When deciding where to visit in Cumbria, your thoughts may first turn to the Lake District, the largest national park in England, known for its glimmering lakes, enchanting forests, and spectacular mountains. The central area of the national park provides no shortage of excellent accommodation, eateries, and country pubs, as well as offering easy access to the other regions. Head north to discover Derwentwater, known as the Queen of the Lakes, and Skiddaw, the fourth highest mountain in England. To the east, there is beautiful Lake Ullswater, to the west you will find ancient woods and mesmerising waterfalls, whilst the south is home to Windermere, the largest natural lake in England.
Beyond the Lake District, there’s the idyllic coastal town of Ravenglass, and Eden Valley: home of the River Eden and delightful scenic walking trails. Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Dales provide stunning scenery consisting of moors, hills, valleys, and quaint villages.
Keswick, the National Park’s largest town, sits at the heart of the northern Lake District. With Derwentwater lapping at its southern fringes and steep-sided fells bearing down on all sides, it has always had its natural resources to thank for its prosperity – from Elizabethan times, when miners first started exploiting the area’s mineral deposits; through the Industrial Revolution when its rivers and becks powered countless industries; to the twenty-first century, when sixty per cent of its population is employed in tourism.
Understandably, people come here to enjoy the spectacular scenery, to get a rejuvenating kick from being outdoors and interacting with nature. That might mean lounging on the deck of the Keswick Launch or sitting in a beer garden gazing up at the fells. It might mean strapping on protective gear and hurtling down one of Whinlatter’s mountain biking trails at break-neck speed. Or it might mean indulging in any one of the many activities on offer in this great outdoor adventure centre – rock-climbing, kayaking, wind-surfing, paddle-boarding, fell-walking, ghyll-scrambling, paragliding, ice-climbing, sailing, canoeing, wild swimming, road cycling... You name it, you can probably do it somewhere near Keswick. You can even go and climb the walls of England’s only working slate mine – at nearby Honister – if you want.
Of course, there are indoor attractions too. The Derwent Pencil Museum, the Keswick Museum, the Puzzling Place and the Leisure Pool are just a few within the town itself. Come the evening, you’ll find pubs and restaurants galore as well as the Theatre by the Lake and the Alhambra, one of the oldest British cinemas still in operation.
Keswick hosts a diverse range of festivals throughout the year. In the early spring, speakers from the worlds of literature, politics and the media share their love of the written word at the Words by the Water Festival. During May, the colourful and noisy Keswick Jazz and Blues Festival takes place, as does the Keswick Mountain Festival. Come July, it’s the turn of the Keswick Convention, which attracts thousands of people to Bible teachings and Christian seminars. There’s also a film festival (February), a beer festival (June), the Victorian Christmas Fayre and the Keswick Agricultural Show, which traditionally takes place on the Bank Holiday Monday in late August.
Visitors can normally find a place to stay whatever their budget. There are hostels, campsites of varying sizes, pods, yurts, cabins and, of course, lots and lots of B&Bs, inns and hotels. If you want to self-cater, you can do that too. Be warned though, the area gets very busy during some of the key festivals, school breaks and at bank holidays. If all else fails, the friendly assistants in the tourist information centre in the Moot Hall – that’s the distinctive-looking building with the tower in the middle of the pedestrianised area – can help visitors find something suitable. They’ll even find something for people who have brought their dogs on holiday with them. After all, Keswick is doggy heaven! Thanks to its canine-convivial accommodation providers, shops, pubs and cafés, the town has three times been voted the UK’s dog friendliest town in the Kennel Club’s Open for Dogs Awards.
For those travelling to Keswick by public transport, the nearest mainline railway station is about 17 miles to the east, at Penrith, which is on the West Coast Mainline. From here, you can catch the X4 bus (every two hours, no Sunday service).
Keswick is the largest town in the Lake District National Park but it’s far from being a big settlement; urban visitors might be forgiven for calling it a ‘village’. It sits at the foot of England’s fourth highest mountain, Skiddaw, while Derwentwater, the Queen of the Lakes, borders it to the south-west. Walkers come here to scale the fells, to stroll along the lakeshore or to wander Borrowdale’s ancient oak woods, and there’s also plenty to keep you busy if the weather turns foul. The Derwent Pencil Museum tells the story of graphite, first discovered in Borrowdale, while the recently refurbished Keswick Museum and Art Gallery has exhibits covering the worlds of literature, mountaineering, art and geology. Just outside town is the enigmatic Castlerigg Stone Circle, built about 5,000 years ago. Come the evening, there are restaurants galore, an old-fashioned cinema complete with balcony and the Theatre by the Lake.
Beyond the theatre is the glorious lake itself, which can be explored in leisurely fashion from the deck of the Keswick Launch or, for those seeking a more energetic experience, by hiring a canoe, kayak or rowing boat. Hugging the eastern shore of Derwentwater is the B5289, one of the loveliest roads in England. In summer, open-top buses ply this route up into beautiful Borrowdale. Hop on and off to visit some of the key attractions, including the Lodore Falls, the Bowder Stone, picturesque Ashness Bridge and the tranquil villages of Rosthwaite and Grange. Beyond the valley, the road climbs steeply to Honister Pass and the Honister Slate Mine, where visitors can join an underground tour or scale the scary via ferrata up the side of the craggy fell.
Keswick vies with Kendal for the title of Cumbria’s festival town, hosting a diverse range of events – from film, literary and jazz festivals through to the massive Keswick Mountain Festival and the Keswick Convention, which attracts 15,000 people to Christian seminars every summer.
North of the town, the holiday crowds begin to thin out. This is where you’ll find Bassenthwaite Lake, the Northern Fells and tiny villages that time (and tourists) seem to have forgotten, such as Caldbeck and Hesket Newmarket. Attractions include the elegant 17th-century Mirehouse, the Lake District Wildlife Park for kids and, for adults, the Lakes Distillery. Whinlatter Forest is home to miles of hiking and biking trails. Some are family-friendly; others more challenging. And those screams you’re hearing? They’ll be from the brave souls swinging from the Go Ape tree-top obstacle course high above your head.
Cross Lakeland’s steepest, remotest passes or venture around the little-visited south-western tip of Cumbria, and you enter a visually stunning world where England’s highest, most rugged mountains drop away to the sea. Here lie the less accessible valleys of Eskdale, Wasdale, Ennerdale and Buttermere.
This is where serious hill-walkers come to climb England’s highest mountain Scafell Pike, to stride out along the rocky crest of the High Stile ridge or to tackle Great Gable, one of Britain’s best-loved peaks. Many would-be fell-walkers cut their teeth on lower summits such as Hay Stacks, one of legendary guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright’s favourite fells. The western Lakes is also where rock-climbers and mountaineers have, for generations, honed their skills. These peaks claim many ‘firsts’ in the climbing world, including Walter Parry Haskett Smith’s 1886 ascent of Napes Needle, regarded as the birth of rock-climbing as a sport. Even earlier, in 1802, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ascent of England’s second highest mountain Scafell – and subsequent, terrifying descent of Broad Stand – is possibly the first recorded climb for leisure purposes.
But there’s plenty here for lesser mortals too – lakeside ambles along the shores of Buttermere and Crummock Water; strolls through ancient woods that are among the last strongholds of the cute but endangered red squirrel; and walks to some of Lakeland’s most spectacular waterfalls, including Scale Force and Stanley Ghyll Force. Or you can simply find a great picnic spot in the valley bottom and gaze up at those imposing, rocky peaks.
The western Lake District also contains a 12-mile stretch of coastline, from Silecroft in the south to Ravenglass in the north. But you won’t find amusement arcades or rows of deckchairs here; it consists almost entirely of long, empty beaches and sand dunes. There are no towns, just a scattering of farms and hamlets connected by the Cumbria Coast railway line. The largest settlement is the quaint seaside village of Ravenglass, which falls within both of Cumbria’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman remains here include a bath house and, just up the road at the foot of Hardknott Pass, the dramatically positioned ruins of Hardknott Fort. Take a trip up serene Eskdale on the narrow-gauge steam railway, known locally as the La’al Ratty, or watch the bird of prey flying displays in the gorgeous grounds of Muncaster Castle.
There’s nowhere else quite like Troutbeck in the Lake District. While other settlements cluster together in valley bottoms, this idyllic village is strung out along the fell side, in places almost 200ft above the beck with which it shares its name. While dry-stone walls neatly parcel the grazing land up into enclosures, characterful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century farmhouses and cottages are scattered along a line of natural springs. The most famous of these buildings is Townend, which is open to the public.
The pretty village church, with its daffodil-filled yard, lies outside the main area of settlement, beside Trout Beck. Its most famous feature is its large east window which was the work of William Morris, a leading light in the Arts and Crafts movement, and pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown.
The valley is one of several places in the Lake District that is linked with children’s writer and conservationist Beatrix Potter. She owned Troutbeck Park, a large sheep farm sitting at the base of steep slopes leading up on to the high Kentmere Fells.
Home to a pub and a café-cum-gallery, Uldale is located on the flanks of the Lake District’s Northern Fells. About five miles south-west of the larger village of Caldbeck, it is reached via an unfenced fell road where sheep and cattle wander freely, oblivious to any passing traffic.
The nearby Uldale Fells include several grassy tops with gently rounded slopes, ideal for hill-walkers looking for relatively straightforward routes. These include Longlands Fell (1581ft/482m) and the intriguingly named Great Cockup (1725ft/526m). Be prepared for wet ground in places though.
Two attractive bodies of water lie close to the village – Over Water and Chapel house Reservoir.
The remains of a Roman fort, probably Galava, can be found on the lakeside meadows. This was part of a chain of forts that included Glannoventa, now Ravenglass, on the Irish Sea coast and Brocavum, modern-day Brougham near Penrith. The surviving stone structures include the headquarters and granaries as well as parts of the gates and walls. The area is open to the public at all times and there is no entrance fee.
Nearby is the National Trust’s Stagshaw Garden, known for its collection of rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas which bursts into vibrant colour every spring.
North of Ravenglass, Cumbria’s coast is more developed. Before you get to the towns of Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport though, there’s the seabird city of St Bees Head. In the spring and summer, this attractive red sandstone headland – the most westerly point in the county – is home to thousands of breeding kittiwakes, herring gulls, cormorants, razorbills and black guillemots. The nearby village of St Bees marks the starting point for Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, the popular long-distance walking route across northern England.
Further up the coast is the harbour town of Whitehaven. Two fascinating museums, the Rum Story and the Beacon, tell the story of the once thriving port that is said to have inspired Jonathan Swift to write Gulliver’s Travels. Further north still, beyond the port and industrial sites of Workington, is Maryport. A new marina has played a big part in the revival of this attractive Georgian town in recent years. Visitors can also drop in on the Senhouse Roman museum and, for kids big and small, there’s the award-winning Lake District Coast Aquarium.
Maryport is at the southern tip of the Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, one of three AONBs in the county – all afforded statutory protection for their landscapes, wildlife and geology. Long beaches, backed by dunes and with excellent views across the Solway Firth to Scotland, stretch all the way from here to Grune Point, near Silloth.
Cockermouth, the birthplace of the poet William Wordsworth, is a few miles inland, close to the north-western edge of the Lake District National Park and dominated by the nearby fells. Drop in on the Wordsworths’ family home and garden, owned by the National Trust and open to the public, or simply enjoy meandering through the town’s labyrinth-like alleyways and hidden courtyards. A plethora of independent shops line the main street, and, should you get peckish, there are lots of cafés and restaurants from which to choose. Thirsty? Well, there’s always the Jennings brewery tour.
Much of this area is served by the Cumbria Coast railway, which links Carlisle in the north with Barrow-in-Furness in the south. Other railway lines, long disused, have been converted into cycle paths. Originally built to serve west Cumberland’s once busy coalfield and the massive iron and steel works of the coastal towns, they are now part of Sustrans’ National Cycle Network. The Sea to Sea (Coast to Coast) cycle route, the Hadrian’s Cycleway and the Reivers’ cycle route all start on this coast.
Almost one-third of the Yorkshire Dales National Park falls within the county of Cumbria, stretching from the market town of Kirkby Lonsdale on the Lancashire border in the south almost all the way up to Appleby-in-Westmorland in the north. Although there are several interesting attractions, people don’t come here for the museums or the organised adventure activities; they come for the scenery and the area’s relaxed, laid-back feel.
The southernmost town is Kirkby Lonsdale, an unspoiled market town on the banks of the River Lune. Here you’ll find Ruskin’s View, a scene painted by Turner in the 1820s that the Victorian social theorist John Ruskin proclaimed to be “one of the loveliest views in England, therefore in the world”. Further north, beyond the quaint cottages and cobbled lanes of beautiful Dentdale, is Sedbergh. The narrow streets and alleys of this sleepy old settlement, England’s official ‘book town’, are full of shops crammed with second-hand titles as well as all the best-sellers.
Sedbergh sits at the foot of the Howgill Fells, brooding giants with a character that sets them apart from the neighbouring hills of the Lake District and the Pennines. Steep but grassy slopes, popular with hill-walkers, make up a great dome which the guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright likened to “a huddle of squatting elephants”. Yorkshire’s highest peak, Whernside, can also be climbed from nearby, as can the highest hill in Lancashire, Gragareth.
Beyond the Howgills lies Kirkby Stephen, another market town that’s oozing with character. Although it’s just outside the boundaries of the Yorkshire Dales, it’s a great base for exploring lonely Mallerstang’s wildflower meadows and the ruins of Pendragon Castle; the fascinating Karst scenery of Great Asby Scar; the rare wildlife of Smardale Gill; and the impressive waterfalls of Cautley Spout, Rutter Force and Hell Gill.
The trains of the Settle to Carlisle Railway, probably the most scenic line in England, pass through this part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. They enter Cumbria just after crossing the 24 massive arches of the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct and then pass through Dent, the highest mainline station in England, before continuing on to Kirkby Stephen, skirting the edge of the Westmorland Dales, and then carrying on through the towns and villages of the Eden Valley. There are occasional steam services along the line, mostly during the summer, but you’ll need to book well in advance.