Lake District

The English Lake District is one of those areas that seem to defy reason. Small, as national parks go on a global scale, it is packed with so many features that larger parks can seem positively barren in comparison.

Map of the Lake District area.
Map showing the Lake District and the surrounding area.
Situated in the north west of England, not far from the border with Scotland, it can only reliably be accessed by car. Public transport is available but runs on such torturous routes or time schedules that the vast majority of visitors arrive in private vehicles. It is easy to drive to, via either the north-south M6 motorway or the east-west A66 trunk road.

About The Lake District

Landscape artists of all persuasions (including photographers) are drawn time and time again to this place. It isn't hard to understand why. Packed into a 70km diameter circle are hills, mountains, valleys, fields, woods, lakes, waterfalls, rivers and streams in such abundance that it is difficult to know where to begin. Mix this with an ever-changing weather pattern and a new treasure lies waiting to be discovered around every corner. It will come as no surprise to learn that the famous painter John Constable declared that the Lake District had "The finest scenery that ever was".

Even from a distance the mountainous skyline lets approaching visitors know that this is a place of contrasts. Three main rock groups form the mountains and hills. In the north and west slates have weathered into rounded humps and whalebacks. The central area volcanic rocks form ragged pikes, ridges, towers and cliffs (and is home to Scafell, the highest mountain in England), while the southern areas are made up from softer sedimentary rocks that have worn down to rolling hills. This is a much simplified picture as even within these defined areas surprises abound, such as the dramatic ghylls (geological faults worn down by cascading streams). High peaks are wrapped by lower hills (fells) that stack against each other like tinned sardines.

The best views of the old boathouse on Ullswater are usually just after dawn, once the sun rises over the eastern fells.
Valleys nestle between the mountain ranges and each one has its own character. Some are broad bottomed with gently curving sides, a legacy of the glaciers that carved them. Others are narrow and steeply sided, torn out of the hills by raging torrents a long time ago. It's generally the wider valleys that hold the major lakes that give this National Park its name. There are 16 of them within the park, although strictly speaking Bassenthwaite Lake is the only lake as the others are called either water or mere (a pub-quiz favourite trick question). They contribute enormously to the Lake District's bounty, because just like everything else here, each is unique in character. Ranging range from busy Windermere, through long and twisted Ullswater, to petite and secluded Buttermere. Then there are scores of tarns, small lakes sitting in the laps of mountains, resting in hollows carved out by glaciers that once shaped this area.

Walls built of green-hued Lakeland stone radiate out from valley bottoms and up over the fells like threads in a spider's web, reminding the visitor that this is sheep farming country. Numerous quaint farmsteads and small dwellings huddle together for protection during times of bad weather.

Looking west across Buttermere during November, when the beech trees were in full colour.
One thing that the Lake District definitely has is weather. Generally speaking UK photographers are blessed with changeable weather conditions, thanks to our position on the globe and the maritime airflow we enjoy. However this does mean that the Lake District is one of the wetter areas of the UK. Seathwaite, in Borrowdale on the southern end of Derwentwater, has the dubious honour of being the wettest inhabited place in England. I hope I'm not giving you the wrong impression; it isn't always raining here. But when it does rain the topography makes sure that it is intense. This should not been seen as a problem - the fact is that folk who love the Lake District don't even notice the rain. Besides, it keeps the vegetation lush, the rivers flowing and the lakes full.

Where To Go

So where should you go? Everyone has their favourite place/mountain/lake, which means that if you ask a dozen people that same question you will get a dozen different answers. Here is mine.

I am repeatedly drawn to the area around Buttermere (eight miles west of Keswick). It's a small tree-fringed lake that can be walked around in a matter of hours, and is guarded by a lovely group of mountains, which means that I can always find something interesting to photograph every time I visit. And like most lakes it's calmest just after dawn, worth remembering if you want some stunning reflection shots.

Ullswater (southwest of Penrith) is another photogenic lake, particularly at the northern end. This lake is dog-legged and effectively broken into three parts. It gets busier the further south you go. There are also some nice shots to be had of this lake from the fells on its western flank.

Borrowdale is six miles from Keswick at the southern end of Derwentwater (considered by many to be the most picture-perfect of lakes), and is a fascinating area. Towering hills encircle picturesque farms and hamlets. Clouds readily form over the nearby peaks so the light is constantly changing, which means that there is always a photograph to be had around here. Parking is extremely limited so an early arrival is definitely recommended.

Looking across Red Tarn (below Helvellyn) towards Swirral Edge, a popular ascent route of the adventurous fellwalker.
Helvellyn (situated between Ullswater and Keswick) is the most climbed mountain in the park, and is the one I've been up the most times myself. There is a good reason for this - it's edges. The eastern aspect of this mountain holds two sharp arĂȘtes (Striding and Swirrel edges). Nestled comfortably between these two buffalo horns lies Red Tarn, home to a submerged World War II air wreck. This mountain often holds onto its snow the longest come spring, and there is a choice of routes from bottom to top. On a clear day the summit rewards the hiker with a spectacular 360-degree panorama of lakes, fells and mountains. It is also famed for its assertive sheep. Many a walker has been robbed of their lunch by these woolly bandits.

These are my favourites but I could go on endlessly (I haven't even mentioned the remnants of Rome's first-century occupation of Britain, or the even older and deeply mysterious stone circles). There is barely a bad place to go in the Lake District for the photographer. However I would advise against visiting during summer months and on Bank Holiday weekends if possible. This area suffers as a victim of its own success, (each year over 12 million visitors enjoy an area less than half the size of Yellowstone). However it is fair to say that the further west you go the less visitors you will bump into. April to June are typically the driest months and December is the wettest. January and February are the coldest months (a record -21 degrees C has been recorded in Ambleside) and often the best time for winter scenes if there is a decent snowfall - it varies widely from year to year, while the end of October into November has proved to be the most colourful period over the last few years.

Where To Stay/What To Take

There are a large number of places to stay within the Lake District National Park but at peak visiting times available rooms can be in short supply. Fortunately for photographers the best picture-taking periods don't include the usual holiday season. The most convenient way to book accommodation is through the Tourist Information offices. A small surcharge is made but it does take away the hassle of trying to find a place that meets your own particular taste for yourself. For an extended stay I would recommend that you consider renting a cottage. Keswick is the northern centre and favoured by hill walkers, Bowness-on-Windermere to the south is the hot spot for visiting families and has more recreational facilities.

Borrowdale is a photographer's delight.
As you may have gathered, this is really an area for the landscape photographer. That means that long lenses are unnecessary. The usual standard landscape tools are really all that you need (short telephoto, wide angles, tripod, filters). High resolution equipment can make good use of the scenery around the valleys, but if you want to photograph from the fell tops you will need to be very determined to carry it up high. Take spare data memory and batteries as on a good day you can take a surprising amount of photographs.

Always keep in mind that the weather is changeable so waterproof clothing should kept to hand. Good stout footwear is also highly recommended, and essential if you plan on venturing off the roads and up onto the fells. As is a map and compass, and the knowledge of how to use them. The Ordnance Survey Explorer range of maps cover the area at a scale of 25 000:1, and are ideal for following footpaths up hill and down dale. If you intend to keep low then the Landranger 50 000:1 series will do just fine for picking out potential photographic opportunities.

If you live in or are visiting the UK and have never been to the Lake District you must put it on your "places to go - things to do" list.

Useful links:

Tourist Information for the Keswick area.
Tourist Information for the Windermere area.
Met Office UK Weather Forecasts.
Fishers of Keswick for maps and outdoor supplies, plus a webcam looking north towards the high peak of Skiddaw.
Ordnance Survey Maps to check out highly detailed maps that cover the UK.

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