Famed for its lakes, mountains and fells – not to mention a trove of restaurants and pubs – this spectacular corner of northwest England has been a fitting inspiration for artists and poets through the ages.
to Hawkshead Hill: Best for food and ale
It’s lunchtime at The Drunken Duck and there’s not an empty
table in sight. The old beamed bar is packed with punters, pints of ale gleam
on the slate-topped bar, and waiting staff bustle back and forth from the
kitchen carrying plates laden with ploughman’s lunches and slabs of sticky
toffee pudding. Outside, cyclists and walkers relax in the sunshine on wooden
benches, nursing amber-hued pints of beer while gazing across the fields and
fells surrounding them.
‘If there’s one thing I love about the Lake
District, it’s the pubs,’ says Stephen Dodd, general manager of The Drunken
Duck. ‘There’s such a sense of history to them and, on a day like this, I can’t
think of anywhere better to be.’
Perched on a hilltop halfway between
Coniston and Ambleside, The Drunken Duck is generally acknowledged as one of
the Lake District’s finest pubs. The building dates back to at least the 18th
century, but it’s been run since the 1970s by husband-and-wife team Paul
Spencer and Steph Barton, whose passion for high-quality food and locally
brewed ales has turned their pub into one of the area’s top dining
On the walls, antique hunting prints sit
alongside vintage beer posters and mounted animal heads, but the stripped
wooden floors, leather furniture and blackboard wine list feel more Chelseachic
than Cumbria-cosy. Outside, a tumbledown store houses the Barngates Brewery,
renowned for its range of quirkily named ales such as Mothbag, Tag Lag and
Chester’s Strong & Ugly. The menu seems more suited to a big-city bistro
than a rural pub, offering celeriac gratin and pigeon pithivier (a type of pie)
rather than chicken pie and mash. Yet at its heart, The Drunken Duck is still
very much a classic Lakeland inn.
It’s one of many local pubs that blend old
traditions with new ideas. At The Brown
Horse Inn, in the sleepy village of Winster, the chefs now source their
produce directly from their own country estate and now offer a trio of their
own microbrewed ales. Meanwhile, at the nearby Masons Arms overlooking the
scenic Winster Valley, the monthly events calendar takes in everything from
culinary masterclasses to country markets. The ideas may be fresh, but both
pubs have retained their rustic character: flagstones on the floor, rough
beams, a crackling fire in the grate and, most importantly of all, a
passionately loyal local clientele.
‘Keeping our historic inns alive is really
important,’ explains Stephen. ‘We need to keep innovating, but it’s vital we
don’t lose our links with the past – whether that means supporting our farmers,
using local craftspeople or brewing our own beers. We’re part of a community,
and that’s what running a pub here should be all about.’
The Punch Bowl. If you can’t get a table at The
Drunken Duck, its sister pub in Crosthwaite is a reliable fallback (mains from
Also try the Hawkshead Brewery in Stavely. You can
sample the latest ales in the bar or take a tour behind the scenes (ales from
imposing mansion, stands on a private 80-acre estate just a stone’s throw from
the beauty spot of Tarn Hows. Peaceful and welcoming, it’s also eco- and
vegetarianfriendly. For the best views, ask for the Tower Suite (from £98;
closed Dec and Jan).
Langdale: Best for would-be Wainwrights
Nowhere sums up the spirit of hiking in the Lake
District better than Great Langdale. Carved out by glaciers during the last Ice
Age, it’s arguably the quintessential Lakeland valley – a broad emerald bowl
studded with oaks and whitewashed houses, hemmed in by bracken-covered slopes
and windswept hills.
Langdale’s name derives from the Old Norse
for ‘long valley’, and it’s been an irresistible draw for walkers since the
early days of Lakeland tourism in the mid-19th century. It was a particular
favourite of Alfred Wainwright, whose Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells
are still the choice for many hikers. ‘No mountain profile in Lakeland arrests
and excites the attention more than that of Langdale,’ he wrote in 1958, in the
third book of his seven-volume series. ‘That steep ladder to heaven stirs the
imagination, and even the emotions... especially so whenever the towering peaks
come into view, suddenly and unexpectedly.’
Every year, thousands of walkers follow in
Wainwright’s footsteps and set out to explore its famous fells – particularly
the rugged chain of summits known as the Langdale Pikes, which stand guard like
craggy sentinels along the valley’s northern edge and provide one of the
national park’s most iconic hikes, not to mention some of its most
If there’s one man who knows this valley
inside out, it’s Nick Owen. He’s been tramping its trails for more than 20
years and, alongside his day job as manager of the YHA hostel in Elterwater,
he’s also team leader for the Langdale and
Ambleside Mountain Rescue Team, one of ten volunteer teams providing
emergency assistance in the park. ‘
I must have seen every fell in Langdale
from every angle over the years,’ he says, ‘but I still see something new every
time I go out on the hills. That’s what makes this such a special place to
An endless web of trails crisscross the
Langdale fells. Many were laid down as packhorse routes by shepherds and
traders during the Middle Ages, but a few are thought to be even older. During
Neolithic times, Langdale was an important centre for stone quarrying and
toolmaking, and some of the valley’s paths are thought to have been established
by ancient Britons to access a prehistoric ‘axe factory’, hidden away among the
shattered slopes of slate beneath Pike of Stickle.
‘Langdale has a life of its own,’ Nick
continues. ‘The fells can change by the minute – you can be in grey mist one
moment, then hammering rain or dazzling sunshine the next. You need to keep
your wits about you. Remember – the mountains are in charge and you’re just a
As he talks, the afternoon sun casts long
shadows over Langdale, burnishing the fields and fellsides a deep copper-gold.
Along the horizon, two tiny figures can be seen picking their way slowly along
the ridgeline – dark shapes silhouetted against an auburn sky.
Inn. This venerable country house hotel on the edge of Elterwater has been
given a much-needed makeover. The pub’s a treat, with a blackboard of specials
such as ham hock, chicken and wild mushroom terrine, and slow-roasted belly
pork. Afternoon tea is served on the lawn overlooking the lake (lunch from £8).
The Britannia Inn.
Perched above the village green, this inn in Elterwater makes a fine place for
a post-hike pint. It has all the homely pub trappings and hosts its own beer
festival. Cask ales include the pub’s own Britannia Special (ales from £3).
This slate-fronted inn in Great Langdale
has been a hiker’s favourite for 300 years, and it’s still the valley’s best
place for a night’s sleep. The 13 rooms are resolutely old fashioned, with
well-worn furniture and floral wallpapers. Make the most of the views before
heading to the Hikers Bar downstairs (from £100; odg.co.uk).
The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. This
slate-fronted inn in Great Langdale has been a hiker’s favourite for 300 years,
and it’s still the valley’s best place for a night’s sleep. The 13 rooms are
resolutely old fashioned, with well-worn furniture and floral wallpapers. Make
the most of the views before heading to the Hikers Bar downstairs (from £100).
and Buttermere: Best for nature
Carving their way through the hard volcanic hills
to the south of Keswick, the twin valleys of Borrowdale and Buttermere
encapsulate the essence of the Lakeland landscape – a pastoral tapestry of
green fields, cob cottages, rickety barns and rolling fells stitched together
by mile upon mile of winding dry-stone walls.
These idyllic valleys have been a haunt of
poets, writers and painters for centuries. Samuel Taylor Coleridge often walked
the wooded paths while living at Greta Hall in Keswick, and the surrounding
scenery has inspired such artists as John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough and
JMW Turner. Alfred Wainwright loved the view from the top of Haystacks so much
that he decided to stay for good.
Cut off from the rest of the area by high
mountain passes and the glittering sweep of Derwentwater, the valleys are awash
with wildlife. Badgers, stoats and weasels can often be seen darting across the
meadows, with kestrels and buzzards hovering overhead as kingfishers and otters
cast a watchful eye along the riverbanks. On the hills around Borrowdale, wild
deer roam the hilltops, and Buttermere harbours one of England’s last red
squirrel populations. Apart from a few sheep farms, there’s little to disturb
the natural status quo.
The valleys’ three lakes – Derwentwater,
Buttermere and Crummock Water – are some of the purest in the national park,
and support thriving populations of wild rainbow and brown trout, as well as
seasonal visitors such as Canada geese, herons, mute swans and oystercatchers.
Nuthatches and chiffchaffs chatter among the treetops and, in spring, cuckoos
and woodpeckers can be heard in the ancient woodlands. There’s even a stand of
yew trees that inspired a poem written by William Wordsworth in 1803.
The Kirkstile Inn.
This part-Tudor inn is one of the top places to eat around Buttermere. Its
brews have won many Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) awards, and they provide the
perfect accompaniment to the simple menu of battered fish, tatie pot (stew),
and steak and ale pie (mains from £8; Loweswater).
Inn. Made famous in the 19th century by The Maid of Buttermere, a
celebrated beauty who worked behind the bar and counted Coleridge and Thomas de
Quincey among her admirers. It’s now a welcoming pub which is popular with
locals and hikers (pint of beer from £3; Buttermere).
The Wood House. This
National Trust-owned house stands in private gardens overlooking the shores of
Crummock Water in Buttermere. Bedrooms are quintessentially English, and the
drawing room is littered with eclectic books. Four-course dinners are served in
the dining room (from £90).
Best for wild views
There’s a storm brewing in the skies above Wasdale. Inky clouds are gathering,
clustering around the whaleback peaks standing watch across the head of the
valley. Gusts of wind are hurtling along the fellsides and, in the distance,
the summit of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, is hidden behind a
cloak of mist. Apart from a few sheep huddled against a dry-stone wall, the
landscape is deserted.
‘For me, this is when Wasdale looks its
best,’ says Adam Naylor, manager of the Wasdale Head Inn, the historic hostelry
which has served as a base for walkers for more than 150 years.
Adam is a born-and-bred Wasdaler. He grew
up on his family’s sheep farm – just a few yards from the pub – where his
father still works. His uncle is the legendary fell runner Joss Naylor, who
made his name tackling some of the Lake District’s most challenging peaks. He’s
lived almost his entire life in the valley and to him it always feels like home.
This valley lies in stark contrast to the
green hills and gentle fields of the eastern fells. In many ways, it’s more
akin to the Scottish Highlands than the rest of the Lake District: a deep,
five-mile slash carved out from the mountains of the Scafell Range, cut through
by England’s deepest lake, Wastwater, and framed by scree slopes a thousand
A winding single-track road is the only way
in and out of the valley, and there’s little sign of human habitation, save for
a few isolated farms, whitewashed cottages and Wasdale Head Inn. From here, the
panorama takes in some of England’s highest and wildest peaks – including
Scafell, Great Gable, Yewbarrow, Kirk Fell and the loftiest of them all,
Scafell Pike – which stay snowcapped for all but a few months of the year. The
valley is as close as England gets to full-blown wilderness and it exerts a
powerful hold on those who experience it.
Outside the window of the inn’s dining
room, the storm clouds finally break. Ladders of sunlight pour down onto the
patchwork fields and Wasdale suddenly takes on a gentler aspect: the wet
fellsides sparkle in the sharp light and Wastwater turns into a smooth sheet of
silver, reflecting the surrounding hills. In the distance, Scafell Pike and its
sisters slowly emerge from among the clouds – black domes surrounded by a
Inn. This inn in the nearby village of Santon Bridge is a fine place to
meet locals, with great grub, Jenning’s beers and the annual World’s Biggest
Liar Competition (beer from £3).
The article 'The perfect trip: The Lake District' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.