Four seriously damp but totally delightful days among the English Lakes

by David Murray on 11 August 2008

in Artists, Furness, Galleries, Historic Houses, Indoor activities, Museums, Photographs, Rivers, Towns, Visitor Attractions, Writers

I hesitated before starting to write this. After all, why should anyone else be interested in a record of how my wife and I spent a few days in the Lake District. We’d driven north to look after grandchildren for a few days, then there was a gap before I had to be north again for two preaching engagements, so rather than return home between the two we took our tent to the Crake Valley, close to where the River Crake flows out from the foot of Coniston Water (picture below, taken in the rain).

Where the Crake leaves Coniston Water

Why should this interest anyone else? Well, it strikes me that an important point about these days is that they were wet. Yes, more than damp … wet!

This  is not intended to put off those considering a visit to the Lakes, but rather to demonstrate that rainy weather does not have to destroy an holiday in the English Lake District. It can, in fact, add interest as one searches for alternatives to the obvious; and in the Lake District one doesn’t have to search far.

  1. Go prepared. Check out in advance what indoor places of interest are to be found in the area. Research historical events and famous people connected with the area, and see whether there are museums or historic houses associated with them. Ask which writers and artists have worked around here, are they commemorated in some way, and are their works on display? Why not use our “English Lakes” site to help with your planning?
  2. However well you think you know the area, take every opportunity to scavenge the racks of brochures that are in just about every hotel foyer, restaurant, coffee shop, trinkets store, petrol filling station, etc, etc, etc.. You’ll almost certainly be surprised to find something that you didn’t imagine would be around here, or which you vaguely knew about but had forgotten.
  3. Don’t let a bit of rain turn you totally away from the idea of an outdoor holiday. Use the gaps in the heavy rain to take short walks. If you’re visiting the Lakes I assume you’ll have waterproofs with you.  Put them on and go out.

Day One:  Coniston Water, Millom and Haverigg

Tent and car near Coniston Water

Wednesday: We were camping (the tent attaches to the back of our estate car – more on that in a later post) at a small secluded site at Blawith, between Torver and Greenodd.  We’d chosen this because, although as a child in the 1950s I’d often visited my uncle’s farm just up the road between Lowick and Gawthwaite, we’d never before explored the area in any detail.

Near foot of Coniston Water

The morning was damp but not actually raining, so skirting the private land over which there appears to be a right of way only to use the Coniston passenger launch jetty, we found our way down to a point at the water’s edge where there is a canoe launching point.  Even in the damp air with the mist over the hills it was a  beautiful, peaceful spot and until we reached the road on our return walk by a different path we never saw a single soul.

For the afternoon we chose to visit a town and headed west to Millom, home of the late Norman Nicholson, possibly the most outstanding of 20th-century “Lakes Poets”.  It would have been nice to spend some time in the local museum, which I’m told is very informative on the history of the area – this grey town between the heights of Black Combe and the Duddon Estuary which for generations was home to a major steel-producing plant based on the local availability of haematite ore, all now gone. This, however, will have to wait for another trip as we decided to head further west to Haverigg, a small coastal village.

If you’re lover of windswept views of sand and sea then this outer point of the Duddon estuary, looking south across to Askam and Barrow with Walney Island wrapped around the tip of the Furness Peninsula, must be for you.  As we reached the coast the rain had stopped.  We strolled onto the first few sand dunes (an area of dune said to be the largest in England, and recognised now as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its extensive natural habitats).  I’d like to spend more time exploring this area.  For today, though, we sat for a while on a seat overlooking the estuary, enjoying the view, then drank an excellent cup of tea at the beach cafe. Across from the cafe is an information board about the Duddon Estuary – one of the best, in the sense of being genuinely informative and interestingly put together, that I’ve seen anywhere. (I don’t expect you to be able to read the text on the photo!)

Duddon Estuary information board at Haverigg

Day Two:  Barrow-in-Furness

Thursday: Still raining.  And disaster struck.  It’s not easy to lock the keys inside our car; it’s designed to make it difficult, but I succeeded.  “Don’t worry,” said my wife.  “I’ve got my keys in my bag.”  “Where’s your bag?”  “Oh! … It’s in the car!”  That occupied the morning, but the Green Flag emergency call-out man did a splendid job, and by lunch-time we were mobile.  We decided to go west again, this time on the south side of the Duddon, so headed out past Greenodd. Ulverston and Dalton to Barrow.

Now what can I say of my birthplace?  My parents left just after World War II, and took me with them. I was only three years old so I never knew Barrow well, but over the years came to think of it as a rather dull, dusty, declining and dispirited town with little going for it apart from the fluctuating fortunes of the shipbuilding industry.  Today, however, I saw a brighter Barrow.  The town is picking itself up.  As we walked through the streets, even on a dull day, there seemed to be more energy about the place.

Barrow Dock Museum

I’m cheered at that.  But actually, our focus now was not to be on the present but on Barrow’s past.  There is a excellent museum in one of the old docks; three floors of exhibits on the history of this remarkable town and its growth from almost nothing to a major industrial centre based on iron, ships and railways within little more than thirty years in the nineteenth century.  It was indeed a miracle town of the industrial revolution.  For me it has a special interest as one of my four sets of great-grandparents arrived in the area from Liverpool during the 1870s, but even without a personal connection The Dock Museum can provide a fascinating afternoon out, not least for its scale models of ships launched from the shipyards here – and there’s a nice coffee shop. The Barrow Dock Museum is something of which the town can rightfully be proud.  (I wonder whether it is fully appreciated locally).

There’s much more to Barrow for the visitor. The lover of history can investigate the magnificent ruins of Furness Abbey, the ancient Cistercian monastery from which the powerful abbots of long ago strongly influenced both the religious and economic life of this region, and beyond.   The nature lover can spend fascinating hours at the reserves on Walney Island, and a drive back to Ulverston along the “coast road” on the south of the peninsula is beautiful, but for now we had to return to base camp and chose to go through Askam (briefly to revive childhood memories of walks along the sand to Dunnerholme with the dogs) and Broughton.

Day Three:  Hawkshead and Coniston

Hawkshead Grammar School

Friday. I wish we’d known the significance of the day as we chose to visit the Beatrix Potter properties of the National Trust at Hawkshead and Near Sawrey … but as described in an earlier post on this blog we found them both closed.  (Warning!  Don’t try to visit Beatrix Potter on a Friday.  She’s “not at home” to visitors on that day).  However, after eating our sandwiches in the Hill Top car park, we drove back and wandered around Hawkshead under umbrellas, found a good bookshop and visited the old Grammar School (pictured above), founded in 1585 and attended by William Wordsworth from 1779-1787.

Next stop was Coniston village.  I wanted some photographs of the Ruskin monument in the churchyard, and obligingly the rain stopped for a while.  On previous visits I’d not noticed that W. G. Collingwood (at different stages of his life Ruskin’s student, assistant, secretary, travelling companion, colleague and biographer – as well as artist, archeologist, antiquarian and author in his own right) is buried in the adjacent plot.  Then to complete a trio of gravestone photos I walked to the modern burial ground a few hundred yards away to see the grave of Donald Campbell who was killed in 1967 when his Bluebird speedboat crashed on Coniston Water during an attempt on the world water speed record.

Donald Campbell grave at Coniston

I’ve visited the Ruskin Museum in Coniston several times in the past, and decided this time to give it a miss.  If you’ve never been then you should include this on your itinerary, but I satisfied myself with a photograph of the temporary entrance as in the very near future a new extension is to be opened housing the restored Bluebird, remains of which were recovered a few years ago along with Donald Cambell’s body (at last laid to rest in 2001) after eventually being found in the depths of the lake.  I hope to return when the new exhibits are open.

The weather by now was blustery but dry, so after a cup of tea in a very nice cafe a walk to the lake was just what was needed.  More photographs, then on the way back we stopped off to look at an exhibition of two Lakeland photographers.  Rather unusually they were housed in an upstairs gallery over  the Fudge Shop on a small retail development, strategically positioned so that the footpath is routed through it, between the village and the lake.  I was very impressed with the work of both Trevor Brown and David Briggs.

Day Four:  Windermere and Near Sawrey

Saturday: Overnight it had poured down, but our trusty tent kept us snug and dry. We took it down between showers, and drove to Lakeside, at the foot of Windermere.

Freshwater Aquarium at Lakeside

The plan had been to visit the freshwater aquarium there but we changed out minds and left it for another visit. It look as though this could provide a very interesting hour or two on a rainy day, or even to retreat from the sun when it’s too hot, but I simply cannot understand how the National Park planning authorities allowed it to be built in a style more suited to a small town supermarket. Why on earth isn’t it at least faced in local slate to make it fit in with the general environment?

The weather now improved and we had a very good, intermittently sunny day mostly around Windermere. Firstly Fell Foot Park, owned by the National Trust and providing access to a beautiful stretch of the lake shore. Given my interest in the local rivers it allowed me photograph the point at which the River Leven flows out from the lake to commence its short coastward journey.

View of Windermere from Brockhole

We then moved on toward the northern end of the lake, to Brockhole. headquarters of the Lake District National Park Authority. The house, gardens and a stretch of lake shoreline are open to the public free of charge (apart from a modest car park fee). The house includes an information centre, Lake District exhibitions, a very nice restaurant, a bookshop and a film theatre. This is a “must-see” for any visitor to this part of the Lake District. Many special events are held at Brockhole on a wide variety of Lakeland themes. Views from the garden are little short of spectacular.

We also fitted in a visit to Hill Top, the Beatrix Potter farmhouse, compensating from our failed attempt the previous day, and then it was time to hit the motorway. We’d had an excellent few days. The weather didn’t allow the intended photographic exploration of the Crake Valley; that will have to wait for another time; but we demonstrated clearly that damp days don’t have to be a spoiled holiday.

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