Keswick: Britain's Outdoor Capital?

If you love outdoor adventures, Keswick is arguably one of the best places in the UK to spend a few days within the spectacular landscape of the Lake District. Part of a new series, here is our expert guide on places to visit, stay and eat in this outdoors lovers paradise.

19th June 2017
Town of Keswick and the blue expanse of Derwentwater below the peaks of Skiddaw and Blencathra.

If England has an adventure capital, Keswick is surely it. Sat on the shores of Derwentwater at the foot of two of England’s highest peaks and guarding the entrance to one of the Lake District’s most picturesque valleys, Keswick is the sort of place where you can enjoy an adventure before breakfast.

Stretch your legs on a walk from Causey Pike towards Keswick and Derwentwater.
Stretch your legs on a walk from Causey Pike towards Keswick and Derwentwater.

Surrounded by some of the finest fells in Cumbria, Keswick is a walkers’ paradise, offering a range of summits to tackle – from easy low-level rambles to demanding and often vertiginous treks up such giants as Skiddaw (931m) and Blencathra (868m). 

In the basin beneath these two iconic mountains lies the sheltered expanse of Derwentwater: 1,200 acres of crystal-clear water where kayaks and sailing dinghies, anglers and swimmers drink in the scenic splendour of this corner of the national park.

Like every sizeable town in the Lake District, Keswick is a tourist magnet but most attractions are outdoor-related (with the honourable exception of the world-famous Pencil Museum). Consequently, Keswick is home to no fewer than 16 outdoor gear shops and the town square is a sea of down jackets and GoreTex at weekends. 

In the mornings, the action centres on the coffee shops, where outdoor enthusiasts check the weather, survey routes and stock up on treats to maintain energy levels up on the fells. By mid to late afternoon, weary walkers are returning from the hills in search of refreshment and if the weather is kind, there’s no better place to sink a few draughts of local ale than the sheltered suntrap of the beer garden at Oddfellows Arms on Main Street.

Main Street walks in Keswick

Derwentwater itself is a gentle 20-minute amble along Lake Road and through Crow Park to the waterside and magnificent vistas south across the lake to the shapely hills of Borrowdale and the Newlands Valley

And if it’s a real outdoor buzz you’re looking for, head here from 8-11 June, when the Keswick Mountain Festival takes place – a three-day celebration of all things outdoor in one of the most exquisite settings on the planet. Visit, keswickmountainfestival.co.uk

Walking in Keswick

The beauty of Keswick as a basecamp is the range of walking options on offer. The circular lakeshore walk around Derwentwater is a classic and the shortish trundle up to the spectacular surroundings of Castlerigg stone circle is a must. Lodore Falls, Ashness Bridge and Surprise View are also popular and easy walks, while many a lifelong love of the Lakes is kindled on easy walks up Walla Crag, Watendlath Tarn or the mini mountain of Cat Bells, with staggering views from the summit. For keen hill-walkers, the lofty peaks of Skiddaw and Blencathra – the 6th and 16th highest mountains in England – exert an irresistible attraction, while the horseshoe circuit of Newlands Valley is an epic high-level circular walk. 

An osprey swoops down to the water to seize its trout catch in its powerful talons.
An osprey swoops down to the water to seize its trout catch in its powerful talons.

To the south of Derwentwater lies the enchanting valley of Borrowdale, an unspoiled expanse of 30,000 acres of National Trust pasture and woodland. Criss-crossed with footpaths and punctuated by hamlets and farmsteads, Borrowdale is one of the best-loved valleys in the Lake District. Visit, keswick.org/what-to-do/walking-routes

Wildlife of the Lake District

The Lake District’s first wetland nature reserve, Dubwath Meadows, occupies the marshy land at the northern end of Bassenthwaite Lake. Visitors may spot the rare grasshopper warbler alongside more common species such as the reed bunting and meadow pipit. Whinlatter Forest above the lake is famous for its ospreys, which swoop from lofty eyries to pluck trout from the lake. NestCams relay footage to the visitor centre in spring and summer, and an observation point sits across the lake in Dodd Wood. Bassenthwaite and Derwentwater are also home to Britain’s rarest freshwater fish: the vendace. This relic of the last Ice Age was thought to be extinct in Bassenthwaite until a specimen was filmed in the lake in 2013. See: cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk

Cycling routes from Keswick

Cyclists of all persuasions are well-served by Keswick. At 1.4 miles long, in which the narrow road ramps up 240m, the Honister Pass is one of Cumbria’s most demanding yet rewarding hillclimbs. It regularly features in the Tour of Britain and is as impressive whether tackled from Keswick or Buttermere. 

Cycle north from the east flank of Cat Bells around Derwentwater to Skiddaw
Cycle north from the east flank of Cat Bells around Derwentwater to Skiddaw.

Further north, Whinlatter Forest is one of the top destinations for mountain bikers, featuring miles of woodland tracks amid England’s only true mountain forest. And for riders who prefer a gentler challenge, the three-mile Keswick to Threlkeld cycleway follows the trackbed and through the tunnels of the now redundant Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith railway. This flat ride through the tree-clad Greta Gorge is a lovely traffic-free ride for the whole family. See: forestry.gov.uk/whinlatter

Water sports 

Bassenthwaite has a thriving sailing club, while Derwentwater is home to all manner of leisure craft. Sailing dinghies, rowing boats and kayaks can be hired on the lakeside or cruises booked on the popular Keswick Launch. Stand-up paddleboards are an affordable and increasingly popular means of exploring the lake and Derwentwater is also a popular destination for open-water swimming. See: derwentwatermarina.co.uk

Hire a wooden row boat from Keswick landing stages
Hire a wooden row boat from Keswick landing stages.

Kayaking isn’t restricted to the lakes: some operators provide guided trips along the crystal-clear River Derwent too, or combine canoe-touring with bushcraft skills. Fishing is another popular pastime, with a chance of catching a pristine wild brown trout from Derwentwater or a lively rainbow trout from Watendlath Tarn, with the splendour of the North Lakes fells on all sides. Anglers need an Environment Agency rod licence and the correct permits, available from Keswick Information Centre in the Moot Hall.

Explore Derwentwater by canoe, enjoying the view of Car Bells.
Explore Derwentwater by canoe, enjoying the view of Car Bells. 

Via Ferrata

Visitors in search of high-octane antics should make a beeline for Honister Slate Mine, where as well as gaining an insight into the workings of England’s last commercial slate mine, they
can try their hand at the challenging Via Ferrata and an exhilarating skywalk across the Infinity Bridge – a vertiginous traverse of a rope bridge some 610m above the valley floor.

A map of the area 10 miles of Keswick
A map of the area 10 miles of Keswick.

Via Ferrata translates from Latin to ‘iron road’, a series of hand-holds and steps fixed in the rock face that were used by slate miners to access the more inaccessible parts of the mine. Rare in Britain but popular in alpine Europe, they allow those with a head for heights to scale hairy ascents without any specialist rock-climbing skills. Honister has two to try: the plain scary classic route (2.5 hours) and the truly terrifying Xtreme route (3.5 hours) which includes cargo net crossings and a ‘Burma Bridge’. 

Try your hand at the ascents offered by the Via Ferrata at the Honister Slate Mine.
Try your hand at the ascents offered by the Via Ferrata at the Honister Slate Mine.

Conclusion

Keswick remains largely unsullied by the commercialisation of the Lake District National Park. The patron-saint of fell-walking and noted recluse Alfred Wainwright would probably still feel fairly comfortable in Keswick, unlike Lakeland’s more touristy towns.

While the less energetically inclined can enjoy attractions such as the Theatre by the Lake or the wonderful Pencil Museum, Keswick is all about exploring the great outdoors by whatever means takes one’s fancy.

Many of the main attractions are within walking distance of the town centre and public transport for those that are further afield is good. Access to a bike or boat increases the range of activity options still further.

Downsides? Well, Borrowdale, or specifically the village of Seathwaite, is the wettest inhabited place in England, recording some 3.5m of rainfall a year. So a good set of waterproofs is essential attire.

But when the sun is shining, catch the Keswick Launch from the town jetty in Crow Park to Hawes End for an expedition to the summit of Cat Bells, admire the wondrous panorama before descending to High Brandelhow to catch the launch back to Keswick and a well-deserved pint as the sun goes down over the Borrowdale Fells. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

Keswick facts:

  • Miles of lakeside: 9.5 
  • Highest peak: Skiddaw (931m) 
  • Acres of Nature Reserve: 35+
  • Miles of cycle trail: 20+
  • Infinity bridge: 610m high
  • Largest animal: Red Deer
  • Rarest animal: Vendace

Places to Eat and Sleep:

  • Camping and Caravanning Club- situated in the heart of the action on a lakeside site at the edge of Keswick: campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk
  • Caravan & Motorhome Club- is set in secluded woodlands to the south of the lake at Manesty: caravanclub.co.uk
  • The Quiet Site- is a few miles along the A66 to the east but this utterly enchanting campsite is worth the detour: thequietsite.co.uk
  • Keswick- offers B&Bs, budget hotstels and the opulent Lodore Falls Hotel: keswick.org
  • The Sizzling Stone- at the Ravensworth Hotel serves superlative steaks from local farms: thesizzlingstone.co.uk
  • Morrels Restaurant- provides a wide variety on its fine dining menu: morrels.co.uk
  • The Chalet- at Portinscale has fine breakfasts and lunches: thechaletportinscale.co.uk
  • The Pheasant- on the shore of Bassenthwaite is a lovely traditional Lakeland country in: the-pheasant.co.uk

Image Credits- GettyImages, Alamy, RSBP Images, Robin Van den Hende

Illustrations- Kerry Hyndman

Get your first 5 issues for just £5 when you subscribe to BBC Countryfile magazine!

Subscribe to BBC Countryfile Magazine today and you can enjoy generous savings from the shop price plus, free UK delivery and discounts off special editions and back issues.

Countryfile Magazine - Current Issue