The Big Walk: Ullswater Way

A new trail around iconic Ullswater is reinvigorating Lakeland communities recovering from the devastating impact of recent floods

Words by Mark Rowe, photography by Steve Morgan

A quick swig from the water bottle, then a modest zig-zag up and over boulders and turf, and I'm there. Standing on top of Airy Crag, the 481m summit of Gowbarrow Fell, I’m repaid with a signature view of the Lake District: Helvellyn to the south, Skiddaw and Blencathra to the west, High Street's ridgeline across the water. The lake in question is of course Ullswater and this is a well-trodden part of the world, but I'm spending a couple of days seeing it from a new perspective.

The hike to Gowbarrow Fell from Pooley Bridge has been a joy, swishing through glorious hay meadows, native woodland and quiet roads, following the Ullswater Way, a new waymarked route around the perimeter of this famous lake, nestled in the north-east of the national park.

A smattering of walkers settle down on the summit with their sandwiches. Nine months after the catastrophic floods that hammered parts of the Lake District, it’s reassuringly clear that, for all practical purposes, the national park is open for business.

The impact of Storm Desmond still takes some believing. A truly mind-boggling 341.4mm of rain fell over two days in December 2015. Keswick was badly flooded, as were a succession of valleys to the east of the town, forcing extensive road closures. Then there were disturbing scenes of floodwater cascading into the Ullswater valley, inundating the villages of Hartsop, Patterdale and Glenridding. Homes and many businesses catering for walkers were overwhelmed.

The floods occurred over an area that encompassed 1,400 bridges and almost 2,000 miles of paths. It seemed inevitable that, for substantial parts of the Lakes, this would be a year of re-building, with visitors directed elsewhere. Instead, a determined and energetic recovery programme has somehow seen almost all paths, B&Bs, outdoor shops and tea-rooms re-opened.

A similar combination of flood-related funding and goodwill lies behind the formal designation of a circular walk around Ullswater. Vigilant ramblers will know that footpaths already run around the lake but the new route is intended to provide an altogether more walker-friendly trail, with new fingerposts, gates and regular daffodil waymarkers. The walk irons out glitches such as the tiresome plod along the A592 south of Pooley Bridge, along which many drivers seem constantly surprised to encounter hikers in, of all places, the Lake District.

 The section from Pooley Bridge to Aira Force now follows a new 2.5km dedicated public footpath between Waterfront caravan park west of Pooley Bridge to just north of Wreay. Rather than sticking doggedly to the lakeshore, the route has been put together with considerable thought. At times as I walk from Pooley Bridge I'm almost 2km from the lakeshore. At Gowbarrow Fell you can make for the summit, as I did, or keep to the lower, eastern flanks. The loop of the lake is 21 miles/34 km and breaks down into four obvious sections that can easily be walked over two to four days.

When the water came

 According to Graham Allan, chairman of Penrith Ramblers, local groups were heavily involved in the aftermath, helping to identify damage to the footpath network. ‘It was pretty dramatic but a lot of the paths have proved pretty robust. It was actually the road bridges that came down,’ he says. ‘If you look around now you will see odd pockets of damage, but probably you won't notice much difference. There are a couple of landslips but we get those every year.’

Descending from Gowbarrow Fell, I explore the falls at Aira Force, which clatter and gush their way into Ullswater. From here, I make my way to Glenridding using a National Trust shoreline walk laid down a year ago. One short 50m stretch of road remains, just north of Glenridding, where solid Cumbrian geology in the form of Stybarrow Fell defies all efforts to circumnavigate it.

Glenridding was simply overwhelmed by the floods. Waters and landslips high on Helvellyn and Catstye Cam cascaded through the village, bringing boulders and torn-up yew trees and causing Glenridding beck to overflow. The car park by the Ullswater steamers was submerged under two metres of water. A quarter of a million tons of rock were deposited by the landslide, much of which is now backed up in the fields by the shoreline. The new robust embankments by the beck resemble blunt incisions of emergency surgery rather than the postcard-pretty drystone walls that were washed away.

 At Helvellyn Country Kitchen, manager Michelle Byers is serving cakes and coffee to walkers in celebratory mood after summiting Helvellyn.  She is relieved to have re-opened in time for the main season. ‘We didn’t think we would actually be flooded,’ she says. ‘The water got higher and higher; it just kept raining and then it just all came in. We’d turned the electricity off, so at least nothing blew up but putting the chairs on the tables didn’t make any difference as the water was a metre deep inside.’ The cafe took until mid-February to dry out. Even though the repairs were covered by insurance and new water pumps and sluice gates installed, Michelle is cautious about the future. ‘We were told these were 1-in-1,000-year events but you just don’t know. There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to keep all the water out but hopefully the damage won’t be as bad.’

 A nice touch is that all four stages of the Ullswater Way are linked to the jetties for the Ullswater steamers. One of the most iconic images from the floods was of a steamer beached in a field near Pooley Bridge. While the boat appeared to have been dumped by the elements, in reality it was put there for its own safety by the crew and mountain rescue. ‘It was an unbelievable, unspeakably horrible time,’ says Mark Horton, general manager of the company. ‘Our car park just looked like glacial terrain. It was an absolute catastrophe for the village, the floods were of biblical proportions. The other steamers escaped thanks to what Horton describes as “a small group of people who were able to nurse them through the dark nights and days.” By July all five boats were back in action.

Infinite variety

 I loop around the lake through Patterdale to Howtown. By now, another virtue of this circular walk is apparent: it allows you to appreciate gradual changes in a way that classic linear routes don’t always do. I’ve hiked through hay meadows, open moor, gurgling becks, native woodland, conifer plantations, boggy bits, up a decent hill and started noticing micro-features, such as the sheer variety of colours on tree bark.

 The eastern side of Ullswater often catches casual walkers out. Purportedly a favourite of Alfred Wainwright, the maps suggest a predominantly flat shoreline walk, complete with stirring views into the heart of Helvellyn and the sheer flanks of High Street. Yet, as Graham Allan says, ‘It’s quite rocky – people don’t realise how difficult it is and you’re trampling over roots all the time.’

The final leg takes me from Howtown north to Pooley Bridge. Behind me, the bulk of Hallin Fell lurches abruptly from the water’s edge, its hinterland leading to the shadowy and less-hiked lands of Martindale Common. The damage from the floods remains visible here, where a gully that once carried a minor beck off the hillside has been rent apart by a landslip. I pass underneath Raven Crag, a spectacular crevasse, boulders muscling in on either side. At Swarthbeck the way divides into two. There’s a picturesque lakeside route, but I opt for the higher trail where the angled flanks of Arthur’s Pike are so acute that its summit remains out of view, blocked by the rocky escarpments of Whinny Crag and Loup Knott.

 The path finally meets High Street at the Cockpit, a substantial stone circle marooned in moorland. The completion of my loop around the lake is suddenly much closer: the pier at Pooley Bridge, peeking out below the triangular tree-cloaked fell of Dunmallard Hill. I descend towards the village, skirting the southern flank of Heughscar Hill. During the floods the swollen waters of the River Eamont made short work of the village’s picturesque 18th-century stone bridge. A temporary bridge was opened in the spring, reconnecting the village with the western shores of the lake, though locals expect the functional installation to be replaced with a more graceful stone affair.

 I treat myself to a ferry ride around the lake, boots off, bare feet on the railings. I'm surprised at just how little of the path I’ve walked is visible from the water. Often indecipherable or discreet, its presence is betrayed only by the shuffling torsos or heads of walkers. Unless I had walked down it the previous day I would not be able to pinpoint Aira Force and its hidden tumbling waters. Gratifyingly, for much of the Ullswater Way the same can now be said of the damage from the winter storms.

Walk it!

 TIME/DISTANCE The Ullswater Way has four stages that tie in with the Ullswater steamers. Pooley Bridge to Aira Force, 6.5 miles/10.5km; Aira Force to Glenridding 3 miles/4.6km; Glenridding to Howtown 6.5 miles/10.5km; Howtown to Pooley Bridge 5 miles/8km.

MAPS OS Explorer OL4 and OL5

ACCOMMODATION Pubs with rooms include The Sun Inn and the Crown in Pooley Bridge. Other options include Patterdale Youth Hostel.  For a treat try Leeming House on the western shores of the lake.