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.
Winster 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 destinations.
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.’
Where to eat
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 £12; the-punchbowl.co.uk).
Where to drink
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 £2.50; hawksheadbrewery.co.uk).
Where to stay
Yewfield, a 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).
Great 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 unforgettable views.
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 hike.’
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 visitor.’
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.
Where to eat
The Eltermere 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).
Where to drink
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).
Where to stay
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).
Borrowdale 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.
Where to eat
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).
Where to drink
The Fish 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).
Where to stay
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).
Wasdale: 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 feet high.
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 shining sea.
Where to drink
Santon Bridge 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.