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A Guide to Ullswater in the Lake District

By Joanna Roberts
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Welcome to Ullswater

Nestled in the northeast corner of the Lake District National Park, Ullswater is a deservedly popular area for locals and visitors alike. This magical body of water, which is seven and half miles long, threads its way from the hilly south at Glenridding to the undulating lowland area of Pooley Bridge. It’s fed directly by small tarns and becks high up in the mountainous landscape. And in times of high rainfall the water streams off the hillside in cascades of tumbling white ribbons.

One of sixteen major lakes in the national park, Ullswater is a fabulous place to visit. Whether it be a day outing using the steamers to connect to the eastern shore or a bigger ‘hill’ day walking up some of the Lake District’s highest peaks, there is plenty of interest in this beautiful part of Cumbria.

Is it called Ullswater Lake? The Lake District is full of lakes – it says it all in the name – but only one such body of water actually uses the term ‘lake’ in the name, and it’s not Ullswater. Instead, the others are ‘waters,’ ‘meres,’ or ‘tarns.’ Ullswater is a ‘water’ which means more or less the concept, so using the word ‘lake’ would be a bit redundant.

Jump Straight To:

The Largest National Park in England

The Lake District

Formed in 1951 – during the reign of King George VI – the Lake District National Park is the largest in England and was given a World Heritage Designation by UNESCO in 2017. With its relatively easy access and close proximity to cities including Manchester, Carlisle and Lancaster, tourism is important to this region, and responsible visitors are welcomed and well catered for. The national park is home to over 40,000 residents and attracts millions of visitors each year, many of whom experience the beautiful Ullswater area.

Read an overview of the Lake District here. 

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Where is Ullswater?

The Lake District is located in northern England, in the region of Cumbria. Ullswater is one of the largest lakes within the Lake District.

Tucked into the northeastern corner of the national park, the lake is about 45 minutes south of Carlisle in one of the most beautiful and most rural parts of England.

Ullswater is one of the larger and most beloved of the 30+ lakes in the region and is popular with locals and visitors alike. It has several towns along its shores, including Glenridding and Pooley Bridge on either end of the lake.

Geography and Heritage

Geologically the landscape of fells and dales (hills and valleys) lakes and rivers is a result of the last ice age. Retreating some 10 – 12 thousand years ago, the great ice sheets gouged out mountain tarns and bigger lakes. As wildlife returned – the area around Ullswater, like much of the country grew into a dense mixed-woodland. During the agricultural revolution, forests were cut down, sheep introduced and field boundaries created. A testimony of which can still be seen in the plethora of dry stone walls today.

Roman Roads

A now-buried Roman road running high above the valley floor – aptly named High Street – dates back two thousand years ago linking Penrith to Ambleside.

Mining

Along with farming, the Ullswater area has traditionally attracted a lot of mining and slate quarrying. Greenside mine near Glenridding being the largest, operating from the 1820s until 1961.

Things to Do on the Lake

Paddling

In the dryer, warmer months, families are often found picnicking around the lakeshore, or out paddling the waters in brightly coloured canoes, kayaks and paddleboards. Popular for sailing and increasingly for open water swimming too, there is much to enjoy on or near the water. The wind can whip through the valley, but with its varied angles usually, a good sheltered spot can be found somewhere on the lake.

Steamers

Perhaps most impressive of all are the steamers which run up and down the lake between Pooley Bridge and Glenridding. Stepping back in time, these historic boats unleash a sense of childhood fun and adventure. You can even bring your dog. Stopping also at Howtown and Aira Force, they are a great way to move around the valley and soak in the pure beauty of this awe-inspiring region.

Who is Ullswater Famous For?

Alfred Wainwright

Lancashire born, this prolific fell walker, guidebook author and illustrator has inspired many people to venture into the Lake District hills. It is said that Wainwright trialled his first book in the Patterdale village shop, before selling more than two million copies worldwide. Wainwright is credited with championing the now-famous Coast to Coast walking trail – an epic path that traverses the breadth of northern England.

William Wordsworth

The Lake District’s most famous poet, William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) spent many hours wondering and pondering around Ullswater. His famous poem ‘Daffodils’ came from a particular visit, with his Sister Dorothy’s journal entry being credited for his inspiration. If you venture up to Grisedale Tarn (between Patterdale and Grasmere) it’s also worth seeking out the Brother’s Parting Stone, the place where Wordsworth last saw his brother John.

Donald Campbell

In 1955, Donald Campbell broke the 200mph speed record in his boat The Bluebird. He later died in Coniston in 1967 trying to break the 300mph record. Motorboats are now restricted to ten mph – So why not hire a rowboat from Glenridding or paddle a canoe under your own steam, as you explore the lake at a more sedate pace.

Interested in the topic of English authors and the landscapes that have inspired them?

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Walking & Hiking Around Ullswater

Whilst relaxing by the lake or taking a trip on the steamers is a fabulous way to while away a day or an afternoon, there are plenty of more active adventures ready for the taking. So pull on your walking boots and head onto the fells in search of the great outdoors. After a day out on the hills, the ice creams and pints at the end of the day will taste even sweeter.

High Level Walks

The weather in the Lake District can change really quickly, so even short walks in summer need an element of planning. If you are venturing onto the fells then suitable clothing, footwear, food, water and emergency items, along with a map (and the knowledge to use it) are vital. That being said there is an immense satisfaction in standing on a summit, knowing you have got there under your own steam. Just make sure you can get safely down again, and never be afraid to turn back. The mountains will always be there.

If you are fit and keen, but lack experience or prefer to walk with a group of like-minded individuals and a passionate local guide, then do consider or join a Wilderness England trip – learn more below.

Helvellyn

As the third-highest mountain in England, at 950m / 3,120 ft, Helvellyn is not to be taken lightly.

For experienced walkers, Helvellyn is a fabulous summit, with a variety of access routes – all offering both a challenge and majestic mountain views. The Swirral and Striding Edge horseshoe is a very popular option. But with steep drops, it can also pose its dangers and is best attempted with a knowledgeable guide.

For those who want a bit more flexibility, join our Self Drive trip of the Lake District on which we organise a private guided hike of the Helvellyn. 

Explore it Yourself

St Sunday Crag

Another place of notable interest in the southern corner of Ullswater is St Sunday Crag. The views sweep out over Ullswater and the surrounding mountains are absolutely stunning.

Accessed from Patterdale, it is a reasonably straightforward route, the summit of which offers breath-taking views across the lake and over the central Lakeland fells. It’s a great looped walk, but for a longer and more challenging day, St Sunday can be linked into a horseshoe with Fairfield and Hart Crag.

Or, join our National Parks of the UK trip and hike St Sunday Crag and other amazing walks yourself.

Explore it Yourself

The Coast to Coast

As part of Alfred Wainwright’s legacy, the 192 mile England Coast to Coast crosses the Lake District and is one of England’s finest long-distance trails. After traversing the Central fells, the route passes through Patterdale and heads east to the Hawswater reservoir. On route is Kidsty Pike – the highest point on the Coast to Coast (780m).

Whilst Kidsty Pike may not be that obvious as an out and back walk’, the Coast to Coast route touches the nearby summit of The Knott. To create a circular return to Patterdale, descending from The Knott via Hayeswater and Hartsop makes for a varied and interesting day.

Interested in this fascinating route? Why not walk the whole Coast to Coast yourself? It’s quite an adventure! 

Explore it Yourself

Place Fell

Across the valley – still accessible from Patterdale – is the whimsically named Place Fell. Being over 600 metres, it’s not for the faint-hearted but linked with the lakeshore path this summit forms part of a great round trip.

Low Level Walks

Aira Force

An enchanting place to visit is Aira force – an area landscaped in the eighteenth century, which centres around Aira Beck, a 63ft foot high waterfall. There are a variety of small trails, which blend into the wooded hillside. For those wanting a longer leg stretch, the four-mile Gowbarrow Fell loop offers stunning views above the tree line.

Located along the local bus route as well as accessible via the steamer, Aira Force is the perfect place for a car-free visit. With a National Trust café, toilets and welcoming ‘hosts’, the area is beautifully managed, balancing visitor comfort with a sense of natural peacefulness. 

The best balance of beauty and tranquillity at Aira Force is during weekdays in spring and autumn before schools get out. The waterfalls are at their most spectacular after a few days of rain – but never fear, they still look and sound magical on sunny days too.

Hear the crash of waves amidst the magical woodlands at Aira Force yourself on a walking trip through the beauty of Northumberland and the Lake District. 

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The Ullswater Way

This twenty-mile way-marked route follows the shore all the way around the lake. Some may choose to walk the entire path in a day, though most take a more relaxed approach and choose just one or two sections at a time. The easiest section is the 3 miles / 4.6 km between Aira Force and Glenridding, though it’s advised that special care should be taken on the uneven lakeshore paths after Glencoyne.

Served by the Steamer and local buses – with a bit of planning this makes for a great car-free day, especially with an exploration of Aira Force – and it’s perfectly balanced with a café stop either end.

Eastern Shore

The southeastern side of the lake is much more remote and rugged in comparison, as there is no road – so to get away from it all step off the Steamer at Howtown and experience 6.5miles / 10.5 km of undulating terrain on the walk back to Patterdale and Glenridding. Whilst this is considered low-level hiking, there are still rocky sections with some significant ups and downs.

At the northern end of the lake, Pooley Bridge sits perfectly between Aira Force and Howtown, again making for a great start or finish using the Steamer Service. The walking terrain is classed as undulating – travelling through open fell, farmland, fields and woodland.

The Heritage Trail

Within the Ullswater Way is the Heritage Trail, a series of installations which embrace the visions and talents of local artists and craftspeople to reflect local heritage. Each piece is in harmony with the landscape, adding an additional layer of interest to this great walk.

For more information – about the Ullswater Way & Heritage Trail

Flora & Fauna

A visit to Ullswater offers the chance to slow down and experience the valley’s wildlife throughout the enchanting woodlands, lakeshores and open fells.

Spring and summer are particularly abundant. Listen for the distinctive skylark song as they hover high in the sky, or watch lapwings dance and tumble in a mating ritual.

In the woods, keep an eye and ear out for the region’s cuckoos and woodpeckers and many gulls, ducks and geese flock to the lake shores. A rich variety of plants and flowers burst into life along the lake – from bluebells and pink purslane to wood sorrel and the insectivorous butterwort.

A herd of wild red deer graze the slopes of Place Fell near Howtown during the autumn. And bright yellow daffodils and iconic black Herdwick lambs complete the picturesque spring scene. But perhaps most beautiful of all Ullswater’s flora and fauna `are the red squirrels. Tread quietly and be sure to look up into the trees, and you may just spot one darting above.

Flooding

In 2015, mass flooding hit much of northwest England. As water charged down the hillside boulders and debris were strewn across the road at Glenridding and properties were flooded multiple times with relentless rains and a sodden water table.

At the other end of Ullswater, the 250-year-old stone bridge at Pooley Bridge was swept away amid the torrents of lake water rampaging into the River Eden. As the waters subsided, the loss of the historic bridge meant that the village remained cut in two. That is until a temporary bridge was erected across the river. Witnessing the rumble of traffic for locals and visitors as the Lake District got back on its feet, it wasn’t until 2020 that a new permanent bridge was finally built.

The emotional and financial tolls of the great floods hit hard across Cumbria – but people in this wild corner of England are resilient, and on a dry summer’s day, you might find it hard to imagine quite how wet it all really was.

Escaping the Elements

Cafés & Pubs

If you are in need of refreshment, then there are a number of cafés and pubs you can enjoy. Pooley Bridge, Glenridding and Patterdale all have a range of welcoming and unique eateries, many with scenic views and stunning locations.

Workshops

Six miles north of the lake in the village of Greystoke is Quirky Workshops, a family-run business offering art, craft, cookery and heritage courses in their rustic and spacious Swallow Barn. Complete with a two-course lunch, these workshops are definitely something to be savoured and an ideal indoor activity. 

Dalemain House

Three miles from Pooley is Dalemain House. Meaning ‘manor in the valley,’ this stunning house and gardens are open to visitors. This historic country home has sections that date back to the 14th century, although most of the present site is from the 1600s and 1700s. Fun fact: they even host a yearly marmalade festival.

Rheged

Easily accessed from Penrith, the spacious and airy Rheged Centre has a cinema, gallery, café and shops and is a great place to refuel, view a themed exhibition or even catch an outdoor-linked film. If you are travelling to Ullswater from Penrith, a visit to Rheged makes for a great transition into or out of the national park.

Learn more about the author, Jo Roberts, and her writing on her website, Writing Inside Out. 

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Visit Ullswater on your Next Adventure...

Meet the Author: Joanna Roberts

Settled now in Cumbria, England. The Lake District National Park is a place I love for work and play. Originally from Devon and brought up in Wiltshire I also spent time living in the Scottish Highlands, working for Outward Bound Loch Eil. So, Outdoor Education and personal development work is within my very core. Over my career I have worked with both adults and young people helping folks learn and grow in some amazing places; from Nepal and Peru to Norway and Poland. In recent years I have guided a lot in Northern England and love enabling guests to get the very most out of their holiday.

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