The direct motorway heading north to the Lake District national park is the M6 which will take you to Junction 36 where you bear left on the A590 towards Kendal. It is worth a stop in this charming town before your first glimpse of the region's famous lakes. Here in Kendal you can stock up on the famous Lakeland Kendal Mint Cake, used as an energy bar for hikers and climbers and made from sugar, glucose and peppermint. Sometimes covered in chocolate. You can park here on the banks of the River Kent and watch the salmon swimming upstream or climb up to Kendal Castle, built in the 12th century for the Earls of Kendal and later lived in by the Parr family. The most famous of family member was Katherine Parr, sixth and final wife of Henry VIII. It was long believed she was born here but its likely that her parents, Sir Thomas and his wife Maud had moved to London by then and she was born in Blackfriars.
Head back to the A591 and continue towards Windermere. You are now in England's most visited National Park, created in 1951 at a size of 2,362 Square km (912 square miles) and you are approaching the largest of the lakes in the park, Windermere itself. You will reach the town of Windermere first, built largely in the 19th century when the railway arrived but just after passing the railway station take a left turn on the A5074 to Bowness-on-Windermere to arrive at the lakeside.
By the way, this body of water should never be called Lake Windermere. The word "mere" actually means a shallow lake, and if you see the word "water" following the name of the lake, for example, Ullswater, again no need to call it Lake Ullswater. Finally, another word used is "tarn" describing a smaller body of water at a higher elevation up a mountain. Also 'ghyll' means a ravine and 'beck' a stream. These local words are believed to be of Norse origin.
There is an abundance of parking at Bowness and boat rides and self hire motor launches are plentiful. Most tourists visiting the area make a first, and sometimes only, stop here. Ice cream, sugary treats, gift shops, fish and chips, seagulls stealing the fish and chips, crowds and more crowds. If you want to get away to a quieter part of the National Park then take the ferry across Windermere to the western side. Just continue along the A592 briefly to the sign that says Ferry, turning right on the B5285 and join the line of traffic waiting to board. A self service ticket machine will get you your boarding pass. Then sit back and glide across the lake, joining the narrow, winding country road on the other side and journey deeper into the heart of this beautiful part of the world, leaving the crowds behind.
You are still on the B5285 as you drive uphill towards Hill Top House, former home of the writer Beatrix Potter, a traditional Lake Country farmhouse bought in 1906 as a country retreat and an inspiration to her much loved stories, such as the Tale of Tom Kitten, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Petter Rabbit. It is a popular place to visit but the narrow roads and limited parking means it doesn't get too crowded. Timed entry avoides the house getting too busy. Wander around each room and discover objects and ornaments directly relating to her "little books" then explore the gardens and grounds seeing if you can spot references to her stories out here as well.
Apart from donating this house and grounds to the National Trust upon her death, Beatrix Potter had acquired 14 local farms and 4,000 acres of land in her lifetime which she also left to the Trust.
Continue on the B5285, bearing in mind it can get narrow in parts, following Esthwaite Water towards Hawkshead. Lots of place names in the Lake District end in the word "thwaite", it means a cleared area of land for pasture. Just after Hawkshead you'll find Hawkshead Hill where you need to turn right to Tarn Hows. Drive up to this stunning location with its photogenic lake complete with islands and conifer trees. One of the most sought after views, usually making the front cover of guide books and calendars. It is certainly worth a stop here but you will need to make a short uphill walk along a stoney path to get to the lake itself.
Return to the B5285 and continue west to Coniston, the town that shares its name with the next lake on the tour, Coniston Water. Here in this pretty town, sitting below its local mountain, The Old Man, a visit to the Ruskin Museum is recommended. Named after the Victorian art critic, philosopher and social thinker who lived nearby at Brantwood House. Not only is it dedicated to Ruskin but to the history of Coniston in general, the books of local writer Arthur Ransome, of "Swallows and Amazons" fame and Sir Donald Campbell who lost his life on Coniston Water attempting the world water speed record on 4th January 1967.
After a walk around the town and maybe a short walk down to the lake (the town isn't immediately adjacent to the lake) you can take the A593 following the west side of the lake southwards towards the coast. Just at the end of this road there is a right turn to Duddon Bridge which appears just a mile later on the A595. At Duddon Bridge turn right again and follow the country road along the spectacular Duddon Valley, sometimes also known as Dunnerdale. This is an extremely scenic drive but will involve climbing up the steepest road in England and driving along one or two of the highest roads as well. Views along this route will be breathtaking and spectacular. Drive up the Duddon Valley in the shadow of Harter Fell towards Ulpha, then take a left turn when one sees the signpost pointing to Eskdale and Whitehaven. Here you will leave the River Duddon behind you and start to climb. Just before Eskdale Green there is a pub called the George IV, turn right here, following signs for Boot and the Langdales via Hardknott Pass. At this point you share the valley of the River Esk with the delightful miniature steam trains of the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway. You can call by at the old railway station at Dalegarth when you drive towards Boot. Narrow guage tourist steam trains run down the valley from here. You'll now start on the steepest part of the journey up to 393m (1,289 ft) past Hardknott Roman Fort built in 120AD and up to the windswept summit of Hardknott Pass itself. After descending down to Cockley Beck it is time to climb again, this time on Wrynose Pass over to Skelwith Bridge to rejoin the River Duddon.
After descending Wrynose Pass you will continue along the spectacular Langdales and will join the A593 to take you into Skelwith Bridge, however a delightful side trip is to make the short journey to the waterfall, Skelwith Force. Just drive over the bridge that crosses the River Brathay, just past the Skelwith Bridge Hotel there is a left turn signposted Elterwater. It's the B5343 and you can drive the short journey along it to the waterfall. Return to the A593 and drive to Ambleside which lies at the top end of Windermere. At 11 miles (18 km) in length and up to 220ft (63 metres) deep, it is the largest of the lakes in the National Park with Ambleside at its northernmost point.
Probably the most photographed house in the Lake District is the quirky little Bridge House in Ambleside. The main road goes right by it. Originally the bridge was built first, then the building above it, initially as an apple store, now a little cottage and gift shop. It'll be in your left hand side as you take the A591 towards Grasmere. You'll soon pass the entrance to one of the poet William Wordsworth's houses, Rydal Mount, his final home and on your left the beautiful Rydal Water, one of the smaller but no less scenic lakes of the region.
Just before you arrive at Grasmere town you will see the lake of the same name to your left and the entrance to Dove Cottage and museum on your right. Parking is very limited here so bear left into Grasmere town and park here. Dove Cottage was the home of William Wordsworth from 1799 to 1808 and this is the most informative and interesting house and museum dedicated to the poet's life. You can walk back over to visit Dove Cottage or walk into Grasmere itself and visit Wordsworth's grave in the churchyard. The smell of gingerbread is very strong here, not surprisingly as the famous gingerbread shop lies at the end of the churchyard. Grab some sweet confectionery and wander around the town with its grey stone-clad houses and slate roofs.
Take the A591 over Dunmail Raise, down past Thirlmere towards Keswick. Just before you get there, make a side trip towards the right, up to Castlerigg Stone Circle, a 5,000 year old monument of 38 standing stones and a 360 degree vista of the surrounding mountains. A spectacular and very moving location, spend some time here to sit and ponder the mysteries of an ancient place of gathering and worship.
Drive into Keswick, parking is available at the Central Car Park. Here is a chance to really commune with nature by taking a boat across the lake and climbing a hill. Head down to the lakeside jetty and travel across Derwent Water to Hawse End and then take the popular climbing route up Catbells, at 1,480ft (451m) it is comparatively small as hills go in the Lake Country but a pleasant climb in good weather with breathtaking views. Return by boat to Keswick.
Join the A66 towards Bassenthwaite Lake, long and shallow, and the only body of water in the entire National Park that has the title of "lake". This will take you to Cockermouth with its Norman castle built in 1134 and Wordsworth House, initially built in 1670, where a hundred years later the poet was born on 7th April 1770. There is a museum within the house and displays in each room, not just on the life of William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy but of 18th century middle class living in general.
From Cockermouth the A595 will take you north easterly out of the Lake District to Carlisle and the Scottish Borders with views over the Solway Firth. From Carlisle you can head north and cross the border or rejoin the M6 south.