A fresh look at the lakes
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- Activity, Beach, Short Break, Free, Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
I'm not bored of Coniston yet, and I still love Windermere. But can I find a new angle on England's magnificent Lake District?
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a spare weekend must be in want of the Lake District.
It’s probably inappropriate to borrow Jane Austen’s “man in possession of a good fortune/wife” quote from Pride and Prejudice. The Bennets only made it as far north as the Peak District, as memory serves. But quoting from classic literature is almost to be expected when writing about the Lake District, they’re intimate bedfellows. So let’s put aside clichés about wandering lonely as a cloud and being potty at Beatrix Potter, and get on.
The Western Lake District
I’ve only ever scratched the surface of Lakeland, with previous visits to the mountains, towns, villages and pubs around Lake Windermere, Coniston Water and the central Lake District. So I went west, way out west, to discover a new angle on the Lakes.
What I got was a surprising coastline, incredible mountain vistas – and the chance to take in one of England’s most breathtaking areas of natural beauty without the crowds associated with Coniston and Windermere.
Where to stay
I’ve done my fair share of self-catering cottages and B&Bs in the county of Cumbria, in which the Lake District entirely resides. If I was going to get a new angle on Lakeland, I needed to take a fresh look at accommodation too.
The idea of a country guesthouse conjured images of China teacups, four-poster beds and carefully tended gardens. And so, to the satisfying sound of tyres crunching along a gravel driveway, I arrived at Moresby Hall on the outskirts of Whitehaven.
The 1620 Grade I listed building is run with pride and love by owners Jan and David Saxon and the numerous personal touches will make guests feel really special. There are only six bedrooms, all of which are grand and spacious, and the walled gardens are open to guests, so you get the space and freedom to pretend you’re the Lord/Lady of the Manor. Plus the rates are terrifically reasonable, starting at just £55 pppn (and non-vegetarians get an extra bonus in the form of amazing local Waberthwaite Cumberland sausages in the morning!).
I struggled to leave the comfort of the De Asby room, with its massive four-poster bed and steam-room shower. And then getting past the comfortable lounges and charming gardens is a task. But there was a part of the Lake District just outside the gates that I was yet to discover...
Why go there?
The western part of Cumbria has had more than its fair share of bad publicity in recent months, what with flooding and the terrible shootings that took place in June. It’s not clear whether visitors have stayed away. What is clear is that this is a region that relies on the tourist pound and the reasons visitors flocked here before these events – namely the magnificence of the land and the leisure opportunities – have not diminished.
My base for the weekend was Whitehaven, a small port town on the coast with all the hallmarks of a coal mining past. The harbour has enjoyed a renovation and has scrubbed up rather well and a scheme continues to generally improve Whitehaven’s coast. But there’s nothing here to elevate the place out of the rankings of a rather average seaside town. That said, it does serve as an excellent base to explore this part of the world.
And what a stunning part of the world it is. Further down the coast, past the pretty little village of St Bees, are clean and pleasant beaches with great expanses of sand to often call your own. Or drive for just half an hour south from Whitehaven to explore Wastwater – in my opinion the best-looking untouched lake in Cumbria – and find yourself in magnificent solitude while the crowds jostle for space in Windermere. If you’ve filled your boots with Kendal mint cake and need to work off some energy, then head a little further past Wastwater and tackle the towering Scafell Pike from the village of Wasdale Head. Or if, like me, you’ve “forgotten” to bring your sturdy walking gear (oops), then simply enjoy the mountain from the village and take a lung full of the clean air.
Ok, maybe I’ve been a little hard on Whitehaven. It does have some redeeming qualities apart from the delightful Moresby Hall.
The Beacon, down on the harbour, is a fun interactive museum and gallery showcasing the history of the area. It’s especially good during the many rainy days in this slice of England (West Strand; 01946 592302; www.thebeacon-whitehaven.co.uk; adults £5).
From the harbour, take a walk south along the coast, past the tributes to the mining past, until you find a derelict building at the bottom of a fairly steep path to the shore. It’s Saltom Pit – a rare example of an 18th century colliery. Haig Colliery Mining Museum is back up the hill and a little further inland, and educates about the area’s past (Solway Road; 01946 599949; www.haigpit.com; free). Have some fun on the shore before you head up the path though, there are plenty of creatures to see if rock-pooling is your thing.
Where to eat
If you’re staying at Morseby Hall, make sure you dine in one evening and enjoy Jane’s traditional dishes like rack of lamb and fig roly poly (after a glass of something in the lounge). Residents pay £29.50 for three courses.
If you fancy a change, there’s only one other restaurant I’d recommend: Zest (Low Road; 01946 692848; www.zestwhitehaven.com). It’s only open Wednesday to Saturday, but the slick restaurant serves up modern food with an emphasis on local produce; check out the specials board for some of the best options. I’m a sucker for a crème brulee – and I still salivate at the memory of Zest’s effort, served with lemon shortcake biscuits (£5.50). Main courses are around £13.
How to get there
The Western Lake District isn’t easy to reach, but if you make the time, your patience will be rewarded with a lack of crowds. The quickest route on the roads – from north or south, is the A66, off junction 40 of the M6. Take the A595 down to Whitehaven. Whitehaven is served by a coastal railway line, but you’ll want four wheels when you get to town anyway, so I’d recommend arriving by road.