Thursday, March 27, 2008

Trip Report: The Lake District (Part 1)

Trip Dates: March 21-28, 2008. Big photo album here (captions to come later).

We meant to go to England's Lake District last year, but after a long, cold, rainy summer, decided to go to the south of Spain instead. Ah well. But now we have wheels, so it was off to The North (as the motorway signs say) for Easter week. Briefly, the Lake District is a hilly, some even say mountainous, region in the far northwest corner of England bordering Scotland. The area features, as you might imagine, several lakes, rivers, and forests. Contained within it is the Lake District National Park, which means a major chunk of the land is protected, right down to historic town preservation and what kind of windows you can have. So, in some ways, it is like stepping back in time.

When the English talk of going to the Lake District, it's often to do some walking. This is a sport here like bicycling or kayaking or hiking. And when they say walking, they don't mean pansy walking like we do around Cambridge in the flat Fens. There are hills is these here parts, and, lo, they are tall. We didn't really mean to "do some walking" the way the real walkers do, but we took some great walks nevertheless and have the aching legs to prove it.

Since we couldn't quite free ourselves of work for a full week, we ended up staying in one of the few places that had advertised wireless internet. It worked out great; our cottage was one of four in restored outbuildings of a manor house nestled in between the major towns of Kendal and Windermere. We had fantastic walks right out our door, and the larger towns were a short drive away.

I'll warn you now that this is one of those times where you, our faithful reader, are going to be subjected to the fact that this blog is also our personal record of our time in England, so this post is disasterously long. I'd really like to use a better trip report format than the day-by-day, but I'm going to stick with it for this one, if only to justify the number of pubs we went to. Most pub visits were preceeded by major walking, see, so we EARNED those pints/pub lunches/dinners. We occasionally talk about how we could write much better travel articles than the ones that are out there, but probably not the Walking The Lake District articles. Instead, we'd be best suited to write the Lake District article for overweight beer drinkers. Stay tuned: Maybe you'll see some of the material below in your travel section someday.

Anyway, we made the 250-odd mile drive up on Good Friday, got to the cottage, shopped for provisions, and unpacked. Saturday, we set out on our first walk to a village called Staveley, roughly 3 miles away. We meandered north a bit from our cottage, then south to join Dales Way, a 76-mile cross-country trail that connects West Yorkshire to Lake Windermere, the largest of the lakes in the Lake District. With hills and rocks and mud and stops to look at sheep on a hill, the roughly 3.5 mile walk took us about an hour and a half.

The village of Staveley boasts England's largest bike shop, so we spent some time there, admiring the bikes that cost twice as much as our car and those so light you could pick them up with two fingers. Then it was on to the tasting room of the Hawkshead Brewery, where we sampled half pints of their brews and enjoyed some pork pies for lunch. All were delicious. In the same shopping center was an amazing furniture shop; we browsed and wished we were in the market for any of it. We took a more direct walking route back to the cottage, took off our shoes, and immediately fell asleep.

After a good nap and a lot of Advil, we set out for dinner. Unsure of where to go, we started looking up places previous guests had recommended. Turns out the Watermill Inn down the road a piece was having its 5th annual Lakeland Beer Festival featuring 40 beers from the region. We're there! So were a great many other people, but we landed two seats at a large communal table, which ended up being fun because it actually forced us to talk to people. We sampled three beers each, chatted with 10 different people, and had a mighty fine pub dinner.

Sunday morning, I had big plans of attending Easter service at Kendal Parish Church -- who wouldn't want to go to a church that's claim to fame is being "one of the widest Parish churches in England"? And besides, we had to top last year's Catholic mass in German in Lindau. But when I finally forced my eyes open, I realized the skylight was covered in snow. It had snowed on us periodically on Saturday, but usually only for 5 or 10 minutes at a time, and it didn't stick. So I was rather surprised when I got up and looked out to see everything covered in snow! It was really gorgeous.

We were eager to get out and walk around (we decided to skip the drive to church, as one-lane roads with two-way traffic aren't the best places to test out your new, 12-year-old car in the snow), and it was most definitely a visual treat. Everyone we encountered was cheerful. We happened upon a couple, each toting a sled and eyeing the neighboring hills. I asked, "Do people around here mind if you hop their fence and sled down their pastures?" "Not really," the man answered. "We only get snow like this once every three years, so everyone takes advantage." We chuckled and kept walking, and it was only then we noticed their daughter trailing behind, utterly embarrassed at her parents behaving like, well, people her age.

We wandered around for a good hour before heading back to have a second breakfast of bacon and eggs. We headed out again when JT decided he wanted a Sunday paper. We went using public footpaths, which is to say through muddy bridleways and sheep pastures. It really is amusing that farmers open their land to foot traffic; the only rule is to close the gate behind you. An hour later we were in a convenience store, Sunday Observer in hand. And, conveniently, the local pub was open, too. So, we popped into the Jolly Anglers (a pub/inn and, apparently, also the local school!) for a couple of pints, some newspaper reading, and a visit with a local's two greyhounds, Sally and Fizz. The long walk home earned us our roast lamb dinner back at the cottage.

Monday we headed to the quintessential Lake District town of Ambleside. We'd spent the previous two days encountering few people on the footpaths and in the small villages we went to. Ambleside was the opposite -- packed with people, cars, walkers, and a whole lot of strollers that take up the entire width of old village sidewalks. (Vocab aside: Baby strollers are called "prams" here, and sidewalks are "pavements.")

Anyway, it was fun to wander around, in and out of shops in this charming village. We had lunch at a cafe called Lucy's, whose owner (Lucy) has built up quite a brand for herself with a cafe, gourmet deli, cooking school, and nightclub. We enjoyed it, and not just because dessert was Guiness chocolate cake. But that helped. Unfortunately work cut our day short, so we went back to the cottage for a couple of hours of editing. That evening we stayed in, ate pizza, and watched a movie -- another perk of staying in a house/cottage/flat instead of a hotel.

Stay tuned: More walking, and of course more pubs, to come.

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