If you watch Dave on television for long enough, you’ll come across an episode of QI where Stephen Fry poses the question: “What is the only lake in the Lake District?” The panel is quick to shout out ‘Windermere’ and ‘Coniston’ both of which trigger the klaxon. An audience member comes to the rescue with an authoritative shout of “Bassenthwaite” from off-camera.
Applying a purely lexical analysis, this is correct. There are ‘meres’ and ‘waters’ but no ‘lakes’. If my challenge this year were based on names alone, it would make for a poor read. One walk and I’d be done. There’d have been no Grasmere gingerbread, no huge dams, no atmospheric mist across aquatic racetracks. There’d just be Bassenthwaite Lake.
But, I ask myself, is that such a shame? Bassenthwaite boasts a certain sophistication. An understated charm which the more popular ‘lakes’ cannot pull off. It’s your true English gentleman, wafting along with elegant refinement in a classic Bentley.
April was a busy month. I’m making up for it with some great walks planned (watch this space) but a walk around Bassenthwaite was long overdue and my head needed some time in the mountains.
Bank holiday Monday isn’t my favourite choice for a trip to our National Parks. The traffic’s usually terrrible, there are lots of people and the weather’s never the best. Despite my misgivings, it was a free day off so I woke up early and hit the road.
Arriving in the Lakes before 7am is always a treat, particularly now the clocks have gone forward and there’s more daylight to play with. I parked on the Western side of the lake in the small but conveniently-located car park at Hursthole Point. Unfortunately, there’s no getting away from Bassenthwaite’s position alongside the busy A66. Fortunately there’s a path running just off the road along much of the Western edge. My thinking was to tackle this part of the route first, when traffic would be lighter, keeping noisy intrusions to a minimum.
After crossing the almost-deserted-at-this-time A66, I joined the path and turned left along the shoreline. That first view of the still waters gave me that initial mood-boost I always look forward to. Skiddaw standing proudly across the water with the smaller summit of Dodd in the foreground. The lake sweeps back towards Keswick to your right and flatter countryside to your left.
The early-morning sun soon showed itself and I settled into the rhythm of the walk. The path here is a hidden gem. Set just below the A66, passing drivers are oblivious to its presence, despite being only a few feet away. It’s as if you are invisible, walking in a hidden dimension alongside the real world where drivers rush to their destinations. Even its location on a map is ambiguous, as the dotted line sits so close to the thicker A-road marking, you aren’t sure if it’s just an illusion and simply time for new glasses.
But exist it does and I had the place to myself. It winds its way through trees and little bays as the odd lorry thundered past to my left. I made good progress and reached the northern shoreline in no time at all. Here’s where you leave the lakeside path behind, as it gives way to private sections of shoreline.
This part of the route is an unwelcome but necessary stretch along a fast and narrow road. You’ll reach Bassenthwaite Sailing Club with no problems but then face a short section of tarmac. Traffic thunders along here, even early in the morning and there aren’t many verges where you can take refuge.
You can avoid part of the road by taking a footpath across some fields to join another road running alongside the Lake District Distillery. It’s not pleasant enough to warrant the diversion and you still have to march along tarmac for part of it. Best to plough on, keep your wits about you and accept you may have to dodge some fast drivers.
I crossed a bridge, where two fishermen eagerly watched a heron showing them how to do it properly, as the route continues along another busy section of road. This is only avoidable by taking quite a lengthy diversion to the north. The map suggests this would be a fine alternative but the walk was already quite lengthy so I stuck to the road.
I say it’s the only alternative but there is another. The road passes through the grounds of the magnificent Armathwaite Estate. You’ll have spotted this glorious lodging earlier on your route, as it stands at the head of the lake. If you want the full English-gentleman-wafting-along-with-elegant-refinement-in-a-classic-Bentley experience, you could use Armathwaite Hall as your base for a few days, giving you access to the private shoreline and avoid the road. A finer base-camp would be hard to find.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t a guest and had to content myself with ducking under the footbridge and picking up the Allerdale Ramble to start my loop back along the eastern shoreline.
Joining this path felt like a pivotal moment on the route. It continues for miles towards the next major milestone of Dodd Wood. Plenty of relaxing miles lie ahead of you as you trek through this quiet part of the Lake District.
I dug out the traditional pork pie and munched as I walked through fields of newborn lambs. It was then I reached a stile flanked by several bovine guards. One took a particular interest in my mid-morning snack, which wasn’t for sharing, so I asked it politely if it wouldn’t mind stepping aside (which it didn’t) before sneaking past.
Keeping half an eye over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being chased by a herd of angry cows, I soon left the fields behind to pass through a fine section of woodland. I always admire a nice boardwalk and this one allowed me to linger a while and enjoy a spot of forest bathing.
Woodland gives way to meadow which gives way to a gentle stream. The sound of water calmly trickling under a bridge caused me to reflect that I’d not seen another walker all day. For a bank holiday, in the Lake District, this is unheard of. Just shows you can find solitude without heading into the middle of nowhere, if you know where to look.
You need to take care with navigation at this section, as a maze of paths and sheep tracks threaten to send you the wrong way. I climbed a short hill before dropping back down to the water’s edge near Bassenthwaite Lakeside Lodges.
Pleased to be back by the water’s edge, I found a clearing with a rope swing which was too inviting to resist.
After satisfying my inner 10 year old, I rounded the corner to the idyllic Bowness Bay – a quiet spot occupied by a family of ducks and inquisitive lambs. So many relaxing milestones along this part of the lake, I was beginning to lose count.
The footpath again forces you away from the lake to cross a number of fields before you arrive at the Church of St Bega. The building on this beautiful spot dates back to 950 AD. Some playful lambs were clambering on the cross by the gate, egging one another along to climb ever higher.
Leaving the church behind, I ventured past more lambs and their doting mothers towards the grounds of Mirehouse. Without a ticket you won’t have access to the lakeside walk but I continued along the public footpath to join the road by the entrance to the Dodd Wood car park. Here’s where I saw my first signs of human life that day. It was a lot busier – the tearoom, toilets, accessible footpaths through the forest and the osprey viewing station all notable draws on this bank holiday Monday.
After valiantly resisting coffee and cake from the Old Sawmill Tearooms, I continued up the steep path to catch a glimpse of the ospreys. Progress up the gentle climb is aided by boards at strategic intervals with multiple choice questions about ospreys. You only get to find the answer by continuing to the next board – a great idea if you have children in tow or simply need some motivation to keep climbing.
The osprey station is manned by the RSPB who have set up spotting scopes on the birds’ nest about a mile away. They are always helpful and knowledgable about the birds, which have been returning to the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake since 2001. I watched the female sitting on the nest, while the male was out fishing.
Leaving the ospreys behind, a lady shouted ‘do you know that path leads to the road’? ‘Yes’ was my confident reply, although I’ll admit to rechecking the map when I was out of sight round the corner, not sure if I could face the walk of shame if I’d got my bearings wrong!
A buzzard circled overhead, chased off by some angry crows, as I dropped down through the wood to rejoin the main road. After a short section, I was able to leave the traffic behind to meet the penultimate section of the walk. I’d been half looking forward to, half dreading this section. The frustrating part of a walk around Bassenthwaite Lake is that you have to go some considerable distance away from its shoreline at its southern end to cross the fields which the osprey call their home. Any dread I had was short-lived, as this is a magnificent walk along the River Derwent and through quiet fields with cracking views up the slopes of Skiddaw and the Newlands Valley.
I chose this spot to grab some lunch, realising I hadn’t sat down all morning. On taking a pew on the grassy banks of the river, I dug out my tuna sandwich. No sooner had I taken a bite when an electric blue flash appeared from the bank just below my feet, hovered momentarily about six feet away before continuing its flight along the river. A kingfisher – one of only a handful I’ve seen and a real privilege.
Buzzing (or should that be chirping?) from the excellent birdlife I’d seen, I could have lingered a while to drink in the sight, sounds and shapes of the mountains – but continue I must to complete the circuit and miss the worst of the traffic on my return.
There’s a large field which you need to cross, with the fells of the Newlands Valley providing a stunning backdrop.
The grasses were long and two geese stuck their heads above the pasture. In a scene reminiscent of the velociraptors picking off victims in The Lost World, I skipped across the field, aiming for the delightfully named Bog House, which sits by a sewage works marked on the map.
All too soon, you’ll hit the A66 and the final part of your walk. After crossing the road with care, you can follow the parallel B-road which takes you through Thornthwaite on the home stretch. You’ll see the water below and be treated with views of the cliffs of Barf as you approach the car park. I watched paragliders soaring high above the slopes of Skiddaw, joining the ospreys, buzzards, herons and kingfishers which call this beautiful part of the Lake District their home.
I braced myself for the inevitable melee of bank holiday picnickers as I approached the car park. To my surprise, my car was still the only one in the car park. Bassenthwaite certainly lived up to its understated charm. Not one for shouting about its merits, I’m happy for it to continue its reserved superiority, ensuring it’ll stay that way for walkers eager for a peaceful walk even on the busiest of days.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Various car parks around the lake: Dodd Wood; Hursthole Point
Distance: 15 miles (24 km)
Navigation: Easy for the most part
Terrain: Good paths with a little road walking
Facilities: Dodd Wood car park
*These routes and descriptions are only ever intended to be a personal record of my adventures, which may inspire your own. Hillwalking involves a degree of risk, so please make sure you are properly equipped and prepared if you choose to follow them.