Derwent Water, framed by sweeping, majestic mountains, sits proudly at the mouth of Borrowdale, a now iconic valley within the Lake District National Park. Its most northerly shores are just a short stroll from the bustling market town of Keswick. Stretching southwards towards the central Lake District fells, the entire area is a hiker’s paradise.
Lauded by visiting Victorian holiday makers as the ‘Queen of the Lakes,’ Derwent Water is a truly magical place. It is home to four islands and a myriad of small coves, offering plenty of opportunities for exploration.
Adventure-loving younger visitors, or those who are young at heart, will be thrilled to know that Derwent Water also featured in the 2016 film, Swallows and Amazons.
With its plethora of cafes and outdoor equipment shops, Keswick (pronounced “Kes-ick”) is the largest town within the Lake District National Park and a popular place for many visitors heading into or out of Borrowdale. A large array of artisanal gift shops and small art galleries also make this attractive town a destination in its own right. With a large pedestrianised high street, a trip to Keswick can make for pleasant afternoon browsing, often blending shopping with street music or the local market. Perhaps best of all are the mountainous panoramas at almost every turn.
The Herdwick, Lakeland’s famous sheep, even has its own brand. The Herdy shops are deservedly popular, selling quality gifts in a range of eye-catching colours.
Once Keswick’s courthouse and meeting room, the prominent Moot Hall is now a visitor information centre. It also serves as both the start and finish for runners attempting the Bob Graham Round. A much coveted fell-running challenge tackling 42 fells (hills) across 106 km/66 miles within 24 hours, this race is not for the faint-hearted. Should you see anyone clad in running gear standing primed and ready with spectators gathered around, it’s a sure thing that an attempt is underway. With record times getting shorter and shorter, a mightily impressive sub twelve and a half hours is the one to beat.
Interestingly, the stone used to build Moot Hall came from the ruined home of the Earls of Derwent Water, who lived on the island now known as Lord’s Island (learn more at the Keswick Launch Company).
Keswick offers multiple green open spaces and park areas within a few minutes from the shops. With its riverside path and sports greens, Victorian–landscaped Fitz Park is a tranquil retreat from the bustling high street. The Keswick Museum, tucked away behind Café West on the roadside of the park, is worth a visit. Hope Park is another haven for those heading towards the lake – the perfect place to relax and unwind.
If there is a show on when you are in town, a visit to the friendly Theatre by the Lake, just fifteen minutes from Keswick, is an added highlight. There is often a programme of outdoors-related shows and plays. The Keswick Launches also leave from the same area.
Unlike the long ribbons of the bigger lakes such as Ullswater, Derwent Water is more of a quirky oval shape. At 5 km/3 miles long and only 22 m/72 ft at its deepest point, the lake contains four small islands scattered across her northern waters. Formed from glacial deposits more than 10,000 years ago, these grassy, tree-covered havens, known as drumlin islands, are a distinct geological contrast to many of the rockier islands elsewhere in the National Park.*
Derwent Island, the only inhabited island on the lake, is a private residence owned by the National Trust and closed to the public for 360 days of the year. Lord’s Island, named for the Earls of Derwent Water who used to live there, is a protected area for wildlife and the National Trust request that it is not landed on. However, both Rampsholme and St Herbert’s, the largest of the islands, are open access for responsible lake users.
*For more information about the geology and composition of the Lakeland lakes then Alan Smith’s The Big Lakes of Lakeland is an informative and accessible read.
Love the sound of Keswick and the surrounding area of Derwent Water and the Lake District? Join a small group tour of Northumberland and the Lake District to explore the local region and more. Self drive options are available too – learn more here.
Whether you’re itching to get out on the water for a paddle or boat trip, daring for a quick dip, want to hike the shores and fells around Derwent Water or cycle the laneways near the lake, there is no shortage of ways to explore the wonderous wilds around Derwent Water.
A gentle breeze on a summer’s afternoon offers no finer time to step aboard one of the Keswick Launches to cruise the lake and experience breathtaking views of the surrounding fells. Gaze north towards Skiddaw, England’s fourth-highest mountain, or turn south towards the mighty ‘Jaws of Borrowdale’ – an imposing rocky chasm where the River Derwent twists and turns between the regal-sounding summit of King’s How and Castle Crag.
Whether the skies are clear and blue or rain is on the horizon, a boat trip on Derwent Water offers new perspectives and a truly atmospheric journey into the heart of Lakeland.
Best of all, the launches stop at multiple places around the lake. Travelling by boat is also the perfect way to enjoy the fells and waterside paths car-free. Learn more about lake cruises and boat hire here.
Derwent Water is hugely popular with a wide range of water users, from children splashing in the shallows to kayakers out for a morning paddle. Public access is easier from the eastern shores, with a number of National Trust car parks close to the water’s edge.
Swimmers who don’t mind a bit of a walk have a multitude of access points along the western shore. The Northern Isthmus nearer Keswick is a deservedly popular spot.
For visitors without equipment, Derwent Water also hosts a number of hire facilities. Canoes, kayaks, rowing boats, paddleboards and even pedalos can be supplied by Derwent Marina – learn more here.
Offering a healthy dose of fresh air and exercise, there are a plethora of walks, routes and summits close to Derwent Water.
Dominating the skyline north of Keswick is Skiddaw. At 931 m/3054 ft, this magnificent mountain is visible for miles around and is one of the most dramatic fells in North Lakeland. Even in good weather, an ascent can prove challenging, and summiting Skiddaw is best suited as a guided hike for those with previous fell walking experience and navigational ability.
Plenty of spectacular yet more manageable peaks such as Cat Bells and Latrigg – two deservedly popular fells – draw locals and visitors alike to don walking boots and head for the hills.
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Height: 368m | 1,207 ft
Distance: 2.5km – 8km | 1.5 – 5 miles
Of the two mountains listed here, the grass-topped Latrigg is the easier option. It works well as a short linear walk if starting from the high car park, directly north of the summit. This is also a convenient start for Skiddaw.
For those looking for a bigger challenge, it is possible to make this a longer hike by walking out from Keswick. Although not directly lakeside, the views from Latrigg’s summit offer a wonderful sense of grandeur looking south towards the Central Lake District Fells, with relatively minimal effort.
To return, retrace your steps on this linear walk. If time permits, the gently sweeping descent to Brundholme is a lovely extension. From there, pick up the disused railway line for a relaxing stroll back to Keswick.
Read more about the Keswick to Threlkeld Railway Trail in the Lake District here.
Height: 451m | 1,479 ft
Distance: 4km | 2.5 miles (most direct loop)
Cat Bells is a rockier route requiring more commitment, but it’s still classed as a minor peak compared to other hills.
There are various options for getting to the start, including foot, bus, boat, or shuttle bus, but they all converge at the bottom of the northern flank. It starts as a steep, well-worn path before crossing a rocky section – tricky when wet – and winding through easier terrain to the summit.
There are some truly awe-inspiring views from Cat Bells. Standing on the summit brings a wonderful sense of freedom. Gazing down at Derwent Water and its tiny islands, the sweeping view is captivating. Poor weather can hamper visibility and navigation, so it’s always best to be prepared and carry a map if needed.
The southern descent continues over the rocky summit before dropping diagonally downwards in a sweeping zig-zag to the road. From here it’s a simple walk back to the start or choose to continue your descent through woodland along the lakeshore path. From Hawse End or Brandelhow Bay, take a well-earned boat ride back to Keswick.
Hike this route yourself on a trip traversing Northumberland’s wilds and the Lake District’s epic beauty.
Distance: 11km | 7 miles
This 117 km/73 mile National Trail drops into Borrowdale via the hamlet of Stonethwaite from the neighbouring valley of Langdale. This section of the Cumbria Way offers an exceptionally pleasant hike. Walk amidst mixed deciduous woodland, along the river Derwent and on the western shores of the lake.
Parking is available throughout Borrowdale, but perhaps the most relaxing way is to take a bus from Keswick to Rosthwaite and follow the Cumbria Way back. This route passes Brandelhow Bay, home to the sculpture of the hands, ‘Entrust’. This contemporary outdoor art honours the first place in the Lake District protected by the National Trust (in 1902).
Be sure to look out for the famous ‘Teddy in the Window’ near Manesty Woods and take a few moments to read some of his postcards.
Distance: 5km | 3 miles
A series of paths run parallel to the eastern shore linking Keswick to Derwent Water. Whilst there are occasional road crossings, the paths offer a variety of gentle sections. Either walk them in their entirety or pair them with one of the mid-way car parks or bus routes.
Since 1895, the National Trust has been hugely influential in the conservation and protection of many places within the UK. The Lake District National Park is no exception.
To commemorate the centenary, a two-piece pattern was carved from a local boulder and placed on Derwent Water’s shores. Each of the Centenary Stone’s ten rings across ten segments represents a century. To view this modern sculpture, follow meandering lakeside paths south from Keswick Launch along the eastern shore to Calfclose Bay.
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Hidden behind the hotel of the same name, Watendlath Beck is home to Lodore Falls, a 30 m/100 ft cascade of tumbling water. Although best visited after heavy rain, the woodland setting is a pleasant end to the walk no matter the water level. Top it all off with a well-earned pint or cuppa in the hotel.
At the end of Derwent Water, Lodore Falls is a lovely way to finish the walk before jumping on a bus back to town. Alternatively, park at one of the National Trust car parks along the way to create a linear lakeside saunter.
Love waterfalls? Why not read about several of our favourite cascades in Northern England.
Distance: 16 km | 10 miles
If choosing which shore to visit proves tricky, then why not experience it all? It’s a great option for those looking to increase their mileage or with more time in the region. A circular walk around Derwent Water is both enjoyable and satisfying, with lots of twists and turns, and plenty of stunning shores, coves and bays to explore.
The obvious place to start and finish is the town of Keswick. However, any one of the National Trust car parks or bus stops in Borrowdale can work equally well.
Just under three miles south of the lake, England’s famous Coast to Coast route crosses the River Derwent. This fantastic long distance walking route, awarded National Trail status in August 2022, is a favourite amongst Wilderness England guides.
Hike the amazing Coast to Coast trip yourself, traversing England and exploring the Lake District, Yorkshire and more on a small group tour led by an expert guide.
Keen and fit road cyclists can often be seen around Derwent Water. Although the narrow main road can be busy with visitors and locals alike, a ride out from Keswick through Borrowdale, up and over the Honister Pass towards Buttermere and back to Keswick via the Newlands Pass can be a hugely rewarding day out. For cyclists less keen on high climbs, enjoy a more sedate ride around the lake, linking Keswick, Grange and Portinscale.
An even more gentle option is the renovated multi-user, disused railway line. Winding its way east from Keswick to Threlked, it is the perfect traffic-free cycle along the smooth tarmac. Peppered with information signs, it’s a delight to slow down and read about the history of the area.
Described by English Heritage as ‘perhaps the most atmospheric and dramatically sited of all British stone circles,’ Castlerigg Stone Circle sits above Keswick, wrapping all those who visit in a palpable sense of calm. This incredible site is free to visit; touching the stones is like stepping back in time to a faraway millennium. Learn more here.
Visit Castlerigg Stone Circle, Derwent Water and more on our self drive trip through the Lake District.
Throughout the Lake District, the hardy Herdwick sheep, with their placid nature and teddy-bear-like faces are a truly iconic sight. Look out for the ewes (adult females) with their distinctive grey fleeces and contrasting black lambs while hiking Cat Bells or exploring the Derwent Water area.
When passing by Lord’s Island on the far shore, admire spring primroses from a distance. However, visitors are respectfully asked not to land, and to avoid paddling between the island and the shore.
From late spring into early autumn, the pungent smell of wild garlic permeates pockets of woodland around the lake. Rampsholme Island, which is named from an Old Norse translation of ‘Wild Garlic Island,’ has swathes of this delicious, forageable plant.
In late summer or early autumn, whether you are hiking on the fells or admiring them from below, magenta-coloured heather carpets the slopes of many hills around Derwent Water. Caught just right, its sweet, rose-like scent will rise up on a gentle breeze.
Canadian Geese and other migratory birds are also a familiar sight across the lake.
With frequent buses linking Keswick to railway stations at Penrith, Windermere and Lancaster, Derwent Water is one of the easiest lakes to enjoy car-free. Keswick’s excellent location and regular local buses into Borrowdale add to the limitless walking and outdoor opportunities.
For those coming by car, the M6 (motorway) access is via the sweeping A66 to Keswick. Along the way, keep an eye out for wonderful vistas of the north and central mountain ranges. Or for full Lakeland immersion, drive through the national park from Kendal to Keswick for a continuous series of stunning views.
A massive attraction for visitors to Borrowdale and Derwent Water is the blend of foot, bus and boat to create a satisfying and enjoyable visit. There is a multitude of options, such as finishing the Cumbria Way section at Hawse End and returning via boat. Or, jumping on the shuttle bus (from Keswick) to hike Cat Bells, before cruising back on one of the Keswick Launches.
Many areas within the Borrowdale Valley are owned by the National Trust, including most of the car parks. Fees go directly to support the charity’s important role within the Lake District. So, for Lakeland enthusiasts, obtaining either an annual National Trust membership or a touring pass is well worth the outlay.
Busy Kettlewell car park is directly on the eastern shore of Derwent Water but is often full very early. Great Wood (close to the Centenary Stone) is larger and works well for either the circular walk around the lake or a gentle stroll to the water’s edge.
Further into Borrowdale (away from the lake), the Bowder Stone, Rosthwaite and Seatoller all have good parking.
Read more writing by walking guide and writer Jo Roberts on her website www.writinginsideout.co.uk.
May 21, 2023