As my seven-year-old son and I disembark the steamer at Howtown, I can’t help but appreciate the irony that Ullswater is like the proverbial millpond, still, and without a breath of wind. There’s low cloud but no rain.
Since my last visit, back in December, there has been too much rain – way too much: Storm Desmond descended on the Lake District, and the north-eastern fells in particular, with an unprecedented and overwhelming vengeance.
Homes, B&Bs, tea-rooms, hotels, livelihoods were washed away along with bridges and roads, the heavens opened and rivers and becks burst ferociously and catastrophically. A truly mind-boggling 341.4mm of rain fell in just 24 hours.
It seemed inevitable that substantial parts of the Lakes would be closed for some time and this year’s summer season would, for practical purposes, would be one of re-building, with visitors headed elsewhere. Instead, a phenomenal clean-up operation and reconstruction has re-opened the A591 that links the Kirkstone Pass, the villages of Patterdale, Glenridding and Pooley Bridge, and replaced if not restored bridges.
And from the wreckage a new walking route around Ullswater has emerged. Named, predictably enough, the Ullswater Way and signalled on fingerposts with a daffodil logo, the route brings together existing footpaths with a handful of new rights of way, taking walkers away from the road, particularly on the western edge of the lake. The loop of the lake is 21 miles (34 km), which divides into three or four days’ walking at an easy pace, perfect for a long weekend.
With just a day to walk, we opt for the section from Howton to Pooley Bridge, and use the helpful steamer service that runs up and down the lake to take us from Glenridding to the start point.
The route leads up a gentle incline across fields towards the hamlet of Swarthbeck. As is often the case in the Lake District, ascending from shore level has the impression of emerging from the sea, with peaks rising steadily from the skyline until they are almost too numerous to count. The path is picturesque, lined with lupins, while behind me the bulk of Hallin Fell lurches abruptly from the water’s edge, its hinterland leading to the shadowy and less hiked lands of Martindale Common.
I pass underneath Raven Crag, a spectacular crevasse, boulders muscling in on either side, and, at Swarthbeck, the Ullswater Way divides into two. There’s a picturesque lakeside route, but with decent weather we take the higher trail which climbs under the gaze of substantial fells higher than 500m, such as Arthur’s Pike and Barton Fell. At one point a gully that once carried a minor beck off the hillside has been rent apart by Storm Desmond, and a huge scar of bare rock now runs from summit to shore.
The angled flanks of Arthur’s Pike are so acute that the summit remains out of view, blocked by the rocky escarpments of Whinny Crag and Loup Knott. This tough-looking landscape is in striking contrast to the view on our left, where Auterstone wood and Barton Park are full of birdsong. In the distance, journey’s end is visible, the pier at Pooley Bridge peeking out below the triangular tree-cloaked fell of Dunmallard Hill.
We skip across the waters of Aik Beck and onto open moorland. The views are further reaching than I’d expect for the modest height. Above, the parallel pedestrian highway of High Street forms the skyline; meanwhile further south we can make out Striding Edge and the summit of Helvellyn.
The path finally meets High Street at the Cockpit, a substantial stone circle marooned in the surprisingly substantial moors. The circle sprawls for some 30m and is formed of a bank of 75 stones, some standing, some slumped, some fallen, the tallest barely a metre high.
Descending from the stone circle, we skirt the southern flank of Heughscar Hill, the view from here down Ullswater perhaps the most scenic of all, bookended as it is with the razor-like contours of the Helvellyn range.
In Pooley Bridge I’m heartened to see the beer garden of the Crown Inn has reopened; a road bridge too, is in place, though locals hope the functional army-style installation will in time be replaced with a more graceful stone affair.
This is a fairly easy walk; my son completed it without any protest and we passed several families of three generations along the way. With so many fingerpost signs and obvious tracks to help you on your way, you won’t get lost.
In ordinary circumstances it’s easy to deride such walks; along the way we have seen boathouses, campsites with bouncy castles, symbols of an idealised and tamed landscape. The steamers leave concentric rings behind them on the lake surface, as graceful as the imprints that the wingtips of a heron or egret might make. But then we look up at the huge scars, where woodland and topsoil were scoured away by the seething torrents that cross the very path we are walking on; or look at the remarkable images of Pooley Bridge under water, and realise that this is anything but a benign landscape.
Start: Howtown jetty
Finish: Pooley Bridge
Distance: 6 miles (10 km)
Time: Two hours
OS map: OL45 The English Lakes north-eastern area
Directions: the Ullswater Way is clearly signposted from Howtown to Pooley Bridge
He hired a car through co-wheels (co-wheels.org.uk) which provides low emission, hybrid and electric cars, with six available in Cumbria and the Lake District.
The Sharrow Bay hotel, near Howton (sharrowbay.co.uk), offers double rooms from £150 including breakfast.
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