“Where shall we go, then?”
“Somewhere with snow.”
“I dunno. Nowhere too strenuous. You choose”.
“What do you mean, ‘too strenuous’? That’s a bit subjective isn’t it?”
And so it went. Eventually, after consulting maps, guide books, goldfish, astrologers and personal trainers, we threw walking boots into the back of the car and headed in the direction of Tarn Hows. I lied about the astrologers and personal trainers.
Tarn Hows is one of the many gems in the English Lake District. You find a lot of ‘tarns’ and ‘hows’ in that part of the world: tjörn is an Old Norse word meaning ‘small mountain lake’ and haugr is from the Old Norse for hill or mound. Unlike most of the lakes and tarns in the Lakes, Tarn Hows is actually artificial. It was manufactured by filthy rich Victorian landowner and one-time Liberal politician, James Garth Marshall of Monks Coniston. ‘Twas he who dammed three smaller tarns (which were romantically called, Low Tarn, Middle Tarn and High Tarn) and planted trees to create the very pleasing small mountain lake and surrounding woodlands that we see today. The Marshalls sold off different bits of the Monk Coniston estate in the 1920s. One bit included Tarn Hows, which is generally claimed to have eventually passed into the ownership of the ubiquitous National Trust via the author and conservationist Beatrix Potter, partly by sale and partly through her will. However, I have also seen it specifically stated that Tarn Hows was presented to the National Trust by a Sir S H Scott. Perhaps someone will unravel this apparent discrepancy for me one day.
In any event, Tarn Hows is a well-known beauty spot. Let’s be honest: this is not a serious walker’s destination; it’s a place to go for wonderful views and a bit of a leg stretch – or as a stop-off as part of a more testing trek. There’s a circular path that’s suitable for prams and wheelchairs, ice creams in the summer and you can even book a mobility scooter – an excellent idea for a place like this. The whole circuit is less than 2 miles and I was much impressed to see that the Lake District National Park’s website helpfully says it is possible to walk it clockwise, or anti-clockwise. Well, that’s a relief. I’m also guessing that it doesn’t matter if you’re left or right-handed. Seriously – check it out before someone with more than one GCSE spots this statement of the blindingly obvious and sacks the numpty that wrote it. Or perhaps I am being naïve and consideration is being given to a one-way system in order to ease congestion. Tarn Hows receives something like half a million visitors each year and it’s easy to imagine it being like a smaller, more frightening, version of the M25, London’s orbital motorway – only with prams, dogs and small children. Fortunately, not everyone goes at the same time.
You drive, cycle, or walk to Tarn Hows. It is possible to park your car almost in the water, if you want to pay the charges (‘free’ to National Trust members). However, we did what any self-respecting misers would do and parked a couple of miles away for nothing. The terrain was easy going through grass and woodland, with the occasional frozen mire. It was fun crunching through the snow, but more of a challenge traversing the packed sheet ice that had accumulated in places along the route – including on some roads, which we needed to use now and then.
Now, the roads in the Lake District are not wide, and they don’t need to be. But it is a good plan to consider other road users – and I speak as an experienced motorist, regular walker and intermittent cyclist – whatever the road and weather conditions. Unfortunately, we chose to visit the area on a day when a high proportion of car drivers had either had too much testosterone for breakfast or had only just made it down from the trees. These people were clearly unable to comprehend why anyone else should be on the road, so our journey had one or two exciting moments.
The pathways, and one of the car parks, near Tarn Hows were almost completely ice-bound and potentially lethal unless you were Torvill and Dean. I myself performed what I felt was a fairly passable arabesque, blending nicely into a demi-pirouette before finishing with my speciality, the crumpled heap with profane howl. However, imagine our amazement when we spotted, further down the track and straddling it, a motor car. It’s all very well a plump middle-aged bloke trying fancy dance steps on ice, but they’re not recommended in a Renault Clio. At first, we couldn’t figure out why you’d want to drive anything less than a Challenger tank along this path, irrespective of the driving conditions. Then we realised that it was the access ‘road’ to Rose Castle Cottage, a beautiful but remote self-catering cottage that relies on batteries for its power. Probably, the occupants of the Clio were trying to get home and the track was their only way out. They sat, a young couple, looking fairly grim-faced as everyone passed by. We felt rather like the priest or Levite walking by the traveller in need but, in truth, the best thing for them would probably have been a helicopter. Perhaps archaeologists will discover the rusting remains of the car and its sad contents in the future – though I suspect a National Park warden – or maybe Rose Castle Cottage’s cleaner – will get there first. It could have happened to anyone.
Go to A Bit About Britain’s directory listing for Tarn Hows. This provides a link to the National Trust’s website, where you can also find out about hiring mobility scooters and renting Rose Castle Cottage.