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An Intoxicating Visit to England's Lyrical Lake District : Romantic setting of Windermere abounds in reminders of Wordsworth and other great writers.

April 25, 1993|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

WINDERMERE, England — Few, if any, places are more dear to the hearts of bred-in-the-bone Britons than the green and gentle hills, weathered gray cottages and craggy peaks of northwest England's Lake District. And in spring, there are the region's endless fields, immortalized by William Wordsworth:

... golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. The district has its Stone Age relics, pre-Christian monuments and 2,000-year-old roads from Roman times, but its renown dates from 1799, when Wordsworth settled into Dove Cottage in the lakeside village of Grasmere. Soon the district became a wellhead of the English Romantic movement. Indeed, the menage at Dove Cottage included Wordsworth with his wife and sister, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his wife, Charles and Mary Lamb, and Thomas De Quincey, reaching at times an assortment of nine under one small roof.

The cottage had been a pub 200 years before Wordsworth moved in, and had probably seen worse than De Quincey's habit of seven glasses of wine a day, an addiction he shared with Coleridge.

Intoxicating in a different way, the surrounding lakes and mountains helped inspire the Romantics to some of England's loveliest and most memorable poetry. Other authors followed, including the critic and painter John Ruskin and Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit.

The district ranges only 30 miles inland from the Irish Sea to the west, and lies just south of Hadrian's Wall and the Scottish border. Its Lake Windermere is the largest in England, its Cumbrian Mountains the highest. Yet everything about the lakes is on a human scale, to be appreciated without intimidation.

It is a place to don walking shoes, serviceable clothing and head out toward a neighboring village along ancient stone walls and hedgerows of roses, hawthorne, hazel and blackberries. Potter called the district a "land of stories." Perhaps more are yet to come.

Getting settled in: Elegance without pretension sums up the Linthwaite House Hotel, built at the turn of the century as a private residence on a hill overlooking Lake Windermere. It has 14 acres of gardens and woodland and its own tarn, or small lake, where one may fish for brown trout. Owners-innkeepers Jean and Mike Bevans have decorated the bedrooms, dining room and sunny new conservatory with charm and flair.

If you're seized by the urge to get away from it all, head straight for Grizedale Lodge, a former shooting lodge at the heart of Grizedale Forest. Take breakfast on the terrace and watch the red and roe deer roam in the woods. Or in early evening, pull up to the fireplace in an easy chair for a splash of the bar's finest.

Bedrooms are cheerful, with views of the forest and the fells (rocky hills). Each room has a TV and a tray for making tea and coffee. The lodge's dining room is considered a stronghold of Cumbrian cookery, with Grizedale venison, Penrith peppered lamb, lake trout and game pies of venison, duckling and guinea fowl. There's nothing fancy at the lodge, just lots of comfort and good value.

Holbeck Ghyll, another impressive country house hotel, is in a woodland between Windermere and Ambleside. Built in the early 19th Century, Holbeck Ghyll is all gables, bay windows and ivy-covered stone, with warm wood paneling, stained glass, polished brass and inglenook fireplace within.

Bedrooms vary in size and decor; most have views of Lake Windermere. Menus in the oak-walled dining room lean heavily on Gallic specialties, and the wine book is formidable.

Regional food and drink: It is well nigh impossible to find a menu in the Lake District without Cumberland sausage. It is certainly never missing at breakfast, and with chips and peas is a staple in pubs. The reason is simple--it's delicious. The local Cumberland ham has a dense, fine-grained texture, closer to Italian Parma than the bland English York variety. And with 5,000 sheep grazing in nearby meadows, most kitchens prepare marvelous lamb, the best we've had on our several visits to the lakes.

Britons really know their clarets, and have the fine cheeses to go with them. Try the blue or white Wensleydale, Cumberland garlic or the monarch of them all, the noble Stilton. A favored dessert hereabouts has the cutesy name of Cumberland rum nicky, a pastry shell filled with all sorts of glorious things. And the famous Grasmere gingerbread has been sold in the same small shop since 1854; before that, it was the village school.

Good local dining: For more than a decade, Rogers Restaurant (4 High St., Windermere) has been building an enviable reputation for food in the classic French tradition. It's a tiny place serving no more than 20, with lots of flowers, candles on each table, a fleur-de-lis pattern on the walls and hand-written menus.

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