Has there ever been a man with a more apt surname than William Wordsworth? The Cumbria-born Romantic poet understood the value of language, investing his lyrical ballads with economy and rare beauty.
Yet while his literary gifts were undoubted, it was a lifetime spent in Cumbria that inspired him to reach such heights. His 1815 masterpiece, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, recently voted one of the nation’s favourite poems, was inspired by a trail of daffodils near Gowbarrow Park in Ullswater, for example. Other literary talents to have drawn on the local landscape and left their mark for years to come include Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome, the children’s author famed for his adventurous Swallows and Amazons series. Despite the area’s rich literary history, Cumbria is a modern county, formed in 1974 from Cumberland, Westmorland and parts of neighbouring Yorkshire and Lancashire. Enclosed within its vast borders are England’s largest lakes, highest peak and second lowest population per square mile, ensuring an unrivalled sense of space and drama. In fact, even a short visit to Cumbria is sure to have you penning paeans to this glorious corner of the country.
Cumbria’s largest city dates back to the 1st century AD and the Roman settlement of Luguvalium. Emperor Hadrian later visited in 122 and ordered the construction of Petriana, the largest fort along his 73-mile long wall that marked the northern limit of Britannia. The city makes a perfect base for exploring Hadrian’s Wall Country, while the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery has a section devoted to The Roman Frontier. Look out for the cathedral – founded in 1122, it is one of the smallest in England yet worth seeing for the East Window’s stained glass.
At 10.5 miles long, England’s largest lake has been attracting visitors for centuries. Wealthy Victorian businessmen built huge villas on the shores that have since been converted into hotels, while steamer ships offer sedate perspectives on the surrounding fells.
Families make a beeline for Bowness-on-Windermere and The World of Beatrix Potter, an interactive recreation of the author’s best-loved characters and scenes. Other points of interest include Rydal Mount, poet William Wordsworth’s home from 1813 to his death in 1850, and the National Trust-owned Wray Castle.
Renowned as the home of Kendal Mint Cake, there is far more to this south Cumbrian market town than just sugary confectionery. Abbot Hall Art Gallery is a stately Georgian villa packed with great paintings (including SJ Peploe’s 1925 Still Life with Tulips and Oranges). Elsewhere, the Strickland family home of Sizergh is a National Trust gem and the Kendal Museum boasts local archaeology and rare flora and fauna.
The great swathe of forest nestled between Coniston Water and Lake Windermere is an area of natural beauty, full of walking trails and cycle paths, and home to England’s only surviving indigenous woodland herd of red deer.
The area’s real calling card, however, is Grizedale Sculpture, an ever-changing collection of around 40 public artworks dotted throughout more than 4,000 hectares of woodland.
Since 1977, site-specific works have been commissioned from leading international artists, including British favourites David Nash and Andy Goldsworthy.
CASTLERIGG STONE CIRCLE
It may lack the fame and UNESCO recognition of Wiltshire’s Stonehenge, but when it comes to pure aesthetic appeal, Castlerigg is undoubtedly Britain’s most impressive stone circle. One of the oldest examples of British circles, Castlerigg dates back to the Neolithic era – it is thought to have been raised around 3000BC – while the rolling hills of Skiddaw, Blencathra and Lonscale Fell provide a gorgeous backdrop.
And with little archaeological activity having taken place on the site to date, its original purpose remains a beguiling, unsolved mystery.
Author Beatrix Potter’s former home – a 17th-century farmhouse at Near Sawrey in Ambleside – was purchased with the proceeds from her first book in 1905. The National Trust preserves the house as if Potter has just popped out, with the fire roaring in winter and crockery laid out on the table. Tickets are timed to avoid overcrowding in the cosy interior, while the cottage garden is lovingly maintained in true Victorian style.
Lord Inglewood’s family home since 1605 is one of Britain’s most fascinating country houses, a patchwork of many architectural styles. The original, moated Pele Tower was built around 1350, while subsequent additions include the crenelated 17th-century Gallery (now home to the Cloisters Tearoom) and the early Victorian southeast tower.
The extensive gardens, meanwhile, are spectacular, containing more than 50,000 trees planted by Lord Inglewood’s ancestor Henry Vane Fletcher in the mid-18th century. Lounge among the impressive topiary on the terrace, admire the fruit trees of the Walled Garden, or follow the Woodland Walk for a chance to spy rare red squirrel.