Lake District travel guide

Try wandering lonely as a cloud around places such as Ullswater in the Lake District today and youíll be blown off course by a crowd of photo-seekers heading in the other direction. This is Englandís busiest national park and itís not hard to see why itís so popular. The landscapes that captivated the Lake Poets and Beatrix Potter form a beguiling tapestry of fells, forests, mountains and shallow lakes. But not all is well.
Thereís a fine line to be walked between recreation, industry and conservation in the Lake District, and right now that line is looking a bit wobbly.
William Wordsworth, having felt moved to capture this romantic idyll in poetry, was dismayed at the number of people who then flocked to see it for themselves. Theyíve never stopped coming and who could blame them? Beloved by walkers and families, the Lake Districtís beauty is undeniable but somewhat artificial. Natural and cultural heritage here are inextricably linked, and they both need better protection.

Find out more in our Lake District travel guideÖ

The Lake District isÖ

a stronghold of traditional English hill farming culture, a heritage thatís just as important to protect and enhance as its landscapes and biodiversity.

The Lake District isnítÖ

supposed to look the way it does. Sheep farming keeps the fells artificially bare but, despite that, this is truly some of Englandís most magnificent natural scenery.

Responsible tourism

As of 2019, there are ten national parks in England, and another five across Scotland and Wales. Englandís national park system came into being during the 1950s. Each park is looked after by its own authority with government funding, but crucially they do not actually own the land. In England, the stated objectives of the parks are to:

    Conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage. Promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of national parks by the public.

Over the last 70 years or so, much work has been done by park authorities to protect and restore habitats and biodiversity, as well as cultural and historic environments, in partnership with the relevant organisations. But in 2018, the Campaign for National Parks released a report warning that English national parks are falling into a state of crisis. Wildlife is becoming severely nature-depleted with leisure and commercial interests (particularly agriculture) trampling over those of biodiversity, with failings in purpose, funding and governance to blame. The Lake District is far from an exception Ė in fact it may be one of the most obvious examples. We think of it as a Victorian idyll, but in fact it has been ravaged and scarred for years by mining, forestry, sheep farming and poorly managed tourism.
The Lake Districtís barren fells are unnaturally so, free-grazing sheep preventing any hint of tree growth; plantations of non-native pine, a bugbear of Lakes icon Alfred Wainwright, are dark and uninviting, while the popularity of the region with walkers has led to many footpaths becoming degraded, causing soil erosion and a campaign to ĎFix the Fellsí.

The environmentalist and journalist George Monbiot called the Lake District an Ďecological disaster zoneí, but heís only half-right. The debate between environmentalists and sheep farmers is polarised, but essentially the Lake District should be a protected, living landscape, where traditional industries such as sheep farming coexist with far stronger protections for the environment and biodiversity. Beatrix Potter farmed Herdwick sheep, and Herdwick mutton was served at Queen Elizabeth IIís coronation. Today however, most sheep farmers rely on subsidies. Certain areas of the Lake District could be turned over to free-roaming and free-grazing sheep, with the essential subsidies remaining in place, while others could be rewilded, restoring them to their former glories. Tourism should be better regulated, and perhaps a small tourism tax imposed which could be ring-fenced and contribute to urgent conservation efforts. The Lake District is a unique landscape, inextricably linked to a unique culture. Both have seen better days, and could see them again.

Our top Lake District Holiday

Cumbria Way walking tour in England

Cumbria Way walking tour in England

Classic walks with high passes & remarkable views

From £715 to £745 8 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2020: 1 Aug
2021: 21 Aug
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Lake District or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

What we rate, and what we donít

Underrated

Eat local

The Lake District makes it very easy for you to eat local and reduce the carbon footprint of your holiday. Tuck into salt marsh lamb and Cumberland sausage in the evenings, and stuff Kendal mint cake or Grasmere gingerbread into your backpack.

Sheep farming

Free roaming and grazing sheep in the Lake District are often blamed for the barren appearance of the fells. But there is a balance to be struck between stronger protections for the environment and biodiversity, and traditional sheep farming that is part of the regionís heritage.

Wild Ennerdale

This successful rewilding project is encouraging the Lakeland landscape to evolve more naturally by reducing human intervention to little more than the occasional nudge in the right direction. The reintroduction of the Marsh Fritillary butterfly is one notable success.
Rated

Family holidays

Swallows and Amazons set the standard with its boaty shenanigans, and the Lake District remains just as magical for family holidays today. Abseil down waterfalls, scramble through mountain streams, and try rock-climbing or canoeing. Professional instructors ensure activities are as safe as they are fun.

Alfred Wainwright

Wainwright was a lifelong fell-walker, author and champion of the Lake District, and his Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells remains an influential classic. His ashes were scattered at Innominate Tarn on Haystacks, his favourite fell, and the summit can be seen from Buttermere church.

Wildlife

The Lake District struggles with biodiversity loss but itís still worth keeping an eye out for wildlife. Several species of bat and owl share the shadows. Red squirrels can be seen in woodlands around Grasmere and Ambleside, and birds of prey are a familiar sight in the sky.
Overrated

Tourism hotspots

Places such as Bowness-on-Windermere and Kendal are reliably packed pretty much all year-round, especially in summer and school holidays. Thatís not to say theyíre not worth a wander round, but if youíre looking to escape the crowds then youíll want to stay elsewhere.

Touring by car

There’s little point in going by car here, as all you’d be doing is contributing to snaking lines of traffic on single-lane roads. The Lake District’s jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes positively demand to be explored on foot, by bike or, if you’re on an activity holiday, even by canoe.

Climbing Scafell Pike

Around 100,000 people attempt Englandís highest peak every year, which is unsustainable given many have the bare minimum of preparation. Unpaid volunteers are worn down by the number of mountain rescues needed, so dress for the weather and get properly equipped, or stick to lower terrain.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Oliver Clarke] [Is/Isn't: Sam Knight] [Responsible tourism: Sam Knight] [Underrated: Ambernectar 13] [Rated: pxhere] [Overrated: Jorge Franganillo]
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