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Motorhome travel: Lake District National Park


The weather might be on the wintry side, but that doesn't deter Martin Dorey from going for a swim in the chilly Lakes...

We are on a quest for a day on the water and to achieve some firsts in the Lake District National Park. We arrive at Low Wood Bay Watersports on a sunny, but windy day in January. We are seeking out activities so we can plan the days ahead.

We park the motorhome and then breeze into the office to find out what could be in store for us. We can see the wind whipping up the waves on the lake. The hills already have a dusting of snow.

The guy in the office is looking at the weather reports on his laptop. Snow, he tells us, is forecast. He also tells us that he can’t possibly hire us any kind of boating, kayaking or sailing equipment as the water is below their safe operating temperature.

We ask about the best place to SUP (stand up paddleboard) because we have our own boards with us. He mentions Buttermere, because the water temperature is a little warmer and nature of the water means it’s crystal clear. The only trouble is with Honister Pass: if it snows it’ll be impassable.

We thank him, make a decision to make Buttermere our mission and head off to find a pitch for the night. We arrive at the Coniston Coppice Park site and pitch up in a quiet corner. Surprisingly, we aren’t alone on the site, with about 20 pitches occupied by motorhomers.

We walk into Coniston and, as we arrive in the village, it starts snowing. Big, fat, plump snowflakes settle on our clothes as we duck into a café for tea and cake. Before long there’s a dusting of snow on the pavement outside. We head back to the ’van before it becomes difficult.

Exploring Coniston Water

That night there’s more snow, but in the morning it’s clear enough for us to explore Coniston Water. We take the tiny road that follows the eastern shore along the whole of its length.

We pass through tiny hamlets and, looking across the water, we see The Old Man of Coniston, snow capped and regal in the sunshine. It’s too windy to get on the water, so we take a walk at Grizedale Forest Park before the sun goes down.

The next day we set out for Buttermere. It’s less windy and sunny but cold. This could be our opportunity to get on the water.

When we get to Keswick we find that Honister Pass is closed, or, at least the road to the pass is closed. We take a diversion via Cockermouth, which takes us out of our way but avoids the alternative, and apparently much steeper, Whinlatter Pass.

When we reach Lorton, on the road to Buttermere, we see the same diversion signs. We have no way of knowing where the road is closed so press on regardless. It’s another cold day, with plenty of snow on the peaks that surround us as we drive the single track road that follows Crummock Water. We stop to take pictures and marvel at the scenery.

A freezing swim at Buttermere

It’s still at Buttermere, with little wind and with few people about, so we park up and get ready to take to the water.

The water is clear and cold. We put on full winter wetsuits, boots, hats and gloves and launch our blow-up craft. Lizzy edges very cautiously out onto the lake, looking down through the water at the weeds on the bottom, making sure she doesn’t fall in.

The clarity is amazing. We strike out into the middle of the lake, heading for a small shingle point on the far side. Neither of us falls in, but when we step into the shallows we can feel the temperature of the water through our wetsuits. It’s only just above freezing.

We make it back to the 'van without a full dunking, but then, of course, one of us mentions the possibility of swimming. The stakes get higher: no wetsuits allowed.

We strip off down to our swimmers and stand at the side of the lake. I go first (seeing as it was my idea) and inch into the water. I walk quickly forward and over balance, toppling myself into the water, trying to remember to breathe out as I submerge, to avoid taking on involuntary gulps of the lake.

I stand immediately. I don’t think I have ever swum in such cold water.

As Lizzy takes her turn I look around at the peaks. I see snow and ice. My skin tingles with the cold and I laugh with the endorphins.

I am elated to be doing this, to be in the Lakes in winter, camping, having fun like a foolish teenager. Life is brilliant. I have never been so aware of my fingers, toes and skin. I feel… good, but perhaps we’d better get changed before we catch our deaths.

The light in the winter is lovely. It comes at an angle, giving deep contrast and long shadows. Once it starts to dip and the shadows reach us, the temperature plummets. The day is wearing on and it’ll soon be getting dark.

We set off for the pass and Keswick, unsure if we’ll get through, but perfectly prepared to bed down for the night if we can’t. The pass is ice-free when we reach the apex but it’s bitterly cold. As usual we get out to take pictures. The light is even better up here. The mountains that face us still have sun on them while we’re in shadow.

We descend the pass into the very lovely Borrowdale. It’s incredible, beautiful, like somewhere imagined by the likes of Beatrix Potter or Tolkein, an elysian utopia: patchwork fields, huge ancient oaks, a meandering river and farmhouses dotted around.

Derwentwater, Keswick and Kendal

We are the first vehicle that’s been past here all day and have the road to ourselves as we whizz past Derwentwater and into Keswick. We check into the Camping and Caravanning Club site and walk to the water’s edge to look back at where we’ve been. It’s been an amazing day of firsts. I’ve never SUPed on a lake before. And I’ve certainly never swam in near-freezing water in January.

There are more firsts the following day when we take to the slopes in Kendal where we have booked into Kendal Snowsports Centre for a skiing taster session. For £15 we enjoy the undivided attention of an expert instructor for three hours.

At Kendal Climbing Centre, later in the day, my fear of heights leads me to the vast (and low-level) bouldering wall where I do my best to be top dog by whizzing up and down the routes until I fall off one (particularly tricky) section.

Our final activity: an attempt at Kirkstone Pass on the day it reopens after being closed due to the snow, ends in a hike to the top of the mountain above the pass and rewards us with the most spectacular views of Windermere and Ullswater.

Kirkstone is the Lake District’s highest pass, at 1,489ft (454m), and is often the first of the high passes to be closed during bad weather. From Windermere there are two routes up to the pass. You can approach from Troutbeck, a gentle climb, or via The Struggle, a much shorter but steeper route with a gradient of 20%.

Once at the top of the pass we hike through deep snow to the top of the ridge and look back at Windermere. It’s another first for me. I’ve walked up mountains before but never in deep snow on a cold, clear day. It’s extraordinary and I am thrilled to be there. It might only be a few hundred metres but for me it feels like I’ve climbed Everest.

I descend with one thought in my head: the Lakes are amazing. If you're thinking of a winter trip, come here.

This article was originally published in the January 2019 edition of MMM - buy a digital back issue copy here, and read other similar travel features here.

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