‘Those few hours on Orrest Head cast a spell that changed my life.’ A. Wainwright
Windermere (Part 1)
I reckon there are two types of people. Those who love the Lake District and those who really love the Lake District.
There are those who appreciate the views, the tranquility and the opportunity to get away from it all. They have a good time but are quick to return to normality and soon forget the experience.
Then there are those for whom the mountains have a deeper effect. Those who feel that part of them belongs in the mountains and must battle against a persistent desire to return. A longing to smell the rain and feel their boots pound against rock. To hear the sounds of Herdwicks bleating on the fells and sense the wind biting their cheeks.
One man who literally wrote the book(s) on this notion was Alfred Wainwright. Wainwright’s fascination with the Lakeland Fells started at Orrest Head. But anyone who feels at ease in the Lake District can recall their own similar epiphany. The realisation they have a connection with the mountains. One which never goes away and draws us back time after time.
My Orrest Head moment came a few miles north – approaching Cat Bells as a small boy. I remember feeling spellbound as I skipped along the wooden boardwalks and gazed across Derwent Water in awe. Regular family holidays continued to strengthen the relationship.
But it wasn’t until a few years later that I started to explore other parts of the National Park. I was lucky enough to participate in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and all my expeditions began from the shores of Lake Windermere. By the time we reached our Gold Award, we were covering 50 miles on expedition and had combed every inch of this core part of the District. Although I do prefer other parts of Cumbria, Lake Windermere remains an important anchor for me.
At face value, Windermere is big, brash and busy. Catch it at peak season and it can feel more like Piccadilly Circus. But it’s still home to the biggest lake and that’s something we can’t ignore in a challenge like Lakes of the Lakes, so face up to the crowds I must.
A walk around Lake Windermere is a bit of a beast. The longest walk by far, at over 30 miles, I decided to split it across two days. Fortunately, there’s a handy car ferry about half way along the lake which I intended to make full use of.
Windermere walk – Part 1
Day 1 began in Clappersgate, a village on the main road between Ambleside and Coniston. The plan was to head south along the western shore as far as the ferry crossing near, errrrr, Far Sawrey. From there, I’d wade through the crowds at Bowness and Windermere before ascending Orrest Head to appreciate the lake from up high. The route continues across farmland until dropping to Ambleside and back to the start.
16 miles, in two distinct halves. Low paths and high paths. Quiet and loud. I wanted to see if I could rekindle some of those fond memories I have from DofE days, and put aside its current reputation of traffic jams and tourists.
There’s a pleasant start to the walk around Lake Windermere along purpose-built footpaths avoiding the road. The Langdales peek over the horizon beyond Skelwith Bridge and you catch glimpses of the majestic Wray Castle across the fields. The long grass was sodden with early morning dew, giving my bare legs a thorough wash down as I followed the clearly signposted path.
After navigating the grounds of Wray Castle (which was eerily quiet at this time of the morning), you join the lakeside path, which you’ll stick with until the ferry crossing. I crunched along the pebbled beaches and continued south. Moored boats bobbed on the surface and the distant hum of early morning traffic on the road across the water filled the air.
The path soon enters the Claife Estate and you are never far from the water’s edge. The woodland feels dense and established but an information board tells you otherwise. The area has been moulded by different industries over the centuries. The trees were largely chopped down, until a programme of replanting at the end of the 18th century brought it back from the brink.
Clearings punctuate the route where excited groups prepared watercraft to launch on the lake. It brought back memories of a different time when powerboats and water skiers were a common sight on the lake. This changed in 2005 when a controversial speed limit was introduced.
It’s a decision which still divides opinion and I have sympathy with both sides. Despite normally championing peace and quiet in the countryside, I feel sorry for the water skiers. I suspect the majority were responsible lake users and only a small number of idiots were spoiling it.
I get that powerboats are noisy but Lake Windermere is flanked by a busy road with constant traffic interrupting the stillness anyway. What about the fighter jets flying overhead?
The environmental impact is something I don’t know enough about. If the speed limit protects the ecosystem, that ultimately has to prevail. But I’ve heard arguments to suggest slower boats create more of a wake, which causes more damage. Equally, the law of unintended consequences has led to some enormous luxury yachts rolling out of the boat yards. I can’t imagine they are particularly environmentally friendly.
The debate continues, with calls to double the current speed limit. I’m not sure this is the necessarily the answer and perhaps better regulation of lake users (apply for licences through registered clubs etc) could help instead.
I do hope an amicable solution can be found – one which protects the environment while allowing this already-bustling part of the District to be enjoyed by all in a safe and responsible manner.
As my thoughts returned to the present, I spotted the watercraft I was soon to board. There’s been a ferry crossing at Windermere for hundreds of years. The current car ferry scoots back and forth, guided by underwater cables, and is a handy way of getting across the water every 20 minutes.
I timed it beautifully, the ferry landing just as I arrived. I paid my £1 and enjoyed the short crossing, looking up and down the lake and taking in its vastness.
Arriving on the eastern shore, the dynamic changes instantly. Traffic queued to board the ferry. An enormous mega-yacht was towed out of a boatyard on a trailer. The car parks were full and tourists swarmed from coaches.
I can’t say I enjoyed the next hour negotiating the busy streets of Bowness towards Windermere station. Traffic stood still and horns blared as people crowded the busy streets. Although not my cup of tea, it’s reassuring to see British tourism alive and well and if it gets people closer to the hills, then that’s a good thing.
I soon reached the train station and the start of the path to Orrest Head. Keen to experience what Wainwright did all those years ago, I followed the well-signposted track to the summit.
The ascent was straightforward. The summit has a bench and information board outlining the high peaks which dominate your view beyond the northern shoreline of the lake.
Despite the low cloud, I could pick out some iconic names. The Langdales, the Coniston fells, the foothills of Scafell Pike. It’s a feast for the eyes and the view belies the diminutive size of the hill. It was like peering into a snow globe with the best bits of the Lake District condensed into one vista. Drinking it in, I understood how that young man from Blackburn felt on seeing these giants for the first time and the profound effect that day had on him. Unfortunately, I was brought back to earth by a rather loud person spoiling the serenity of the summit (so it’s not only powerboats which are noisy…!).
On I trod, as the walk took on a new character. I crossed farmland with expansive views towards the eastern part of the Lake District. I didn’t see a soul for some time and enjoyed the opportunity for some headspace after the stresses of Bowness, Windermere and the loud individual on Orrest Head.
The route takes a wide loop around the north-eastern aspect of the lake, with cracking views down the length of the water and the high fells enjoyed from the summit of Orrest Head. With some short climbs, quiet woodlands and cool rivers, I soon approached Ambleside and met with the hustle and bustle once more.
Ambleside always feels exciting. Yes it’s busy but less oppressive than Windermere. There are some excellent outdoors shops and cafés and it’s worth calling in before completing the final section to Clappersgate.
Unfortunately, time was not on my side, so on I pressed to cross the River Rothay and the final tarmac stretch to the car. The sun was breaking through the clouds as the tourists surfaced for a late lunch, just as I completed my walk around the top part of Lake Windermere.
I enjoyed this part of the walk more than I thought. It brought back fine memories of my DofE expeditions and if you skip through the metropolises of Windermere and Bowness, there is peace to be found.
Although it wasn’t my personal Orrest Head moment, it’s certainly a fine introduction to the majesty of the District.
Highs and Lowdown (Part 1)
Start / Finish: Clappersgate, Bowness, Ambleside… Anywhere on the circuit
Distance: 16 miles (25.75 km)
Navigation: Moderate – well sign-posted on Western shore and on ascent of Orrest Head; use a map for the rest of it along clearly-defined footpaths and bridleways
Terrain: Very good, if not excellent. Some overgrown sections in Summer.
Facilities: Many options in Ambleside, Windermere and Bowness. Accommodation books up fast in Summer
*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.