The Lake District, one of the most beautiful parts of Great Britain, is actually quite small, measuring about 56km (35 miles) wide. Most of the district is in Cumbria, though it begins in the northern part of Lancashire.

Bordering Scotland, the far-northwestern part of the shire is generally divided geographically into three segments: the Pennines, dominating the eastern sector (loftiest point at Cross Fell, nearly 900m/3,000 ft. high); the Valley of Eden; and the lakes and secluded valleys of the west, by far the most interesting.

So beautifully described by the Romantic poets, the area enjoys literary associations with William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Lamb, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Matthew Arnold. In Queen Victoria's day, the district was one of England's most popular summer retreats.

The largest town is Carlisle, by the Scotland border, which is a possible base for exploring Hadrian's Wall -- but for now, we concentrate on the district's lovely lakeside villages. Windermere is the best base for exploring the Lake District.

Lake District National Park

Despite the reverence with which the English treat the Lake District, it required an act of Parliament in 1951 to protect its natural beauty. Sprawling over 885 square miles of hills, eroded mountains, forests, and lakes, the Lake District National Park is the largest and one of the most popular national parks in the United Kingdom, with 14 million visitors a year. Lured by descriptions from the romantic lake poets, visitors arrive to take in the mountains, wildlife, flora, fauna, and secluded waterfalls. Much of the area is privately owned, but landowners work with national park officers to preserve the landscape and its 2,898km (1,800 miles) of footpaths.

Alas, the park's popularity is now one of its major drawbacks. Hordes of weekend tourists descend, especially in summertime and on bank holiday weekends. Despite the crowds, great efforts are made to maintain the trails that radiate in a network throughout the district preserving the purity of a landscape that includes more than 100 lakes and countless numbers of grazing sheep.

Before setting out to explore the lake, stop in at the National Park Visitor Centre (tel. 01539/446601), located on the lakeshore at Brockhole, on the A591 between Windermere and Ambleside. It can be reached by bus or by one of the lake launches from Windermere. Here, you can pick up useful information and explore 30 acres of landscaped gardens and parklands; lake cruises, exhibitions, and film shows are also offered. Lunches and teas are served in Gaddums tearooms with terrace seating.

Tourist information offices within the park are richly stocked with maps and suggestions for several dozen bracing rambles. Regardless of the itinerary you select, you'll spot frequent green-and-white signs, or their older equivalents in varnished pine with Adirondack-style routed letters, announcing FOOTPATH TO . . . .