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The Lake District's greatest lakes – including the best ones to beat the crowds

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 11/06/2019 Helen Pickles

Loughrigg Tarn is a small, natural lake in the Lake District, Cumbria, England. It is situated north of Windermere, just north of the village of Skelwith Bridge, and at the foot of Loughrigg Fell. Seen here in beautiful late autumn sunrise light. © Getty Loughrigg Tarn is a small, natural lake in the Lake District, Cumbria, England. It is situated north of Windermere, just north of the village of Skelwith Bridge, and at the foot of Loughrigg Fell. Seen here in beautiful late autumn sunrise light. ‘How many lakes does the Lake District have?’ It’s a common quiz question – and before you start counting on your fingers, the answer is just one, Bassenthwaite Lake.

The rest are all ‘waters’ or ‘meres’. Annoying yet useful trivia. But, eschewing grammatical accuracy, we shall refer to them as lakes. By no means are they all the same; only four, for example, have passenger boats. Each has a personality that appeals to a different type of visitor. Some love Windermere’s boat-bobbing busy-ness, others feel drawn to Wastwater’s air of menace... But which is best for you?

Best all-rounder: Windermere

As England’s largest lake, at 10.5 miles (17k) long, you’d expect big things from Windermere and it certainly delivers: year-round lake cruises, watersports, marinas, islands (Belle Isle even has a round house, although there are no public landings), gentle bays and rocky inlets all set against wooded slopes with fells, such as Langdale Pikes, towering in the background.

Add in two of the Lake District’s busiest towns – Ambleside and Bowness with their myriad eating places and gift shops – plus the excellent new Windermere Jetty Museum (all things boat-y) and the World of Beatrix Potter attraction, a firm family-favourite, and pretty much everyone is happy.

Where to stay

The Laura Ashley Hotel The Belsfield (telegraph.co.uk/tt/laura-ashley-hotel-the-belsfield; from £169 b&b) is a family-friendly hotel in a landmark building overlooking the lake with lawns rolling down to the pier at Bowness.

Where to eat

The Waterhead Hotel in Ambleside (englishlakes.co.uk/waterhead) overlooks the head of the lake. The restaurant offers lunchtime flatbreads, an evening brasserie-style menu and on sunny days, an outdoor pizza oven.

Best for culture (and gingerbread): Grasmere and Rydal Water

Beautiful landscape looking down at Lake Grasmere taken from the hiking path above the lake. © Getty Beautiful landscape looking down at Lake Grasmere taken from the hiking path above the lake. Poet William Wordsworth settled close to these neighbouring lakes, just half-a-mile apart. His former homes, Dove Cottage (wordsworth.org.uk) and Rydal Mount (rydalmount.co.uk), are both open to the public and from these the poet produced some of his most memorable works.

Neither house is on the lakeshore – Grasmere village, to the surprise of many, is a 10-minute walk away from the water – which means the lakeside paths are not nearly as hectic as those surrounding Bowness-on-Windermere.

Walk the easy mile south along Grasmere lake and up to Loughrigg Terrace for views across the water, then return to freshly-baked gingerbread, made to Victorian cook Sarah Nelson’s recipe, from the Grasmere Gingerbread shop beside the village church.  

Where to stay

The Daffodil Hotel & Spa (telegraph.co.uk/tt/the-daffodil-hotel; from £115 b&b) sits on the shores of Grasmere lake. Just across the road from Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, it has a fairly unbeatable position plus smoothly contemporary rooms.

Where to eat

While Tweedies Bar (tweediesgrasmere.com) doesn’t have a lake view, the size of its beer garden more than makes up for it. Here you’ll find a  fine choice of handsome pub classics with a twist and an excellent range of real ales.

Summer woodland reflected in a perfectly still Derwent Water with dramatic Latrigg mountain backdrop in the beautiful English Lake District. ProPhoto profile for precise color reproduction. © Getty Summer woodland reflected in a perfectly still Derwent Water with dramatic Latrigg mountain backdrop in the beautiful English Lake District. ProPhoto profile for precise color reproduction.

Most charming: Derwentwater

With fells dipping to the water’s edge, islets scattered across the surface and the craggy ‘jaws’ of Borrowdale at the head of the lake, you would have to be stony-hearted not to fall under the spell of Derwentwater.

Throw in friendly Keswick with its cafes, climbing shops and twice-weekly market, sturdy wooden launches gently puttering across the lake, lakeside walks with ever-changing views, the walk up Cat Bells, plus the eponymously named Theatre by the Lake, and it’s pretty much perfect.

Where to stay

Overlooking the head of the lake and with striking views of Skiddaw and Cat Bells, Lodore Falls Hotel & Spa (telegraph.co.uk/tt/lodore-falls-hotel-and-spa; from £150 b&b) has a swanky spa and a choice of either contemporary or traditional dining.

Where to eat

Lingholm Kitchen in Portinscale (thelingholmestate.co.uk) is just a boat-ride from Keswick, serving up salads, quiches, artisan breads and home-made cakes lakeside.

For a flare of the dramatic: Wastwater

People either love or loathe Wastwater, tucked away in the harder-to-reach western lakes. England’s deepest ‘lake’ – and the chosen disposal ground for at least one murder – has a fascinating but chilling, steel-grey surface, thanks to the 1,700-foot screes that spill precipitously down to its eastern shore.

Not the easiest place to explore – its one road on the western shore ends abruptly at the hamlet of Wasdale Head – the valley’s majestic starkness is further emphasised by the mighty fells, including Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, which encircle the head of the lake. Come here for grand views, even grander walking and an exhilarating atmosphere.

Where to stay (and eat)

A traditional Lakeland inn at the head of the valley, Wasdale Head Inn (telegraph.co.uk/tt/wasdale-head-inn-hotel; from £118 b&b) is beloved of walkers and climbers, offers simple rooms, robust food, real ales and good craic in the bar.

For a spot of tranquility: Ennerdale Water

Slow shutter landscape at Ennerdale Water, Cumbria, the Lake District, England in the United Kingdom in Summer © Getty Slow shutter landscape at Ennerdale Water, Cumbria, the Lake District, England in the United Kingdom in Summer While it may be only 20 minutes from bustling Cockermouth, Ennerdale Water feels as though its on a separate island. A mile and a half from the nearest village, Ennerdale Bridge, and with road access limited to a couple of car parks and no lakeside route, the lake generally falls under most people’s radars.

Ennerdale Water is wonderfully, silently beautiful with nothing to do other than enjoy a lakeside walk (eight miles for the whole circuit). The more ambitious can climb Pillar mountain, marvel at the craggy reflections in the water and try to spot a red deer or two. The valley was subject to mass-scale commercial conifer planting in the 1930s but is now being 're-wilded' – the conifers thinned and native woodland reintroduced.

Where to stay

The Fox and Hounds Inn at Ennerdale Bridge (telegraph.co.uk/tt/fox-and-hounds-inn-hotel; from £90 b&b) is a community-owned frills-free village pub offering simple rooms, filling food, real ales and genuine warmth.

Where to eat

The Gather Shop and Café in Ennerdale Bridge (thegatherennerdale.com) is a community-owned café and information centre serving homemade scones, cakes, paninis and platters in a jolly, sociable atmosphere.

Best for avoiding the crowds: Coniston Water

Slow shutter landscape at Ennerdale Water, Cumbria, the Lake District, England in the United Kingdom in Summer © Getty Slow shutter landscape at Ennerdale Water, Cumbria, the Lake District, England in the United Kingdom in Summer It won’t win prizes for the most alluring lake – there are no pretty villages or dramatic fells (Coniston Old Man aside) to be found here – but Coniston has a stillness and confidence that is strangely attractive. Not to mention the fact that the lack of set-piece beauty spots keeps bigger crowds away.

Boating, sailing or cruising here – particularly on the National Trust’s Victorian steam yacht Gondola – casts a spell. One which children’s author Arthur Ransome fell under, setting his classic Swallows and Amazons on the lake. Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s lakeside home, Brantwood, is worth a visit, while solid Coniston village, with its real-ale pubs and hard-working museum, is pleasantly free of touristy knick-knackery.

Where to stay

Wetherlam Cottage (holidaycottages.co.uk/wetherlam; from £400 for three-night stay) is a tiny former stable-workers’ cottage for two. Set on a private estate with a shared garden, it offers direct access to the lakeshore.

Where to eat

Steam in Coniston village (steambistro.co.uk) is a relaxed, cosy bistro with a menu of inventive dishes with locally-sourced ingredients; there’s no licence so make sure you bring your own.

Easy access: Ullswater

Just five miles from the M6 (Junction 40), Ullswater is less centrally placed for exploring the National Park. But as a result it avoids the traffic honey-pots around Windermere and Grasmere and still rewards with pretty much everything you could possibly want from a lake: messing about on boats, cruising on steam-powered launches, dramatic fell scenery (such as iconic Helvellyn), lakeside walks (including the full 20-mile circuit and romantic Aira Force waterfall) plus a couple of pretty villages in Glenridding and Pooley Bridge.

Where to stay

A large, family-friendly, Victorian hotel, The Inn on the Lake in Glenridding (telegraph.co.uk/tt/the-inn-on-the-lake-hotel; from £190 b&b) has a peerless position on the lakeshore, generous rooms, a lakeside terrace and lawns.

Where to eat

The White Lion in Patterdale (whitelionpatterdale.com) is both family- and dog-friendly – a frills-free pub serving hungry walkers’ portions of pub classics and real ales.

Two for the price of one: Buttermere and Crummock Water

Rest for a moment, overlooking Buttermere in The Lake District, Cumbria, England © Getty Rest for a moment, overlooking Buttermere in The Lake District, Cumbria, England Separated by half a mile of flat farmland, it’s clear that Buttermere and Crummock Water were once one lake. But strangely, they have rather different characters. Smaller Buttermere has the more dramatic setting beneath the fells of Haystacks and High Stile while Crummock Water, to the north, has gentler surrounds and is often unfairly overlooked.

Both lakes are all about the walking, whether that be low-level lake strolling or hiking up on the fells. There are no fancy shops in tiny Buttermere village; just a few places to stay and eat including walkers’ bars, beer gardens and a farm tearoom serving up homemade ice cream. What more could you possibly want?

Where to stay

With fell views in every direction, the Bridge Hotel in Buttermere (telegraph.co.uk/tt/the-bridge-hotel; from £110 b&b) is a privately owned hotel which offers comfortably traditional rooms with a modern edge.

Where to eat

Syke Farm Tearoom, Buttermere (sykefarmcampsite.com) is a popular café on a family-run farm serving homemade cakes, savoury pies and salads plus ice cream from the farm’s Ayrshire dairy-herd.

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