The return of visitors to the Lake District was a cool, calm and collected affair – despite fears of chaos at the UK’s beauty spots
“It’s not been anywhere near as busy as we thought it might have been.” This sentiment from Lake District National Park volunteer Chris Anderson sums up my return to Cumbria in a nutshell.
On July 4, when many forecasted armageddon at the UK’s holiday hotspots, the reality in the Lake District was more cool, calm and collected than catastrophic – it appears the new normal of travel feels, well, fairly normal.
An early start, in fear of hitting the traffic many predicted, meant I was one of the first people to arrive in Ambleside on Saturday, as local business owners lifted their shop shutters for the first time in months and the earlier risers among us fuelled up on coffee (served, as now is routine, from behind a perspex screen but still with lashings of the warm Cumbrian welcome I had missed so much during lockdown).
As I laced up my walking boots, feeling guilty about the coating of dried mud from my last pre-Covid hike still present, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief – it felt refreshing to be back and away from home for an entire day (and night) for the first time in over four months.
A circular ramble around Rydal Water, the family home of poet William Wordsworth, taking in views of Grasmere in the distance and the iconic caves below Loughrigg Fell with my parents in tow, was just as enjoyable and serene as ever.
It all felt so normal. As usual, the dog wasted no time in launching himself into the nearest available body of water; like always my mum had over-catered for our picnic; and with every stride I felt that familiar spring returning to my step.
The only visible impact of Covid-19 on the walkers who braved the drizzly weather was the introduction of efficient contactless pay-and-display machines in the car parks and public toilets, the occasional shuffle to bypass fellow ramblers at a safe distance and volunteers like Chris Anderson on hand to keep visitors informed.
Chris and her fellow volunteer Sylvia Shaw told me how glad they were to see the regular visitors return to the area, as they huddled under their umbrellas and pointed directions to the occasional passing car.
The duo explained that during lockdown a lot of the visitors to the Lake District were first-timers, who lacked any knowledge of the area and the countryside code of conduct. Now tourists have the green light, locals like Chris and Sylvia are hoping the experienced Lakeland visitors, who have travelled to the area for years, will lead by example and the littering and bad parking of recent weeks will be a thing of the past.
I kept my eyes peeled for any relics of the preceding weeks, when warm weather turned the lake shores and countryside into something of a free-for-all. A single patch of burnt grass, remnants of a BBQ, was all I found around Rydal Water.
Post-lockdown excitement was more visible in Bowness-On-Windermere, where some, but not all, pubs, bars and restaurants had reopened. But it was far from chaotic and remarkably like a usual busy Saturday in the Lakes’ most-visited town. Roadside social distancing hints, queues to enter and police patrolling the streets kept things at bay as visitors refused to let the drizzle dampen their spirits.
A journey out on a Windermere Lake Cruiser was the most Covid-sensitive affair of the day, with mandatory face coverings for the hour-long trip, pre-booked tickets and designated seating – none of which took away from the enjoyment of being out on the water, even if by this point my waterproofs were straining under the pressure.
Retreating to the sanctuary of the Low Wood Bay Resort & Spa, the new normal of hospitality in the Lake District began with a bang and the firing of its antique lakeside cannon. The hotel’s director Tim Berry was joined by head of Cumbria Tourism Gill Haigh to mark the occasion. Before the crowd counted down to the reopening of check-in, the pair thanked both the staff and local key workers, including the mountain rescue team.
The modern-day cannon was installed to represent its ancestral counterpart that sat at the end of the hotel’s jetty for hundreds of years and was first mentioned in Thomas West’s Guide to the Lakes in 1778. As it fired over the lake, its explosion and the crowd’s applause reverberated off the surrounding fells – a fitting reminder of the age-old appeal of the Lake District, which even in the post-Covid world hasn’t lost its majesty.
While initially taken aback by the number of guests checking in (the rush to escape lockdown more evident than elsewhere in the Lakes), the introduction of designated and pre-booked dining times for both dinner and breakfast meant it felt refreshingly quiet in both the hotel bar and Blue Smoke on the Bay restaurant when we ventured down from our room, which had been marked before our arrival with a ‘cleaned’ seal.
Behind this I found the same hotel luxuries and plumped pillows I had dreamt of for months, as well as the introduction of a safety card listing the 10 key touch points that now receive extra disinfection and the cleaning protocols followed by staff, including the introduction of disinfectant ‘fogging’ machines, which are used to sanitise each room.
Ecstatic to wrap myself in a flush hotel dressing gown, fresh out of its packaging, sip a gin and tonic somebody else had poured (even if they were wearing PPE) and breathe in the views of Cumbria’s largest lake, I made note never to take such things for granted again. We can rest easy Mr Wordsworth, our treasured Lakeland is still “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found.”
Full details of car parking and public facilities now open in the Lake District can be found on the National Park’s website (saferlakes.co.uk). A one-hour circular cruise with Windermere Lake Cruises costs from £12, booked in advance online (windermere-lakecruises.co.uk). Two nights at Low Wood Bay Resort & Spa (englishlakes.co.uk; 0333 2203 191) costs from £95 per person per night, including dinner on the first night and breakfast.