England's Lake District calls through the mist

Levens Hall, an Elizabethan manor house, features a spectacular topiary garden. House or garden alone are each worth a tour.
Levens Hall, an Elizabethan manor house, features a spectacular topiary garden. House or garden alone are each worth a tour.

LAKE DISTRICT, England — It wasn't the best day to plan a drive across Kirkstone Pass, the highest mountain pass open to motorists in the English Lake District.

The clear robin's-egg-blue sky of the previous day had given way to a dull metallic gray, and a heavy curtain of clouds hung over the road, which snaked up sheer slopes that were panic-inducing in their steep drop to the valley below.

William Wordsworth, that eloquent Lake District aficionado, described the Pass as "most potent when mists veil the sky; mists that distort and magnify," but peering through the foggy curtain and trying to see the boundary between road and abyss, I couldn't agree with him. The Kirkstone Pass is best navigated on a mist-free day.

Still, I was able to make out a landscape so dramatic and diverse that within the space of a few miles, I felt as if I had traveled from the rugged peaks of Montana and Wyoming to the gentle, rolling hills of Vermont.

In Cumbria, in the northwest of England, practically within hiking distance of the Scottish border, the Lake District is Britain's second-largest national park. If you count Tarn Hows, a man-made body of water no larger than a pond, there are 18 lakes of superlative natural beauty in this region, and each has its own personality.

The region requires leisurely exploration, from Windermere, the largest lake, whose shoreline is dotted with elegant Victorian mansions converted into luxury hotels, to Wastwater, the deepest lake, whose dark and sinister appearance invites moonlight ghost stories and tales of marauding Vikings.

The best way to explore is to do what millions of visitors to the Lake District do: Take to the trails. Whether it's a gentle amble along the velvety slopes of Catbells, or a strenuous trek up Helvellyn or Skiddaw Peak, the Lake District is a hiker's paradise. Roughly 2,000 miles of footpaths criss-cross every part of the region, taking in the Hardknott Roman Fort, occupied by Hadrian's legions in the first century; the 4,000-year-old Castlerigg Stone Circle, a more accessible cousin of Stonehenge; Thirlmere, with its legend of the Black Ghost Dog that swims the lake every night; and the atmospheric Kirkstone Inn, which at 1,500 feet above sea level bills itself as "the inn with altitude."

I stopped at the inn for lunch my first day and got a hearty welcome from the rosy-faced publican.

"What'll it be, love?" he asked, and before I could answer, he assured me that the fish and chips "were proper good today." Who was I to argue? As I waited, I nursed a pint and watched hikers as they began the ascent up a trail predictably called "the struggle." I briefly considered joining them, quickly dismissed the notion, and returned to sipping my ale.

I first fell in love with the Lake District 25 years ago, thinking it one of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen. Along with visions of Wordsworth's daffodils gracefully bowing their heads in the wind along Lake Ullswater, my main memory was of the intense green of the area. Sure, all of England is green, but here the word seems not significant enough to describe the lush valleys, forests, hills, fells and dells. Here, you must distinguish between shades of green: Is it sea green, moss green, jade or emerald?

If, like Wordsworth, you're seeking solitude, this is the place. Even in summer, when thousands converge on the lakes, there are areas that allow for quiet introspection. It's true that in the towns of Ambleside and Hawkeshead, tourists crowd the shops and tea rooms, but even in the height of summer, you can find secluded spots to get away from it all.

In Grasmere, one of the prettier towns, my friend and I were the only two in the drawing room of the Wordsworth Hotel when we stopped in for a cup of tea after visiting the poet's grave in the nearby cemetery. We were able to stroll the stunning topiary gardens at Levens Hall, a magnificent Elizabethan manor house, without tripping over fellow travelers, and the picturesque village of Cartmel could have been a ghost town on the morning of our visit. In fact, the only soul who paid us the slightest attention was a golden retriever that was roused from his nap in the back seat of a station wagon.

A town as lovely as this one — with its stone cottages, riotous blooms and bubbling brook running through the town center — surely should have more visitors. But I was too busy enjoying having Cartmel mostly to myself to worry much about that.

Literary landscape

The Lake District was to Wordsworth and fellow poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey what the Yorkshire moors were to the Brontë sisters and the rural landscape of Dorset was to Thomas Hardy: a geographic muse for their creative expression. But perhaps the region's most famous scribe is Beatrix Potter, whose tales of Peter Rabbit, his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, and the cantankerous Farmer McGregor have charmed children for more than a century.

Upon her death in 1943, Potter left her farm, Hill Top, to the National Trust with the stipulation that everything must remain just as it was when she lived there. Upon entering, the visitor has the feeling that Potter has just gotten up from her desk to put on the kettle. I especially loved the sketches of the rabbit clan that she doodled for a favorite relative, and that with typical British civility, visitors are asked "please try not to touch."

As one might expect in a place with such a rich literary heritage, events for book lovers abound. Summer poetry readings, organized by the Wordsworth Trust, are held at Dove Cottage, and each March, the 10-day Words by the Water takes place in Keswick on the edge of Derwentwater. An annual Festival of Books offers spirited debates on literature, philosophy, religion and history.

Perhaps the liveliest event occurs each November in Wastwater, when the Santon Bridge Inn puts on its yearly World's Biggest Liar Contest. It's a tribute to a 19th- century pub owner, "Auld Will," known for his tall tales, but with a 21st-century twist. To retain the contest's amateur status, the inn's staff refuses to allow lawyers, politicians and journalists to participate.

Treasures galore

Most people come to the Lake District to commune with nature, but don't think for a minute that there is nothing else to do. As everywhere in Britain, stately homes and castles abound. In the first category are Levens Hall and Holker Hall, and in the latter is the impressive 13th-century Muncaster Castle.

Like all castles worth their salt, Muncaster is reputedly haunted, but it seems that one ghost isn't enough. There's a haunting by 16th-century jester Tom Fool (now you know where the term tomfoolery came from), who committed a particularly grisly murder to curry favor with the lord of the castle, and the ghost of the White Lady, a young girl murdered near the main gate in the 19th century. Guests wanting to test their mettle can arrange to spend a night in the castle's Tapestry Room in the hope of catching a spectral sighting.

There just didn't seem to be enough time for everything. My friend was distressed that we didn't have a chance to visit the James Bond Museum in Keswick, with its collection of famous Bond cars and gadgets, or the Cumberland Pencil Museum (seriously), and we both regretted not having a chance to sample Sarah Nelson's gingerbread, a Lake District staple since Victorian times.

But mostly, I was just happy to, as Wordsworth did, "wander lonely as a cloud" and revel in scenery that painter John Constable called "the finest there ever was."