Summer 2017 UK: Bowness-on-Windermere

Our trip to the Lake District started inauspiciously: we woke in the Royal Oak Inn to a solid persistent rain – not torrential – just a rain that has no intention of stopping and is pacing itself. We had high hopes of starting the day early and checking out Hill Top, the National Trust home of Beatrix Potter, so were keen to get away early.

We’d researched the route and had our plan but in hindsight we should have altered the plan to fit the weather. The original plan was to get the car ferry from Bowness Nab to Ferry House for the princely sum of £0.50 each, then get the bus to Hill Top from the Ferry House on the western shore of Lake Windermere.

But that involved a 20 minute walk from our hotel and with the rain bucketing down we would have been better off catching the more expensive ferry from nearer our hotel to Ferry House for a slightly more expensive £3 one way or £5 return.

In addition, we didn’t realise that the bus from Ferry House to Beatrix’s House waited for the Bowness ferry before heading off. Something I only realised when we got off the car ferry to see the Bowness ferry departing and no bus in sight – it had already left!

Fortunately there was a brick building for us to shelter inside. Unfortunately it was the men’s toilets! One of the car ferrymen took one look at us and said that he hoped this wasn’t our first date – sheltering in a men’s toilet from the elements!

After forty minutes I saw the Bowness Ferry returning and a few minutes after it docked the bus (called the Mountain Goat) showed up to pick up the few passengers who had braved the elements. We joined them on the bus and headed up the hill toward Hill Top. When we arrived, the driver (Kevin?) took a few minutes to let everyone on the bus know exactly how things worked, which was appreciated as it was a little confusing.

The bus stop was directly opposite the entrance to the house, but before you could enter you had to get tickets which were obtained by going 5 minutes down the road around the corner to the ticket office. Then you doubled back on yourself and returned with a timed ticket. You could enjoy the grounds until it was time to enter the house.

Judging from the meandering of our fellow passengers they must not have been paying attention and so Ange and I were first in the queue at the ticket hut, getting a ticket allowing us to go directly into the house, and also snaffling the last of the Hill Top branded umbrellas from a bucket near the door. After paying £10.40 each we headed back past the queue and made our way directly to the entrance to the house.

Normally I would say that an audio guide would have been needed here, but instead each room within the house has a volunteer providing insight and context. It does mean that you can’t just passively receive information, but have to actively ask questions and seek out the information that you’re interested in. On the plus side it must be rewarding for the volunteers to share their knowledge of Beatrix and her works with people interested in them.

I won’t spoil the trip for you, but will just say that the cosy house with fully operational fireplace was much appreciated after the damp!

And with perfect timing the rain stopped as we were leaving the house so that we could explore the gardens in relative comfort.

I must admit that I hadn’t read the Peter Rabbit books, but Ange was a fan, so it was cool watching her see where each story was set. We exited through the gift shop where you can buy any of the stories or an omnibus of all of them for £40 (National Trust online shop*), but I later bought the complete collection for Kindle from Amazon* for £1.83.

The other locations where the stories are set are dotted around the town nearby, so we decided to catch a later bus and went into town to see them. There was the house used as a shop in the Tale of Ginger and Pickles and there was the mailbox that Peter Rabbit used to send letters.

An enterprising group of locals had banded together to make a coffee shop and we paused for a cup of tea, scones and a slice of sponge. Just what we needed to replenish our energy.

[Ange aside – later I read Wikipedia’s version of events and discovered the place where we had tea and scones, Castle Cottage, was actually where Beatrix and William Heelis lived after getting married. Hill Top was tenanted out as a working farm but Beatrix still had a private studio and workshop there].

Afterwards we headed back to the bus stop and caught the Bowness ferry back. With the rain clearing and the blue sky starting to peek through the clouds, the tourists were starting to venture out and by the time we got back to Bowness there was quite the crowd buying tickets for the ferries or trying to feed the swans and ducks. We kept away from the swans – grimacing as some tourists approached for a photo opportunity. Vicious birds!

Suitably Pottered out, we decided to head to a spa for the afternoon and elected to go to the nearest one – the MacDonald Old England Hotel & Spa.

Afterwards, suitably relaxed and uninterested in the crowds around town, we decided to try the food at our hotel, the Royal Oak Inn. My pie really hit the spot while Ange seemed quite taken with her fish and chips.

The next day dawned brisk but fine and we took no chances, dressing for both sun and rain. We had a few hours to spare and elected to visit Wray Castle, involving a relaxing ferry ride from Bowness to Ambleside and then another from Ambleside to Wray. This would in theory get us back in time for a quick taxi ride to the train station for an epic trip back to London for me and cross country to her next stop for Ange.

We got on the majestic lake cruiser and puttered up the lake, looking for all the world like Queenstown in New Zealand except without the mountains. There are few others on the lake and Ange has just finished commenting that in NZ there’d be all sorts of people out and about on the water when we spot a waterskier. And some kayakers. And a sailboat. Perfect comic timing!

The transfer and payment for the other ferry at Ambleside goes smoothly and we clatter onboard a significantly smaller boat for the trip across to the castle. It seems if you’re not travelling with children you have to have a dog, such is the abundance of both. All on leashes though. The dogs that is.

It’s only a short trip across to the private jetty and boathouse at the base of the gentle rise up to the castle. Looming behind the castle is a large hill and I lean over to Ange as we dock and say “You’d think for defensive purposes that you’d build your castle on top of that hill, instead of down here near the water”.

We get off along with half the rest of the passengers and head up towards the castle. The trees near the water are huge ancient gnarly giants providing a canopy over the uneven dirt path. The path breaks into the open beside farmland and sheep graze contentedly in the distance. Lake, forest, farmland and sheep – very much like New Zealand.

Its only a short walk to the castle and we head inside only to find that the computers have gone down so that they can’t print tickets. I pay and say we’ll be back for the change later and we head inside and find that our arrival coincides with a talk on the Castle in one of the rooms. We consult our watches and the map of the castle and find that although we only have an hour available in the castle (due to ferry timings) the 15 minute lecture will be time well spent in terms of learning about the castle. And it proves so.

We learn that the castle wasn’t a defensive fortification, but a summer home for a wealthy Victorian doctor, paid for by an inheritance from his wife’s family who made their fortune in the gin trade. We learn the history of the castle and its grounds and trace its ownership from construction through to the current day. At the end of the presentation there’s an opportunity to ask questions. We then explore the rest of the castle, and its only after we’ve left that I think of a good question: why was the castle called Wray Castle when the guy who had it made was named Dawson. Turns out it’s just named after the area.

Our 45 minutes goes pretty quickly and it not being a proper medieval castle its interesting to see how they have populated the rooms inside. Some rooms are blocked off, some are maintained as they would have been back in the day, but the others have exhibits ranging from walks you can do in the area to a research project on the original owners and their families.

Seeing as Beatrix Potter holidayed here, there is a room set up as for her birthday with delicious looking but very fake food and fancy dress hats, probably for the kids.

We have a wander around and then it’s time to go. I pause to receive my change on the way out and it looks like whatever was ailing the computers has been fixed. We walk briskly back to the ferry house on the shore and reboard our ferry which stops off Brockhole before heading back to Ambleside. I’m a little concerned as we approach as I can see our ferry back to Bowness already docked at Ambleside but Ange correctly points out that they haven’t started to offload passengers yet, so we should be ok.

Sure enough, by the time we reach the end of the line of passengers waiting to get on the boat, they’ve only just finished offloading the incoming passengers, but its still a relief when we’re underway. We grab a sandwich to eat on the way back but don’t realise that the cafe onboard doesn’t take card payments at all so we have to resort to fossicking through wallets pockets and purses to find enough change for our lunch. I even have to put back my chocolate bar. 🙁

We head back to the hotel who had kindly stored our luggage for us in a cupboard under the stairs which smelt faintly of vinegar, and got them to order us a cab to the train station. A fixed rate of £3.50 applies for all cab rides to or from the train station, a bargain no matter which way you look at it and even more so when the bus is £2 each! We get some cash out of the ATM at the station and give the cabbie £5 for his troubles, before settling in to wait for our train.

The train comes on time and we head to Oxenholme to catch our respective onward trains. Only to find that some calamity has befallen the train system south of Glasgow and that all southern bound trains have been majorly affected. Sigh. The only silver lining is that we can spend more time together! An hour or two later it’s time to go – Ange has to make a circuitous route across country while I jump on a train, which normally wouldn’t have stopped at Oxenholme, and head back down to London.

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