08 FEB 2019: England’s Lake District is one of the prettiest places I’ve been. It is a place of dreams. Whether we had Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other books read to us as children or our adult reading of period novels, many of us have created a mental image of rural England. The Lake District is that rural, romantic place of literature, movies and imagination.

It proves its bona fides by being the place many Brits holiday.

It is thanks to the royalties earned by Potter’s books that Potter could afford to buy 14 farms, covering 4,000 acres which she turned over to The National Trust. The Trust preserved the farms and the way of life that Potter knew and loved. The Trust land ownership also spared this part of Britain from over-development. This is not a place where you find big box stores or high-rises. Everything here is Edwardian in scale, bespoke and local. The bulk of businesses are locally owned. Many items for sale are locally made. The food on your plate is from local farms, gardens and fishermen. It is pretty close to how Potter left it when she died in 1943.

I first came to the Lake District on a fall coach tour billed as the Best of Britain. We pulled in for a half-day of puttering about: quick pint in a pub, a boat ride on Lake Windermere and a wander around Grasmere. It was so visually perfect, so deliciously like the rural England I craved I vowed to return. And I did.

When the opportunity presented itself to revisit the Lake District, I asked a Brit friend, Andrew, if he would like to join me. Though he has been many times, it was a very fast “Yes!”

We took the train from Euston Station north to Lancaster, where we picked up a rental car. Andrew saw the car asked for something smaller. As often happens to North Americans hiring a car in the UK, Ireland and Europe, rental companies assume our preference is for a large vehicle.

Andrew’s reasoning was, “The Lakes get so many visitors in such a tiny area that there’s no space to park something like this.” So we downsized.

The first hour on a major, divided highway was sort of the throw-away part of the trip. But as soon as we slipped off it we were embraced by a countryside of sheep-dotted fields divided by rambling stone walls, tree-shaded roads, hedgerows and clusters of communities - Keswick, Grasmere, Ambleside, Windermere and Browness-on-Windermere - build from dark slate.

There are more communities in the Lake District, but we were fixated on a strict Beatrix Potter theme.

Potter came to the Lakes as a child on holidays with her family. At the age of 30, still on holiday with her parents, she discovered Near Sawrey, which she wrote in her diary “was as nearly perfect a little place as I have ever lived in.”

Were Potter and her literary neighbour, William Wordsworth, to return today, it would not be an alien place, which makes it so attractive today that 16 million people visit the Lakes. Don’t be put off by that number. It means the place is capable of handling crowds.

While my two visits bookended summer, there were people about, but not in overwhelming numbers. There were just enough to add interest and keep shops, pubs, cafes, restaurants and attractions open.

I know others who regularly do walking and hiking holidays in the Lakes. They will come for a week or a month and spend their days roaming the fells, fields and forests on well-marked paths. It seems a gentle way to engage in an active holiday.

To keep with our Beatrix Potter theme we stayed at Lindeth House Country House Hotel in Browness-on-Windermere. Lindeth House was chosen because Beatrix Potter summered here from 1902 and 1913. It is where she wrote and illustrated some of her books. Then in 1915, on the death of her father, she bought the house for her mother. By this time Beatrix already owned Hill Top Farm.

Down in Browness itself is a large slate building housing The World of Beatrix Potter. With purity of mission, we set aside any embarrassment at not having a child as an excuse to enter, and toured BP World.

From Beatrix Potter World we strolled a few hundred yards to the Lake Windermere wharf, where we boarded the steamer MV Teal for an hour and a half round trip to Ambleside and back, basking in the sunshine on a calm lake and watching schools of kayakers overcoming their wobbliness. Our other views were the green landscape which gently swept up from the shore to long, low hills all around us. Clutching the shore were clusters of eccentric, gingerbread trimmed Victorian buildings now mostly converted to small inns and B&Bs.

Another part of our Potter experience was a visit to Hill Top Farm. To reach Hill Top we drove our mercifully tiny car on to an equally tiny car ferry for a 10-minute lake crossing from Browness-on-Windermere to Sawrey and up to Hill Top. It’s a very narrow drive. In one place a house was so close to the road I could have rolled my window down and rung the doorbell.

Hill Top to Lindeht are much different places. Hill Top is darker and more sensible, as you’d expect from a farm house. Think of it as tweedy. You pass a higgly-piggly kitchen garden to enter a large kitchen with massive hearth and low-beamed ceiling. Up a short flight of steps is a formal living room with built-in bookcases lined with leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens and other literary giants flanking the fireplace. Just as Hill Top was and remains a working farm, it was here that Potter wrote 13 of her 23 books. It’s often described as her spiritual refuge. She didn’t live here, she escaped here. After her marriage to William Heelis they lived in nearby Castle Cottage leaving Hill Top as a type of large studio. In today’s parlance, instead of a man cave, it was a she cave.

From Hill Top we went to Hawkshead, the little community where Potter’s husband had his law practice. His offices are now part of the complex of buildings used as a gallery for Potter’s work. Fortunately, there are as many pubs as shops in Hawkshead.

For those who shop, Ambleside felt like Whistler in that it caters to outdoor enthusiasts who come to the Lakes to cycle, hike and kayak. In contrast, Windermere and Browness shops focus more on Peter Rabbit-inspired items as well as local arts and crafts.

Another famous Lake resident was William Wordsworth. He lived in Grasmere, which is a micro-village consisting of a small grocer, gift shop, hairdresser and a charming pub with patio in the crook of a brook across from St. Oswald’s churchyard where Wordsworth is buried. St. Oswald made us chuckle. As we strolled towards it the bells played Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken. I wondered if they took musical requests.

Our time in The Lakes was like a spa visit. The air was crisp and clean. Aside from a few harrowing minutes when I was behind the wheel (Andrew isn’t the best passenger) it was calm and relaxed. We moved. And we ate well. There were so many places I wanted to try, but having six meals a day would border on gluttony. So for research purposes three meals stood out: Lindeth House, the Wild Boar Inn, Grill & Smokehouse in the hills behind Lindeth House and the Lake Road Kitchen in Ambleside.

Lindeth House I would say was affordable luxury. The Wild Boar was deliciously traditional (with head-bangingly-low beamed ceilings) and at the Lake Road Kitchen, which was named the best new restaurant in Britain when it opened, it was a struggle not to lick the plate.

Having twice been to The Lakes I can understand the desire to return and return and return.

Information on The Lake District

Things to do 

Visit Cumbria

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