The wheel of the year has turned. The temperature is barely above zero and my fingers feel like the ice formations I see in the puddles and ditches, but the grass looks lush and these verdant landscapes shout out their promise of blossoming and ripening in the months ahead. The land is quickening. Winter is taking its leave as spring impatiently waits to step into the breach.
I don’t mind the cold at all, as long as it’s dry, and February sunshine and blue skies are a joyous combination. A day like this couldn’t be allowed to go to waste, so I decided to get out into the countryside and tap into that vernal energy. Cumbria is my favourite county and the villages, woods and footpaths around Lake Windermere are some of my favourite places to relax and appreciate the land. Where better then to spend a beautiful day on the cusp of the seasons?
Ambleside’s history can be traced back to Roman times. Then known as Galaca, the remains of the fort near Waterhead Pier are a reminder of when the settlement was part of the Roman defences against the possibility of invasion from the Scots to the north. Centuries later, the town is reputed to have taken its name from Hamel, a Viking who owned land there. Evidence of Nordic occupation is evident in the present day lexicon of the land. Words like beck (brook with a stony bed); fell (rock, cliff) and tarn (mountain lake) are synonymous with the power and mystery of this rugged, often-bleak, but always awesome, northern landscape. When they first set foot on the mountain paths and beheld the icy clear tributary streams flowing down into the vast lakes below, the Scandinavian invaders would surely have felt they were home from home.
Putting Viking warriors to one side, for me, the town evokes other more peaceful and relaxing associations. How could a place name which contains the verb ‘amble’ not conjure up images of quiet green lanes shaded by towering trees, expanses of pasture land, dry stone walls and the sound of bird song? The footpath from the northern pier of Lake Windermere up the gentle incline to the town certainly matches that description, though the town itself, small and, thankfully, unspoiled, is a hive of activity.
Situated at the gateway to the Langdale pikes (another Scandinavian word, meaning ‘pointed mountain’) and south lakes fells, Ambleside enjoys enormous popularity amongst tourists and serious walkers and climbers. It has an abundance of hotels, B&Bs and restaurants, mostly full, even out of season…………..if there is such a thing as ‘out of season’ here. A place where I like to eat is Apple Pie Café and Bakery; I’ve stopped off for lunch at this family-run establishment many times and enjoyed tasty fresh pastries, seasonal salads or hearty soups with homemade bread, still warm from the oven. Its reputation for good food and service has made it a beacon for ravenous travellers and locals alike and it is always busy. That being said, I was more than surprised to find that on a cold February day I had to join a short queue of hopefuls, all waiting for tables to be vacated by the sated; I hadn’t encountered that before, even in the blazing summer months. The staff were on top form, hastily preparing tables for the next customers and providing service with a smile, even under pressure. My bowl of rich, ripe tomato soup and accompanying crusty cob set me up for further ambling.
As one would expect, Ambleside is not short of shops selling the requisite waterproof clothing, sturdy footwear and climbing gear desired by those passing through (or staying over) on their treks to the mountains beyond. Trade looked good. Not all tourists are hill-thrill seekers, this writer included, and with tourism now providing the town’s main crust, shops specialising in gifts and craft items associated with the land and its traditions are important and therefore plentiful. Hill sheep (hardy breeds brought over in the long boats) were and to a lesser extent still are important to the region; woollen and sheep skin clothing and accessories seem to be popular. Water colours and sketches of flocks grazing on the high peaks don’t do badly either. Two of my favourite shops are Silver Moon, a fair-trade jewellery and gift shop and The Rock Shop, which specialises in selling minerals and gem stones. Little customers get to dive into a gem pit and fill small pouch with shiny stones. I’m extremely keen to try this, but sadly, am over the age limit, though I’m considering taking my nephew and engineering a reason for having to get into the pit with him.
One highlight of this particular visit to Ambleside was being able to see the magnificent view of the white-topped mountains before the strengthening spring sunshine melts the snow, transforming it into crystal water. The views from lower valley are breath-taking. Relaxing on the steamer as we sailed back across serene Lake Windermere, I had to wrap my shawl close around myself to keep out the chill, whilst simultaneously having to shield my eyes from sun’s strong rays. High snowy peaks merged with sky line; I’m sure I even saw some fluffy sheep amongst the stratus, perhaps spirits of a fell-dwelling flock from Viking times, still holding on to their connection with the land. It’s easy to let the imagination run wild in such an inspirational setting. I treasure my visits here and hope there will be many more to follow.