Car Free in the Lake District in Winter?…Why Yes!

We moved on from lovely Liverpool late last week and arrived Keswick by train and bus (locally pronounced Kehz-ick) on a spectacularly snowy day in the Lake District.

Dramatic winter skies ascending near Grasmere

We were very glad that our professional bus driver was plying the slushy mountain roads, especially on the sheer edges of deep lakes; nevertheless, we did take note of the emergency window systems on the bus! (avoiding what I called a double decker bus watery grave…-;)

Can we do this without a car?

Our decision to base in Keswick was based on a number of factors, but primarily that we could get there by public transit, and numerous lines route from there to other parts of the National Park. It also has a few museums, nice shops, and many services in town, including a great regional supermarket, Booth’s.

Our row cottage in Keswick came with a friendly outdoor kitty neighbor no charge and a 5-10 minute walk to town or the bus
Cheryl trying to cajole an adorable Lake District sheep to follow her home

Oh, it also happens to be very quaint, with a lovely pedestrianized core and footpaths heading in every direction, including along the large Derwant Waters, what we in America might call a lake!

Morning light on Derwentwater in the Lake District NP

We actually wavered a bit about whether we “needed” to rent a car, but then read about many others visiting car-free and thriving with the great regional transit system. After 6 days here, we know it was 100% the right decision for us.

The 78 bus to the end of the line at Seatoller…schedules, a shelter, and multiple trailheads
Cheryl ready to hike…the other friendly passengers were day tripping photography buffs from Manchester

Our decision also considered the fact that this area is heavily impacted by car traffic, much like the National Parks in the US. Nevertheless, the car parks and road are still surprisingly busy here mid week in January, as driving is still seen as the easiest and best way for most to experience the park. Despite some pay parking in many of the towns and villages, the roads are still free and there is an abundance of free parking available.

Hey, there goes our bus!

But it’s not just about the carbon footprint of driving for us. We’ve seen the impacts automobile congestion, noise, and pollution have on communities. When practical, we don’t want to contribute unnecessarily to the problem. Although traffic is fairly light in the middle of winter now, it apparently is extremely congested most of the year, and a nightmare in holiday periods.

On the way to Styhead Tarn; did we mention there is water everywhere!

The typical scenic two lane roads barely fit two bus widths (they slow to pass) or even some large cars and trucks! Luckily most people in the UK still drive pretty small cars, but they still impact the safety and experience of the bikes and walkers that also use most roads. Many drivers here go too fast for conditions and it can be nerve wracking even on small unmarked country lanes.

Fragile sub-alpine tundra above 500m
The surprising alpine world of northwest England…Styhead Tarn near the Great Gable

National Parks and holiday areas have specific problems, and many have now taken to managing traffic through various methods, such as fees, closures, parking management, and shuttles/transit. The Lake District National Parks is no different and really is trying to address the problem by providing a really good bus system at fairly reasonable (but not cheap) prices.

Returning on the upper deck just before the early winter sun set
The backbone 555 bus runs throughout the core of the district and will connect you to the train in Windemere…closed double deck BTW

The buses are reliable, extensive, clean, and even a joy with double deck service on the some lines and 1/2 open top double deck service on two shorter lines through very scenic areas. So the buses really do double as sightseeing and transit for locals and visitors alike.

Yes, it WAS chilly on the open top bus, but the views will keep you warm

The other key is easy payment. The Stagecoach bus system offers payment by any tap cars/Apple Pay, etc for single/day trips or you can buy a loadable smart card right from the driver £1 fee for week or month passes.

Information is key! Most stops had schedules and route info.

We bought the 7 day gold pass form £29 each, which allows unlimited travel on the entire systems, which extends to the coast and all the gateway/border cities of the whole district.

Less sun, more dramatic colors
Walla Crag view on a misty winter day
But the sun was out today!

The only suggestion we would make to the Stagecoach bus system is to make the pass an 8-day or 7+1 trip pass, as many holiday rentals are 7-nights, so you generally have 8 days of travel. We are going to have to buy another day pass for our last day out of the park…. a minor annoyance. Let’s make this an even easier decision for people.

Gourmet Scotch Eggs from the Keswick farmers market are the ultimate winter hiking food

So we highly recommend coming to the Lake District in the winter. Although the transit system runs a little less frequently, and a few of the lines to very remote areas are peak season only, you will have a lot of the typically crowded places to yourself. Just make sure to always bring your waterproofs, and leave the car behind.

The intrepid travelers press on despite some serious hat head

The Engineer as Hero

Isambard Kingdom Brunel …a name hard to forget, especially in Bristol, England. As a professional Civil Engineer, it was so refreshing to see an engineer given their proper dues, as it’s usually the Architects that get (or take?!) all the credit for innovative projects. And boy did I K Brunel do it all: Paddington Station, the Great Western Railway, Thames Tunnel, SS Great Britain, and my personal favorite, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. His designs are credited with revolutionizing public transport and modern engineering.

Engineers are great, aren’t they….

We started our Brunel tour at the fantastic SS Great Britain, which is a magnificently preserved and restored steamship that Brunel designed in the 1830s and was the largest steamship in the world when it launched in 1843.

In the Dry Dock – that’s water up there!

I think the best way to see the ship is to start below the water in the dry dock. It allows you to appreciate the scale of the ship, as well as understand how the unique hull was constructed and is being preserved. It takes a massive array of dehumidifiers running 24/7 to keep any further corrosion of the steel hull at bay. The array keeps at about 20% relative humidity, similar conditions to “the deserts of Arizona”, and paralleling the path of millions of other retirees being preserved in the Sunbelt.

Brunel chose to use a new and highly efficient propeller for the SS Great Britain, shaving weeks off a Transatlantic journey

You also can see how they moved the ship from its near demise in the Falkland Islands in 1970 and dragged it all the way back home to Bristol on a special barge. But the dedication to restoration didn’t stop at the exterior of the ship. The cabins have been fully restored with the sights, sounds, and yes, smells of the ship when it served as a passenger ship to the US and Australia.

The Kitchen…spooky realism abounds, as even rats can be seen moving about the cupboards.

The Steerage class quarters are strikingly small, but as a docent pointed out, still offered those crammed in 4 1/2 foot bunks a chance at better conditions and more opportunity in the New World. Life in the early industrial revolution days of Britain was hard. The crew barely had it better, as had to toil all hours shoveling coal into the furnace and keeping the ship going over grueling 3 week to 6 month journeys. Of course first class was quite grand and the Titanic-like dining hall is now available as a wedding venue, minus the swells and nausea of the open seas. (As it turns out, Brunel’s hull design was a little unstable…until a later wood extension was added to to the keel)

Morning dew on Brandon Hill, Bristol

Bristol and Bath were both a pleasant surprise. The crisp fall weather and foliage were perfect for exploring on foot and both cities offer fascinating sites, museums, culture, and vibrant food scenes.

Proper tea and a scone at the American Museum and Gardens in Bath

Bath is like a living Georgian museum, pleasantly frozen in the 1770’s, while Bristol offers a modern revitalized waterfront, lots of history, and more diversity, all supported by a large University population. The American Museum has beautiful views and a offers a unique British perspective on American history and culture. The Roman Baths are the big attraction and surprisingly engaging with brilliant holograms in each room and an audio tour featuring humor of Bill Bryson.

As much as you want to, you shouldn’t touch the water at the Roman Baths

After 3 nights up the hill in Bath near the Royal Crescent, we decided to stay just 7 minutes away from the Temple Meads station in Bristol. The Station itself is worth a look, and yes, I K Brunel provided the base design and inspiration for the main station as the terminus of his Great Western Railway from Paddington in London. How was he so many places? (4 hours of sleep helped apparently)

The Temple Gardens out the back door of our hotel

After a day on the waterfront and Brunel museum, we decided to explore more neighborhoods and walked out through the pleasant and upscale Clifton village. We walked back through the University and along Gloucester Road, which is full of an eclectic mix of shops, pubs, and restaurants. 8 miles overall and great walking up and down the undulating hills, with constant surprises and new views.

The Castle Bridge opened in 2017, offering an inspiring human powered crossing of the Bristol Harbour (but still not enough bike parking!)

But the hands-down thrill of the day was the Clifton Suspension Bridge. A structure that highlights the need for visionary technical leadership and perseverance. Brunel’s original design took over 35 years to be built. He succeeded in a design competition in 1830 with his proposed bold 700- foot steel chain suspension span. This span allowed a full span of the gorge, which was key to the intrinsic beauty of the structure in the unique context of the Avon River Gorge. But many, including his father, doubted that such a span could be built. Unfortunately, cost overruns and contractor financial trouble (sound familiar) put the half completed project on hold by 1843. Luckily, the bridge was finally completed in 1864 with the assistance of other designers, but sadly 5 years after Brunel died. And like many of his bold designs, the ultimate bridge required some design modifications to the deck to make it stiffer, as his original design would have likely failed in high winds. Engineering is a constant process of improvement and optimization.

The 1,300-foot long Clifton Suspension Bridge soars more than 300-feet above the Avon Gorge…so nice!

But his vision survives and his grand engineering projects are still serving millions of people today. So anytime someone doubts that a large infrastructure project can ever be finished or if a new design innovation can really work, just shout out the name of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Or say it three times if you can!

Three things that make travel more fun.

For years we’ve been thankful that we live a city life that makes travel less frightening than it is for some travelers. Three things we do on a regular basis here in SF make our trips easier, less daunting, and help us have a wider variety of experiences.

Buses. Being transit friendly makes getting around a joy. My favorite transit app is Citymapper. Citymapper has opened up a world of transit that used to be quite challenging to figure out. In London, like most tourists, we would be tied to the underground, with the confusing but understandable and always available map, but now, with Citymapper we use buses a lot. You can plug in your destination and be directed to the best bus routes, shown where the stop is, and the app will ping you before it’s time for you to get off the bus. No worries about missing your stop. The best part about riding a bus is being above ground and getting to appreciate the city – especially from the top of a double decker.

Riding the bus in Honolulu.
BorisBike on a London bicycle super highway. Now that’s bike infrastructure.

Bikes (of course!). Ever since I first used the Washington DC bikeshare while there for a conference years ago, and had my eyes opened about what a game changer bikeshare is, I believe that bikeshare, especially electric assist bike share, is the ultimate urban transportation. Fast, convenient, clean, space efficient. We’ve ridden bikeshares in SF, Glasgow, London, Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Honolulu, Aspen and are looking forward to many more rides in many more cities. Similar to being comfortable on public transit, being a confident and safe urban cyclist opens up a lot of experiences you might otherwise miss. If you aren’t a comfortable urban cyclist I highly recommend taking an urban skills bike course.

We were not expecting bikeshare in Aspen Colorado, it was a welcome surprise, as were the inspirational bike quotes on the back wheel skirt guards/fenders.
On the Camino Ingles with an old friend and a new friend who joined us for a few miles.

Walking. Here in San Francisco we think nothing of walking a mile or two to dinner and home again. Yesterday we walked 1.2 miles to our dentist (Thank you Nikki! You rock!) had a Raman lunch, and walked home again. While traveling we cover a lot of miles sightseeing. Our base level of walking fitness serves us well. Before traveling it’s a great plan to walk a lot so you’re ready to do 6 or 7 miles exploring a new city, and to make sure that your walking shoes are up to the task of helping you explore. And have your Citymapper app ready to help you get home if you need a boost!

A hike in Kep, Cambodia.

Being flexible with your transportation will help you have so many more experiences than when you are limited to driving or taking taxis. And, having those options will give you the confidence you need to get out and explore. Some of our best times have come not from a planned destination, but from a serendipitous find while out on bikes, buses or foot.

A Camino marker in Porto, Portugal.

Happy Travels!