England of a Bygone Era: Land of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter

flowers on grey houseThe English Lakes area is an absolutely beautiful region. My first tour of the area happened soon after an artist friend of mine contacted me to let me know that she had just seen the movie "Miss Potter" illustrating the life of Beatrix Potter in England's Lake District. She quite glibly asked if I would build a painting tour for her to lead in this lovely corner of England. She didn't realize that I was thinking of looking into this very region to build a walking tour for Today’s Woman Traveller.

Dove cottage style300pxAfter some preliminary research we decided to make our base in Bowness-on-Windermere. This would be very central as we realized there is easy transportation to Grasmere for Dove Cottage and to Hill Top (Beatrix Potter's Farm), just two of our points of interest. In fact Bowness is right on Lake Windermere and the main street actually runs right into the town of Windermere about a mile up the road.

The English Lakes District is encompassed in a National Park entirely within the County of Cumbria that stretches from Grange-over-Sands on the coast of the Irish Sea up to valleys of Borrowdale and Muttermere with Honisten Pass joining the two dales and takes in sixteen lakes and all of England's mountains. The park covers a total of 2,292 sq.kms /885 sq. miles.

england english lake district countrysideApparently, up until the end of the 19th century this region was considered wild, dangerous and foreboding with its barren hills and descriptive terms given by the Vikings like, becks, fells, tarns, pikes, riggs and forces.

In 1799 William Wordsworth (who in fact went to Grammar school in the village of Hawkshead) returned on a walking tour of the Lake District with his friend and fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He fell in love with the village of Grasmere and Dove Cottage and within a few months he had set up home there with his sister, Dorothy, to live the life of a poet, at one with his surroundings.

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He later married and enjoyed a very happy eight years "of plain living, but high thinking" in Dove Cottage producing the most famous and best-loved of his poems including, Daffodils, My Heart Leaps Up and Ode to Duty. His sister Dorothy wrote her famous Grasmere Journals. Dove Cottage & Grasmere became a popular destination for writers, and artists of the time to gather. This would further establish the region's appeal to the romantics.

Very much like the Impressionists who gathered in Normandy, France to paint, many literary notables were travelling to and gathering in The English Lakes, many times as guests of William and his sister. Wordsworth, Coleridge and several other poets and writers would eventually link and forever tie this wild and wonderful region with the 'Romantic Movement' Grasmere is also home to the Heaton Cooper Studio with its permanent and changing exhibition of paintings by four generations of this family. The canvases depict the region with both bucolic and rugged scenes that will capture the interest of anyone who takes the time to stop in.

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Beatrix Potter, the most successful classic children's author of all time is known around the world as the author and illustrator of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Her charming farm "HILL TOP" which she purchased in 1905 with the profits of her first published books is very close to the west shore of Lake Windermere. Hill Top was just the beginning of her farming and landowning careers. She began purchasing several properties such as Yew Tree Farm (which was the set for the 2006 movie "Miss Potter" starring Rene Zellweger) for the purpose of protecting and conserving the integrity of the region through its land and farms. She was in fact England's first Conservationist. Beatrix Potter's original watercolour illustrations for her books are housed in the Beatrix Potter Gallery (under the title "Because I Never Grew Up") in thenearby and lovely village of Hawkeshead. Here you meet the originals; Peter Rabbit, Jamima Puddle Duck, Mrs. Tiggy Wink and all the others. It's as much fun for adults as it is for children.

The current tenants of Yew Tree Farm (which thanks to Potter belongs to the National Trust) run a lovely bed and breakfast on the property and raise the local native Belted Galloway Cattle and Herdwick sheep that were bred specifically for this region.

We soon found out that there is so much more to the area. One bright morning we stopped into the Tourist Office by the wharf in Bowness (which was quite busy) and established that the ferries to the towns around the lake were still running and decided to take one to the town of Ambleside. We were in search of "Bridge House", affectionately known as England's smallest house. Bridge House right in the centre of town built over a small stone bridge of a stream (beck) that runs through the centre of town with two mill wheels in sight.

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A lovely looking café called the Giggling Goose overlooked the babbling beck but was unfortunately closed for the week we were there – we made a note to try for this again the next time around. There is a lane that winds up from the main part of the town and climbs a pleasant path to Stock Gyll Force (Falls). This would be a refreshing and cool walk in the summer with benches along the way and even a picnic table at the top. It's a beautiful 70 foot cascade and one of many in the district.

Another day we met with Lindsay Gibson who owns and runs Destination Cumbria. He agreed to take us to Conistan where we could visit the Ruskin Gallery (that also features the De Havilland Goblin jet engine of "Bluebird K7" replica - the last of the Bluebird series) which was piloted by Donald Campbell in his attempt to break the water speed record of 300 miles per hour on Coniston Water in 1966/7.

Everyone you talk to in Bowness (no matter what the age) will tell you "Oh yes, the fells are lovely, I (or we) were walking them the other day". Anyway it was a nice gentle climb that does in fact become steeper as you ascend. After about 40 minutes of climbing we took a break for a cup of tea which I found very fortifying and in fact carried on a little further over a ridge that offered a spectacular view. Then it was time to trundle down again taking pictures all the way of the spectacular view below, of the path and rock formations still going up, of the curious sheep (several different breeds) that graze along the slopes.

england english lake district ashness bridgeAnother day we hired a driver to show us other ‘required’ landmarks, Ashness Bridge – it is soooo cute you have to have it on your list. We also wanted to visit the Derwent Pencil Museum in Keswick, Tarn Hows, Surprise View and several others. All the roads are narrow and windy (not to mention driven on the left) making the thought of renting a car (for me anyway) rather intimidating. The bonus was to be taken on the even smaller 'coaching roads' from before the modern, narrow, winding, stone walled roads of today with many stories that brought the local history to life for us.

Upon enquiring what the numbers were of Canadian visitors to this region I was surprised to learn that we don't even make up a percentage of the annual 18000 visitors to the Lake District each year. The thought was that we have lake districts too and therefore there is a similarity to our own lovely areas. I was quick to add that yes, we have some of the most beautiful scenery in the world but we don't have the prolific stone walls (from the time of the "Enclosure Act" of 17--- advising the landowners to enclose their properties or lose them), the many small charming towns and villages all with stone, or stucco, or mud and waddle, slate roofed buildings, the cozy and cheery pubs (which by the way are very reasonable and offer local and homemade fare), and sheepdogs doing their job of rounding up the flocks. The weather of course is not the greatest in November but when the sun shines (it did frequently for us) the fall colours, and the 'light' were magnificent.

england english lake district sheepWhile we were travelling from town to village it became very evident that there were no industrial parks, no shopping malls, no strip malls, and no suburbs. This whole region, once dependent on mining and sheep farming is now almost entirely focused on both land and cultural conservation, and tourism. I was totally taken by the beauty of the entire area that I saw and would say that one of my most striking memories would be Ashness Bridge which crosses a lovely babbling beck that tumbles down a valley with a superb view of Bleaberry and Castlerigg Fells toward Derwent Water (Lake). I wanted to photograph it, Judy wanted to paint it and we both just sat for a few minutes to take in the unspoiled view. If you harbour the notion to experience the England of a bygone era you will not be disappointed with The English Lakes.

Where to Eat: There are cafes, tearooms, restaurants and pubs in every village and town. The proprietors pride themselves to use locally sourced food and home-make their meals. Cumberland sausage (mild, lightly seasoned) comes in lovely coil and served with mashed potatoes and gravy and is also featured in the local Cumberland Pie. We found a lovely pub in Bowness called the 'The Albert' where there is (amongst several other choices) a daily 'roast'.

Where to Shop: The art and cultural shopping opportunities abound everywhere. Local woolen products are easily accessible as are local foodie treats. Grasmere's Gingerbread Shop features Sarah Nelson's original and secret recipe. A visit to their shop in an original school house right beside the churchyard where William Wordsworth and his family are buried is a wonderful stop. This gingerbread smells and tastes divine. It doesn't have the molasses North Americans are used to and has a similar consistency of shortbread. And, it travels very well. You can't go into the factory though because the recipe is secret and closely guarded.

How to Get Around: Car rentals are easily available but if you prefer public transportation there is frequent bus service to all the towns and many villages. Ferries operate all year between the towns and villages on the lakesides. We hired our driver and car for 6 ½ hours.

Activities: The tourist information offices are packed with helpful information with people who genuinely love the area and are most cooperative to help you learn about what the area has to offer.

Destination Cumbria www.destinationcumbria.com is a wonderful source too. No matter what you want to do or accomplish, from a guided Fells Walk, to Ballooning, to boat rides, even a cookery school Lindsay Gibson can quickly put you in place to complete your Lakes District experience.

Note: Beatrix Potter and Wordsworth images throughout this post have been used with permission from The National Trust, a registered charity no. 205846 with registered office in Heelis, Kemble Drive, Swindon, Wiltshire SN2 2NA.

Debbie Lloyd, Today's Woman Traveller

Today’s Woman Traveller, a member of The Travel Broker Group Inc. (TICO 50022628), was created for women who like to travel in small groups on tours to beautiful places. Today’s Woman Traveller attracts women of all ages from Canada and internationally who travel solo or with others. Repeat tours include France, Italy, Africa and Asia but each year amazing new locations are offered. Today’s Woman Traveller is all about women travelling together, enjoying the camaraderie and security of small group tours.

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