If you’re thinking of exploring far and wide, you could do a lot worse than base yourself in either Grasmere or Ambleside. Yes, they’re honeypots, busy during peak holiday periods, but they’re both gorgeous destinations and centrally located, meaning you’re never more than an hour from anywhere else in England’s largest National Park.
The geographical centre of the Lakes lies on the fells above Grasmere, and some might say its spiritual heart lies here too. This, after all, was the home for many years of the poet William Wordsworth, the man behind probably the most famous opening line of English verse: “I wandered lonely as a cloud...” Today, several of his former homes are open to the public: Allan Bank, Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount. His grave, and those of his family, can be found in the grounds of St Oswald’s Church in the middle of the village.
There are dozens of places to stay here, ranging from hostels to luxury hotels, and almost as many places to eat. Whether it’s a lunchtime sandwich, a warming winter stew or a classy fine dining experience, you’ll find it in Grasmere. Walkers will find enough to keep them busy for several days, if not weeks. For serious hikers, England’s third highest mountain, Helvellyn, is within easy reach. Gentler rambles take in the lakes – Grasmere and Rydal Water – as well as Easedale Tarn and the fantastically shaped summit rocks of Helm Crag. For even wilder country, head into Great Langdale, where craggy fells tower over one of the region’s most dramatic valleys. The Langdale Pikes, Crinkle Crags and Bow Fell are among the summits crying out to be climbed. Or you could simply relax in one of the dale’s many cafés or pub beer gardens, and gaze up at the hills.
If you’re staying in Ambleside, with its equally wide range of accommodation and eateries, the best indoor attractions are the tiny, much photographed Bridge House, spanning Stock Ghyll; and the Armitt Museum, which houses art collections by Kurt Schwitter and Beatrix Potter. Windermere Lake Cruises stop off at Waterhead, a 10-minute walk from the town centre. Just down the road, near idyllic Troutbeck, are Townend, a restored, seventeenth-century farmhouse; and Brockhole, on the shores of Windermere, where families will find plenty to keep their younger members entertained – from treetop adventures, caving tunnels and water-based activities to archery and mini golf.
The tiny National Trust property of Bridge House is located to the north of Ambleside town centre. Spanning the waters of Stock Beck, it’s a curious sight and one which features in many holiday snaps of the town. The lack of detailed information about its history, and the many local stories that have sprung up to fill the gap, make it all the more intriguing.
It was probably built in the seventeenth century by the wealthy Braithwaite family as both a bridge and an apple store. (At this time, the area around the building would’ve been surrounded by orchards.) What functions it has served in the intervening centuries is a matter of some conjecture but it seems it may have been a weaving shop, a cobbler’s, a chair-maker’s workshop and even a home to a family of eight. You’ll appreciate that last fact more when you visit, and have to wait outside if there are more than a handful of other people already inside this cosy little construction!
It was probably also a counting house for the mills that once thronged this part of Ambleside. As in many other Lakeland towns and villages, the beck would’ve powered wool fulling mills, paper mills and bobbin-turning mills. Little of this industrial heritage remains today, although there are water wheels at the Fulling Mill restaurant, a few yards from Bridge House, and in nearby Rattle Ghyll.
The Langdale Pikes are possibly the Lake District’s most recognisable fells. You might not have heard their individual names before, but there’s a good chance you’ll have seen their knobbly tops and the knuckles of rock that make up their impressive façade countless times online or in brochures and books. They’re not the highest fells in the National Park, not by a long shot, but they are among the most popular.
Each of the Pikes has its own character. At 2414ft, Harrison Stickle is the highest and the haughtiest of the bunch, seemingly well aware of its iconic status and the knowledge that there’s always someone pointing a camera at it.
To the north-east is Pavey Ark (2296ft). Its seemingly impenetrable cliffs soar above the dark waters of Stickle Tarn. Look more closely though, and there’s a chink in its armour – Jack’s Rake, a trench that cuts diagonally across the rock face. One of the most popular scrambles in the Lake District, it has become an accident blackspot.
Viewed from surrounding fells, it is the rock dome of Pike o’ Stickle (2326ft) that is the most prominent of the Pikes. In Neolithic times, high up on its impossibly steep scree slopes, workers quarried an exposed seam of ‘greenstone’, a flint-like volcanic rock, and made axe heads from it, tools that were then traded throughout Britain.
The ‘other’ pike, the one people tend to forget about when they’re ‘bagging’ them, is Loft Crag (2237ft). Its best feature? Probably the view it provides of the better known and more loved Pike o’ Stickle next door.
The Pikes are generally climbed from Great Langdale, the constructed path up Stickle Ghyll being a favoured approach. For a complete contrast, round off the walk by returning via the open expanse of Martcrag Moor and the steep-sided trench of Mickleden.
Helvellyn... It’s a name that manages to be both authoritative and somehow whimsical at the same time. How can any walker resist that alluring combination? But it’s not the sound of the word alone that pulls the crowds; it’s more to do with the magnificent appearance of this glacier-sculpted mountain and its stature. This is, after all, England’s third highest peak, reaching an altitude of 3116ft (950m) above sea level. And it’s a special place in ecological terms too, its quietest corners harbouring extremely rare plants that have survived since the end of the last glacial period, including purple saxifrage and Alpine cinquefoil.
Helvellyn forms the highest point in a long line of fells that divides the Grasmere and Thirlmere valleys in the west from Ullswater in the east. It’s a bit of Jekyll-and-Hyde affair, its western faces consisting of steep but generally smooth slopes that rise steadily from the valley, while the east is a different beast entirely. This is the side of the mountain from which glaciers have gouged great chunks, creating corries and hidden coves as well as almost vertical cliffs and vertiginous arêtes. While the west is grassy and sedate, the east is an edgy, rock-bound world. In full winter conditions, you’ll find ice climbers clinging to the east-facing headwalls while the exposed, rocky ridges of Striding Edge and Swirral Edge attract mountaineers. There are even ski runs up here, the Lake District Ski Club operating a single tow and a heated members’ hut on nearby Raise.
But that’s not to say Helvellyn is the domain solely of serious outdoor folk; many thousands of ordinary walkers make it to the summit every year. There are at least eight well-used approach paths from the east and the west as well as countless other ‘secret’ routes to the top. From Glenridding, in the east, the most exciting way to the summit is via Striding Edge, one of the two precipitous arêtes cradling Red Tarn, a rocky tightrope walk along an airy ridge with some scrambling along the way. The other arête is Swirral Edge, less scary than its neighbour but still requiring a head for heights, sure-footedness and, in winter, mountaineering equipment and experience.
Other routes from the east include the valley path through spectacular Grisedale and the zig-zagging Keppel Cove track. From the west, walkers start from the Swirls car park beside Thirlmere, Wythburn church, Grasmere and Dunmail Raise, among others. The latter, starting from the 781ft-high pass on the A591, keeps the total ascent to the bare minimum.
The summit is a large, flat area, with enough room to land a plane on – and someone once did. (John Leeming and Bert Hinkler landed an Avro 585 Gosport here in December 1926 as a publicity stunt.) Those who reach the top will be greeted by a cairn, trig pillar, cross-shaped shelter and, on a good day, far-reaching views in all directions. The nearby exit from Striding Edge is marked by a plaque telling the story of Charles Gough, whose body had been found on steep ground on the mountain in 1805. His rotting remains had been guarded for three months by his dog, a story that inspired poetry remarking on the animal’s loyalty. The more cynical questioned how the dog had survived, suggesting the state of Gough’s corpse provided the answer.