Ambleside lies at the northern end of Windermere, England’s longest natural lake, where the gently rolling, wooded scenery of Lakeland’s far south gives way to a more rugged landscape of high, craggy fells and glittering, secretive tarns hiding in the folds of the hills. Welcome to the mountains!
This small town is a walkers’ paradise. Once you’ve stocked up on gear from any one of its many outdoor equipment shops, you’ll be spoiled for choice. If you’re reasonably fit and know how to use a map and compass, the Fairfield Horseshoe is the ‘must-do’ hike. This 10.5-mile route takes in long ridges on either side of the valley of Rydal Beck and includes almost 3,500ft of ascent in total. It makes for a great day out, but it’s extremely popular so don’t expect to have the fells to yourself.
Other, less challenging walks include the steep, but relatively short pull to the top of Wansfell Pike for superb views of Windermere and the surrounding fells. Easier still, the top of little Loughrigg Fell is a great target for families to aim for, providing a sense of achievement for young hill-walkers in the making. Or, if the cloud’s low, you can stick to low-level paths and complete a wonderful circuit of the base of the fell.
The waterfalls of Stock Ghyll have been attracting visitors since Victorian times. In the nineteenth century, tourists would’ve passed through a turnstile near the top of Stockghyll Force, paying a penny for the privilege; today, you can see them for free. Just a 15-minute walk from the centre of town, the two main ribbons that make up the falls plunge between the moss-covered sides of a rocky, tree-lined gorge – they’re well worth a look, particularly after heavy rain. In springtime, a carpet of daffodils provides an added bonus.
Among the many attractions within Ambleside itself are the tiny and intriguing Bridge House, managed by the National Trust, and The Armitt museum, gallery and library. The southern part of the town, known as Waterhead, is home to the remains of a Roman fort, probably Galava. There is also a Windermere Lake Cruises pier at Waterhead, and from here it’s a half-hour boat journey down to Bowness.
There’s no chance of going hungry in Ambleside; there are cafés and restaurants galore. And, when it rains or you just want a rest from sightseeing, there are a total of five cinema screens – at Zeffirelli’s on Compston Road and Fellini’s on Church Street.
Thanks to its road connections with the rest of the Lake District, Ambleside makes a great base from which to explore the National Park. The A591, served by the 555 bus among others, provides an easy link with Windermere to the south, and Grasmere and Keswick to the north. If you want to head across the Kirkstone Pass to Ullswater, you’ll need to negotiate the steep, winding road known ominously as The Struggle. To the west, roads with regular buses serve Great Langdale and Coniston. Continuing beyond Little Langdale, experienced drivers can even reach the Western Lakes by braving the Wrynose and Hardknott passes, although these are unsuitable for caravans or wide vehicles and there are no buses across the passes.