s Bluebird Bitter and Old Man Ale. Rocket dressed with salad cream. Tuna mayonnaise sandwiches. Creamy vegetable soups. Toasted fruit teacakes. Slices of “How’s Yer Father” cheese served with water biscuits and tomato chutney on slabs of slate. Fish pie. And Kendal Mint Cake, a sugary, energy-giving confection first produced in Kendal in 1869 and snacked on by Edmund Hillary on his successful ascent of Mount Everest in 1953.
Picturesque scenery, beautiful views, rugged terrain, mountains as far as the eye can see, calm lakes that mirror the autumn colors of trees and fells, and legendary places where history has been made for thousands of years. Join me in the coming weeks for visits to some memorable places in the Lake District and Northumberland.
Get started on reading more about the Lake District with Guide to Windermere: With Tours to the Neighbouring Lakes and Other Interesting Places, by Harriet Martineau; An Independent Woman’s Lake District Writings, also by Harriet Martineau, compiled, edited, and with an introduction by Michael R. Hill; The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, by James Rebanks; three books, all titled The Lake District, but written by J.A. Brooks, Edward Alan Bowness, and Vivienne Crow; Gardens of the Lake District, by Tim Longville; DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10: England’s Lake District; Oliver Berry’s Coniston, Hawkshead & Around, The Lake District and Grasmere & the Central Lake District; The English Lakes: A History, by Ian Thompson; and The Solitude of Mountains: Constable and the Lake District, by Stephen Hebron, Conal Shields and Timothy Wilcox.
National Geographic covered the Lake District in “Through the English Lake District Afoot and Awheel,” by Ralph A. Graves (May 1929); “Informal Salute to the English Lakes,” by Maynard Owen Williams (April 1936); “England’s Lake District: Beauty Besieged,” by Bill Bryson (August 1994); and “Lake District, Poets’ Corner of England,” by H.V. Morton (April 1956). Read more about Bryson’s Lake District experiences in chapter 24 of his Notes from a Small Island.
Matthew Rice captures details of the stone buildings and slate-roofed, whitewashed cottages of the area in chapters titled “The North” and “The Borders” of his watercolor-illustrated pattern book, Traditional Houses of Rural Britain.
The “Vision of England” series of county guides includes a volume on Northumberland by Ann Sitwell. The wood engravings used as chapter headings in the book are from Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds. Bewick was known as the “Engraver of Newcastle” because of his Northumbrian roots.
To learn more about Arthur Ransome, read The Life of Arthur Ransome, by Hugh Brogan; two books titled Arthur Ransome, one by Peter Hunt and the other by Hugh Shelley; and Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint’s Trunk, by Christian Hardyment. For more on Alfred Wainwright, see his Memoirs of a Fellwanderer and A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. Experience what it’s like to hike the fells in Wainwright Walks: Lake District, a DVD of 10 recommended Wainwright walks through the Lake District. One thing I wish I had time enough to see was “Wainwright: A Love Letter to the Lakeland Fells,” an exhibition at the Keswick Museum & Art Gallery that used archival material, original artifacts, film and interactive experiences to recreate Wainwright’s early life. Visitors could sit at a replica of Wainwright’s desk to draw with pen and ink like he did, put on replica gear at the Cumbrian bus stop where he set out for a weekend of walking in the Lake District, and watch archival footage of Wainwright being interviewed.