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Arts and culture in Cumbria and the Lake District

Centuries of Cumbrian inspiration

Arts and culture in the Lake District

Art and photography inspired by the Lake District

The word ‘culture’ comes hand in hand with the word ‘Cumbria’. So many creative people have found inspiration here over the centuries that the county is rich with tributes to what has gone before, and legacies in the form of contemporary arts. Authors, artists, poets, thinkers, pioneers, musicians, sculptors and more are honoured all around you.

There is artwork on mountain trails, by lakesides, in forests. There are a growing number of festivals celebrating everything from music to comedy, print, ceramics and wool. The most resounding endorsement of the county’s cultural status came in 2017 when the Lake District National Park became the UK’s latest, and largest, World Heritage site. UNESCO awarded the honour, praising the Lake District’s cultural landscape as one with meaning, significance and a lasting legacy.

Today, Cumbria is brimming with cultural festivals, many of them outdoors to take advantage of the stunning theatre in the surrounding landscape.

The largest music festival is Kendal Calling, held each July, months after selling out. Confusingly, it began life in Kendal but since 2009 has been held at Lowther Deer Park, near Penrith. Featuring an impressive line-up on 12 stages from across the genres, from big names to local heroes, Kendal Calling has won awards for being the UK’s best small festival. And best medium sized festival. See where this is going?

Solfest, held in August at Tarns, near Silloth, is a feelgood family-friendly festival where it seems every act, from bands to DJs, are there to encourage plenty of dancing and a real good time.

The word ‘culture’ comes hand in hand with the word ‘Cumbria’. So many creative people have found inspiration here over the centuries that the county is rich with tributes to what has gone before

Stunning festival locations

Arts and Culture in the Lake District

Keswick Mountain Festival

Ireby Festival also tends to sell out early, a popular but intimate village-based event where the main stage venue is restricted to just 650 people. There is a wide range of music but tends to focus on folk and traditional genres.

There are few more stunning festival locations than the shores of Derwentwater for the Keswick Mountain Festival. The ultimate outdoors weekend features speakers and displays from top outdoors sportspeople, rounded off with two evenings of live music from major name acts, held each June.

The Keswick Jazz and Blues Festival is held over four days in May and celebrates the best in New Orleans, swing, classic, traditional and mainstream.

Considered by many to be the leading annual celebration of its genre, Maryport Blues Festival is held in July in venues across the town, creating a vibrant atmosphere from the Friday evening to late on Sunday. But start early, blues fans, because a festival of growing reputation is Bowness Bay Blues in March, packing out several venues across the town.

For fans of classical music, the Lake District Summer Music International Festival takes place across a number of venues in a number of towns. There are more than 40 events, featuring works from about 90 composers, with opportunity given to young musicians to give festival debut concerts.

The ultimate outdoors weekend features speakers and displays from top outdoors sportspeople, rounded off with two evenings of live music from major name acts, held each June

Award-winning celebrations

Arts and culture in Cumbria

Carlisle Cathedral

There are many more cultural festivals in the Lake District and Cumbria. Words by the Water attracts more than 100 authors, poets and speakers, and in turn thousands of book lovers, to Theatre by the Lake in Keswick over nine days in March.

Literary festivals are a given in a county with such rich heritage of famous writers like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ruskin, Ransome, Wainwright and Potter.

Keswick Film Festival is hosted by the town’s Alhambra Cinema, as well as Theatre by the Lake and Rheged’s huge screen, with an extensive, lovingly-selected list of films from around the world every February.

C-Art Festival is an award-winning celebration of Cumbria’s contemporary arts. The 10-day festival brings the public to the artist with many open studios welcoming visitors. There is also a C-Art Cumbrian Artist of the Year Exhibition at Rheged, plus innovative creations in the Art in Extraordinary Places programme. As well as connecting tens of thousands of visitors to Cumbrian artists, C-Art has also seen hundreds of thousands of pounds spent by the public in the process to support the local industry.

For something a bit different, and very Cumbrian, head to Woolfest at Mitchells Lakeland Livestock Centre in Cockermouth in June. Woolfest was created to showcase the best of wool and wool crafts.

As well as connecting tens of thousands of visitors to Cumbrian artists, C-Art has also seen hundreds of thousands of pounds spent by the public in the process to support the local industry

Wide variety

Cumbria and the Lake District arts and culture

John Ruskin Memorial

Printfest gathers the UK’s best printmakers under one roof, each early May bank holiday weekend at the Coronation Hall in Ulverston. Visitors can talk to the artist, hear the story behind their work and of course, buy from them.

Ulverston is perhaps better known, however, as the birthplace of Stan Laurel, one half of the loveable comic due Laurel and Hardy. Another Fine Fest is held in his name each June, with Ulverston bursting into life through live music, street theatre, street art, DJs, circus and more. About 15,000 people attend and the festival is also a world record holder – it encouraged 1,180 people to take part in the biggest ever shaving foam pie fight in 2016.

If you’re in Cumbria in October, please don’t miss the Winter Droving in Penrith. You won’t have seen anything like it, anywhere else. The rural gathering places a lot of emphasis on showcasing local arts and crafts but is known more for the torchlight procession through the streets of Penrith to bring the event to a close.

A herd of mythical and familiar creatures created through elaborate masks and costumes, worn by revellers of all ages, winds its way past thousands of onlookers, illuminating Penrith with fire, music and good-natured beast-like bellowing.

There are, of course, many permanent attractions celebrating culture in Cumbria and the Lake District. Brantwood, on the shores of Coniston, was the home of John Ruskin, a lover of art and architecture and a radical thinker. He is credited with inspiring the founders of the National Health Service, the National Trust and public libraries. Brantwood House is a registered museum and the nine rooms Ruskin used are open to the public.

The rural gathering places a lot of emphasis on showcasing local arts and crafts but is known more for the torchlight procession through the streets of Penrith to bring the event to a close

All year round exhibitions

Cumbria arts and culture

Staveley Carnival

Furthermore, the Severn Studio presents quality art and craft exhibitions all year round. Treasured poet William Wordsworth, he of the golden daffodils seen fluttering and dancing in the Lake District breeze, was born in Cockermouth and later lived in Grasmere.

Cockermouth has Wordsworth House to remember him by and Grasmere has Dove Cottage. An extensive collection of original letters, journals and poems in the Wordsworth Museum next door to Dove Cottage tells his life story.

Hill Top in Sawrey was the home of Peter Rabbit and friends author Beatrix Potter. Her home was faithfully recreated in her illustrations, so walking round every room, you will recognise scenes from her beloved animal tales. Hill Top can get very busy in the summer so it’s best to book your tickets in advance.

The World of Beatrix Potter visitor centre in Bowness-on-Windermere brings her stories to life, and the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead is within the 17th-century building once used as the office of Beatrix Potter’s husband, a solicitor. Other places worth visiting include The Armitt Museum in Ambleside. Collections include Beatrix Potter, German artist Kurt Schwitters, photography and fine art.

Keswick Museum and Art Gallery is an award-winning attraction offering changing exhibitions, though “100 Curious Objects” from the permanent collection can be found in the Main Gallery, telling the story of the town.

Hill Top in Sawrey was the home of Peter Rabbit and friends author Beatrix Potter. Her home was faithfully recreated in her illustrations, so walking round every room, you will recognise scenes from her beloved animal tales

Impressive collections

Arts and culture in the Lake District

Interior of Brantwood historic house

The Heaton Cooper Studio in Grasmere is a gallery containing the works of landscape painters Alfred Heaton Cooper and his son William Heaton Cooper. Their paintings and books have influenced the way the Lake District landscape has been viewed. There is a changing programme of exhibitions throughout the year, and the studio exhibits paintings, prints, sculpture and books.

Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal has, on permanent display, an impressive collection of 18th- and 19th-century art. They include works by Cumbrian artist George Romney, credited as being one of the greatest 18th-century portrait painters.

The Old Courthouse Gallery in Ambleside devotes three floors to contemporary arts and crafts, showing the best from the Lake District and Britain across a range of media.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy starred in 105 comic films together, an incredible career. The Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston, where Stan was born, traces his early life in the town and features a wealth of original films, letters, photographs, posters and more.

Their paintings and books have influenced the way the Lake District landscape has been viewed. There is a changing programme of exhibitions throughout the year, and the studio exhibits paintings, prints, sculpture and books

Live cultural offerings

Arts and culture in the Lake District

Theatre by the Lake in Keswick

So where to witness live cultural offerings? Venues include Theatre by the Lake, in Keswick, on the shores of Derwentwater. A professional theatre, it stages up to nine of its own productions of classic, modern and new plays on two stages.

The Old Laundry Theatre in Bowness-on-Windermere puts on a programme of classical and folk music, spoken word, drama, comedy and film.

The Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal has a 450-capacity music venue, a 200-capacity theatre, three cinemas, two visual arts galleries and a drama studio. They are all used well with a superb programme of cultural entertainment staged each year.

Rosehill Theatre, above Whitehaven, is one of the UK’s most intimate theatres and has recently enjoyed a renovation and refurbish. A diverse range of arts and entertainment is staged there.

A unique feature in Cumbria is the Upfront Puppet Theatre, a 140-capacity puppet theatre at Upfront Gallery in Unthank, near Penrith. Shows are created in the theatre workshop and take place at Easter, in summer and at Christmas.


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Image credits: ©Andrea Hills/Lake District National Park Authority; Brentwood; Keswick Tourism Association; Robert Day/Theatre by the Lake

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