The last time I visited the Lake District was a hot August bank holiday weekend and I thought I might die. The roads – I assume they were supposed to be roads – were a slough of crawling motorhomes, badly parked cars, cyclists, hikers, dawdlers, dogs and squirrels. I did finally make it to my destination in one piece. My nerves and wing mirror did not.
Fast forward to this January. The heat was gone, but likewise most of the people. My husband and I arrived in the gloaming, driving empty lanes to reach Castlerigg just as the light faded mystically around the stone circle. I took a deep, fresh breath and felt like my innards had been spring-cleaned. The car was also intact.
Visiting the Lake District in winter can be a less-stressful, revivifying thing, 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 cheerful bunting is strung on them.
However, glamping has developed over the past few years. Proper insulation, wood-burning stoves and en-suite loos are stretching and civilising the concept. And, in this age when honeypot spots are already full to capacity during traditional holiday periods, winter is when visitors can find breathing space, and when owners can potentially increase profits.
“Bookings and new openings are being directed towards spaces that have a longer season,” agrees Alice Cottingham of glamping specialists Canopy & Stars (canopyandstars.co.uk). “Revenue for cabins and treehouses – most of which are open year round – has doubled since 2019 and bookings for November and December 2022 were up 70 per cent.”
It seems more of us are tempted by glamping in low season. But is it any fun?
We’d come to the Quiet Site, a multi-award winning holiday park above Ullswater, to find out. Daniel Holder has been running it for 20 years, gradually implementing more eco practices – from a reed-bed water treatment plant to ground-source heat pumps and a zero-waste shop. The various glamping units he’s installed are triple insulated and sustainably heated, so can remain open year-round; this means his 20 staff remain employed in the low-season, too.
On our first night we huddled into a Burrow, a spacious den dug into a grassy bank. With the blinds open we had views over caravans to the lake; with the blinds closed, it was like being sealed in a wooden bunker. Supremely cosy. There was no bed, rather a large mattress-topped platform where whole families can spread their sleeping bags. We had to schlepp to the communal block for a shower, but we did have a loo, so at least there’d be no desperate midnight dash for that.
With rain pattering on our picnic table, dining alfresco wasn’t appealing, so we headed to the on-site bar instead. It’s a boon to have a bar in stumbling distance, especially in winter, and even better when it feels like a proper old pub. The Quiet Bar was converted from a 17th-century barn, with stone walls, log fire and 21st-century insulation. We ordered pizza and local Tirril Brewery ales, and settled in for the evening.
After a dark, noiseless night in the Burrow’s bowels, we eventually peeped out to see mizzle smearing the valley - not the weather for a long walk. So while breakfasting on bacon sandwiches under the awning of the Quiet Bite cafe, we formulated a damp-day plan, settling on Lowther Castle (lowthercastle.org; entry from £9, under-threes free), a short drive away.
As a roofless ruin, Lowther isn’t entirely weather-proof, but when the rain was heaviest we explored the indoor exhibition, which details its story from Viking-era settlement to 19th-century pile. It also chronicles its partial demolition in the 1950s – a move that paved the way for the ambitious conservation underway at the estate today.
The landscaped gardens were hibernating but still impressive, and eventually we discovered the huge adventure playground. “It’s for adults as well as kids!” the ticket lady had said. There was no one else around, so we clambered around for a bit, free to channel our inner children without any actual children in the way – an off-season treat.
Then we hit the estate’s walking trails, which are good options for sub-optimal weather, being lower level and clearly marked. The Lowther Castle Loop took us along the churning river, through the handsome village of Askham and up onto Askham Fell. It delivered wind, sun, rain, rainbows and a short splosh around a flooded path – a safe, exhilarating dose of Lakeland in the winter.
A treat awaited us back at the Quiet Site, too. We’d upgraded from our Burrow to a Cabin, a well-designed couple’s bolthole looking up at Little Mell Fell, with a proper bed and shower. The Burrow was cosy, but the Cabin was a lovely step up. Best, it had a small sofa and dining table. With winter not conducive to lounging on the deck, it was good to be able to sit comfortably inside.
Our kitchenette was limited, but the microwave fine for reheating our posh ready meals, bought 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 ‘Britain’s best services’).
We knew that winter travel was a gamble – you don’t know what sort of day you’ll get. For us, it paid off: the next morning we woke to a brisk winter’s day, with not 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, heading anticlockwise into the miraculous morning. The cold made me weep, but it could have been from joy: the pastel dawn, the shimmer of frost-crisp grass and snow-dusted tops, the browsing deer, the golden explosion when the sun finally breached the eastern fells, igniting the rusty bracken. We walked to Aira Force, the waterfall running rampant, brimful of rain. Then we detoured around Glencoyne Head to reach Glenridding, the mighty white ridges of Helvellyn looming above.
Happily, the Ullswater Steamer – which has been plying the district’s second-largest lake since 1859 – runs year-round (ullswater-steamers.co.uk; fares from £8 one-way, under-threes free).
We rode it the length of the lake, from Glenridding to Pooley Bridge, surging between the glowing slopes – though too early to see the daffodils that so inspired Wordsworth here. As the crewman dropped the gangplank for us to disembark, he grinned: “I’ve got the best office in the world.”
We had just enough daylight to walk, via another section of Ullswater Way, back to our Cabin. Short days do limit activities; the flip side was plenty of time to relax in our snug home before eschewing its little kitchen for Askham’s Queen’s Head (queensheadaskham.co.uk). This 17th-century inn belongs to the Lowther family, who also own Michelin-starred Askham Hall (askhamhall.co.uk). No surprise, then, that the ‘posh pub grubbers’ menu was excellent; haggis-wrapped Roughfell lamb, eaten by the open fire, was perfect for a January night.
On our final morning we were due to go stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) on Ullswater (ullswaterpaddleboarding.co.uk, sessions from £40pp). “It will be atmospheric!” I attempted to assure the husband, who’d never SUPed before and, for some strange reason, didn’t think winter in the Lakes was the ideal time to learn. He may have had a point. We’ll never know – due to ‘wind above safe operating limits’, our lake-top foray was cancelled. Ah well. Our accommodation had been season-proof, we’d planned around rain, made the most of the sunshine. But Mother Nature had the last word.
Winter glamping survival guide
Do your research
Depending on the set-up, your glamping hideaway might not have an en-suite bathroom or kitchen; you might have to walk a short distance to communal facilities or pop outside to a composting loo. If so, be prepared: take an umbrella, a waterproof bag, a torch, maybe a poncho, perhaps even a pair of Crocs. Also be aware that on-site cafes, bars or activities might not be available outside of peak season.
Scope out space
While balconies, barbecues, deckchairs and picnic tables are lovely additions to any glamping retreat, chances are you won’t use them much in the winter. Look for accommodation options that have big windows, so you can enjoy the fine views while staying cosy inside. Also, choose places that have enough space to comfortably eat, sit and laze about indoors.
Plan for rain
It pays to have some weather-proof distractions up your sleeve for the days it’s too miserable to leave the nest. Remember, the sun will be down before 5pm, so you’ll have long, dark evenings to fill, too. Pack board games and quiz books or swing by a charity shop en route to grab a jigsaw puzzle (which you can donate back before you head home). Some glampsites even stock their hideaways with extras like playing cards, crafts, portable speakers and musical instruments.
Come with kit
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 spares for when your kit inevitably gets muddy and sodden. If you’ve picked an especially ‘cosy’ (ie tiny) hut or pod, you might not have much space to hang things out to dry – best to bring more than you think you’ll need, just in case.
Look to the local area
It’s nice to glamp out in the middle of nowhere, filling your days with wilderness walks, but in winter it might be better to be closer to other attractions such as National Trust properties, antique shops and cafe-filled market towns. That way you’ve got options if it’s too cold or grim outside. Just be sure to do your research before you go – many museums and stately homes operate limited opening hours over winter or even close completely.