Published: 27th May 2012
In a hot tub overlooking a sunny tarn where a little wooden rowing boat lolled by the jetty, I thought how much nicer it is to be an adult than a child. The last time I visited the Lake District, it was hell. This time, it was heaven.
The area’s 885 square miles of glassy lakes, towering mountains and sheep-surrounded villages provided spiritual uplift; its country-house hotels added plump Cumbrian beef and lamb of extreme deliciousness. At Gilpin Lake House, I ate grapefruit and orange with lime granita, followed by a bowl of porridge with cream, brown sugar and whisky. It was probably the best breakfast of my life — and nobody, at any point during my week’s stay, made me climb a mountain.
On my previous visit to this lovely national park of ours, I was 10 years old, on holiday with my best friend and her parents, missing my mother. When my friend’s father said we were climbing Helvellyn, I had no idea why “hell” was in its name, but I soon found out.
During that terrible childhood ordeal, I thought only about the jam sandwiches in my friend’s father’s backpack as I watched him turn yet another precipitous corner in front of me. We would stop every now and again on our pitiless ascent and be forced to admire the view. Children are not interested in views.
This time, after a judiciously short walk in the fells, I returned to my hotel, the Langdale, and had a glorious massage with hot oils. Everyone tells me the Lake District is considered one of the best places for climbing, gorge-scrambling, fell walks and biking. But you don’t have to be at the top of an oversized mountain to appreciate the placid silvery lakes, the soft green hills with grey houses perched here and there, the spectacular Kirkstone Pass, where sheep potter over the road, the mists that rise from Windermere in the early morning.
My stay was sunny, with occasional rain, but fine weather isn’t necessary unless you want to climb or walk. The variety of the dales and tarns, the charm of villages such as Hawkshead and Coniston, and the exemplary food, make this somewhere you could come for a shot of tranquillity any time. I came up from London on the train; it took just 21⁄2 hours from Euston to Oxenholme.
I wafted out across Coniston Water, aboard the steam yacht Gondola, to Brantwood, the peach-coloured house where John Ruskin lived and went mad (£6.30; brantwood.org.uk). Here, chaffinches and sparrows packed the terrace overlooking the sparkling waters that Arthur Ransome used to create the setting for Swallows and Amazons. After reading about Ruskin’s chaste, unhappy marriage to Effie Gray, I stood in the turret room and looked out at the same mountains he would have seen. The great writers seem still to inhabit their houses here, perhaps because so little of the landscape they loved has changed.
At Wordsworth’s tiny Dove Cottage, in Grasmere (£7.50; wordsworth.org.uk), I could almost hear Coleridge stomping across the flags in his grimy boots, or Thomas de Quincey, woozy from opium, bumping softly against the dark-oak panelling. I could imagine Wordsworth’s beloved sister Dorothy transcribing his poems or scribbling in her brilliant Grasmere Journal, recording the comings and goings at the cottage.
And in the soft wild gardens of Rydal Mount (£6.75; rydalmount.co.uk), where Wordsworth lived from 1813 until his death in 1850, I sat on the bench where the poet gazed out over Rydal Water, and in the summerhouse where he wrote. For the last 20 or so years of her life, Dorothy suffered from premature senility; William and his wife, Mary, looked after her here. It’s not all daffodils bobbing around in the wind.
Meanwhile, down at Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s house in Near Sawrey (£8; nationaltrust.org.uk), life is imitating art. “It’s driving the gardener wild,” our guide complained as we walked by the vegetable garden. “We’ve had to put up that wire fence to keep rabbits out. Three times this summer, we’ve replanted the lettuce.” As if to prove it, one bunny, thick of fur, scratched herself nearby, while a couple of others bounced along, white tails in the air, carefree in the emerald grass.
Hill Top was bought with the proceeds of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Potter’s other little white books. Inside, you can still see Samuel Whiskers’s rat hole, dark beneath the dresser, and the dressing-table mirror featured in The Tale of Tom Kitten. Outside, the cottage garden tumbles with foxgloves and herbs over the flagstone paths.
It is hard to beat the pure peacefulness of lodging right beside a lake, perhaps at the Lakeside Hotel, on the southern tip of Windermere. But for instant bliss, I would go to Gilpin Lodge, with its nearby Lake House, where you can have a range of treatments in your room while overlooking the hot tub, tarn and that bobbing wooden boat.
Wordsworth believed that childhood was the time of greatest joy, that “heaven lies about us in our infancy”. He was right about so much, especially the solace of nature, which is everywhere in this beautiful part of England. In my view, though, adulthood beats childhood any time, especially in the luxurious Lake District, where the food is excellent, the accommodation staringly good and the pampering suitable for a deserving grown-up.
There was still so much I wanted to do. Someone recommended the teas at Linthwaite Country House Hotel, in Windermere, someone else the pub lunches at the Brown Horse Inn, in Winster. Next time...
Need to Know
Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of Cumbria Tourism (golakes.co.uk), the Lakeside Hotel & Spa (015395 30001, lakesidehotel.co.uk; doubles from £169, B&B), the Langdale Hotel (015394 38014, langdale.co.uk; doubles from £125, B&B) and Gilpin Lodge (015394 88818, www.gilpinlodge.co.uk; doubles from £290, half-board). If you want to walk in the Lake District, Discovery Travel (01904 632226, discoverytravel.co.uk) has single-centre trips and circular routes, including an eight-night self-guided loop, from £585pp, B&B, including baggage transfers. Or try Mickledore (017687 72335, mickledore.co.uk) or Contours Walking Holidays (01629 821900, contours.co.uk).