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Everything You Need to Know About the Lake District

15 min read

By Joanna Roberts
More by Joanna

An Overview of the Lake District

The Lake District, with England’s highest mountains, 214 Wainwrights (distinct summits) and 16 major lakes – sits within the county of Cumbria in North West England. The Lakes, as it is frequently referred to, is England’s largest National Park. Millions of visitors explore the park each year and enjoy the 912 square miles of mountains, lakes, forests, rivers and low lying areas.

Like all the UK’s National Parks, the Lake District is also a place where people work and live. Around 41,000 people have the privilege of calling this beautiful place home.

Quick Links

  1. What is the Lake District Famous For?
  2. How Many Lakes Are There in the Lake District?
  3. Hiking in the Lake District
  4. Other Things To Do in the Lake District
  5. Most Popular Places to Visit in the Lake District
  6. Where Can I Go If It Rains?
  7. How Have Humans Impacted the Lake District?
  8. Being Environmentally Aware in the Lake District
  9. Getting Around in the Lake District
  10. What Special Foods Should I Look Out For?
  11. Fun Facts About the Lake District
  12. Visit the Lake District with Wilderness England

What is The Lake District Famous For?

Mountainous Landscape

Famed for its mountains and lakes – the two are a perfect balance to each other. As glaciers retreated in the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago, the ground was gouged with moving ice and rock. This left behind the topography of the landscape we see today. The resulting ridges, peaks, rivers and lakes act as natural barriers or boundaries within what is now, the National Park.

In some places, roads have been built – but in other areas, direct access is only on foot. Therefore, a lengthy but beautiful drive must often be made to reach the other side of a mountain pass. Even today, it is these natural geological boundaries which lead to distinct divides between North, South, Central, Eastern and Western areas.

Dales & Fells

Through-out Northern England you’ll hear talk of dales and fells. Dale, as in Deepdale, Patterdale or Langdale is a Viking or Old Norse word and simply means, valley. Fell is another Old Norse word for barren hill or mountain – or perhaps more correctly the summit. Often used interchangeably hill, fell and even mountain (for peaks over 600m) are all correct usage.

Herdwick Sheep

As much a part of the landscape as the topography itself are these hardy, and to many, adorable looking sheep.

A traditional Lakeland breed – with hefting instincts means that they can roam the fells for much of the year.

Dry Stone Walls

Through-out history people have made their mark on what was a natural landscape. Built with skill and precision, dry stone walls were traditionally created using local stones (with no cement or ‘wet’ mix to hold them together). Gaze across any Lake District hillside and you’ll see a rich history of family & farming culture, interconnecting as far as the eye can see.

William Wordsworth

One of Britain’s best known Romantic poets was born in Cockermouth in 1770. Orphaned as a young boy and famous for such poems as Daffodils – he gained massive inspiration from the Lakeland Landscape.

Beatrix Potter

Famous for her wonderful collection of children’s stories. The author and illustrator was also a farmer and businesswoman, leaving an amazing legacy through her conservation and farming work within the Lake District – during the early 1900s.

Alfred Wainwright

MBE Born in 1907 was a prolific fell walker, author and illustrator – who spent huge amounts of time roaming the Lake District and surrounding fells. His seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells – published in the 1950s and ’60s is both iconic and much read. Walking “The Wainwrights” has now become a popular and engaging pastime for many.

It was Wainwright who also conceived the England Coast to Coast Route – creating a pictorial book to guide walkers from St. Bees (by the Irish Sea), across the Lake District, East into Yorkshire and ending at Robin Hoods Bay.

How Many Lakes Are There in the Lake District?

Derwent Water

Derwent Water

It is a strange fact that of the sixteen lakes in The Lake District, it is only Bassenthwaite Lake, in the North, which is called a lake. The others are all meres or waters. ‘Mere’ is the Old English word for lake or sea.

The major lakes in the Lake District:

  1. Windermere
  2. Buttermere
  3. Ullswater
  4. Derwentwater
  5. Bassenthwaite Lake
  6. Coniston Water
  7. Grasmere
  8. Brotherswater
  9. Haweswater
  10. Ennerdale Water
  11. Wastwater
  12. Thirlmere
  13. Crummock Water
  14. Loweswater
  15. Rydal Water
  16. Esthwaite Water

There are a further 76 bodies of water in the Lake District, but those listed above are considered the main lakes that define the area. Each lake, mere or water has its own unique features and all are worthy of time and exploration. Like the spokes on a bicycle, these ribbons of water flow out from the central mountain massif.

Windermere is the longest. At eleven miles, it stretches from the confluence of the rivers Brathay and Rothay (close to the picturesque town of Ambleside) to the Southern border of the national park. Wastwater at 80 metres is the deepest and is nestled close to the mighty summits of Great Gable and Scafell Pike.

Ennerdale Water is the most westerly and here, breath-taking views towards the central fells are enjoyed by the many walkers on the Coast to Coast path.

Derwent Water, Coniston Water, Windermere and Ullswater all have ferries operating on them, making for some magical moments away from the ever-increasing volume of cars which can stream in and out of the most popular places. Haweswater (like Thirlmere) is actually a reservoir. It was flooded in the 1930s to supply the North West of England with a gravity-fed water supply.

Hiking in the Lake District

Amid the attractive landscape are over 1,900 miles of rights of way. These are an interlaced system of paths and tracks, linking together mountain passes, summits, lakeshores, forests, villages and low lying areas. The Lake District is a veritable playground for the most ardent of walkers and more relaxed visitors alike. However, care must be taken – with fitness level, experience and equipment all being taken into consideration.

Enjoy England’s highest Mountains

The Lake District has six mountains over 900 m in height – and although a fair bit smaller than their Scottish cousins, they can still pack a pretty punch. All need careful consideration, appropriate hill experience and suitable clothing and equipment. On a clear summer’s day, the feeling of being on top of the world can be immense. However, on the cold, grey of a foggy windswept hillside – navigation can be extremely disorientating. If in any doubt, then employing a Mountain Leader or enjoying a lower level adventure would be much the better option.

The highest of these are:

Scafell Pike at 978 metres (3210 feet) (and Scafell at 964 metres (3162 feet) are two very distinct peaks. They can be accessed from a variety of routes, the most popular being from Wasdale Head near Wast Water. Steep rocky terrain is the flavour of the day.

Helvellyn at 950 metres (3114 feet) sits along a North-South ridge close to Ullswater. Accessible from a variety of start points – Coming up from Dunmail Raise is likely the quickest, whilst the routes from Patterdale and Glenridding, the most popular.

Skiddaw at 931 metres (3053 feet) is the most Northerly of The Lake District’s Highest Peaks. Again, with multiple access routes – the most popular is from the Southern side near Keswick.

Long Distance Trails in the Lake District

Explore part of the Coast to Coast Route

St Bees–Ennerdale Bridge–Borrowdale–Grasmere–Patterdale–Shap.

A legacy to Alfred Wainwright the Coast to Coast starts at St Bees on the West Coast, traverses through the Lake District and emerges in the village of Shap before it continues East into the Yorkshire Dales. The route is a real gem and one to be savoured at that. The views – when visibility is clear – are spectacular and each of the five days in The Lake District, although long and challenging are unique.

It is perfectly possible (assuming fitness and capability) to enjoy just one of the days, but, due to the linear nature of the route, careful planning of the transport arrangements (at the beginning and end) would be needed.

Better still join Wilderness England for a fully guided experience all the way across to Robin Hood’s Bay.

Follow The Cumbria Way

Ulverston–Coniston–Langdale–Borrowdale & Keswick–Calbeck–Carlise

Another multi-day trip, the Cumbria way starts from the Cumbrian Market town of Ulverston (just outside the National Park) and heads North through the Lake District. This crosses the C2C route in Borrowdale, leaving the National Park near Caldbeck and then finishing in the City of Carlisle. The beginning and end are primarily lower level walking. However, particular care should be taken on the more remote middle section – between Langdale and Borrowdale – and then again around the Skiddaw area.

An easily accessible and pleasant low-level single day along the route is Borrowdale through to the Town of Keswick, finishing with the deservedly popular summit of Latrigg (368m) just north of the town. The local bus route is useful for the linear nature. There is a good option of taking an early bus into Borrowdale, and then walking back to Keswick, along the Cumbria way, at your leisure.

Other Things To Do in the Lake District

As well as fell walking, there are many other outdoor activities which can be enjoyed by both visitors and locals. Mountain biking, along with paddle activities and open water swimming are increasing in popularity. The Lake District itself is considered the birthplace of climbing and mountaineering in England.

 

Visit a Forest

The woodland areas of the National Park also appeal to many visitors. Grizedale and Whinlatter Forests – managed by The Forestry Commission – are deservedly two of the most popular outdoor areas to visit.

With, mountain bike hire, visitor facilities, and mile upon mile of waymarked paths and tracks – a day out in the woods is a real chance to rest and unwind. Turn up early to avoid the crowds, or better still hop on a local bus to ease the ever-increasing transport burden upon the National park.

Slow Down & Appreciate the Wildlife

Like with all outdoor spaces, not only is The Lake District a rejuvenating place to visit – but it is also a place to slow down and truly respect the wildlife which is all around. With the ground-nesting birds of spring, the cuckoos mating cry or the flash of a red squirrel’s tail, it’s also possible to spot the odd bounding deer or feel the peace-filled energy of mixed woodland thickets. Late summer and early autumn is also a great time to witness the blanket of pink heathers which cloak the hillside. Nesting on the shore of Bassenthwaite Lake since 2001, there is also a pair of returning Ospreys. Visitors can see these amazing birds from either the viewing station or more remotely through a pre-placed camera.

Glenridding

Glenridding – Popular with hikers

The most popular places to visit tend to be the honey potted Central-Lakes areas of Ambleside, Grasmere and Bowness on Windermere, along with the biggest town in the National Park, Keswick and the nearby valley of Borrowdale. With the UNESCO status granted in 2017 and an increasing general thirst for outdoor experiences, many of the outlying villages and hamlets are experiencing increased visitor numbers. So if you can responsibly get off the beaten track you won’t be disappointed and you may just unearth that little hidden gem.

Where Can I Go If It Rains?

Well, it wouldn’t be the Lake District if it didn’t rain – but sometimes even the great outdoors doesn’t seem all that great and you might need to bid a hasty retreat inside.

On a warm summer’s day – and increasingly all year round the Lake District attracts many visitors. This includes day-trippers and those looking for a more extended holiday. If the weather is a bit grim or a break from the fresh air is needed, then there is a seemingly never-ending supply of cafes, pubs, restaurants, gift shops and indoor visitor attractions to keep any age of visitor happy.

The following are a selection of top places to visit – that also offer rainy day shelter.

Honister Slate Mine

High on the Honister Pass between Borrowdale and Buttermere is a working mine offering guided trips and a small yet absorbing information centre. It is also close to Hay Stacks – Wainwright’s favourite fell – and is on the Coast to Coast walking route.

Dove Cottage

Dove Cottage in Grasmere was the first home of William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy after they returned, as adults, to the Lake District in 1799. Guided tours offer a fascinating insight into the poet’s life as he married, raised a family and attracted the company of many other poets of the time.

Rydal Mount

Just a few miles away, this bigger house perched on a beautiful southerly aspect, is where Wordsworth later moved his family to, continued his poetry and died in 1850. The House, gardens and small gift shop are worth a visit.

The Lakes Distillery

Near Bassenthwaite, this more recent, but very pleasurable addition to the Lake District visitor scene, offers guided tours and tastings of holistic whisky making. The Lakes Distillery also houses a delicious bistro.

Hill Top

This small and compact 17th Century building near Hawkshead – was a much-loved home of Beatrix Potter – and where she continued her inspiration as an author. Also well worth a visit is Yew Tree Farm Cottage (near Coniston) which she later owned. Take your boots for a tour around the farm or to help feed the Herdwick lambs.

Rheged

On the Northern edge of the National Park – this visitor centre offers a great space to look around, be entertained and generally enjoy Lakeland related pleasures. A giant cinema screen, modern gallery and scrumptious café food – all add to the experience.

How Have Humans Impacted the Lake District?

After the last ice-age receded; over thousands of years, Neolithic (stone age) people moved through Europe and up into Britain.

Since then; Celts, Romans, Anglo Saxons and Vikings have all played their part. And with each influx of cultures, families and armies the natural Lakeland landscape has been shaped more and more. From the tree-covered ranges thousands of years ago, settlers cleared woodland, fished, farmed and hunted.

Increasingly the, now infamous, dry-stone walls were built, alongside roads, houses and farms to divide up the land and protect livestock.

Over the past 1000 years (and likely from Roman times) there has also been much evidence of quarrying and mining, especially during the industrial impact of the 1800s. Ironically, as the industry increased – the Lake District also became recognised for its powerful beauty and restful properties. The advent of the railway (and later cars) brought a steady touristic flow into the area and with it an increasing desire to protect and promote this unique landscape.

This is a much-needed ethos which still lives on today through The National Trust and the National Park Authority – along with many other organisations and charities.

Being Environmentally Aware in the Lake District

The Lake District was formed as a National Park in 1951, but it has a long history of being cared for by both visitors and locals alike. Humans and the landscape have been co-creating for many years – with farming, forestry and mining being particularly prevalent in the Cumbrian Fells. Leisure and Tourism is the natural progression of such a beautiful and unique landscape. Undoubtedly Leave No Trace is the best possible mindset along with, “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos”.

Picking up litter, closing gates (as you find them), sharing transport, re-using water bottles, being calm & quiet around wildlife and supporting the work of local conservation charities can all really help.

Getting Around in the Lake District

Although many visitors choose to drive cars into and around the national park, there are a variety of other options available. There is a local bus route which links Keswick in the North to Kendal in the South. This runs regularly and stops at many places along the way – and is very popular with both locals and visitors. To get into the myriad of valleys and smaller villages there is a network of public and private minibuses within the extended summer months.

With a modicum of planning it is perfectly possible and very enjoyable to travel through-out the National Park on an explorer-style pass and even link in a ferry journey or two along the way.

For the energetic, travelling by bike is another very popular mode of transport. With the advent of electric bikes – many more visitors are being tempted to explore the National Park on two wheels. There are also a number of well-respected local taxi companies.

Whilst there is a distinct lack of useable railway for getting around the National Park, there is a terminal in the town of Windermere – for the Lakes Branch Line coming in from the Main Line train station at Oxenholme (just outside the National Park near Kendal).

For Wilderness England guests joining a trip, the most convenient meeting point is often Penrith train station. This is just to the North East of the National Park and allows for easy access across to the North Lakes and West Coast.

For real train enthusiasts – or for those needing to reach St Bees to start the Coast to Coast- it is actually possible to travel by train right around the periphery of the Lake District; Taking in such places as Grange over Sands, Barrow in Furness, Whitehaven, Maryport and Aspatria.

There are also two heritage lines the Ravenglass & Eskdale Steam Railway. And the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway – which frequently links its time table to the Windermere ferry.

What Special Foods Should I Look Out For?

There are some fabulous and hearty foods to be found throughout the Lake District – but of special note are:

Food in the Lake District

  • Cumberland Sausage – Traditionally served as a swirl.
  • Grasmere Ginger Bread – A secret family recipe, which tastes and smells divine.
  • Kendal Mintcake – Not for the faint-hearted, this very sweet ‘delicacy’ is made of sugar and intensely minty. The dark chocolate coated is by far the best.
  • Sticky Toffee Pudding – Popular throughout England, but particularly well made in Cumbria. The only question is…ice-cream or custard?

Fun Facts About the Lake District

  1. Herdwick – Although now known as the sheep breed – is Old English for a unit of grazing land on pasture farms.
  2. Donald Campbell broke the 200mph speed record in 1955 – on Ullswater, he then died on Coniston Water in 1967 trying to break 300mph speed record
  3. Alfred Wainwright sold his first books as a trial in the Patterdale village shop, there have now been over two million copies sold
  4. The Highest Roman Road linked Ambleside to Penrith
  5. There are around three million sheep in Cumbria
  6. According to lakedistrict.gov.uk, there are 15.8 million visitors to the Lake District each year
  7. www.fixthefells.co.uk is an amazing organisation working hard to maintain the paths of our unique and much-loved landscape

Visit the Lake District with Wilderness England

Itching to start exploring the lakes?

You could join us on one of our guided walking adventures, joining a group of likeminded travellers. We run a Northumberland & the Lake District trip, which explores the contrasting landscapes and cultural heritage of these two stunning areas, or you could cross the Lake District as part of the England Coast to Coast walking trip. We also operate a self-drive adventure where you can relax and let us plan your holiday, book accommodation, arrange guided hikes and suggest other activities for you to enjoy independently.

Lake District Trips

The Lake District Self Guided

Prefer travelling at your own pace?

Why not try our Self Drive Collection trip. Explore the iconic Lake Windermere, the soaring Mt Hellvyn, the picturesque Derwent Water, quaint villages, cosy pubs and more.

Self Drive – The Lake District

Learn more about the author, Jo Roberts, and her writing on her website, Writing Inside Out. 

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Meet the Author: Joanna Roberts

Settled now in Cumbria, England. The Lake District National Park is a place I love for work and play. Originally from Devon and brought up in Wiltshire I also spent time living in the Scottish Highlands, working for Outward Bound Loch Eil. So, Outdoor Education and personal development work is within my very core. Over my career I have worked with both adults and young people helping folks learn and grow in some amazing places; from Nepal and Peru to Norway and Poland. In recent years I have guided a lot in Northern England and love enabling guests to get the very most out of their holiday.

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