The Lake District is, to my mind, the most relaxing place in England. I think it’s the good walking, sheep gambolling on the fell-side and exceptional food that makes it so very therapeutic. At any rate, I think we can all agree that there are few things better in life than a day’s walking on the fells punctuated by a Huntsman’s pie and a pint of Hawkshead bitter.
I spent countless childhood holidays in the lakes, swimming in the Duddon and climbing mountains, fuelled by that same Kendal Mint Cake that propelled Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing to the top of Everest. But I only realised recently, since my parents have returned there, how fond I am of the place. Some claim that the scenery is too dramatic to be properly English, but it’s part of the beauty of England that there’s far more to it than the clichéd idea of gently rolling hills.
If you’re coming to the Lake District for the first time, the walk you should do is along High Street. This is the old Roman road across the ridge of the fells, at about 2,800 feet above sea level. There is something wonderfully evocative about striding across the same land that Roman legionaries marched across almost 2,000 years ago. On a clear day, which is not as rare up here as cynics suggest, the views are stunning. As you look around, you get a clear sense of the topography of the place.
One can spend all day going along High Street. But there are plenty of good short walks too. One local favourite is Humphrey Head, a spit that sticks out into Morecambe Bay. It is a brisk mile or so to the top and, once there, you can stare out across the largest bay in Europe. Another advantage is that the blast of the wind as you walk up blows the cobwebs away and deals with any hangover.
It’s important in the lakes to stay off the beaten track: if you don’t, you can find yourself wandering in a crowd. But this is done easily enough. Simply avoid Windermere and Sawrey, the home of Beatrix Potter, during the school holidays and long weekends. It is there that one feels the fundamental contradiction in the national park’s aim to provide solitude for the masses.
The other great criticism of the place is the weather. It is true that one can often find oneself living in a rain cloud, and there’s a special Lake District grey that can sap the spirits. But the silver lining is that nearly every valley has its own micro-climate. This means that sunshine, albeit of the watery variety, is rarely more than a short drive away. The summers are also warmer than legend has it. From June onwards, a dip in the river becomes positively refreshing and by August one can head off for a swim without any need for a hot bath afterwards.
On those occasions when the rain really has set in for the duration, head to Abbot Hall art gallery in Kendal. This grand Georgian building houses a very good collection of paintings by George Romney, who was a local, and consistently impressive exhibitions.