As a woman who enjoys mixed company, I’m always slightly wary of gatherings that exclude men. But as the light fades over the Cumbrian fells beyond the window, I find I’m really enjoying meeting my new female companions over dinner.
We’re about to spend a week together at Hassness Country House, owned by Ramblers Walking Holidays and the only property on the shores of beautiful Buttermere in the Western Lakes. Beloved by Alfred Wainwright – commemorated in the tiny village church – this is an area of unspoilt natural beauty and tranquillity, away from the hustle and bustle of Lake District hubs like Windermere and Ambleside.
It’s my second time at Hassness but my first since it reopened in spring this year after an upgrade. Most of the 11 bedrooms are now ensuite and the spacious lounge and cosy dining room have had a makeover too, though I’m pleased to find that none of the atmosphere has been lost. If you can’t live without television, stop reading now. There isn’t one. But I didn’t miss it one bit. Busy days in the fresh air meant for early bedtimes with a book and soothing cuppa. And if – like me – you really must stay in touch, Hassness does have WiFi, though as in many rural areas, it can be a temperamental.
I’m booked on a Women’s Activity Week that offers a varied taste of what this spectacular landscape has to offer. Hiking of course, but also an introduction to Nordic Walking; taster sessions of Yoga and Pilates; and, new this year, a morning’s kayaking. Plus there’s the promise of delicious home-cooked food at breakfast and dinner; picnic lunches; and the daily post-walk essential of freshly-baked cake!
This is no boot camp. Everything is optional and if you want to skip an activity, that’s fine. I opt out of 7am exercises by the lake in favour of drawing back the curtains and just admiring the fells through the window as I catch up on a chapter or two in bed. But I can’t resist the chance of my first optional ‘wild swim’, a bracing post-hike dip in Buttermere amidst much squealing and laughter. A real bucket-list tick!
We range in age from mid-40s to a fabulously vibrant lady of undisclosed age who could certainly teach the rest of us a thing or two about fitness in advancing years. Everyone does some kind of regular exercise – walking, swimming, tennis – but I’m relieved to find that nobody is dauntingly super-sporty. The thing that clearly bonds us however is attitude. We are all up for exploring this glorious landscape in a safe, guided environment. And whilst we don’t mind how wet we get during the day (and sometimes we do – this is the Lakes in August after all!), we all appreciate a hearty meal and a comfy bed at night.
Clare, our walk leader, has been leading for Ramblers Walking Holidays for 20 years, and devised the Women’s Activity Week programme four years ago. On the first evening, we each have a confidential chat with her about any fitness issues we may have – a dodgy knee or ancient shoulder injury, for instance – but every activity can be adapted to suit.
Sunday sees us on a gentle hike from base around neighbouring Crummock Water, a distance of some 10 miles. The path is largely level but stony which keeps casual weekend walkers away, so we can really appreciate the wild fells at leisure. We pass the occasional swimmer, with and without clothes; meet intrepid competitors on a run-and-swim race; and walk through fields of grey Herdwick sheep with their cute black lambs and quizzical faces. I start getting to know the other ladies as we fall into step and I begin an emotional journey which is to give me glimpses into the often-inspiring lives of some lovely fellow walkers.
Monday brings an introduction to Nordic Walking, with much giggling as we learn the movements by the lake shore. We test our skills on the surfaced 4-mile path around Buttermere before that fabulous wild swim and an hour of gentle Yoga from a local instructress. Next morning, we head to Whinlatter Forest by minibus to stride out with our Nordic Walking poles up the broad forest trails to a viewpoint above Keswick.
Wednesday is a free day and those who arrived by public transport mostly take the bus into Keswick for retail therapy and the famed Pencil Museum. With a car of our own, my friend and I drive 90 minutes through Grasmere and Ambleside to Coniston where we visit Brantwood, home of 19th century artist, author and humanitarian John Ruskin; take a stroll around Tarn Hows; and visit the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead (National Trust). Rest day? No way!
Against a dramatic sky of sunshine and summer showers, we set off for Crummock Water again on Thursday and a short but steep climb up Rannerdale Knotts, where I’m thrilled to capture photos looking down on a rainbow. Back at Hassness, an hour of Pilates stretches out tired muscles and prepares me for the last adventure on Friday, a morning’s kayaking on Derwentwater. It’s my first time in a solo craft and I feel quietly chuffed as I pull the kayak onto the beach of St Hubert’s Island at the centre of the lake. A real Swallows & Amazons moment.
We head back down the eastern shore of Derwentwater on foot, stopping to smile at ‘The Bear in the Window’, a cute teddy looking out from a shed beside the trail and surrounded by letters from fans, young and old. Then it’s time for the last group dinner, reminiscing over the week and swopping contact details. It’s been a physically and emotionally uplifting week with a sense of camaraderie and openness that I hadn’t anticipated. Sure, I was lucky with the group, but I also think that the magic atmosphere of Buttermere and Hassness Country House can take much of the credit. Priceless.
The Women’s Activity Week runs in July, August and September, and costs from £585 per person, including accommodation, meals and activities, but there are themed weeks at Hassness all year round from Navigation and Hill Skills to Mindfullness in the Mountains, and the leisurely Lakeland Explorer.
Visit www.ramblersholidays.co.uk for more details.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Ramblers Walking Holidays.