Britain has hardly been out of the spotlight in 2012, and it seems to have had a magnetic pull on our readers.
Over the past few months we’ve been inundated with enquiries from incoming passengers heading to the UK, looking for advice on how to combine a visit to London with a side trip to some of our most appealing scenic areas.
You’ve been so swayed by the British countryside (and perhaps by a vision of Britishness portrayed in a certain TV drama) that as well as exploring our capital city, you want to go further afield to see our national parks, our coastline, our heritage cities and other areas of natural beauty. So we’re here to help you do just that. Over the coming months we’ll bring you the occasional beginner’s guide to some of our most popular regions, and we hope our homegrown readers will find these equally useful.
Let’s kick things off right away with a two-part guide to the no.1 most requested destination – the Lake District.
The Lake District
It may well be England’s largest national park, but at little more than 30 miles wide it’s a drop in the ocean compared to most of its US counterparts, and small enough to get to grips with on even the shortest of trips.
Brushing up close to the Scottish border in the north and tumbling down to Morecambe Bay in the south, the Lake District sits entirely within the northwest county of Cumbria and is one of England’s most celebrated and mythic landscapes. Its lure stems from an incredible array of natural riches. Sixteen major lakes and countless other bodies of water known as ‘tarns’ are surrounded by brooding mountains and forested valleys; a land of plunging waterfalls and blooming meadows, where scree-covered crags teem with gravity-defying sheep. All this, and a string of literary associations with the Romantic poets continue to entice around 16 million visitors per year.
Do I need a car?
It’s the question we’re asked more than any other. And the answer is no. If you want to experience the grandeur of the Lakes on a short side trip from London, then it’s absolutely possible to do so without a car. In fact, the Lake District is one of the most progressive regions in the country for sustainable transport and is investing heavily in alternative ways to explore.
Obviously, if you’re planning a longer stay and want the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, then a car will be useful. But even then you don’t necessarily need to take your own vehicle or go down the car hire route – there are other options available. But for a short taster trip we say take the train and discover the Lakes by boat, bike, bus and on foot!
Where should I base myself?
Much of the Lake District’s infrastructure and visitor facilities are centred along the eastern shore of finger-shaped Windermere, England’s largest natural lake. Along with Ambleside on the lake’s northern tip, the linked towns of Windermere and Bowness are undeniably geared to tourists, but are still the best bet for the first time visitor. They provide excellent access to the rail network, bus routes, ferries, lake steamers and cycle paths, and have the widest range of accommodation for all budgets, from B&Bs and small hotels to grand lake view resorts. And if you’re looking for more of a rural idyll, some of the best country retreats in England are no more than a ten minute taxi ride away.
What to see and do
The region is by no means without cultural or historical attractions, but getting out into the great outdoors is by far the most popular reason for visiting the Lakes.
Options for exploring the Lake District on foot are myriad, with everything from short, level walks without stiles for the less mobile, to dedicated family walks, day-long routes, challenging long distance treks and guided fell running and scrambling. Walking is easily the most popular pursuit in the Lakes and wherever you’re based, you’ll be spoilt for choice: there will be more stunning walking options on your doorstep than you’ll have time to experience in one visit.
Read more about all kinds of walking routes in the Lake District.
Apart from the main towns in the height of summer, the Lake District is mostly quiet and rural, making it ideal for exploring by bike. A network of cycle hire outlets, bike repair shops, electric bike charging stations and mile upon mile of designated trails make cycling a genuinely practical way of getting around.
There are plenty of easy tracks for beginners, families and less experienced cyclists, including several railway paths and the well-maintained trails in Grizedale Forest Park. Easily accessible from Windermere is the newly-smoothed Windermere West Shore Route alongside the lake, a 4km stretch of trail which has recently been resurfaced, making it suitable for all kinds of bike. Reach Ferry House, the starting point, via the regular Windermere car ferry which only charges £1 for cyclists.
Mountain bikers will find themselves in muddy cycling heaven in the Lake District. With two of England’s most imposing summits – Skiddaw and Helvellyn – accessible by bridleway, it’s one of the UK’s best places to ride, and has an extensive network of trails which can be traversed individually or easily linked to form longer circuits. The less fit amongst us needn't feel left out either - electric bikes are available to rent at an increasing number of venues throughout the Lakes, making puff-worthy inclines a breeze.
Read more about cycling in the Lake District.
Water based activities
Other than the lovely but rather laid-back option of taking a lake cruise, there are plenty more adventurous ways to get on the water. Canoeing and kayaking are two of the most popular activities, and Windermere is one of the best flat paddling destinations in the UK. Rental facilities are available at Windermere Canoe Kayak at Ferry Nab, just south of Bowness, and other locations throughout the Lake, with guides available for the less confident.
Fancy your hand at windsurfing or sailing? Introductory sessions are available for both at various locations including Windermere and Derwentwater, or opt for the simple pleasure of one or two hour’s row boat hire at the lakeshore Fell Foot Park on Windermere’s southern tip.
Read more about water sports in the Lake District.
More sedate attractions in the Lake District range from the modern and family friendly - the World of Beatrix Potter; the Lakes Aquarium; Brockhole visitor centre - to traditional stately homes and mansions such as Holker Hall, Wray Castle and Levens Hall.
With a roll call of literary heavyweights having called the Lake District home, it’s no surprise that their respective dwellings and favoured spots have become visitor attractions in their own right too. William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top and Brantwood, former home of John Ruskin, are justifiably top of the list (all of which are accessible by bus or bike).
See a complete list of Lake District visitor attractions.
The hands-down best way to discover the Lakes with someone else at the wheel is to take one of the year-round daily tours offered by Mountain Goat. With 40 years experience they’re the undisputed Lakeland specialists, and if time is short there is simply no better way to gain insight into this unforgettable landscape than with one of their knowledgeable drivers.
Our recommendation is the full-day Ten Lakes Spectacular, which includes a lake cruise and stops at some of the national park’s most fabled sites including Grasmere, the Borrowdale Valley, Buttermere and the Honister Pass. The pace is relaxed, groups are small, and there is ample opportunity to take photographs and admire the views. What’s more, if you’re staying in the Windermere area there’s complimentary pick-up from your accommodation. Other options are available and private tours can also be arranged.
Continue to Part Two of our guide, for recommendations on where to stay, when to go and everything you need to know about getting to and around the Lakes.
Header photo of Keswick and Derwentwater © Cumbria Tourism
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.