BOWNESS-ON-WINDERMERE, England — Even on a map it looks inviting, this little corner of northwest England. That round swatch of pale green tells it all. This is quiet country, the map maker is saying, lush and peaceful; a place to come to, not just to pass through.
The map maker calls it Cumbria. Poet William Wordsworth, speaking for a legion of his fellow scribes, called one of its villages "the loveliest spot that man hath ever found." To most people, it's the Lake District, and to all who have been here, it's special.
Getting here is easy. From London drive the high-speed M1 freeway, or "motorway," northwest to just this side of Coventry. There, pick up M6, equally fast, and take it through the smokestacks of Birmingham, then continue north through the busy Liverpool-Manchester corridor.
Unless you're experienced at British driving you'll want to stay in the far left, or slowest, lane, while some of your fellow motorists, blithely ignoring the posted 70-m.p.h. limit, streak by at something approaching warp speed.
Gateway to Lake District
Finally, just past Morecambe Bay you'll peel off M6 onto winding, two-lane A591, and a few miles later you're at the town of Kendal, gateway to the Lake District.
Now everything slows down. The countryside turns greener, the sheep and ponies in the fields look fatter, the stone walls seem to take extra, meandering turns here and there.
Stay on A591, and before long you've reached Lake Windermere. A 10-mile-long, mile-wide blue ribbon, it's the country's largest freshwater lake and, at 200 feet, its the deepest as well.
Northwest of here the district's other lakes--with names such as Coniston, Ullswater and Bassenthwaite--dot the countryside, each resting beneath its own mountains and each drawing its own complement of anglers, boaters, hikers and just plain gawkers.
But this is a fine place to start, so settle in for a few days. The village of Windermere, just before you sight the lake, is a possibility, but its companion town, Bowness-on-Windermere, is better situated, because it sprawls right along the shore.
With its hilly, meandering streets and variety of gift shops and restaurants, it's every inch the pleasant lakeside English resort town. There's no shortage of accommodations, from the Spartan to the downright plush. Small hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns are very much in evidence, the latter catering especially to the student backpackers-hitchhikers who invade the Cumbrian landscape every summer to trek the high trails.
They've got the right idea. It's true, you'll see some lovely scenery from behind the wheel of your rented car or, even easier, lazing along on a tour bus. But first and foremost, Lakeland is for hiking. So once settled in, leave an early call.
From Bowness-on-Windermere the next morning, it's only a few minutes' drive to where you can start off on several good hikes. A stop at the lakeside tourist information center will have armed you with a fistful of brochures containing roughly drawn maps. And if the folks who run your hotel are the accommodating sort, they'll have packed a lunch for you.
Some of the walks are easy tramps around the lake shore, mostly flatland, sometimes a little boggy. Others lead you high up onto the fells and crags, where you can sense the contours of the Cumbrian Mountains.
Most of the walks seem to begin at a church in one of the villages such as Ambleside or Grasmere. Initially, you may walk a clearly marked path through pastures, among grazing livestock, gradually leaving the sounds of the village behind. If you're out and about early enough, the mist will still be lying in patches on the farms and heavy enough on the heights so that, until the sun burns through, you may not be able to sight the mountaintops.
Even though this whole area is national park land, it's also farmland. Many of the paths you'll walk, especially on the lower reaches, are private and known as "permissive paths," which the landowner has agreed to let the public use. In return, some courtesy will be expected of you. No litter, obviously. Also, England is a land of stone walls; and, to keep the livestock from straying, you'll be expected to close each gate you open.
The path climbs and turns, through woods now, and you check your map more often. Some of the accompanying text is quaint in the extreme, and you occasionally wish for a glossary: "Skirt around the tarn to a stile with a craggy outcrop on your left. . . . Go through the slot stile and walk uphill all the time until you reach a cairn and then a ladder stile. . . . At the small iron kissing gate, follow the beck downstream. . . ." And so on. A visitor from the Colonies raised exclusively on Valspeak could, you know, get lost in these hills and, fer shure, never be found. Rrilly.