If it was good enough for Wordsworth...

Cumbria in winter is the stuff of poetry and painting. But not all the highs are on the mountains. Mark Rowe takes the low road
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The Independent Travel

Clear days with snow on the high fells can make for picture-postcard images, but you don't have to climb far to appreciate the beauty of the Lake District. In winter, with rivers in spate and a frost on the ground, the scenery lower down can be just as rewarding as on the dramatic mountains. Waterfalls are an overlooked feature of the Lakes. Perhaps the most impressive is Aira Force, in the north, where a beck plunges down the glaciated valley into Ullswater. Though, globally speaking, it is modest in size, it can be spectacular at this time of year.

Clear days with snow on the high fells can make for picture-postcard images, but you don't have to climb far to appreciate the beauty of the Lake District. In winter, with rivers in spate and a frost on the ground, the scenery lower down can be just as rewarding as on the dramatic mountains. Waterfalls are an overlooked feature of the Lakes. Perhaps the most impressive is Aira Force, in the north, where a beck plunges down the glaciated valley into Ullswater. Though, globally speaking, it is modest in size, it can be spectacular at this time of year.

The walk starts at the top of the National Trust car park at Aira Force, six miles north of the village of Glenridding. Walk through the stone archway and up the track via a black metal gate. The path swings right through woodland. Shortly afterwards, bear left uphill, leaving the main track, which continues straight ahead.

Many of the trees and shrubs are introduced species, such as rhododendron, cedar and monkey puzzle - the legacy of an ornamental garden that was planted here in 1846. The path climbs quickly so you are high above the beck. There are three sets of steps to mount; ignore the gate off to the left. At this point, look over your shoulder for the first views of Place Fell - a mountain whose dull name belies its beauty.

You soon come to the first of the waterfalls - Aira Force ("force" is the Old Norse word for waterfall), which plunges 70 feet through a narrow gorge. Keep to the west side of the river, using only the network of bridges - some of which are picturesque stone affairs - for viewpoints. The path rises and drops, sometimes hugging the beck.

The trees, including oak and ash, are remarkable: the air is so moist with spray that ferns sprout from the joins of trunk and branch. Some trees stand alone, perilously, in the middle of the beck.

The second waterfall, High Force, soon follows, then the third fall, a more open expanse of water that appears to be nameless. This is a good place to see red squirrels, particularly in the leafless branches above.

Just after the third waterfall, bear left through the stone wall and follow the path through a gate and across a field, away from the beck. When you come to the road, turn right and follow it for half a mile to the village of Dockray.

In Dockray, you cross the bridge and pass in front of the Royal Hotel. Turn right by a post box in the wall of Dockray House and follow the footpath and signpost to Aira Force and Ulcat Row. Keep straight ahead on this path, ignoring the later signpost to Ulcat Row. You pass through a small farm and then the track winds right, following the curve of the lower reaches of Gowbarrow Fell. Go through a gate and you will pass a small signpost leading up to Gowbarrow Fell. This makes for an easy and brief up-and-down detour: climbing up will give wonderful views of Ullswater and Place Fell.

The path then drops into woodland, where it follows the beck once more as it plunges into the ravine. There are a few paths that branch off either towards the beck or away from it - they all join together again, so it doesn't really matter which you take.

After passing the last of the waterfalls, the paths again divide. The higher route gives views over Ullswater and Place Fell; the lower one is arguably the prettier as it follows the bend in the gorge which is a truly dramatic spectacle. It is the classic example of the understated English countryside: if this spot were in Australia or New Zealand it would have a name such as "three sisters gorge" and would, in all likelihood, be featured on the jacket cover of Lonely Planet, and other travel guides. It certainly did the trick for William Wordsworth back in 1842. In "Airey Force Valley" - one of his lesser-known poems - he wrote of "A soft eye-music of slow-waving boughs, Powerful almost as vocal harmony/ To stay the wanderer's steps and soothe his thoughts".

One of the most remarkable spectacles on this walk is saved until last: a huge Sitka spruce, which is thought to be among the oldest trees in the Lake District and dates back to the 1830s. It stands more than 115 feet tall. One extraordinary branch has curled upwards, seeking the sunlight and in the process looks like a giant elephant's trunk. Cross the bridge and follow the path back to the car park. A small path to the right of the car park takes you to a rather overpriced teashop. It continues over the other side of the road, by the bus stop and then down to the shore of Ullswater.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Distance: Three miles.

Time: Up to two hours, including stops.

OS Map: Explorer Outdoor Leisure Five - The English Lakes, north-eastern area.

Further information: Mark Rowe stayed at Mell Fell Cottage, by Ullswater, available from Heart of the Lakes and Cottage Life (015394 32321; www.heartofthelakes.co.uk ) from £338 per week, rising to £599 in July and August.

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