The last time our hotel room looked down on a lake was some three weeks previously at Lake Orta in Northern Italy. Now, in late September, I gazed out at Derwentwater, that most beautiful of England’s lakes. I make no comparison other than to say the weather in Cumbria was incomparably better than the driving rain of Italy.
We had come for a three night break as part of the week long “Discovery Tour of Northern Cumbria” run by HF Holidays. It was a comprehensive itinerary in one of the most lovely parts of the Lake District. I was born in the county.
Derwent Bank stands proudly on the lakeside just outside the exclusive village of Portinscale which itself is outside the exclusive town of Keswick. Situated between two marinas, its beautifully maintained grounds include a jetty from where one may catch a ferry if the lake is full enough which on this occasion it was not, as Italy had cornered the market in rain. We sat outside in the attached Dandelion Café enjoying the view. Walkers and climbers were enjoying a glass of beer and what looked to be enormous portions of beef burgers and chips. I must be getting old. Instead I took a photograph of a stunning spring-like flowering tree (conveniently labelled as Eucryphia Nymansensis).
From our rounded bay window we overlooked the stunning formal gardens, full of September colour within neat box hedging. Someone clearly loves gardening as no contract gardener would have lavished this much care on such a varied collection of plants. The backdrop was the Cumbrian fells and, sideways from our window seat, the lake itself. The house has something of an art and craft style about it and is decorated to a high standard. I would relocate the bedroom’s new oak furniture to our Yorkshire home without hesitation. Indeed I would relocate to this area of the Lakes were it not so exclusive or, to put it another way, expensive.
There was a cream tea on arrival in the spacious conservatory and a short walk with the four leaders to orientate ourselves. We crossed the road and ambled along “Millionaires Row” as the neighbourhood houses were aptly described to us.
An evening glass or two of local Keswick bitter, traditional food and good company made for a promising start to our short break. Everyone is friendly on an HF Holiday. Guaranteed. Some of the guests took part in a quiz evening.
That warm, balmy Cumbrian sunshine greeted us again in the morning as we gathered for the Mini Coach, part of the service provided by HF Holidays. We were to be ferried around on a varied itinerary taking in all the sights of the local area under the expert guidance of a professional guide. Which leads me to Tom, ex-policeman, wit, raconteur and general know all. And I mean it in the nicest possible sense. Tom knew this area of Cumbria like the back of his hand.
There were fifteen in the party occupying all the seats. We drove past Cat Bells and looked down on Derwentwater. Red squirrel country though I never saw one. Over Grange Bridge and first stop was the nearby Bowder Stone, impossibly balanced on a point, the largest free standing stone in Cumbria weighing .. well, Tom knew. A ladder takes you to the summit but beware as it’s a bit of a scramble when you arrive. There’s only so much one can do on top of a stone other than fall off.
Alfred Wainright described the area here as “the finest square mile in Lakeland”. Let this bona fide Cumbrian recommend another of the best spots in Lakeland – Watendlath.
First, of course, we had to get there.
It was a testing journey for our young Italian driver, Patricia, negotiating the narrow twists and turns, not to mention Ashness Bridge. The mini coach gets you to places normal coaches cannot, one of the attractions of these Discovery Tours, but they are wider and longer than your average automobile. Patricia was coolness personified. We stopped for a moment at Surprise View and the majestic expanse of Borrowdale far below us. It is a view to sell postcards. There are many beautiful places on the planet but no better than this.
Back on board, I observed the frightened oncoming drivers. Ours was a big mini coach, if that makes sense. Patricia was unruffled.
We arrived at Watendlath Tarn and had a coffee. My wife befriended an old border collie, I took a photograph of the bridge, chaffinches hunted for scraps outside the cafe. An idyllic setting and peace. Peace. No wonder Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey and Ruskin composed all that poetry malarkey.
We set off back down the track and stopped at Ashness Bridge where I attempted to take the perfect photograph and wondered at the ingenuity or sanity of an artist who would cloak an entire cottage in wool as part of the C-Art Project ubiquitous throughout Cumbria. Inside the cottage was an array of sheep skulls sprayed or otherwise decorated. Interested? They may have a few left at a mere £350 a head.
Our driver came from the home of Ferrari and she was a wonderful driver. Part of the driving pleasure of the first day was in seeing how she could extricate us all from the perilous routes our smiling leader guided us to. “Not suitable for motor vehicles” was the sign as we opened the gate for St John’s in the Vale and sallied heedlessly forward. Slowly. We ate our packed lunches there. HF provide wonderful food in brown paper carrier bags.
A more peaceful, scenic spot spot would be hard to find. Other than a hostel, the church had no residences nearby, but everything from interior to graveyard is immaculate.
On the journey, Tom was indefatigable, sharing a lifetime of information and anecdote in a way that never tired. One tale concerned a party of Americans and a herd of Herdwick sheep with coloured dye. “Why colour them red and blue?” Answer: “The farmers are preparing for next year’s fashion.” “Gee, great idea!” gasped one lady without irony. She liked Tom so much she booked another tour.
Although mixed in age, the Discovery group were a little older in general than the four walking groups where there was quite a number of younger walkers. HF provide the infrastructure, their clients the people. And they were remarkable. Some had been involved with HF for years having chosen to ease up on the walking, others simply were attracted by a stunning location and exciting itinerary. The tour was entirely optional in terms of whether or not to walk but my fellow guests rarely shirked steps or stiles.
Our final stop for the day was at Mirehouse on the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake. It has been open to the public since 1981, owned by the Spedding family since 1802 and is very much a family home. There are links to all the great literary figures of the Lake District. I particularly enjoyed reading about the family’s colonial history. After walking to the 1000 year old church of St Bega, where I am not surprised to hear just how many marriage ceremonies are conducted, we had a visit to the lovely tea room. There were many such on our itinerary.
By now the group was beginning to gel together and friendships forged. I sat at the back beside Ruth with whom I struck up an instant friendship when she “stole” my seat beat. Ruth spent the last year of the war, aged 9, in a slave labour camp before being rescued by her Czech father. She still commutes to work from her North London home.
Evenings took on a familiar pattern with the 7.00 pm briefings and debriefings by the different walking groups, taking in the small group who climbed the high mountains and three tiered guided walks embracing a range of levels. Movement between the groups was common. Safety is paramount and these discussions were all-important.
Our group gathered in the conservatory prior to dinner, a very social affair, then coffee and mints, followed by an optional activity, Tom spoke one evening about Hadrian’s Wall, the following evening was a talk by Derek Tunstall, MBE, a member of the Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team. This is such a contrast to the normal hotel experience.
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