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Discovering a Poet’s Touch in Northwest England’s Lake District

<i> Wright is an editor on The Times' foreign news desk. </i>

Even on a map it looks inviting, this little corner of northwest England. That round swatch of pale green tells it all. This is quiet country, the map maker is saying, lush and peaceful; a place to come to, not just to pass through.

The map maker calls it Cumbria. Poet William Wordsworth, speaking for a legion of his fellow scribes, called one of its villages “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found.” To most people, it’s the Lake District, and to all who have been here, it’s special.

Getting here is easy. From London drive the high-speed M1 freeway, or “motorway,” northwest to just this side of Coventry. There, pick up M6, equally fast, and take it through the smokestacks of Birmingham, then continue north through the busy Liverpool-Manchester corridor.

Unless you’re experienced at British driving you’ll want to stay in the far left, or slowest, lane, while some of your fellow motorists, blithely ignoring the posted 70-m.p.h. limit, streak by at something approaching warp speed.

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Gateway to Lake District

Finally, just past Morecambe Bay you’ll peel off M6 onto winding, two-lane A591, and a few miles later you’re at the town of Kendal, gateway to the Lake District.

Now everything slows down. The countryside turns greener, the sheep and ponies in the fields look fatter, the stone walls seem to take extra, meandering turns here and there.

Stay on A591, and before long you’ve reached Lake Windermere. A 10-mile-long, mile-wide blue ribbon, it’s the country’s largest freshwater lake and, at 200 feet, its the deepest as well.

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Northwest of here the district’s other lakes--with names such as Coniston, Ullswater and Bassenthwaite--dot the countryside, each resting beneath its own mountains and each drawing its own complement of anglers, boaters, hikers and just plain gawkers.

But this is a fine place to start, so settle in for a few days. The village of Windermere, just before you sight the lake, is a possibility, but its companion town, Bowness-on-Windermere, is better situated, because it sprawls right along the shore.

Summer Invasion

With its hilly, meandering streets and variety of gift shops and restaurants, it’s every inch the pleasant lakeside English resort town. There’s no shortage of accommodations, from the Spartan to the downright plush. Small hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns are very much in evidence, the latter catering especially to the student backpackers-hitchhikers who invade the Cumbrian landscape every summer to trek the high trails.

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They’ve got the right idea. It’s true, you’ll see some lovely scenery from behind the wheel of your rented car or, even easier, lazing along on a tour bus. But first and foremost, Lakeland is for hiking. So once settled in, leave an early call.

From Bowness-on-Windermere the next morning, it’s only a few minutes’ drive to where you can start off on several good hikes. A stop at the lakeside tourist information center will have armed you with a fistful of brochures containing roughly drawn maps. And if the folks who run your hotel are the accommodating sort, they’ll have packed a lunch for you.

Some of the walks are easy tramps around the lake shore, mostly flatland, sometimes a little boggy. Others lead you high up onto the fells and crags, where you can sense the contours of the Cumbrian Mountains.

Most of the walks seem to begin at a church in one of the villages such as Ambleside or Grasmere. Initially, you may walk a clearly marked path through pastures, among grazing livestock, gradually leaving the sounds of the village behind. If you’re out and about early enough, the mist will still be lying in patches on the farms and heavy enough on the heights so that, until the sun burns through, you may not be able to sight the mountaintops.

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‘Permissive Paths’

Even though this whole area is national park land, it’s also farmland. Many of the paths you’ll walk, especially on the lower reaches, are private and known as “permissive paths,” which the landowner has agreed to let the public use. In return, some courtesy will be expected of you. No litter, obviously. Also, England is a land of stone walls; and, to keep the livestock from straying, you’ll be expected to close each gate you open.

The path climbs and turns, through woods now, and you check your map more often. Some of the accompanying text is quaint in the extreme, and you occasionally wish for a glossary: “Skirt around the tarn to a stile with a craggy outcrop on your left. . . . Go through the slot stile and walk uphill all the time until you reach a cairn and then a ladder stile. . . . At the small iron kissing gate, follow the beck downstream. . . .” And so on. A visitor from the Colonies raised exclusively on Valspeak could, you know, get lost in these hills and, fer shure, never be found. Rrilly.

If you’ve picked one of the more challenging hikes--such as the one described in the brochure as “strenuous uphill climb, steep and stony in places, with magnificent views"--you may find that in spots the path becomes what mountaineers call a “Level 5" climb, where hands as well as feet come into play.

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But mostly it’s just uphill hiking. No need for boots; a good pair of running shoes work fine. Unless it’s summer you’ll need a jacket for the early morning chill, and a small backpack is very handy for your lunch and camera.

The path turns higher now, and rockier. Go ahead and pant; it’s allowed. Up ahead is your goal: Alcock Tarn, a small mountain lake fronted by a craggy thrust of rock where you can sit, unpack your lunch and take in some serious scenery.

The Cumbrian Mountains aren’t the Alps, or even the Sierra Nevada. They’re beauty on a more modest scale: easily rolling hills, most of them ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 feet above sea level. (Scafell Pike, England’s highest peak at 3,210 feet, crowns the Cumbrians.)

Their colors range from the deep green of the valleys to the tan (going white in winter) of the treeless summits. As scenic bonuses, just about every crest seems to have a lake in view, and even on the highest peaks, climbers are often within sight of a village.

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A Climbers’ Mecca

There’s more than simple up-and-down hiking around here. Almost every community of any size has a mountaineers’ shop, selling climbing rope, boots and hardware. Like California’s Yosemite, the Lake District is a climbers’ mecca, its sheer volcanic rock faces bearing names such as Dow Crag, Pavey Ark and Napes Needle. Not for the casual climber or the faint of heart.

And there’s another mountain endeavor here, one that might strike even a hardened runner as verging on lunacy. Known as “fell racing,” it consists of a race up and down the steepest nearby mountain, with everything--walls, gates, bracken and rocks--taken at top speed. The orthopedists, they say, all turn out to watch this one.

With your own modest summit achieved, pause to take it all in; you’ve earned it. And if you especially want to touch the spirit of the place, you can unpack some Wordsworth along with your lunch. Those lines he wrote above Tintern Abbey seem to fit, telling of how, “ ‘mid the dins of towns and cities,” he gained a measure of psychic quiet from the moments he spent sitting under a tree somewhere in the Cumbrian woods.

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Now it’s time to head back to the lowlands, to think of souvenir shopping and dinner and tomorrow’s hike.

‘Quaint, Crowded Town’

In Windermere (a “quaint, crowded town,” one tourist brochure aptly describes it) and Bowness you can stroll the streets and try a modest range of restaurants. A ferry at Bowness will take you out to scenic Belle Isle, Lake Windermere’s largest island. Another nearby will take you and your car across the whole lake.

If you overdose on pure scenery, dip into literary history. The outline of these hills is a recurring theme in much of 18th- and 19th-Century English writing. Thomas Gray reflected on “the deep serene of the waters” in 1769. Coleridge lived at Keswick in 1800; Shelley and Scott and essayists Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt all visited the region. Critic John Ruskin lived at Brantwood for 28 years, and Hugh Walpole used the village of Watendlath as the background for his Herries novels.

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Wordsworth lived in the Ambleside-Grasmere area almost continuously for 51 years until his death in 1850. Dove Cottage at Grasmere, where he lived from 1799 to 1808, has been preserved largely as it was. A few yards away, the Wordsworth Museum houses manuscripts and first editions.

For accommodations you could do much worse than the Belsfield Hotel in Bowness, an imposing, 61-room, white-fronted structure sitting on six landscaped acres with a front lawn sloping down to the lakefront promenade. Built in the middle of the last century as an industrialist’s mansion, the Belsfield--with rates starting at about $57 for a single with bath, $80 for a double--is part of the giant British-owned Trusthouse Forte chain of 800 hotels worldwide.

Plush but Not Stuffy

The Belsfield, however, has a most unchain-like feel to it. The ambiance is plush without being stuffy. The quiet lobby gives onto a comfortable bar, a library and a billiards room, all with views of the lake. In the large, chandeliered dining room, guests are encouraged to dress for dinner, and ties are not unusual even earlier in the day. Service is gracious, with a wine steward visiting your table at dinner.

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Before you hike, stoke up on one of the Belsfield’s notorious English breakfasts: a big table groaning with half a dozen varieties of cereal plus coffee, tea, milk, pitchers of fruit juices, sweet rolls, croissants, jams and marmalade, cheeses and cold meats. On second thought, you may prefer to stoke up, nap, then hike. . . .

Finally, vacation over, it’s time to head back to “the dins of towns and cities,” the freeways and the deadlines. When you do, remember the poet’s advice and take a little of Lakeland back with you. It travels well.


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