At the Bend of the River – Keswick

Keswick is a vibrant market town in the Northern Lake District. Set on the shores of Derwent Water, it has long been associated with famous poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. Today, Keswick is a major tourist centre featuring a variety of conventional and unusual Lake District attractions.

History of Keswick

Although there’s detailed evidence of prehistoric occupation in the area surrounding Keswick, the first recorded mention of the town came in 13th century when Edward I granted it its market charter. The name ‘Keswick’ is thought by many to derive from the Old English word ‘Kesewik’, which means ‘farm where cheese is made’. However, some scholars believe the town’s name to be of Norse origin, meaning ‘Kell’s place at the bend of the river’.

The latter theory seems slightly more plausible given the strong Nordic influence over the region. Numerous towns feature Scandinavian naming conventions such as ‘thwaite’ and ‘keld (translated as ‘clearing’ and ‘spring’) with Braithwaite and Bassenthwaite among the most notable examples.

Prehistoric Times

The visitor will find a variety of prehistoric landmarks around Keswick which vividly illustrate the region’s fascinating history.

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Located on the outskirts of town, this famous monument comprises 38 large stones which stand up to 10 feet, with an entrance that aligns perfectly with the midwinter sunset. It’s considered to be the UK’s earliest stone circle, dating back some 5000 years. The site been officially protected since 1883 and is managed by the National Trust and English Heritage.

Threlkeld Settlement

Threlkheld Settlement is situated a few miles south-east of Keswick near the village of Threlkeld. This was at one time a major settlement dating back to the Bronze Age consisting of seven circular stone huts, livestock pens, a well and two paths that linked them all together. Fifty cairns once stood on the fringes of the site although nothing remains today.

White Raise Cairn

Further evidence of prehistoric human settlements can be found at White Raise Cairn which features a collection of standing stones – 19th century excavations also unearthed human remains there. A track runs nearby leading to the Cop Stone – a glacial rock that’s about a metre thick which forms part of yet another ring cairn.

Cistercian Acquisition

Following the Nordic colonisation of the 10th century, large swathes of land in and around Keswick were acquired by Cistercian monks who used it for sheep farming before the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-15th century.

During the 16th century copper mining became the region’s main industry, brought about by the production of firearms and the development of warships under the reign of Elizabeth I. Despite the decline of local copper mining, quarry mining continued well into the 1980s.

Black Lead Mining

‘Black lead’ was also discovered in the area which we now know as graphite. Although originally utilised to brand sheep, it was eventually used to create pencils – this particular industry took off and led to the creation of the UK’s first pencil factory in 1832.

Tourism in Keswick

Tourism is now Keswick’s main industry with visitors flocking from far and wide to experience the charm and character of this pretty little Cumbrian market town.

Its status as a tourist attraction began in the 18th century and was helped by the connections with famous writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

Joseph Turner and John Constable are also synonymous with the town thanks to their beautiful paintings of the dramatic landscapes surrounding Keswick.

But it was the dramatic Lake District landscape that proved the biggest pull for Georgian holiday-makers. Visitor numbers further increased with the improvement of local roads in to Keswick as well as the construction of the Penrith railway line between Cockermouth and Keswick.

Keswick, Lake District

Keswick Today

Today, Keswick is a vibrant, thriving tourist town. Despite this reputation, it retains a provincial charm that’s often lost when a location becomes a haven for holiday-makers.

Nestling between Derwent Water and the Skiddaw Mountains, the town boasts a wide variety of gift-shops, pubs, top restaurants and tearooms.

Its centre is dominated by Victorian white and stone houses such as those found at Blencathra Street.

Despite offering reasonably good travel links, with buses running to Cockermouth, Penrith and Windermere, Keswick is best reached by car.

Keswick Visitor Attractions and Activities

Keswick and the surrounding region feature a large collection of notable visitor attractions and outdoor activities. Here’s a run-down of the most popular things to see and do in and around Keswick.

Keswick Museum

Those of you looking to learn more about the rich and eventful history of the region should visit Keswick Museum. It exhibits more than 20,000 artefacts including Bronze-age tools and weapons.

There’s also an extensive geology collection that comprises more than 3000 items such as rocks, fossils and minerals extracted from the local area. It’s one of the largest assemblages of its kind in the UK with donations made by famed geologists such as Edgar Shackleton and John Ruskin.

The museum’s National History collection is also noteworthy, consisting of local and regional specimens including freshwater marine shells, fish, reptiles, butterflies and insects.

The Puzzling Place

The Puzzling Place is another popular visitor attraction that’s great fun for both young and old. Located in the heart of Keswick, it features an array of mind-bending puzzles, gadgets, holograms and visual curiosities.

The Anti-Gravity Room is one of its highlights and consists of numerous sensory illusions that seem to defy physics such as balls rolling up gradients and water flowing at unnatural angles.

The Ames Room plays similar tricks on the brain by making people appear to grow and shrink through distorted walls and ceilings. Its open seven days a week.

Derwent Water, Lake District

Keswick Launch

Keswick is set on Derwentwater – an expansive lake that affords some breathtaking views of the fells and mountains surrounding the town. And one of the best ways to appreciate this dramatic landscape is by boat.

Daily 50-minute cruises are offered at Keswick Launch, taking in the magnificence of Skiddaw, England’s fourth highest mountain, as well as the impressive Catbells fell. Boats disembark at eight jetties along the way, allowing visitors to make use of the well-marked trails that wend their way to places like Ashness Bridge and the picturesque village of Grange, in Borrowdale.

Derwent Pencil Museum

Derwent Pencil Museum is also well-worth visiting and showcases Keswick’s mining heritage. Housed in a replica graphite mine, it tells the story of this once-thriving local industry through a series of sculptures and exhibits including an 8 metre colour pencil – one of the largest in the world.

Painstakingly-restored machinery, photographs as well as a Kids Art Studio also help bring to life this intriguing aspect of Keswick’s past.

Whinlatter Forest

Whinlatter Forest offers an excellent family day out and features a number of secret paths and trails leading to play areas, water features and adventure courses. Wonderful views are to be had of the dense forest landscapes with climbing, mountain-biking and hiking trails also available.

Go Ape Adventure Park

Whinlatter Forest is also home to the award-winning Go Ape adventure park which features tree top ropes, courses and Tarzan swings. However, if you’re not entirely comfortable about traversing the tree-tops some 14 metres above the ground, then the Forest Segway Experience might be a better bet – it allows visitors to explore the many spectacular off-road trails with heavy-duty all-terrain Segways.

Lake District Fell Walking

Fell Walking

One of the best ways to truly appreciate the magnificence of the Northern Lake District is by foot. Indeed, the region was voted the best walking destination in the UK for 2006 by the Ramblers Association.

Keswick provides an excellent base from which to explore the northern and central fells including the Scafells, Great Gable, Blencathra and Skiddaw. However, each walk varies in terms of difficulty and should be thoroughly researched first. Links to further information about hiking in the Keswick area can be found below.

Lake District Wildlife Park

Nature-lovers should enjoy the acclaimed Lake District Wildlife Park which is home to a wide variety of bird, mammal and reptile species. Some of the most famous inhabitants include an American Bald Eagle as well as a variety of gibbons, giant zebras, meerkats and boa constrictors.

Numerous events are held daily that enable visitors to get up close and personal with the wildlife such as handling and feeding sessions. There’s also an indoor soft play area for the young as well as an adventure playground.

Mirehouse & Gardens

The historic Mirehouse & Gardens should also be included as part of your sightseeing itinerary. Voted Visitor Attraction of the Year at the 2017 Cumbria Tourism Awards, visitors can explore its ornately-decorated ground-floor featuring priceless collections of furniture and portraits.

Letters from Wordsworth, Tennyson and John Constable are also on display in the many rooms open to the public. Outside, the beautifully-kept grounds comprise a large heather maze, terraced gardens and four woodland playgrounds. The house and gardens are open from April and October and are within a short drive of Keswick.

Wordsworth House and Garden

Those of you willing to travel a little further afield might also want to pay a visit to Wordsworth House and Garden. It’s about a 20-minute drive from Keswick and is birthplace to famed romantic poet, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy.

Its painstakingly-presented Georgian interior is set out just like it would have been during Wordsworth’s younger years and features a period dining room and kitchen with a fire burning in its grate.

There’s also a clerk’s office that displays ink and quill pens, a working piano and a children’s bedroom complete with toys and clothes. A rotating program of displays can be seen in a collection of purpose-built exhibition rooms, which tell the story of William’s Lakeland legacy and his important role in establishing the National Trust.

Keswick Events and Festivals

In addition to the many visitor attractions around Keswick, the town also plays host to a series of well-attended events and festivals.

Keswick Beer Festival

Then there’s the Keswick Beer Festival – the biggest of its kind in Cumbria – which attracts thousands of visitors over two days and showcases more than 250 barrels of beer, cider and lager. It’s held at Keswick Rugby Club during June and is organised by the Keswick Lions and Keswick Community Rugby Trust.

Keswick Jazz and Blues Festival

The Keswick Jazz and Blues Festival is particularly popular and usually runs during May. Celebrating the best of jazz and blues music, it includes a wide range of live acts from bands and guest stars around the world.

Keswick Midsummer Festival

Organised by Keswick Town Council, the Midsummer Festival usually runs in late June and features an excellent range of free events around town including open air live rock concerts in Market Square and a classical prom held at Fitz Park.

Keswick Mountain Festival

This festival is held on the shores of Derwentwater and plays host to a variety of activities to get people outdoors and active. They include junior aquathlons, hiking, triathlons, cycling running and swimming. The event also includes food and drink stalls as well as live music with motivational lectures provided by celebrity speakers. Past speaking guests have included Alan Hinkes and Sir Chris Bonington.

Yearning for a short break holiday in the Lake District? Then have a look at our range of featured properties for inspiration!

Dale Shelabarger

Dale is the owner and founder of Cottages to Rent which he launched back in 2005. As well as promoting holiday cottages, Dale blogs regularly about top UK holiday destinations, visitor attractions and places of historical interest.