One of the Lake District’s most beautiful watery gems is Buttermere. Tucked in the northwestern corner of the Lake District National Park, Buttermere belongs to a trilogy of lakes including Crummock Water, the largest, and Loweswater, the smallest. Together, all three lakes benefit from national park protection and are designated as motorboat-free lakes.
What is a mere? The word ‘mere’ simply means ‘body of water.’ It’s a little-known fact that there is only one actual lake in the Lake District – and it isn’t (officially) Buttermere. That honour is given to Bassenthwaite Lake (just north of Keswick). However, in practice, the Lake District has sixteen major bodies of water, whether they are called meres, waters or a lake. Read our lakes overview here.
With its easy parking and breathtaking views, it is little wonder that Buttermere’s shores are popular. Though a popular destination for day trips, a calm descends upon Buttermere as the hustle and bustle of the day subside, with many visitors returning to Keswick or the Borrowdale valley.
The best way to visit Buttermere is to arrive early and hike out onto the fells for expansive views and quiet trails. Descend the fells tired yet satisfied, tucking into one of the friendly pubs in the hamlet of Buttermere, such as the Bridge Hotel, where portions are generous and tasty, and even better when washed down with a pint of local ale.
While tempting to visit Buttermere alongside Borrowdale or Keswick, Buttermere isn’t an experience to be rushed. Edwin Waugh, a nineteenth-century poet, whimsically writes of “the dainty Ariels of moonlit water” in a poem about neighbouring Ennerdale, but stroll around Buttermere on a light, balmy evening and you just might find a sense of magic here too.
Whilst the Lake District fells and valleys are a joy at any time of year, spring is the season when nature’s beauty bursts forth in all her glory with Buttermere no exception. Pastoral landscapes and the lake shores are dotted with wildflowers and wild grasses – a picture of tranquil, bucolic beauty.
Perhaps the most magical is the Rannerdale hillside between Crummock Water and Buttermere from April to May when it erupts into a vibrant display of bluebells. These violet-blue flowers are protected by law and managed by the National Trust. Overzealous admirers off-trail can damage the delicate plants, so visitors are urged to stick to the clearly defined paths.
From July to September, swathes of sweet, magenta-coloured heather blaze in full bloom. But visitors arriving after the flush of summer will not be disappointed; the slowing down of summer flora makes way for autumn’s calming orange hues before transitioning into winter’s hibernation.
Brown trout and Arctic char (among other fish) swim under the glittering surface of the lake’s clear waters. Observe closely, and you might just hear a ‘plop’ or see the tell-tale white splash of underwater life, briefly surfacing.
England is a land beloved for birdwatching. Protected lands within the national park offer sanctuary for many species. In the Buttermere area, listen to the titters of many species such as woodpeckers, blue tits, sandpipers and pied flycatchers – just some of the spring-time birds around Buttermere.
Sandpipers are ground-nesting birds that lay their speckled eggs on Buttermere’s northern lakeshore shingle. This area should be avoided from April to June to protect these vulnerable birds. Walking around the lake is still possible by taking the slightly longer route which passes through the Buttermere hamlet.
Distance: 5km / 3miles
A stroll around the lake – with its mixed-woodlands teaming with new life in spring – takes only a couple of hours. With mostly easy path surfaces on rights of way (and a short road section to the south), combine this hike with a visit to the pretty hamlet of Buttermere. Sykes Farm sells mouth-wateringly creamy ice cream, made with milk from their own cows. Or why not stop in the village for a garden pub lunch?
As the route is looped, park at the suggested parking places anywhere along the route and hop onto the trail with relative ease. Walk through a pretty woodland section before crossing a bridge over Mill Beck, heading upstream on well-marked paths towards the lake. ‘Beck’ is an old Norse word, still used today throughout Cumbria, an intriguing nod to England’s Viking heritage.
From July to March, a permitted path opens up to allow visitors to walk along the northern shingle shore. Outside of these months, hikers are usually requested to use the path through to the village, to avoid disturbing the ground-nesting Sandpipers.
Distance: Multiple route options, with the shortest at 8km / 5miles
Elevation: 597 m (1959 ft)
Visiting the Lake District wouldn’t be the same experience as it is today without famous fellwalker Alfred Wainwright, renowned for his hand-drawn pocket guidebooks. Walk in his footsteps to climb Haystacks, Wainwright’s favourite fell top (and where his ashes are scattered) – a satisfying hike from the Buttermere valley. Whilst a linear path is possible, a circular route takes in the best of the region.
All hikers heading up to Haystacks or beyond should be experienced and prepared. Higher paths are not waymarked, and even on a summer’s day, rain and clouds can roll in leaving unsuspecting hikers disorientated and vulnerable – a compass and basic navigation skills are a must while hiking on the fells. If you aren’t interested in navigating, the best way to explore Buttermere and the fells is with a hiking guide, whether you choose a private trip or prefer to join a guided walking trip in the Lake District.
From Gatesgarth, either head directly to Haystacks or combine with neighbouring summits. For those less comfortable with heights and exposed rocky steps, the Haystacks summit on the north side is best avoided.
The easiest linear route still involves 500 meters (1600ft) of ascent and a rough and uneven path. From Gatesgarth, take the path towards Warnscale Beck. The gradually steepening ascent tops out near the Dubs Hut Bothy, part of the Honister slate mine, the perfect shelter in rainy weather. The small slate building is also of interest as a place of local industrial mining history. For those keen to experience even more adventure, staying a night in the bothy is possible.
From the bothy, the path to Haystacks continues over undulating ground, passing Black Beck Tarn (a tarn is a small body of water, much like a large pond) and its smaller, more famous cousin, Innominate Tarn, before steepening again nearer the top. On a clear day, pause en route to watch the tiny vehicles below against a wondrous lake and mountain backdrop. This route is just under 5km/3 miles long, and can then either be reversed or linked to a variety of circular options. The quickest is a tricky rock-strewn descent over the north side of Haystacks to Scarth Gap Pass. Continuing down across Buttermere Fell (another Norse word, referring to the hillside), re-cross Warnscale Beck, via Peggy’s Bridge, near the lakeshore.
Other circular options include linking the prominent Fleetworth Pike 648m or continuing over Scarth Gap Pass to the much more committing High Crag, High Style and even Red Pike. For those wishing to extend the distance without any additional challenges, park near Buttermere village and combine the lake circumnavigation with a Haystacks ascent.
A small steep gorge tucked away above the southwest shore of Crummock Water is home to Scale Force. The Lake District’s highest waterfall, Scale Force has a single drop of 170ft. Hidden by trees, the white cascade can be hard to spot when surrounded by full summer growth. Although mentioned on a signpost in Buttermere, the actual route to Scale Force is over boggy, uneven, and non-waymarked terrain, and is approximately 3 km from the nearest parking in Buttermere. Love waterfalls? Find more stunning cascades in Northern England here.
For those with less time or inclination to head into the higher fells, then Rannerdale Knotts – sitting just above the South Eastern shore of Crummock Water, and easily accessible from Buttermere – is a worthy summit. With various route options, the shortest circular route is just over 4km, with a steep 200m ascent/descent on the western flank. The region bursts into a violet blanket of spring bluebells each May and June.
With its dramatic landscape and steep passes to the south and northeast, keen, fit and experienced cyclists will relish the challenges of biking the shores, hills and laneways around Buttermere. Whilst it’s possible for more sedate rides on the roads of the eastern shores, it’s worth bearing in mind that you’ll likely be sharing the road with cars and buses.
For mountain bike lovers, the Whinlatter visitor centre (a thirty-minute drive from Buttermere via the stunning Newlands Pass road) is a great place to enjoy off-road biking at all levels. Learn more about cycling in Northern England in our insider’s article detailing the best route of the region, including in the Buttermere area. Want to keep reading? Take a peek at our other top cycling routes in Northern England here.
The Honister Slate Mine, with its rich industrial history, is well worth a visit if you have time. With a small but informative visitor centre and cafe, it’s a great place to step back in time. Parking is plentiful and, being high up on the pass between the Buttermere Valley and Borrowdale, Honister is a natural starting point for many walks into the higher fells. Haystacks and Fleetwith Pike are both accessible from the Honister Slate Mine.
To the uninitiated, driving up steep Lakeland passes can be the most adventurous part of the day, and the Honister Pass is no exception. However, pulling away from the bustling valley floor brings a sudden feeling of remoteness and a certain reverence for the majesty of mother nature. So, take a moment to pause in this in-between world and feel for yourself the special magic in the Lake District Landscape.
There are a number of parking options for those visiting the region by car. The most reliable parking is either at Gatesgarth (at the south end of the lake) or the National Trust car park just to the north of the village. There are a few other smaller car parks or large lay-bys at which you might park, but lakeside parking is limited – see below for more details.
For those who want to avoid cars and be more sustainable, the public bus service is a great option, including the free spring and summer shuttle bus from the nearby town of Cockermouth.
With its pleasant high street shops and riverside park walks, Cockermouth – which is also the birthplace of famous Lakeland poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy – is an enjoyable town to visit in its own right. As well as being an environmental thumbs-up, the shuttle service, which also stops at the famous Rannerdale Bluebells, is ideal if your time is limited and you’d like to avoid the stress of daytime driving and parking.
Whilst there is limited lakeside parking along the eastern shore, a good level of common sense needs to prevail. Arriving mid-afternoon on a summer’s weekend expecting to be able to park near the lake is highly likely to end in frustration. On a busy day, it can be tempting to tag onto a never-ending line of semi-abandoned roadside cars. But these are the times when a second plan needs to be put into action or even a third.
Better to aim for the larger Gatesgarth car park, at the Southern end or even park up at the Honister Pass slate mine and explore the visitor centre and surrounding area – before dropping back down into Buttermere for the evening.
Read more writing by walking guide and writer Jo Roberts on her website www.writinginsideout.co.uk.