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A Walk Back through Lake District history

Rydal Church
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Rydal to Grasmere: A walk through Lake District history

We know we are in Central Lakeland when our winter walk across The Lake District veers into another age and becomes a walk through Lake District history. While on the inside hotel decor and restaurant menus might have moved with the times, on the outside the landscape and look of the Lakeland towns and villages is firmly rooted in the Victorian past. In some areas there’s no chance of getting a phone signal, and you almost expect Ruskin to pop up from one of the garden sheds.

Walking in the footsteps of death

If anything grabs a kid’s imagination; it’s death. And the walk from Rydal to Grasmere doesn’t disappoint on this front. It’s got its own coffin route. What kid wouldn’t enjoy a coffin route? Mine leg it excitedly towards one of the prominent stone structures that once provided a rest from bearing a coffin. The kids want to walk with the Lakeland spirits. Or to be more precise, they want to lie where their bodies lay on their way to the graveyard.

Coffin Stop, Coffin Route, Rydal

Trying out the coffin rest, without the coffin. On the Coffin route to Rydal

“It’s surprisingly hard to lie still in a coffin,” says Matthew, trying to balance his body in a straight line with his back on the stones.

“Er, generally, I’m not sure it is,” I say. None of the bodies I’ve ever encountered had much of a problem with it. But then, they hadn’t just eaten a full breakfast in Ambleside.

Why a coffin trail?

This grassy path, like other coffin routes around the UK, was traditionally used to transport bodies across the countryside from parishes that didn’t have burial grounds to churches that did. The bodies were carried from Ambleside and Rydal to the 13th Century St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere; the same church that houses the Wordsworth family graves. It’s hard enough transporting ourselves along the route through the muddy puddles with the rain weighing down our backpacks. It must have been knackering for those funeral parties who did it with a human on their shoulders.

What’s a coffin rest?

The stone structure is in two blocks; the back block was where the coffin bearers rested their load. I’m assuming the front one is where they rested themselves. But wherever you sit it’s a cracking view over Rydal Water and Loughrigg Fell. Coffins may not come this way these days but it’s probably pretty much the same view coffin bearers had all those years ago.

Rydal Water from the Coffin Route to Grasmere

Rydal Water from the Coffin Route to Grasmere. Not a bad view for coffin bearers. Not so great for the dead.

Carried back in time

It’s hard to walk through this part of Lakeland without thinking about how it was ‘back then’. For one you can’t move without tripping over a reminders of how the great Romantic artists lived, worked and sought inspiration around here. Otherwise you’re in towns and villages that grew up in Victorian times and that, in places, don’t seem to have changed much since. Of course in those days they came by train for their holidays, while we blast through in our cars, (or in our case a double decker bus) but the infrastructure hasn’t really changed that much and nor has their popularity waned. The history is part of the charm, the draw, the essential character of this place.


Ambleside. The shops and cars may be new but the look and feel is of an old town.

The Central Lakes are often described as chocolate box and we all know they were the romantic inspiration for the great poets; Wordsworth lived in Grasmere for 14 years and called it “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found.” But I don’t find it a soft centred treat. To me, the 18th and 19th Century Lakeland stone and slate houses (built using materials from the local fell) and the grey winding pavements give Grasmere hard edges, rough surfaces and northern, unpolished charm. I have to admit I always feel like bringing a pot of Duraglit with me, to shine up the place a little.

Bridge House Ambleside

Bridge House on Stock Ghyll, Ambleside. Classic Lakeland stonework. In need of a polish and touch of colour?

In Ambleside the stone terraced houses and shops cram into the streets, and the cramped pavements, where there are pavements, give you a prime view into empty rooms waiting patiently for the morning’s breakfast guests. We pass a traditional hairdressers shop that still has the sign, although not the salon equipment. Or indeed the stylists. Now it is a launderette. One of the few towns in Britain that still has a launderette.

Shop in Ambleside

The hairdressers. Or is it launderette? In Ambleside

But Grasmere and its sibling towns are to the UK what amber is to a beach. The shops are not chains, the B and B’s are not owned by big corporations. There’s no mall. And best of all, no 24 hour Tesco. Not unless you drive to Barrow.

Tradition is in the DNA

Down the road just outside Grasmere, Dove Cottage transports you back a couple of hundred years to the turn of the 19th century. This traditional Lakeland cottage, the first family home of Wordsworth, is now a sympathetic reconstruction of the famous poet’s house and of a world far removed from modern life in the Lakes.

Dove Cottage Rydal Cumbria

Dove Cottage, Rydal. Family hpme of Wordworth. Now cared for by the Wordsworth Trust.

But tradition isn’t just the domain of the Wordsworth Trust and National Trust in Grasmere. It also inspires tales in the Storyteller’s Garden, a magical open air venue for traditional storytelling. And it flavours the famous Grasmere Gingerbread, still baked fresh today in a building constructed in 1654 to a recipe devised in 1854.  History hangs like mist in the air here. And mist hangs in the air here a lot.

Sarah Nelson Grasmere Gingerbread

You can get a classic taste of Lakeland at Sarah Nelson Gingerbread Shop in Grasmere

History ancient and modern shines through the stained glass of the ancient parish church of St Oswald’s, the final resting point for weary coffin bearers and their coffins. It paints every new bud in the Wordsworth Daffodil Garden a unique shade of gold. It’s baked into the pasties in the pie shop that’s been around for 22 years and colours tens of thousands of jigsaws in the unassuming Barney’s Newsbox. Some things just don’t go out of fashion here, no matter what happens elsewhere.

Jigsaws in Barneys Newsbox Grasmere

Here’s a splash of colour and a flashback to the past? Thousands of jigsaws in Barneys Newsbox Grasmere. Do people still do jigsaws?

The spirit of the place is on the wind

And it’s in the fells. More than anything it’s in the fells. We follow the curve of Dunmail Raise.  Here, save for the far flung farms, and the odd house or barn, it looks and feels like nothing much has changed in thousands of years. If I were a Victorian spirit, it’s here that I’d hang out. In a place where the mist shrouds the passage of time, where legends live forever, and human footsteps barely make a dent in the wilderness. But more of that later.

Leaving Grasmere heading for Dunmail Raise

Leaving Grasmere heading for Dunmail Raise


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Our thanks to Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancashire for their help in bringing you this story. 

Check out our Day 1: What? No Car? A Lake District Family Walking Tour
Check out our Day 2: Really Seeing The Lake District
Check out our Day 3: Walking in the footsteps of Poets: Rydal Hall Walk
Check out our Talking Point: Are you a Muddy Boots Person?
Check out our Talking Point: Where does adventure begin? At the front door?
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About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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