A Romantic poet of the 18th century once spoke of “steep and lofty cliffs” that “impress thoughts of more deep seclusion” in his verse. Nineteenth-century Victorian writers fought to preserve the pastoral they felt slipping away due to the pressures of modern life. They all came to the English Lake District for inspiration. Today, the same sloping fells and rippling glacial lakes that once beckoned these literary greats attract longing travelers for very much the same reason.
But with the notorious dollar-to-pound exchange rate, many see their dream of deep seclusion fading into the ether. How could such a trip be affordable? Won’t you be surprised to find out.
Recently, I visited the Lake District National Park in the rural county of Cumbria for three full days and nights, and managed to keep within a $500 budget. You can, too.
Where to stay in the Lake District
Though the main Lake District towns of Windermere, Ambleside, and Grasmere offer a range of lodging, from elegant Victorian hotels to small guesthouses, they can get touristy—and pricey—especially in the summer. If you want to save and find some peace and quiet, look for cozy country inns outside of the towns, and consider going in the off-season.
This past fall, I stayed at the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel in Great Langdale, set at the base of the dramatic Langdale Pikes. Room rates start at £47 (£141 for three nights, about $280 US dollars; see XE.com for current exchange rates) per person and include a full English breakfast every morning. Guest rooms are comfortable, with an updated English country look. Most have soft yellow walls and rose-colored floral drapes and linens, while offering views of the neighboring fells (hills) or sheep pastures through iron lattice windows. Located a few precarious miles from Ambleside, this rugged stone hotel makes for an ideal escape, as well as a jumping-off point for mountain walks.
If you get hungry and tired from a day of hiking and sightseeing, there’s a convenient on-site pub that serves affordable meals. For example, an enormous burger plate with chips (french fries) costs £7.75.
For other similar lodging options, the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel up the road is also a good value. Or, try the listings on Alastair Sawday’s Special Places to Stay.
Driving a rental car in the Lake District
Though it’s relatively easy to explore the Lake District by foot, you’ll need a car if you want to head off the beaten path. Just remember you’ll be driving on the left side of the road and will have to navigate steep climbs and narrow, twisting roads through the mountains.
1car1 is a great option for easy and affordable car rentals. When renting from the Manchester Airport location, I found rates for February rentals from £19.39 per day (£58.17 for three days) for an economy car with manual transmission. Automatics cost a bit more. No matter what you drive, remember that sharing a car means sharing the cost, so there’s more room in your budget for activities and food.
What to do in the Lake District
A quest for “deep seclusion” wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Dove Cottage, former home of William Wordsworth, the poet who penned the line in his famous poem, “Tintern Abbey” (although the abbey is actually in Wales). You can tour the former inn and pub turned family home for £6.50, and then head to the adjacent museum housing 90 percent of his manuscripts. Afterwards, take a short walk through Grasmere to the churchyard of 14th-century St. Oswald’s, where the poet and his family are buried. At the churchyard gate, be sure to stop into The Grasmere Gingerbread Shop, which still bakes Sarah Nelson’s secret 19th-century recipe that is something of a cross between a biscuit and a cake.
Within a few short miles, another famous writer put down roots. On the shore of Coniston Water, John Ruskin—Victorian writer, artist, art critic, poet, and advocate for environmental conservation—designed and built his estate, Brantwood. Here, you can tour the parlor where he entertained many friends with music, reading novels aloud, and making Ruskin Lace; as well as his bedroom, where he hung many of his favorite J.M.W. Turner paintings from his collection, some two or three deep. Admission to the house and extensive gardens costs £5.95.
Perhaps the biggest literary highlight is seeing the very place where Beatrix Potter brought so many lovable characters to life through stories and illustrations. At Hill Top, her former home in Near Sawrey, visit the room where Tom Kitten got dressed in his too-small blue suit or where Samuel Whiskers pushed a rolling pin up the stairs. The author based many of her tales at this farmhouse, which has been preserved pretty much the way she left it. And if you’re starting to feel inspired by the surrounding countryside, you can thank her. Beatrix Potter also became a well-respected farmer of Herwick sheep, the local breed, and is responsible for much of the Lake District’s preservation for having donated her pastureland to the National Trust. Admission costs £5.40.
For more inspiration, there are ample opportunities for country walks in the Lake District. And best of all, they’re completely free. I spent a day on a gentle hike near Great Langdale, in the fells overlooking Elterwater. During the fall, paths lead you through a breathtaking mix of green and russet ferns, as you climb alongside meandering stone walls. Views of the valley below are stunning and change depending on the mist.
I also took a scenic drive to Aira Force, a favorite spot of Wordsworth’s, to see the waterfalls and take in views of Ullswater, perhaps the most stunning of all the lakes. On the way, the mystery surrounding the Castlerigg Stone Circle compelled me to stop the car and explore.
Affordable eats in the Lake District
For food outside of your hotel, Ambleside is the most convenient—and perhaps most satisfying—place to find a bite to eat. Streets are packed with all sorts of cafes, tearooms, and coffee shops serving relatively affordable meals. And considering the reputation of British food, the quality is a pleasant surprise.
First, I recommend all the “Lucy” eateries, which respect the local region and strive to make dining an all-around pleasurable experience. For lunch, you can’t go wrong at Lucy’s on a Plate, a lively cafe that specializes in gluten-free and locally-sourced products. I paid £9.70 for a pot of Lakeland Special Tea and the goat cheese and balsamic-drenched Paddy McGinty’s salad. For dinner, literally a few hours later, I dined at nearby Lucy4, a fun, informal wine bar and bistro. Plates are small, so you order as much as you want. Specials like lamb cutlet with mashed potato and crispy pancetta cost £6.95, and a dressed green salad £3.95. British food tends to be portioned large, so two plates were plenty for me. For souvenirs or lakeside picnic supplies, Lucy’s Specialist Grocers sells all kinds of Cumbrian products like sticky toffee pudding sauce, rum butter, and jams. Plus, there’s a full delicatessen featuring cheeses from the North Country.
Another favorite, Apple Pie Café and Bakery, serves some of the most affordable and delicious lunches in town. The tarragon chicken sandwich, for instance, costs just £2.45, and a slice of pie—we’re talking remarkable pie with plump raisins and a heavy hand of sugar and spice—will set you back a mere £0.84. The cafe is bustling inside during the lunch hour, but you can find seating outside overlooking a brook.
If you have a little left in your budget for a fancier meal, make a reservation next door at the The Glass House Restaurant, set in an old water mill. The food is so superb that you’ll never know the restaurant was once thwacked by Kitchen Nightmares celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Entrees like Lakeland confit duck leg with Cumberland sausage stuffing cost £12.95.
With sublime food and exhilarating mountain scenery to match, the Lake District can take you to a lofty place and elevate your senses. And if you do it right, you’ll keep your budget down to earth. The only thoughts in your head will truly be those of “deep seclusion.”
- Hotel: £141
- Car: £58.17
- Admissions: £17.85
- Food: £34.89
Total: £ 251.91 ($499.54)
Getting to the Lake District
Manchester airfare is comparable to that of London, and flights to London are still among the cheapest to Europe. To search for flights and compare prices to Manchester, visit SmarterTravel.com’s price-comparison tool.
The Lake district is a about a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Manchester, which I’ve written about in a previous column.
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