The small, and utterly picturesque, village of Aberford in the outer suburbs of Leeds in Yorkshire was as far removed from city life as one would hope, but this was the starting point of our weekend driving adventure in Cumbria. You see, we had not done any research on the Lake District, where our destination, the tiny village of Cleator, was located in Cumbria, or what the plan was thereafter. We wanted to drive our way through discovery of this gorgeous part of the world, thats all!
Starting out from my cousin, Sima’s, house after a scrumptious lunch of roast chicken and desserts of lemon pie and delicious muffins made by my very good looking 10 year old nephew, Lewis, we headed north on the A1(M) towards Richmond. Earlier in the day we drove up to Aberford from Birmingham in the West Midlands where we had spent the night, so this was going to be a long day of driving time! The Honda CRV rental I drove was a good car for long journeys so it was a drive I was looking forward to. However, driving in the UK after 19 years was always going to be a challenge, not to mention an impatient 8 year old in the backseat, so I did not have much time to admire the gorgeous countryside.
As we headed out of Aberford we turned left just past Richmond onto the A66. The lush green thickly wooded countryside quickly turned to barren hills covered in mist as the A road climbed higher into the southern tip of the Pennines, a spectacular bit of hill country in Yorkshire. South of us was the Yorkshire Dales and it was amazing to take in the vistas of some of the most gorgeous country we were able to see outside of Cumbria! The A66 narrowed quickly into the A685 for a short stretch of single-lane roadway with plenty of deer crossing warning signs. There was very little traffic on the road that late afternoon so I was able to maintain the speed limit comfortably. Speaking of which, please note there is a big absence of speed limit markers on the motorways in the UK so one has to be very careful to keep an eye on the limit displayed on the GPS. It was more guesswork for me, however, as my Honda’s GPS had no speed-limit indicator so I had to be careful.
The A685 soon turned into the A66 again as we passed the hill country and drove northwest towards Penrith. The sun came out as soon as we entered Cumbria and the gorgeous craggy hills came into view. The land to the south of these hills turned into beautiful farmland with sheep and cows grazing on one side and alpine forest and high ridges on the other. The scenery was picture-postcard perfect and the green of the countryside was mesmerizing! This was the England one always dreams of and the only thing missing was a castle thrown in!
We were now driving through the northern part of Cumbria, well north of Lake District and the low traffic on the A66 meant that we were making good time. The total driving time from Aberford to our destination, the tiny village of Cleator on the Cleator Moors in Western Cumbria was calculated to be 2 hours and 34 minutes and I was confident we would be able to do this looking at the clear weather conditions and low traffic. Bassenthwaite Lake sped by, thickly wooded all round with the water glistening in the afternoon sunlight. We could only get brief glimpses of this northernmost of lakes just off the A road but what little we saw was gorgeous! We saw a couple of sail-boats on the pristine waters enjoying the perfect weather conditions as the rain clouds stayed away.
The time was approaching 7:00 PM as we turned south from the A66 at Cockermouth into the very narrow and single-lane drive of the A5086 towards Cleator. We were getting hungry now and my worry was that we might reach our hotel after dinner hours. We just about skimmed the hedges as we went through the twists and turns of the country road and driving at 50 miles per hour in these conditions was tough! Each time I slowed down traffic built up behind me very quickly! The countryside here was more open farmland and less picturesque, but from my experience in Cornwall, I knew that such topography meant that that the coastline was not far away.
It was 8:00 PM when we reached our hotel, the utterly gorgeous Ennerdale Country House Hotel, located just before the village on the western reaches of Cleator Moor, a piece of hill country great for nature walks and stunning views of the coastline. The hotel was kind enough to rustle up some duck liver pate, toast and mushroom soup with some excellent service with a wonderful smile for our dinner!
Sunday was bright and sunny with some sparse clouds in the sky but I know the weather is unpredictable in this area, like in the rest of England. I opened the map for the first time to locate Cleator and realized it was located very close to the coast, only about 15 minutes drive away. That was awesome as the coastal areas are rarely visited by foreign tourists in this region who prefer the inner regions of Cumbria, namely, the Lake District. A glance towards the East revealed thicker darker clouds over the Moor which gave me the feeling the Lake District might be experiencing some bad weather. I wanted to maximize our time in the sun so we decided to head towards the coast. A look at the map revealed that the town of Whitehaven might be about 15 minutes away, so our decision was made.
I had my first full English Cumberland breakfast that morning made of baked beans, Cumberland sausage (no one makes sausage like the English, not even the Germans!), black pudding (gave it a miss), grilled bacon and toast washed down with fresh orange juice, with coffee to follow. Tanked up with food we headed out and drove southeast on the A5086 through Cleator village and then turned north-west at the roundabout on A595. I was low on diesel for my car so had to make a quick pit-stop for fill up and then headed towards Whitehaven.
The town was gorgeous with typical English coastal architecture, and, being Sunday, traffic was light that early in the morning, about 10:00 AM. We drove into Tesco to buy some provisions and then looped back around the one-way street towards the marina. It was utterly gorgeous as we left our car in the parking and walked towards the Sunday shopping stalls. To our left was The Beacon high up on the hill and further out into the Irish Sea was the lighthouse. Picture-perfect!
After doing the rounds of the brightly coloured quaint shops we turned towards the stairs leading to The Beacon and The Candlestick, further up. Whitehaven was a major coal mining town in the 18th and 19th centuries and the port was much in use during this period. There are some American links to this town as well as Mildred Gale, George Washington’s grandmother, visited her family in this town. The town went through extensive redevelopment in 2003 and the harbor was redeveloped at a cost of over 11.3 million pounds.
We headed back out of town at noon towards the Lake District, about an hour’s drive east of where we were, via the A595 and onto A66. As soon as we crossed Cockermouth the dark clouds started building up again and we experienced the first rain in over a day and half. Crossing Lake Bassenthwaite again we headed south towards Keswick and eventually exited the A66 and onto A591 towards Windermere. The road climbed quickly and farmland and pastures were quickly replaced by craggy hills of the Lake District National Park. Predictably, traffic started building up as well as we crawled past Lake Thirlmere, past the quaint town of Wythburn and towards Lake Grasmere. We now experienced bumper-to-bumper traffic which was “good” as it gave me an opportunity to take my eyes away from the road ahead and look at the heavenly landscape.
We entered the town of Bowness-on-Windermere at a grand speed of 10 miles per hour! The roads were packed with tourists and it was a struggle finding parking, a big contrast from what we experienced in Whitehaven. Such a shame! While Windermere was gorgeous, it was cold, rainy and windy there, while, just an hour away, we saw the incredible beauty of a spectacular coastline that 99% of these tourists did not even know about or did not expect to see! Well, their bad luck!
Lunch was made of fish and chips and drowned it in diet coke. We walked to the Beatrix Potter museum for my daughter’s benefit and that cheered her up. “Are we there yet” was a sentence we heard all to often from her lips throughout the drive! Not fun!!
We headed back out of Windermere at 3:30 PM, as we wanted to get out of the weekend tourist traffic quickly. Rather than follow the same route as before towards the A66, the GPS took me south through some gorgeous rhododendron-covered roads that were a sight to behold! I had to keep my eye on the road as the twists and turns were sharp and treacherous all the time maintaining speeds of between 40-60 mph. During lunch we made a quick decision to head back towards Whitehaven in the evening and have dinner there while I did some photography. We had not had enough of this beautiful town and I wanted to eat some Indian food for dinner. My wife was not enthused about the idea (of eating Indian for dinner) but gave in.
At the town of Newby Bridge we turned right (west) onto the A590 and towards the A5092 past the estuary of the River Leven. From a distance we could clearly see the low tide sands and the hundreds of windmills placed in open sea as we headed north-west again. The road ran parallel to the coastline in tight turns towards Muncaster, which is the home of Muncaster Castle, pretty famous in this area. It was raining by the time we reached Muncaster at 4:30 PM and, unfortunately, the castle was closed. The castle grounds were gorgeous, however, and had we had some sun, it would have looked spectacular. Such a hidden gem! It was a good toilet break, though, so no complaints there.
We exited A595 into the little village of Ravenglass where we saw boats lying on their side in the low tide sand, silhouetted against the evening sun. I pulled out my camera to take a few shots and we then headed back towards Cleator.
Having refreshed ourselves back at the hotel we headed out at 7:30 PM for Whitehaven to capture some sunset shots and have dinner. The sun sets at 9:30 PM in this part of the world as its quite far north, just shy of the Scottish border, so we had an “ok” Indian dinner at the local Tandoori (yeah, I had to have the chicken tikka masala) in bright sunlight at 9:00 PM. Ali Taj appears to be the best Indian restaurant in town and its Bangladeshi owner was very friendly, helping us select from the menu knowing that we would be fussy about the food. I liked the food as it made a change from our usual fast food fare but my wife was not overly excited. My daughter polished off her plate, though, so that was good!
After dinner we drove up the road towards The Candlestick, the memorial built in memory of the many miners who lost their lives working the mines a century ago. The view from this location was awesome, looking out towards the Irish Sea and the Scottish coast further north. I took several long exposure shots and finally packed up at 10:30 PM when it got completely dark. We headed back to Cleator.
We had a good night’s sleep and our plan was to head back to London. The GPS gave me an estimated driving time of 5 and half hours but it obviously did not account for the massive traffic jams from Cumbria all the way to London! The drive ultimately took us over 8 hours and we finally reached our hotel near Heathrow at 7:00 in the evening. The drive through southern Cumbria on the A590 crawled for over two hours till we finally reached the M6 and, on hindsight, I probably should have taken the A66 back towards the M6 (that’s something to remember, friends!).
We had to endure more traffic as we drove past Manchester and Birmingham and, thankfully, the traffic around the M25 was light and easy. A long drive overall but we loved every minute of it! The hospitality in our hotel in Cleator was superb and the town of Whitehaven was a hidden gem. This was a truly great adventure and the Scottish Highlands is next on our target list!