The last time I visited the Lake District was on a hot August bank holiday weekend and I thought I was going to die. The roads—I suppose they were supposed to be roads—were a swamp of crawling RVs, poorly parked cars, cyclists, walkers, loiterers, dogs, and squirrels. Finally, I reached my destination in one piece. My nerves and wing mirror didn’t work.
Fast forward to this January. The heat was gone, but so were most of the people. My husband and I arrived at dusk and drove down empty lanes to reach Castlerigg just as the light was fading mystically around the stone circle. I took a deep, fresh breath and felt like my insides had been cleaned out in the spring. The car was also intact.
Visiting the Lake District in winter can be a less stressful, invigorating experience if you’re prepared to deal with the weather. But glamping there? It’s not the season for flimsy huts or yurts, no matter how many happy flags are strung on them.
However, glamping has evolved in recent years. Good insulation, wood burners and en-suite toilets stretch and civilize the concept. And in this day and age when honeypot spots are already packed during traditional holiday periods, winter visitors can find breathing space and owners may be able to increase their profits.
“Bookings and new openings are being targeted at longer season spaces,” 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 percent.”
It seems more of us are tempted into glamping in the off season. But is it kind of 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 and is gradually implementing more eco-practices – from a water treatment plant with reedbeds to geothermal heat pumps and a waste-free 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 its 20 employees remain employed even in the low season.
On our first night, we huddled in a burrow, a spacious burrow dug into a grassy bank. With the blinds open we had a view over caravans to the lake; with the blinds closed, it was like being locked in a wooden bunker. Extremely cosy. There was no bed, just a large platform with a mattress on which entire families could spread out their sleeping bags. We had to trudge to the communal block to shower, but we did have a toilet so at least there wouldn’t be a desperate overnight flight for that.
With rain pattering onto our picnic table, alfresco dining was not appealing, so we headed to the on-site bar instead. It’s a blessing to have a bar within stumbling distance, especially in winter, and even better when it feels like a proper old pub. The Quiet Bar is converted from a 17th century barn, with stone walls, open fire and 21st century insulation. We ordered pizza and local ales from the Tirril brewery and settled in for the evening.
After a dark, noiseless night in the bowels of the Nest, we finally peeked out and saw mizzle smearing the valley – not the weather for a long walk. So while we breakfasted on bacon sandwiches under the canopy of the Quiet Bite cafe, we formulated a plan for humid days and settled on Lowther Castle (lowthercastle.org; entry from £9, under three free), a small drive away.
As a homeless ruin, Lowther isn’t entirely weatherproof, but when the rain was at its heaviest we explored the indoor exhibit, which chronicles the story from the Viking Age settlement to the 19th-century pile. It also chronicles its partial demolition in the 1950s – a move that paved the way for the ambitious conservation underway on the estate today.
The landscaped gardens were hibernating but still impressive, and we eventually discovered the huge adventure playground. “It’s for adults and kids alike!” the ticket lady had said. There was no one else around, so we scrambled around, free to channel our inner kids with no actual kids in the way—an off-season treat.
Then we got to the estate’s hiking trails, which are good options for sub-optimal weather, lower level and clearly marked. The Lowther Castle Loop took us along the swirling river, through the pretty village of Askham and up to Askham Fell. It brought wind, sun, rain, rainbows and a brief splash over a flooded path – a safe, exciting dose of Lakeland in winter.
Something delicious was also waiting for us at the Quiet Site. We had been upgraded from our Burrow to a Cabin, a well-designed couple’s retreat overlooking Little Mell Fell, with a real bed and shower. The Burrow was cozy, but the Cabin was a nice step up. Dear, it had a small sofa and a dining table. Since winter was not conducive to lounging on the deck, it was good to be able to sit comfortably inside.
Our kitchenette was limited, but the microwave was fine for heating up our fancy ready meals bought from nearby Rheged (rheged.com), an above-average gas station, mall and movie theater run by the same family as nearby Tebay ( perpetual winner of ‘Britain’s best services’).
We knew traveling in winter was a gamble – you never know what kind of day you’ll get. For us it paid off: the next morning we woke up on a brisk winter day, without a cloud in the sky.
The Ullswater Way, a 20-mile loop around the lake, passes right past the Quiet Site, so we picked it up and headed anti-clockwise into the miraculous morning. The cold made me cry, but it could have been for joy: the pastel dawn, the glint of icy fresh grass and snowy peaks, the prowling deer, the golden explosion when the sun finally broke through the eastern hills, and the rusty bracken. We walked to Aira Force, the waterfall blowing, brimming with rain. Then we took a detour around Glencoyne Head to reach Glenridding, with the mighty white ridges of Helvellyn looming above.
Fortunately, the Ullswater Steamer – which has been cruising the district’s second largest lake since 1859 – runs all year round (ullswater-steamers.co.uk; fares from £8 one way, children under three free).
We drove the length of the lake from Glenridding to Pooley Bridge, between the glowing slopes – although it was too early to see the daffodils that so inspired Wordsworth here. When the crew member dropped the gangway so we could disembark, he grinned, “I have the best office in the world.”
We had just enough daylight to walk back to our cabin via another stretch of Ullswater Way. Short days limit activities; the flip side was plenty of time to relax in our cozy home before avoiding the tiny kitchen for Askham’s Queen’s Head (queensheadaskham.co.uk). This 17th-century coaching inn is owned by the Lowther family, who also own Michelin-starred Askham Hall (askhamhall.co.uk). It comes as no surprise, then, that the ‘fancy pubgrubbers’ menu was excellent; Roughfell’s haggis wrapped lamb, eaten by the open fire, was perfect for a January night.
On our last morning we would go stand up paddleboarding (SUP) on Ullswater (ullswaterpaddleboarding.co.uk, sessions from £40pp). “It will be atmospheric!” I tried to reassure the man, who had never paddled 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 ‘winds above safe operating limits’ our trip to the top of the lake was cancelled. Oh yeah. Our accommodation had been seasonal, we planned the rain, made the most of the sun. But Mother Nature had the last word.
Winter glamping survival guide
Do your research
Depending on the setup, your glamping hideaway may not have its own bathroom or kitchen; you may need to walk a short distance to community facilities or go outside to a composting toilet. If so, be prepared: bring an umbrella, a waterproof bag, a flashlight, maybe a poncho, maybe even a pair of Crocs. Please also note that the on-site cafes, bars or activities may not be available outside of peak season.
While balconies, barbecues, sun loungers and picnic tables are nice additions to any glamping stay, chances are you won’t be using them much in the winter. Look for accommodations with large windows so you can enjoy the beautiful view while staying cozy inside. Also choose places that have enough space to eat, sit and lounge comfortably indoors.
Plan for rain
It pays to have some weatherproof distractions on hand for those days when it’s too miserable to leave the nest. Don’t forget that the sun sets before 5pm, so you’ll have long, dark evenings to fill, too. Pack board games and quiz books or stop by a thrift store along the way to pick up a jigsaw puzzle (which you can donate back before you head home). Some glamp sites have even stocked their shelters with extras like playing cards, crafts, portable speakers, and musical instruments.
Come with kit
In the winter, of course, you want more layers, including waterproof jackets and pants, thick socks, and warm gloves. But you’ll also want to carry spares for when your gear inevitably gets muddy and soaked. If you’ve picked a particularly ‘cosy’ (i.e. small) cabin or pod, you may not have much room to hang things to dry – best to bring more than you think you’ll need, just in case .
Look at the surroundings
It’s nice to glamp in the middle of nowhere and fill your days with bush 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 have options if it’s too cold or grim outside. Be sure to do your research before you go – many museums and mansions have limited hours during the winter or even close altogether.
Head here to find 10 of the best winter glamping sites.