Sand, pebbles and scorching blue sky: my car-free break in Cumbria | Holidays in the Lake District

Tthe sand outside the windows stretches for miles. The sea glistens in the distance and herons stand guard along the estuary, their white feathers gleaming against the caramel-golden sandbars. “It could be the French Riviera. Look at this!” says one of my fellow travelers, waving his arm at the expansive views. His enthusiasm, partly fueled by cans of morning cocktails, is not misplaced. The scenery gets better and better as the winding swamp gives way to the rising hills.

free car map

Much of Cumbria has become too popular for its own good. But if you visit the forgotten coast and access the famous lakes without a car, you will find deserted beaches and unbeatable scenery without increasing traffic. The Avanti West Coast oscillating train from Euston to Lancaster takes just two and a half hours to accelerate 250 miles, while the northern railroad around the Cumbrian coast takes almost the same time to cover less than half that distance. But this is a journey worth savoring. Every station and stretch of track has a distinct atmosphere, from the retro-romantic tea room in Carnforth, where the 1945 Brief Encounter was filmed, to the Ratty Arms and flower beds at Ravenglass.

I’ve been waiting for a reason to revisit Ravenglass since my last trip three years ago and now two new things to interest car-free travelers have popped up all at once: the free weekend bus to beautiful Wasdale this summer runs from Ravenglass station in the morning and back in the evening (until September 4th). And new stretches of England’s coastal path around Cumbria have been opened up that are easy to reach by train, taking hikers through sand dunes and post-industrial nature reserves.

On the right track… Ravenglass train station.
On the right track… Ravenglass train station. Photography: David Chapman/Alamy

Sam Bowden runs the craft ice cream company Ravenglass with his family. They opened a new store in June and the most popular flavor is hawthorn. There are inns nearby, by the estuary, just a few minutes from the station, but this time I’m on the grounds of Muncaster Castle. Fueled by rhubarb and ginger ice cream, I walk a mile or so through the woods to find the old barn, a renovated barn that sleeps four. It is part of the unpretentious quarters of the castle’s coachman. There are more self-catering rooms, including a dorm with four bunk beds, across the courtyard with a shared kitchen and living room.

USP offers after-hours access to Muncaster’s 77 acres of gardens. Paths climb up through jungles of rhododendrons and magnolias. There is a huge panorama from the mile-long terrace with its yew trees and lily-filled ledges. The view was once described by Victorian writer John Ruskin as the “gateway to paradise”: the winding River Esk glows blue and the hills turn scarlet in the setting sun.

Terrace Walk, Muncaster Castle.
Terrace Walk, Muncaster Castle. Photography: Kevin Eaves/Alamy

The Lake District National Park logo is a stylized version of the view northward along Wastwater towards Great Gable. Voted a “favorite view” by an ITV poll in 2007, the valley often attracts more than a quarter of a million visitors a year, causing lines of cars and trailers along the scenic narrow lanes of the Wasdale Valley. The Wasdale bus aims to ease the weekend’s pressure and reduce carbon emissions.

The minibus stops to pick up a group of hikers from Cologne. “Weather like Italy and a free bus. What more could we wish for?” says Dirk Hertel. We all descended at the Wasdale Head Inn with rows of old mountaineering boots and ice axes over the fireplace. The trails lead from here to Scafell and other mountains. The inn’s Victorian owner, Will Ritson, famous for his stories, named a nearby waterfall, Ritson’s Force, after him.

Previous Cumbrian hiking holidays often involved walking in the rain and warming up over pub fires. Today, I’m walking under a scorching blue sky and cooling off in lakes and rivers. I cross a small stone bridge and pass the willow rose bush and the starry yellow flowers of the marsh asphodel. Ten minutes later, I’m floating in turquoise water under pine branches with the waterfall falling into a pool above me. I return to have a coffee at Porta do Celeiro and head out through the valley along a path at the edge of the steam.

Go with the flow... Ritson's Force waterfall.
Ritson’s Force Waterfall. Photography: Phoebe Taplin

The path along the pebbles on the other side of Wastwater feels a lot like hard work, but the small road I cling to is plagued by traffic that the Wasdale shuttle is trying to mitigate. Fortunately, the bus can transport hikers to the Greendale T-junction. Walk along the lakeside lane for 800 meters until a path leads through the trees. I stop for another swim on a pebble beach under the branches: the water is invigorating and the scenery spectacular.

Scafell Pike, at 978m, is the highest mountain in England and Wastwater is the deepest lake in England. It’s this depth that keeps the water cool year round and my feet start to get chilly after 10 minutes so I crawl in and dry them on sun-heated rocks. Nether Wasdale has a variety of farm shop pubs and cafes, including the relatively new Sawmill. I have tea on the terrace by the water and half an amber beer called Errmmm… from the Strands microbrewery, before flagging the bus outside.

A friend is joining me for the second day hike. I meet her at the station and we have dinner at the newly reopened village inn, close to the estuary at Ravenglass. The food and drink are exceptional: we had charred mackerel with watercress, pea falafels with pickled beetroot, zucchini fritters with feta cheese, and we drank homemade elderberry cordial that was fresh and not too sweet.

The long summer night smells of warm ferns, cut grass and elm. I lead the way through the forest, past sheep fields and gardens, pointing out the dilapidated Roman bathhouse and sandstone walls of Muncaster Castle as proudly as if I had built them myself. We see a hare hopping over the lawns, a heron flying slowly across the valley, and kingpins flying to their mud nests in the corner of almost every window in the castle and its outbuildings, including our barn.

Rocks of ages... the prehistoric stones of the giant's tomb.
Rocks of ages… the prehistoric stones of the giant’s tomb. Photography: Phoebe Taplin

We had breakfast the next morning at the Turntable cafe next to the small steam railway and watched the first train leave towards Eskdale before heading to the northern train next door and asking the guard if we can get off at Silecroft station (£3.50 ). “This is a beautiful journey. You never get tired of it,” he says happily.

England’s ambitious Coastal Walk, at 2,795 miles to be the world’s longest coastal walking route, is opening in stages. Current plans, delayed by Covid, could end in 2025. Last year, a 40-mile stretch south of Whitehaven opened, followed in February 2022 by 11 miles from Silecroft to Green Road. This is the section we are following, up to Millom, and we start with a small detour to see two standing stones called the Giant’s Tomb. They’re tall, carved with cup marks and backed by Black Combe’s scowling bulk. We reach the well-signposted coastal path and emerge on the pebble beach at the moment when the low tide sand appears, perfect moment for a swim.

The path winds through the flowers that cover the side of the Haverigg dunes: wild thyme, bedbug, sheep, bright pink centaur, and delicate purple dune pansies. We stop for a homemade cake at the Haverigg beach cafe before setting off along the seawall, which surrounds a flooded iron ore mine. This area is expected to be valued as a tourist attraction called the Railway Line, taking advantage of its natural and cultural heritage.

Great crested grebes are swimming in the water and terns with beaks full of small silver fish fly over the path ahead of us, heading to their nests nearby. Winding through this RSPB reserve, past two old lighthouses and a dilapidated windmill, views open across the wide sands of the Duddon Estuary towards the hills beyond. Inside, we can see the spire of St. George’s Church in Millom.

Shore thing... a view of Millom across the pond.
A view of Millom from across the pond. Photography: Phoebe Taplin

The Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson (1914-1987) lived in Millom and, with prescient environmental concerns, celebrated this coast in his landscape poetry. Last year, an app was launched with heritage trails that trace the writer’s steps. He describes the pond we just passed in Hodbarrow Flooded:

Where once the shafts struck through sagging limestone
Black Coot and Moorhen
Put snail wakes in the water

From Millom station we took the train to Manchester via Barrow. Canceled services mean we don’t arrive before midnight, but it’s worth it. One of the few good things about this delayed journey is watching the sun sink into Morecambe Bay, where the ribbed sands glow pink and the distant hills glow purple.

Train travel was provided by Northern and West Coast of Avanti. Manchester Lancaster £20.50 refund; advance tickets from London start at around £30 each way). Accommodation was provided by Castle Muncaster (Doubles at Coachman’s Quarters from £80, room only). See visitlakeddistrict.com for more information.

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