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Escape into the countryside

SUCHITRA BEHAL explores the most beautiful part of the British heartland — the Lake District.

The Hindu Photo Library

Hill, rock, water and verdure ... the magic of the Lake District.

AS the train rolls out of Euston station, London, I am filled with a sense of excitement and anticipation. Three hours later slithering past a grey urban landscape and rushing almost head-long into lush scenery, the train stops at a tiny and quaint little place called Oxenholme. A quick change onto the other side of the platform, ensures me a seat on a smaller train that will, in the next 20 minutes, transport me to Windermere in the Lake District of Cumbria. No tourist itinerary is complete without a visit to this paradise.

Situated on either side of the Lake Windermere, the villages of Windermere on Bowness and Abelside are a curious mix of the old and the new. The cobbled streets and the delightful Georgian and Victorian architecture of the village houses and shops, offer much more than a cursory look at life in an English village. The locals go out of their way to make tourists feel at home. Lodges run by families enforce rather strictly a "no smoking" code. Conscious of their heritage, the locals do everything to ensure that the pristine beauty of their surroundings is not spoilt or threatened.

There is a genteel air of comfort and prosperity here and a crisp and clean environment only adds to it. But a year ago, these villages, that usually bustle with tourists the year round, saw themselves almost on the brink of disaster when the district of Cumbria was hit by "foot and mouth" disease. Touted as the most beautiful part of the British heartland, the Lake District, solely reliant either on farming or the hospitality industry, found itself in the midst of a huge financial gripe.

But a year later, Cumbria has managed to put itself back onto the tourist map. The results are showing now and as one strolls through the villages, there is an air of prosperity that almost belies the chaos of the preceding year. There are still some scars as is evident from the few closed restaurants and business houses. Said Marlion, a local, who used to work with a huge travel firm before being laid off, "My company just folded up. The owners decided to sell and move out. There are many like that. I've found a job with the local tourist board in Bowness now. Things are better and the tourists are coming back, but it will take time."

The local cabbies reaffirmed this pointing out that again this year the American and Japanese tourists were coming back. Steve, who runs a ferry service from Bowness to Ambelside said that this year things were "looking up" and he had been busier than before.

A measure of the popularity of this district can be gauged by the bookings. Good lodges are hard pressed to put up the odd traveller and it is prudent to book well in advance. Since the weather seems to be holding out, the area remains in demand the year round. Tourists are spoilt for choice between nature walks, ferries, the coach tours, the famous aquarium of the lakes as well as shopping. With over 68 listed places that one can visit, it would make sense to plan out areas of interest. The local tourist offices are able to provide adequate guidance for the first time traveller. Boarding and lodging come at a reasonable rate and can be booked well in advance through the British tourist services in London. A comprehensive brochure lists (with rating) every lodge in the villages of Ambedlside and Bowness. Taxis are easy to find. Food is available for every palate. Prices vary but a decent meal can be had for 15 per head with a drink thrown in.

While guided tours are available, the more interprid traveller can work out an independent sightseeing plan. The village of Ambelside is something of a shopper's paradise with its many pottery shops, and local glassware and jewellery products.

A must-see is a visit to the Lakes Glass Centre where traditional skills are used to produce the famous Cumbria crystal. A short bus ride from the village centre takes you to Rydal Mount and Dove Cottage, the two homes of poet William Wordsworth. Both houses have been maintained as they were and house museums.

Apart from bus tours there are lake cruises to Brantwood in Coniston, where John Ruskin's house is set. It still contains his water colours, furniture, drawings and other artefacts. For those more interested in the outdoors, the Lake District has plenty to offer. There are nature trails and walks; most can be done with guides who are experienced. For those who wish to do this on their own, the local authorities request them to let their lodge owners know of their visits, time and other details so that if necessary help can be organised.

The most popular however, remain the cruises of Lake Windermere.

To get a feel of the place, one would require at least five days to a week, though a three-day itinerary would allow one to sample some of the major attractions.

Most tours by road can stretch over to a full day depending on the area to be covered.

Another must-see is the tea pottery at Keswick, home of the eccentric teapot and peculiar to the Lake District. Teapots in all shapes and sizes — some like a chest of drawers and others like a car. All these are handmade and have a history to them.

For children, there is the famous Beatrix Potter House and Museum where Potter wrote her immensely readable tales of Peter Rabbit. And this year being the 100th year of the commercial appearance of Peter Rabbit, both villages have special displays and sales. There is also the Pencil Museum, the motor museum, the aquarium and much more.

* * *

Travelling by British Rail can be expensive. An adult ticket costs 50 from London to Windermere, return included. However if booked a week to 10 days before, it can come for as cheap as 30. "Bed and Breakfasts" abound in the Lake District. Ranging from 20 to 50, bookings can be made in advance. Local youth hostels too provide bed and breakfast for 14 or more, depending on the choice of a dormitory or a room.

There is an abundance of guided tours and cruises. Each one can be booked while there. Cruises cost 4 upwards, but a "Freedom of the lake" ticket, at 11 for the day, ensures unlimited number of ferries from any point. Those with an international driving licence could head out on their own.

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