There are those for whom the Lake District is not at the forefront of their minds for a winter break. I would count myself in that category. The rugged beauty of the peaks, the unrippled surfaces of Coniston, Windermere and Keswick, the sunsets in the evenings while sitting in a beer garden overlooking the valley – that is the Lake District most of us go to see.
But this December, I escaped London and found a place full of dramatic vistas, beguiling locals and mouth-watering gastronomy that transcend the weather.
The recent floods have once again devastated a resilient community, and they need support from tourism to get back on their feet. Here are our top picks for visiting the wonderful Lake District out of season.
Any petrol head worth his/her salt will be tripping over themselves to get inside here. Set on the River Leven, to the south of Windermere (you can combine entrance tickets with a lake cruise if the weather is kind), the museum is full of cars, motorbikes, bicycles and other memorabilia from more than 100 years of motoring history.
Particularly memorable is the TVR Speed 12, Citroën DS, Colin McRae’s rally car, and the wonderfully wacky Amphicar (although organisers tell us the collection changes four times a year). Don’t forget to pop across the courtyard to the second building, where the Campbell’s Bluebird series of cars and boats can be seen, as well as footage from Donald Campbell’s fated world record attempt. Tickets cost £8 per person.
In the little town of Staveley (half-way between Kendal and Windermere), Hawkshead is what’s known as a ‘destination brewery’. With a large, open taproom, regular brewery tours and pub grub on the menu, this place is well set up for visitors. The brewery started in 2002 and has now grown to produce 20,000 litres of beer a week – including its popular Cumbrian Five Hop Golden Ale.
It’s a good place to meet the locals too — brewer Martin Howarth tells us that the team always sits down with a pint of the good stuff after finishing a shift. Brewery tours are run on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm and cost £8 per person, including a pint at the end. Hawkshead is also part of the Real Ale Trail; nine pubs in the region that are accessible without a car. Think of it as the Lakes’ version of the Bermondsey Beer Mile.
If you’re looking for a nip of something stronger to warm the cockles, The Lakes Distillery produces whisky, gin and vodka in the far north west corner of the region. The area was well known for illicit moonshine whisky production in the 1800s; Bassenthwaite Lake and its surrounding fells and channels providing both cover and discreet access. Today, there are daily tours from 11am-5pm, costing £12.50 per adult, which includes a tasting, and the adjoining Bistro serves a generous afternoon tea.
The dramatic landscape of the region has long inspired poets and writers – Tennyson, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Beatrix Potter fell in love with Cumbria and bought Hill Top in 1905. It was here that she set The Tale of Samuel Whiskers and The Tale of Tom Kitten. The house was left to the National Trust upon her death and is a treasure trove of memorabilia from her life and children’s tales. If there’s a break in the rain, the garden is also pleasant to wander around, with a trail for little ones and its very own Mr McGregor gardener. Next year is 150 years since Potter’s birth so expect events a-plenty. Entrance tickets are £9.50 per adult.
Twenty-five years ago, in the back of the Cartmel Village Shop, the sticky toffee pudding was born. It’ssince been joined by sticky ginger, banana, chocolate and fig puddings, and there is a café upstairs. Nigella Lawson and Rick Stein are fans. In Grasmere, gingerbread is the star of the show. Invented in 1854 by Victorian cook Sarah Nelson, she initially sold her tasty treat from a tree stump outside her house. Fast-forward more than 150 years and the shop also sells rum butter, toffee, fudge, and Kendal Mint Cake. But it’s the gingerbread the visitors keep coming back for.
Best pubs with log fires to warm yourself beside
This pub is tucked away at the end of a winding road, on a Cumbrian hillside, overlooking the Winster Valley. Inside, the fire is burning and there are a number of heavy tables in higgledy-piggledy dining rooms. The chunky chips alone are like whole potatoes, the ale is local, and of course, there’s sticky toffee pudding from Cartmel.
Known for its views and remote location, the Wasdale Head Inn is near Wast Water Lake to the west of the region. Inside, this snug pub has log fires and walls covered with walkers’ memorabilia. Unsurprisingly, it’s popular with the tramping crowd with Scafell Pike and Great Gable just a stone’s throw away. The food’s good and there’s the on-site craft brewery, the Great Gable Brewing Company.
Between Ambleside and Langdale, the serenity of this location is undisturbed by the weather. It’s the perfect spot to hibernate for a while, and the afternoon tea is pretty good too.
It’s a little hard to find but The Punch Bowl Inn has been award Cumbrian Dining Pub of the Year by The Good Pub Guide in for the last two years in a row. It also has two AA Rosettes and a welcoming team to invite you in from the cold. Eat here if you can – the menu is inspired.
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On approach, one would think that the thing about Sharrow Bay is going to be the views. You just couldn’t get closer to Ullswater Lake (without getting wet) ad the best seats in the house are those in the picture windows, watching the light change as the afternoon stretches before you. But as impressive as the vistas are, the thing here is the food. Sunday lunch is a must (just skip breakfast so you are suitably hungry). Expect traditional fare with a gourmet twist – we tried the cream of celeriac and pear soup, blue cheese and walnut oil, traditional chateaubriand of Angus beef with all the trimmings and caramel poached pear with deconstructed mixed spice cheesecake. The waiting staff are friendly and the amuse bouche between courses an unexpected delight. Sunday lunch is £45 per person (and you won’t eat again until Wednesday). Upstairs, the plush rooms do not disappoint. From £128 per night.
On the banks of Windermere, Miller Howe is primarily a hotel but the food is of exceptional quality. Begin the evening with a drink and appetisers in the lounge, where you’ll be asked to peruse the menu before being shown to your table. The food is inventive, clever and plentiful – particularly the vegetarian options, which are often more of an after thought.
The velouté was rich and deep, the gnocchi was light, and the meat incredibly tender. The wine list was long and (largely) reasonable. Three courses (excluding drinks) is £47.50 per person. Bookings are recommended. Sleep on site in a lake view room from £140 per night including a 2-course breakfast in the morning.
Two-Michelin-Starred L’Enclume is quite the treat for those looking to push the boat out. The star of the menu is a 17-course (yes you read that right) tasting menu with matching wine. Simon Rogan is at the helm (dubbed by The Daily Telegraph as “Cumbria’s answer to Heston Blumenthal”), and the setting on the river in the historic village of Cartmel is lovely. The expansive dinner and lunch menu is £130 per person, but there is a pared back set lunch option for £49 (wines are extra). Reservations are essential. There are 16 rooms spread across three sites – go for a Standard Room from £129 to avoid going outside.
In Ambleside, to the north of Lake Windermere, The Drunken Duck’s name allegedly dates back to Victorian times. The landlady, finding her ducks sprawled out in the yard, decided they were dead so began plucking them for the oven, not realising they had become inebriated from leaking barrel in the cellar.
The vibe is ‘gastropub’ personified, but the food is very impressive and the interiors are rustic. The menu features British dishes done well, such as duck scotch egg with plum ketchup, beef shin and stout suet pudding, apple tarte tatin and walnut ice cream. You will have to cross a small gravel courtyard to get upstairs, but it’s stumbling distance and the rooms are beautifully finished. From £105 per night. Expect dinner to cost around £80 for two with drinks.
By Emma Sheppard