Darren Calpin and daughter Ellie take the high road, quite literally, on a Mini break in the Lake District.
One of the great plus points of the Lake District is that, as long as you’re well fuelled and suitably dressed, there’s always plenty to do. My daughter Ellie, attired daily in her creaking cagoule and robust hiking boots, is the perfect case in point. Whether it’s choosing the right stones to dam a stream in Grizedale Forest, hiking up sodden trails to see tinted Windermere views from Claife Heights, or tracing a modest waterfall to its source around the back of our hostel, she’s clearly in her element. Personally, I would add driving to the list of the region’s many plus points. When the narrow roads aren’t busy and the weather is good, driving around the Lakes is an utter delight. That being said, I do have a Mini – I’m sure my opinion would alter somewhat if I was piloting a people carrier or campervan…
Of all the scenic A and B roads we’ve explored though, it’s the drive along the A593 which makes me say “Oh, Ellie - look!” the most often. Heading north west out of Coniston, the seven-mile-cruise up to Ambleside is pure joy, like driving a go-kart through a gallery of HD screensavers. Not as challenging or windy as some of the other roads we’ve had to contend with, this undulating strip of single carriageway folds and bends its way through a series of landscapes: one moment we’re driving through Blyton’s Dorset, the next we’re negotiating the Scottish Highlands. Confused canopies of green and gold disorientate us while lonely single-drop waterfalls plummet down scarred, vertiginous peaks with complete single-mindedness.
Peaks and troughs
Unsurprisingly, I initially miss the intended turn-off for our hostel when we finally reach the outskirts of Ambleside. It’s getting dark when we park my fatigued Mini in the lakeside hostel’s jam-packed car park on the northernmost tip of England’s largest puddle.
While Windermere at dusk is quiet and calm, YHA Ambleside is anything but. The corridors are busy, the common rooms are busy, and the bar and dining areas are busy. Adolescents by the busload; adults few and far between. Seeking food and just a little bit of quiet, Ellie and I strike out on foot in search of some fish and chips. Some 45 minutes later we’re in the centre of town, sharing a huge helping of both as we sit on a roadside bench watching various Gore-Texed groups debate which pub should be their base for the evening.
Suitably satiated, we return to the hostel which is, if anything, even busier than before. Our accommodation for the night is a large private room replete with two bunk beds, a private bathroom and a separate toilet. A huge long radiator sits beneath an expansive bay window promising splendid lake views. However, we have a problem: noisy teenage neighbours.
I knock on their door and ask them to “keep it down” but they pretend not to hear. With diplomacy clearly not an option, I speak with the reception team who deal with the matter swiftly, removing/relocating the offenders in double-quick time. “They’ve been running around the corridors making a kerfuffle”, says the mustard-keen woman on reception. “But we didn't know which room they were in until you gave us the nod.”
Though Ellie and I are both a little tired now, we’re not yet ready for bed and so decide to explore the hostel’s labyrinthine interiors. Away from the busier areas, we find two large kitchens and a separate common room, peopled only by a few guys playing cards and a family going through the last, painful throes of Monopoly. I knock up a brew, Ellie finds the Scrabble and, quick as you like, all is well with the world.
What are the odds?
Is there a better way to start the day than waking up to a handsome view? As I pull back the curtains, the dead calm waters of Windermere reveal themselves in all their glory. From our enviable vantage point, we can see a good way down the vast lake’s ten-and-a-half mile length. Darker clouds are heading our way. Ellie springs out of her bottom bunk and bagsies the private shower first.
Washed, fed and watered, we pack up the car and point it towards a nearby waterfall. Sadly, Ambleside’s considerable traffic conspires with it’s one-way system to make progress painfully slow. When we finally find the access road we’re looking for, we’re met by a ROAD CLOSED sign.
Not ones to give up, we set about finding an alternative route. However, this sees us heading up impossibly narrow residential roads with the kind of handbrake-heavy inclines that make passing other vehicles a heart-in-mouth affair. When we do finally get to the road we think we need, it turns out to be a cul-de-sac. If I was in a Tom & Jerry cartoon I’d have steam coming out of my ears by now. Keeping the expletives I’d like to shout out well under wraps, I fashion a nine-point-turn in the tiny car park of a doctor’s surgery (but decide not to pop in for a stroke assessment). Then, I pilot Mini back down the same panic-inducing roads we just came up and rejoin the $%#*&! one-way-system for yet another go around the Lake District’s slowest $%#*&! merry-go-round.
Ellie and I both agree that Ambleside isn’t showing itself in its best light and so make the executive decision to cut-and-run. Ten minutes on the A593 is all it takes to bring my pulse rate back down to non-nuclear levels.
Sitting modestly in the lea of the Old Man of Consiton and just half-a-mile from the lake shore, the relaxed wee village of Consiton is an easy place to fall in love with. Indeed, we both feel very at ease ambling around the grey stone buildings and quaint souvenir shops that line its twee high street. A gloriously traditional display of tantalising treats in the window of an olde-world sweet shop draws Ellie in like a moth to a flame. As well as a selection of chocolates and bons-bons, we leave armed with a wonderful treasure hunt pack which leads us all around the village and shore in search of anagram-themed booty.
Yes, we like Coniston village very much and it is with some reluctance we head back to the car to leave. Driving out of town, Ellie screams at me with insane urgency: “Stop, Daddy! STOP!!” Pulling off a manoeuvre Magnum PI would’ve been proud of, I whiplash the car into a side street and beg Ellie to tell me what the emergency is. “It’s Lucy!”, she says: “I saw Lucy from school!!” Thankful that the emergency services won’t now be needed, I undig my nails from the steering wheel and gingerly reverse back onto the main road, shaking my head at the prospect of bumping into someone we know from 250 miles away. But no, there she is, Ellie’s friend Lucy, standing about 200 yards away with her family, looking right at us. What are the odds?
Our hostel for the night is YHA Conston Holly Howe, a 150 year-old Lakeland slate country house set within neat, leafy grounds on the outskirts of the village. Looming peaks gaze down on us as we (I) once again shift all of our gear into our third and final accommodation - a landpod. In case you don’t know, a landpod is a camping pod set on stilts with a few extra luxuries, like a modest seating area and LED lights, thrown in. The coolest thing about these innovations though is that you can roll back the removable roof and sleep under the stars! I’m feeling pretty smug as I look around at our neighbours in their grand, family-sized tepees: Can you roll back your roof?
The hostel is about half full, mostly with hiking groups and damp-haired families ferrying plates of food between the steamy kitchen and large common rooms in a casual, home-from-home manner. Ellie devours her tea (which is essentially a meal and a pudding in one hit) with ruthless effifiency then sets about making friends. Within the hour, she’s playing board games and exploring the basement games room with a girl of a similar age and her little brother. I kick back by the Victorian fireplace and lose myself in a book, looking up only to note the gentle drizzle of earlier has been replaced by a squall. Horizontal rain pummels the oversized windows with alarming vigour.
Through the night, the squall upgrades to a tempest which then morphs into a typhoon, the rain and wind almost biblical. As someone who loves being under canvas when the weather gets wild, I absolutely love it. Ellie, who is blessed with the ability to sleep through an earthquake, doesn’t stir until morning. When we finally throw off our cosy duvet(s) and venture outside, we hear our neighbours talking about the poles on their tepee having a ‘good old creak’ through the night. At one point, the lady shoots me a look that seems to say How was the stargazing, your royal smugness?
Like a duck to water
After an impromptu game of ‘walk around the entire hostel with a tray of breakfast to find Ellie’ (she was playing in the games room), I collect yesterday’s wet clothes from the drying room and pack up the car for the final time. Before pointing the car south for home though, we head to one of The Lakes’ loveliest scenic spots, Tarn Hows.
Although the car park is heaving and there are plenty of people enjoying the picnic spots, this highly picturesque body of water surrounded by spruce and pine is a joy to walk around. We take a detour along a trickling stream which eventually grows into rapids yielding several cascading waterfalls.
The going is tricky and challenging in places but Ellie seems to like it all the more for it. She really seems to be taking to this outdoor adventure lark like a duck to water. She looks like Lara Croft, standing tall and proud in front of the waterfall for her millionth photo. As she holds on to a tree and leans out to get as close to the torrent of water as possible, I’m reminded of the YHA’s original mission statement: “To help all, but especially young people, to a greater knowledge, use and love of the countryside.”