Cumbria is a force to be reckoned with
IT seems ironic that the storms which turned some of Cumbria's most picturesque valleys into an almost alien landscape last winter coincided with the release of new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, in which the Lake District is a stand-in for imaginary intergalactic worlds.
One of the hardest hit places was Ullswater, which briefly looked far more like a rebel stronghold after raging torrents ripped up roads to leave behind a dark, desolate mass of twisted Tarmac.
The region’s role in the blockbuster, which includes footage from several Cumbrian locations filmed long before the latest flooding, is a welcome piece of good news, however, which the local tourism agency hopes will boost visitor numbers.
Despite the devastation most places have been open for business for months, including Ullswater where the year-round steamers were back in operation in January after a short halt due to storm damage.
Boarding one of the historic boats, I look up to see the majestic Helvellyn looming above the winding waters, which lay claim to the title of England’s most beautiful lake.
It was here where Donald Campbell set his first world water speed record, exceeding 200mph in his jet-powered Bluebird.
Less well known activities are skiing and snowboarding at Raise, a peak beside Helvellyn with a ski lift, which was apparently mobbed when the winter’s rain turned to snow.
The steamers are an easy way to see a lot of scenery without moving a muscle. They’re also popular with hikers and cyclists who use them to access an array of routes in the national park.
Getting off at Howtown, I walk on to Pooley Bridge, or Pooley as it became more accurately known after its centuries-old stone crossing was washed away.
A temporary crossing finally opened in March, saving drivers from a lengthy detour to get from one side of the village to the other.
Sitting beside a roaring fire at the Pooley Bridge Inn, tucking into a tasty fishfinger sandwich and chips as I chat to the friendly staff I can’t help thinking that, while no-one would want another deluge from above, this seems like a good place to be stranded.
Hiking back to Howtown for the last boat I encounter one muddy landslide across the hillside paths but it’s not hard to get over and I carry on, admiring the stunning views in the fast-changing light.
I’m staying near Loweswater, where road signs warn drivers to go slowly due to red squirrels. I don’t see any as I head along narrow, winding roads between dense hedgerows.
Arriving at Low Millgillhead at Lamplugh before my friend I explore the vast, well-decorated Georgian farmhouse which has no less than six bedrooms, plus a large dining room and a spacious yet cosy lounge with an open fire.
There’s also a decent garden though it’s not really the weather or time of year to enjoy it during our stay.
Cumbria is not short of good restaurants, and we are warmly welcomed at the Pheasant Inn (pictured) beside Bassenthwaite Lake where we enjoy a drink beside another roasting fire.
The waiter, who is not local, appears, followed closely and unexpectedly by a large group of other diners who misunderstand his directions and shadow him as he comes to take our order.
Unruffled, he politely shows them the way to their table before returning to talk us through the menu. They’ve run out of sea bass, he smiles apologetically, but the bream can “come and see us” if we’d like to order that instead.
It is delicious, and service in the bistro is friendly and unobtrusive.
The former coaching inn is one of many establishments in the Lakes which welcome dogs as well as their owners, with nearby Keswick voted the most dog-friendly town in the UK.
The attractive town, which was also flooded over the winter, has plenty of pubs, outdoor shops and art galleries including Northern Lights selling jewellery, crafts and paintings by artists from Cumbria and across Britain.
Heading south from Keswick to Grasmere, where Wordsworth lived when he wrote his famous ‘Daffodils’ poem, still takes longer than usual with the main A591 not due to re-open until the end of May following flood damage.
Heading north back towards Scotland Carlisle, which was also hit hard in the storms, is worth a stop-off especially if you’re interested in history.
The castle is said to be the most besieged fortress in Britain, due to its location near the border, putting it centre stage in countless bloody battles between the Scots and the English.
Past prisoners included Mary Queen of Scots and hundreds of Jacobites held while awaiting trial and execution after their failed bid to re-take the English throne.
The combative history of the castle and city might help to explain the resilience of Carlisle residents today who, like other flood victims across Cumbria, rallied round to help each other.
The community may not have starred alongside the landscape in the new Starwars hit, but the Force is strong with these ones.
Low Millgillhead at Loweswater starts from £575 for a weekend stay, through Sally’s Cottages, which has more than 300 holiday homes throughout the Lake District. (www.sallyscottages.co.uk, [email protected], 017687 80571)