Lake District Shines - Even in Rain

Hikers delight in rugged beauty of England's famous land of poets and writers

From my lower bunk I could hear the rain pouring over the roof and down the sides of the old youth hostel building.

It showers a lot in the Lake District. But I'd figured that nature would have the good sense not to dampen my first day in the far northwest of England.

Reluctantly, I pulled myself up to the window overlooking legendary Lake Windermere. Indeed, it was raining - very hard. But the view through the gloom, across the lake and to the modest peaks on the other side was beautiful and quietly stirring.

Here was the land of William Wordsworth and the other Lake poets, of Beatrix Potter, and John Ruskin. Through the hostel window, this gracious land was pulling me outdoors.

Not out of season

When a friend from London first suggested we meet for a week in the Lake District in mid-December I hesitated. December can be bleak where I come from in New England. But I was told there is no season when the Lake District isn't lovely. And no time when it isn't appropriate to hike its storied trails - if you wear appropriate clothes.

Wordsworth himself had written how "visual interest" was at its best in winter. So I boarded a bus in London to find out for myself.

There probably are cattle ranches in Texas that are bigger than the Lake District. And yet this area of less than 900 square miles is a world unto itself.

There are lakes, of course - 16 major ones squashed by mountains into elongated shapes like bumpy carrots and turnips. And each one has its own distinct personality, look, and history. The mountains, while tiny by Alps standards, seem somehow just as majestic.

Eventually my bus crossed the border into Cumbria County. We pulled through the major Lake District towns of Kendal, then Windermere. Their heavy, dark Victorian-slate buildings were brightened that night by Christmas lights. The kindly bus driver dropped me off at the hostel driveway a mile south of Ambleside (which is arguably the most centrally located town in the Lake District).

On the morning of my first day I hired a car and then headed south through the rain for Bowness-on-Windermere.

Bowness is one of the towns that would make it possible for a visitor to love the Lake District without ever setting boot upon trail. (The list of museums, historic homes, castles, animal parks, and other attractions in this small area would fill many pages.) From the docks of Bowness one can take a variety of cruises along Windermere, England's largest lake. One can wander the streets of this ancient town and perhaps see St. Martin's church, built in 1483 and - regretfully for me - more likely to be open during summer months.

Visitors spend much of their time down in the commercial area, shopping at sweater stores or places selling Beatrix Potter paraphernalia. So after grabbing some assorted snacks from a bakery (I gave the Spice Girls Buns a miss), it was onward to the World of Beatrix Potter Attraction. It's not bad for a created tourist destination. Various films amply cover the life of this writer of children's stories about animals - including Peter Rabbit.

Rain is no deterrent

A Lake District enthusiast, my friend already had hiked many of its trails. But the rain continued our first day together. So unlike many intrepid visitors, our hikes were brief. We drove to one of the most visited natural spots in the Lake District - Tarn Hows, a few miles south of Ambleside. A tarn essentially is a pond in the mountains. You can walk the trails around Tarn Hows, stare at its two tiny islands and its rugged shores, and gaze up at some spectacular mountain views.

Like so much that's wonderful in the Lake District, Tarn Hows is owned and protected by the England's National Trust preservation organization. In fact, most of the Lake District is part of the Lake District National Park.

So many trails, so little time

We then drove to Brantwood, the imposing home of poet, writer, and artist John Ruskin. Here, there are amazing views over Coniston Water, another lake. Many of Ruskin's humanitarian proposals, revolutionary in the 19th century, have long since been accepted.

In the days that followed, we hiked a small percentage of the Lake District's trails. The pinnacle of our walks - literally, if not figuratively - was our tramp up the 1,299-foot Helm Crag. The path to the top begins a short distance from the village of Grasmere. It is a steep climb, but every few feet of effort is rewarded with grander views of Grasmere Lake, farms in the valley, the ridge that can be followed for miles, and Wordsworth's Dove Cottage.

It is believed that sheep are responsible for depriving Lake District peaks of trees. Whoever was responsible, the result is pleasingly rugged. One can stare from the top of Helm Crag straight across the valley at Easedale Tarn, the tiny mountain ladle that releases a tiny cascade of water down the rocks.

As splendid as the Helm Crag view was, my favorite sight was the one during our Loughrigg Terrace jaunt. It was a rainy day that elsewhere would have been dismal but in the Lake District was a visual revelation. The rocky path took us up and along the ledges that border Grasmere Lake. For a few astounding moments the clouds and mist parted to reveal a double rainbow reflected in the lake waters. The more vivid one completed an almost-full semicircle.

When to visit. Avoid summer months unless you don't mind crowds and horrific traffic congestion. Also avoid Easter time. During off-months some attractions are closed - Hill Top, Beatrix Potter's home in Near Sawrey, is only open from Easter to October, for example. But if you're coming to hike, you'll be much, much happier off-season.

How to get there. You can get to the Lake District by train or bus from London and other major British cities. The bus takes 6 hours from London; the train can take half as long, but offers less convenient stops, and can be more expensive. You can also fly there from British cities.

How to get around. If you don't want to just plant yourself in one town you can get around by bus (and to some places by boat or train). But a bus schedule is restrictive - especially during quieter months - and buses won't take you to many of the most special places. I rented a reasonably priced Ford from Cumbria Car Hire in Windermere - they picked me up and dropped me off from where I was staying.

Where to stay. You can park yourself at a hotel if you don't have to pinch pennies. Bed-and-breakfasts generally are much more reasonable. Budget travelers can pick from an astounding range of Hosteling International sites - 28 in all, though some are closed during at least part of the cooler season. Off-season budget visitors also may be able to politely negotiate a lower rate from some hotels eager to fill a room.

For more information. Call the Cumbria Tourist Board at 011-44-15394-44444, or leave a message asking for one of their excellent brochures at 011-44-15394-40404. Write to them at Ashleigh, Holly Road, Windermere, Cumbria LA223 2AQ, Britain.

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