Last Updated on May 25, 2020
Sparkling lakes glistened in the warm evening light as my train sped through England to the far northwest corner, where Lake District National Park sits like a jewel. I had just come from London and the chance to immerse in nature called to me. I admired spectacular rolling hills in rich green hues and the dots of white speckling the creek as sheep wandered their pastures, oblivious to the glorious sunset unfolding over the English countryside.
The charm of the Lake District instantly captivated me. It was like entering a Jane Austen novel. After London’s bustle, I welcomed the chance to walk and boat around the Lake District with no set plans, just a series of days ahead that could progress at a pace of my choosing. The country is lush and green and filled with fresh air. With 16 lakes and a number of mountains and hills bubbling over the earth, the Lake District is exactly how I’ve always pictured England from reading books like Pride and Prejudice (an obsessive favorite) and Jane Eyre. If you’ve also read your fair share of books set in Victorian England, then plan ample time here, where you can take long walks from Lake Windermere, cruise to nearby towns like Ambleside, and putter around admiring English gardens just like a page out of Beatrix Potter’s books.
Cruising Lake Windermere from Bowness Bay
I stayed at a cozy hostel in Windermere that was well connected to town and offered me a heap of advice. Since I wasn’t booking much of my trip ahead of time, my hostel was essentially the only one left with just a week’s notice—the area books up quickly! Since my priority was clearing my lungs and getting to know the Lake Windermere area, I bought a boat ticket from the red cruise on Windermere Lake Cruises, and then walked the 20 minutes downhill from Windermere town center to the lakeside town of Bowness. Budget accommodation is all in the town, while pricier places are right on the lake. Although I could have stayed in Ambleside, I liked having a lot of food options, as well as ample places to seek advice on tours and walks.
Lake Windermere heaves with tourists during the summer season, and although the town had a fair number, it’s a crush of people by the waterside. A bit overwhelmed, I bought myself an ice cream cone from the homemade ice cream shops liberally dotting the shoreline, which gave me a focus besides the elbowing crowds as I headed to the docks for the 30 minute boat ride to Ambleside, a smaller and more consumable little town further up Lake Windermere.
The boat ride is stunning.
As the end of my round the world trip nears, I am splurging more on the activities that make a trip memorable. Although the GBP was really strong against the USD, the Lake District is not the place to pinch pennies—small splurges like taking a boat to Ambleside rather than driving are worth the price. Sitting on the water, I was a pinprick of life amidst vast green surrounding mountains.
The scale is incredible and best viewed from the water, where you can see everything rise up around you. The open-top boats allow for fantastic views, and I cruised across the waters with the cold wind pinking my cheeks and the crew sharing a small history lesson about the region.
The boats are also great for people watching. On the way back from Ambleside, I caught sight of a train of children in small individual boats. They were all strung together in a line of four small boats with two eight-year-old-sized children in each boat. An adult headed this parade of children as he motored toward shore. As I watched these small boats glide past me, life-jacketed and enthusiastic kids waved, nearly tipping themselves in the process. But the kids in the last boat weren’t waving. Both little kids were using small buckets to empty water from their sinking boat. Unsure of what to do, a group from our boat hailed the captain to let him know what was happening! Thankfully, the parade of children was close to shore and all made it out. The kids in the last boat were dripping wet and yet, in the careless fashion of children, seemingly unfazed by the fact that they nearly had to swim 200 meters to shore!
Enjoying the Ambleside Waterfall
The Lake District in England is the perfect place for “just a bit of a wander,” as guesthouse owners and locals say. This quaint phrase is just lovely. Framing a walk with the idea of “having a bit of a wander” sets a different mood than, say, “going for a walk”—even going “out for a stroll” just doesn’t have quite the same charming ring to it.
With a wandering mentality front and center after disembarking from my cruise to Ambleside, I hit the ground wandering. Ambleside, like Windermere, is not actually at the water’s edge. Instead the town is a mile inland and a solid 25 minute walk. A small trolley-like car loaded up the families and elderly for a few pounds each, but I chose to hoof it up to the town so that I could explore the local parks along the way, as well as Roman ruins. It’s a perfectly lovely walk for a bit, then it’s rather fenced and decidedly not lovely for about 10 minutes, until you reach the town center. For others, likely just take the trolley.
And since getting lost seems to be the theme of my travels, as readers well know, let’s just say that I have really, really explored Ambleside. The tourist lady in Windermere hooked me up with a map of Ambleside before I arrived and she marked a rough route through town that would take in the best parks, and then cap off my time with a 45 minute walking loop to the scenic Stock Ghyll Force Waterfall near Ambleside.
The path out of town and to the waterfall is not well marked! But asking the locals for directions, backtracking, walking down the wrong small and tiny winding lanes, and then finally locating the right street was half of the fun. :)
Ambleside is a touristy town. All of the Lake District is touristy in August, as I mentioned, so it’s important to take walks out of town to truly experience the best of the nearby nature. Sidewalks in these small towns overflow with sticky children paying more attention to their ice cream cones than the sidewalk, frazzled moms pushing strollers, and families chasing after the above mentioned sticky toddlers! It’s a fun vibe, but not the immersive nature most people hope for when planning a trip to the Lake District.
Considering the number of people in Ambleside, surprisingly few walked to the waterfall route. Which is a shame! It’s a simple trail and you can pack snacks and eat lunch near the river, which was what I did.
Besides the waterfall, huge parks on the outskirts of the town offer tons of green space for kicking a ball or setting up a picnic, too. After resting in the grass—my “rest” turned into an accidental and impromptu nap—I wandered back through town, past the many boutiques and souvenir shops, and to the docks, which would take me back to Windermere for the night.
Being on a backpacker budget in the United Kingdom, and without a car, I wasn’t fortunate enough to visit many of the small Lake District towns dotting the region, but a couple staying at the hostel came from the northern Lake District and were quick to share that every town they visited oozed charm and offered its own scenic walks. Additionally, I was staying in Windermere both because I liked being in the city, but also because the region was fully booked. On a future trip, I would love the chance to move around some, staying in different towns and exploring Hadrian’s Wall, too, which is close to the Lake District and well worth the visit according to other backpackers.
Best Walks & Sights from Windermere Town
The green sheep pastures of the Lake District were so stunning that I erupted into spontaneous dances of joy. I mean, if you know that you’re completely and truly alone—with only sheep as witness—how could you not revel in the nature, the clean air, and the solitude?
I made a pact with myself at the beginning of my yearlong trip that I would learn how to cartwheel by the end of the year. It didn’t happen. While I still can’t cartwheel (drats!), I spent a good while frolicking in the pastures practicing, and it was lovely to simply be in this gorgeous area.
Visiting the Home of Beatrix Potter
England’s Lake District inspired poets the likes of William Wordsworth. It inspired fits of fancy from Beatrix Potter, creator of the Peter Rabbit stories. Potter so loved the region that she donated all of her land in the Lake District to the National Trust. Today, thanks to her generosity, the National Trust owns huge swaths of land that welcome tourists like me to wander the lightly marked paths, to zigzag the English countryside, and to witness the unparalleled beauty of the lakes. Her home is now a museum, Hill Top Farm, and it’s pristinely preserved. Even if you don’t have kids, you can still imagine Peter Rabbit might emerge the beautiful gardens!
Taking the Orrest Head Walk
The Orrest Head Walk offers some of the most stunning views in the Windermere region, and the start of the walk is just a short distance from the Windermere town center. Even though the formal route is short, it’s a nice and moderate hike up to a viewpoint, I packed a lunch and decided to make more of a day out of it. I wasn’t game for a strenuous hike, so I took the recommendation of the helpful woman at the information center, who recommended a lightly signposted path that leaves the peak and heads back to town on a large lazy loop through the surrounding farms.
She issued the six words I love to hate: “Don’t worry, you can’t get lost.”
Well, I assured her that I could and would and that it doesn’t bother me in the least. With an apple, water, and boiled egg and cheese sandwich packed into my daypack, I set off to explore the rolling green hills and gently sloping mountains around Windermere.
The view is all they say it will be. Stunning. Seriously stunning.
I was content to eat my lunch from a small stone bench at the top, and then I had a grand time winding my way back through the green fields while baa-ing at the sheep in their pastures the whole way back to town. Although the Lake District area is crawling with tourists I didn’t see another soul once I hit the pastures.
Word of caution: Although the walk to Orrest Head Walk is short and close to town, carry directions from the your guesthouse or the information center because it the trail is not well marked! Even with directions, I backtracked several times before I found the route. And on the other side of the walk, I now think there’s a chance that I wasn’t even on the right path for most of the time!
Backpacking the Lake District is perfect for solo travelers like me, who can enjoy a good party, but are more content to explore the nature, culture, and history of a place. Being an active area of the country, the other backpackers were similarly minded—everyone was visiting for the walking, hiking, and boating. I loved that each night in the common room we all gathered and ended a hard day of walking with hot cups of tea and a fierce games of Cluedo.
Hikers are, by and large, a friendly group. The physical nature of the activity creates a selection process of others keen to take in fresh air and exercise. Everyone on the trails were friendly—they said “hi,” stopped for a chat when I was at a lookout, and generally made me feel less alone even though I walked and hiked solo each day. Hiking is one of the ways that I survived living in Los Angeles LA for two years—it got me out of the city and showed me that there were actually others who needed a break from the sheer LA-ness of the big city.
The Lake District, despite being insanely touristy, is fantastic because you can escape from the bustle of day-trippers and sink into nature. You can explore the bigger towns, and the tiny ones, too. Also, I cannot stress enough the helpfulness of the tourist information offices. Because of the huge volume of tourists coming through every summer, they can sort you on most anything you want to do in the region, from biking to walking, hiking, and even some more daring adventure activities. I used the Rough Guide at the hostel for an outline of what I might most like to see, and after a short visit to the tourist information office, I had guidelines for a handful of classic walks ranging from easy-peasy to walks that really got my blood pumping.
Quick Tips: Plan Your Time in Lake District National Park
You’ll be enjoying a national park and as such a delicate habitat. England, in general, has amazing public transportation, and the Lake District specifically has extensive options of buses, explorer buses, trains, ferries, and boats that make it very easy to explore without a rental car (and they deeply encourage travelers to opt for this route). The National Park’s website has links to timetables for public transport in every city and region and is a great starting point.
When to Go
Summer is the best time as you have a chance at sunshine, a bit less rain (lowest rainfalls occur between April and August), and the countryside is stunningly green. It can be blustery cold on the walks in winter, and some passes and roads close during heavy rains.
Where to Stay
It’s a big area, so depending on your budget and your goals, you may choose to stay in Keswick, Windermere, or the smaller towns. In Keswick, which is the most highly-rated town for tourist-to-nature ratio, the YHA Keswick is both budget and in a beautiful location, while Howe Keld is just an exceptional B&B ideal for mid-range travelers. The YHAs in Windermere and Ambleside are both great budget options, or for midrange opt for Puddle Duck Lodge in Bowness-on-Windermere or The Fisherbeck in Ambleside. (Bonus: If you’re new to Booking.com, ALA readers receive a discount on your first booking.) You could also find a great Airbnb if you’re traveling in a group—this is a fantastic way to have access to a kitchen, and also accommodate a lot of people on a budget.
Festivals of Note:
In late summer, most towns in the Lake District have a bevy of festivals. Look out for the Keswick Beer Festival, Lake District Summer Music Festival, Borrowdale Fell Race, and others. The National Parks site keeps a full event calendar.
Things to Do
There’s a lot to see depending on where you stay. A road trip might allow you to see more, and there are some gorgeous drives, but you can also see a lot using public transport options.
- Windermere: Windermere Lake Cruises has a range of options for Lake Windermere. Two great walks from Windermere Town include: Post Knott and Brantfell and Orrest Head Walk. Discover all things Beatrix Potter at her Hill Top Farm and the Beatrix Potter Gallery.
- Keswick: If you’re staying in Keswick, opt for an evening cruise around Derwentwater. If you have a car or time for a day trip, the Castlerigg Stone Circle outside Keswick is pretty iconic ring of Neolithic stones that you won’t want to miss. Two great walks near Keswick include: Catbells High Ridge Hike and Buttermere Walk. For a moderately more challenging hike and a chance to see a different area, the Lanty’s Tarn and Keldas Hill hike takes in Ullswater.
What to Read
The Rough Guide to the Lake District is the best guidebook if you want the nitty-gritty details and a good bit of history, too. If you’re looking for a more mid-range overview of what to see and do, you the Top 10 Eyewitness Guide for the era is just great. And if you are a true Potter fan, then Walking with Beatrix Potter is fabulous—great walks and details you’ll love, too. For fiction, freshen up on I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, a famous poem by William Wordsworth that was inspired by the region. There are all sorts of modern mysteries and thrillers set in the region if you prefer the light and fanciful reads. The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape—is hands-down the best non-fiction book and it’s a beautiful, highly rated must-read.