Actively enjoying the great Lakes
Sarah Brealey goes the extra mile to enjoy an active holiday in the Lake District with a new Unmissable Britain break.
In the Lake District it seems only right to do a bit more than look at all that water.
OK, I know you can go canoeing closer to home on the Norfolk Broads and rivers, but there is something undeniably spectacular about paddling across a deep Cumbrian lake, the fells rising high and dramatic around you. Despite the stereotype of Lakeland weather, the sun was even shining on us.
We were canoeing on Coniston Water, spotting cormorants and waterfowl while giving our arms an unaccustomed workout. Our group was a mixture of complete novices and the slightly more experienced, but we all learned some new paddle techniques in the (reassuringly stable) Canadian canoes.
We were under the instruction of the team from River Deep, Mountain High, whose name is presumably taken from that terrible Tina Turner song, but is a rather apt description of this part of the world. They patiently pointed out what we should be doing, and poured cups of hot chocolate from a giant flask when we got to the small island which was the furthest point of our paddle.
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For us East Anglians, the Lake District is both off-puttingly far and startlingly hilly. I had forgotten the sheer drama of it, the show-stopping views at every corner, the landscape as ruffled as tangled bedsheets, the intoxicating combination of water and hills. It made up for the journey, which by train is not fast and requires at least one, sometimes three, changes from Norfolk to Windermere – though at least by train you need do nothing more demanding than stare at the steadily improving views.
We were staying at Monk Coniston, in a gothic-style house in a stunning setting overlooking Coniston Water. From our room we could see rabbits playing outside, as if to remind us we were in Beatrix Potter country, as well as grazing sheep and the odd squirrel. There is a collection of exotic trees in the grounds, as well as a little summer house where you can take shelter while gazing at the lake. The lawns lead down towards the water, and even when it rains there is always the option of admiring the view from the bar and lounge.
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HF Holidays, the country's largest walking and leisure holiday operator, has branched out from its core business of walking holidays to offer Unmissable Britain breaks which give a taste of all the local area has to offer. Usually set in stunning locations, you can take in the scenery while combining walking with sightseeing, and perhaps some abseiling, horse-riding, mountain biking or even some caving. The company is a co-operative society, so all profits are put back into holidays, and non-members have to pay a token fee to become associates before going on a holiday.
This is a sociable style of holiday – meals are enjoyed together, you can get to know people while doing an activity, and the activity leaders are often volunteers who enjoy sharing their knowledge and passion.
At Monk Coniston the rooms are simple and comfortable rather than luxuriously furnished. The bathroom toiletries were certainly not the poshest I have seen, but the high-ceilinged historic rooms provided compensating individuality.
Food was plentiful and delicious, with local produce used to good effect. The Lakeland lamb at dinner with sticky toffee pudding was certainly a highlight, although the cheeses were good too – especially the St James, a fantastic washed-rind ewes' milk cheese from Holker Farm. We also tried gingerbread from Grasmere, where it has been made by the same company since 1954. It is warm and spicy, firm underneath with an intriguingly crumbly top.
Coniston is a little quieter than towns like Windermere and Ambleside, but it has fantastic walking on the doorstep. From the house you could scale the Old Man of Coniston (2,634 feet/803 metres), learn about the area's industrial past in a walk through the Coppermines Valley or take a stroll to Tarn Hows. This last walk only needs a couple of hours and took us gently uphill through woodland with a stream tumbling alongside, until the view opened up to reveal stately hills, and then Tarn Hows, a tree-�lined lake, dotted with islands and with an easy path round it. John, the walk leader, showed us two different kinds of moss – star moss with upright needles like starbursts, and the paler green feather moss, whose shape lived up to its name. He also explained how the tarn had been formed in the 19th century as a result of a dam to create power for sawmill machinery, and then stocked with pike to prevent local people from fishing for trout.
We visited Yew Tree Farm, in a picture-postcard location with the fells rising behind, which features a rare spinning gallery like an upstairs balcony, where spinning would have taken place to make the most of the daylight. Like Monk Coniston itself, it was bought by Beatrix Potter and given to the National Trust, her stipulations in the case of the farm including that reasonable rates should be charged to the tenant farmers and the native Herdwick sheep farmed. It is famous for appearing in the film Miss Potter (starring Renee Zellweger) as Hill Top, the home of Beatrix Potter. The real Hill Top, a few miles away and also owned by the National Trust, was apparently not available for the demands of filming.
Yew Tree Farm has a tearoom, which sadly for the general public is open only to pre-booked groups, but if you get a chance it is a memorable experience to have afternoon tea, with delicious cakes and scones, in the 17th-century room furnished by Potter herself.
You can still see the tough Herdwicks, with their slate-grey fleeces. We learned about them on a farm tour from the farmer who told us how they even carry on eating when it is raining – an unusual trait in sheep, but invaluable in this part of the world. And we saw the belted Galloway cattle, small, slow-growing, tough and incredibly cute, with black fronts and backs and a white band around the middle. The farm's collie and Jack Russell dogs came on our walk, which was a real insight into how farming life is not easy – even on a film-set Lakeland farm.
For us the Lakeland life was pretty easy – apart from deciding whether to have seconds of Cumberland sausage and mash, or choosing between abseiling and the Go Ape adventure course in the forest.
There is some truth in the Unmissable Britain name. From our faraway corner of England the Lakes are easily missed – but what a mistake that would be.
HF Holidays is offering up to �200 off all its Unmissable Britain holidays between June and October this year. All seven-night breaks have �200 off and there are also savings on shorter breaks. Locations include Glen Coe in Scotland, the Brecon Beacons in Wales, Exmoor and the Yorkshire Dales. A week at Coniston from September 3 is �519, down from �719, while a week in Glen Coe from June 11 is the same price. For more details telephone 0845 470 7558 or visit the website at www.hfholidays.co.uk