Far from the Sporting Crowd
BY JANE MUNDY, SPECIAL TO THE SUN June 25, 2012
In 1884 William Wordsworth wrote a letter to then Prime Minister Gladstone objecting to a proposed railway line that would cut through his beloved Lakes District. England’s Poet Laureate felt that increased tourism would threaten the Lakeland scenery that the LakePoets romanticized and cherished by the Brits. It’s England’s best kept secret, according to the locals.
Thankfully Mr. W’s complaints fell on deaf ears (unlike his poetry). The railway opened a few years later and the scenery is just as bucolic and spectacular as it was in Wordsworth’s day, albeit with a few more tourists.
I know all this because a draft of his poem is on display at an exhibition called ‘Writing Britain” at the British Library in London. Coincidentally I’d booked a seat to Windermere in Cumbria on Virgin Trains, knowing I’d crave wide open spaces after dodging London’s crowds. (Wordsworth likely wouldn’t spend more than a few days in today’s London either--I arrived at the tail end of the Queen’s Jubilee and cab drivers were already whining about traffic nightmares during the Olympics.)
The Lakes District was already established as a tourist destination when Wordsworth wrote “A Guide to the District of the Lakes” in the early 1800s. Apparently he wanted to correct previous guides to the area and aimed to educate readers in the “reverential and loving response to the landscaping that he, as an inhabitant, had experienced over many years of devoted observation.” Then there’s Coleridge, another of the LakesPoets: “I love…mountains with almost a visionary fondness.”
The Lakes Poets waxed eloquent about these 35 square miles of mountains and lakes where spring comes late and verdant green hills are speckled with Herdwick sheep that live on the fells. Despite the usual ‘gentle’ rain in these parts (optimistically called ‘dampening on’ by the English vacationer who comes here for rambles and rock climbs) I too was smitten by this land that has an air of timelessness about it.
I checked into the Wild Boar Inn, circa 17th century, just in time for an evening stroll to the smokehouse with chef Marc Saunders (famous for putting grey squirrel on the menu) before dinner. I noticed a metal filing cabinet amongst the smokers. “You put the charcoal and wet sawdust in the bottom drawer, poke a few holes in all the drawers and smoke just about anything, even cheese and olives” said Saunders. For instance, guests can smoke their catch-of-the-day, usually trout, and take it home.
Andrew Hunter, chief Gingerbread Man at The Grasmere Gingerbread shop wasn’t as forthcoming. “The recipe is locked away in the local bank vault in Ambleside,” he said seriously. With one bite I understood why. And like most everything in these parts, it too is steeped in history. Sarah Nelson came up with the recipe and sold it from a tree stump outside her house, a stone’s throw from Wordsworth’s home, Dove Cottage. “Sarah died in 1904 and left the business to her great niece and it has been in my wife’s family for three generations,” said Hunter. “Secrecy is just part of the charm.” And so is location.
Speaking of location, next day I got a handle on these parts aboard a ‘Mountain Goat’ bus and took the Ten Lakes Tour. What could be more relaxing than gazing at grazing sheep with a running commentary from Alan, driver and history buff who has lived here all his life? He explained how the Vikings built about 22,000 miles of stone walls more than 1,000 years ago to enclose property, and the stones were lying about in the fields, leftover from the ice age. Now sheep and humans climb over them.
We pass woodland areas interspersed with rocky outcrops, past lakes dotted with sailboats and canoes, and stop for photo ops such as the stone circle at Castlerigg, believed to be from the Neolithic or Bronze age. “At summer solstice this place is heaving with old hippies,” said Alan, laughing.
That night I splurged and dined at Gilpin Lodge—a gorgeous family owned Georgian hotel and the perfect hangout for the rich and famous yet at the same time unpretentious. After five courses—most everything sourced locally--their personal chauffer drove me back to the Wild Boar Inn, which was only a 20-minute walk away. Exercise was on the agenda.
Although Tarn Hows is just a bump on the Lakeland landscape, I opted for an electric bike, good for 15 miles or so with batteries to help up the steep parts. Starting at Coniston Boating Centre I cycled the countryside that inspired Beatrix Potter, and that inspired me to visit “The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction” in Bowness-on-Windermere. Interestingly, more adults were visiting than kids. The Virtual Walks display alone is worth the price of admission.
Time for lunch and a real ale. Across WindermereLake to Staveley I met Alex Brodie, founder of Hawkshead Brewery and eager to share brewing secrets. Order the beer-matching platter and sample their five most popular brews, from Lakeland lager paired with corn fritters to Brodie’s Prime, a dark and fruity beer with chocolate. Brodie said 30 percent of a beer’s flavour is in the yeast. “We mustn’t stress the yeast. We talk to it and think nice thoughts, otherwise it will sulk.”
There are many stylish and unusual places to stay in the Lakes, from luxurious homes like Gilpin Lodge to basic huts without electricity. If you’re visiting for more than, say, five days, consider what the Brits call “self-catering”. Check out Heart of the Lakes—it lists over 350 properties, some of which are more than 400 years old. I only had one more night here, and checked into Nanny Brow, a newly renovated B&B that was built in 1903.
My room with a view of its seven acres was spectacular. They choose not to serve dinners or take kids under 12 because it would be too noisy. All I could hear were songbirds as I read Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud/That floats on high o’er vales and hills”.
To get even further away from it all, head north to EdenValley, where you can walk England’s last bit of wilderness for miles without seeing a soul. The ‘right to roam’ is a recent Parliamentary Act and you can walk just about anywhere. Or drive up to Hartside Summit and onto Alston, described as England’s most scenic road. It’s also one of the top 10 driving roads in the world—this route is for serious cyclists, no electric bikes in sight. From the summit you can see clear across to Scotland.
The town of Alston with its cobbled streets is the highest market town in England. From here you can hop on a bus and walk Hadrian’s Wall. A number of B&B’s in these parts offer up-close farm life where you can feed the chickens and milk the cows. Bunnies run rampant, it’s the freshest air and I probably had the best sleep ever at Scalehouse, a 400-year-old B&B about 10 miles east of Penrith. “We can pick you up from your hotel in the Lake District and you can either bring your bikes or rent them here,” says proprietor Pamela Bonnick. “There are plenty of bike routes and if you stop at one of the pubs we can also rescue you after too many pints.” That’s got to be the next best thing to battery-run.
Mr. and Mrs. Couch...
London: Swanky Hotels and Great English Noshes
If the Lakes District is England’s best kept secret, One Aldwych in Covent Garden and TempleApex in Fleet Street are London’s best kept hotel secrets. They are both oases yet located in the heart of London’s action. One Aldwych is my fave, with its unique swimming pool. At one end is a screen projecting images of Churchill and the Coronation and underwater music compels you to swim a few more laps.
Food, glorious food. I’m a loyal Londoner, born and bred, but when it came to cuisine we closed our eyes and thought of the queen (mum’s cooking was inedible). Gone are those days. A stones’ throw from Temple Apex is Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. Charles Dickens dined here and maybe started his day with a breakfast called "the 10 deadly sins," that includes Simpson's sausage, fried egg, streaky and back bacon, black pudding, lamb's kidneys, fried bread, bubble and squeak (they’ll explain), baked beans, lamb's liver, and fried mushrooms and tomatoes. If you’re still hungry—I’m not making this up—order a real pig's nose with parsley and onion sauce.
The chef at Rules elevates lowly cabbage to the food of kings. Stiff upper lip waiters (mine resembled the Anthony Hopkins character in “Remains of the Day”) transport silver trays to private dining rooms full of very important people. Go upstairs and ogle past clients displayed on the walls—a veritable literary museum.
Spend some time in London’s oldest and iconic Borough Market before dining at Roast, situated above the market. I had the best roast beef and Yorkshire pudding ever here. They are dedicated to traditional cooking with a world-class wine selection.
I do love London after a good nosh and a posh hotel room.
My British vacation started on Virgin Atlantic’s “Dancing Queen”. Virgin flies direct from YVR to Heathrow until October 27th from about $800. Or treat yourself to First Class: enjoy a gin and tonic at the bar on the plane and the lounge in Heathrow is arguably the best in the world. Sir Richard Branson even throws in a haircut and shave or massage and manicure at the spa. Fab.
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