Keswick: Gem of the English Lakes District

GoNOMAD Destination Guide

Keswick: Gem of the English Lakes District

By Colin Todhunter

Sunset at Derwentwater, Cumbria - photo by Niki Cox
Sunset at Derwentwater, Cumbria – photo by Niki Cox

The imposing bulk of the Skiddaw mountain looms over the Cumbrian market town of Keswick in the northern part of the English Lake District. Skiddaw always looks like an angry mountain when blackened by cloud, but blanketed in white it looks a much happier proposition.

After scaling its snowy peak, I began to make my way down. The blisters on my feet felt like they had blisters and were about to burst and fill the valley below. I was tired, worn out and cold. Climbing an English peak in early December is not the ideal thing to do.

The views below would have been brilliant, if there had been any. Unfortunately, at this time of the year, swirling mist obscures just about anything beyond twenty yards. You don’t have to be insane to climb Cumbrian mountains in late autumn – but it helps.

The Market Town of Keswick

I have climbed Skiddaw before, but in summer, and knew that Keswick nestled somewhere below, surrounded by fields dotted with sheep and neatly edged by hedgerows.

On this occasion I took comfort from knowing that beyond the fog, the early evening lights of the town would be glistening warmly on narrow streets and in the living rooms or lounges of tiny houses, guesthouses and traditional wood beamed pubs with their rustic charm, hinting at what rural England must have been like in what now is a long lost age. The local pubs and restaurants offer reminders by serving traditional delicacies such as Cumberland Sausage, Tatie Pot, and Rum Butter.

The Town of Keswick - photo by Colin Todhunter
The Town of Keswick – photo by Colin Todhunter

Keswick has managed to escape the ugliness and intrusions of the modern age. The friendly attention in the many closely packed shops and the weekly market around the Moot Hall is a welcome change from Britain’s towns and cities. The English Lake District is a National Park and new building is very strictly controlled.

Long and Dramatic History

As I continued downward, my thoughts drifted to the nearby 4000-year-old Stone Circle on the airy hilltop of Castlerigg, which also overlooks Keswick, and St. Kentigern’s Church (AD533). The Market Charter (13th century), early lead mining, quarrying and the growth of pencil manufacture have all played their part in the long and often dramatic history of Keswick.

Famous literary names, including Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Ruskin, were influential in attracting the early tourists to Keswick to experience the spectacular scenery all around. When in this part of the world it’s easy to see why so many writers were (and still are) inspired by the English Lake District.

Castlerigg stone circle, near Keswick - photo by David Kelavey
Castlerigg stone circle, near Keswick – photo by David Kelavey

Borrowdale: the most beautiful valley in England

Keswick lies on the northern edge of the tranquil Derwentwater. Beyond the lake and to the south lies Borrowdale Valley, in my mind the most beautiful part of the Lake District.

A scattering of villages with their pretty flower beds, tea shops, whitewashed pubs and charming guesthouses line the valley, which is hemmed in by peaks on both sides and eventually gives way to England’s highest mountains.

As mountains go, they are small, but contrary to popular perception, size really doesn’t matter: place their ruggedness next to tranquil lakes, picture-postcard villages and working farms and they become part of the most spectacular landscape that England has to offer.

Blackmoss Pot in the Borrowdale Valley - photo by Clive Tappin
Blackmoss Pot in the Borrowdale Valley – photo by Clive Tappin

The local tourist board notes that “the steep-sided valley of Borrowdale running some ten miles from its sources high in the Scafell mountains (977m) down to the shores of Derwentwater at Keswick must be one of the most beautiful and exciting landscapes in the British Isles.”

As a regular visitor to the area, I can personally vouch for what they say, and on this small, crowded island of 60 million people, I am constantly amazed that such areas of outstanding natural beauty carpet vast tracts of land.

Rosthwaite, Stonethwaite, Seathwaite (thwaite = clearing) and the hamlet of Seatoller are the head of the valley settlements, busy with climbers, walkers and visitors for much of the year as they venture into the high mountains that encircle this dramatic scene.

You could spend weeks exploring Borrowdale but on this mad December weekend as I tramped down the mountainside, I yearned for the comfort of a glowing fireside in a Keswick pub, with its homely atmosphere and locally brewed ale.

Memorial to Robert Southey, a Keswick native and author of 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' in St. Kentigern's Church - photo courtesy of
Memorial to Robert Southey, a Keswick native and author of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ in St. Kentigern’s Church – photo courtesy of

And I knew someone would be waiting for me to soothe my chilled bones and aching limbs. I called her name…hoping it would whisper on the wind across what seemed like a thousand miles and somehow she would hear. And I imagined she called mine. But there was nothingness, bleakness and only the howl of the gale as it rebounded, reminding me of my solitude – and, of course, the sound of my bursting blisters emptying onto the mountain.

Location and getting there

Keswick is ideally situated in the heart of the Lake District, between the Skiddaw mountains and the Northern shores of Derwentwater. The town is easy to reach by road, being just 20 minutes along the A66 trunk road from Junction 40 of the M6 motorway. The nearest national rail network stations are at Penrith and Windermere, both around 15 miles from Keswick.

Getting around

There is a good range of routes around Keswick served by Stagecoach Cumberland buses. Information on these is available from the local tourist office. The Lake District also has a range of especially scenic bus routes.

View from Castlerigg Stone Circle - photo by Brett Hughes
View from Castlerigg Stone Circle – photo by Brett Hughes

Mountain Goat Tours (017687 73692) provide popular guided tours of most areas of the Lake District and further afield. National Trust Landscape Tours and Mountain Goat tours may be booked at the Keswick Tourist Information Office (017687 72645). For those who prefer two wheels, cycle hire is available at various locations in and around Keswick.

Shopping and accommodation

Keswick, being in the centre of the best walking country in England has a wide variety of shops selling outdoor clothing and equipment, from budget to the very best quality.

There is a range of shops selling collectables and antiques, local stone crafts and art in its various forms. Keswick boasts a huge range of accommodation ranging from family run “bed and breakfast” establishments to more expensive hotels. The tourist office can provide listings and can arrange bookings.


Guided walks leave the Moot Hall daily from Easter until November. There are also a large number of cycle routes in the area, some covering the most stunning and rugged scenery.

There are water sports aplenty, horseback riding, paragliding, golf, tennis, bowls, and fells on which to walk. Fishing licences and permits are available from the Keswick Tourist Information Centre. The Theatre by the Lake is situated close to Derwentwater. The theatre offers a programme of arts and entertainment throughout the year. There is a coffee shop and fully licensed bars.

Colin Todhunter was born in Liverpool and spends most of his time in India, where his collection of stories, Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, is a bestseller. He can be reached at colin

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