There’s something very special about the way Ullswater, the National Park’s second largest lake, draws you in over its eight-mile length, pulling you ever closer to the mountains. Before you know it, the gentle slopes and farmland around Pooley Bridge at its north-eastern end are forgotten and the fells are crowding in, their crags tumbling right down to the water’s edge in places.
Only a 15-minute drive from junction 40 of the M6 motorway, Ullswater receives a lot of visitors, but the absence of a major lakeside town means it has kept its romance. The poet William Wordsworth called it “the happiest combination of beauty and grandeur”, and it’s hard to argue with his assessment more than 200 years later.
There are several settlements close to the lake including Watermillock, Howtown and Dacre, but most visitors will find themselves, at some point, in Pooley Bridge, Glenridding or Patterdale. Although little more than small villages, each has good facilities for visitors including accommodation, places to eat, car parks, public toilets and a few small shops. All three are on the route of the 508 bus from nearby Penrith, while Pooley Bridge and Glenridding also have Ullswater ‘Steamer’ piers, enabling visitors to enjoy leisurely boat trips up and down the lake all year round.
To see the lake and its environs from one of the ‘steamers’ is special, but to experience it from a kayak, dinghy or small motor boat really is hard to beat. These and other vessels can be hired from a number of places, including the Glenridding Sailing Centre, Lakeland Boat Hire and Ullswater Yacht Club near Pooley Bridge and St Patrick’s Boat Landing at Glenridding.
The choices for walkers setting out from the valley are endless. There are fells galore to climb – from teeny Hallin Fell at just 1273ft (388m) to Helvellyn, England’s third highest mountain at 3116ft (950m). One of the most popular routes is to climb Helvellyn via its vertiginous arêtes – Striding Edge and Swirral Edge – although this shouldn’t be attempted by anyone but fully equipped mountaineers when winter conditions arrive. Place Fell, the Deepdale Round and the High Street Roman Road are all excellent fell walks, while Brothers Water, Dovedale and Grisedale provide shorter, low-level alternatives.
The waymarked Ullswater Way completes a 20-mile circuit of the lake, keeping to lakeshore paths for much of the time but also paying occasional visits to the low fells. It also drops in on Aira Force, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the Lake District. Here, surrounded by beautiful woodland, Aira Beck plunges a massive 72ft on its journey from the northernmost hills of the Helvellyn range to Ullswater. Well-maintained trails explore the gorge and surrounding arboretum. Stand on the humpback bridge over the top of the waterfall to witness the whirling torrent plummet through the sheer-sided ravine, or gaze up at it from the platform at the bottom, feeling the spray from the water on your skin. After heavy rain, the sight and sound of this watery spectacle is truly overwhelming.