Windermere. A lake in Cumbria. Thought to have originated from the Norse personal name Winand, or Vinandr, and the Old English ‘mere’, meaning lake. It’s also the name of a town on the slopes above the lake. Until very recently the tautological addition of Lake for the body of water was unheard of, despite it sometimes being known as Winandermere Watter in the 19th Century. But whatever the derivation of the name, my walk around Windermere was not a shopping trip around a town but a circumnavigation of the lake.
Like Ullswater, Windermere has a designated trail: The Windermere Way (http://www.windermere-way.co.uk). However this trail is 45 miles long and I only had two days free so adapted it to suit my timescale. Thus I set out from Ambleside early one crisp sunlit March morning, following the cycle path to Wray Castle.
There is a little too much road walking or prepared trail walking on the route for my liking, but as this was my first long distance walk for a while it made the going quite easy. Initially the permissive cycle path runs alongside the main road, albeit on the other side of a high wall, then leads into Pull Woods. The woods must be a carpet of bluebells in May judging by the number of leaves spiking though the leaf litter.
After Wray Castle, and a short section on a narrow lane, the route leads down to the waterside at High Wray Bay. It was utterly idyllic in bright sunshine with no wind, and very few people; probably best to visit out of season as this accessible section can become busy.
The only sounds along the lakeshore were birds singing, and Canada Geese honking. A buzzard flew up silently close by and a woodpecker laughed and hammered its greeting. The woods were draped in vibrant green mosses, dripping with moisture from recent snows. I sat on a jetty to sketch, listening to the lapping of the water which intensified as the lake steamer passed.
At Bass Rock there is a choice of continuing along the shore or climbing onto Claife Heights beside Belle Grange. I chose to climb up higher as the shore was now becoming quite busy. Claife Heights woods are delightful and a clamour of church bells echoed across the water. The final descent through open fields was to a picturesque ruined folly. Claife Heights Viewing Station was built purely for the purpose of looking at the lake. Drawing materials had been laid out by the National Trust, and I couldn’t resist a quick sketch.
I’d walked ten miles so had lunch sitting and admiring the Victorian penchant for a good vista. As I descended towards the ferry road the stillness and tranquility was shattered by the roar of engines and a motorboat race, fortunately short-lived. Back by the lake shore I stopped to chat to a chap who was using a metal detector. He showed me his finds: some old 3d and 1d coins as well as more recent decimal currency. He told me he had found a number of golden guineas locally. As a child he had fished off the nearby Sandy Nab.
I was growing tired as the trail took me onto a steep climb on tarmac before a path back to the lake. I had passed a number of well maintained boat houses, and there were more here, one below the eponymous Boat House Wood.
At Great Oaks Wood, which lived up to its name, I climbed up to a road, passed the entrance to the YMCA National Centre, then crossed over to climb steeply along a poorly maintained path to Stott Park Heights. Time and again I stopped to look back towards the mountains.
This time it was the Coniston range that I could see but earlier I had had clear views of the Fairfield Horseshoe and Wansfell. The sun was warm and suddenly it felt like Spring. It had been a long hard winter and the warmth was very welcome. Discs of golden coltsfoot flowers reflected the bright sunshine.
HIgh Dam is a beautiful tarn to linger beside, but the clocks didn’t go back until the evening so I needed to descend quickly before I lost the light. It’s a swift descent beside the outflow from the dam down to Finsthwaite. A valley path leads to Newby Bridge where there is plenty of accommodation, or a boat back to Ambleside.
In fact the Windermere Way leaflet suggests breaking the route into four stages: Ambleside to Sawrey Ferry, Sawrey Ferry to Newby Bridge, Newby Bridge to Bowness and Bowness to Ambleside. All can be linked by boat or bus so could be walked from a single base.
I had permission to camp in a privately owned woodland so had dropped off equipment earlier and was soon cooking up supper over a wood fire before retiring to my tiny tent. There was a crimson sunset followed by a silver half moon, with owls hooting, and two loud echoing gunshots which I hoped were from the other side of the valley and not poachers in my secret hideout!
The clocks went back overnight so my 6am alarm was actually a 5am start! Despite this I had slept well and the frost on my tent soon melted in the dawn sunshine. I’d brought a little Bush Buddy woodstove with me and a handful of twigs quickly cooked porridge and brewed my tea. Soon there was nothing to be seen of my presence but a tiny flattened patch of grass.
The ‘official’ route out of Newby Bridge crosses the main road and follows a lane to descend back to the main road through a caravan site, emerging close to a service station with a large shop attached, so foraging for food is easy.
A path opposite leads to Chapel House, and two unusual wrought iron stiles, then steeply up into Chapel House Plantation. There is much evidence of woodland activity here, with clear felled areas like war torn wastelands, and signs asking for purchasers wishing to buy standing spruce timber. The forest track led to Sow How Lane and beyond the lane another steep climb up to Gummer’s How.
Gummer’s How has some of the best views in the southern Lakes. From here I could see all the way along much of Windermere, and across to my path of the previous day. The skies were a clear deep blue with just the first few wisps of cloud beginning to bubble up. The whole sweep of the Lakeland fells was painted in pastel colours before me – utterly idyllic.
From the summit an indistinct trod led away across boggy fellside to another woodland, this one deciduous with bare oak branches: Blake Holme Plantation. The path through the woods ran alongside a tiny beck that babbled and gurgled musically, changing tone with the contours.
The trail had been reasonably easy to follow, although lowland navigation can often be more confusing than the high fells, but that changed at Low Moor How, a farm above High Ludderburn. Here there are handmade signs below a farmhouse pointing to an ‘Alternative Route’, although the map showed the path running through the farmyard. Unfortunately this then took me away from the path I wanted and I had to trespass for a hundred metres to climb back onto my route. A couple coming in the other direction commented on the unfriendly sign at the roadhead so the owner obviously didn’t like walkers. Unfortunately the signage was so unhelpful it invited trespass to stay on route. If I’d checked the blog on the Windermere Way website I would have seen that access has been disputed for some time.
Back on a clear path I passed a small reservoir at Burkett Houses Allotment, more woods close to Rulbuts Hill, and crossed the A5074 before limping up through a ‘lumpy’ landscape to Lindeth. I love the fields in this area close to Undermillock Common, with its hummocks of low rocky outcrops, and at this time of year, filled with the calling of sheep and their frisky lambs.
Occasionally there were tiny wild daffodils dotting the waysides. After another road crossing, I circled below Brant Fell above Bowness, passed Matson Ground and finally staggered into Windermere – the town – after twelve miles of walking. I was really struggling at this point. I have an old injury caused by a ‘kink’ in my lower back which was causing considerable pain in my hip and knee and meant that pushing uphill was difficult as the leg didn’t want to work. I hoped a meal and a rest would help.
Do not expect haute cuisine in Windermere, if you are vegetarian you will struggle, and vegans abandon all hope! I did find sustenance however, and set out with a filled stomach wondering if continuing was wise. All my years of teaching Pilates were brought into play as I spent the climb up to Orrest Head thinking only of stabilising my pelvis and lengthening one side.
The pain became a little more bearable and began to ease on the descents as I made progress towards Far Orrest and onto Longmire Road, a track that leads up to the Garburn Pass track. My path, however, took me off left down to the Kirkstone Pass road near Troutbeck Church, then up a very steep lane to Troutbeck Post Office and its community run cafe. I could have descended to a footbridge lower down but I knew it had been washed away in the floods of a couple of years ago and wasn’t sure if it had been replaced yet.
I can’t express how much I enjoyed the tea at the cafe. I downed cup after cup of the steaming brew before girding my loins for the final push. The readjustments to my gait were working and I was regaining strength in my leg as my hip came back into alignment. It’s been a long time since I suffered with this and I assume it was because I had not walked so far in some considerable time (yes – I know, build mileage gradually: do as I say, not as I do!).
The last few miles were very pleasant as I strode along Robin Lane in the late afternoon sunlight, looking back along the lake and feeling very pleased with myself as I saw how far I had travelled. I fairly trotted down the final descent through Skelghyll Woods and into the hustle and bustle of Ambleside.
I had walked 38 miles around the largest natural lake in England, from the hard volcanic rocks of its northern shores to the softer shales of the south; across the rushing River Brathay in the north and the broad River Leven at its southern outlet; and although there were short sections through the noisy streets of Ambleside and Windermere, the majority of each day was spent in the silence and solitude of its shoreline and fells. A lovely weekend jaunt.
Total distance: 38 miles / 61 kilometres
Total ascent / descent: 6628 feet / 2020 metres