I’m glad I drove around England’s Lake District. Not because it gave me a chance to witness the region’s spectacular scenery, for which the area is justifiably famous, or visit the haunts of William Wordsworth, one of England’s greatest literary minds. No, it was because the road trip through the District’s picturesque fells and dales marked the official bottoming out of my drive time in England. And the experience liberated me.
Time spent on UK roads had not gone well up to that point. Navigating London’s congestion in the left lane – and paying a fee for the privilege – was not an auspicious start. Bouncing between packed, lorry-filled lanes and speeding Audis on the M-series highways raised my blood pressure further. Things only got worse in the countryside, where winding, shoulderless byways lined by hedge rows and stone walls barely contained drivers hell-bent on going, well, wherever you’re in a hurry to go in the English countryside – the local chapter of the National Sheep Association?
My guidebook fawned about a “majestic” drive that circumnavigated Lake Derwentwater near the northern town of Keswick, describing it as having the best scenery in the North Lake District. What it failed to say was that much of the drive was limited to a one-lane road popular with the likes of sheep, hikers, cyclists, cars, buses, and trucks – all traveling both directions.
Getting there wasn’t a problem, at least by English driving standards. The four-lane A66 highway took me directly from the M5 at Penrith to the hamlet of Braithwaite, a tiny settlement probably planned around the time of the Viking invasions. There I entered a labyrinth of terraces and unnamed streets that, after a few dead ends, led me to an “unclassified” road through Newlands Valley ending in the town of Buttermere. I had arrived.
To give the Newlands Valley and surrounding area its due, this is beautiful country. And if you want to truly enjoy the beauty (and come home in one piece), you keep your eyes firmly on the road until you until you come across parking areas where you can safely take in the sights or go for a hike. I did that at Newlands Pass – the highest point in my journey – and after a 700+ foot climb up Knottrigg Fell, took in some of the most spectacular scenery in the Lake District.
But getting up the pass meant skirting precariously along the edge of the Newlands river, and descending meant driving down another V-shaped river valley. My road trip was far from over.
I’ll give it to the British, they seem used to this sort of thing – maybe a little too used to it. Blind bends and a dearth of guardrails didn’t stop vehicles from screaming around corners only to slam on the brakes when they saw me approaching. Then would begin the process of gingerly making our way around each other, careful not to slip over the edge and go careening into the adjacent gorge.
This scene played on in various iterations for about seven miles on my trip. I rode the clutch on precipitous grades as I inched beside lorries barreling toward me. Hikers appeared out of nowhere, likely confused that what appeared to be a footpath actually permitted motor vehicles. I carefully passed cyclists riding three abreast only to come head on with packed tour buses. Sheep wandered aimlessly into the road, almost daring you to hit them.
And if I wasn’t facing down speeding automobiles, they were collecting behind me, with drivers motioning me to go faster or get out the way. Who’s to blame them? I didn’t see any speed limits marked. It seemed to be a kind of drive and let collide auto culture, and I clearly was overly concerned with self preservation.
At Buttermere, I turned left on to Honister Pass Road (having a name was a good sign) and my route mercifully widened. After climbing the pass and traveling through the picturesque hamlets of Borrowdale and Rosthwaite things got better still. By this point, I was enjoying the British version of two lanes and an unusual calm had settled in. The tumult of England’s driving world had not gone away but it had ceased to faze me.
Surprisingly, this serenity stuck with me the rest of my time on England’s roads. Who’s to say where all my tension went. Wordsworth wrote that, “Wisdom is oftentimes nearer when we stoop than when we soar.” I definitely stooped driving the Lake District, or at least experienced the equivalent of a vehicular hazing. Whether I was any wiser because of it is debatable but it did seem to help me to develop the driving version of a thick skin, and the rest of my British road trip was pleasantly stress free.