Even from the back seat of a tow truck, England’s Lake District is lovely.
Gentle slopes give way to steep hills, often faced with granite. Lush green meadows are stitched by stone walls, to corral the livestock. On a chill fall morning, horses wear blankets, sheep wear their sweaters-to-be, but cows don’t even wear bells.
What seems like a baker’s thousand of tiny villages blossoms along narrow lanes like so many spilled M&M’s. This bag was loaded with colors of slate gray, whitewash and ocher, but among them were occasional splashes of royal blue, crimson, emerald, lemon.
Village names are pastoral: Ambleside, Waterhead, Grasmere, Hawkshead, Windemere, Penny Bridge.
Window boxes, hanging baskets and trellises overflow with the richest palette of neon blooms. Stands of birch, oak and pine provide the curtains through which country mansions or an occasional castle turret peek.
Velvet hillsides lead to placid lakes that gave this region of northwest England its moniker.
Slanting sunbeams and gusts of wind make those waters glitter brighter than faceted diamonds in a display case. Gliding along, sailboats, kayaks, skiffs and sightseeing two-deckers offer panoramas of shoreside hotels, livestock and, always, the hills.
From the harsh, the smooth
The Lake District is England’s most mountainous area. It was carved by glaciers that retreated 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
The region is compact, measuring less than 35 miles by 35 miles. Yet it is rugged enough that most roads are merely paved country lanes. A motorist can’t glance at a map to casually calculate driving time based on distance.
But then, no one comes to the Lake District to be in a hurry.
This region so entranced William Wordsworth that the poet waxed lyrical about nature’s calming ways in many of his works, including the poem Daffodils.
This was during the Industrial Revolution, which was financing Great Britain’s 19th-century imperial reach. But Wordsworth and other writers convinced those who could escape the smoke and smell of London, Liverpool and Manchester to come north and take comfort from the landscape.
That led to the northward extension of railroads for passengers. Before, trains merely carted raw cotton, returning with about two-thirds of the world’s finished textiles, bound for the great ports.
Also nearly 150 years ago, the tourism infrastructure grew: Inns became hotels, taverns became restaurants. Earthen stagecoach routes were covered by pavement.
About that tow truck …
When mist scuds down the hills on an overcast morning, the landscape turns somber but still beckons. It holds out the promise of at least a history lesson — Vikings first worked this land — and a chance to find the perfect tea shop or warm fireplace in a pub, to escape the chill and meet the villagers.
Following a convention of travel writers in Manchester, to the south, I and two colleagues were touring the Lake District in a rented minivan. The rental agent had neglected to say that this Chrysler ran on diesel fuel.
Unfortunately, one member of our group did not see the diesel label on the inside of the flap cover of the gas tank. He pumped 13.5 gallons of unleaded gas – at $8 a gallon – into the tank.
We were barely a mile down the road when the engine sputtered, then stopped. By the time we hoofed back to the petrol station, we understood our mistake: Diesel engines can’t run on gasoline.
After several phone calls, the local Chrysler dealer told us that we had not killed the minivan, only its fuel filter. The dealer would make the repairs as soon as the flatbed wrecker he was displatching could reach his garage, 25 miles away.
Once the minivan had been winched up onto the wrecker, the three of us piled into its cab. Those hilly roads had never seemed so narrow, but the views, well, they were still charming.
If you go
GETTING THERE: There are direct flights to Manchester, about 80 miles south of the Lake District, from U.S. gateways.
STAYING THERE: The Lake District has a range of accommodations, though you’ll get a true flavor of the area if you book into a B&B, small hotel or pub. Most include breakfast in the rate.
We spent two nights in Hawkshead, near Lake Windemere. My companions stayed at the Red Lion Inn, dating to the 15th century, and I stayed in its sister lodging, the two-centuries newer Sun Inn.
My room was up 24 steps on seven turns of the staircase. My sloped-ceiling room could serve as the Keebler Elves Bridal Suite: The windows came only to my knees, and a beam crossed the bathroom just above the toilet. I’d stay there again.
Sun Inn Hawkshead, eight rooms; www.suninn.co.uk.
Red Lion Inn, 12 rooms; www. redlionhawkshead.co.uk.
I also stayed at the modern, upscale, 41-room Waterhead Hotel in Ambleside, on Lake Windemere; www.elh.co.uk.
For a full range of choices and event information, go to www.golakes.co.uk.
WHAT TO DO THERE: Plan at least three days to meander, enjoy the views, walk the trails and take in these attractions:
/ Poet William Wordsworth’s final years were spent at Dove Cottage. On the property is the two-room bakery/sales room of the acclaimed Grasmere Gingerbread Shop. It has used the same recipe to bake a spectacularly good treat since 1854. It ships around the world; www.grasmeregingerbread.co.uk.
/ Cruise on a lake. There are several options; for instance, you can get a 30-minutes-each-way trip between Ambleside and Bowness villages, then stroll.
/ If you love dogs — or sheep — head northwest to Cockermouth and the Lakeland Sheep & Wool Visitors Centre. Watch a border collie herd a small flock of geese (the dirt-floor arena is too small to move many sheep) and watch a New Zealand dog, a huntaway, race over the backs of some sheep, as it would do to reach the other side of a herd.