Lowther Castle sits on the eastern edge of the Lake District National Park, in the gently rolling countryside beside the River Lowther. What you see today is just the outer shell of the mansion built for the first Earl of Lonsdale, William Lowther, in 1814 – largely with a fortune derived from the West Cumberland coal mines. The family’s wealth, however, was squandered by the fifth earl and his ostentatious lifestyle in the first few decades of the twentieth century, and the Lowthers were forced to dismantle the castle in 1957.
Today though, the site is so much more than just these outer walls; it’s a place for lovers of gardens and woods to wander, it’s part of a larger estate for cyclists and walkers to explore and, for children, it’s a huge adventure playground.
Visitors enter the grounds through an exhibition explaining the history of the castle and the family who own it, and then step out into the informal garden that’s been planted within the walls of the mansion. The best view of the ruin is from the massive lawns and landscaped grounds that lie to the south of it. First laid out in the seventeenth century, these have only recently been restored and work continues on returning them to their former glory.
Paths criss-cross the grounds, providing vantage points from which to admire the ruins, the gardens and the surrounding countryside. The Western Terrace, in particular, provides superb views across the valley to the fells of the eastern Lake District. Should the weather turn bad, there are restored summerhouses scattered about; grab a hot drink from the ‘into the woods’ refreshment hut, and wait for the rain to pass.
Younger visitors will find lots to do, whatever the weather. There are tree swings, a willow den and balance beams. But best of all, there’s the Lost Castle. Hidden away in the woods, this is a wooden representation of the real castle – a massive maze of walkways and turrets big enough for the whole family to explore. There are slides and zip wires and climbing walls... some of it designed for older children, some intended specifically for toddlers.
As well as the ‘into the woods’ refreshment hut, Lowther Castle also has an indoor café that serves hot and cold meals. This is located in the entrance courtyard where you’ll also find a souvenir shop and bike hire. Bikes aren’t allowed within the castle grounds, but there are many miles of trails across the 3,500-acre Lowther Park and out into the surrounding countryside. For walkers, there is a waymarked route that leads down to the banks of the River Lowther and then up on to the low moorland above the pretty village of Askham. Known as the Lowther Castle Loop, this is a seven-mile extension to the 20-mile Ullswater Way.
The moody, low moorland above Pooley Bridge at the northern end of Ullswater looks, at first glance, like an empty, featureless place, but closer inspection reveals a landscape dotted with Bronze Age mysteries. The turf-covered stone mounds of Askham Moor are interspersed with substantial depressions, causing some confusion. What’s natural? What’s not? Many of the stone mounds are funerary cairns dating from the Bronze Age; many of the depressions are shake holes, naturally formed by the interaction of water and the underlying limestone. But some of the stone formations are natural; some of the holes are man-made. It’s all very confusing!
The most impressive – and bewildering – of these ancient remains is The Cockpit. Between 3500 and 5000 years old, this stone circle consists of about 30 standing or recumbent stones on the inside of a low bank. What it was used for, nobody knows. It might have been a meeting place; it might have religious significance. Like other stone circles in Cumbria, such as Castlerigg and Long Meg and Her Daughters, it remains an enigma. There’s a little more certainty surrounding its name though, thought to have been acquired in more recent times when the site was used for cock-fighting.
About a mile away, on the eastern edge of the moor, is a solitary standing stone known as the Cop Stone.
The Bronze Age sites of Askham Moor are located on open access land criss-crossed by well-used paths and tracks. They can be accessed on foot from either Pooley Bridge or Askham. Both the Cop Stone and The Cockpit are close to bridleways, so can also be visited by off-road cyclists and horse riders.
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.