The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Glamping in winter? It’s more fun than you think
The colder months might not seem the best time for an outdoor escape but Sarah Baxter warms to the idea at a novel site in the Lake District
The last time I visited the Lake District was a hot August bank holiday weekend and I thought I might die. The roads – I assume they were supposed to be roads – were a slough of crawling motorhomes, badly parked cars, cyclists, dawdlers, dogs and squirrels. I did finally make it to my destination in one piece. My nerves and wing mirror did not.
Fast forward to this January. The heat was gone, but likewise most of the people. My husband and I arrived in the gloaming, driving along empty lanes to reach Castlerigg as the light faded mystically around the stone circle. I took a deep, fresh breath and felt like my innards had been springcleaned. The car was also intact.
Visiting the Lake District in winter can be a less stressful, revivifying thing, if you are willing to work around the weather. But glamping there? It’s hardly the season for flimsy huts or yurts, no matter how much cheerful bunting is strung on them. However, glamping has developed over the past few years. Proper insulation, wood-burning stoves and ensuite loos are stretching and civilising the concept. And, in this age when honeypot spots are already full to capacity during traditional holiday periods, winter is when visitors can find breathing space – and when owners can potentially increase profits.
“Bookings and new openings are being directed towards spaces that have a longer season,” agrees Alice Cottingham of glamping specialists Canopy & Stars (canopyandstars.co. uk). “Revenue for cabins and treehouses – most of which are open yearround – has doubled since 2019 and bookings for November and December 2022 were up 70 per cent.”
It seems more of us are tempted by glamping in low season. But is it any fun? We had come to the Quiet Site, a multi-award-winning holiday park above Ullswater, to find out. Daniel Holder has been running it for 20 years, gradually implementing more eco practices – from a reed-bed water treatment plant to ground-source heat pumps and a zero-waste shop. The various glamping units he has installed are triple insulated and sustainably heated, so can remain open year-round; this means his 20 staff also remain employed in the low season.
On our first night we huddled into a Burrow, a spacious den dug into a grassy bank. With the blinds open we had views over caravans to the
lake; with the blinds closed, it was like being sealed in a wooden bunker. Supremely cosy. There was no bed, rather a large mattress-topped platform where whole families can spread their sleeping bags. We had to schlep to the communal block for a shower, but we did have a loo, so at least there would be no desperate midnight dash for that.
With rain pattering on our picnic table, dining alfresco wasn’t appealing, so we headed to the on-site bar instead. It is a boon to have a bar within stumbling distance, especially in winter, and even better when it feels like a proper old pub. The Quiet Bar was converted from a 17th-century barn, with stone walls, log fire and 21st-century insulation. We ordered pizza and Tirril Brewery ales, and settled in for the evening.
After a dark, noiseless night in the Burrow, we eventually peeped out to see mizzle smearing the valley – not the weather for a long walk. So, while breakfasting on bacon sandwiches under the awning of the Quiet Bite café, we formulated a damp-day plan, settling on a visit to Lowther Castle (lowthercastle.org; entry from £9, under-3s free), a short drive away.
As a roofless ruin, Lowther isn’t entirely weather-proof, but when the rain was heaviest we explored the indoor exhibition, which details its story from Viking-era settlement to 19th-century pile. It also chronicles its partial demolition in the 1950s – a move that paved the way for the ambitious conservation underway at the estate today.
The landscaped gardens were hibernating but still impressive, and eventually we discovered the huge adventure playground. “It’s for adults as well as kids!” the ticket lady had said. There was no one else around, so we clambered around for a bit, free to channel our inner children without any actual children in the way – an off-season treat. Then we hit the estate’s walking trails, which are good options for sub-optimal weather, being lower level and clearly marked. The Lowther Castle Loop took us along the churning river, through the handsome village of Askham and up onto Askham Fell. It delivered wind, sun, rain, rainbows and a short splosh around a flooded path – a safe, exhilarating dose of Lakeland in the winter.
A treat awaited us back at the Quiet Site, too. We had upgraded from our Burrow to a Cabin, a well-designed couple’s bolthole looking up at Little Mell Fell, with a proper bed and shower. The Burrow was cosy, but the Cabin was a lovely step up. Best of all, it had a small sofa and dining table. With winter not conducive to lounging on the deck, it was good to sit comfortably inside. Our kitchenette was limited, but the microwave fine for reheating our posh ready meals, bought at Rheged (rheged.com), a cut-above service station, shopping hub and cinema that is run by the same family as nearby Tebay (perennial winner of “Britain’s best services”).
We knew that travel in winter was a gamble – you don’t know what sort of day you will get. For us, it paid off: the next morning we woke to a brisk winter’s day, with not a cloud in the sky.
The Ullswater Way, a 20-mile loop around the lake, runs right past the Quiet Site, so we picked it up, heading anticlockwise into the miraculous morning. The cold made me weep, but it could have been from joy: the pastel dawn, the shimmer of frost-crisp grass and snow-dusted tops, the browsing deer, the golden explosion when the sun finally breached the eastern fells, igniting the rusty bracken. We walked to Aira Force, the waterfall running rampant, brimful of rain. Then we detoured around Glencoyne Head to reach Glenridding, the mighty white ridges of Helvellyn looming above.
Happily, the Ullswater Steamer – which has been plying the district’s second-largest lake since 1859 – runs year-round (ullswater-steamers.co.uk; fares from £8 one-way, under-3s free). We rode it the length of the lake, from Glenridding to Pooley Bridge, surging between the glowing slopes – though too early to see the daffodils that so inspired Wordsworth in this part of the Lake District. As the crewman dropped the gangplank for us to disembark, he grinned: “I have the best office in the world.”
We had just enough daylight to walk, via another section of the Ullswater Way back to our Cabin. Short days do limit activities; the flip side was plenty of time to relax in our snug home before eschewing its little kitchen for the Queen’s Head in Askham (queensheadaskham.co.uk). This 17th-century inn belongs to the Lowther family, who also own the Michelin-starred Askham Hall (askhamhall.co.uk). No surprise, then, that the “posh pub grubbers” menu was excellent; haggis-wrapped Roughfell lamb, eaten by the open fire, was perfect for a January night.
On our final morning we were due to go stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) on Ullswater (ullswaterpaddleboarding. co.uk, sessions from £40pp). “It will be atmospheric!” I attempted to assure my husband, who had never SUPed before and, for some strange reason, didn’t think winter in the Lakes was the ideal time to learn. He may have had a point – but we will never know. Because of “wind above safe operating limits”, our lake-top foray was cancelled. Ah well. Our accommodation had been season-proof, we planned around rain and made the most of the sunshine – but Mother Nature had the last word.