I arrive at a Lake District mansion in a haze of drizzle. The Gothic-style structure dates to the 1770s and overlooks Coniston Water, the lake that inspired Arthur Ransome’s 1930 novel, Swallows and Amazons.
This is Monk Coniston, and, for the next four nights, is my home.
I’m travelling with HF Holidays, which owns and manages 16 country houses across the UK, from Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands. Its founder, Thomas Arthur Leonard, is memorialised in the Lake District.
A plaque on the slopes of Catbells describes him as the “Father of the Open-Air Movement in this Country”. In the late 19th century, the pastor turned social reformer aimed to improve the lives of factory workers with walking holidays.
He founded the Co-operative Holiday Association in 1893, then the Holiday Fellowship (HF Holidays) in 1913.
My stay is affordable, working out at £106 a night, which, even if it were room-only, would be good value in one of UK’s most popular tourist regions. Yet it includes three meals a day, guided walks and daytime activities on site. I’ve joined a “Tread Lightly” itinerary, which aims to make car-free travel more accessible. This approach to tourism is welcomed by locals.
Andrew Smith, a Lake District resident, who I get chatting to while looking around Coniston, says: “The trouble is, all these villages were built in Victorian times, or before.” In other words, they weren’t set up for high volumes of traffic.
Smith ran an activity centre in the area from 1987 until recently and has watched the changing tide of tourism. For him, car-free travel is a win for both residents and visitors.
“Car parking here is very expensive. You pay to park in one village, and the next and the next. They’ve never had a scheme where you can buy a pass for a week.”
Even so, in 2022, more than 90 per cent of the 18.4 million visitors to the Lake District and Cumbria arrived by private vehicle and around half used a car as a their main mode of transport when in the Lake District and Cumbria.
Holidaymakers like me, who don’t drive, rely on public transport or our own two feet – which proves easier than I anticipate. This is, in part, down to the fact I’m travelling with HF Holidays; the transport system may be trickier to navigate for independent visitors. However, things are looking up.
“We’ve had a good summer for car-free visits,” says Richard Leafe, chief executive of Lake District National Park. He mentions local shuttle services, cycle and e-bike hire options, and the £2 bus fare cap, a Government initiative running until November.
I travel to the Lakes from the south of England and my journey begins with trains from London to Windermere. Then, from Windermere railway station, I take a pre-booked taxi (around £30 one way) to my accommodation; you can also catch a direct bus to Monk Coniston.
I’m visiting during a spate of typically British weather, but the mist just makes everything softer, and the grey sky heightens the vivid green of the land. As I look out the window of my white and blue room, I can imagine a literary heroine tromping through the grounds in a long skirt; it would be a fitting place for an Austen adaptation.
I take well-maintained footpaths to Coniston village, which is less than half an hour’s walk.
Later, I join a group walk through gently rolling fields to the village of Hawkshead, often seen as one of the honeypot villages of the park. We stop at churches – and at Grasmere Gingerbread, which makes a delicious version of the treat.
We pass cows and handsome grey cottages on our way to see Tarn Hows, a lake once owned by Beatrix Potter.
This is how the lakes would have been visited when William Wordsworth first published his guidebook on the area in 1810: slowly and carefully.
We’re offered a choice of three guided walks a day, with different levels of difficulty. There’s a brief orientation for each walk during which HF representatives explain what you’ll see, the length of the walk and the amount of elevation. I opt for the easiest.
One walk includes around six people. At 33, I’m the youngest in the group; the other members are aged between 50 and 70. I enjoy hearing the stories from my fellow guests – at dinner one night, I sit next to an astrophysicist.
During another walk, while sheltering under a dense canopy of leaves, I chat to Pamela. She is 71 and from Harrogate in North Yorkshire. “I appreciate being guided as I don’t know the Lake District well enough to go off on my own,” she says.
“It is such an adventure. You set off somewhere and just take what comes.”
HF Holidays’ longstanding history is recalled with pleasingly traditional touches. The evening entertainment, for instance, includes “paper games” (such as noughts and crosses) and we are served afternoon tea on arrival.
I am soothed by the easy pace of my time in the Lakes. And while it may be a national sport to bemoan the weather, I enjoy the rain. The German saying that “we’re not made of sugar” – typically used for those who wilt under less than perfect conditions – comes to mind.
Cosied up again at Monk Coniston, I get chatting to Marion, who is 60 and from Ipswich. She’s an HF veteran of 15 years; I ask why she’s a fan.
“I turn up at a given time, follow someone, and [I’m served] three meals a day. What’s not to like? And you get to see so much of the countryside,” she says.
After my four nights in the Lake District, I completely agree.
Windermere railway station is served by Northern, northernrailway.co.uk. There are regular buses from Windermere to Monk Coniston, see visitlakedistrict.com
HF Holidays offers a four-night Southern Lake District Tread Lightly guided walking holiday from £425pp. The trip includes accommodation, breakfast, packed lunches, evening meals, tea and coffee, guided walks with experienced HF Holidays Leaders, a choice of up to three different grade walks and routes and maps for independent walking; hfholidays.co.uk