The land of high fells, deep lakes and Romantic poets, Cumbria might be the adventure capital of the UK.
The region is chock-full of experiences that will be engraved on your mind and carved into your heart long after you’ve wiped the mud from your shoes. Those who like the sun in their face, aren’t shy of a bit of rain and have a well-developed sense of adventure should grab a rucksack and head out to experience these top things to do in Cumbria.
Unearth layers of maritime history at Whitehaven
The coastal train is the very best way to sweep into Whitehaven, as waves crash on one side as fells loom on the other. After you’ve arrived, Rum Story offers three floors of interactive, swashbuckling history – ending in a tasting of rum and local delicacy Cumberland rum nicky, a sweet, delicious pastry tart packed with dried fruit, sugar and liquor. (Some might recall that this treat befuddled contestants when it appeared in the technical challenge on The Great British Bake Off a few years back.)
Get all hands-on at the Beacon museum on the harbor, which is full of interactive exhibits that encourage you to touch, stroke, prod and ride without getting into trouble with the guards. You can run your hands over huge lumps of hematite, have a ride on a Raleigh Chopper bicycle and even have a go at presenting the weather. The museum also explores Whitehaven’s dirty past, when the town was an industrial hub of coal mining and shipbuilding.
Some say that the grid street pattern here inspired the people who built New York: take a walk up to the “candlestick” landmark (a candlestick-shaped chimney above the harbor) to look back down on the town to see why. Keep going for a bracing cliff walk to St Bees, a pretty coastal village with views of Scotland and the Isle of Man. And when you reach the town, an ice cream at Hartley’s on the seafront is an absolute must.
Go for a vigorous walk in Keswick
Keswick is the undisputed capital of the outdoors scene in Cumbria, and one of the most dog-friendly towns in England. Accordingly, there are plenty of places to walk (dog not required).
Fully accessible, the newly refurbished Keswick to Threlkeld railway trail ends at Threlkeld Coffee Shop, which is rammed to the rafters with delicious sweet treats. The trail itself has been recently resurfaced and snakes through woodland and over rivers, with plenty of information boards along the way to tell you all about the history of the railway line and associated industries.
A lap around Derwent Water is always popular. While it’s a full day’s walk for most, many cheat (in the most lovely way) by taking a gondola to the end of the lake before strolling back through the woodlands. Plenty of historically interesting pubs selling local ales let you rest up afterward: The Wainwright Pub only stocks local beers, while Keswick Brewing Company brews its own beers on-site and has an excellent new taproom.
For those looking for a bit of a challenge, the mountain (or fell, as they’re known around here) of Skiddaw is reachable by foot from the town. Before heading out, you should check the Fell Top Forecast to make sure you’re well prepared for your hike up England’s sixth-highest mountain, at 3054ft (931m). If you’re short on time, the parking lot at Latrigg is a great shortcut past the first stretch.
Discover hidden heads in the Eden Valley
East of the M6, the landscape rises into rolling hills laced with meandering rivers. The plunging waterfalls at Hellgill Force mark the start of the River Eden. A nice counterpoint to the come-hither beauty of the Lake District’s fells, the Eden Valley has a wild and untamed vibe that a camera will always struggle to capture.
At Armathwaite, you’ll find stone heads carved into the cliff walls. Only accessible at low water, these curious faces are thought to have been carved by local man William Mounsey in the late 19th century. Further north, a network of five full-height chambers carved into the sandstone cliff face comprise Lacy’s Caves. A certain Lt-Col Lacy commissioned the caves’ carving in the 18th century; he is thought to have once entertained guests in the spaces and surrounding ornamental gardens. They’re especially pretty late on a summer afternoon, when the evening sun illuminates the sandstone rocks.
Make time to visit the village of Kirkoswald and its odd church bell tower. Atop a hill 600ft (182m) away from the church, the structure is believed to have been positioned so the local village could better hear the bell ringing. In front of the church, there’s also a “holy well” with a tin cup on a chain you can lower for a cool drink from the spring below.
Get wild and wooly in Kendal
A mainstay of the local economy, sheep wandering in green pastures are a common sight in Cumbria. See how they influenced the area in the town of Kendal, once the region’s main wool-trading center (its town motto remains “Wool is my bread”). Along the river, look out for the old “washing steps” – small flights leading down to the water – where workers once cleaned the fleeces.
You’ll also stand a good chance of spotting otters and leaping salmon, especially near Victoria Bridge (known locally as Batman Bridge thanks to carvings along the railings that look exactly like the Caped Crusader’s symbol). Nearby, Kendal Castle was once home to Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. Today, its ruins offer great views over the town.
Cumbria crawls with Alfred Wainwright fans keen to tick all “his” fells off their list. This famous 20th-century outdoorsman and author published a series of books documenting his walks up the Cumbrian fells, an output that has inspired countless hiking enthusiasts to visit the 214 “Wainwright Fells” he described. True fans might visit Kendal Museum, where Wainwright was honorary curator for many years: if you look closely, you’ll still see several exhibit labels written in his distinctive handwriting.
Every November, the town hosts Kendal Mountain Festival, featuring three days of award-winning outdoor films and activities, plus plenty of opportunities to see your outdoor heroes up close.
Dine with – and under – the stars in Cartmel
Cartmel punches well above its weight when it comes to cuisine, offering the ideal romantic retreat for besotted foodies. This village is home to MasterChef winner Irini Tzortzoglou; Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume, the North’s only restaurant with three Michelin stars; and Unsworth’s Yard, a sunny courtyard surrounded by a microbrewery, cheese emporium, exclusive wine importer, tea shop and fresh-pizza cafe. As if that weren’t enough, the Cartmel Village Shop stocks the world-famous Cartmel sticky toffee pudding.
History seeps out of every corner of Cartmel. Crumble Cottages is a traditional Cumbrian farmhouse and grounds built around 1890 and lovingly restored by the owners. Sensibly thick to stay cool in summer and warm in the winter, its walls are surrounded by huge gardens specifically maintained to attract and support local wildlife – so keep your eyes open for long-eared owls, badgers and plenty of local deer. Or cozy up around the fire at the Cavendish Arms, a 450-year-old inn where coaches would once have stopped to rest their horses, right in the heart of the village. Keep an eye out for the “fish stones” in the village center – resembling slate benches, they are where local markets once took place.
And if you just fancy a quiet night in, then Home by Simon Rogan will bring delicious food to you wherever you are in the village, along with simple reheating instructions.
Go heavy on adrenaline-fueled adventures
Cumbria prides itself on having plenty to offer adrenaline junkies, from precipitous scrambles along Sharp Edge and Striding Edge to punishing cycling routes over winding mountain passes. The Via Ferrata Xtreme at Honister Slate Mine might be the most thrilling (or crazy) adventure of all, one that will have most people crying for their mommy within the first half-hour. This climbing route follows a series of iron rungs that wind along the cliff face, at a knee-trembling 300ft (nearly 100m) above the valley floor, with a few overhangs and wire bridges added in for good measure. An all-day pass throws in canyoning down a local river for extra measure.
For an even more extreme adventure, you can hurl yourself out of an airplane with Skydive Northwest. You’ll take off in the south of the county, meaning you can admire views over Morecambe Bay as you hurtle towards the ground. If you can bear to open your eyes, that is.
And if you prefer to stay in the plane instead of jumping out of it, then treat yourself to flight with Lake District Gyroplanes, in a tiny, James Bond–esque helicopter open to the elements, and which provides 360-degree views. If the weather allows and you get a choice of routes, opt to fly over the Eden Valley to see stone circles and sweeping Victorian viaducts from the air.