→ Windermere → Bowness → Ferry Point → Hill Top[map]
How to get to Hill Top
You could drive to Beatrix Potter's cottage, satnav reference LA22 0LF, but only if you have a car. Instead why not leave the car at home and walk. National Trust volunteers have recently upgraded the two mile footpath between Ferry House and Hill Top - removing overgrowing vegetation, improving drainage and laying a new surface. The end result is much more tourist-friendly, and the wayfinding excellent throughout, except that the fingerposts seem to have been installed by someone with only a rudimentary understanding of fractions. Also it's quite hilly, and potentially muddy along the way, but then this is the Lake District so what were you expecting?
The first sign comes just beyond the Freshwater Biological Association site, heralding a very brief spin along the edge of Lake Windermere to the gates of what looks like a medieval castle. Ah no, this is Claife Station, a folly built in the late 18th century on top of a rock to provide a viewpoint across the southern half of the lake. Popular with pre-Victorian visitors, its windows were originally glazed in tinted glass to recreate different seasonal views, for example a yellow pane for summer, light blue for winter and lilac to give the impression of a thunderstorm. Long since fallen into ruin, the National Trust restored and reopened it last year to great acclaim, and added a tearoom at the foot of the crag for good measure. Now you can grab a cake or ice cream before climbing not too many steps to a newly-created upper storey, where one empty window has been edged with coloured glass for good measure.
Hill Top is now 1¾ miles away, according to the signs, but 1½ by the time you've descended to Ash Landing, then 1¾ again on the far side of the car park. The next few signs are all 1½ again, giving you little confidence you're proceeding anywhere, but a track along the edge of ferny woodland eventually brings the tally down to 1⅓. At the top of the next ascent a gorgeous Lancashire County Council name sign marks the edge of the village of Far Sawrey, which interestingly is nearer than Near Sawrey, although the ordering depends very much on your basepoint. From here the path leaves the road to climb towards farm buildings and a Victorian country house, squeezing so close to the latter than you'll likely remove most of the heads from the flowers in the bed alongside. And then back down to the village proper, somewhat awkwardly perched, but with an inn large enough to cater for a coachload if required.
Look out for the village noticeboard, where the local MP (and party leader) Tim Farron invites constituents to his local Advice Surgeries (and will be holding one this afternoon at Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding shop). It's at this junction it becomes clear that the National Trust footpath isn't heading to Near Sawrey direct, ignoring the obvious lane and diverting perpendicularly to a few cottages by the parish church. But this is so that your entrance into Near Sawrey will be as pretty as possible, crossing a meadow full of lambs to follow a babbling beck. Be warned that the path across the field may be partly waterlogged, with trainers borderline acceptable in July, but boots a very much better recommendation if the weather's not been dry. But the final waterside walk is worth the detour, and a final incline past dry stone walls brings you at last to Hill Top. (Or you can take the bus. The 525 runs approximately hourly in the summer months, and all the way to Hawkshead, but as a tour company minibus it might already be full up, and it'll cost.)
How to get to Ferry Point
But how to reach the start of that two mile footpath? Ferry Point is on the western side of the longest, largest lake in England, while almost all of the population and infrastructure round here is on the east. The answer of course is in the word 'ferry', indeed a crossing service from Bowness has operated at this point for over 500 years. The current operation is a chain ferry, with room aboard for 18 vehicles and 100 foot passengers, which shuttles back and forth across the centre of Lake Windermere every 20 minutes or so. Sit in the cabin, or better still squeeze into the brief outdoor space, and you can watch yachts, powerboats and steamers shuffle to and fro beneath steeply wooded shores. Cars pay £4.40 to cross, but pedestrians pay the princely sum of 50p, thanks to the ferry being under the operation of Cumbria County Council, which is an absolute bargain. If you're interested, or simply curious, enjoy this webcam view of the comings and goings at Ferry Point, and wish you were here.
On the far shore, Bowness is Lake Windermere's chief tourist destination, as you can tell from the extended nucleus of shops where the town meets the waterside. Diners, gift shops and cafes proliferate, indeed it seems almost every business wants its cut of the incoming yen or pound. And in summer the tourists don't disappoint, milling around with ice creams in hand, sitting outside bars with beers, or sheltering from the relentless rain inside a souvenir boutique. If Bowness is your one interaction with the Lakes on a whistlestop global safari you'll not think too badly of it, not least the glorious panorama across the lake from the pierhead. Myriad boat services await to offer cruises up the lake, down the lake or around the islands, whichever your wallet and time allocation will allow. Perhaps a trip to Ambleside to almost interact with William Wordsworth, an opportunity also available by open-topped bus, or a cruise down to Lakeside and its short steam railway.
But for Hill Top ignore all of those and continue south. This extended stroll takes you past The Glebe, an open space home to many a Radio 1 Roadshow in its day, where a small funfair now fills the summer instead. You can walk round Cockshott Point, named in a more innocent age, or take the more direct less scenic route past the local cemetery. Whichever, this'll bring you to Ferry Nab, which is the eastern springboard for the chain ferry to Ferry Point. For a minimal fee this'll take you to the utterly peaceful western bank, with miles of undeveloped shoreline under the protection of the National Trust, and an ideal place for walking, cycling and family-centred watersports. It seems a shame that those sat at Bowness Pier adore this view from afar, even slip onto the lake for a costly cruise nearby, without ever realising they could get there for a mere 50p and enjoy the entire stretch first hand. (Or you can take the Windermere Lake Cruise boat instead. This takes 10 minutes to ply its way from Bowness Pier to Ferry point, whereas the cable ferry sets off unadvertised almost a mile down the shore so is all too easily missed. Given that the Cruise boat costs £4.80 return, or a full £10.80 if you couple it with the minibus service to Hill Top on the other side, it could prove an unnecessarily expensive choice.)
How to get to Bowness
As many visitors to the area discover to their cost, the village of Windermere isn't actually adjacent to the lake of the same name. Originally named Birthwaite, it grew rapidly around the end of the railway line from Oxenholme, a spur line which delivers thousands of holidaymakers and daytrippers to this day. The old terminus building is now a branch of Booths, the Lancashire-based grocery chain which outdoes even Waitrose, as aspirational northerners stranded in the south know all too well. The chief attraction beside the new station is Lakeland HQ, not just a glass office block but home to their flagship store selling all manner of plastic cookware implements you never knew you didn't need. The centre of town is a prettier alternative to Bowness, if a bit choked by traffic, and the toilets are cheaper here too. But at the foot of the high street is a highly depressing roadsign, if you're only here for the water, stating that the lakeside is still a mile and a half away.
If you're of able body, try not to be put off. A straight-forward roadside walk will get you to Bowness in under half an hour, and to the pierhead a little after that. Alternatively you can head more directly for the lake via a steeper backway path, and hope to find the sheep-toppedhillock behind the watersports centre, rather than a private walled-off stretch. It's gorgeous up there, if the weather's right, although an entirely unnecessary diversion if Beatrix Potter's cottage is your intended destination. All you need to remember in this particular case is that it's only a four mile walk from the station to the home of Peter Rabbit, in the middle of nowhere, and four miles back with a long uphill slog at the end. Who'd not take that opportunity on a day out in the Lakes? (Or you can take a brief double decker bus ride from Windermere down to Bowness instead, as I'm sure most visitors do if they think a mile and a half's too far to hike. Or sign up for the Beatrix Potter Tour at the Tourist Information Centre from Mountain Goat, a long-established Lakeland tours company whose minibuses ply many a local lane. This offers a cruise, tarn and gallery visit bookended around entrance to Hill Top, which is extra on top of the £34 fare, and departs daily at noon. Hey, or walk.)
How to get to Windermere
If you're interested in the railway line from Oxenholme, Scott's explored it all and trekked some, so best read his account. Reaching Oxenholme is likely to involve a Virgin train, at some cost, although I nipped in when they had a sale on and grabbed a single ticket for £10. You've missed that offer, but I love that it's totally possible to do a day trip to the hillside retreat Beatrix Potter considered the perfect escape from far-off London, and to walk the last bit. [14 photos]