ON ULLSWATER LAKE, England — It's virtually impossible to find a written reference to England's majestic Lake District without the obligatory mention of poets and inspiration. Yet before the British became enamored of this region, the craggy mountains seemed so fearsome that travelers pulled down the shades of their carriages while passing through, and ghostly legends abounded of spirits dwelling in the wilderness.
But in the 1800s, William Wordsworth's writing anointed this group of 16 lakes in Cumbria as England's premier tourist spot. The best-known lakes--including Grasmere, Wordsworth's home--still draw hordes to this area of northwest England in summer. Classic arched bridges near Derwent Water lure artists and photographers. Windermere, the largest and most southern lake, draws everyone from day-tripping grannies on tour buses to dare-devil windsurfers in thick, shiny wetsuits.
I've been to the Lake District at least a dozen times, and I'll take untamed Ullswater in the north. Cloyingly cute Beatrix Potter-ville may be just a few miles south in Near Sawrey, where the author lived, but relatively ignored Ullswater calls to a spirit willing to search out the paths and hills less traveled--and, perhaps, a spirit that prefers a decent Sauvignon Blanc and a cheese souffle at dinner to a pint of lager and a plate of fish and chips.
Pristine and decidedly non-gimmicky, Ullswater is the area's second largest lake. But more importantly, it is considered by those in the know to be the most beautiful body of water in Britain. That's saying a mouthful in a country of perfect landscapes. Tucked away on Ullswater's shores are a handful of England's best country-house hotels, including Leeming House, set in a historic manor, and award-winning Sharrow Bay, an epicure's mecca.
But the weather is unpredictable, and the memory of our initial trip to Ullswater 12 years ago remains somewhat murky. From the moment we arrived, a gray-flannel fog blanketed the lake. Willow and beech trees dripped heavily with mist. Thick grass along the sweeping shores lay sodden, squish-squishing each time we'd attempt to walk along the water's edge. For this we drove 295 miles from London, I thought?
Moving in this vaporous haze for three days--keenly aware that some of the most glorious views in Britain were just outside our door--we found our patience was eventually rewarded when the clouds lifted and an Eden of towering peaks and sheep-studded fells was revealed. In the brilliant August sun, the extreme dampness heralded an almost violent renewal of nature, where even the moss took on a vibrant hue--the green of emeralds.
Thought to have been named for a Norse conqueror named Ulf (hence, "Ulf's water"), the lake is 7 1/2 miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide at its broadest, surrounded by air that is sharply clean and hills easy enough to climb. Though some days it seems undiscovered--we recently traipsed for miles and never passed another soul--an estimated 500,000 trekkers of all ages navigate the surrounding paths and fields each year. Literally hundreds of miles of public trails thread through the Lake District National Park's 866 square miles, much of it protected by Britain's National Trust. The Cumbrian landscape comes with its own dialect: Streams are called becks, mountain pools are tarns, mountain ridges are fells. The colors of the day can change abruptly; thus the need for umbrella and "suitable footwear," as the British Ramblers' Assn. guidebook aptly states.
Around Ullswater, fell walking is a trifle more challenging than at some of the other lakes, but like the rest of the county's paths, there are adequate gates and stiles with no need to climb a precarious stone wall to get where you're going. (Simple maps are available at shops and at the visitors' centers in the villages of Pooley Bridge, on the north end of the lake, and Glenridding, on the south.) A tangle of rough fells to the southeast lends it an unruly beauty, and the landscape quickly changes from rolling to wicked.
Wordsworth saw the daffodils that inspired his poem known by the line, "I wandered lonely as a cloud" at Gowbarrow Park, on Ullswater's north side. Hallin Fell, easily climbed in the south, has some of the best views. The hilly Helvellyn range, in the southwest, and Place Fell, on the east, are also breathtaking. Among the best walks is one we like to take that traces the wooded eastern shore, with naturally terraced paths and lush ferns leading the way.
One of the most indisputably romantic spots in the entire Lake District is Aira Force, a dramatic waterfall tumbling 70 feet between slick rock walls before flowing into Ullswater on the west side. The site of a mythical tragedy, it continues to lure couples to its tiny bridges, high above the ravine.