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England’s Lake District is one of the few places in Britain where you cannot only live among mountains but also, on occasion, buy one.
In 2014, you could have picked up Blencathra, a dramatic 2,850ft-peak at the northern edge of the Lake District National Park, for £1.75m. Its owners, the Lowther family, Earls of Lonsdale, were hit with a £9m inheritance tax bill following the death of James, the 7th earl, in 2006. They decided to sell the family mountain.
In the end Blencathra was withdrawn from sale. The money was found elsewhere and the mountain — which Alfred Wainwright, the fell-walking guide author, once called “one of the grandest objects in Lakeland” — remained in family hands, albeit with public access.
Lakeland — more commonly, the Lakes — is world-renowned thanks to the inspiration its landscape has provided for poets and authors. William Wordsworth’s former home in Grasmere remains a place of pilgrimage.
“It is one of the few areas I cover that has international interest,” says Mark Holden of Savills, who works across the north of England. “We have just had a Chinese guy looking at something. It also has national appeal. Potential buyers for one [property] this week came from Cornwall, Kent and Oxford.”
The Lake District National Park covers 900 sq miles and has 16 major bodies of water, the largest being Windermere. It has more than 200 fells, or mountains — defined as any hill more than 2,000ft (609.6 metres) above sea level.
Yet there was a scare for fell walkers last month when the Ordnance Survey, the organisation that maps the UK, hinted it might raise the point from which it measures land height, thanks to rising sea levels. If it does, it would threaten some peaks’ mountain status. Cumbria’s Thack Moor, which only acquired that status in 2013, is looking precarious as it currently only clears the bar by just 2cm. Modest fells in the park, such as Heron Pike, which is less than 2.4 metres above the current threshold, may also be in danger.
Any effect on residents is likely to be slim. The national park is three times the size of New York City but has just 22,930 dwellings, according to the park authority, and about 15 per cent of those are holiday or second homes. The towns of Windermere, Ambleside and Bowness are the most popular locations for buyers. Smart houses on the eastern shore of Windermere are especially coveted thanks to their splendid views of the setting sun over the peak of the Old Man of Coniston.
On the western shore, near Ambleside, Savills is selling a five-bedroom house built in 1870 for £6m. The property, called Balla Wray, comes with a three-bedroom cottage and includes the lease on a boathouse and jetty.
Further into the Lakes, homes tend to be converted farmhouses and barns. The slightly greater distance from transport links is rewarded with wide, rural views. Penruddock, a small village near Ullswater, has views of Helvellyn, one of the most picturesque peaks. A traditional six-bedroom longhouse, with parts dating back to the 17th century, is on sale through Savills for £1.39m.
Holden says buyers in these areas tend to be older and enjoy walking and hiking. There are some notable climbs, such as the Via Ferrata at Honister, which follows an old miners’ track above a chasm. There are plenty of opportunities for sailing and kayaking too, and a fine golf course at Windermere. “The motivation is walking and it is one of the prettiest parts of the country,” says Holden. “Many come on holiday then decide to buy a second or third home.”
Those who do come will find Cumbria is home to four Michelin-starred restaurants: L’Enclume at Cartmel (which has two), the Gilpin Hotel near Windermere, the Forest Side at Grasmere and The Samling in Ambleside.
Keswick has the well-regarded Theatre by the Lake, which has a busy programme of local and touring productions. Yet buyers, especially those from big cities, should be clear about what they want. The Lakes can get rather quiet — you’d be hard pushed to find a 24-hour supermarket.
“It is also a wet place,” says Andrew Kneale of agents Fine & Country. In fact Seathwaite, in the heart of the Lakes, is the wettest place in England, with more than two metres of rainfall a year. This can cause serious problems: the area was badly affected by floods in December 2015. Agents strongly advise any prospective buyers to check flood insurance before they commit.
“Some people come for a complete lifestyle change,” says Kneale. With working hours becoming ever more flexible, some of his buyers come not to retire but to commute part of the week to London or other UK cities.
Spencer Hannah and his wife Diane moved from Manchester to Kendal 13 years ago after first buying a holiday home. They started their own design business, Herdy, which makes and sells sheep-related Lakeland products. “We would never have created the brand if we hadn’t moved,” he says. “It’s a great incubator for creative ideas.”
He says the influx of working people has had a positive impact on the Lakes, which has a history of over-relying on state benefits and a lack of jobs for young people. “We need to protect what is here, but we need economic regeneration too,” he says. “The area needs to be able to support itself.”
House price growth in Cumbria trails the UK average — figures from Knight Frank show prices in Cumbria grew 3.3 per cent year on year in August, against 8.4 per cent for the UK as a whole — Kneale is confident of a bounce following the vote for Brexit. With a weakened pound, he says, holiday or retirement home budgets will go further in the Lakes than in Spain or Portugal. There is a far sight more rain, though.
● Windermere is three hours and 15 minutes by train from London. Private and charter aircraft can use Carlisle airport 20 miles north of the Lakes
● The Lake District attracts more than 17m visitors a year
● House prices in Cumbria are still 4.5 per cent beneath their pre-crash peak in 2007
What you can buy for . . .
£280,000 A traditional slate-roofed, two-bedroom cottage in a picturesque village
£1m A six-bedroom former farmhouse with lake and mountain views
£3m A stately home with attached cottage, paddock and indoor pool
Andrew Bounds is the FT’s north of England correspondent
More listings at propertylistings.ft.com
Main photograph: Getty Images