I was a bit baffled at the reaction I got after announcing that we were going to camp in the Lake District this September.
“It’s a bit wet up there.” someone commented, without a trace of irony.
Of course it’s bloody wet, I thought. That’s why they call it the Lake District.
“Awful lot of rain.” they added, as if trying to put me off the idea.
Ignoring the naysayers, hydrophobes and dubious weather forecasts, we drove up to the scenic wilds of Cumbria with my parents, tents packed and boots strapped, ready for some serious hiking and campfires under the stars.
I was determined to see the Lakes while back in England. Aside from the fact that the landscape and natural beauty were my sort of destination, it was also a bit embarrassing admitting to people that you’d never actually set foot in a national park that’s only three hours from your parents’ house.
I’d been told the area was reminiscent of Milford Sound in New Zealand, without as many Chinese tour buses. Steep hills disappearing into all-enshrouding clouds, vast expanses of water and relentless rain.
In fact, so much rain falls in the Lake District that the village of Seathwaite near the centre of the region was once named as the wettest place in England.
Undeterred by this trivia, we decided to brave the elements and pitch up our tents for six days near Keswick in the north Lakes. Besides, Nate and I had once spent almost a month living in a tent on New Zealand’s west coast: “Even if it’s as wet as fiordland, we can handle it.” we said deludedly.
Our first trip out from the campsite was not into picturesque Keswick, a stone’s throw from the farm where we were staying, but to a town just outside the national park itself: Workington. I want to blame my dad for this bizarre trip (he has some strange ideas about what makes for an ideal tourist destination), as he’s the one who led us there, but it was more to do with a defective car battery and a catastrophic shortage of soya milk. My old man was simply taking us to one of the the biggest shopping centres in the region to help us out.
Aside from shopping, things to do in Workington are somewhat in short supply. Put politely, the town is a bit of a sh*thole.
It’s not the residents’ fault. In fact, almost every person we engaged with in this bleak, post-industrial town was salt-of-the-earth, genuinely pleasant and friendly. In many ways, they reminded me of folks in my own birthplace of Mansfield, another armpit of an ex-mining town in the Midlands, where the last thing left to be proud of is the local community’s ability to hang on in the face of economic adversity.
The reasons for deprived places like Mansfield and Workington stem from the decline of industry and the rise of globalisation. One by one, the northern steel-works and coal-mines closed. Communities dependent on industry as a source of pride and a defence against idleness swiftly fell into dysfunction and were blithely ignored by fat cats in the ivory towers of London, especially during the Thatcher-era.
But I digress.
Workington should still be proud for its connections to the steel-working industry. It was in this town that the Victorian inventor Sir Henry Bessemer applied innovative processes to steel-making that revolutionised the industry and remained mostly unchanged for almost a century afterwards. The resulting cheapness of steel manufacturing spurred on the development of railroad all over the world. Stands to reason the old genius Bessemer was knighted as a result.
Our trip into Workington was more a mad dash to repair our car, so the only photo I got from the town was of this rather striking and mysterious green building:
After convincing my dad that the prettier places were inside the Lake District (he’s always been utilitarian by nature), we drove back into the national park. Much to our relief, my parents seemed quite stirred by the postcard-landscape around us and were happy to continue hiking, rather than shopping in Wilko’s or drinking coffee in Workington’s Costa. We marched them through the dales and over streams and up to hilltop viewpoints to see the sheep and misty folds of Buttermere.
Our exploration of the Lake District had finally begun in earnest.
The next day, we pootled around Keswick next to Derwent Water. Predictably, it chucked it down again, so we sheltered from the wet weather in a couple of the town’s cafés.
We ate a very hearty breakfast in the Wild Strawberry café, and enjoyed lunch at the Little Chamonix. Keswick is also a walker’s paradise, where outdoors stores are as numerous as pound shops in Workington, so you don’t have to panic if you accidentally drop your boots in the Wastwater (incidentally the deepest lake in England); there are plenty of places to buy new ones here.
Frankly, the whole of the Lakes is perfect for hiking, especially if you want stunning views included. Deciding where to walk in the Lakes is the tricky part, as there are so many accessible trails around the district.
In the afternoon, we had my parents on a march again, this time towards the summit above Dodd Wood, on the slopes next to Bassenthwaite Lake (the Lake District’s only true lake; all the rest are classed as meres or tarns but I still have no clue what the difference is).
We spotted plenty of toadstools and fungus in the damp undergrowth beneath the pines in the forest. Sadly, no sign of any ospreys in the treetops though.
At the top of hill was Dodd Summit, where we had epic views of Bassenthwaite and Derwent Water, not to mention some of the 40 peaks visible from this point.
After our stroll back down the mountain, we had a relatively rainless evening by the campfire, playing a very profane game of Cards Against Humanity under the stars. Dad managed to fall through his camping chair before the end of the night.
In the morning, we awoke to find our camp had been invaded by a horde of hungry chickens.
They seemed undaunted even when Nate threatened to renounce his veganism and add them to our lunch.
An unexpected delight of the northern lakes was the Derwent Pencil Museum in Keswick. Titter ye not, but this little place was pretty exciting for two artists: The world’s first pencil; the world’s largest pencil; colouring books galore. Even if you don’t usually orgasm over pencils, there’s also the fascinating story of how the Pencil Factory was a secret workshop during WW2, turning out innovations to aid British spies. This place was a base for the original Q of James Bond fame!
Feeling artistic after the museum, Nate and I drove southwards on a drawing quest, through Ambleside and along the banks of Windermere, past Wordsworth’s walks and close to Beatrix Potter’s home.
We had decided to challenge ourselves by having a no-photography day. Nate was the instigator of this project, as I’m the sort of person who probably needs to have his camera surgically removed from his hand. With access to Instagram and Facebook, there’s the terrible habit of perpetually viewing the world through a lens and never truly paying attention to the places we see.
Try it out for yourself and see how feel when you can’t reach for your camera to preserve a moment in time. Maybe even do what we did and take a sketchbook. It’s an excellent way to train your eyes and mind to pay attention to things, and even if you can’t draw for sh*t, you’ll have been looking at something long enough to really see it, thus etching it into your memory far better than a digital camera ever will. Here are a selection of some of our sketches (bearing in mind they were done in less than 15 minutes, on the move, after a long break from drawing much at all, so please be kind with the comments…)
We drove southwards from Windermere, following the road as it curved west into the fells south of England’s highest mountain, Skafell Pike (we didn’t see it for rainclouds). Our struggling car Vincent spluttered up the steep roads over Corney Fell and down towards the coastline of Cumbria. As we came over the peaks we saw the sea glittering below in a swathe of purple and golden haze. Even if we had used our camera to snap that sight, the photograph couldn’t have done justice to what we saw that evening. It was like something from an Arthurian fairytale, although it may have just been the glow of the Irish Sea beyond Sellafield Nuclear Plant.
After dropping in on Nate’s old friend near Egremont (who told us the town was even more dismal by daylight), we looped back to Keswick and returned to camp.
Our last day in the Lakes was fairly sodden, it has to be said. After torrential rain all night, we emerged from our damp beds and decided to shelter from the incessant rain in the warm cafés of Ambleside.
We visited the curious dwelling of the Bridge House, a very photogenic structure possibly built by a time-travelling architect as a future tourist attraction for the town (we couldn't see any other practical reason for building such a tiny house over a river).
We paddled on, chancing upon the splendid old church of St Mary’s. We would have nipped inside to shelter from the ra-, (ahem) admire the Gothic Revivalist architecture, but someone had locked the doors against soggy tourists.
Ambleside has a very generous offering of tearooms and old pubs, which was a bloody good job as we were beyond waterlogged at this point. There was a likelihood of at least one of us developing gills and taking up residence in one of the lakes somewhere. After a tea and some lunch in Daisy's Café we trooped back to the car and aimed for Keswick once more.
On our way back to the campsite, we persuaded my parents to make a stop and hike with us despite the downpour. We suspect that they only agreed to it because their tent offered about as much dryness as an otter’s pocket.
Braving the deluge, we crossed a burgeoning river and splish-splashed up a puddled track, seeking the man-made Rydal Cave on the White Moss Walk. When we found it, we hopped across the stepping stones and inside to shelter from the rain… And found a party going on at the back.
I’m not sure if trestle tables and groups of people sipping champagne are a regular feature in Cumbrian slate mines, but it certainly seemed like the revellers were having fun.
Despite our high tolerance for damp camping, we were pushed to the limit by the weather in the Lakes that week.
Interminable drizzle on the first two days broke into a reasonably rainless Wednesday and (gasp) a view of blue skies. After teasing us with this dry spell, the weather then returned to true Cumbrian form and we were pissed on for 48-hours straight, watching from our ever-drenched two-man tent as the campsite gradually turned into a miniature replica of Glastonbury 2016 (minus the mud-encrusted porta-loos). A new stream had started to form behind our pitch, gradually getting wider by the hour.
When a sheep bobbed by wearing a snorkel, we decided enough was enough and swiftly packed up camp in the fading light, two days earlier than planned (it wasn’t hard convincing my parents to follow suit; after painting a rather enticing picture of a cosy dry bed waiting for us 140 miles away, my mum warmed to the idea quicker than a kettle in a volcano. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her spring into action out of a deckchair so fast).
We decamped and departed from the wet wilds of Cumbria, a bit soggy around the edges but happy that we’d finally explored a bit of this corner of the United Kingdom.
If you head that way too, just remember to take your waterproofs; whether it’s May or September, you’ll no doubt need them!
To read more of our adventures around the world, check out our latest book “How to Make Your Escape (and what to expect along the way)”, available as an eBook on Amazon and from our online store.
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