North England’s Lake District and Durham
Hiking through the Cumbrian Lake District — England's green and pristine mountain playground — we'll admire idyllic lakes, discover misty waterfalls, tour a slate mine, and conquer stony summits. And we'll meet the locals — and their beloved dogs and sheep — everywhere. Then we play a little cricket, hike Hadrian's Wall, and get dazzled by Durham's Norman cathedral.
Howe Keld has the polished feel of a boutique hotel, but offers all the friendliness of a B&B. Its 12 contemporary-posh rooms are spacious and tastefully decked out in native woods and slate. It’s warm, welcoming, and family-run, with one of the best breakfasts I’ve had anywhere in England.
The Pheasant is a walk outside town, but locals trek here regularly for the food. The menu offers Lake District pub standards (fish pie, Cumbrian sausage, guinea fowl), as well as more inventive choices. Check the walls for caricatures of pub regulars, sketched at these tables by a Keswick artist. While they have a small restaurant section, I much prefer eating in the bar.
For poets, this two-part visit is the top sight of the Lake District. Take a short tour of William Wordsworth’s humble cottage, and be inspired in its excellent museum, which displays original writings, sketches, personal items, and fine paintings. This is where Wordsworth got married, had kids, and wrote much of his best poetry. Still owned by the Wordsworth family, the furniture was his, and the place comes with some amazing artifacts, including the poet’s passport and suitcase (he packed light).
Keskadale Farm is a good farmhouse experience, offering Ponderosa hospitality. One of the valley’s oldest, the house — with two guest rooms and a cozy lounge — is made from 500-year-old ship beams. This working farm is an authentic slice of Lake District life and is your chance to get to know lots of curly-horned sheep and the dogs that herd them. While her husband and sons work in the fields, Margaret Harryman runs the B&B.
England’s last still-functioning slate mine stands at the summit of Honister Pass. The mine offers worthwhile tours (perfect for when it’s pouring outside): You’ll put on a hard hat, load onto a bus for a short climb, then hike into a shaft to learn about the region’s slate industry. It’s a long, stooped hike into the mountain, made interesting by the guide and punctuated by the sound of your helmet scraping against low bits of the shaft. Standing deep in the mountain, surrounded by slate scrap and the beams of 30 headlamps fluttering around like fireflies, you’ll learn of the hardships of miners’ lives and how “green gold” is trendy once again, making the mine viable. Even if you don’t have time to take the tour, stop here for its slate-filled shop.
Castlerigg Stone Circle
For some reason, 70 percent of England’s stone circles are here in Cumbria. Castlerigg is one of the best and oldest in Britain, and an easy stop for drivers. The circle — 90 feet across and 5,000 years old — has 38 stones mysteriously laid out on a line between the two tallest peaks on the horizon. They served as a celestial calendar for ritual celebrations.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're getting to know the locals like never before...we're in the North of England. Thanks for joining us.
Northern England is a lush land steeped in a rich brew of history, culture, and nature. Traveling here, I'm struck by how man and nature seem to co-exist in harmony...and how richly rewarding a visit can be.
We'll hike along an ancient Roman wall, play a little cricket, and be dazzled in a Norman cathedral. We'll meet the locals — and their beloved dogs, and sheep...everywhere. Donning hard hats, we'll tour an old slate mine. And, of course, we'll enjoy the countless hikes — admiring lakes, discovering waterfalls, and conquering stoney summits.
Great Britain is dominated by England. In the north of England, we'll visit Durham, Hadrian's Wall and the Cumbrian Lakes District. We'll focus on the less touristy northern lakes — home basing in Keswick.
The Cumbrian Lake District — just 30 miles by 30 miles — is England's green, pristine, mountain playground. While not impressive in sheer height — England's highest peak is just 3,200 feet — it's long been a powerful magnet for nature lovers.
The charm of this area is, in part, the range of experiences it provides.
Stumble upon a surprise lake view. Then climb over a rock fence to look into the eyes of a ragamuffin sheep. Find the perfect farmhouse B&B. Then enjoy this Packhorse Bridge. And for a memorable lunch, summit your own private peak for a picnic. This region gives even tenderfeet a chance to feel rugged and outdoorsy.
Here in the Lake District, William Wordsworth's poems still ripple on the ponds. This is a land where nature rules and humanity keeps a low profile. For two centuries, this region has inspired visitors to relax, recharge, get some exercise, and maybe even write a poem.
The Lake District is green for good reason. It rains a lot. Experienced English hikers dress smart and don't let blustery weather keep them in. It can be rainy one moment and then suddenly gorgeous. As locals love to say, "There's no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing."
The town of Keswick is your best home base for exploring the northern lakes — which I prefer to the more commercial southern part of the region. Keswick was originally a mining center. But the slate and lead industries eventually gave way to nature-loving tourists and, in the 19th century, Keswick became a resort. Its fine old buildings recall those Romantic-era days when big city folks first learned about "communing with nature." Today, the town is well-stocked with hiking-gear shops...and pubs.
The Lake District is popular with English holiday-makers who prefer to bring their beloved dogs with them on vacation. Keswick's town square can look like a canine convention, and in local pubs, dogs are more than welcome.
And we picked up a tip at the pub — a sheepdog trial and hound show is on today and it's just down the valley. Farm culture is still alive and well in these fertile hills. From gritty shepherds to gentleman farmers to curious tourists, there's something for everyone. While lots of fun and plenty entertaining, competitions like these have practical roots. They go back to a time when agility and hunting instincts made a hound truly man's best friend. According to the program: a good Fell Foxhound must have: good shoulders, long neck, level back, and agile hind legs to jump those stone walls.
The scene itself offers a fascinating glimpse into this culture — from shepherd's crooks to tailgate party dog talk.
And the main event, as explained to us by a local aficionado, is the shepherd and his dog bringing in the sheep as quickly as possible.
Farmer: The shepherd goes out, he's given a position where he stands at the post and he has to direct his dog out on the right or the left the side is immaterial. Dogs, you can work them half a mile away. They'll pick the sound up, they will hear you and they can work half a mile away collecting sheep, putting them together, putting them into a flock and bringing them as near in a straight line as possible down through the course, through the hurdles there, back to the pen, hopefully nice pen, straight in, no breaks and the applause…
Working a border collie is like marriage — it's got to click, you must have confidence in one another. The dog will have confidence in you if you've got confidence in him. It's as beautiful as that and it's lovely to work with them.
Keswick has plenty of good B&Bs. We're staying at Howe Keld, which has the polished feel of a boutique hotel, but offers all the warmth and friendliness of a B&B. Its contemporary rooms are tastefully furnished in native woods and slate. Its breakfast is first class — I'm getting the traditional Cumbrian fry — complete with local sausage. And the lounge offers a cozy and enjoyable place to relax and prepare for your day's activities. Good B&B hosts loan maps and offer plenty of hiking advice.
Just down the street is Keswick's petite marina where we're combining a short cruise with my favorite Lake District hike — up a dramatic nearby ridge.
Derwentwater is one of Cumbia's most photographed and popular lakes. Boats circle the lake picking up and dropping off walkers at peaceful landings all along the way.
From the dock a trail leads up along a ridge called Catbells. The steep climb both burns off that Cumbrian fried breakfast and offers some commanding views.
Vigorous hikes like this are one of many reasons the Lake District is such a hit with English holiday goers. This little adventure takes just a couple of hours and it rewards anyone who tackles it with a trip highlight. Get out and make these experiences happen. For the rest of your life you'll remember, in this case, scaling Catbells with its thrilling "king of the mountain" climax.
After our descent, we catch the boat at the next landing, and finish our relaxing cruise around Derwentwater.
The Pheasant Inn is a Keswick favorite, and David and Val, who run our B&B are joining us for dinner. As anywhere in Britain, a good pub comes with charming conviviality. Kids are welcome. And, once again, in Cumbrian pubs, man's best friend is perfectly welcome too. The menu offers Lake District pub classics. David's having trout, and I'm going for the rump o' lamb.
Rick: My image of pub grub in the old days was pretty bad.
David: No, pubs have taken a lot more interest in food now. They're not just the drinking destinations; they have to sell food in order to attract people in.
Rick: And they're smoke-free.
Val: That's a great improvement over recent years since the smoking ban came in and it's much more pleasant to eat now.
A short drive south from Keswick takes us through the very countryside that inspired England's great Romantic poets. The greatest of those was William Wordsworth who lived here, in Dove Cottage. Wordsworth spent his most productive years — 1799 to 1808 — in this humble stone house. This is where he married, had kids, and wrote much of his best poetry. In these cramped and simple quarters, Wordsworth practiced his philosophy of plain living and high thinking.
The adjacent museum displays original writings, sketches, and personal items that give another peek into the life and world of the poet. His well-stamped passport and his well-worn little suitcase are proof he packed light and traveled far and wide. Notebook in hand, he wandered across England and through Europe on what would become the Romantic grand tour.
Until then, almost nobody climbed a mountain just because it was there — but Wordsworth did. He'd wander "lonely as a cloud" through the countryside, finding inspiration lost in the awe-inspiring immensity of nature. If appreciating nature became a religion in 19th century England, Wordsworth was its prophet.
With the advent of the industrial age, machines were taming nature and factory hours were taming free spirits. The Romantic movement — led by artists and writers like Wordsworth — was a reaction against this. Romanticism celebrated nature…making it almost a religion. People came here as if on a pilgrimage. And, like the poets, after communing with nature… they'd be inspired and reflect on the meaning of life.
While Wordsworth would likely be appalled at the speedy convenience of it all, drivers can enjoy car touring. From Keswick, a scenic 20 mile loop south reveals the essence of Lake District charms.
Newlands Valley is a majestic place. If it had a lake, it would be packed with tourists. But it doesn't — and it isn't. The valley is dotted with old, family-run farms. With tough times for small farms, most of the wives supplement the family income by running B&Bs. Many farms in the valley rent rooms.
I've been recommending the Keskadale farm in my Britain guidebook now for over twenty years. Margaret Harryman's welcome is as warm as ever and staying in her B&B, there's no doubt, you really are on a working farm. Their son, Sean, will some day run the farm. One thing he's already in charge of is shearing the sheep. Each of their 1500 sheep need to be sheared each summer.
Rick: Why do you have to shear the sheep?
Margaret: Well, for husbandry reasons and welfare of a sheep. And then they're sheared when it's warm weather, so it's a great relief for a sheep once it gets sheared.
But the fleeces are no longer the money-maker they once were. In fact, recently, prices were so low farmers here just burned the wool. Today, with new uses for this natural fiber, wool prices are higher so Sean and his dad collect the fleeces into bales.
Rick: Does it hurt the sheep?
Margaret: No, no, no. No, it's very therapeutic, it just glides by the skin so it doesn't hurt them at all.
When car touring, make a point to stop and get out. From the Newlands Pass summit, there's a rewarding little walk to a frisky waterfall.
From here, the road descends, winding scenically past a farm hamlet and to delightful Buttermere — with its popular lakeside trail. Our loop then climbs rugged Honnister Pass — with its wild and weather-beaten charm.
At the summit stands the Honister Slate Mine. England's last still-functioning slate mine offers tours. You'll put on a hard hat… load onto a bus for a short climb… then learn about the region's slate industry from an enthusiastic guide.
Guide: What we describe that rock as is green gold. It's called green gold, because it represents today, the finest roofing slate in the world. It is the number one, the Rolls Royce of slate. On that rock on the far side as we looked when we were down below there are bothies, little stone huts where the miners used to live, because what we have to remember here is pre-first world war through the history of mining; if you worked here, you lived here. Right, in we go. This way, folks….
Narrow shafts lead deep into the evocative Victorian mine. You'll be thankful for your helmet… standing inside the mountain, surrounded by slate scrap and the beams of a dozen headlamps, you'll learn the back-story of the stone that roofs so much of England.
Guide: Imagine you're eight or ten years old working underground maybe for ten to fourteen hours a day and your job was to assist your father and your elder brothers in drilling the rock. I think you're going to get the hang of this very quickly, folks, because you can imagine there's someone at this end with a large sledgehammer and each time you hit it, turn it, twist it, push it… Hit, turn it, push it… and back into the rock.
I don't know about you, but a tour like that makes me glad I work and live above ground, and in the 21st century.
Completing our loop, we pass humble hamlets and the lush Borrowdale Valley — always open for serendipity.
Coming upon an inviting gathering, we pull over and find ourselves at a cricket match — complete with Cumbrian sausage on the grill and a keg of the local brew. The gang gathered here bragged their field was named England's most beautiful cricket pitch — and I can see why.
And this gave me yet another chance to try to understand this bewildering national pastime.
Rick: So the pitcher is called a bowler.
Cricket watcher: Yes, he is.
Rick: Are you a bowler, our pitcher's a bowler. And what do you call your batter?
Cricket watcher: The batter.
Rick: Alright. So now is that a point?
Cricket watcher: That's a fall. Fall runs. If he hits it over the boundary which is the white line in front of us here, he gets fall.
Rick: You know, I'm still confused. I'm still confused. But I'm less confused than I was a few minutes ago.
Cricket watcher: Good. Right. Well if anybody can confuse anybody I can.
Rick: Well, you're doing a good job.
These valleys have sustained communities here for longer than you might imagine. Just outside of Keswick stands the Castlerigg Stone Circle. Like a mini-Stonehenge drenched in Lake District beauty, it was built over 4,000 years ago to function as a celestial calendar.
Imagine ancient people filling this clearing in spring to celebrate fertility, in late summer for the harvest, and in winter for the solstice. Festival dates were dictated by how the sun rose and set in relation to these stones which were aligned with the surrounding peaks.
For maximum goose pimples, as they say in England, be here after everyone's left and the mystical place is all yours.
Leaving the Lake District, we drive east for more highlights of North England. The road parallels my favorite ancient Roman sight in all of Britain. Hadrian's Wall was built by the Romans during the reign of Emperor Hadrian nearly 2000 years ago. This is one of England's most thought-provoking sights and much loved by hikers. This great stone wall stretched 73 miles from coast to coast across the narrowest part of northern England.
This was more than just a wall. It was a cleverly designed military rampart manned by 20,000 troops. At every mile along the wall, a small fort guarded a gate.
Its actual purpose is still debated. The wall, which often takes advantage of natural contours in the land, likely defined the northern edge of the empire and helped defend Roman Britain to the south from pesky, hard-to-conquer barbarians to the north. Today's modern border between Scotland and England still runs pretty close to this ancient wall.
A particularly well-preserved segment of the wall leads to Housesteads Roman Fort. Roman forts had a standard design: a rectangular shape containing a commander's headquarters and barracks. There's little more than stone foundations remaining — these stones raised a floor to give stored grain ventilation and this was once a set of spartan barracks. Pondering these desolate ruins, I can imagine the bleakness of being a young Roman soldier stationed here 18 centuries ago.
Driving further east we reach the city of Durham. With its famous cathedral, built by the Normans, it adds yet another layer to this region's history.
As their empire was falling in the 5th century, the Romans abandoned Britain to the barbarians. After centuries of relative chaos, a central government was re-established by the Normans who invaded from France in 1066. Along with stability and a capable rule, the Normans brought with them the prevailing European style of architecture, Romanesque. Here in England, they named it for the people who brought it — Norman.
Before visiting the church and learning about Norman architecture, we'll get the lay of the land. A sharp bend in its river protected medieval Durham — providing a moat on three sides. Today the river seems to protect the city only from the modern world. From this riverside path — much enjoyed by residents for a peaceful little get-away — we can ponder the cathedral as approaching medieval pilgrims once did.
The tangle of streets leading up to the cathedral, while retaining its medieval atmosphere, is lively. The city hosts the country's third oldest university. Along with the student vibe, Durham also feels blue collar because of its historic connection with the mining industry.
For nearly a thousand years, pilgrims have set their sights on this…the Durham Cathedral, standing like a mighty fortress. Built around the year 1100 to house the much venerated bones of the great missionary monk, St. Cuthbert, it offers perhaps England's best and purest look at Norman architecture.
The architecture is unusually harmonious because the church was completed in just 40 years and survives essentially unaltered. Round arches and zig-zag decorations are text book Norman style. Stroll down the nave to the center. Gaze up at one of the highest bell towers in Europe.
When the Normans conquered the Saxons here in England back in the 11th century, they brought with them more than just their architecture. They brought a whole new order. And this mighty church, way up here in the North, was more than a place of worship and a home for St. Cuthbert's bones. It was an unambiguous political statement, both to the conquered Saxons and to the Scots further north. The Normans were here to stay.
Grand medieval churches and the art that fills them are a reminder that monks like Cuthbert were the intellectual candles who helped keep scholarship flickering through the Dark Ages. Later, that knowledge strengthened the Church and made wonders like the Durham Cathedral possible.
While this fresco of the saint dates from the 12th century, Cuthbert died way before that — in the year 687. The cathedral displays the saint's coffin and treasures that were buried with him. This fine Saxon sash was embroidered with gold thread and silk. And this is the exquisite cross that this leader of the early Christian church in northern England wore.
For a better understanding of the cathedral and its saint, we're joined by cannon Stephen Cherry.
Rick: But the cathedral is called the Shrine to Cuthbert. What does that mean to you?
Stephen: It's really remarkable that we have the body of the saint from so long ago in our custody here as it were. So what we do is, I think, we kind of bond with Cuthbert's spirit. We bond with that deep sense of history and tradition that Cuthbert represented. He was a man of profound spirituality but also very serious human struggle. Being close to St. Cuthbert means for me getting closer to Jesus Christ, because of understanding the way in which Jesus worked through the life of this man albeit he lived so very many centuries ago…
Rick: For 1000 years, pastors and priests and ministers like you have been serving the needs of this community. That must be kind of an inspiration in itself.
Stephen: It's a very inspiring thing. You think of all those years, 500 years before the Reformation, when the mass was being celebrated. Then a little hiatus and then the post-Reformation church, that too was saying the mass, we're celebrating holy communion, the daily offer is here everyday and we're still part of that.
Rick: When you walk through the cathedral there's a feeling that it's vibrant and alive.
Stephen: It absolutely is vibrant and alive. We're completely committed to welcoming all who come. We're entirely committed to engaging with the arts and celebrating the good things of life. That freshness of mission is integral to the life of the cathedral.
As if to stress that point, the medieval Durham cathedral is enlivened with art from our generation and from its community. This window gives us a striking overhead view of the Last Supper. And this one celebrates the church's 1000th birthday with a sweep through local history and industry from mining to farming.
I hope you've enjoyed our trip through Northern England — from the pristine Lake District, along Hadrian's awe-inspiring wall, to Durham's magnificent cathedral. We've been inspired by England's fascinating past while enjoying its charming present.
As we've seen here in the North of England, you don't need big cities for richly rewarding travel experiences. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time…keep on travelin'.