Hiking the English Lake District: July 4 – July 12

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Hiking may not be my favorite pastime but for some reason I am continually drawn to the English countryside. It seems that hiking is one of the best ways to see all the small hamlets, large lakes, and magnificent mountains that dot the British Isles. That’s why I signed my husband and myself up for a weeklong hiking trip to the Lake District of Cumbria, home to literary greats William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, John Ruskin, and Beatrix Potter. Last June we both explored hiking along the Thames from Oxford to the London with Road Scholar and then in September I went on an inn-to-inn hike in Cornwall with a group from Timberline Adventures. This year we decided to join the Virginia-based English Lakeland Ramblers tour company for our excursion to the Lake District.

We left on Friday, the 4th of July, but because our flight to Atlanta didn’t leave until early afternoon, I had time to volunteer at the 3 mile Melon Run sponsored by the Florida Track Club. I worked the registration table, helping to hand out bibs to the almost 500 runners and walkers. If I’m in town I always try to do the race, but this year I decided to volunteer instead. Once the race began, I positioned myself at the last ‘hill’ just before the finish line to cheer everyone on. Then I walked back home, changed into my traveling clothes, and finished packing. We flew to a relatively quiet Atlanta; usually Hartsfield-Jackson is bustling and bursting at the seams with passengers but apparently the holiday is a light air travel day, and waited for our evening flight to Manchester, UK.

Just because I travel so much, it may seem like I enjoy flying, but I really dislike sitting for long periods of time in a small cramped space so flying cross-country or internationally really tests my patience and my muscles, especially my hamstrings and glutes. I cannot sleep on planes, either, so I was glad when the 7 ½ hour trip was over. We arrived in Manchester around 8 am Saturday morning (3 am Eastern time), picked up our luggage, and then walked to the Radisson Blu Hotel through a skywalk connected to terminal 2. How convenient was that! It reminded me of the Hilton Hotel at Heathrow, very convenient to the Delta terminal. Our room was not quite ready for us yet so we stored our bags with the concierge and had a full English breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Afterwards we took a walk around the hotel grounds to stretch our legs but the downside of staying in an airport hotel is the lack of anyplace to really go. Still, it felt good to stretch our legs and have a breath of fresh air. Around dinnertime, we walked back to the airport shops to buy some snacks and drinks; we weren’t really hungry but needed something to tide us over until morning. We managed to stay awake until 8 pm and then gratefully headed to bed for a good night’s sleep. I had learned that one way to deal with jet lag and red eye flights is to build in an extra day before our actual vacation begins. That way we are rested and ready to forge on ahead with our plans.

On Saturday our driver, Greg Bateson, met us at our hotel at 8 and drove us, along with another couple in our group, to the first of our two hotels, the Gold Rill Hotel in Grasmere in the southern part of the Lake District. Rich and Denise were from Austin, Texas, and were young, active, and in very good shape for the strenuous hiking ahead of us. The other couple in our group were from upstate New York and had arrived a day ahead of us so they were already settled into their room. Hazel and Christopher were in their late 60’s and early 70’s respectively but were also in excellent condition. They had done lots of hiking over the last 40 years and had just completed a weeklong expedition in Scotland. Darcy and I were the novices in the group and the weakest links in the hiking chain. But that did not bother us. We just wanted to have fun and enjoy the week; as long as I remained upright with no broken bones, I would be content.

From Sunday through Wednesday morning, we were settled in Wordsworth country. We were surrounded by sheep, cows, rabbits, and birds, slate stone houses and fences, farmland, lakes, and mountains (called ‘fells’ – fell running is a popular sport here). Every morning we had a cooked-to-order breakfast and every evening a delicious dinner. On Sunday afternoon, our first walk was to St. Oswald’s Church; William Wordsworth and his family members are buried in the churchyard. Just around the corner from the church is Sarah Nelson’s Gingerbread Shop. I have to admit that this was a highlight of the trip for me. The gingerbread is made from a carefully guarded family recipe and is astoundingly tasty. It is not like the cakey gingerbread so familiar to Americans but is more like a crisp yet chewy cookie (or ‘biscuit’ in British parlance) with a pleasantly strong ginger flavor. I am not a fan of ginger but these cookies changed my mind.
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The Gold Rill Hotel was spacious and clean, in a lovely setting with beautiful grounds and an outdoor pool. Darcy and I were up in the garret, in a large well-appointed room with lots of steep gables. We had to be very careful where we walked, especially at night, because we could easily bump our heads on the slanted gables. Somehow we managed to avoid any major lumps, bumps, and bruises.
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After our afternoon foray, we returned to the hotel for an orientation meeting and an informative talk about the Lake District poets and conservationists. Our principal guide was Janet, who was both knowledgeable and outgoing as well as an excellent driver (she managed our mini-bus on winding narrow roads and through mind-numbing passes with ease). Her talk on Monday evening was full of interesting tidbits and lore.
Monday was our first full day and one filled with several long hikes. We walked to the neighboring town of Ambleside, did a little shopping (and I visited a small bookstore where I found Darksider Scott Ludwig’s book about Badwater on the shelf – what a small world!), ate a hearty lunch of broccoli, mushroom, and Stilton cheese with apple pie for dessert at the Apple Pie Café, and then visited Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home for nine years. Back at the hotel we listened to Alan, the UK director of Ramblers, talk about the varied landscapes and industry of the Lake District.

On Tuesday, we took the mini-bus to Bowness-on-Windermere, then a ferry, followed by a short hike. We visited Hilltop Farm, one of Beatrix Potter’s homes, and then John Ruskin’s Brantwood. After lunch at the Jumping Jenny Restaurant (named after Ruskin’s boat), and splurging on what is reputed to be the best sticky toffee pudding in the country, we hiked up a zig-zag path near Brantwood. In the evening after dinner, we had to pack up our things so they could be transferred to our next hotel on Wednesday.

About the hikes in general: we were given the choice each day of taking a moderate or strenuous route. Anne, our other guide, led the more adventurous members of our group on the difficult hikes. Janet stayed with those of us who preferred the less strenuous walks. Guess which group I opted for? Even the easier hikes were difficult for me – the trails were mostly rocky and had large roots that were major tripping hazards for me. The mountains were steep and getting up and down (especially down) the rocky hillsides were a major challenge for me – definitely not as difficult as Cornwall but still harrowing. It definitely took me far outside my comfort zone. I used my trekking poles on each and every hike and was very grateful for them.

On Wednesday we brought our luggage downstairs (no elevator and we were on the third flood) for transfer to our new hotel, the Borrowdale Gates Hotel set in a more northerly section of the Lake District. Most of this day was spent on a thrilling drive through a number of steep mountain passes. Thank goodness for Janet’s skillful driving ability! Our only walk today was fairly brief and not very difficult. We walked to the Hard Knott Roman fort, the small hamlet of Boot for lunch, and the Eskdale corn (what Americans call flour) mill.

It turns out that Thursday was the most challenging day for me. After a drive to Castlerigg Stone Circle (a Neolithic site similar to Stonehenge), we hiked up a steep rocky mountside by Walla Crag and Ashness Bridge to the village of Lodore. After eating a packed lunch, we took the ferry across the lake to Keswick, a small market town about 4 miles from Borrowdale. It was market day in Keswick so I purchased some beautiful wool yarn (all those sheep!) in some glorious colors.

By Friday, Darcy was nursing some inflamed toes and sore muscles. Since even the easier hike on this day was supposed to be very rocky, we both decided to sit this one out. We had a pleasant walk along the footpath by the lake, managing to do around 4 miles on fairly level ground. We returned to the hotel and ate our packed lunch in the sitting area facing the garden and the mountains. It was a leisurely afternoon and a wonderful way to end the week.

Although the hikes themselves were challenging for me because of their rocky and rooty nature, I never really got much of a workout during the week. In order to maintain some level of fitness, I had to go out early each morning to walk along the paved country roads. Although I had to watch for cars because of the narrow roads, there was not much traffic at 6 am so I felt fairly safe. In fact, on Friday morning, my only real surprise was finding myself face-to-face with about a dozen cattle and a bull that were moving along the road – heading right towards me! That gave me quite a jolt until a woman appeared with a long pole and directed the cattle into the field on the opposite side of the road.

We had to get up early on Saturday so we could meet Greg, our driver, at 5:30 am for the drive back to Manchester airport. Our flights home were long and tiring but happily uneventful. I think I may have finally satisfied my urge to walk in the UK. Unless, of course, I decide to try the Cotswalds – maybe!

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