National park and ride: Low-carbon breaks in the Lakes
Nigel Thompson uses an electric train, car and bike on a green trip to the Lake District
Wordsworth may well have wandered lonely as a cloud. But if the Cumbrian poet had done his misty meanderings around the Lake District in the early 21st century rather than 200 years previously, it might have been a cloud of petrol fumes the daffodil-dabbler encountered.
England’s biggest National Park – some 885 square miles of utter joy – has a problem. Too many cars. In short, it’s a victim of its own success.
The creation of the National Park in 1951 has, of course, inspired millions of visitors over the years, drawn by the timeless beauty of the fells and lakes.
And around 87% of the 16 million tourists a year arrive by car, choking the narrow roads and bringing the risk of pollution from exhaust fumes.
So, in a £6.9million, four-year initiative, the GoLakes tourist board has started a scheme to get the visitors out of their cars, into a low-emission vehicle, or on to public transport and bikes.
Not ordinary bikes, mind… but electric bikes that give the part-time pedal pusher some much-needed help up the hills. So, to join in the eco enterprise, I headed to the Lake District last autumn with the firm intention of steering clear of a car powered by the internal combustion engine.
That journey from my home in Essex began with a walk to the station, an electric train into London, the Tube to Euston station, and an electric train out of London to the Lakes.
And that Virgin Trains Pendolino service to Oxenholme is especially green too, as it is equipped with regenerative braking, which means that every time the driver applies the brakes, electricity is returned to the national grid.
Consequently, Virgin Pendolino trains generate enough electricity each year to charge 4.5 million mobile phones.
On arriving in Oxenholme, there would of course be no using a taxi to get to my accommodation in Windermere. A short train ride – diesel, but still public transport – saw me to the Cumbrian town’s station then a 20-minute walk brought me to the delightful Rum Doodle B&B. The bed part was a lovely four-poster and the breakfast part was good too. It was named and styled after a 1950s spoof mountaineering book, The Ascent of Rum Doodle, which I bought on Amazon and it is indeed very amusing.
As was the witty, wry commentary from the crew on a boat trip around Lake Windermere from neighbouring Bowness-on-Windermere that afternoon.
It was a glorious autumn day and the lake was mirror calm as we chugged past various sights including the unusual, circular house on Belle Isle. It was £7.20 very enjoyably spent.
But the purpose of my trip was to test the GoLakes options, so the next morning I made an early start to catch a bus to Ambleside – where there was time for a quick wander around a very pleasant town – and then another bus on to Grasmere. Here, I headed to the Wordsworth Hotel and Spa, having reserved an electric bike.
The Giant machine is a sturdy beast and comes with two battery packs so you would probably be good for at least 30 miles. There are three settings – economy, normal or sport – which offer 25%, 50% and 75% power assistance.
So basically on the lowest, most frugal setting you do 75% of the work and the motor chips in with 25%. On the steeper roads of the Lake District – and there are plenty of those! – you really do need the highest setting.
I had reserved an electric Renault Twizy car for £10 an hour at the Langdale Estate Hotel and Spa in Elterwater and the direct route there meant tackling the Red Bank road with its brutal 25% incline.
Even with the battery going with the full 75% assistance it was eventually more than I could manage and I had to get off and push. Still, coasting on the other side of the hill to Elterwater soothed my thighs, as the bikes are heavy and even pushing one up a 25% slope is hard work.
At the Langdale, I met Andy Dawson, the grounds manager who was getting my car ready, and Dan Visser, the marketing boss who is on the GoLakes committee and is one of the driving forces behind the electric car initiative.
The Twizy is a small two-seater – one behind the other – and there’s no glass in the side windows, so you need a coat on a cool day. The range between charges is about 60 miles and, as with the electric bikes, GoLakes has created a network of charging points around the National Park.
In an emergency you could simply stop at someone’s house and ask for a plug. Some people have been known to do that.
So what’s the £6,690 Twizy like to drive? In short, fantastic fun. It is light, manoeuvrable, surprisingly nippy and virtually silent, which is very strange at first. But that silence means that as you are whizzing around the lakes and fells you hear the sound of sheep, birds and sometimes just the sound of silence. It’s wonderful.
I pushed the Twizy hard, tackling a steep, hairpin pass with no problem at all.
On the instrument panel there is an indicator which shows how much you are draining the battery and, conversely, when you are coasting downhill it displays the charge which is then being returned to it. After zipping around for an hour and a half I still had plenty of charge and if time had permitted I’d have whizzed about for another 90 minutes.
But it would soon be getting dark and I did not want to tackle Red Bank at night – a wise decision as the damp hill was tricky to descend even in diminishing daylight as I gingerly inched down.
Back at Grasmere, as I neared the Wordsworth Hotel to return the bike, I notched up a GoLakes electric bike first – a puncture.
Luckily it was only 200 yards from the hotel, as wheeling the bike with a flat tyre was a real effort. Once the staff at the Wordsworth had worked out how to process the flat-tyre paperwork, I headed back to Ambleside on an open-top service bus, which really blew away the cobwebs. At Ambleside there was time for a couple of locally brewed beers before catching my bus back to Windermere, packing my kit ready for the morning train back home and having a pleasant pub meal at the Elleray.
In the spirit of an ecofriendly trip to the Lake District I had a salad… plenty of greens, you see.