The last time I visited the Lake District was a hot bank holiday weekend in August and I thought I might die. The roads – I assume they were roads – were dominated by crawling motor homes, badly parked cars, cyclists, hikers, dawdlers, dogs and squirrels. I finally made it to my destination in one piece. My nerves and mirror wings were not.
Fast forward to this January. The heat was gone, but so were most of the people. My husband and I arrived in the gloaming, driving empty lanes to Castlereagh just as the light mysteriously circled the stone circle. I took a deep, fresh breath and felt my insides spring clean. The car was also safe.
Visiting the Lake District in winter can be less stressful, and rejuvenating, if you’re willing to work around the weather. But glamping there? It’s hardly the season for flimsy huts or yurts, no matter how much delightful bunting is draped over them.
However, glamping has developed over the last few years. Proper insulation, wood burning stoves and en-suite bathrooms extend and civilize the concept. And, in this age when honeymoon spots are already full during traditional vacation periods, winter is when visitors can find breathing space, and when owners can increase profits.
“Bookings and new openings are being directed towards spaces with a longer season,” agrees Alice Cottingham of glamping specialists Canopy & Stars (canopyandstars.co.uk). “Income for cabins and treehouses – most of which are open year-round – has doubled since 2019 and there was a 70 percent increase in bookings for November and December 2022.”
It seems that more of us are tempted to glamp in the low season. But is it any fun?
We’d come to the Quiet Site, an award-winning holiday park above Ullswater, to find out. It has been run by Daniel Holder for 20 years, gradually implementing more ecological practices – from a reed water treatment plant to ground source heat pumps and a zero-waste shop. The various glamping units he has installed are triple insulated and sustainably heated, so they can stay open all year round; this means that their 20 staff members remain employed in the low season as well.
On our first night we went into a hole, a large hollow dug into a grass bank. With the blinds open we had a view over caravans to the lake; with the blinds closed, it was like being sealed in a wooden bunker. Very comfortable. There was no bed, just a large platform with a mattress top where entire families could spread their sleeping bags. We had to schlepp to the community block for a shower, but we had a loo, so at least there would be no desperate midnight dash for that.
With the rain pouring down on our picnic table, the alfresco dining didn’t look appealing, so we went to the on-site bar instead. Having a bar far away is a big help, especially in winter, and even better when it feels like a proper old pub. The Quiet Bar has been converted from a 17th century barn, with stone walls, a log fire and 21st century insulation. We ordered a pizza and a local Tirril Brewery ale, and settled in for the evening.
After a dark and noiseless night in the bowels of the Burrow’s, we finally saw that we would see fog blanketing the valley – not the weather for a long walk. So as we breakfasted on bacon sandwiches in the shade of the Quiet Bite cafe, we put together a wet day plan, settling on Lowther Castle (lowthercastle.org; entry from £9, three free), a short drive away.
As a roofless ruin, Lowther is not completely protected from the weather, but during the heaviest rain we explored the indoor exhibition, which details its history from a Viking-era settlement to a 19th-century pile. It also accounts for its partial demolition in the 1950s – a move that paved the way for the ambitious conservation that the estate is undergoing today.
The landscaped gardens were wintry but still impressive, and eventually we discovered the huge adventure playground. “It’s for adults as well as kids!” said the ticket lady. No one else was around, so we wandered around for a while, free to channel our inner children without any children in the way – off-season manners.
We then hit the estate’s walking paths, which are good options for sub-optimal weather, being at a lower level and clearly marked. The Lowther Castle Loop took us along the churning river, through the pretty village of Askham and up to Askham Fell. It delivered wind, sun, rain, rainbow and a short splosh around an underwater path – a safe, exhilarating dose of Lakeland in winter.
There was a party waiting for us back at the Quiet Location, too. We upgraded from our Borche to a Cabin, a well-designed couple’s bolthole overlooking Little Mell Fell, with a proper bed and shower. The Burrow was comfortable, but the Cabin was a beautiful step up. Better, there was a small sofa and a dining table. As the winter was not conducive to sitting on the deck, it was good to be able to sit comfortably inside.
Our kitchen was limited, but the fine bought a microwave for reheating our ready meals at nearby Rheged (rheged.com), a cut above service station, shopping hub and cinema, run by the same family as nearby Tebay (perennial winner of ‘best services in Britain’).
We knew winter travel was a gamble – you never know what kind of day you’re going to get. For us, it paid off: the next morning we woke up to a winter break day, without a cloud in the sky.
The Ullswater Way, a 20 mile loop around the lake, runs right past the Quiet Site, so we picked it up, going anticlockwise to a miraculous morning. I had a cold, but it could have come with joy: the pastel dawn, the glistening of the frost-crisped grass and tops with a dusting of snow, the browsing deer, the golden burst when the sun finally broke through the walls east, burning rust. fern We walked to Aira Force, the waterfall running rampant, brimful of rain. Then we wandered round the Head of Glenconna to Glen Ridding, the great white ridges of Helvellyn looming above.
Happily, the Ullswater Steamer – which has been plying the area’s second largest lake since 1859 – runs all year round (ullswater-steamers.co.uk; fares from £8 one-way, triples free).
We followed it along the lake, from Glen Ridding to Pooley Bridge, rising between the bright slopes – though it was too early to see the daffodils that inspired Wordsworth here. As the crew released the plane for us to disembark, he laughed: “I have the best office in the world.”
We had just enough daylight to walk, via another section of the Ullswater Way, back to our Cabin. Short days limit activities; on the flip side there was plenty of time to relax in our snug home before retiring from his tiny kitchen to Queen’s Head Askham (queensheadaskham.co.uk). This 17th-century inn is owned by the Lowther family, who also own Michelin-starred Askham Hall (askamhall.co.uk). No wonder, then, that the ‘posh pub grubbers’ menu was excellent; Roughfell lamb wrapped in witch hazel, eaten by the open fire, was perfect for a January night.
Our last morning was to go stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) on Ullswater (ullswaterpaddleboarding.co.uk, sessions from £40pp). “It will be atmospheric!” I tried to make sure that the husband, who had never SUPed before and, for some strange reason, did not think that the winter in the Lakes was the perfect time to learn. He may have had a point. We will never know – due to ‘wind above safe operating limits’, our lake top attempt was cancelled. Ah well. Our accommodation was season-proof, we planned around the rain, we made the most of the sunshine. But Mother Nature had the last word.
Free winter survival guide,
Do your research
Depending on your arrangement, the glamping hideaway may not have an en-suite bathroom or kitchen; you may need to walk a short distance to community facilities or drop in to the composting cottage. If so, be prepared: take an umbrella, a waterproof bag, a torch, a poncho, maybe even a pair of Crocs. Also note that cafes, bars or activities may not be available on site outside of peak season.
While balconies, barbecues, deck chairs and picnic tables are great additions to any glamping retreat, chances are you won’t get much use out of them in the winter. Look for accommodation options with large windows, so you can enjoy the beautiful views while staying cozy indoors. Also, choose places that have enough space to comfortably eat, sit and be indoors.
Plan for the rain
It’s well worth having some weatherproof distractions up your sleeve on those days when it’s too bad to leave the nest. Remember, the sun will be down before 5pm, so you’ll also have long dark nights to fill. Pack board games and quiz books or swing by a charity shop on the way for a jigsaw puzzle (which you can return before you go home). Some glamping sites even have extras like playing cards, crafts, portable speakers and musical instruments.
Come with equipment
In winter you’ll want more layers, of course, including waterproof jackets and trousers, thick socks and warm gloves. But you’ll also want to bring spare parts when your gear inevitably gets muddy and sodden. If you’ve chosen a very compact (ie tiny) shed or pod, you may not have much space to hang things to dry – you’d better bring more than you think you’ll need with you, just in case.
See the local area
It’s nice to glamp out in the middle of nowhere, filling your days with desert walks, but in winter it might be better to be closer to other attractions such as National Trust properties, antique shops and market town cafes – filling That way you have options if it’s too cold or too gloomy outside. Make sure you do your research before you go – many museums and stately homes have limited opening hours during the winter or even close completely.
For 10 of the best winter glamping sites, head here.