How and why to ditch the car and travel to the Lake District by train
Almost everyone loves hiking and adventuring in the Lake District – but getting to this beautiful corner of north-west England can be a nightmare. Travelling by car can be particularly problematic, with M6 gridlock, over-flowing car parks and jammed roads a common sight. The solution? Perhaps the answer is to travel to the Lake District by train, particularly now that (post-covid lockdowns) the railways are back open again, safe, clean and ready to whisk you away on your next adventure.
Personally, I love travelling to the Lake District by train – it’s far more relaxing and stress-free than sitting in infuriating tailbacks on the motorway. I travelled to the Lake District by train regularly for almost a decade when I used to live in Birmingham, and I’ve written for national newspapers about the topic. Now I live in Cumbria, I don’t do it quite so often – but sometimes the opportunity still presents itself. This month, for example, I enjoyed an epic little micro-adventure in Windermere by train – check out the 60-second video of what I got up to below.
Anyway, I thought I’d put together all of the tips, tricks and advice I’ve built up over the years on travelling to the Lake District by train. Here it goes – and happy (train) travels.
6 reasons why you should visit the Lake District by train
1. It’s eco-friendly – travelling to Windermere from London by train can save 130kg of carbon, compared to driving in a petrol car
2. It can save you money – if you get organised and book cheap advance tickets, travelling by train can work out cheaper than your car fuel bills
3. It’s way more relaxing – on the train you can sit back comfortably and read, catch up on work, watch Netflix, listen to Spotify or whatever you want – it’ll be far more chilled out than in a car
4. You can get there faster – a journey from London Euston to Windermere at 8.30am on a Monday takes 3 hours and 10 minutes, while by car it’d take up to 6 hours and 30 minutes according to Google Maps
5. The Lake District is struggling to cope with the amount of cars – of the 19 million annual visitors to the Lake District, 83 per cent travel by car – and, according to locals, this is clogging up rural roads, grid-locking villages, stopping local people getting to work and causing issues for emergency services
6. Less cars is crucial to the landscape – one of the Lake District National Park Authority’s key visions for protecting this beautiful landscape is to double the number of visitors arriving by train by 2040
* Of course, taking the train isn’t a magic ticket to hassle-free travel. If you’re unlucky, train travel can still have hiccups. We all know that trains can sometimes be delayed, cancelled or busy, for example, and you won’t have the door-to-door flexibility of a car. But, based on my experiences over several years, on balance you’re far more likely to have a positive journey by train than you are by car. Plus, if you follow the routes and connections I’ve detailed below, you’ll be on track for a quick, hassle-free and enjoyable journey to the Lake District by train.
5 epic adventures in the Lake District by train
The options are endless, but these are my favourite Lake District trips by train – awesome little adventures that involve quick, easy, cheap and hassle-free travel but deliver amazing Lake District experiences that’ll satisfy your wanderlust.
1. Walk the Ullswater Way in a weekend
This is your chance to walk around Ullswater, Britain’s most beautiful lake, over two or three days. It’s a waymarked 20-mile route with mind-boggling views and loads of character – think panoramas of Helvellyn, cute Herdwick sheep, delightful tearooms, wobbly dry stone walls and Lakeland charm aplenty. You can camp if you want, or for more luxury opt for a cosy B&B or cottage.
How to get there: take a train to Penrith and the 508 bus to Pooley Bridge
2. Take a day trip to Windermere and climb Orrest Head
This is a great day out – maximum adventure in the minimum time. Straight from Windermere train station, you can hike up Orrest Head, the little hill with big views that inspired Alfred Wainwright’s love of the Lake District. Next you can walk to Miller Ground to paddle your feet in Windermere lake, before grabbing some food in the town and heading home.
How to get there: take a train to Windermere (possibly connecting via Oxenholme Lake District)
3. Base yourself in Keswick for wild swimming, hillwalking, kayaking and much more
Keswick is a brilliant base for a longer trip. Book accommodation in the town and then tick off an epic North Lakes bucket-list: have lunch in Millican Dalton’s Cave on Castle Crag, go kayaking on Derwentwater, visit Keswick Pencil Museum, climb Cat Bells (one of the best family friendly hills), visit delightful Buttermere for the day by the 77/77A bus (an epic spot for wild swimming), and whatever else you fancy. The options are endless.
How to get there: take a train to Penrith North Lakes and the X4/X5 Stagecoach bus to Keswick
4. Go big or go home: traverse the county on the Cumbria Way
The 73-mile Cumbria Way – which traverses the county from Ulverston to Carlisle, via Coniston, Langdale, Keswick and Caldbeck – is a stunning long-distance, low-level trail taking in the very best of the Lake District. The middle section through the heart of Lakeland is particularly superlative. It’s a walk that proves you don’t have to bag mountains to relish the beauty of the Lakes. Most hikers take about 5 to 7 days.
How to get there: if you’re walking south, take a West Coast Mainline train to Carlisle to start and travel home via Ulverston train station (which is on the Furness line between Lancaster and Barrow-in-Furness). If you’re walking north, simply reverse the above.
5. Tick off 7 epic adventures from your Ambleside base
Another ideal place to base yourself for a few days or a week is Ambleside, slap bang in the middle of the Lake District. It’s easy to get to and here are my suggestions for one awesome adventure per day for a week: climb Wansfell Pike for epic views, take the 555 bus to Grasmere for some utterly scrumptious (and super famous) Grasmere Gingerbread, cycle to Coniston and back if you love pedal power, enjoy a pint and some food at Tweedy’s Bar in Grasmere, get vertical at Ambleside climbing wall, take the 516 bus to Langdale and scramble the Jack’s Rake route up Pavey Ark (caution – for experienced walkers/scramblers only), and bimble along Elterwater at sunset for amazing views and reflections in the River Brathay.
How to get there: take a train to Windermere and the 555 bus to Ambleside
How to travel to the Lake District by train: practical info
Which stations to travel to?
The Lake District is conveniently located on the West Coast Mainline rail network, which links London Euston and Glasgow via Birmingham (operated by Avanti, previously by Virgin Trains). This makes travelling to the Lake District by train far easier. The two main stations in the Lake District are: Oxenholme Lake District and Penrith North Lakes.
At Oxenholme Lake District, a popular option is to change trains and pick up the short line to Windermere via Kendal, Burneside and Staveley. This transfer takes about 20 minutes and gets you into the heart of the Lakes. (If travelling from Manchester, you won’t need to change – the trains are direct)
At Penrith North Lakes, there aren’t any additional rail lines to connect to. Your best bet for onwards travel, therefore, is to take a Stagecoach bus. The X4/X5 connects Penrith with Keswick while the 508 bus goes from Penrith to Pooley Bridge, Glenridding and Patterdale.
Another slightly more obscure option is the Cumbria Coast Line, which links Barrow-in-Furness with Carlisle via the west coast of Cumbria. This isn’t particularly well-located for the heart of the Lake District, the mountains or tourist hotspots, but works well if you want to visit places such as Ravenglass or St Bees.
What is the best route for travelling to the Lake District by train?
From Manchester – take a direct train to Windermere
From London Euston – take a direct train to Oxenholme Lake District (for the south Lakes) or Penrith North Lakes (for, obviously, the north Lakes)
From Birmingham - take a direct train to Oxenholme Lake District or Penrith North Lakes
From Newcastle – take a train to Carlisle (to link into the West Coast Mainline) and then change to pick up a train or bus to your final destination
From Liverpool – take a train to Preston or Wigan North Western (to link into the West Coast Mainline) and then change to pick up a train to Oxenholme Lake District or Penrith North Lakes
Where to buy tickets?
This is so easy – simply visit your nearest ticket office or visit the normal website you use to purchase tickets, such as National Rail Enquiries, Trainline or train providers like Avanti, Northern and TransPennine Express.
Are train stations and carriages Covid safe?
Yes. Hand sanitiser is commonly available, stringent cleaning processes are followed, and many interactions are contactless. It is still advised to wear a mask while travelling by train.
How to travel around the Lake District once you’ve arrived?
The obvious main choice is to use the Lake District’s bus network, run by Stagecoach. Bus service 555 to Ambleside, Grasmere and Keswick is frequent and convenient from Windermere train station, providing excellent links down the spine of the central Lakes, for example. Other main bus services include the: X4/X5 Penrith to Keswick, 516 Ambleside to Dungeon Ghyll (Langdale Valley), 505 Ambleside to Coniston, 508 Penrith to Windermere (via Pooley Bridge, Glenridding and Patterdale), and the 77/77A Honister Rambler connecting Keswick with Buttermere and the Borrowdale Valley.
Putting buses aside, it’s great to hire a bike (or electric bike) to explore from your base, or hop on one of the Lake District’s networks of boats. Windermere Cruises has loads of services on Windermere lake, connecting Bowness, Windermere and Ambleside, for example, while similar services on Ullswater and Derwentwater enable you to explore all sides of the lakes at your leisure.
Which places in the Lake District are not connected by trains and public transport?
Some places and valleys are not well connected by public transport. These are mostly remoter places, particularly in the western parts of the Lake District. Wasdale and Ennerdale are not served by buses, for example. Other places have limited bus timetables (one bus at 8am, every third Monday, excluding bank holidays, term-time only is how it feels sometimes), and additional problems can include timetables not syncing, expensive tickets, drastically reduced winter services, and – ironically – buses get stuck in the traffic jams. But, with good research, these pitfalls are easy to avoid.
Where can I find out more information?
The LDNPA website here is a good resource to plan your travels.
* This post has been supported by Network Rail