|BY LYNN WEITZEL |
The group that met for the first time in the dining room of the Moss Grove Hotel in Grasmere was a diverse one. We ranged in age from 11 to 50-something and represented four countries: the United States, England, Switzerland and Austria. Our conversation was a bit tentative and pointedly polite. Six days later, at our farewell dinner, the table chatter was anything but subdued. We laughed, teased one another and exchanged addresses like old friends. Our walking tour in the Cumbrian Lake District had challenged us physically, thrilled us visually and broadened us culturally. We all wanted to do it again.
"Seventy-five per cent of our clients are repeats," noted Bob Frost, our veteran guide, who had been leading tours for English Wanderers for the past seven years. Our group of nine didn't reflect this statistic as none of us had ever been on an organized walking tour before. However, Tom, an English teacher at a private school in Atlanta, had just completed his first walk, also with Frost, the previous week in the Yorkshire Dales.
"Don't believe the ratings in the brochure," Tom warned us. "They say these walks are 'fairly easy.'" He shook his head and laughed.
Frost didn't argue, but reassured us that he would be selecting the walks on a day-to-day basis with regard to our abilities and, equally important in July, the weather. With 1,500 miles of public footpaths covering an 880-square-mile area, Frost would have plenty of choices.
The first day was the worst in terms of weather. A constant drizzle that turned heavy at times accompanied us as we climbed Loughrigg Fell and gazed down at Loughrigg Tarn, nicknamed "Diana's Looking Glass." We stepped over tiny waterfalls rushing down narrow crevices, trudged along wet paths bordered with bracken, and navigated the slippery grass along the ridges of the fells.
But Frost managed to find us a respite from the rain. Walking under a canopy of trees and following a fast-moving beck, we arrived at Elterwater Village. There we ate lunch under a tree and fed leftover crisps and crumbs from our sandwiches to the gathering chaffinches. Later, we again avoided the rain by stopping at the Kirkstone Slate Quarry gift shop.
We ended our nine-mile trek that day on a switchback path above the lake at Grasmere. By this time, the rain had stopped and we began seeing other walkers, including a vigorous group of folks probably in their 70s.
As the week wore on, the weather improved daily - as did our stamina. Frost planned our walks accordingly. One day we car-pooled into nearby Keswick, where we walked the entire perimeter of Derwent Water. We traversed along the fine pebble beaches of the shoreline, passing through kissing-gates and stiles and encountering meadows and forests, lavender, foxgloves and wild roses.
On other days we hiked up to one of Frost's secret "lofty lunch spots." We sloshed across marshy moorlands, discovered hidden tarns and picnicked on rocky outcroppings where it wasnÕt unusual to see one, two, even three lakes stretching into the dales below.
Occasionally other walkers, singly or in small groups, would briefly share our mountaintop. Most of the time, however, our only companions were the sheep, who noted our presence with a wary eye but rarely stopped grazing.
On day four our legs and feet started complaining and Frost announced a "day off." Once again, he offered us plenty of choices. The two strongest walkers in our group agreed to accompany him to the summit of 3,114-foot Helvellyn, the ultimate challenge for Lakeland climbing aficionados.
Tom and Pat, a widow from Bend, Oregon, took the alternate walk. This was a two-and-a-half-hour ramble from Wordsworth's Dove Cottage in Grasmere to his last home at Mount Rydal, with tours of both and a picnic in WordsworthÕs terraced garden overlooking Rydal Water.
The French teacher from Lucerne took a bus to Windmere for shopping and a boat ride on the lake while the young Austrian students in our group rented a rowboat at Grasmere. My husband and I drove to Hawkshead where we explored Wordsworth's school and Beatrix Potter's gallery. We then drove the four miles to Near Sawrey for a tour of Hill Top Farm. Later, back in Grasmere, my husband chose to wait for Frost's group at his favourite pub while I had tea at an outdoor cafe built over a bubbling stream and then stopped in at Sarah Nelson's famous gingerbread shop.
The next day we all set off together again, following the waterfall down from Easdale Tarn, where we removed our boots and socks to cool our feet in the refreshing water. That evening at our farewell dinner, Frost gave us English Wanderer patches for our rucksacks and tips on the best places in England for future walking tours.
We all agreed it would be hard to top the Lake District for challenge, variety and breathtaking scenery. Pat had expressed it best on the last day when, leaning against a rock on the mountaintop and surveying the picturesque villages, serene lakes and carpets of green pastureland unfurled below her, she said, "I can't imagine anything more beautiful than this!"