A walk around Thirlmere has been off the agenda until recently. The lake has had its fair share of misfortune these past few years and it’s needed some intensive surgery, putting it out of action for a while.
Storm Desmond hit in December 2015, which caused extensive damage to the A591, the main road running along its eastern side. Repairs took place in 2016 but there was more to come. In 2018, the Beast of the East battered the area and brought down a number of massive trees on the slopes surrounding the lake. This made the bank unstable and required further closures while it was patched up.
As if to add insult to injury, many of the trees succumbed to larch disease.
This all meant further works by United Utilities to remove trees, replace dry stone walls, improve drainage and upgrade the lakeside paths.
But Thirlmere has bounced back and, after an extensive stay in hospital, it’s ready for visitors to walk around its shores once more.
Longed to return
The valley is beautiful and the drive from Keswick to Grasmere is one of the most scenic in the Lakes. Despite using it as a thoroughfare, I’ve only ever stopped off once – on the western shore. The weather was foul and I remember scrambling up the steep slopes of Dob Gill to Harrop Tarn. It was peaceful up there but unbelievably boggy at the time. We descended through the woods to warm up in the car.
So although it was miserable, I’ve longed to return ever since and complete a walk around Thirlmere.
Being a circular walk, you can start from one of the many car parks around Thirlmere. It was quiet at this time of year and I had no trouble finding a spot. I chose Swirls car park on the eastern side for no reason other than I wanted to suss it out as a starting point for my planned walk up Helvellyn the next day.
Information boards point to a number of excursions from the lake, with the longest being the Thirlmere Loop. Much like the Ullswater Way, it’s signposted throughout so all I had to do was follow the blue circles. But unlike the Ullswater Way, it seems to have less of a cult following. Perhaps this is because it was already established before the storm damage, whereas the Ullswater Way was born out of it. Perhaps it’s just not long enough. In time, it may become just as popular – it certainly deserves to be as it’s a lovely walk.
Crossing the busy A591, the path descends towards the water’s edge. A stream thunders down the slopes, sounding like radio static turned up to max. The noise is suddenly extinguished as I turned a corner to start the loop. The calm is instantly soothing and I settled into the rhythm of the lakeside walk.
Heading anti-clockwise, the path is easy to follow, with frequent tracks down to quiet bays on the lake. I should, of course, say reservoir, which means stepping into the water is a strict no-no. Countless signs remind you of this as you come across any inviting pebbly beaches.
The track continues through pleasant woodland with views across the water. I made sure to take the path to the left as it skirts around the belly of Great How, otherwise there’s a good chance of ending up back at the road and having to make a slight detour.
Before long, the dam comes into view. There’s evidence of works still taking place around Thirlmere with construction traffic and road closures to vehicles (bikes and pedestrians can get through). Stopping across the dam, I was treated to extensive views down the lake with the Helvellyn range to my left and Armboth Fell and Raven Crag to my right.
The dam is nowhere near as impressive as Haweswater or Wet Sleddale. In fact you’d be hard pushed to realise it’s a reservoir at all. It doesn’t have that mechanical groaning from the towers like Haweswater does. But nor does it have that sense of remoteness of Haweswater. It’s peaceful, yes, but not wild.
Although I didn’t see many people on this drizzly Friday in October, the paths along the western side of the lake showed evidence of use. I was pleased to see people haven’t abandoned Thirlmere and the accessibility of fine sections of lakeside walking should mean walkers will return in the Summer.
The rock face of Raven Crag above looks impressive as I begin my walk south. It’s strange to think the busy metropolis of Keswick and the Borrowdale valley lie just over those hills.
The western shoreline path is the highlight of this walk and much has been done to improve it as part of Thirlmere’s stay in hospital. As I continue further south, I enjoy extensive views up the lake with Blencathra in the distance, perfectly framed by the trees.
The trees provide welcome cover from the rain, which had just blown across from the Helvellyn range. It didn’t last long and made the setting feel rather cosy.
About halfway along, the path rejoins the road for a short section. There are some steps up to a viewpoint with a bench, which would make an idyllic sandwich stop if someone hasn’t already beaten you to it. To continue, I have to retrace your steps back to the road where I find another gate just around the corner. The alternative means stumbling over an old bench before the path is lost to the undergrowth and a fence blocks my way.
Only small stretches of this walk are on the road. But it’s quiet and visibility is good so it’s not unpleasant. As I joined a quiet tarmac section from the Dob Gill car park, I was astonished to see the scars left from the tree-felling operation. This is where I’d parked all those years ago and back then it was surrounded by dense woodland. The Beast from the East and larch disease had certainly decimated the place. Let’s hope some native trees soon repopulate these slopes, which are hardy enough for the next beast.
The one nasty bit of this walk comes in crossing the A591 to pick up the path north. Despite the 40mph speed limits, drivers do seem to come quickly over the brow so I took care to get across in one piece!
The return leg
The return leg climbs sharply before running along the base of the Helvellyn range back to the car park. I enjoyed views down to the reservoir and across to the western shoreline where I’d just been. Two deer made me jump as I rounded a corner in the wood. But they gracefully leapt into the safety of the trees and were lost to the foliage.
The wide forest track continues all the way back to Swirls car park and reminded me a little of the Coffin Route above Grasmere and Rydal Water. Waterfalls punctuate the landscape and built the excitement for my trip up Helvellyn the following day.
Is it for you?
So who is a walk around Thirlmere for? I reckon it’s perfect if you have enjoyed the more pedestrian circuits of Grasmere, Rydal Water and Derwent Water and perhaps want something a little more challenging. It feels less touristy but the paths are still easy to follow, if not a little more challenging in places.
If low-level walking is your thing but Sunday strolls and tearooms aren’t, give Thirlmere a try. It may just whet your appetite for some of the bigger low-level challenges the Lake District has to offer.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Swirls park off the A591 on the eastern shore of Thirlmere
Distance: 10 miles (16 km)
Navigation: Easy – follow the blue signs.
Terrain: Very good. One steep climb but otherwise level walking along good paths. Some paths are narrow through the wooded section and there was one flooded part.
Facilities: I stayed at the nearby Castlerigg Farm Campsite, which was excellent. There are plenty of options too in nearby Keswick and Grasmere. Toilets in the car park (not always open). The King’s Head pub in Thirlspot is a short walk away.
*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.