Kendal, lying just beyond the south-eastern boundaries of the Lake District National Park, may be only the third largest town in Cumbria but it is, in effect, its cultural capital, playing host to numerous museums, galleries, arts venues and festivals. Sometimes referred to as the southern gateway to the Lakes, it is so much more than that – a destination in its own right.
Among the many organised attractions are the Abbot Hall Art Gallery, the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, the Quaker Tapestry and Kendal Museum, but just a simple stroll around the town’s fascinating nooks and crannies will unveil much of its history. The town centre is characterised by ginnels and yards between the buildings of the main thoroughfares – hidden spaces where merchants and craftsmen once plied their trades. Some of the most interesting buildings include the seventeenth-century Sandes Hospital, built as almshouses for widows and a school, and the fourteenth-century Castle Dairy, Kendal’s oldest inhabited building. At this time, Kendal was the centre of the area’s woollen trade, with workers from as far afield as Cartmel and Grasmere preparing cloth for its bustling markets. The River Kent, around which the town was built, is one of the fastest flowing rivers in England, making it ideal for powering mills. The last watermill along the Kent – a snuff mill on the outskirts of Kendal – closed as recently as 1991.
Overlooking the town on a small, grassy hill are the ruins of its twelfth-century castle, once owned by the family of Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII. (Only earthworks remain of the first castle, a Norman motte and bailey construction on the other side of the river.) The castle is open to the public at all times, and modern visitors can still see some of its walls, one tower and parts of the manor hall. The steep walk up to the atmospheric site may leave you breathless, but those who make the effort are rewarded with superb views of both the town and the surrounding fells.
Two miles south of Kendal is Sizergh Castle, an impressive medieval house surrounded by beautiful gardens and a massive estate criss-crossed by a network of paths. Now in the care of the National Trust, the building and its grounds are open to the public.
Reaching Kendal couldn’t be easier. Junction 37 on the M6 motorway is less than 10 minutes away, and the suburb of Oxenholme is on the West Coast Mainline railway from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh. From Oxenholme, a branch line runs through Kendal proper, up the Kent valley to the villages of Burneside and Staveley, and then on to Windermere. There’s also a coach service to London.
Accommodation choices are many and varied, ranging from the simplicity of the independent hostel next door to the Brewery Arts Centre on historic Highgate to the more luxurious Castle Green Hotel surrounded by landscaped gardens on the edge of town. If you’re bringing a tent, motorhome or caravan, the nearest campsite is on the Shap Road, just over a mile north of the town centre.