Starting mileage: 20003 km
Day started: 10:30
Day ended: 22:00
At last, we’re into Cumbria. Cumbria means Lake District for most people, and we are heading towards it, but only for a brief visit – our tour is, ater all, around the coast.
Kendal, the gateway to Cumbria, is a name familiar to every hiker, walker, climber in Britain, as this is where the Mint Cakes are made – a brilliant little idea of packing pure glucose with some mint to make it less nauseating, in candy bar form. Allegedly, it helped Edmund Hillary climb Everest, and it helped many a traveller since, with its brief punch of energy: the Red Bull of the olden age, and so much more tasty.
We stopped in Kendal just on the basis of the name, and to see whether maybe they have a Mint Cake shop, but it turned out to be a lovely little town in its own right. The towns of Cumbria in general proved to be, for the most part, very attractive – but more on that later. Kendal has an indoor market with a shopping centre attached, but the streets around it are full of life (and cash, by the look of it). It’s not particularly ancient or filled with historically interesting buildings, but it’s very nice to stroll about, discovering various nooks and alleyways of the town centre, and little surprises like a preserved old market street or chocolate parlour.
There’s really only one way to go from Kendal, and that’s towards Windermere, the largest and longest of the Lakes (and of England). Most of its eastern shore is densely populated, forming a sort of tourist conurbation stretching from the towns of Windermere to Ambleside, a crowded continuum of marinas, jetties, hotels, B&Bs and shops filled with all manner of tourist paraphernalia – and nowhere more so than in Ambleside, which is, at a quick glance, England’s capital of outdoor shops, and world capital of wellies.
Wellington boots are necessary in Lake District; no water-proof hiking boots can withstand its soggy, rain-sodden soil for long. In Ambleside’s many stores you can browse through dozens of brands and varieties of wellies – more than we imagined are possible. Not that the town is just about wellies and hiking stores: it’s another of Cumbria’s pretty little places, an old market town, with winding, narrow streets lined with grey stone shop fronts. Before it became the gateway into Lake District, Ambleside was a wool trade centre, and a lot of the old wool mills still stand along the roaring streams, now transformed into cafes and craft centres, some of them still retaining the wooden water wheels. Some of the houses, built at the height of Ambleside’s trade prosperity, resemble fairy tale mansions, with granite turrets and carved windows.
We drove south along Windermere, admiring the long, blue-grey lake glimpsing through the trees; from there, we followed the road to Ulverton, back towards the coast, where we were hoping to catch a glimpse of a Buddhist temple, Manjushri; unfortunately it was that day closed to public for a festival (we should’ve guessed – it was the day of Obon in Japan, and Annunciation in Roman Catholic church, and many more holy days in many cultures). So we headed back north, towards the campsite we had chosen on the shore of another large lake, Coniston. The steep road to Coniston provided us with a brief glimpse of the real Lake District, far from the tourist stores, B&Bs and expensive yachts, and it proved everything we imagined – and more. It really is one of the most spectacular regions of the world, and it’s hard to pinpoint why exactly. Is it the breath-taking panoramas? Is it the ruggedness of the bald rocky hills, the bold browns and yellow-greys of the rough vegetation? Is it the folds and nooks of the landscape, promising still more discoveries and surprises behind every turn of the road? Whatever it was, we drove up the road with our mouths agape.
Coniston Hall is a National Trust-owned site, positioned right on the main hiking trail of the Cumbria Path as well as beside the main marina on the Coniston. It’s a very large but narrow, elongated field, bounded by the lake on one side and forest on the other. In high season it resembles a festival ground, or a scout jamboree; most people here use it as a base for back-packing or family rambling, so the average age is mercifully low.
There is no electricity, but the facilities are perfectly adequate. The site provides a hint of what it must be like to hike in the District, as the ground is criss-crossed with springs and streams, and the smallest rain turns it into quagmire; in the storm which caught up to us from the previous day, the road to the bathroom became an expedition, and the wellies bought in Ambleside proved indispensable. The site costs £15, which is a bargain considering location, and has a well stocked shop open until very late.