It’s early March and the weather forecast does not look kind – but with myself and ‘she who keeps the map’ both celebrating our birthdays, we load up the car and head north to Cumbria for a weekend getaway. The Lake District in north-western England is known for its impressive mountains, scenic lakes, and numerous forests. It draws in visitors from all around who are keen on hiking, rambling, photography – and of course, experiencing hearty Cumbrian cuisine. However, the area is also steeped in history and archaeology, with a landscape that has been changing over thousands of years. There is the opportunity to visit Roman forts and explore medieval buildings. Moving further forward in time, one can discover the houses of beloved children’s author Beatrix Potter, and the poet William Wordsworth. The Lake District, even in March, really does have a lot to offer.

Looking over the granaries at Ambleside Roman Fort onto the northern shore of Lake Windermere.
The granaries at Ambleside Roman Fort, with the northern shores of Lake Windermere in the background. Photograph © Simon Burchell

We arrived in Windermere during Friday evening. It is a beautiful town situated in the southern Lake District and has a wide variety of guest accommodation to suit different budgets. We booked in to the Archway Guest House for 2 nights and were greeted on arrival with smiles and homemade cake (a promising start!). Located 30 miles north of Lancaster, Windermere also boasts a bustling restaurant scene which caters from high-end cuisine, to casual pub-grub.

After unloading our bags we headed straight to The Pig (just a 4 minute walk) for probably the most lavishly-presented, and deliciously-tasting pork dish I’ve ever had. Food (and a beer) successfully finished, we returned to the B&B and slept.

When Saturday morning arrived, I opened the curtains to see grey skies and rain!

Nevertheless, after a superb breakfast cooked by our hosts, we packed our bags for a day’s walking. Even the wettest conditions would not dampen our spirits, so armed with rain macs and a positive outlook, we set off on foot. The plan being to walk to neighbouring Ambleside, and then Grasmere. Both of these are easily accessible by car and the Stagecoach 555 bus service, or (if you fancy walking off breakfast) by foot.

Starting from Windemere, you can simply follow the main road along (A591) and enjoy some lakeside viewing points. Alternatively, if you are kitted out with walking boots, there are some great scenic trails to take advantage of.

This was my first time visiting the Lake District but it had been on my to-see list for a while. Something that we both agreed on, is that even on a misty day in March, the Lake District is an idyllic setting and full of charm.

Archaeology Travel | A Weekend Break: the Lake District in March | 1

Mouthwatering cuisine at ‘The Pig’ in Windermere.
Photograph © Jason Summers

A view over Lake Windermere on a misty March day.

View of Lake Windermere. Photograph © Jason Summers

Right, time to get stuck into the archaeology!

Ambleside, Roman Fort

The town of Ambleside is around 5 miles north-west of Windermere. It lies at the head of Lake Windermere which is England’s largest water. One site that must be visited whilst on a walk is the remains of Ambleside Roman Fort (owned by the National Trust). Dating to the 2nd century A.D, it was most likely utilised as a supply base, guarding the Roman road between Brougham and Ravenglass. The site was excavated between 1913 and 1920, and revealed the fort’s defences and some interior buildings. This includes the main and south gate, officer’s house and headquarters, and the granaries. It is fair to say the remains of this site are impressively well marked out and even better – entry is completely free!

Refuelled after a spot of lunch and a strong coffee, we braved the elements once again and walked to the village of Grasmere. Made famous by the poet William Wordsworth who moved here in 1799, Grasmere is an English delight! It offers tourist amenities such as gift shops, and a number of places to eat. We decided to walk around the beautiful lake there, and I managed to take a great shot of the centralised island and reflection against the water. With daylight fading, and our legs lagging we decided to catch the 555 back to Windermere. Dinner and an early night was on the cards. After all, with the walking out of our systems – we had a Sunday full of archaeology and history to look forward to.

An island in the middle of Grasmere Lake.

An atmospheric Grasmere Lake. Photograph © Jason Summers

Sunday morning we said goodbye to our wonderful hosts Denis and Anita at the Archway Guesthouse. It was my birthday and they had very kindly bought and wrapped us a present of chocolates, and written a card. Both myself, and my loyal map keeper, felt so incredibly welcome whilst staying here. I can 100% recommend this B&B as a great weekend base for exploring the south lakes. Now it was just us and the car – feeling refreshed and hungry for archaeology, we set off for Hawkshead.

Hawkshead, Medieval Courthouse, and Beatrix Potter Gallery

Hawkshead is a village located on the western side of Lake Windemere. It is possible to take the ferry across the lake and then walk a couple of miles, but driving by car only took 20 minutes. The first stop was a medieval courthouse building situated just outside the village centre (directions are available from the village tourist information point).

The thirteenth century court-house building in Hawkshead.

Medieval courthouse at Hawkshead. Photograph © Jason Summers

Originally built in the 13th century, it was once part of a manorial farm which belonged to Furness Abbey. During the medieval period, local monks farmed sheep on the fells here, and established the wool trade in Hawkshead. The building itself was rebuilt in the 15th century, and was originally part of a larger quadrangle structure. It consists of two storeys, the lower floor is thought to have been a gatehouse, with the above being used as a courtroom. I really liked this site, though visible from the roadside – it’s only by walking around it that you can fully appreciate the gothic architecture. We just parked up in the driveway and from here you can explore the building’s exterior. However, if you want to venture inside then you can arrange this at the National Trust shop in Hawkshead village (they hold keys to the building). Although the site is now a farm building, the first floor is used as an exhibition hall with some original features, including a 13th century fireplace. In my opinion this place is well worth a visit – even if to take just a quick photo!

The next stop was the Beatrix Potter Gallery (also in Hawkshead), but not before we had satisfied our ever-growing cake cravings.

Now, to call me just a regular ‘cake fan’ would be a huge understatement – I LOVE CAKE. If like me, you are a cake lover and find yourself in Hawkshead, then I have three words for you – Sun Cottage Cafe. We fell in love with this quirky little place, the decor of which was no doubt inspired by the childlike undertones of Beatrix Potter’s stories. Gigantic cakes are baked here, and were more than reasonably priced. We shared one slice between us and were almost defeated. Absolutely fantastic cake and a friendly atmosphere – perfect.

With full tummies, we headed to the Beatrix Potter Gallery (in the village centre). The gallery is housed in a 17th century building which was once the office of Beatrix’s husband (a solicitor). Today it is owned by the National Trust and it cost us, as non-members less than £7 each for entry. The exhibition changes every year and features displays of original artwork and information offering a fascinating insight into the life of the children’s writer and illustrator. The interior of the building remains early 20th century in style with original dark wooden furnishings.

I suggest visiting here first, and then following up with Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top in the village of Near Sawrey.

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Gigantic cakes at the Sun House Cafe in Hawkshead.
Photograph © Jason Summers

Near Sawrey, Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top House

Just a 5 minute drive from Hawkshead, in the picture perfect village of ‘Near Sawrey’ is the renowned ‘Hill Top’, the historic house of Beatrix Potter. This is one of a number of historic, writers’ houses that are open to the public in England. It was bought by the writer in 1905 and inspired many of her stories including ‘The Tale of Samuel Whiskers’, and ‘Jemima Puddle-Duck’. The property was given to the National Trust by Beatrix Potter on her death in 1943, and left instructions about how it should be shown to the public.

'Hill Top', Beatrix Potter's residence in Near Sawrey, Lake District.

Beatrix Potter’s hilltop house Near Sawrey. Photograph © Jason Summers

We parked up at the ticket office carpark, bought our tickets, and then walked 2 minutes along the road to ‘Hill Top’. At first glance, the 17th century house, with its English vernacular architecture of stone walls and slate roof did not disappoint. Inside the house, we explored the various rooms and studied their contents with interest. Original furniture, framed wall paintings, china sets, and even a rocking chair were arranged as if the children’s author had never left. The highlight for me was the writing desk in the ‘New Room’. It really was a treat to visit and I recommend this to couples, families, and lone rangers who are enthusiastic about vernacular buildings and English and literary history.

With three historical sites explored within a matter of hours, it was time for us to make the 5/6 hour drive back down south. What was truly amazing was how much we were able to see and do in just a couple of days. Not only that, it was great to see a number of archaeological and historical sights open at this time of year. There were many other places we could have visited, so I guess we shall have to return next year! They say the proof is in the pudding – I say the proof is also in the misty photographs captured by my camera. The real clarity here though, is that March is still a good month for a weekend break in the Lake District.