Paul Swalwell discovers Cumbria’s seasonal splendour… In the cold, frosty morning light the Derwent Water shone brightly amid the multitude of red, yellow and golden leaf foliage that surrounds the gentle shoreline. A fresh chill in the air hung as brightly cloaked walkers made their way through towards the northern shore of the lake to take in the autumnal colour that has brought me across the Pennines.
The spectacular change of vista was something that escaped my attention until mentioned to me by an American friend travelling through Europe. He said a favourite past-time of his family was to head east to New England and witness fall in all its multi-coloured glory. For many Brits, autumn is an also-ran of a season, jammed between a wash-out of a summer and the dark drawn-out nights of winter, but to my American friend, autumn was a chance to go outside and witness nature’s greatest and most colourful transformation.
The cosy Cumbrian town of Keswick offers the perfect setting for a trip to see the cascade of tumbling foliage. Sitting serenely on the northern edge of the Derwent Water and conveniently placed off the A66, the town is one of only three conurbations in the Lake District national park with more than three thousand residents. It is here that some of the best views of nature’s fleeting love affair with summer can be seen.
Having researched the best views for this time of year, a brief itinerary had been planned to make best use of the little time I had in the area. The plan was to take in the views of the Derwent Water followed by a brief drive up to Buttermere via Thirlmere and the Honister pass. The Derwent Water is fed and drained by the River Derwent which meets the Irish Sea at Workington. This three mile long body of water offers the walker the opportunity to serenely circle the lake and take in some of the fine views of Borrowdale to the south and the high fells of Skiddaw to the North-East. After a brief walk breathing in the dramatic horizon, a return to Keswick and the chance to warm up in one of the town’s many rustic pubs becomes irresistible. The area is famed for its local ales, and oak beamed and white-washed pubs; a friendly dog greets your arrival in nearly every tavern. Having warmed up and sampled a fine and dark roasted pint of Jennings’ Snecklifter, I made my way to the small yet perfectly formed Buttermere.
The farmer’s small car park was busy, but a parking space was easy to find. Buttermere is a particularly cold and deep lake for this region and is home to some very specifically evolved wildlife, the sort of animal that only gets third year zoology students excited: crustaceans. Yet the main attraction was the shoreline. The forests teemed with colour, overflowing in rich auburn life and reflecting the cold lowering sunshine that passed overhead. The small two hour circular walk that navigates through the crisp and rasping woodland via another splendid pub was sparsely populated allowing many opportunities to sample the scenery and take in the vibrant colours of the native wood. It quite simply seemed as if the area was permanent, ancient and alive all at the same time.
Yet in recent years there has been a great deal of talk surrounding the future of Britain’s native woodland with growing concerns over the health of its ancient trees following exposure to the deadly fungal disease, Chalara Fraxinea, or Ash dieback. The Ash tree helps make up a large part of the deciduous native forest that populates the lakes alongside the native Oaks. It is in these woodlands that autumn becomes the spectacle it is. Despite the large numbers of conifer plantations that straddle the lakeside, the composition of both evergreen and deciduous trees helps bring the full nature of the Lakes to light. This area is both a natural and working environment. The nearby Honister slate mine helps elucidate this contrast and the changing economy of the area. The northern lakes are rich in green slate buildings; all dug from deep inside the earth at the nearby Honister mine. The accompanying scree and tourist trips have brought a renewed vigour to the area and this association between industrial heritage and tourism has seen the Honister slate mine claim a prestigious Cumbria tourism award for ‘Best Tourism Experience’ in 2011.
The Lake District last year attracted over 15 million visitors to an area just one and a half times the size of London. This means that tourism is the engine that drives the lakes’ economy. In 2010 nearly 15,000 people were employed in tourist related jobs bringing over £900 million to the counties’ coffers. Yet on a clear autumn weekday in late October, on the way back to Keswick, hardly any of the high quality B&B’s that frequent the area were full. A startling statistic about the Lake District is that so many people travel here by car. I count myself at one of over 75% of visitors who arrival by a private vehicle. This is both a blessing and a curse. It makes travelling around the lakes so very easy and yet finding a car parking space so very hard, not to mention the environmental impact of these statistics. On the other hand, the experienced traveller will be able to deduce that the best time to visit is on a weekday as only 33% of visitors stay overnight in one of variety of over 500 accommodation providers ranging from traditional family owned B&B’s to high-end hotels and YHA’s.
The Lake District will always be a place of outstanding natural beauty, yet its autumn colours are often overlooked in favour of winter sun deals to the Algarve or Alicante. Sometimes we in Britain take for granted the beautiful landscape we have on our doorstep; sometimes we can’t see the vibrant autumn wood for the trees. Paul Swalwell
For more information on visiting the Lake District and its National Parks go to: http://www.lakedistrict.gov.uk/
How to get there: Visitors arriving by car can be served by several main roads to the northern lakes. The Trans-Pennine A66 is the main route into Keswick and is connected to the North and South via the A1 (M) at Scotch Corner.
Accommodation: There is plenty of choice for every budget. I stayed at the Burnside B&B in Keswick for £64 a night. It was fabulously served by the owners, Sharon and Peter, and meticulously kept. It served a choice of breakfasts, with fair-trade tea & coffee, and offered well kept stylish en-suite rooms. http://www.burnside-keswick.co.uk/
Food & Drink: Keswick has a host of bars, pubs and restaurants for every taste, with most serving high quality local produce. The lakes are famed for their ales. Sample some of the native tipple in a fine pale ale made by Robinson’s in Dizzy Blonde or a richer, strong ale in Jennings’ Snecklifter. Both breweries are situated within a stones’ throw of Keswick and offer tours for a reasonable price.