When I hit the trail, the day is grey and the ground is wet. The bottoms of the clouds are hung up on the peaks of the mountains, and although it’s not quite raining, there’s a mist in the air and a cold slap in the wind. There are no leaves on the trees. Their trunks are exposed and look brownish-grey. The grass is a healthy shade of green, but appears muted in the overcast lighting.
When I reach the top of the first foothill, I can see back down upon Lake Windermere. Its surface looks white in the light. Across the lake I can see the brown-stone rock walls dividing the hillside into plots of land. Inside the plots are herds of white sheep. They are very easy to pick out. So are the white farmhouses.
Alfred Wainwright, an esteemed author who wrote the first guide book for the UK’s Coast to Coast trail, said there is “no other place in this whole wonderful world” quite like the Lake District, “no other so exquisitely lovely, no other so charming, no other that calls so insistently across a gulf of distance.”
He also said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”
I’m bundled up in a waterproof jacket and quick-dry pants for what’s just another day in the UK’s Lake District, England’s biggest national park. The name doesn’t lie. The 900 square-mile park has dozens of lakes and tarns, or “mountain pools.” Lake Windermere is the largest, both in the Park and the country, very skinny but more than 11 miles in length. The foothills rise up above it, and around it sits several small villages.
I left Ambleside on foot earlier this morning, and I’m making my way southeast along the lake, up and over Wansfell Hill to Troutbeck. The plan is to hike into Troutbeck for lunch at a pub, then hike back to Ambleside in the afternoon. The trail is lined with the russet hue of Bracken, another muted but very noticeable color in this wet, rocky landscape.
Still, the charm is undeniable, regardless of the weather. All along the lake I can see the stone-built villages, and above that, the farms on the hillsides.
It’s quiet and still here in the damp shoulder season. In the summertime, crowds flock to the Lake District, when the sun is more prevalent and the thought of water doesn’t make you shiver.
It’s not just the lake or the walking that brings them. William Wordsworth did much of his writing here, and Ambleside and Ravenglass are home to Roman ruins. But today, the trail is pretty much empty, and I’m left to roam with the sheep. I cross paths with them often. Each has a spray-painted dot on their white coats, either blue or red, sometimes both. It has something to do with who owns them, and which baby belongs to which “mum.” They seem very relaxed to me, and definitely well fed. There’s not much reason for lawn mowers around here, let’s put it that way.
The flagship town of Lake Windermere goes by the same name. The buildings are all made of stone, and it’s filled with cozy small inns. The Cedar Manor Inn is a prime example, a historic house converted into a bed and breakfast. There are plenty of nice restaurants to choose from, but on a day like today, I’m in search of England’s classic comfort food: fish and chips.
From an overlook I can see Troutbeck, and I begin the descent down the hill. There’s something about seeing a town and then walking down into it that makes you feel like you’ve traveled back in time. It makes me feel like I own the place, like I’ve conquered something.
The Mortal Man Pub welcomes me off the mountain with a wood-burning fire. It’s toasty inside, a hint of smoke in the air. The floors are made of stone, a mandatory feature for any serious pub, suitable for dirty boots and muddy dogs. The tables are all made of wood. I grab a seat and order a pint of local Keswick ale to go along with the fish and chips. It’s served with smashed — locally referred to as mushed — peas, so I dip the fries in the peas and wash it down with the beer. A man in the pub tells me that Beatrix Potter used to live here in Troutbeck. I decide to have another beer. After all, as the locals will tell you, what makes a great pub is its ability to unite strangers.
On the trail back to Ambleside, I’m impervious to the damp chill of the wind. I’ll tell you, nothing makes you look on the bright side like a two-beer lunch. And, as if I had willed it, the clouds had thinned out at the end of the valley, and the sun could now peek through. It was spilling its light on top of the far peaks. It looked like a pot of gold at the end of the grey sky. I stop on top of the hill, looking out beyond the stone walls, the sheep, the farmhouses, the muted green grass, and the lake towards the sun-soaked peaks.
Far be it for me to compete with Wainwright or Wordsworth, but I know the scene is something I’ll remember. It will be a good thing to describe to someone at the next pub, the next time I have a beer in my hand, the next time I come down the mountain.