A March 2002 trip
to Cumbria by Bear in Britain
Quote: Cumbria’s lakeland was a rural backwater until Wordsworth put it on the map. Now known for spectacular scenery, dramatic hiking trails and rotten weather (the brochures don’t tell you that!), it’s THE quintessential great outdoors holiday. You can also, however, do luxury and pampering if you know where to look.
Time may be short. Sure, you can hike up to deeply impressive sights like Hardknott Roman fort (surely some of the most dramatic Roman ruins in Britain, sitting at the top of a wild and dramatic mountain pass) or Castlerigg Stone Circle (atmospheric, Stonehenge-like; but smaller, more isolated, with stunning mountain views). But drive, and you can spend more time sightseeing.
Or the weather has been rotten, so I end up retreating to the shops. Lakeland Ltd. in Windermere is a massive kitchen and household goods store that keeps me busy for hours.
Or I’ve settled in for a luxurious high tea in one of the region’s many upscale hotels (Windermere’s Langdale Chase, the Wordsworth in Grasmere). The nibbles are tasty, the tea is hot, the overstuffed chair is SOOO comfy and I can see the spectacular view through the window. Why move?
Yes, one day I’ll hike. Until then, I’ll make do with the more sybaritic pleasures of the Lake District.
Bring appropriate clothes. It rains here a lot and is often terribly windy. Weather can change quickly, especially in higher elevations. And of course, it’s much colder at the top of those hills than in the valleys.
Bring a good camera! There’s a reason tourists flock here: It’s some of the best landscape in the country. You will, no doubt, want to photograph a lot of it. This is also a mecca for artists, especially watercolourists. You can bring your supplies, or pick them up from the many art shops in the main tourist towns.
If you drive, do be sensible about how far from London (your probable point of origin) this is. With no traffic and going near the speed limit it’s about a six-hour drive, though it doesn’t look that far on the map. Plan carefully to avoid anything CLOSE to rush hours around Birmingham, especially on Fridays. I’ve lost hours crawling through here, one of the most perennially congested motorway interchanges in the UK.
Of course, if you DO want to do public transportation it’s easy. Walking was, after all, the original point of this region. Trains run into the major towns like Windermere and Keswick, and there are plenty of B&Bs and hotels within walking distance. You can do hikes from there, or catch regional buses to other points.
Hotel | "The Langdale Chase Hotel"
The Langdale Chase is a wonderful old country-house-turned-hotel on the main road between Windermere and Ambleside. It is in the style known as "tudorbethan", a historical hotch-potch assembled… usually by industrialists with "new money" … in the 19th century to create a big new house that feels much older. The public spaces are suitably grand. The great hall, with its Jacobean-style panelling and sweeping staircase, shows up all the time in photo shoots of B-list celebrity weddings. Sitting and dining rooms are equally impressive, and many benefit from magnificent views out big windows, over manicured lawns to the uninterrupted sweep of Lake Windermere.
The rooms aren’t quite as grand and historic as the public spaces, but you’ll still find nice furniture, comfortable beds and a touch of elegance in the décor. The main rooms are in the house and the best (and most expensive) ones have views of the lake. (Note that I’ve used the upper-end lake view as the price point for the listing above.) Over the years, however, the hotel has become a big venue for corporate retreat days and they’ve expanded to offer more rooms in lodge-style bungalows in the grounds. Thus you may be surprised by the number of people in the dining room at breakfast and dinner. The place sleeps more than you’d think!
The hotel also functions as a restaurant. The food was of the highest quality and had the range of choice you’d expect in any fine continental restaurant. Depending on the season, they do some great all-inclusive deals and you may find it worth your while to buy the package.
The service is personalised, friendly and attentive without being intrusive or snobbish.
Do be aware that the Langdale Chase is a very popular wedding venue; this may cause difficulties for booking in the summer months.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 12, 2002
Langdale Chase Hotel
Windermere, United Kingdom LA23 1LW
+44 (0)15394 32201
Jambo is a very personal enterprise run by husband & wife team Kevin and Andrea. She handles front of house, he cooks … and makes a later-evening sweep around to see how everyone liked their food. The menu tells you that they took their inspiration from the hospitality they received on their Kenyan honeymoon; "Jambo" is Swahili for welcome. They’d always wanted to open a restaurant, and came to the Lake District to give it a go.
On my past visits I’ve always found it tough to find good restaurants up here. Either they were high-end, formal affairs in the nicer hotels or simple, variable quality pubs and cafes. Jambo was a welcome addition and I hope they do well. The service and quality we experienced, plus they’re location in the heart of town on a main road between the train station and the lake, should ensure this.
A three-course meal off the fixed price menu, from which you got three or four choices for every course, was £16. This started with tasty fresh rolls which, the menu proudly boasts, are made by hand, on site, every day by Andrea. Typical starters were smoked chicked & local appledore cheese or caramelised onion & swiss cheese tart. Mains are things like slow cooked lamb shank with tomatoes on a mustard mash or pan-roasted halibut on a beetroot risotto. For dessert, how about a praline drambui parfait or hot caramel and apple souffle.
Lakeland supplies all manner of fascinating kitchen gadgets, a huge range of products for storing stuff and lots of other household convenience items. They’re well known as a mail order catalogue (see www.lakelandlimited.co.uk) and have recently been expanding to real stores. This is headquarters and carries a good range of everything. It’s a particularly compelling store for cooks. And I did find their range of garden stuff tempting.
My last visit netted … all on sale … hook-and-strap gizmos that go behind your doors to hang stuff on, a refillable sprayer for olive oil and one of those long lighters for BBQs and fireplaces. OK, not your usual tourist loot, but good all the same.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 12, 2002
The shop and bakery is in a minuscule building … hardly more than an oversized garden shed … behind the church where Wordsworth is buried. Just follow your nose; you can’t miss it. The shop is about six feet wide by four feet deep, and has just one counter piled with the only thing they sell: Square slabs of Gingerbread.
What makes this stuff so special? Banish your ideas of soft, cake-like gingerbread. Or tasteless stuff made into funny man-shapes with a hard crust of icing up top. Sarah Nelson’s gingerbread comes in squares, about three inches on each side. Each is about a quarter-inch thick. A crumbly top covers a very dense interior. The texture is firm, hard … while not dry, you definitely have to do a bit of work with your teeth to snap off a piece. And the taste? Redolent of the sharp, aromatic element of proper candied ginger, augmented with other spices. It explodes in your mouth. Thus, a little goes a long, long way.
The gingerbread lasts a long time. I don’t know what the official shelf-life is, but I know that I have hoarded a supply in an air tight container for at least 3 months without too significant a change in quality. (Nothing, of course, beats munching a piece fresh out of the oven as you sit on the churchyard wall, breathing in the smells of the bakery and looking at the hills beyond.)
It’s a good thing that the stuff is easy to transport and lasts, because you can only buy it at this shop. On my last visit I asked: Did they sell anywhere else? Nope. Privately owned, committed to remaining a small business, doing everything with the same quality as 100 years ago.
Long may that intention live. I keep dreading that someday I’ll discover they’ve sold out to United Biscuits, they’re on the shelf in every Sainsbury’s and they now taste like any other pre-packaged ginger biscuit. Until then, I’ll give thanks that someone is content with creating a bit of culinary magic, rather than empire.
(NB: Sarah Nelson’s hasn’t completely shunned the 21st century. Those of you who can’t get to Grasmere can order on the web: www.grasmeregingerbread.co.uk)
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 12, 2002
The circle sits on the flat top of a high hill above Keswick. On one side, the landscape drops away toward town, though the urban view is blocked by trees. On the three other sides, valleys and higher hills stretch away into the distance. It could be into infinity, considering the mystic sense of isolation you get up here. If the producers of Lord of the Rings hadn’t flown to New Zealand to film, this certainly would have been a candidate. It’s that sort of mythic landscape.
The circle is an amazing 5,000 years old. It’s about 30 yards in diameter and contains 38 stones. These range in size. Some have been worn down to stool-like stumps, others are still close to six feet. Unlike Stonehenge, these haven’t been squared off. They’re still in their natural form, albeit worn smooth by wind and rain. To me, there’s something much more interesting about these shapes.
Another major difference from Stonehenge is that you can wonder in amongst the stones. Touch them, sit on them, appreciate how they’re set off by the dramatic backdrop. I find that this kind of proximity causes me much more wonder about how they actually built the circles. Get that close, sense how huge and heavy the are … even the small ones … and you just can’t conceive how people could have quarried the stones and dragged them all the way up that hill.
I find this both a peaceful and an oddly disturbing place. It depends on the weather. I’ve been here in sunshine, when it’s simply a magnificent setting and I think about the technological achievements of Neolithic man. And then I’ve been here in cloudy weather, with mist and cloud swirling in the valleys below and the skies looking ominous. At those times the circle is a bit threatening, mystic, magical. You could almost believe some of the wilder stories about druids, time portals and the like. Fortunately, after you give yourself a little scare you can wonder back into Keswick, where there are plenty of fine pubs to help you recover the 21st century.
(NB: You can get a similarly intimate stone circle experience at Avebury in Wiltshire. The largest circle by diameter in Britain, it’s so big there’s a village inside it. Like Castlerigg, you have free access to the stones.)
Hardknott pass isn’t that high as REAL mountains go, but when you’re up here you feel like you’ve reached the roof of Britain. And the driving experience certainly reinforces that. You’ve just spent an hour winding up a very narrow road … two cars can pass only at certain points … with countless hairpin curves and nothing to break your long fall but grazing sheep should you miscalculate. Modern road builders didn’t even try to put a major thoroughfare through here.
But not the Romans! For them, the straightest path between two points was always preferable, no matter what engineering feats they had to perform to build the road. And this was the direct route from the coast straight into the Lake District and northern England beyond. Hardknott is an eagle’s nest with magnificent views all the way to the coast. It would have been virtually impossible to surprise the Romans with any attack from the sea. From that perspective, the brilliance of this place quickly becomes apparent.
It is, of course, just a remarkably picturesque ruin these days. What you see is a network of low walls, few more than three feet high. They’re all that’s left of a complex that once included barracks, a commandant’s house, a parade ground, storage rooms and a bath house.
I found the last particularly interesting. Here, in the most far-flung and desperately wild corner of empire, they made sure that they kept that ultimate symbol of Roman civilisation. The work required to build something so sophisticated (under-floor heating, water-heating tanks, piped-in water) and to get fuel up here to heat it beggars belief. Of course, after driving a highway straight over a mountain, it probably wasn’t that big a deal!
It was, perhaps, the bath house that kept those Roman suicide rates down. After a miserable day spent cold and wet, staring into the inscrutable distance of that remarkable view, you could strip off your wet armour, sink into a hot bath and dream of the warm sun and grape arbours of home.
Bear in Britain
Windsor, United Kingdom