Indulge yourself in the Lake District

by Paddy_Briggs

The area round Keswick and Derwent Water, one of the loveliest parts of the Lake District, is just as good for lovers of good food and comfortable hotels as it is for walkers and climbers

The Lake District is not a huge geographic area, and it is perfectly possible to visit all parts of it no matter where you stay. However, there is so much to see – and so much of it pays you back if you don’t rush – that it is quite a good idea to plan a series of visits and see this beautiful part of England in stages. The area around Keswick and Derwent Water has much to recommend it and makes an excellent base for exploring what are known as the Northern Lakes. Here are some personal highlights.

Keswick itself is the main market town of the Northern Lakes and an important tourist centre. There is a wide range of accommodation available but for those seeking to treat themselves, Underscar Manor is a pleasant indulgence. Set on the lower slopes of Skiddaw (3,053 feet), the house was once a Victorian manor but has for some years been a top quality hotel and restaurant. The decor is superior English style in the bedrooms and public rooms, and it is all very comfortable. Even if your budget doesn’t quite run to a stay at Underscar, book dinner in the restaurant one night – you won’t be disappointed!

In the past, the Manor had a rather formal air about it, with jackets and ties being required and a need to follow quite strictly the rules of the house, which included drinks before dinner (and coffee afterwards) in the lounge rather than at the table. The dress code has been relaxed in recent times but there are still some formalities that need to be observed. It is a quirky and slightly eccentric experience – the piano is 'played' by two small teddy bears and there are more bears scattered around the lounge. If you find all this a bit twee and intimidating, then stay away – but if you don’t mind these quirks, you will be rewarded with an excellent menu and a quite outstanding wine list. This year we had the 'Menu Surprise', which is, as the name suggests, five courses chosen for you by the chef. It was first-rate, although we would have welcomed a fish course instead of two meat courses – but that is the way Chef does it! There is a conventional a la carte menu as well, and good choices of British fare at its best. Budget around £120 for dinner for two, including gratuities.

Derwent Water is, for many visitors, one of the most attractive of the lakes. You can board the Keswick Launch (017687 72263) in the town and either do a round trip of the lake (which takes an hour) or stop off at one of the six piers on the route. Overlooking the lake is the Swinside Lodge Hotel (017687 72948), which has very good accommodation and a top-class restaurant.

Three miles out of Keswick, the 17th-century Horse and Farrier Inn in Threlkeld (017687 79688) offers a great location, decent food and comfortable, good-value accommodation. It is a good base for walking in the fells, including Skiddaw. Curiously, there is another Horse and Farrier pub (017684 86541) not far away in Dacre, a small village on the way to Ullswater. This has superior pub grub and exceptionally friendly service – as well as well-kept beer.

Climbing and walking is one of the things for which the Lake District is renowned, and Keswick is a good centre for those with the energy to head for the hills. There are shops on every corner catering for the energetic holidaymaker’s needs. For those more indolent, there are also some pubs that offer good-value lunches and superb beer. Seek out one selling the Keswick Brewing Company’s locally brewed real ales – the Dog and Gun (017687 73463) at 2 Lake Road is the best bet, and the food is good there as well.

The Theatre by the Lake (017687 74411) is one of Britain’s best small professional theatres. In the summer they have three plays in repertory in the large theatre and a further three in the small studio. The standard is exceptional and many visitors go to two or three productions in the space of a week.

Market day in Keswick is Saturday, and there are some surprises on the stalls if you search around. If you like spicy pickles and chutneys, local man Mr Vikki’s stall is worth a visit – can you take his Hellishly Hot Habanero signature pickle? He will let you taste it to find out, and there's always a pint of Keswick Brewery’s Thirst Quencher nearby if you need it!

There are plenty of museums and galleries in Keswick for rainy days, but hopefully the weather will be kind, as the area is quintessentially an open-air holiday place. Worth a visit is the Castlerigg Stone Circle – it’s a sort of mini Stonehenge with similarly obscure and ancient origins.

A couple of miles or so out of town is Bassenthwaite Lake (the only 'Lake' in the Lake District) and close to the water here is another hotel to consider: The Pheasant (017687 76234), which combines a great location, fine accommodation and a very good restaurant. The bar snacks at lunchtime are classy and tasty. However, if you are keen to sample the chef’s cuisine at its very best, go to the dining room and have the table d’hôte lunch. The set lunch has limited choice but is exceptional value and of a very high standard. On my last visit I had the cod, which was served with a light wine sauce and tiny caviar - it tasted as good as it sounds! The desserts threaten the waistline but are not to be missed either. Budget around £95 for two for the set lunch, including wine - highly recommended. After lunch, why not go to Thornthwaite galleries nearby (017687 78248)? They have a wide selection of work by local artists at reasonable prices.

This review centres on comfort, gastronomy and the arts, and there will be lovers of Keswick and Derwent Water who look scornfully at it and point to the hill climbs, the five-hour walks and the occasional battling with the elements that are also on offer. I’ll let another reviewer cover these things!