If it was good enough for Wordsworth and Wainwright, then Cumbria surely has much to offer the literature lover who strayed off the M6. From Kendal in the south to Carlisle in the north, we sniff out the best bookish shenanigans.
With famous historical literary sons ranging from Alfred Wainwright and William Wordsworth to Arthur Ransome and John Ruskin (aside from Beatrix Potter, daughters less so, although that’s being rectified by contemporary wordsmiths including Forward Prize 2022 winner Kim Moore, who co-runs Kendal Poetry Festival, and former Wordsworth Trust poet-in-residence and National Trust Tables Turned poet Katie Hale) – not to mention its very own pencil museum – you’d be right in thinking that Cumbria has much to offer the scribbler and the bookworm… Here, we head from Kendal in the south to Carlisle just shy of Scotland in the north to find out, popping into Penrith and Grasmere along the way… think annual festivals, regular readings and brilliant bookshops. Enjoy some of our top literary places in Cumbria.
Here are our picks
Brewery Arts Centre, 122A Highgate, Kendal, Cumbria, LA9 4HE - Visit now
Kendal’s arts hub dishes up a healthy side of literature alongside its craft pizzas and cult flicks. There’s the annual Lakes International Comic Art Festival (LICAF), Ann Grant’s monthly spoken word night Verbalise with open mic slots plus an invited guest (last Saturday of the month except August and December), and a Brewery Poets showcase twice a year. BP co-founder Kim Moore runs Kendal Poetry Festival with Clare Shaw, offering talks, workshops and readings, welcoming TS Eliot Prize-winner Joelle Taylor and Imtiaz Dharker in 2022.
Wordsworth Grasmere, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, Cumbria, LA22 9SH - Visit now
Incorporating Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s first family home, the expanded Wordsworth Museum now goes by the name of Wordsworth Grasmere, and houses an unsurpassed collection of the Wordsworths’ letters, journals and poems, objects, maps and pictures, and interactive displays alongside a busy exhibitions programme. The Wordsworth Trust is not only a shrine to the poetry of the past but also a centre for creating poetry, with residencies filled by the likes of Zaffar Kunial, Harry Man and Helen Mort. There’s a programme of events includes readings, talks and workshops, while informal creative writing group the Dove Cottage Poets meets here once a month and the Dove Cottage Young Poets meet fortnightly to read, discuss and write poetry with contemporary poet Kim Moore. While you’re in Grasmere, seek out Sam Read, a small independent bookshop that has sat looking over the village green since 1887.
Tullie House, Castle Street, Carlisle, Cumbria, CA3 8TP - Visit now
Pleasant as it is with its Pre-Raphaelite paintings and pretty planted courtyard garden, Tullie House in the centre of Carlisle is also a literature lover’s go-to when the annual Borderlines Book Festival is on in October. Previous guest speakers have included Jenn Ashworth and Andrew Michael Hurley, while Kate Fox and Anita Sethi were among the writers who appeared in 2022. While you’re in town, be sure to head down the road to Borderlines partner Bookends Carlisle – this independent bookshop stocks 20,000 new titles, and runs a busy events programme with visiting authors, regular poetry and reading groups, and a weekly storytime. Bookcase, meanwhile, is your go-to for secondhand goodies.
Acorn Bank, Temple Sowerby,, Penrith,, Cumbria, CA10 1SP - Visit now
You might head to National Trust property Acorn Bank, east of Penrith, for its woodland walks, working watermill and wildlife, but don’t leave without hitting the second-hand bookshop on the ground floor, next to the grand Entrance Hall, to your right as you enter the main doors. The shelves are stocked full of exciting reads, with a wide range of fiction, non-fiction (including cookery books) and children’s books. The second-hand bookshop is run by a group of dedicated volunteers, and your new page-turner will help the team to look after this special place.
Theatre by the Lake, Lakeside, Cumbria, Keswick, CA12 5DJ - Visit now
The annual Words By The Water festival of words and ideas popped up at the theatre on the shores of Derwentwater every March for over a week, although 2023’s was shelved. Still, there’s much to attract the booklover, not least a small version of Keswick and Carlisle-based Bookends bookshop – the OG on Main Street is jam-packed with the new titles and remainder books, along with an impressive selection of Lake District and Cumbrian titles.
Penrith Old Fire Station, Bridge Lane, Penrith, Cumbria, CA11 8HY - Visit now
Not to be confused with the other Old Fire Station (Carlisle), the one in Penrith is run by Eden Arts, an artist-led organisation that puts on various annual events including the famous Picnic Cinema screening of Withnail & I at Uncle Monty’s actual cottage! Eden Arts recently collaborated with Belgium’s Captain Boomer Collective on the whale street art project in Whitehaven, West Cumbria, and Redcar on the East coast, documented in a series of short short stories by the writer David Gaffney and poems by Carmen Marcus.
Old Fire Station, Peter Street, Carlisle, CA3 8QP - Visit now
When not hosting touring musicians and a regular Comedy Store night, Carlisle Old Fire Station has been known to run live literature events, and poetry films by Katie Hale for the National Trust’s Tables Turned project were shown here as part of the Under Northern Skies exhibition.