The Lake District is generally agreed to be England’s finest national park. Unlike last week’s Scottish Highlands suggestion, though, during spring and summer in the Lakes you won’t be alone in the wilderness: you’ll meet hundreds of others out enjoying the countryside. Which is great, except that most of the people out enjoying the fresh air on the hills will later be spoiling it by driving back to their hotels and cottages. Like most English national parks, the Lake District is easily accessible from a major motorway, and 93% of the 8-9 million annual visitors come by car. So, despite its low permanent population, it has a serious seasonal problem with congestion, car parking, and other blight from the influx of car-bound tourists. Visitors are literally destroying the same wildlife and spectacular natural landscape that they are coming to see, as dual carriageways, bypasses and ever bigger car parks get built — merely inducing more demand and congestion. In 2003, the local authorities even looked at the feasibility of introducing a Lake District Congestion Charge. Clearly it would be irresponsible to drive to the Lake District and add to these problems. But surely it’s not possible to have a break in the lake district without a car?
I’ve had several. Mostly they were by bicycle (and I might give some bicycle route suggestions in a future post), but one time it was by bus. In february. Which was excellent. I imagine it would be even more excellent in April-June, when the full bus services are running, but before the schools break up and the families flood in with their mock military personnel carriers. (I’ve also been to the Lake District once by car, and can honestly say that not only is possible to go there without one, it’s much better to go there without one — with a car you have to plan your day around it at least as much as you do with buses: where do you park, how are you going to get back to where you parked, etc)
The buses are not tourist coach packages — the kind with a cheeky middle-aged northern failed comic giving distracting commentary between set 30 minute stops at “attractions” only the most senile of the passengers would want to visit. They are simple normal everyday buses on reasonably frequent timetables. Normal buses that get people to work, or the market, or the post office on pension day. Buses are not complicated.
(Many Motorists, of course, will not have seen the inside of a bus in decades, and the idea of using one on a holiday in unfamiliar terrain will sound awfully difficult and complicated to them — especially if their only idea of a public bus is something that they’ve picked up from the worst Radio 4 or Daily Telegraph portrayal of a Brixton night bus.)
If you’re not already familiar with the Lakes then Keswick, in the north, is a good place to start — a small market town with the full spectrum of accommodation from youth hostels to luxury hotels. It’s on the shores of Derwent Water, one of the prettiest of the lakes, and is surrounded by small hills with fantastic views which you don’t need to be a hardcore fell walker to climb. Plus, if the weather turns bad one day, you can visit the world famous pencil museum. (I’ve never been, but I know dozens of people who have and they all say: “not as awful as it sounds”.) Or maybe an ironic trip to Cars of the Stars.
Getting there and back
The most direct way to and from Keswick is a train to Penrith (from London on a saturday, try the 9:30am Euston-Glasgow train) followed by the X4 or X5. The bus (at least, when I used it) leaves the station half an hour or so after the train gets in, but the castle ruins next to the station might entertain for a little while. From here to Keswick is down the main road, though, which is not bad scenery, but nor is it the greatest gateway to Keswick.
Instead, consider the 8:30am train from Euston and change at Lancaster or Oxenholme for Windermere. Seeing the more famous lake will allow you to appreciate the superiority of Derwent Water, which has escaped the plastic yachts, motorboats, and McMansions. Victorian NIMBYs like Wordsworth wanted to keep Windermere free from vulgarities, but for them vulgarities meant the working class masses, and so the railway that would have taken them to the lake sadly stops a mile or so from the shore, in the hope that this would discourage them from coming any closer. You could easily walk down the main street to the lake at Bowness for lunch, though. For Keswick you want the 555 from Windermere station. Alternatively, if you’ve walked to the lake, you could get a boat around to Ambleside — a much nicer corner of the lake — and pick the bus up there. I’ve never tried Windermere boats, so I don’t know where they fall on the public transport / tourist jaunt scale. Don’t be tempted to walk along the lake shore to pick up the bus at Ambleside: you’ll find it fenced off and covered in “private” signs, forcing you onto the main road (which does have a pavement but is not an exciting walk). Over the course of an hour the double-decker bus will give you a chance to see over the hedges and stone walls to watch Rydal Water, Grasmere, Helm Crag and Thirlmere leisurely pass.
For the trip back? Ullswater, long and narrow in a deep cavern of mountains, is definitely worth a look. Take the 208 from Keswick to Patterdale, where you could take a steamer the length of the lake and pick up the 108 to Penrith station. For the hill-climbers it looks plausible that one could even take the 555 back to Thirlmere and cross the 950 metre Helvelyn to Ullswater, but I haven’t tried it.
Things to do while you’re there
The main thing to do in the Lake District is walk up hills. Keswick and Derwent Water have plenty of those, of all different heights, so you’ll find something to match your tastes and fitness. I’m not going give detailed instructions for walking up hills because there are a lot of them, and anyway, somebody else has already done it. However, here are some suggestions for nice and easy ones to do, with some rough routes plotted in the Google Earth file:
- Catbells — you can take the boat (they’re not tacky tourist boats) across the lake to get to it, walk through the woods beside the lake for a little while, then up the hill and back down into the town. Or vice versa, of course. Distance: 5-6 miles; climb ~1000 ft above lake level.
- Latrigg — follow the course of the old railway up the valley, and then a reasonably gentle path up this little hill behind Keswick, for a nice view down the lake to the Jaws of Borrowdale and the mountains beyond. Distance: 6 miles; climb ~800 ft above lake level.
- Walla Crag and Castlerigg — walk along the lake or take the boat out to Ashness/Barrow Bay and walk up the picturesque Ashness Bridge, then up to Walla Cragg for a view up the lake over Keswick, Latrigg, and Skiddaw. Then over to the fantastic stone circle at Castlerigg — a million times better than Stonehenge, set in a great bowl of mountains. Distance: 5-6 miles; climb ~800 ft above lake level.
If you want to put in a bit more effort, the 1500 ft climb of Haystacks is considered one of the best in the lakes. Haystacks is a few miles from Keswick but there are, of course, buses to its base on Buttermere. You can climb the mountain, have lunch beside the lovely little tarns, and then descend to stroll beside the lake to the ice cream shop in Buttermere village. The bus journey itself follows Derwent Water and the river through Borrowdale, before climbing over the impressive Honister Pass.
There are loads of other hills to climb and lakes to walk around — I’m not going to list them all, as there are plenty of guides. What matters is that you’ll have no problem getting to them by bus.