When I was aged eight, my parents took me on holiday to Windermere. Minutes after arriving at our lakeside campsite, I scrambled on to my lilo and set sail.
Unfortunately, a gusty breeze immediately buffeted me towards a row of fishermen. I remember crashing backwards through their fishing lines, staring up at angry anglers wondering how they’d hooked a rainbow-coloured lilo instead of a trout.
Nonetheless, I fell in love with Windermere, and decades later it’s another boat – albeit a more seaworthy one – that has lured me back.
The new MV Swift takes passengers from Bowness-on-Windermere to Ambleside, halfway along England’s largest lake
Late last year saw the maiden voyage of MV Swift, the largest boat launched on to the lake in 80 years. This beautiful 300-person vessel was partly crafted in Holland before being transported to the UK. She’s incredibly high-tech, with electric doors, heated windows and easy access for wheelchair users.
I’m infinitely grateful for the heated windows when I board in December, although there’s no such thing as a bad time to visit. In summer, lazy sunbeams bounce off the lake’s glassy flatness, and in autumn low-hanging clouds snag in the branches of lakeside beeches. As we slip away from the dockside on a still day, clouds crown distant snow-capped hills, while glossy cormorants strafe the sky, eyeing open-water swimmers.
Our route takes us from Bowness-on-Windermere to Ambleside, halfway along England’s largest lake. A round trip takes 80 minutes, or you can stop off at Ambleside for the day.
The second route, from Bowness to Lakeside, is 90 minutes return. An audio guide provides insights into lakeside landmarks such as the Langdale Chase Hotel, a flamboyant mansion built in 1890. Its beautifully manicured grounds, designed by Thomas Mawson (the green-fingered guru behind The Hague’s Peace Palace Gardens), roll towards the water.
Later, I spot the thick turrets (complete with faux arrow slits) of Wray Castle, a brooding fortress built 180 years ago. Beatrix Potter fell in love with Cumbria after staying there as a teenager. Her parents rented the castle for holidays, and Beatrix’s visits marked the start of not just a love affair with the lakes, but of a close friendship with National Trust founder Hardwicke Rawnsley, who regularly attended dinner parties held by her parents at the castle.
Decades later, in 1904, Beatrix used book royalties to buy Hill Top, a working farm in nearby Near Sawrey. The cottage she lived in is now owned by the National Trust and open to the public.
Never out of stile: The Mail on Sunday’s Tamara Hinson hiked up Loughrigg Fell, setting off from Rydal Water – a favourite spot of Wordsworth
Little bounder: Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit
A keen farmer regularly spotted walking her pet bunny, Beatrix believed the Lake District needed protecting. In 1934 she wrote to Rawnsley’s widow Eleanor and declared: ‘I wish there may be a sufficient representative number of the old farms in the hands of the Trust.’ And she set about purchasing tracts of the Lake District (4,000 acres and 14 farms, to be precise) to leave to the nation.
In Hill Top’s cosy front room, there’s the fireplace that serves as an escape route for Tom Kitten in The Tale Of Samuel Whiskers, and the dresser that features in other books.
I’m shown Beatrix’s initials, carved into a fireplace, and a collection of merchandise sent for approval by Beatrix, who knew the items would add to Hill Top’s value when left to the National Trust. My favourite is a Steiff bunny – one of the first Peter Rabbit toys produced.
Strolls through the grounds of our hotel, the Laura Ashley The Belsfield, come with a soundtrack of owl hoots so frequent I’m convinced there are speakers concealed inside boulders.
We fill flasks with tea and hike up Loughrigg Fell, setting off from Rydal Water – a favourite spot of Wordsworth, whose former home, Rydal Mount, is also open to the public.
Twisting stone walls sporting bouffant, Trump-like wigs of lichen lead us to Rydal cave, a cathedral-like reminder of Cumbria’s slate-quarrying heritage.
There are plenty of other surprises. An impromptu detour takes us to the National Trust’s Sizergh House. The highlight of its antique-stuffed interior is the Inlaid Chamber with its Elizabethan-era inlaid panelling, prised from the walls in 1890 by staff from the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) but returned in 1999.
Later, a wrong turn leads us to the Lakeland Motor Museum. Its 30,000 exhibits include a Peel P50 (the world’s smallest car) and a replica of Bluebird K7 – the hydroplane in which Donald Campbell was killed on nearby Coniston Water in 1967.
That evening, we crank up the cosiness at The Yan, a boutique hotel and restaurant huddled at the end of a Grasmere farm track. It’s a true labour of love – the land was purchased in 2011 by Dave and Sally Keighley, and their ‘bistro with rooms’ opened its doors in 2019. The restaurant is run by their daughter Jess and her chef husband Will.
Spectacular: Rydal cave is a cathedral-like reminder of Cumbria’s slate-quarrying heritage, writes Tamara
The couple spent years working in the French Alps and the interior is the glorious love-child of a cow barn and Alpine chalet. Tealights inside hollowed-out twigs cast a homely glow, blown-up pages from the Shepherds’ Guide adorn the walls and there’s a swanky open kitchen in the former bullpen.
The menu is pure comfort food; dishes include the ‘cuddle in a bowl’ (chicken with a bacon and leek casserole and dumplings), and beef brisket and chorizo chilli con carne. The latter turned out to be the best meal of my life.
And then, on the final day, Peter Rabbit (or a relative, at least) puts in an appearance, bounding across the hotel lawn and pausing to sniff the heather-scented air. In the distance, MV Swift slides out of the dock once more. It dawns on me that (barring the absence of my pink lilo) little has changed since my last visit 30 years ago. And we’ve got Beatrix Potter to thank for that. And perhaps Peter Rabbit.