Ullswater Area Guide
Given the proximity of Ullswater to the motorway and railway network, you’d think that it would be roaringly busy. But no; Ullswater is a calm place, rarely overrun with visitors, and yet with pleasantly convenient facilities and attractions.
The lake itself is the second longest in the Lake District, at 7½ miles long. It’s deep, too, with the high fells of High Street on its eastern side. Wordsworth declared Ullswater to be “the happiest combination of beauty and grandeur, which any of the Lakes affords”, and how true that is.
The Ullswater area has been inhabited for an enormously long time; the fells and valleys are littered with prehistoric sites. There are stone circles at Cockpit, on Barton Fell, at Moor Divock and Swarth Fell; there are many other cairns on the mountaintops. There are a couple of Iron Age forts, and several churches of very early foundation. In contrast, the lake shores are dominated by large Victorian houses, now mostly converted to hotels, which were originally the holiday homes of wealthy urban industrialists from Manchester and Liverpool.
At the head of the Lake is the village of Pooley Bridge. Once a market town, Pooley Bridge is now a pleasant place for an ice-cream whilst waiting to board the Ullswater Steamer. The village has some parking and a pub, the Pooley Bridge Inn.
At Pooley Bridge, you can choose to take the road to the western side of the Lake, towards Kirkstone Pass and Ambleside, or the eastern side, which is a dead end.
On the eastern side is the route of the old Roman mountaintop road of High Street, from their fort at Ambleside to Brougham Castle, near Penrith. Nothing remains but the name and a fell walk with striking views in all directions.
The world-famous Sharrow Bay Hotel lies a few miles along the eastern shore. The mansion was built in 1840, but only gained its reputation when it was turned into ‘the world’s first country house hotel’ in 1948. The Michelin-starred restaurant is legendary, not least because it claims to have invented sticky toffee pudding. A full evening meal is an investment at about £70 per head, but you would never forget it. They also offer more affordable high teas. Please note that there is no prospect of getting a table without pre-booking!
The eastern road offers very pleasant lake views before reaching the next Steamer stop at Howtown. There is very little to be seen in this tiny village, but it’s a great place to park up and either catch the steamer, or walk round the lake’s end towards Patterdale or the next Steamer stop at Glenridding.
Up from Howtown is Martindale, a very old settlement believed to have been founded by St. Martin. The village has two churches, the Old and St. Peter’s. The 17th century Old Church, on the site of a much older church, has a 1300-year-old yew in the yard and a font which may originally have been a Roman altar.
The eastern road then peters out towards some small farms and villages.
The road on the western side passes an Iron Age hill fort known as Maiden Castle. It does not compete for scale with its namesake in Dorset, but nonetheless, it is an impressive circular earthwork in an impressive setting.
The road then travels past several miles of mansions, now hotels, before reaching Watermillock. This is a tiny, scattered, farming village and home to the Brackenrigg Inn. This charming eighteenth century inn offers food and drink all day.
Further along the western shore is the renowned Aira Force waterfall. Now in the hands of the National Trust, Aira Force is a 70ft drop through beautiful woodland. There is a good car park, café and facilities, and a marked half-mile walk towards the fall. Wordsworth visited Aira Force on many occasions, and wrote several poems referencing it, including ‘Airey Force Valley’ and ‘The Somnambulist’.
The woods were, in fact, planted by the landowners, the Howards of Greystoke Castle. After two hundred years, the specimen conifers and giant Sitka Spruces sit comfortably in the landscape, towering over the falls at astonishing angles.
Lyulph’s Tower, which is nearby, was originally a medieval hunting lodge, given a makeover by the Howards at the time they were planting woods at Aira Force.
Glencoyne Park and Glencoyne Woods have another Wordsworth claim to fame; perhaps the greatest of them all. Here, William and his sister Dorothy spotted swathes of wild daffodils at the lakeside in April, 1802.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodills;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
Glenridding is the next stop on the western shore; it has several good eating places including The Traveller’s Rest Pub, the Ratcher’s Tavern and Fellbites. There is also a well-stocked village shop offering local produce and sandwiches. The Ullswater Steamer stops here, too.
Just south of Glenridding is St. Patrick’s Well. This is the spot where, having walking away from a shipwreck on the Duddon Sands, St. Patrick baptised converts and healed the sick.
Patterdale, just along the lake, is also named after St. Patrick. It is a pretty, white-washed place heaving with vernacular Lakes architecture and a great place for a breather. It has a couple of good pubs, the White Lion Inn and the Place Fell Inn, and a little shop, the Patterdale Village Store. We also have a lovely walk from here to Grisedale Tarn please click to see the description.
Leaving Patterdale, the road begins to rise precipitously towards Kirkstone Pass. This is not the most difficult of Cumbria’s mountain passes, but it is steep and narrow and needs a little care, especially if you end up taking the turn to Ambleside. It’s not called ‘The Struggle’ for nothing!
To the north of Ullswater is Penrith and its surrounding villages. These include Eamont Bridge, named after its Grade1 listed 15th century bridge of three sandstone arches. This small and initially unremarkable place has two prehistoric sites, the so-called King Arthur’s Round Table and Mayburgh Henge.
King Arthur’s Round Table was actually constructed about 2,500 years before Arthur was born, and it is definitely not a table! This English Heritage site is a prehistoric circular earthwork with a ditch and bank. Not that many years ago, it still had two large standing stones at its entrance, but superstitious locals removed these two hundred years ago.
Mayburgh Henge is just 400m from King Arthur’s Round Table. It is another circular earthwork, 90m in diameter, with a 2.8m monolith in the centre. Again, it ‘lost’ eight more standing stones to superstition!
Brougham Castle, two miles from Penrith, is another English Heritage site. Originally a Roman fort, the current ruins are medieval. The local historical figure, Lady Anne Clifford, died here in the 17th century.
The village of Tirril is best known for its pub, the Queen’s Head. Home to the annual Sausage and Beer Festival, held in August, this pub has an established reputation for good quality, traditional food. The pub itself is an attractive building with 2ft-thick walls, an inglenook, flagstone floors and oak beams.
Yanwath is another village whose reputation rests on its public house. The Yanwath Gate Inn is a 17thc pub, named for the tollgate it once controlled. It is the current holder of the ‘Cumbria Dining Pub of the Year’ award, and deservedly so. Book before you go!
Dalemain House is a Georgian facade enclosing a much earlier house, with fantastic Tudor and medieval interiors. It is set in extensive grounds, and holds a number of events each year, including the now-famous Marmalade Festival, a Carriage Driving event, tractor shows and Cumbria Life’s Garden Festival. It has a tea room.
It’s worth popping to the village of Dacre to see its ‘bears’. The church is very old, and may have been sited on a 7th century monastery mentioned by Bede. In its churchyard are four very odd statues, known as the Dacre Bears; they are bear-like, but are so eroded that others have suggested that they may, in fact, be lions! Their age is unknown, but they may pre-date the original monastery. The church also houses two very old crosses, one Anglo-Saxon, the other, Norse.
Penrith is a market town with a population of 15,000. It is the ancient capital of the Eden Valley, and commercial centre for the local population. It has a selection of standard national shops, some independent specialists and a weekly market.
Notable ‘foodie’ shops include J&J Graham, a specialist grocer and cheese merchant at Market Place, Cranston’s Food Hall, on the edge of town, and The Toffee Shop, allegedly a favourite of HM the Queen!
Penrith Castle likes to think of itself as the ‘Castle of Kings’; it was built in 1399 for Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III. It sits, ruined, in a dry moat in a pretty park, opposite Penrith Railway Station.
St. Andrew’s Church in Penrith is architecturally significant, much of it having been designed in 1720 by Nicholas Hawksmoor, a pupil of Christopher Wren. The church tower is much older, possibly from the earlier 13th century church. Most people visit it for the so-called ‘Giant’s Grave’ in the churchyard. The grave seems actually to be a composite of some Viking hogsback tombstones and two 11ft Norse crosses, and historians do not actually know who is buried there, but there is a tantalising hint in a nearby monument. A tenth-century Norse cross is dedicated to Owen Caesarius, king of Cumbria from 920-937.
There are many places to eat in Penrith, but worthy of note are the 15th century Gloucester Arms, the George Hotel, the Narrow Bar and Bewick’s Coffee House.
Wetheriggs Animal Centre and Pottery is a good family day out. Situated 4 miles south of Penrith, it is about 15 minutes from Pooley Bridge. You can feed the animals, participate in pottery arts & crafts, or chat to the friendly cockatoo at the cafe. Click here to read more about Wetheriggs Animal Centre.
- Have a look at our Review of Outdoor Activities in the Lake District.
- Have a look at things to do Down on the Farm in the Ullswater area and beyond.
- Check out Wetheriggs Animal Centre just 15 mins from Pooley Bridge.
- Take a walk up Mell Fell.
- Walk to Grisedale Tarn.
- Visit Hadrian's Wall and Housestead's Fort.
- Take a walk in the Eden Valley - Lacy's Caves & Long Meg Stone Circle
- Visit our review of the Ullswater Fair.
- Ullswater Outdoor Festival (held at the end of September).
- Visit our Review of the Lake District shows.
- Cumbrian Wildlife.
- Click here for cookery courses, or your own personal chef to cook your evening meal.
- Click here for Dog Friendly pubs in the Lake District.
- Churches in the Lake District.