Taken at face value – 10 miles long, not very wide, not very deep – and England’s largest lake, Windermere, doesn’t seem too impressive. But it’s the biggest we’ve got, and it’s extremely beautiful, set within the stunning Lake District National Park.
If you’ve got a day here, during a tour of England, then you should at least take a cruise from Bowness or Ambleside, to see the sort of spectacular views that inspired Wordsworth to some of his finest poetry.
But stay longer and there are lot more things you can do. Here are 7 insider tips for a week on wonderful Windermere.
(By the way, ‘mere’ means ‘lake’, so pedants like me bridle when everyone says ‘Lake Windermere’. Not only that, there’s also a town called Windermere. Which isn’t actually on the lake. I think they do it on purpose to confuse the tourists.)
The National Trust’s Low Wray campsite, on the western shore, is in a fantastic location, about an hour’s walk from Ambleside and right on the lakeshore. I’ve camped here before – and enjoyed early morning swims right from outside the tent – but the last time we went we stayed in a yurt, which turned out to be one of the best things we’ve ever done.
Here’s the video of the trip – take a look if you’ve ever fancied staying in a yurt but wondered what they were really like.
2. Visit Wray Castle
A short walk from the campsite there’s a spectacular mock-Gothic castle, which – even more spectacularly – was built as a holiday home for a wealthy Victorian couple. Some vacation retreat! The National Trust has opened it up as a visitor attraction but it’s not a stuffy tour around stuffy old rooms – mostly, it’s empty, and you’re let loose to poke around the grand salons and staircase, explore behind the scenes and picnic on the lawns. It’s one place where children are positively encouraged to run around waving swords and building castles.
3. Spend the day at Brockhole
It’s not exactly a secret, but the Lake District Visitor Centre at Brockhole – halfway between Windermere and Ambleside – has had a big revamp over the last couple of years, and you can easily spend a full day here now. Treetop Trek and Treetop Nets soak up most of the adventure visitors – nets, ropes, bridges and high wires strung between the trees – and there’s bike and kayak rental, pony trekking, guided walks, a terrace cafe with lake views and some lovely gardens, stretching right down to the lakeshore.
My tip: the car park is expensive, but if you arrive by ferry or on foot or bike, it’s free entry to the visitor centre, gardens and grounds, so it’s a cheap day out if you decide to bring a picnic.
4. Fell Foot Park, Lakeside
The southern end of the lake, known as Lakeside – you can get here by ferry – has all the big visitor attractions, like the steam railway, aquarium and motor museum.
But the nicest, most laidback thing to do is take a second ferry from here – a little passenger launch – across to Fell Foot Park, where landscaped lawns and gardens spill down to the lake. Have a paddle and an ice cream – on a warm summer’s day, this is one of the most gorgeous places in the Lakes, with distant the mountains framing your view.
5. Bowness or Ambleside?
Bowness is a busy lakeside village, from where all the cruise and ferry boats depart. It’s full of aimlessly wandering tourists and rapacious ducks, but there are plenty of places to eat, and when you stroll along the promenade later, under the setting sun – with the shadows drawing across the mountains – you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve been transplanted to the Italian lakes.
Ambleside, on the other hand, isn’t on the lake – the ferries call at Waterhead, at the top of the lake, and Ambleside is another 20 minutes’ walk away. But it has better restaurants and cafes, a woodland waterfall walk, tons of shops for buying outdoor gear, and three separate cinemas associated with a great veggie pizza-and-pasta restaurant, Zeffirelli’s, so for a rainy day this is your best bet.
6. Chesters By the River, Skelwith Force and Langdale
Three miles from Ambleside (there’s a bus), at Skelwith Bridge, is the best artisan cafe and bakery for miles around, called Chesters. There’s a terrace overlooking the gushing river, a wood-fired oven for great bread and pizzas, and amazing cakes.
You can then stroll up the river to the waterfall of Skelwith Force for a clamber around on the rocks – and if you’re looking for a longer hike, keep going up the dramatic valley into Langdale, where the Lakes’ most characterful mountains jostle for position on the skyline. Good targets are the Britannia Inn at Elterwater or the Old Dungeon Ghyll at the head of the valley – both are really great walkers’ pubs – and the bus runs back to Ambleside from both places.
There are all sorts of grand houses set around the lake, and many were built as private homes for wealthy Victorian industrialists. A few have been turned into fancy lakeside hotels, but the most amazing one of all – Blackwell – is open to the public.
It’s an Arts and Crafts masterpiece, the work of Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, and is one of the most genteel of places to visit around the lake. There’s a terrace cafe, art exhibitions and daily house tours that are well worth coinciding with.
This really only scratches the surface of what there is to see and do around Windermere – suffice it to say, if you come once, you’ll be back, because this most alluring of lakes really grows on you.
And if you find your own favourite spot, be sure to share below!
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