Derwent Water and Keswick

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It’s no wonder so many visitors from other parts of the UK and beyond flock to the Lake District National Park during the summer months. To my mind, Cumbria is without question the most visually stunning part of England. Its beauty is unrivalled. Even in the colder months the backdrop of majestic mountains and the deep and mysterious lakes and tarns provide the most awe-inspiring views.

A friend of mine loves Keswick, the north Lakeland town on the shores of Derwent Water. For a long time she had been encouraging me to visit, but I had been put off by the journey, which was not particularly long, but would involve a lengthy bus ride. I suffer from appalling motion sickness. I’m fine on trains (probably the illusion of travelling in a straight line, even when I’m not), but any travel on buses, coaches or cars must be very carefully planned. I was determined to give it a go and see if the north lakes region was as lovely as the south.

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I was delighted to find the road to Keswick was for the most part a straight, very busy dual carriageway, hardly any twists and turns, and  I made it all the way to Keswick and felt fine the whole time.

Summer had arrived and the tourists (yes, I know that included me!) had arrived with it. Keswick is a small town, picturesque and quaint and at peak times is ill equipped to deal with the high number of visitors. Crossing the town’s roads was a challenge.

After a tasty veggie breakfast at a local eatery I decided to explore further. I didn’t see any of the usual high street stores, but there was an abundance of independent retailers selling local produce, gifts and arts and craft items. The street market appeared to be thriving; indeed, I gave up on trying to negotiate the heaving walk ways between the various stalls. I was saddened to find one man selling cow hide rugs and furs whose origin I could not determine. I suppose that’s something, very sadly, to be expected in a region that makes its living from farming. That fur, however, had not come from any creature I had ever seen grazing in a field. I gained some small satisfaction from noticing that the man looked a little nervous and was very noticeably scanning the crowd for signs of potential opposition to his grisly trade.

There were lots of places to eat, some of which looked fashionably vintage and homely, but all were packed. It was just as well I’d had that hearty late breakfast to set me up for the day. Keswick loves dogs, which is just as well, because canine visitors also flock there (pardon the mixed metaphor!) with their people, many of whom are serious fell-walkers sporting all the proper kit. Many of the friendly shops and cafes had doggie water bowls outside and the pooches were indulging enthusiastically in the heat of the midday sun.

It’s a pretty little place in a wonderful part of the world – it’s just so busy.

I made my way to the edge of the town on my mission to reach the stunning Derwent Water. Despite it being such a tourist attraction, I have always loved Windermere and for me it remains – after Ullswater, the most beautiful of the English lakes –  a firm favourite. Not so, my good friend had insisted – I had to see Derwent Water and then I would understand.

Access to the lake was by way of a pleasant walk through Hope Park, which was quite lovely and, like the rest of Keswick, very busy.

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Past the ice cream vans, visitors’ centre, and a bizarrely located grazing area where a small herd of sheep seemed to be making the best of it in spite of the unwanted attentions of the tourists determined to photograph them, Derwent Water’s north shore came into view. I had to agree with my friend’s depiction of it as being much more humble than Windermere. I could imagine at quieter times it would be serene and soulful. In my mind’s eye I conjured a sunset over Cat Bells. Little rowing boats glided across the lake’s surface in contrast to the large steam cruisers of Windermere.

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There were a lot of people around, most of them probably visitors. The area is a hub for walkers and campers rather than those who just want to spend a day of their British holiday schedule at a countryside beauty spot. Folks seemed to be enjoying the place for what it was, not ticking off another stop on a vacation itinerary. For my friend that was the attraction – and I get that. I still preferred Windermere’s glamour though.

I spent about three hours meandering along the lakeside. I sat; I pondered; I watched the dogs swimming and having great fun retrieving sticks from the water; I found an accommodating rock and sat for a while taking photographs, and I read. I explored the wooded areas along the shore line and rested in some secluded spots. I didn’t opt for the lake cruise as the boats were very small and the passengers crammed in like sardines.

The south end of the lake was quiet with nothing much happening there. Perfect for getting away from the noise and people and indulging in some quiet contemplation, but also a bit isolated, and possibly not as safe for the lone female traveller.

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Once back in town and after a quick stocking up of provisions I boarded the bus back to Penrith. Passing through one quaint and tiny hamlet on the way back, I did feel rather envious of the lucky folks who lived there. I wonder if I would feel the same in mid winter.

Penrith has a nice little park across from the station adjacent to the remains of the town’s castle. The end of my day of travel was spent sitting in the rose garden, enjoying bees and butterflies and watching some elderly men playing bowls on the immaculate green. Pure nostalgia and a fitting end to a quintessentially English summer day.

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http://www.visitcumbria.com/kes/derwentwater/
http://www.visitcumbria.com/kes/keswick/

Furness Abbey

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Furness Abbey, or what remains of it, is a Cistercian Abbey just outside Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. It was built by a community of monks in the 12th century and dissolved by Thomas Cromwell about 400 years later. Like other religious buildings which were destroyed during Henry VIII’s ‘Dissolution’, parts of it were left intact as a reminder of the power of the king.

I have this fascination with ancient English buildings, especially ruins. There is something about them; an atmosphere; some connection with the past. I love to visit them and to soak up my surroundings.

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Whalley Abbey in east Lancashire is one of my very favourite places, so I had high expectations of Furness, which had been described to me as being even more splendid.

I discovered a local bus service would take me from the train station at Dalton-in-Furness and drop me off half a mile from the entrance to the Abbey. The stop for this bus was, according to the Abbey website,‘outside the station’; that wasn’t true, but it was only a short walk away outside the tiniest town hall I’ve ever seen, in which resided the tourist information centre. The two staff members seemed a little surprised to meet an actual tourist and although helpful, were not particularly knowledgeable. One of them went online and found me the numbers of three local taxi firms. We’ll come back to that later.

After leaving the bus I enjoyed the short walk (it didn’t even seem like half a mile) along a peaceful lane to the Abbey entrance. As I strolled along I could smell the wild garlic mixed in with the roadside vegetation. Some farm animals grazed and lazed in a small field.

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As Furness Abbey is owned by the English Heritage this means the admission price is higher than at similar sites not owned by them, and that their people are on hand to give information and sell you merchandise – whether you want these things or not. The entrance was inside a modern brick and glass annexe. I paid my admission fee and was invited to buy an information booklet. I declined, but was then made to wait whilst the young man flicked through the aforementioned booklet, summarising its main points. The poor soul had clearly been instructed to go through this script with each visitor and dared not deviate from the script. Still within the entrance area was an interesting display and collection of artefacts, archaeological finds and photographs illustrating the Abbey’s history.

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Furness Abbey ruins were impressive. I spent some time sitting in the blazing heat just contemplating how magnificent the structure must once have been. The experience was marred slightly for me by quite high levels of noise coming from outside the Abbey site; some adjacent farm land was being used by picnicking families and what looked like a children’s summer camp,  and two motorcyclists performed seemingly endless circuits of a surrounding road. I guess ancient remains must defer to the here and now. Being in a more isolated location, Whalley Abbey in Lancashire is much more serene which is why it is also a popular retreat.

Nevertheless, Furness Abbey held its own and had some interesting little features such as troughs of wild herbs planted amongst the ruined stone walls.

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Due to some structural instability, investigations and reparation work were being carried out and part of the main church building was surrounded by scaffold. This will be in place until 2016. I hope to go back and enter the ancient church, scaffold free.

When I’d looked around and spent some quiet time I decided to use the taxi numbers I’d been given to get back to the station. This turned out to be a waste of time: the first one-man enterprise was in Manchester; the second wouldn’t be free for two hours and the third didn’t even answer. This was to be my first encounter with unreliable single driver taxi firms in Cumbria, though not my last. The bus arrived just at the right time for me to head home whilst reflecting on my day.

 

Conishead Priory, Cumbria: a magical place

Conishead Priory, home of the Majushri Kadampa Buddhist Temple and learning and meditation centre, has experienced several incarnations in its own right. On a hot day in August in a secluded corner of the temple’s wild flower garden, it is easy to experience a sense of nirvana.

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Built on the original site of a 12th century Augustinian priory, the grade 2 listed Victorian gothic house was for hundreds of years home to many generations of Cumbrian aristocracy. It has also been a hydro-hotel, described as the ‘paradise of Furness’, a convalescent home for miners and was used as a hospital in World War II.

Conishead instantly fascinated me when I first heard about it two or three years ago. I had been meaning to go there since that time, but never got around to it. It was as good as I had hoped it would be and a place I am sure I will visit many more times.
The Priory is about 2 miles from Ulverston Station. On their website, Conishead Priory recommends travelling there by taxi and even provides an ample list of local taxi numbers. Based on prior (no pun intended!) experience of poor taxi services in parts of Cumbria (see Furness Abbey blog) I decided to add no less than ten of these numbers to my mobile before making my journey. It seems you can never have too many taxi numbers to hand when in Cumbria: the first firm I rang had nobody available for 40 minutes; the second had nobody available at all; the third rang through to a recorded message………….at the fourth attempt I got through to a chap who sounded quite put-out that I had disturbed him, but said he would be with me in 10 minutes and was good to his word, though surly with it – and expensive.

I was surprised at first that the Priory house was not older; I had misunderstood the blurb and had thought it was 12th century, whereas that was the when the original Augustinian building was erected. The existing house is early Victorian. Tours are available at a reasonable price, but I didn’t partake.

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A short walk across the car park leads straight into the gardens and outdoor dining area. The café is situated inside the conservatory. Buddhist monks and visitors alike sit and chat, appreciating the vibrancy of the garden and enjoying food together. The café offers a selection of vegetarian sandwiches, snacks, homemade soups, cream teas and cold drinks and ice creams.

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I liked that the gardens were beautiful in a very understated and natural way, not artistic or flamboyant, but tranquil and vibrant without trying too hard. I particularly enjoyed walking in the wildflower garden (as wildflowers are my favourites) and the many and varied pots on the terrace.

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There is a short walk (a quarter of a mile, or 7 minutes as the sign says) down to the beach. The first part of the path is a bit steep, which was fine on the way down but means that the return is more of a challenge. This route is possibly not suitable for some wheelchairs or prams.

The walk through the wood is short and pleasant. The pebble beach at the end is an inlet, though you can see out to open sea. A word of advice to anybody hoping to sit on the beach: bring a lightweight folding chair or a thick cushion. The pebbles are big and uncomfortable to sit on. There is a small number of benches, but probably not enough. The beach is, after all, part of a retreat and not a tourist destination.

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In one sense, the temple it is so strangely incongruous in that English-country-house setting, yet it is perfectly at ease there. It wasn’t as large as I had expected and not as ornate. It’s modern and airy and has some religious art and beautiful displays. On entering, I was welcomed and given the choice of removing my shoes or covering them with the disposable covers provided. I chose the former. I would have stayed for one of the meditation sessions, but none was planned to take place during my short visit. Everybody is made welcome, Buddhist or non-Buddhist alike.

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After more peace and quiet time spent looking out over the lawns behind the temple, I decided to call a taxi in plenty time to get back to Ulverston Station. My first call was to the same driver who had picked me up on my journey in – no luck there. After three more unsuccessful calls I managed to book a taxi which arrived about 20 minutes later. The driver told me that they were the largest company in the area, but still tiny compared with firms in larger towns.

Conishead is well worth a visit and I would defy anybody to not find something there that appeals to them, be it the grand house, the beach, the temple or the wonderful gardens.

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