The Lake District makes me feel happy purely by its very existence. Knowing that its always there, ready to transport me to its carefree alternate reality when the real world gets too much.
The story starts at the sturdy market town of Penrith, the perfect place to equip yourself for whatever stay you have planned. Be it a picnic by the lake, self catering at a cottage, or maybe camping? Everything you'll need is here. It's a real pleasure to have a wander around the old cobbled streets with the charming shops and delicatessens. Why not have a lazy cappuccino in one of the unexpectedly modern cafes?
Whilst you're here, I'd recommend checking out the ruined Castle, or St Andrews church in the town centre where, legend has it, the true king of all Cumbria rests in the churchyard, his grave marked by two stone pillars which are the weathered remnants of 10th century Norse crosses.
Try to catch some of the locals conversation if you can. The Cumbrian tongue is quite unique - their highly specific slang the linguistic legacy of dark age Viking settlers. Starting your Cumbrian odyssey here is like stepping through a mystical gateway, as you invariably start to notice a certain otherworldly atmosphere that captures the imagination and whisks you away into the almost magical ambiance of these ancient and romantic surroundings.
For me, that's the reason for coming here; to get away from it all. To lose yourself for a while in whatever it is you want to do. Be it lie on the grass and space out, chase adrenaline rock climbing and wind surfing, or absolutely anything in between.
When you're done with Penrith, head southwest towards the shimmering perfection that is lake Ullswater. En route you weave along the country lanes, passing the improperly picturesque Dalemain stately home on your right before rolling up at the lake.
Time to choose at the T junction where you meet the lake road. Left takes you to the stone hamlet of Pooley bridge with its tiny shops and pubs with stunning beer gardens that back right out onto the river Eamont as it gently drifts its way out of the lake. Right takes you on a pleasantly lengthy jaunt along the lake road. At first the road hugs the lake's shoreline, showing off its sweeping waters with the towering fells beyond before then heading uphill through green fields, past farmhouses, inns and multi-million pound homes. The journey finishes with a snug winding pass along rugged cliff tops overlooking the lake before finally descending into the tiny village of Glenridding.
It is in this picture perfect village that it'll hit you, as it always hits me. The Lake District is not just another national park, it is visually and emotionally spectacular. Viscously, wickedly and overwhelmingly so. The kind of spectacular that makes you want to stand and stare open mouthed, unable to comprehend that such a place exists in the country you actually live in. There are tiny local convenience shops here, old pubs full of character (and characters), walking tracks leading to ascents of Lake District favorites like Helvellyn, and (being a lakeside village) a sailing centre.
The sailing centre lies on a curved shale beach reached down a narrow track beside an intensely inviting stream that babbles its way through the village into the lake. Residents keep their own boats here, and you can hire one of your own for the day. Be it the humble canoe, full on sail boat, or even the paddle steamer ferry, there's nothing like taking in those peerless views of the lake from within it. I like to head for silver bay on the far shore – a secluded shale bay unreachable by road. You'll be sharing the beach only with fellow sailors and occasionally a few weary hikers on their way around the lake.
The ferry (the lady of the lake) runs between Glenridding and Pooley bridge, calling at the isolated lakeside hamlet of Howtown on the far shore - great if you don't fancy sailing under your own steam. Lunch at the Howtown hotel, with the fells rising behind you and the flat sheet of the lake out in front, is about as idyllic as it gets.
Once you're done with your boat, and if there's still a bit of daylight left, head back towards Pooley bridge and pull into the signposted car park for the Aira Force waterfall. Or better yet, if you can handle the walk, take the left turning just before the car park (the A5091 signposted Dockray) to the national trust car park found on the right past a small wooded area a few hundred yards up the hill.
From here, hop over the fence and take the path downhill. You'll meet Aira Beck as it cascades over massive rocks in a wide-open setting of such improbable beauty you half expect distant Celtic pipes to start playing 'for the love of a princess' from Braveheart to accompany the scene. Or maybe that's just me... Err, anyway, from here follow the flow of the beck downstream to the Aira Force waterfall. Peer over at the falling froth from the arched stone bridge that spans the beck as it plunges 70ft down a cleave in the rock before spurting out into a contradictorily calm pool at the base.
From the top, make your way down the steps to admire the falls again from the pool whilst enclosed by the treetops in warm windless bliss. The place is surreal, and dreamy, as though the journey up the M6 has transported you into a Garden of Eden like parallel universe.
The weather in Cumbria is an unpredictable thing. Summer days range from hazy perfection to dreary and damp. Winter days are anything from crisp blue skies and snow capped peaks to windswept lead coloured skies and rain. Winters here will frequently remind you that this part of the country hasn't really been domesticated fully, and despite polite attempts to tame it, life here is very much at the mercy of the elements. Glenridding for example, is often cut off from the outside world by snowbound mountain passes or floods. Whatever the weather, the place never loses its amazing beauty and atmosphere, but the precarious conditions need to be born in mind, especially during mountain walks or when boating.
Where to eat
The Bewick Coffee House, 1 Princes Court, Penrith 01768 864764
Modern and stylish with a country town twist. Drop in for a walnut and date scone with your latte or hot chocolate. The menu is restaurant standard, and the eggs benedict breakfast sublime.
The Ramblers Bar, Inn on the Lake, Glenridding 017684 82444
Part of the spectacular and sprawling Inn on the Lake grounds, this cosy pub serves up good food and drink to backpackers, sightseers and other passers by throughout the day.
The Howtown Hotel, Howtown, Ullswater 017684 86514 (www.howtown-hotel.com)
Secluded and sensational. The location and food is unbeatable and a genuine gong calls you to dinner. It is open from Easter to November. Oh, and at the last count, they didn't take credit cards!
Paddle steamer (www.ullswater-steamers.co.uk)
Glenridding Sailing Centre, The Spit, Glenridding, CA11 0PE 01768 482541
Kayak hire: £9 for 1 hour
Canoe hire: £15 for 1 hour
Traditional sail boat hire: £35 for 1 hour (sailing tuition available)
Where to stay
Patterdale YHA, Patterdale, CA11 0NW: £12 per person per night
Short walk to Glenridding, great base for mountain hikes or lake activities, sports massage clinic, party atmosphere, great pubs nearby.
The Royal Hotel, Dockray, CA11 0JY: £42.50 per person per night
A stone's throw from the lake, great food, a warm atmosphere, charming cottage style en-suite rooms, friendly colourful locals, plenty of parking, gorgeous surroundings, short walk to Aira Force.
Ullswater Caravan Park, Watermillock, CA11 0LR: Prices vary by plot size and by season - see website.
A large caravan and camping site, cottages to rent, very close to the lake, on site shop, bar, laundry and playground.
North Lakes Hotel and Spa, Ullswater Road, Penrith, CA11 8QT: From £165 per room per night (two adults)
4 star hotel within the town of Penrith, 15 minute drive to the lake, short walk to the town centre, lovely gym and spa area, plenty of parking.