Travel: Enjoying a lakeland break

Many parts of Cumbria’s rugged Lake District National Park are still virtually unexplored so Alan Wooding and his wife Jo recently travelled north to enjoy a midweek break among some of England’s highest peaks, deepest valleys and biggest lakes.
The picturesque Wasdale Head nestles in the foothill of England's highest mountain Scafell Pike.The picturesque Wasdale Head nestles in the foothill of England's highest mountain Scafell Pike.
The picturesque Wasdale Head nestles in the foothill of England's highest mountain Scafell Pike.

Choosing to locate in the Northern and Western Lakes area rather than the more popular towns of Windemere and Kendal, we chose a quiet off-the-beaten track B&B some eight miles west of Penrith and just as many from the pretty town of Keswick.

Greenhag Crag is a lovely old traditional six-bedroomed hill farm tucked away up a remote track just half a mile off the A66 close to the tiny village of Troutbeck. The property was built in the early 1700s but had an extension during the Victorian period while it is currently owned by Roger and Maureen Dix.

Roger was actually born in Ampthill – we knew about his Bedfordshire connection before we booked! – and he married a ‘Lancashire lass’ after having move north to work for ICI.

With just three comfortable double rooms for rent (two with en-suites), there’s the usual tea/coffee making facilities, an oak-beamed guest lounge with television and a lovely dining room. As for the breakfasts, then they really are five star. Maureen is happy to accommodate your every request… especially if you require one of her hearty traditional breakfasts!

The farmhouse lies in the shadow of the 2,947 foot Blncathra range. As one of just five ‘magma plugs’ in the United Kingdom, Blncathra is a site of interest to many geologists who rummage around among the long since extinct volcanic rocks. The whole area, which is covered in wild flower meadows, was naturally destined to become an area of Special Scientific Interest (SSI).

Surrounded by open fields full of sheep and cattle, Greenhag Crag really is an ideal retreat with the nearest restaurant being the popular Sportsman’s Inn, a short ten minute/three quarter mile walk away.

There are four other pub/restaurants with a five mile radius of Greenah Crag but we were delighted with the service and food provided by the Sportsman’s owners, Ian and Susan Loftus.

Just six miles down the A5091, which leads off the A66, you come to Ullswater. Turning left past the village of Dockray, there is a National Trust car park (£4 for two hours) and, via a network of attractive woodland paths, it allows access to Aira Force, an impressive waterfall and deep valley that inspired the poet William Wordsworth.

Across the lakeland area you regularly come across names like Force, Ghylls, Scar, Tarn and Crag, the first two clearly meaning waterfall or waterspout while the others are rocky outcrops or caves.

From Aira Force we journeyed east along the lake shore to Pooley Bridge where there are several pubs and restaurants plus a wooden pier which allows access to the Ullswater steamboat.

Further afield we spent time in the town of Keswick where there is an unusual museum dedicated to pencils! The area was once one of the main producers of graphite which, in years gone by, was used in the manufacturer of cannon balls.

There is a motor museum although it appears to have been closed down while the ‘Theatre by the Lake’ is the town’s jewel in the crown with its permanent team of professional actors who provide a regular and varied programme of serious plays and comical farces.

Just ten miles from Keswick is the Lake District Wildlife Park (formerly know as Trotters World of Animals) in the village of Bassenthwaite. It is set in 24 acres and has over 100 species and is a member of the Biaza, the UK’s Zoo’s breeding programme set up to re-establish rare animals.

Leaving the Keswick area we drove west towards the Grisedale Pike area and parked close to ‘Cats Bells’ where we enjoyed a four-and-a-half mile circular walk alongside and then high above Derwent Water.

Coffee followed at the nearby Borrowdale Hotel where the likes of authors JB Priestley, WH Auden and Arthur Ransome were guests of the Cumberland family. And just up the road is the village of Seathwaite which is reputed to be the wettest place in Britain with over 125 inches of rainfall per year.

One particular visit enjoyed by the male visitors might be to Jennings Brewery in Cockermouth. Established over 185 years ago but more recently taken over by Marstons, it costs £8 for an adult to visit but they get the chance to sample three half pints of the company’s four traditional brews: Cumberland Ale, Jennings Bitter, Cocker Hoop and the dark Sneck Lifter which picked up a string of top awards in the annual CAMRA Champion Beer competitions.

A trip out to the coast saw us arrive at Whitehaven, a town which has obviously seen better days although the local council is keen to remember its coal mining heritage with various statues and pit wheels adorning the headland. At one time the coal mines themselves stretched out like fingers over three miles under the Irish Sea.

In more recent years, the Whitehaven area became infamous for the deeds of gunman Derek Bird. He killed 12 people and left 11 more severely injured before turning the gun on himself.

Passing the huge nuclear power plant at Sellafield – which is easily the area’s biggest employer – we turned in land to what is known as Wasdale Head. It’s a place famed for having the highest, the deepest and the biggest!

Following the lake shore at Wast Water, on the opposite bank your can only marvel at The Screes, an austere and menacing 2,000 foot wall of loose rock and shale which stretches right down into the lake below. In fact Wast Water is the deepest lake in Britain at 258 feet while its lake bed lies some 50-plus feet below the level of the nearby Irish Sea.

Looking eastwards up the valley, you are faced with Great Gable, a giant mountain which marks the entrance to the Borrowdale volcano chain. And among it’s many peaks is Scarfell Pike, at 3,210 feet England’s highest mountain.

Next to that stands Sca Fell while over in what is really the next valley is Helvellyn at 3,113 feet, the third highest mountain which is part of a six-mile ridge stretching from Great Dodd to Dolleywagon Pike.

As for the biggest, well that’s Wasdale’s famed liar. For that you must pay a visit to Ritson’s Bar at The Wasdale Head Inn at the end of the valley. Each year the hostelry – which is usually one of the starting places for an assault on Scafel Pike and the surrounding peaks – holds a ‘biggest liar’ competition in honour of the inn’s first landlord Will Ritson. He was a rather brash fellsman, huntsman, mountain guide and raconteur and he is proudly reputed to be the World’s Biggest Liar. At least that’s what he said!

Close by at the end of the valley is the tiny hamlet church of St Olaf. With only two or three houses scattered around, at Christmas time it is always said to be packed to the rafters.

Driving south along the A5091 and passing through Troutbeck towards Ullswater, upon reaching the lake take a right turn and eventually climb the steep Kirkstone Pass. When we went over it, the cloud was so low that we saw absolutely nothing except the dry stone walls.

However dropping back through the cloud and just before reaching Bowness on the shores of Lake Windemere – having passed through yet another village named Troutbeck! – a sharp turn to the left brings you to the magnificent Holehird Gardens. Owned by the Lakeland Horticultural Society, admission is free although a donation is obviously expected.

The Society is home to three national collections (Astilbe, Hydrangeas and Polystichum Ferns) while the gardens cover a total of 17 acres and are located on a steep hillside high above a valley which faces west towards Ambleside.

Including a small woodland, the gardens are extensively planted with specimen trees, shrubs, alpines and heathers while the large beautifully manicured walled area has some delightful herbaceous borders in which water features abound. Also in the grounds you come across Cumbria’s Cheshire Homes, the garden pathways often criss-crossing in front of the large stone-built house.

On to the very touristy town of Bowness, there seems to be plenty to keep visitors occupied. Steamers ply their trade from a series of jetties, taking passengers up and down Lake Windemere with a running commentary. For the more energetic, you can hire your own rowing boat or if that’s too hard, then a motorised day boat might be more to your liking.

If it’s wet then there is a local cinema although many people head to The World of Beatrix Potter where you meet up with Peter Rabbit and the many other characters immortalised by one of the area’s best loved authors.

However perhaps less well know is that Miss Potter is almost solely responsible for saving Lakelands famous breed of sheep. Known as Herdwicks, they are tough, are born black, change to grey and then end up white. Having purchased a Cumbrian farm, she set about a breeding programme and today almost everywhere you look you can see Herdwicks grazing on the steep hillsides.

Close to Windemere’s train station is the famous Lakeland Limited brand which was called Lakeland Plastics when I was last in the area around 25 years ago. Now it’s a huge showrooms featuring hundreds of household items that you never thought you would ever need … yet we still came away to at least two!

On towards Kendal with its traffic-free shopping area, we then travelled back north along the attractive A6 towards Penrith where we passed through the village of Clifton, the location of the last battle to take place on English soil.

Known as a ‘skirmish’ in 1745, it was between Prince Charles Edward Stewart’s Jacobite Army and the Duke of Cumberland’s Hanoverian Forces with the Prince losing his life on Clifton Moor.

There are several reminders of it in the village while a tree was planted to mark the resting place of 12 Scottish Clansmen. There is also a stone which reads: ‘Here lie buried the men of the army of Prince Charles who fell at Clifton Moor in 18 December 1745’.

Penrith is again an old town with many interesting shops although as everywhere, the bigger chains have made their mark. The saving grace for me was that Morrisons sold the cheapest petrol in the whole lakeland district.

Travel facts: The Lake District

Alan Wooding stayed in Roger and Maureen Dix’s remote Bed & Breakfast farmhouse at Greenah Crag, Troutbeck, Penrith, Cumbria CA11 0SQ. Telephone 01768 483233; email [email protected]; visit www.greenahcrag.co.uk

The approximate distance was 245 miles from Bedford to Greenah Crag via A1 and A66 while accommodation cost are: one night £35 per person, two or more £32.50 and £30 for a week.

There are some excellent places to eat close by, namely: The Sportsman’s Inn, Troutbeck, Cumbria CA11 0SG, tel 01768 483231 (three-quarters of a mile); Troutbeck Inn (1 mile); The Herdwick Inn, Penruddock (3 miles); Mill Inn, Mungrisedale (4 miles); White Horse, Scales (5 miles). The nearest lake is Ullswater at 6 miles while Penrith and Keswick were eight miles in either direction.

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