A Brief Guide to the Lake District

The Lake District is a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site in Cumbria in the North West of England. Its soaring mountains, picturesque lakes and inspiring scenery make it the most visited national park in the UK, with a whopping 15.8 million visitors every year!

Buttermere in the Lake DistrictThere really is something for everyone with opportunities for walking, outdoor adventure, shopping, leisure cruising, and general relaxation. And even with so many visitors, you can still find a quiet spot or pass a day where you hardly see another soul.

Here’s a brief guide to everything about the Lake District!

Contents:

History

The Lake District was one of the first national parks in the UK, first named as one on the 9th of May 1951. The goal was to preserve its natural beauty and responsibly share the landscape with the general public, so that everyone could enjoy the region.

Castlerigg Stone Circle near Keswick in the Lake DistrictBut the history of the Lake District dates back much further than that. Originally covered in ice, people are thought to have first settled in the area around 12,000 years ago, though it wasn’t until the Neolithic era that there was more permanent settlement in what is now the national park. Ancient stone circles such as Castlerigg can still be visited today, while tools made from rock from the Langdale Pikes have been found across the UK.

The Romans took over in 77AD. Hadrian’s Wall is, of course, the most famous monument to this era, but other evidence remains including Hardknott Roman Fort and the Roman Bath House in Ravenglass.

Carlisle Castle in CumbriaAfter the Romans, the area was the scene of many battles for a number of years, with the likes of the Vikings and the Celts fighting over the land. In 1092 the area was conquered by the Normans (although it continued to pass between English and Scottish rule for many years), and castles such as the one at Carlisle were built. Over the next few hundred years, many others were built in the area, including at Penrith, Kendal and Muncaster.

When James I of England unified the country with Scotland in 1603, Cumbria and the Lake District were finally at peace and the way was paved for mining in the area. With resource-rich mountains, the national park was the ideal place for this kind of industry, with slate, granite and limestone being of particular use.

Windermere Cruise Boat on the lakeIn the late 1800s and the 1900s, William Wordsworth’s poetry extolling the area boosted its popularity greatly, and tourism began in earnest. Hotels were built to accommodate the growing number of visitors, and attractions such as Windermere Lake Cruises were set up.

Tourism only continued to grow, and the Lake District’s protected status was confirmed in 1951 when it was made a national park, and again in July 2017 when it was granted iconic status as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Lakes

Skiddaw and Bassenthwaite Lake in the Lake DistrictOfficially, there are 16 lakes in the Lake District, though only one, Bassenthwaite Lake, actually has the word in its name. There are also many more bodies of waters - tarns, rivers, reservoirs – and all offer something special and unique.

Windermere is the longest lake in England, at 10.5 miles long, while Wastwater in the south west of the national park, is England’s deepest at 74 metres.

Coniston Water in the Lake DistrictThe lakes and other bodies of water are one of the main reasons that visitors love to come to the Lake District and, of course, they give the national park its name. They are used for all sorts of activities including boating, swimming, walking, paddle boarding, diving and fishing. Some, like Coniston, are the scene of record-making, while others are often the spectacular host of army jets as they run low-flying training.

Read our full guide to the Lake District lakes.

Mountains

Scafell Pike in the Lake DistrictThe Lake District is home to England’s 10 highest mountains, including the highest, Scafell Pike, which rises to 978 metres above sea level.

Locally known as fells, these peaks form the most spectacular parts of the landscape that has made the national park so famous across the world. Drawing hardy hikers, casual walkers, climbers, nature lovers and adventurers alike, they pose a range of challenges and enjoyable walks that have been experienced by millions.

Alfred Wainwright book by an open fireMost famously, Alfred Wainwright’s pictoral guides describe multiple routes over 214 fells, and Wainwright Bagging has become a popular hobby of regular Lakeland visitors. There are also 52 Marilyns (hills that has a relative height of 150 metres or more) and 114 Hewitts (hills with a relative height of 30 metres or more).

As well as walking, the mountains lend themselves to all sorts of outdoor adventures including climbing, paragliding, canyoning, and even a Via Ferrata at Honister Slate Mine.

Valleys

Borrowdale in the Lake DistrictThe characterful valleys of the Lake District are surrounded by soaring mountains and often include glittering lakes and rivers. Officially, there are 13, the longest being the Borrowdale and Bassenthwaite Valley, which stretches an immense distance from Esk Hause (close to Scafell Pike) all the way to the wide plains of the Solway Firth.

Each valley has its own unique character and is home to a host of interesting attractions and breathtaking scenery.

Towns and Villages

Ambleside in the Lake DistrictThere are only a handful of towns in the Lake District, and the remaining settlements are villages, hamlets, and small scatterings of houses. The towns of Keswick, Bowness-on-Windermere and Ambleside, as well as the village of Windermere, are all within the national park boundaries and offer excellent attractions – as well as convenience – to visitors in the area.

Hawkshead in the Lake DistrictAs pretty as the towns are, the villages are something extra special. Hawkshead is traffic-free and full of winding streets and wonky buildings; Grasmere is all slate buildings and the smell of delicious Grasmere Gingerbread® can often be smelt wafting over the houses; Ravenglass is the only coastal village in the Lake District and boasts Roman history and spectacular sunsets.

While most of the larger villages nowadays greatly rely on tourism, they have been host to many industries over the years including farming, brewing, mining, and milling.

Farming

Sheep and lamp in the Lake DistrictFarming has, for hundreds of years, played a vital part in shaping the Lake District. To this day, it is vital to the area’s economy.

The landscape of the Lakes provides some of the UK’s most difficult conditions for farming, with high fells, adverse weather, and inhospitable soils. Grazing livestock dominates farming in the area, with dairy farming coming in second.

Herdwick sheep farm in the Langdale ValleyThe native Herdwick sheep have been reared to flourish in the landscape, and this lovely breed can be seen dotted around the fells and in the fields across the national park. Other native breeds that can be widely seen include Rough Fell, Swaledale, and North of England Mule, and you can see these at the popular agricultural shows that take place every year.

Nowadays, many farmers have diversified their business, offering a range of services and attractions including holiday cottages, farm shops and farm parks such as Walby Farm Park, which has lots of things to do for kids of all ages.

Wildlife

Red Squirrel at Thirlmere in the Lake DistrictWherever you go in the Lake District, you’re bound to spot some interesting wildlife. Red squirrels can be seen scuttling in the woods, several species of deer explore the fells and woodlands, rare fish flit in the depths of the lakes, wild ponies roam, and fascinating birds – including the Bassenthwaite ospreys – soar through the skies.

If you prefer your flora to your fauna, then you won’t be disappointed. Sites of Special Scientific Interest across the Lakes protect lots of rare plants, and you can feel the imposing age of the landscape by taking a walk through the ancient woodlands.

Haweswater in the Lake DistrictFor some of the best wildlife spotting, head to Haweswater RSPB, Ennerdale, Foulshaw Moss, or Whinlatter Forest.

Read more about wildlife in the Lake District.

Outdoor Adventure

Rafting on a river in the Lake DistrictThe Lake District is the playground of England thanks to a huge array of outdoor adventure activities on offer. With tall mountains, deep valleys, rushing rivers, smooth lakes, and expansive countryside, the region lends itself to all sorts of sports.

The Lake District is said to be the birthplace of climbing, with Wasdale playing a particular important part. This remote valley was key in many early climbing landmarks, with the likes of William Haskett Smith, F. W. Botterill and Siegfried Herford making important ascents in the area.

Fisherman on Cogra Moss in the Lake DistrictThe lakes and rivers, too, are also host to many outdoor activities including kayaking, paddle boarding, wild swimming, diving and fishing. A host of outdoor adventure providers are available to take you on exciting excursions with professional equipment and top-quality guidance.

Up in the mountains you’ll find more to excite and invigorate. The Via Ferrata at Honister Slate Mine sees you ascending the side of a cliff face via the old miner’s route, and ghyll scrambling – where you descend the mountain via a river – is always popular.

If you want to go a step further and take to the skies, there’s paragliding, hot air ballooning, gyrocoptering and more!

Read more about outdoor adventures in the Lake District.

Famous Names

Beatrix Potter booksFor hundreds of years, the Lake District has inspired poets, artists and thinkers. From those who were born and bred amongst the mountains, to those who visited, fell in love and made it their home, the region has hosted some famous names.

William Wordsworth, the Romantic poet, is perhaps the best known for his words extolling the virtues of the Lakes; Alfred Wainwright created pictoral guides of mountain walks, which are still hugely popular to this day; Beatrix Potter is best known for her beautiful children’s books, but was also a fantastic artist and vital conservationist who is credited for almost singlehandedly saving the iconic Herdwick sheep, as well as gifting much land to the National Trust so that it could be preserved.

Donald Campbell's Bluebird at the Ruskin Museum in ConistonThis list of famous names associated with the national park continues: Donald Campbell, Joss Naylor, John Ruskin, the Beauty of Buttermere, Chris Bonnington, and many, many more.

Read our guide to Famous Cumbrians.

Dialect

Descending from Old Norse and the ancient language of Cumbric, the Cumbrian dialect still prevails today, though not as much as it once did. However, in many of the very rural areas especially, a lot of dialect is used regularly or exclusively.

Even within the county, there are many variations, particularly when comparing the coastal areas and the north and south of the region.

Herdwick sheep in Tiberthwaite in the Lake DistrictPerhaps the most famous part of the Cumbrian dialect is the ‘sheep counting numerals’: yan, tan, tethera, and so on, though these also vary between areas of the county! The numerals were – and are – traditionally used by farmers and shepherds to keep stock of the number of sheep in their flock.

Read our guide to the Cumbrian Dialect.

Records

Windermere in the Lake DistrictThe Lake District has been and is the location of a number of record attempts and successes. From its natural features to human-made records, here are just some of them!

  • The Lake District is England’s biggest national park at 2,362 sq km.
  • England’s tallest mountain, Scafell Pike, is in the national park and stands at 978m above sea level.
  • Wastwater, England’s deepest lake, is close by and is 260ft deep.
  • Windermere is England’s largest natural lake, covering 17 sq km.
  • Donald Campbell broke a whopping FOUR water speed records on Coniston Water alone, once every year from 1956 to 1959. He sadly died attempting it again, on the same lake, in 1967.
  • Fell runner and farmer Joss Naylor ran a total of 72 Lake District peaks - over 100 miles and 38,000 feet of ascent - in 23 hours and 20 minutes in 1975, a record that went unbroken for 13 years. He has also set a number of other fell running records throughout his life.
  • In 2020, another fell runner, Kim Collison, ran 78 peaks in less than 24 hours.
  • In 1886, W. P. Haskett Smith made a 70-foot ascent of Napes Needle on Great Gable – the first person to ever do so AND he did it without ropes! His record is credited for a burgeoning popularity for rock climbing amongst the general public.
  • In 2019, swimmer Danny Longman broke a record by swimming the lengths of the 13 publicly accessible lakes in the Lake District. He did it in three and a half days – the fastest time ever – and travelled between lakes by bike.

 

There’s no doubt that the Lake District is a fascinating place, full of history, beautiful natural features, and amazing people. Read our area guides to find out even more, or plan your stay at one of our holiday cottages.