Lonely as a cloud

Brigid Delaney takes her parents on a wet walking tour of the Lake District.

Being in your 30s and taking a holiday with your parents is an angst-ridden prospect. Is it a sign of arrested development? Social failure? Friendlessness? That a wrong turn has been taken in life and you have ended up in exactly the same situation you were aged 10? Yes - to all the above.

Even more confronting is the holiday itself. Will there be fights? Will I get my own room or sleep in a cot on their floor? Will I be allowed wine with dinner? And what if they discover I smoke? No, no, yes and I gave up before we went away.

In order to prove to my parents I have "moved on" since I was 10, I volunteer to organise the holiday, including the destination and accommodation. I decide on a walking holiday to some of the prettiest countryside in England - the Lake District. It embraces the country's largest national park, spanning almost 2300 square kilometres, and is famed for its walking tracks, tea shops and notable past residents such as William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter. The area is also depicted with a good deal more squalor in the cult film Withnail And I.

The first part of our trip will be along the more isolated west side, including a stay at the Wasdale Head Inn. The second leg will take in the busier eastern areas of Windermere, Grasmere and Coniston. We hire a car in Oxford and stop for a night in the Cotswolds before the five-hour trip north to Wasdale.

"It's grim up north," friends from London are fond of saying. More obesity, more smokers, more problem drinkers, higher unemployment, uglier houses and inclement weather - according to southern stereotypes. On the west side of the district, far from the shops selling Beatrix Potter tea towels and cream teas, the towns do seem to fit the stereotype. Austere and grey, they are working towns, not showpieces.

We stop in Ulverston, a large town at the edge of the Lake District National Park. The air smells of chip-frying oil. The weather is soupy and dull, which doesn't bode well for a walking holiday.

We drive on to Wasdale Head, literally the end of the line on the western side of the Lake District. It has been described as "remote, tranquil and beautiful". At the Wasdale Head Inn, the road stops and the enormous screes begin.

Scafell Pike is England's highest mountain at 978 metres, while Wastwater, the lake running alongside the road to the inn, is England's deepest at 74 metres. Wastwater was voted last year by viewers of ITV as "Britain's favourite view". Wordsworth, on the other hand, once described Wastwater as "long, stern and desolate" and he was on the money: this feels like the loneliest, spookiest part of England.


Upon arrival my parents are bewildered that I have booked our holiday here. Their tastes are bourgeois: some gentle walks in the countryside, decent restaurants, good coffee and the theatre. This is a place without coffee.

We're told to sign out if we go walking. Some walkers don't return by nightfall and then the inn's staff doubles as a mountain rescue team. "We're not mountain climbers," my parents say. The innkeeper looks at us strangely as if to say, "Well, what are you doing here?" and in turn my parents look at me as if it was a mistake to leave me in charge.

Outside the rain pours and the climbers on the face of the scree look like slugs clinging to the rocks. I feel as if we've come on holiday to a big, damp, green sponge. However, the cosy bar more than makes up for the inclement weather and our lack of climbing equipment and ability. It's wood-panelled and decorated with old photos of climbers, boots nailed to the wall and pickaxes.

It's low key and convivial in an English kind of way: lone men content with a pint and a copy of the Telegraph, older couples sipping gin and tonic and murmuring non sequiturs - "Rummy, this weather. Reminds me of old Clive" - and climbers with faces as craggy as the mountains.

At the bar we make friends with a man who is on holiday with his dog. The Wasdale Head Inn is the sort of place a man can bring his dog, he explains, and sits by the fire drinking whisky and doing the crossword. Again I'm reminded how fond the English are of their animals and how it is not seen as eccentric to prefer holidaying with your pet to your two-legged friends.

My parents had the foresight to bring good books so they settle into the lounge room cushions, looking about at the sheep, the mist-covered peaks and the men going out onto the mountain.

Each morning I set out on my own into the squall and walk along the unexciting road at the edge of Wastwater. I'm determined this will be a walking holiday, even if the weather makes the activity deeply unpleasant. My lungs feel damp and I'm developing a hacking cough. I think it might be possible to develop consumption here.

But there are other things to do in the Lake District beyond walking. One morning we take a steam train from the nearby village of Ravenglass to Boot, a hamlet of a couple of houses and a couple of pubs with wide verandas and beer gardens. The scenery is picture-postcard England and much less dramatic than Wasdale Head. Rain has been falling constantly for months, so the rolling hills have a luminous green sheen, hyper-real and, to my parents - accustomed to the muted colours of western Victoria - beautiful.

On the other side of the Lake District it's all traffic jams and small villages, "No Vacancy" signs in B&Bs, tearooms on every corner and shops selling Peter Rabbit tea towels.

Windermere, Grasmere and Coniston on the east side of the national park are the district's best-known spots and on our visit they are bursting at the seams, despite the poor weather. Yet it's quite disappointing after the austere majesty of "the other side".

From Windermere we take a tourist double-decker bus to Bowness. My father and I brave the top deck. I feel as I'm on the bow of a ship - water and wind lashing at us and my father yelling from the deck "just hang on".

Grasmere is button-cute and preferable to the sprawling Windermere. It's twee - with its tearooms, ye olde pubs and souvenir shops - but it's worth visiting if you're a Wordsworth fan. The Wordsworth Museum is first-rate, with a collection of his original manuscripts, many of which were written about the district. Next door is his former dwelling, the well-preserved Dove Cottage. Once a pub, and with low roofs and sloping walls, it's where he wrote his greatest poems.

Our guidebook tells of "terrific top-end hideaways" on this side of the lake but we're coasting at the cheaper end of the market. I have chosen a delightful farmstay outside Elterwater for my parents and - not wanting a cot on the floor in my parents' room - I book into a pub near Coniston.

My room is so grim my parents look pained to leave me there. It smells of old cheese, my mother says. "I may be murdered in the night," I muse. "Or freeze to death." Instead, my consumption worsens.

The standard of accommodation is patchy if you don't book ahead. But northern "cuisine" is consistent. At first, mushy peas with everything was a quirky novelty. "Just like guacamole," I tell my mother. But they're teamed with potatoes - wedges, mash or chips - and the peas and spuds stalk our every meal: with sandwiches, with lasagne, with curries, with salad, with sausages.

I'm sceptical about talk of the British culinary revolution. London has some fantastic food but it's not really a revolution if in the most beautiful region of England, the most popular places to eat - pubs - are serving such stodgy fare.

B&B breakfasts are also disappointing: mean, overcooked bacon, sour tomatoes, oily eggs and white toast hardening on a toast rack greet us most mornings (except at the Wasdale Head Inn, which has an exceptional breakfast). In addition to consumption I also fear the onset of scurvy.

Our holiday is more Withnail And I than Beatrix Potter: the damp, my cough, the claustrophobia of a tearoom on a wet day, the unyielding density of an overcooked scone.

Yet despite this, back in London, we agree it has been our best-ever family holiday. Regardless of the drizzle, eccentric lodgings and unlovely food, we have not fought once - which doesn't really qualify it as a family holiday. More a getaway with two of your oldest pals.


Getting there

The Lake District is about five hours' drive from London. A train from London's Euston Station to Windermere takes 3 1/2 hours. It's the wettest part of England; the driest months are May, June and September.

Staying there

* There are more than 300 towns and villages in the Lake District. See http://www.lakedistricttouristguide.com or http://www.lake-district.com.

* The Wasdale Head Inn, Wasdale, has B&B rooms from £54 ($115) a person for a night and family apartments from £230 for three nights. Dogs can stay for £5 a night. See www.wasdaleheadinn.co.uk.