K2 is the second highest mountain on Earth and it’s way cooler than Everest. Without belittling the challenge of climbing the world’s highest mountain, K2 is properly hardcore. Nicknamed the Savage Mountain, that tells you all you need to know. Compared with Everest, only a handful of climbers have reached the summit, and a successful Winter climb is still up for grabs.
Jupiter might beat Saturn in terms of size but our solar system’s second biggest planet is the one that captures the imagination with its awesome rings. Jupiter’s a bit of a bully. Saturn is beautiful and graceful. It’s the lightest planet in the solar system and would float on water if you could ever set that one up. Cool, huh?
Scafell is a more exciting climb than Scafell Pike. The two main routes from Mickledore via Foxes Tarn and Lord’s Rake are steep and unforgiving, passing through some of the finest rock in Lakeland. Lord’s Rake was even ‘out of bounds’ a few years ago as a humongous, finger-like boulder became wedged at the top of the rake, threatening to tumble down at any moment. Then there’s Broad Stand, which ensnares unsuspecting walkers every year. Just type it into Google and you’ll see what I mean. Being the second highest means you’ll have the summit to yourself with a view of the hoards on Scafell Pike across the Mickledore gap.
Terminator 2 was better than The Terminator. Enough said.
Not many people like the idea of playing second fiddle. They are only interested in first place. Numero Uno. The best. And that’s exactly why I reckon Ullswater is a fine runner up…
A fine runner up
It’s the Lake District’s answer to K2, Saturn and Terminator 2. It’s beautiful, for a start. Snaking its way through the eastern and far eastern fells, it reminds me of New Zealand, split into discrete North and South ‘islands’. It’s surrounded by more exciting peaks than its first place rival and feels more welcoming, with much of Windermere’s shoreline being private and off-limits.
Glenridding and Patterdale serve as gateways to Britain’s favourite walk (Helvellyn via Striding Edge and Swirral Edge), with all the facilities you are likely to need. There are excellent campsites, luxury hotels and quirky alternatives for every taste.
And while the tourist hotspots of Aira Force and the Ullswater Steamers are rightly popular, it somehow never seems quite as oppressive as Windermere.
The Ullswater Way
The Ullswater Way was born from the devastation caused by Storm Desmond in 2015. It’s a new, way-marked walk around Ullswater designed to encourage visitors back to the valley.
When I first heard about it, I have to say I was nervous. Way-marked trails are often the outdoors equivalent of ‘organised fun’. The idea is well-intentioned but it soon leads to chaos. The signage runs out. People grumble there aren’t enough facilities and the car parks at either end become clogged… There’s an official guide book too, which didn’t ease my concerns.
How wrong I was. This is a way-marked trail done properly. The Official Guide by Mark Richards is excellent. It’s easy to follow and highly accurate. But even without this in your pocket, the signage is so clear, you needn’t worry about getting too lost. Seriously impressive.
Waking up in the Lake District
I began my walk around Ullswater in the best possible way: waking up in the Lake District. I’d travelled up the night before and slept under canvas at the excellent Gillside Farm Campsite. In much the same way that tents convince you the sheep grazing nearby are bloodthirsty zombies, they also make light rain sound like a category 5 hurricane. After extracting my aching body from the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag, I stepped outside and realised it wasn’t that bad. A bit murky perhaps but decent enough for lakeside walking.
I packed up the tent and moved the car to Glenridding before starting the walk. The official start of the Ullswater Way is in Pooley Bridge but being a circular walk, it doesn’t really matter. I liked the idea of hitting Pooley Bridge by lunchtime, as it felt like a convenient halfway point.
Heading anti-clockwise, I was soon on the road to Patterdale. The usual car parks for the walk up to Striding Edge were deserted – the drizzle doing its best to keep people lingering over breakfast. Shortly after the Mountain Rescue base, the path leaves the road to Side Farm.
Beautiful and rewarding
Here’s where the adventure starts and the walk gets better with every step. The lakeside path is sublime, with views across the water to Glenridding and the Helvellyn range to your left, Place Fell to your right. The excitement builds as you round Silver Crag and are greeted by extensive views across the water. The wind whipped around the corner, blowing away any cobwebs from the previous night spent on a foam mat.
Alfred Wainwright describes this section as ‘the most beautiful and rewarding walk in Lakeland’. A statement the voices from among the trees perhaps didn’t agree with at that moment. The rain had intensified by now and the wind was chilly, making the group of children that emerged from the wood on an Outward Bound trip look less than impressed. Their mucky, oversized waterproof trousers and enormous backpacks bore the hallmarks of a wet night outside. Enthusiastic leaders kept spirits up and, if my experiences of school trips are anything to go by, I bet they were having the time of their lives, despite the weather.
It soon became apparent that they’d got the better part of the deal, as I soon heard shrill cries from the lake. Another group had plunged into the icy waters – their instructors dishing out challenges involving lots of dunking! “Why do we stop doing these things as adults?” I asked myself, as I continued with my more sensible trek.
Make a choice
The track soon leads to Howtown, where you can catch the Steamer, or otherwise continue with your adventure. The path rises gently before you reach a fork with a choice to make. The Upper Path rises to the Cockpit stone circle before descending to Pooley Bridge. Given the persisting mist, I took the Lower Path, which joins the lakeside road before passing through Waterside House Campsite.
I soon arrived in Pooley Bridge, and thoughts turned to lunch. With several eateries on offer, I was tempted to stay and enjoy a hearty meal but with some distance still to cover, I settled for pitta bread, a mini Peperami and Primula cheese to provide some much needed energy for the afternoon.
Crossing the temporary bridge, I paused to learn more about the rebuilding of the bridge from the information board. It’s still hard to believe the power of the storm and those images of the bridge being washed away by the flood. I do hope the Ullswater Way helps to bring some tourism back to the area and support the resilience of the local residents and businesses.
As expected, leaving Pooley Bridge begins what feels like a distinct ‘Part 2’ of your walk around Ullswater. You immediately climb a path across quiet fields with expansive views across to the fells. The view took me by surprise. I hadn’t expected such a visual feast of fells on a lakeside walk.
There’s a treat waiting for you in one of the fields – a small shed with a sign saying ‘shop’. I opened the door with trepidation, half expecting to see Tubbs from the League of Gentlemen sitting behind the counter – ‘Can I help you at all…?’ Thankfully, the precious things consisted of fresh eggs, homemade chutneys and a few snacks with an honesty box. A lovely idea.
Shortly after the hamlet of Bennethead, you’ll reach a sign warning of muddy fields and an alternative route along the road. I opted for the path across country, which wasn’t muddy following extensive repairs. I did veer off the route slightly here, though, continuing straight on when the Ullswater Way skirts to the right after a dip in the field. It’s the only part of the route which isn’t sign-posted well (or, more likely, I just missed it) – perhaps a casualty of the footpath repairs but the diversion was hardly unwelcome.
The footpath took me through the Ullswater Holiday Park, from where it was a short walk along the road to rejoin the main trail. From here, a fine path rises through woodland above Watermillock church with views across Ullswater below. You get a real sense of scale of the Lake District’s second biggest lake from this lofty path and soon reach a fork with another choice to make.
High road or low road?
It’s a high / low route option, and given the break in the weather I plumped for the high level route this time, over the aptly named ‘Airy Crag’. Only afterwards did I read in the guidebook that this option is ‘more extensive than many walkers appreciate’ but the climb is worth it for the 360-degree views on offer.
The descent to Aira Beck brought home the effect of footfall on the Lakeland paths. Huge scars are carved into the landscape as clumsy boots erode the paths. Evidence of repair work is abundant here, with sacks of rocks flown in by helicopter. Seeing the damage reminded me of the importance of sticking to paths and respecting the landscape. A big thank you to the organisations and volunteers who give up their time to keep the fells in tip-top condition.
The path turns sharply to the left after a steep descent and you follow the line of Aira Beck. The noise steadily builds until you reach the dramatic cascade of Aira Force. It’s worth pausing here to appreciate the majesty of the waterfall from above and below. This is one part of the walk you won’t have to yourself, though.
Follow the crowds back to the car park and spot the welcome sign back to Glenridding – 3 miles. The path sticks to the road for the duration but occasionally ducks down to the lake shore, affording wonderful glimpses north.
One last treat
As if the Ullswater Way knows you are travelling on tired legs, it treats you to one last climb up some steps before joining the road and the 30mph sign signalling you have reached Glenridding.
The end of this walk around Ullswater arrives somewhat abruptly and I felt sad. It’s a monumental walk this. 22 miles across varied terrain. Low paths by the lakeshore. High paths across gusty tops. Bustling meccas for tourists and quiet farming hamlets. It really does have it all. I was sad it was over. And sad too that so many will discount it for being only second best.
Windermere beckons for me next. It’s the longest walk. The biggest lake. The busiest. It’ll be a cracking walk for sure, yet I know I’ll be pining for the runner up and the fantastic Ullswater Way – the connoisseur’s choice of lake.
Highs and Lowdown
Start / Finish: Glenridding, Pooley Bridge, Patterdale… Anywhere on the circuit
Distance: 22 miles (35.5 km)
Navigation: Easy – follow the Ullswater Way signs to walk around the lake
Terrain: Good paths throughout; some steeper climbs if you take the high-level alternatives; some muddy sections
Facilities: Excellent facilities in Glenridding and Pooley Bridge. National Trust tearoom at Aira Force. ‘Local shop’ (shed with an honesty box) in field near Bennethead. The Quiet Site has refreshments. In other words, lots of options…
*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.