Walking With Wordsworth: Visiting England's Lake District
After spending the night in Nether Wasdale, I embark the next morning for Wasdale Head. The narrow road runs along the northwest shore of Wast Water, in the Lake District’s southwest, England’s deepest lake (the floor of the 243-foot-deep lake is below sea level). On the opposite shore, steep scree-covered slopes rise to the 2,000-foot peak of Illgill Head. But it is the sight of the mountains enclosing the bifurcated Wasdale Valley that makes this an iconic Lake District destination. (In 2007 it was voted Britain’s favorite view.)
Looking northeast up from the valley floor one faces, left to right, Red Pike, Kirk Fell, and Great Gable, three of the Lake District’s high peaks. Then, finally, Scafell Pike, at 3,210 feet, England’s highest, and the mountain Coleridge first climbed in 1802. These mountains rise steeply up from the valley, their rugged summits connected by a narrow ridgeline. Reaching the footpath the walking is easier, but soon I begin a steep haul toward the 2,600-foot summit. With about 600 feet to go, the winds pick up and I decide not to hazard the high ridge.
From where I stand the view north is over a precipitous drop into the Liza Valley, the river winding its way west across the rolling moraines to Ennerdale Water. The view back down is just as spectacular. Sunlit for the moment, the great sweep of the green valley spreads out from between the gray mountains; the streams meander then cascade then meander again toward the lake. The scene shows “every possible embellishment of beauty . . . which light and shadow can bestow.”
That is, after all, the Lake District’s legacy. To find in nature, as Wordsworth wrote, “a never-failing principle of joy and purest passion,” one that “intermingles with those works of man.”
MAKING THE TRIP: England’s Lake District
The Lake District is accessible by road and train, although there is no major airport nearby. Both Glasgow and Manchester, served by major U.S. carriers as well as British Airways, are about two hours away on main roads.
While it’s best to have a car, remember that Lake District roads are narrow and winding and have frequent pullouts to allow oncoming cars to pass. It can be a little harrowing if you’re not adept at driving on the left. The major towns of Grasmere, Windermere, and Ambleside have plenty of accommodations, but if you’re going in the spring or summer, book well ahead of time. Many of the old inns outside the main towns are charming establishments that have a pub and provide bed and board.
Most paths are well marked. Still, trail and topographic maps that can be picked up in local shops are advisable. Weather is the walker’s greatest challenge. No matter what the forecast says, always have rain gear, a windbreaker, and enough food and water to sit out one of the deep fogs that can envelope the fell tops. Even though the highest fells are only about 3,000 feet, the ridgelines can be narrow, the rocks slippery, and the drop-offs precipitous. One of the most famous fell walkers was Alfred Wainwright (1907–1991), who, during the 1950s and 1960s, compiled the seven-volume Pictorial Guides to the Fells, with detailed, hand-drawn maps and descriptions of hundreds of Lake District walks. Abridged versions are available.
Good sources for birdwatchers are The Cumbria Wildlife Trust; Birds of the Lake District, by W.R. Mitchell; and the Lake District Osprey Project’s website. That group even runs an “osprey bus” that takes visitors to the best viewing sites.
Try the National Trust and the Lake District National Park. Of the many sites devoted to fell walking in the Lake District, a good place to start is this one, which features detailed maps, directions, and walk times.