Sand, scree and blazing blue skies: My car-free break in Cumbria | holidays in the lake district

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Jhe sand outside the windows stretches for miles. The sea glistens in the distance and there are egrets standing guard along the estuary, their white feathers shining against the caramel-gold sandbanks. “Perhaps the Côte d’Azur. Check it out!” said one of my traveling companions, waving his arm at the breathtaking view. His enthusiasm, fueled in part by cans of morning cocktails, is not misplaced. as salt marshes give way to rising hills.

Card without a car

Much of Cumbria has become too popular for its own good. But if you visit the unsung coast and access the famous lakes without a car, you’ll find deserted beaches and unbeatable countryside without heavy traffic. Avanti’s oscillating west coast train from Euston to Lancaster takes just two and a half hours to cover 250 miles, while the leisurely northern railway around the Cumbrian coast again takes almost as long to cover less than half that distance. But it is a journey worth savoring. Each station and stretch of track has a distinct atmosphere, from the retro-romantic tearoom in Carnforth, where 1945’s Brief Encounter was filmed, to the Ratty Arms and the flowerbeds of Ravenglass.

I’ve been hoping 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 at the same time: the free weekend shuttle to beautiful Wasdale this summer is going from Ravenglass station in the morning and return in the evening (until September 4). And new sections of the English Coastal Path around Cumbria have been opened, easily accessible by train, taking walkers through sand dunes and post-industrial nature reserves.

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

Sam Bowden runs Ravenglass Handmade Ice-Cream with his family. They opened a new store in June and the most popular flavor is sea buckthorn. There are hostels nearby, next to the estuary, a few minutes from the station, but this time I am staying in the grounds of Muncaster Castle. Fueled by rhubarb ginger ice cream, I walk about a mile through the woods to find the Old Granary, a converted barn that sleeps four. It is part of the castle’s unassuming coachmen’s quarters. There are more independent rooms, including a dormitory with four bunk beds, across the courtyard with a shared kitchen and living room.

USP is after-hours access to Muncaster’s 77 acres of gardens. Trails climb through jungles of rhododendrons and magnolias. There is a huge panorama from the kilometer long terrace with its neat yews and borders full of tiger lilies. The view was described by Victorian writer John Ruskin as the “gateway to heaven”: the winding River Esk glows blue and the hills are scarlet in the setting sun.

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

The Lake District National Park logo is a stylized version of the view north along Wastwater towards low-flanked Great Gable. Voted ‘favorite sight’ by an ITV poll in 2007, the valley often attracts over a quarter of a million visitors a year, causing queues of cars and motorhomes along the picturesque narrow lanes of the Wasdale Valley. The Wasdale Shuttle aims to ease weekend pressure and reduce carbon emissions.

The minibus stops to pick up a group of hikers from Cologne. “A weather like Italy and a free bus. What more could we wish for? says Dirk Hertel. We all walk down to the Wasdale Head Inn with rows of old climbing shoes and ice axes on the chimney. Tracks lead from here to Scafell and other mountains. The inn’s Victorian owner, Will Ritson, famous for his tall tales, gave his name to a nearby waterfall, Ritson’s Force.

Previous walking holidays in Cumbria have often involved trudging through the rain and warming up in front of pub fires. Today I walk under blazing blue skies and cool off in lakes and rivers. I cross a small stone bridge and climb past rosebay willowherb and starry yellow flowers of bog asphodel. Ten minutes later, I’m floating in turquoise water under pine boughs with the waterfall cascading into a pool above me. I go back down for a coffee at the Barn Door and set off along the valley on a steam path.

Let yourself be carried away by the current… The Ritson's Force waterfall.
Ritson Force Waterfall. Photography: Phoebe Taplin

The path along the scree on the other side of Wastwater looks way too much like hard work, but the small road I’m sticking to instead is plagued with traffic which the Wasdale Shuttle tries to alleviate. Luckily the bus can carry walkers to Greendale Junction. Walk along the lakeside lane for half a mile until a path leads through the trees. I stop for another swim from a pebble beach under the branches: the water is invigorating and the scenery spectacular.

Scafell Pike at 978m is England’s highest mountain and Wastwater is England’s deepest lake. It’s this depth that keeps the water cool all year round and my feet start to feel icy after 10 minutes, so I crawl and dry them on sun-heated pebbles. Nether Wasdale has a choice of farmhouse pubs and cafes, including the relatively new Sawmill. I have tea on its waterfront terrace and half an amber beer called Errmmm… from Strands Microbrewery, before flagging the bus outside

A friend joins me for the second day of walking. I meet her at the station and we have dinner at the recently reopened village inn near the Ravenglass estuary. The food and drinks are exceptional: we eat grilled mackerel with watercress, falafel of peas with marinated beets, zucchini fritters with feta and we drink fresh and not too sweet homemade elderflower cordial.

The long summer evening smells of warm fern, cut grass and meadowsweet. I climbed the path through woods, over fields of sheep and through gardens, showing the ruined Roman baths and sandstone walls of Muncaster Castle as proudly as if I had built them myself. We see a hare lounging on the lawns, a heron flitting slowly across the valley, and house swallows fluttering to their mud nests in the corner of almost every window in the castle and its outbuildings, including our attic.

Rocks of ages… the prehistoric menhirs of Giant's Grave.
Rocks of ages… the prehistoric menhirs of Giant’s Grave. Photography: Phoebe Taplin

We have coffee the next morning at the Turntable cafe by the little steam railway and watch the first train chug towards Eskdale before heading to the Northern railway train next door and asking the guard if we can get off at the station from Silecroft (£3.50). “It’s a beautiful trip. We never get tired of it,” he says happily.

The ambitious England Coast Path, set to be at 2,795 miles the longest coastal walking route in the world, is opening in stages. Current plans, delayed by Covid, could see it completed by 2025. Last year a 40-mile stretch south of Whitehaven was opened, followed in February 2022 by 11 miles from Silecroft to Green Road. This is the section we follow, up to Millom, and we start with a small detour to see two menhirs called the Tomb of the Giant. They are tall, carved with cut marks and supported by the scowling mass of Black Combe. We catch up with the well-marked coastal path and emerge onto the shingle beach just as the low tide sand emerges, the perfect time for a swim.

The path winds through the flowers that cover the side of the Haverigg dunes: wild thyme, bedstraw, mutton’s bit, bright pink cornflower and delicate purple dune pansies. We stop for a homemade cake at the beach cafe Haverigg before heading along the sea wall, which surrounds a flooded iron ore mine. There are plans to upgrade this area as a tourist attraction called Iron Line, building on its natural and cultural heritage.

Great crested grebes swim on the water and terns with beaks full of small silvery fish fly over the path just ahead of us, heading for their nearby nests. Traveling through this RSPB reserve, passing two old lighthouses and a ruined windmill, the view opens up across the wide sands of the Duddon Estuary to the hills beyond. Inland, you can see the spire of St. George’s Church in Millom.

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

The Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson (1914-1987) lived in Millom and, with prescient environmental concern, celebrated this coast in his landscape poetry. Last year, an application was launched with heritage trails that retrace the steps of the writer. He describes the lagoon we just crossed in Hodbarrow Flooded:

Where once the wells struck through yielding limestone
Coot and moorhen
Lay snails on the water

From Millom Station we take the train to Manchester via Barrow. Canceled services mean we don’t arrive until midnight, but it’s worth it. One of the few good things about this delayed trip is watching the sun set over Morecambe Bay, where the ribbed sands shimmer pink and the distant hills glow purple.

The train journey was provided by Northern and Avanti West Coast. Manchester Lancasters £20.50 return; advance tickets from London start around £30 in each direction). Accommodation was provided by Muncaster Castle (double at Coachman’s Quarters from £80, room only). See visitlakedistrict.com for more information.

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