I do not know of any tract of country in which, in so narrow a compass, may be found an equal variety in the influences of light and shadow upon the sublime and beautiful features of the landscape (William Wordsworth, Guide to the Lakes, 1810).
The Lake District was popularized by William Wordsworth and his friends, the ‘Lake Poets’. Since the early 19th century, their writing has inspired people to visit the area. It became a national park in 1951. About 30 miles across, it contains the highest hills in England, several large lakes and many smaller ones. The valley sides are netted with stone walled enclosures, and scattered with traditional farm buildings.
The 2001 foot and mouth epidemic devastated the local rural economy, especially the Herdwick sheep. These and other breeds, including Swaledales, Leicesters and Teeswaters, produce the open hill landscape by close grazing. Cattle are raised on lower ground: the once-popular beef shorthorn has disappeared, but the black Aberdeen Angus is sometimes seen. Dairying is unimportant, though an artisan cheesemaker works north of the area at Thornby Moor.
Kendal and Penrith are important centers. Their butcher’s shops sell excellent local lamb and beef – the best meat remains in the area – and large coils of Cumberland sausage, a fresh pork sausage with a much lower rusk content than most English sausages. Rum butter, a traditional confection of butter, sugar, rum and nutmeg, is ubiquitous. A Kendal specialty is Kendal Mint Cake, thin brittle slabs of candied sugar with mint oil. In Penrith, the Toffee Shop makes traditional English toffee, and very good fudge, sugar boiled with butter and milk. Near Penrith, Wetheriggs pottery makes country slipware.
Both towns have farmers markets – Penrith every week, Kendal once a month – and Low Sizergh Barn Shop, south of Kendal, stocks a wide range of food from the area.
Windermere is the largest and most accessible lake. Formerly, it was noted for char (Salvelinus alpinus), preserved by potting with sweet spices and butter. This fish is now a rarity and the fishery closed in 2002 because of low stocks. Although brown trout is found in the streams, it is rarely offered on menus, but wild salmon from the nearby Solway Firth sometimes appears. Detour south to the Lyth valley for damson trees (Prunus institia). Planted in the mid 19th century, they provide pink blossom in spring and dark red fruit in September. Some are used in puddings or with meat. Call at the Masons Arms pub at Strawberry Bank for damson beer, inspired by Belgian traditions.
Return north and visit Townend at Troutbeck to view a traditional Lake District farmhouse kitchen. Then visit Grasmere, a town which is a shrine to Wordsworth. It is also the home of the Grasmere Gingerbread Shop, established by Sarah Nelson in the 1840s. The gingerbread is hard, spicy and very good. Another bakery specialty can sometimes be found in Hawkshead, to the west of Windermere, for the town continued to make wigs, a type of spiced, enriched white bread roll, after other places in England had stopped. Periodically, teashops in the town revive the idea, so the visitor may be lucky and find an example.
Nearby is Hill Top at Near Sawrey, once home to the writer Beatrix Potter, well known for the Peter Rabbit children’s books. Potter’s illustrations show cottage interiors in the early 20th century and she was also a sheep farmer, favoring Herdwicks.
From Sawrey, travel south down the shore of Coniston Water, also associated with children’s stories (the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome), to Flookburgh, a center for fishing on the wide sands of Morecambe Bay. Most important are shrimps (Crangon crangon), which are often potted for eating with toast at lunch or teatime.
Then take the coast road west, skirting the Furness hills to Wabberthwaite, which lacks scenery but makes up for it in the Post Office, where the Woodall family have been making make excellent hams, bacon and sausages since before the second world war. A number of other butchers in the area cure bacon and at least one, Shaws at Silloth, has returned to the tradition of rearing pigs in a woodland environment.
Nearby, in the Duddon Valley, a group of farmers has established Cumbrian Wool, a cooperative that processes the wool from local sheep, including Herdwicks. To see sheep farming at its toughest, take the road north east to Wastwater, a bleak lake bounded one side with scree slopes and locked in to the north by Great Gable and Scafell Pike.
Back on the coast road again, continue north to Cockermouth, birthplace of Wordsworth and home to Jennings Bros, the major brewery in the area. From here, travel south east down Lorton Vale for exceptionally pretty scenery around Buttermere, and the impressive Honister pass. Continue north to Keswick, a center for tourism. It seems an unlikely place to find a pencil museum, but making these was a local industry as early as the 16th century.
Finish by traveling east to Ullswater, one of the more beautiful lakes. Its south shore is home to Sharrow Bay Hotel (the other great Lake District restaurant is Miller Howe on Windermere). Another center of Herdwick wool production is Crookabeck Angoras at Patterdale, at the southern end of the lake.
More information on Cumbrian food producers and numerous craftsmen working in the area, can be obtained from:
Made in Cumbria
County Offices, Busher Walk, Kendal,
Cumbria LA9 4RQ
Tel. +44 (0) 1539 732736
Article first published in 2002 in SlowArk no. 32.
Laura Mason is a distinguished British food and wine writer, the author of many books.