Roughish Guide to Ambleside,
a small town in the Lake District National Park, England

If you want to move on quickly, click on the splats below. If you want in-depth info, read on.

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Below is first hand, up to date and relevant info from local people who know, and not just about accommodation and eating out. We take you beyond the mundane listings of hotels, B&Bs and attractions, into the hidden local psyche with its dark secrets and repressed passions, and outline some of the ISSUES.
So this section is divided into
MAPS & PICTURES of the district (separate pages)
map Map

so where is AMBLESIDE . .? . . only six hours drive or five hours rail from London, less than two from Manchester or Liverpool, one hour from the Scottish border, three from Edinburgh . . . . avoid the rest of England (too tiring) and speed instead to unique, relaxing Ambleside, where you will find fine food, wine and ale to complement the glorious lakeside mountain setting of this historic . . er . . sorry, prehistoric community. It was here before the Roman occupation, which lasted 400 years, it survived and prospered under the Viking invasion and it will be here after the tourist invasion, which so far has lasted only 200 years. (Blame Wordsworth for this latter invasion please, not the Tourist Board. As the French revolution cut off the English gentry from their European Grand Tour, their writers and artists began to extol the glory of Lakeland, creating as they did so the necessary myths which are their stock in trade and which survive to this day to persuade the discerning visitor of the rare quality of this landscape.)
Holding out stubbornly against this endless horde of apparently tireless walkers, climbers and futile seekers after the long-gone romance of the English countryside, the locals (peasantry, as the 19th century writers would insist) gallantly strive to ignore the alien cultures which mass tourism imposes on their quiet lives, complaining only, as they reap the doubtful material rewards, that "t' spot's thrang wi' t' boogers" (Eng. "there are rather too many of them, don't you think?")
Where to Stay, Eating Out, getting around,
and What to do

As a tourist centre Ambleside has a long and favourable history. For well over 150 years the town has earned a living catering for visitors, giving them mostly what they wanted, provided they didn't mind what they got. The last twenty five years have seen a revolution in tourist provision however, as upgrading of catering at all levels has been led by the market and by encouragement from official bodies. Few could nowadays claim that they cannot enjoy the level of catering they expect. All sectors of the market, from campers to gourmets, will find satisfactory establishments in Ambleside and its outlying hamlets and villages.

The town is easily reached by road, being 20 miles from the M6 motorway, and is served by several bus services, including National Express. Rail travel is to Windermere, four miles away with easy bus and taxi access. There is a direct Manchester Airport/Windermere rail link.

Ambleside is a very convenient starting point for excursions, walking, cycling or driving, into all areas of the Lake District, situated as it is at the hub of the area's road system.

For illustrated notes on Ambleside's historical background, please visit our History page.

Where to Stay, Eat and Drink

The proliferation of guides, maps and books on the Lake District is the main reason for having to rebuild the British National Library, allegedly. There is a frighteningly long list of all types, from pretty picture books to walking guides to accommodation to literary to art. Lakeland is a publishers' paradise - sell 2000 hardbacks in 12 months for a quick buck then remainder the rest. Anyone wanting a reliable reference to what is good in the Lakes could do worse than buy A GOOD GUIDE TO THE LAKES, an annually updated version of what author Hunter Davies and his discerning team of locally based researchers think to be the best on offer. This includes much more than accommodation and is written by people who should know.

The WEB seems to be going down the book publishers road, spawning a proliferation of sites all claiming to be the best, most authoritative, official guide to the Lake District. But none beat Ambleside Online if it's Ambleside you want to know about! And quite a few of them rip off our texts, being either too lazy, too ill-informed or incapable of writing anything original themselves.

Ambleside OnLine uniquely lists every business in the Ambleside area, including all accommodation and catering establishments. To find bed and board, you can either go to our Accommodation pages, where all businesses are listed, many with display ads, web links and direct booking/enquiry facilities, or click here if you want the local Tourist Information Centre to make reservations for you.

For a broader view of what is on offer in the Lake District as a whole the Cumbria Tourist Board website is worth a look. Their accommodation listing covers the entire county but is limited to CTB members only. Lake District National Park Authority is a useful site, for background information on the aims and management of the Park.

What to do

This is a subject of some complexity. It depends on what you are. Some locals often wonder why anyone bothers to come, but they have long since taken their surroundings for granted.

Mainstream activities in the Lake District have an outdoor emphasis, combined with simple leisurely enjoyment of the magnificent scenery and its literary and artistic heritage. The area is justly famous as an escape for stressed out urban dwellers, who come to enjoy a little solitude as they walk the hills. Specialist shops, particularly in Ambleside, offer a welcome variation on High Street chains, while galleries and small museums allow quiet contemplation. The area is equally famous for its high quality mountaineering opportunities, being the centre of English rock climbing and the country's most popular upland walking area.

A good stay in Ambleside for the general visitor might include something of all these interests, combined with an occasional dinner in one of many high quality restaurants and a sampling of the vast selection of real ales available in the pubs. If you are a sober, contemplative, quiet sort of person who enjoys fine landscape, natural beauty and healthy exercise, you couldn't come to better place. If you are a bon viveur, you will not be disappointed in the standards and wide range of catering and accommodation available here. If you are a crag rat, you won't need telling about the great climbs of every class. If you just want a good time, relaxed atmosphere and a disco at night, we've got all that.

If the great outdoors is what you want, at local shops and info centres you can buy books and leaflets telling you how to get on to the fells (northern English hills/mountains). For a taste of Lakeland walking, have a look at our walks page. Mostly you don`t need leaflets, you just put one foot before the other in a forwards and upwards direction until the only next step is down. Then you will gaze in wonder at the spectacle below you and vow never to do it again - unless, that is, you become hooked.

At this point you will become a danger to the local community, because before long you will be so addicted to walking hills, even climbing crags, that you will want to buy a second home here and do some ill-paid local out of the chance of a first one. You may then eventually join a local environmental pressure group and complain when the District Council wants to build new starter homes for locals. Believe it, people do!

Ambleside, gateway to the famous Langdale valley, is also a major rock climbing centre. There is nothing made that you can't get here in the way of equipment and guidance.

Mountain Biking is trendy and popular and bikes are available for rent in Ambleside. This activity, which requires a level of fitness and stamina seldom apparent in the average tourist, has aroused controversy and there is regular conflict between walkers and bikers. This is usually due to bikers using footpaths (where they are not allowed) instead of bridle paths. They usually pretend they didn't know they weren't allowed on footpaths, or they didn't know it was only a footpath, and this makes the walkers even madder.

If you come in summer, Ambleside and district hosts some unique annual events, including Ambleside Sports (which includes wrestling, hound trailing and athletics), country shows, sheep dog trials and the famous Rushbearing ceremony. In spring and autumn, the talented members of Ambleside Players produce traditional amateur theatrical entertainment, and at all times you will find occasional musical recitals, often by well-known pianists, small orchestral groups and choirs. Keep an eye on our News page, which gives day-to day listings of what's on locally

What to Buy

Shopping in AmblesideTo repeat, Ambleside (recently dubbed "Anorak Capital of the World") is home to very few "High Street" chain stores. Instead, you will find an amazing variety of individual shops, some of them specialising in uniquely local products, including slate ornaments, and original or reproduction watercolours of the famously beautiful Lakeland landscape as well as original works by contemporary painters, sculptors and potters. And if you need outdoor clothing, wait till you get to Ambleside! At the last count there were 16 retail outlets specialising in the great outdoors, which means that you can probably find a better choice of outdoor clothing here than you can anywhere else. To support local craftspeople, look for quality gifts and mementos bearing the Made in Cumbria logo.

Getting Around
Despite all kinds of persuasion, cajoling and sometimes active discouragement of motorists by the local authorities, the car remains the ideal and most popular way of getting around the area, making it possible to stay in one place and make daily excursions. The Lake District contains a thousand destinations of interest, from the start of classic walks and climbs to its great houses, churches, galleries and museums. Ambleside is no more than one hour's drive away from any one of them. Outside the main urban centres, few of these destinations are adequately served by public transport, which is expensive and infrequent. Park & Ride schemes don't exist.

However, for the car-less and the car-haters, things are getting slowly better and it is possible to plan many enjoyable excursions by bus and on foot. And where you can go by car, you can also go by bike, if you like plenty of exhilarating hills and don't mind mixing it on narrow roads with the buses and the cars. Safer biking routes are being developed and maps are available locally. Go to our Transport page for transport links within and outside the county.

A lot of misinformation is issued about the weather in the Lake District. Generalised weather forecasts for the 'north west' of England are often wildly inaccurate for this area, where the weather pattern is heavily influenced by our mountains. Nevertheless, it can rain - a lot. But the Irish saying is true here too - if you don`t like the weather, wait a minute. It is very changeable, and although long periods of wet weather do occur, these are rare. Recent changes in global weather patterns seem to have favoured the Lake District with warmer, drier summers and mild winters. We are now a year-round tourist destination. For climate information, observations, regional forecasts go to Meteorological Office UK satellite weather maps and forecasts. For immediate local forecasts go to BBC 5-day forecast. Hill walkers and climbers should go to National Park Weather Service for expected felltop conditions, temperatures, cloudbase, etc.
To see what the weather is actually doing now (during daylight hours), see our webcam.
The best advice is not to let weather stop you. Get some basic waterproofs and enjoy one or two walks in the rain! There's always a pub not far away, where boots and anoraks are welcome, and probably a real fire in winter. And expect sunshine too. After rain, nothing is more beautiful than the lush valleys and the tumbling becks glinting in the sunlight! It is while the weather changes from cloudy to clear that the real drama of the Lakeland landscape can be experienced.

Five kinds of people live around here:
1. Those who were born here. These are all grand folk. They still have the vendetta and they have a bush telegraph which makes the internet look pathetic. They are rarely academic, but don`t let this fool you into thinking they are daft. Bred from a long tradition of survival in a hostile and isolated place, they just prefer to concentrate on the practicalities of life. There is no modern technology they cannot master. Also they will weigh you up in a trice and treat you with courtesy despite what they think of you.

2. Those who work in tourism. These are the ones who will take your money, and they include some from above and some tourists who wouldn't go home. They are like small businessmen everywhere. They always have a bad season and always buy a new car every year and go on at least one long-haul holiday. Within the community, however, they are generous to a fault. Ambleside is famous for its support of charities and these people are second to none in giving. They give away goods for prizes, they give donations, they give their precious time (out of main season). The jobs they provide are all we`ve got.

3. Those who came here to die. These are a mixture. They have time on their hands, if not on their side. Some are totally brilliant. They do voluntary work and the brainy ones join the University of the Third Age. Some of them are community minded. Others are very concerned to "protect" the area and do the National Park Authority's job for it. They derive their income from elsewhere and some of them would like tourism to contract to the point where they didn`t notice it, regardless of the effect on others' livelihoods. They campaign for olde worlde lamp posts and the restoration of dangerous cobbles, and they idealise the Lake District of 150 years ago when lots of locals were starving, emigrating and living till they were 40.

4. Tourists. These are the lifeblood of the town and we are glad they continue to arrive. We also wish they`d go away, such is the lot of those who can never call their territory their own. This contradiction causes us to have personality problems. Tourists are made very welcome except when they come in vast groups and all arrange to meet in the same tiny pub at the same time. We work very hard to give them what they like in the way of food, accommodation and things to take home. They sometimes ask silly questions, which makes our day. Like "Is this the ferry for the Isle of Man?" at the lake pier. They are all made very welcome, until they threaten to stay.

5. Students. These study education at the Ambleside campus of the University of Cumbria (previously St. Martins College, and Charlotte Mason College) and live in the second homes which have been converted into bedsits by their owners to pay the mortgage. Some work in pubs and cafés. Their nose and navel studs provoke comments like 'would you want that teaching your kids?' from locals who know from experience that some of them get to like Ambleside so much that they will remain here after their courses and try to get jobs teaching our children. They represent a welcome influx of fresh style and talent from outside the area.

For the interested outside observer, it is useful to remember that most of these groupings dislike each other intensely. If you imagine that you are going to find a haven here of peace and harmony among the tranquil valleys, forget it. Born and bred locals resent offcomers who prosper while they don't. Business interests resent the interference of the retired conservationists who try to dominate amenity groups and the local councils, in order to object to development. Retired conservationists hate everyone who commits the sacrilege of trying to promote tourism in their chosen paradise. Everybody smiles with one face at the tourists as they take their money, and smirks at them with the other as the rain pours down. So it's no different from where you live, unless you're holed up in a city and you don't even know what your neighbour looks like.

Some Issues
These are many and are mainly caused by the five categories of people above plus those who don`t live here but think they know what`s best for the Lake District. They really mean what`s best for what they think the Lake District should be and they sometimes forget about those who actually live here and need to make a living.
    Here are some issues:
  • overpriced housing due to holiday home market
  • high cost of living, due to high rates caused by inflated property values and lack of large discount retailers
  • no diversity of employment, due to draconian development restrictions, causing over-dependence on tourism and its usually low wage levels and working hours which disrupt family and social life, causing talented young people to emigrate.
  • Lack of adequate car parking, due to the National Park Authority's policy of making life difficult for motorists in case more come. (More still come.)
For a serious examination of these issues, read People in the Park, which argues that the National Parks Act discriminates against local residents.

Some Intrigues
These are only three of many fascinating imponderables:
  • Is it true that ewes are a temptation for virile shepherds in high and hidden places?
  • Does cock-fighting continue in lonely secret barns on wild dark nights?
  • Is it true that unlawful liasons (historically necessary in small isolated communities) still go on behind the closed doors of remote dwellings?
Regrettably, because of the insatiable desire of travel writers and promoters of tourism to turn every facet of Lakeland life into an Attraction, we cannot supply the answers to these questions. It is said, however, that the nearest thing yet to total chaos is Ambleside on Fathers' Day.

Some History
Ambleside's history goes back at least to the Romans, the Vikings (who gave us our local place names) and to Charles Dickens who had this to say in Household Words:
"Round Ambleside you will indeed find hills and waterfalls - decked with greasy sandwich papers and porter bottles, and the hills echo with the whistles of the Windermere steamers . . . brass bands play under your hotel windows, char-a-bancs, wagonettes and breaks of all colours rattle about with cargoes of tourists who have been `doing` some favourite round. Touts pester you in the streets and in the hotel coffee room you overhear a gentleman ask angrily "Why don`t they build an `ut on `elvellyn - they`ve got one on Snowdon.".

Dickens also made some rude comments about the apparently excessive drinking habits of the local people. The only thing that has changed is that there are more locals now. One theory is that this drinking is stress related, brought on by constant territorial invasion by tourists.

A popular misconception is that Ambleside has a solely rural past. It was in fact highly industrialised, involved heavily in the production of charcoal, used in smelting the iron ore of Furness and west Cumbria, then timber for the production of bobbins for the textile industry. It adopted water power at an early stage and later developed machine tool manufacture. Quarrying and mining were local industries, and quarrying continues to be, despite attempts by conservationists to stop it, an interesting case of blinkered thinking - we are forced to use local slate and stone for building.

For illustrated notes on Ambleside's historical background, please visit our History page.

The Ambleside Oral History Group has been recording interviews with local people since 1978, with memories of life as far back as 1885. The digital archive of interview transcripts is available and searchable online and a series of articles based on these, entitled 'The Way We Were' is also available.

Here are a few pictures of old Ambleside, which despite the pressures remains a most desirable place in which to live and work, with a fascinating past and present where the diversity, perversity, kindness, generosity and humour of its people never ceases to delight and amaze.
So visit Ambleside before you die, everyone else does!