Motorhome travel: The Lake District
Words and photos: Felicity Martin
This feature was written prior to the coronavirus pandemic. We are publishing it for your enjoyment and to help you plan future trips. Readers must follow the latest government advice before leaving their homes: gov.uk/coronavirus
After driving fast roads to Keswick, my progress slows as I head south through the Lake District, giving me more time to enjoy the delightful scenery.
I crawl through Ambleside, which is thronging with July crowds, then leave the town in a convoy behind a coach that is far too large for these twisting, stone wall-lined roads. But all the traffic turns off at the Langdale turning and I have the road to myself for the last few winding, wooded miles into Coniston.
The Lakes are a wonderful destination but, as a lover of tranquillity, I find the crowds can be a bit overwhelming in the summer. Fortunately, the national park is a large space with quieter corners beyond the popular hotspots. Coniston fits the bill nicely for a holiday – away from the hordes, but lively enough to be interesting.
Sentimental reasons have partly drawn me here. My first permanent job was at an outdoor centre in Ambleside and we often used the area for hiking, camping, gorge walking and abseiling expeditions.
After not seeing Coniston for ages, I returned 20 years ago to compete in the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon. This time I hope to climb some of the fells we navigated over that weekend.
For the first two nights I’m based at Beckthwaite, a five-pitch campsite right in the middle of Coniston. Instead of my usual style – dashing around in Stella – I’ve decided to leave her on site and do all my travel on foot, bike and public transport.
My decision is partly motivated by the prices at local car parks. A day’s stay can cost almost as much as a night at an inexpensive campsite!
During the hot and muggy afternoon, I explore the village and browse the selection of shops, cafés and pubs. Having forgotten to pack shorts, I find a choice of outdoor shops from which to buy a new pair.
Later I take a short bike ride. On the way back, I find myself following a flock of Herdwick sheep being driven noisily along the main road by two men and half-a-dozen sheepdogs. The event is repeated the next day with much baaing and barking, as the sheep are brought off the hills for shearing.
The next morning is wet, so an ideal time to spend a couple of hours in the Ruskin Museum in the centre of Coniston. The Victorian polymath, John Ruskin, spent his last years at Brantwood, a house overlooking Coniston Water, from where he enthusiastically nurtured Coniston’s arts, crafts, education and culture.
Ruskin wrote, “The right function of every museum…is…the manifestation of what is lovely in the life of Nature and heroic in the life of Man,” and this one fulfils that remit. It has fascinating displays about local history, geology, copper mining, slate quarrying and early rock climbers.
Exhibits include the dinghy that Arthur Ransome sailed on Coniston Water as a child, inspiring him to use Peel Island as a setting for his classic children’s adventure, Swallows and Amazons. Other rooms cover John Ruskin’s life story and Donald Campbell’s fatal accident in 1967, when he was trying to set a new water speed record in his jet-powered craft Bluebird.
My interest roused, I visit the parish church to see Ruskin’s grave, which has a tall, elaborately carved cross (the carvings are interpreted on a panel inside). There is also a glass screen in memory of Donald Campbell, but his grave is in the new churchyard. Coniston Water was Campbell’s grave for decades, until an underwater explorer brought up Bluebird and his body from the depths in 2001.
Now I’m seeing Coniston in a new light, with an appreciation of the geology and history of the fells that hang over the village. Slate is everywhere; it’s used in houses, barns, on roofs, walls and spilling down the hillsides in massive spoil heaps.
Apart from a few whitewashed cottages, all the human habitation blends into the natural background. Grey buildings are camouflaged against grey rock outcrops; garden trees and shrubs blend into the surrounding grass, bracken and woodland. The way that human settlement merged with the natural world was an aspect of Coniston that Ruskin loved.
By afternoon, the cloud that has been hanging heavily over the hills has lifted and broken somewhat, so I set off to climb the Old Man of Coniston. The highest hill in the Coniston Fells, it stands prominently above the village and lake.
Shrieks and laughter echo out of the deep wooded ravine of Church Beck from a party of gorge scramblers. Higher up the view opens out over the Coppermines Valley, a stark landscape where people have hewn the heart out of the mountains and left a chaos of tumbled stone heaps, derelict walls and rusting ironwork.
My path climbs through disused mines and quarries, using old trackways with workings on either side. When I poke my head into one adit, a chill, damp air wafts over my face. Beyond the small corrie lake of Low Water, the path zigzags steeply up onto the final ridge.
Coniston Water is now a blue strip far below me, set in another, much greener, world of bright fields, dark woods and winding hedgerows. It looks like the page of a picture book, perhaps illustrating the land of the Hobbits, whereas the wrenched rock and debris of the mines behind me evoke a scene from Mordor.
Cloud still hugs the summit of the Old Man and I lose the view before reaching the big cairn on top. After continuing for nearly two miles north along a broad, rock-strewn ridge to Swirl How, the cloud breaks to reveal many other mountains ranged in grey silhouettes to the north. I turn east and pick my way slowly down Prison Band, a steep, craggy ridge with a well-worn path, then return to Coniston.
The following morning is unbroken sunshine and, after a lazy morning, I drive three miles south to my base for the next few days. Hoathwaite is owned and managed by the National Trust as a very informal, back-to-basics campsite where tents seem to outnumber campervans and motorhomes by five to one.
The large camping field is far from flat, but with no defined pitches you are free to find your own spot. I manoeuvre Stella onto the crest of a hill where I have a panoramic view of fells and lake.
There are two boat services around Coniston Water and I want to try them both. That afternoon I cycle up the lake to Coniston Pier, using a family-friendly trail described on the National Trust website.
It’s a grand afternoon for sailing around the northern part of the lake on the 45-minute red route with Coniston Cruises. On board I buy a ticket for Brantwood, then spend three hours there before catching the last cruise back to Coniston. From the lake, the striking ochre house contrasts against the blue sky and water and harmonises with the green woods surrounding it.
In glorious sunshine, I first explore paths around the woodland gardens Ruskin created from moorland. Each was created for different purposes: to grow flowers and food, to make ponds for fish and reflections and to provide places for contemplation of natural beauty. A large yellow and black dragonfly is hawking over one pond and a meadow brown butterfly flits among meadowsweet on its bank.
I have to force myself to return to the house, but am glad that I have allowed enough time to absorb details and enjoy special exhibits of poetry, ceramics and Turner paintings. John Ruskin influenced modern thinking in many fields. He made his name as an art critic and teacher, had a lifelong enthusiasm for geology and painting, but wrote about everything from architecture and nature to politics.
He believed in social cooperation and is credited with formulating ideas for a national health service, the state pension and the minimum wage.
The next day I walk from Hoathwaite up the path to Coniston Pier, arriving in time for an iced latte from the Bluebird café before boarding the Steam Yacht Gondola and buying a ticket for the walkers’ cruise to Lake Bank jetty. It’s relaxing to glide the full length of the lake, watching the pastoral scenery pass by.
I follow a walk back to Coniston that is described on the National Trust website. It leads me onto the Cumbria Way and past Beacon Tarn, where I divert onto Beacon Fell for a superb view up Coniston Water.
The way continues around knolls and past marshes. As the sun grows stronger, iridescent blue splinters float in front of my eyes, as if I were becoming dizzy with the heat. They are tiny damselflies, much smaller than the large dragonflies that patrol each trickling stream I cross.
I’m hot and sticky by the time I reach the track from the lake shore back up to my camping field. People are swimming here and I can’t resist, so take off my boots and wade in. After an initial chill, the sensation is glorious. The water is smooth and soothing and slides over my skin like silk.
On my final full day, I cycle to Coniston pier and continue off road to Monk Coniston, where I leave my bike to follow another walk from the National Trust website. My objective is Tarn Hows and I explore Monk Coniston’s walled garden and tree trail on the way. The gazebo has information about the house’s history and famous visitors. I learn that Beatrix Potter bought Monk Coniston estate and Tarn Hows then passed them to the National Trust.
My first sight of Tarn Hows comes as I pass the viewpoint car park, which is high enough for splendid views over the Lake District mountains. Wooded hillsides and rugged knolls cup the still blue water below. Circuiting the path around the lake, I pass many other walkers. On the return route, where I’m alone again, I enjoy classic Lake District views.
That evening I watch shadows creep up wooded hills on the opposite shore as the sun sets. The sky is clear with an apricot glow fringing the hills on the northern horizon. Ruskin would have treasured this harmonious scene.
It’s been a satisfying and educational week and one that has renewed my love of the Lake District.
We stayed at:
Beckthwaite Caravan and Motorhome Club
Certified Location, Lake Road, Coniston, Cumbria LA21 8EW
Open: All Year
Price: Two adults, pitch and electric: £15 (members only)
Torver, Coniston, Cumbria LA21 8AX
Open: 3 April - 13 September
Price: Two adults and pitch from £14 (no electric)
Coniston Park Coppice Caravan and Motorhome Club Site
Park Gate, Coniston, Cumbria LA21 8LA
Open: All Year
Price: Two adults, pitch and electric from £17.65
Coniston Hall Campsite
Haws Bank, Coniston, Cumbria, LA21 8AS
Open: 21 March - 27 October
Price: Two adults and pitch, £22 (no electric)
Telling the story of Coniston since 1901
Explore the famous house, gardens and more
Part of Beatrix Potter's legacy
Hire bikes and boats
Parking is expensive around Coniston Water, so it makes sense to walk, cycle and use the two boat services as much as possible
If you buy your Coniston Launch ticket in the Coniston TIC, you get a 20% discount
On Saturdays and Sundays, the Steam Yacht Gondola offers good-value walkers' cruises to the south of Coniston Water. Disembark on the west or east shore then walk back using routes described on the National Trust website