Residents in Cumbria reported that items fell from shelves and walls during the tremor.
The British Geological Survey confirmed that an earthquake of local magnitude 3.5, the term seismologists prefer to the Richter scale, took place shortly before 11pm centred on Coniston in the Lake District.
Cumbria Fire and Rescue service said it had dealt with hundreds of calls about the tremor but had not dealt with any damage.
Gordon Shoosmith, 60, a retired accountant from Windermere, Cumbria, told The Daily Telegraph: “It was just a great big rumble that went on for about five seconds. At first we thought Sellafield [the nuclear power station] had exploded.”
Karen Dickinson, a mother in Caton, Lancashire, said: “The kids ran downstairs. It was quite scary: the room actually shook.”
Hotelier Alan Robertson, who was in his 30-bed hotel in Eskdale, near Whitehaven, said: “I ran out of the front door, only to be confronted by my guests running out of their part of the house. We couldn’t believe it.”
Customers at the Church House Inn in Torver, Cumbria, were finishing their drinks when it hit.
Michael Beaty, a member of staff, said: “We are still trying to coax them out from under the tables. But then again they are quite often under the table.”
Data from the BGS showed the location of the ‘quake as Coniston, Cumbria 54.391N -3.095W, 5.6 miles (9km) south west of Ambleside and with a depth of 8.9 miles (14.3km).
Dr Brian Baptie, Head of Seismology at the BGSm, said: “We get an earthquake of this size somewhere in the UK roughly every 12 to 18 months. Damage is very unlikely.”
The event was quickly reported on the internet, particularly on Twitter, and a Facebook group was set up in around an hour of it taking place.
Susan Potter, a geophysicist at the US Geological Society, which also picked up the tremor, said that in the last 40 years, six earthquakes had been recorded within 35 miles of last night’s event.
In April last year a tremor of 3.7 centred on Ulverston in Cumbria, which occurred five miles below Ulverston.
It was the largest earthquake in the region since a 4.4 quake struck Lancaster in 1835.
The BGS detects around 150 earthquakes in the UK and surrounding areas every year, of which only up to one in 10 is felt by the public.
Other recent quakes in Britian include one in February 2008, when a major tremor centred on Lincolnshire shook much of the country, causing damage to buildings and leaving at least one person injured.
The tremor – which measured 5.2 on the Richter scale – struck at around 1am on February 27 at Market Rasen, Lincs.
In Kent in April 2007, another tremor measured 4.3 on the Richter scale. Homes were damaged as chimneys toppled, walls cracked and masonry fell as the tremor hit Folkestone.