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A guide to the Lake District

A guide to the Lake District's lakes

Content Team 30 November 2023

There are 16 or 17 lakes in the Lake District, depending on who you ask. The confusion is caused by Brothers Water, which is sometimes referred to as the Lake District’s largest tarn and sometimes its smallest lake. Whatever your opinion, these ‘official’ lakes are complemented by many other bodies of water including tarns and reservoirs. Each lake has its own special character, scenery, and attractions, so you're bound to find a favourite or two amongst them! Read on for our guide to the Lake District lakes and plan you next getaway to the Lake District.


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Lake District lakes frequently asked questions

There are 16 or 17 lakes in the Lake District, depending whether you include Brothers Water (some people say this is a tarn, not a lake). Though only one of them (Bassenthwaite Lake) has the word ‘lake’ in its name. The rest are waters or meres. Keep that in mind if anyone asks you this question during a pub quiz!

Windermere is the longest lake in the Lake District, stretching for 10.5 miles (just over 18km). It is also the biggest Lake District lake overall, covering 5.7 sq m (14.8 sq km). Windermere is also the longest natural lake in the whole of England.

Elterwater is the smallest lake in the Lake District, covering only 0.06 sq m (0.15 sq km). Brothers Water is sometimes referred to as the smallest lake, although it is ever so slightly bigger than Elterwater, covering  0.07 sq m (0.2 sq km).

Wastwater is the deepest lake in the Lake District, reaching down for 74 metres, (243 feet). That means, while its surface is 60m above sea level, its bed is over 15m below! There’s said to be a gnome garden at the bottom, but it’s too deep to be reached by recreational divers.


Bassenthwaite Lake

Bassenthwaite Lake

It might be hard to believe, but Bassenthwaite Lake is the only official lake in the whole of the Lake District! That’s because the rest are either meres or waters. Found in the north-west of the national park, between Cockermouth and Keswick, the waters are very peaceful because the only boats allowed on there are those belonging to members of Bassenthwaite Sailing Club.

Bassenthwaite Lake is an important home to rare wildlife including Atlantic salmon and is one of the best places to spot ospreys in the Lake District. There is a nature reserve at either end, while Whinlatter Forest rises up in front of it. Surrounding Bassenthwaite, you’ll also find lots of lovely attractions, including tiny St Bega’s Church and Mirehouse, a stately home with interesting literary connections.

Highlights

  • The Lake District Wildlife Park is home to lots of fascinating animals including zebra, red pandas, and alpaca. There are also regular talk and opportunities to meet the animals when you become a zoo keeper for the day.
  • Find out how its famous whisky, gin and vodka is made at the Lakes Distillery, where you can also sample the produce and enjoy a tasty meal.
  • Climb to the top of Dodd through Dodd Wood and observe Bassenthwaite Lake from above. The small fell is a great option for an easy mountain walk in the Lake District.




Brothers Water

Brothers Water in the Lake District

Brothers Water causes a bit of confusion because some people call it a tarn and others call it a lake. Though far from the most famous lake in the Lake District, it is still very pretty and surrounded by the beautiful scenery of the Ullswater valley. Its wildlife credentials are good too, being home to rare schelly fish, which are only found in the Lake District.

Once called Broad Water, it’s rumoured to have been renamed after a tragic drowning of two brothers. Nowadays, it’s a quiet spot, free from boat traffic and with easy walking trails nearby.

Highlights

  • If visiting in July, you’ll be granted a beautiful display of water lilies.
  • A gentle Miles Without Stiles path path passes between the western shore and nearby Low Wood. It’s an easy route, with bus stops at either end and a pub at the turning point. Look out for Hartsop Hall, a 16th-century Grade I-listed building owned by the National  Trust.
  • Brothers Water lies at the foot of Kirkstone Pass, the Lake District’s highest road. The drive over it towards Windermere is suitable only for confident drivers, but offers stupendous views!




Buttermere

Buttermere is a lake in the Lake District

Pretty Buttermere is a little lake surrounded by grand scenery! Overlooked by imposing fells, its location is fantastic for both experienced fell walkers and casual amblers. A path around the lake is just 4.5 miles long across the easy, low-level countryside and makes a wonderful family-friendly walk for a couple of hours. Kids will love the Victorian tunnel through the cliffs, as well as looking out for the handsome Highland cattle that graze in the area.

Buttermere village includes a wonderful ice cream parlour, cafe, and two pubs. One of these, The Buttermere Court Hotel, was once home to ‘The Maid of Buttermere’, a famous beauty mentioned in the works of Wordsworth and Coleridge amongst others.

Highlights

  • A hike up Haystacks will give you a clue as to why this was Alfred Wainwright’s fell. In fact, the author’s ashes were scattered at Innominate Tarn at the top. The walk up is a moderate hike, with smatterings of industrial heritage and some breathtaking views.
  • Sample some home-made ice cream and tasty cakes at Syke Farm Tearoom. The perfect sugar rush after a walk around the lake!
  • Drive a short way along Newlands Hause to find Moss Force waterfall tucked away a small distance from the road. The impressive torrents are best seen after heavy rain.




Coniston Water

Coniston Water in the Lake District

Found in the glorious South Lakes, Coniston Water is perhaps best known as the location of Donald Campbell’s infamous final water speed record attempt. It's also popular thanks to the incredible scenery, easy access to the fells, and activities on and around the water.

Coniston village is overlooked by several mountains, including The Old Man of Coniston and there are several wonderful Coniston walks to try. You can enjoy messing around on the water or on dry land with plenty of attractions in the village and close by. Or why not discover some famous Lake District filming locations used in the likes of The ‘A’ Word and Swallows & Amazons?

Highlights

  • Sail the lake on the heritage Steam Yacht Gondola. The unusual Victorian-era steam-powered boat was restored by the National Trust and is now an iconic site on the lake.
  • Visit Brantwood House and The Ruskin Museum, both paying homage to art critic, thinker, and social reformer John Ruskin.
  • Revisit your childhood by hiring a boat and having your own Swallows & Amazons adventure. The lake inspired the famous children’s book.




Crummock Water

Crummock Water - Lake District lake

Crummock Water is the twin of Buttermere - they were once one big lake! Separated over thousands of years by debris carried down the mountain by streams, they each now have their own unique character and points of interest.

Towering over either side of Crummock are the fells of Melbreak and Grasmoor, which make for fantastic hikes. For refreshment, head back to Buttermere village for a pint at one of the two pubs, a cake at the cafe, or home-made ice cream at Syke Farm Tea Room.

Highlights

  • Pull on your boots and head to spectacular Scale Force, the highest single-drop waterfall in the Lake District! You can do a ‘there-and-back-again’ route or take a slight detour on a longer walk around the lake or up Red Pike.
  • Discover the hidden valley of Rannerdale which in May is one of the best places to see bluebells in the Lake District (please take care not to trample the flowers). Continue on up to Rannerdale Knott for 360-degree views.
  • Walk a full loop around the lake, taking in grassy slopes, tranquil woodland and small pebble beaches.




Derwentwater

Derwentwater - Lake District

Derwentwater is simply spectacular! The most iconic body of water in the North Lakes, it’s surrounded by fells such as Catbells, the ‘jaws’ of Borrowdale, and the popular market town of Keswick. There’s a huge amount of things to do here including walking, outdoor activities, shopping, eating out, boating, going to the theatre, or simply enjoying the breathtaking views.

Dotted with small islands - one with a house on it! - Derwentwater is remarkably peaceful, despite its popularity. You could spend the day walking the whole circumference of the lake, hop on a launch and sail to one of several jetties, enjoy a dip in the water, or simply pick a spot for a picnic and watch the world go by.

Highlights

  • A route around the whole of Derwentwater is a long but reasonably easy walk, mostly across flat, well-marked paths. It’s an excellent way to experience the whole variety of landscapes in this part of the Lake District.
  • Take an easier exploration of the lake on a Keswick Launch. The boats cruise Derwentwater throughout the year, stopping of at jetties that offer further walks and attractions.
  • Experience paddleboarding or kayaking with one of the outdoor activity centres operating around the lake.




Elterwater

Elterwater - Lake District lake

Elterwater is an unusually shaped lake in the valley of Great Langdale that flows into Windermere via the River Brathay. The name itself means ‘lake of the swan’ (or ‘swan lake’, if you will!), and whooper swans still winter there.

This is the smallest lake in the Lake District, but its prettiness makes up for its tiny size. The path around the water takes you through tranquil woodland, open fields, and alongside the glittering lake, eventually opening up to amazing views of the Langdales. It’s a truly spectacular place.

Highlights

  • Colwith Force is a waterfall to the south of Elterwater and tumbling through oak woodland is an impressive sight to see. Alternatively (or as well as - it’s not far to walk!), Skelwith Force is a much shorter but no less impressive fall.
  • Head up the hill for a walk around Loughrigg Tarn, which is renowned for its spectacular display of water lilies in summer.
  • Learn first-hand about the industrial heritage of the area. Old mines have created amazing caverns such as Cathedral Cave which are hidden amongst the natural landscape.




Ennerdale Water

Ennerdale Water - Lake District

If seclusion and tranquillity are what you’re after from your Lake District lakes, then Ennerdale Water is the place to visit. Remote and with no public roads entering the valley, you will have to rely on foot, bike or horseback to explore this area!

The most westerly of the lakes, Ennerdale Water stretches for 2.5 miles and is surrounded by woodland and towering fells. Nearby Pillar Rock is famous in the world of climbing as the place where pioneers of Lake District climbing practised their ascents in the 1820s. It has a range of climbing routes to suit all abilities.

Highlights

  • The walk around Ennerdale Water is relatively flat, apart from some scrambling on the south side, but can be surprisingly tiring. However, it is well worth any effort for the silence, amazing views, and utter tranquillity.
  • When you’ve finished exploring the valley, head to Ennerdale Bridge village and The Gather, a wonderful community-run cafe and gift shop.
  • Pump up the tyres on your mountain bike and cycle 10 miles of forest roads and trails in ‘the big valley’.

 



Esthwaite Water

Esthwaite Water in the Lake District

This little lake is perhaps overshadowed at times by Windermere and Coniston Water, which sit on either side of it and are considerably larger. However, that’s no reason not to visit! If you’re into your fishing, this could be the lake for you, as it’s stocked with trout, pike and roach and includes facilities for both boat and bank fishing.

Esthwaite Water is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and was Beatrix Potter’s favourite lake (you might see one of Jeremy Fisher’s descendants hopping about!). Although much of the surrounding countryside is privately owned, you can still enjoy nearby walks from the village of Near Sawrey, Hawkshead and Moss Eccles Tarn.

Highlights

 



Grasmere

Grasmere in the Lake District

Grasmere is well known as the once-home of Romantic poet William Wordsworth. It’s also where delicious Grasmere Gingerbread® is made!

This lake is small – at only one mile long and half a mile wide - but very popular. In the Central Lakes, it’s surrounded by incredible scenery and has easy access to some of the best sites of the national park. Head to the wonderfully named Faeryland to hire a rowing boat and set off onto the water: there’s a pretty island in the centre of the lake that you can take a turn around (though this is privately owned by the National Trust, so please don’t land there). 

Highlights

  • Because of its small size, Grasmere is an easy walk. Combine it with a stroll around neighbouring Rydal Water and the corpse road for a morning or afternoon out.
  • Visit two of William Wordsworth’s old homes - Dove Cottage and Allan Bank - and see if you’ll be blessed with some of the great poet’s inspiration.
  • Sample Grasmere’s famous gingergread at the tiny shop where the staff dress in traditional clothes as they serve you the original recipe.




Haweswater

Haweswater in the Lake District

Haweswater was once a much smaller lake, but the building of a dam in the 1920s flooded two small villages and created the larger reservoir that we know today. During dry spells, you can even spot remnants of the old villages!

Though the building was controversial, it was the world's first hollow buttress dam and was considered the forefront of modern engineering at the time.

Nowadays, Haweswater is a tranquil place, not often visited by tourists, and therefore perfect if you’re looking to escape the crowds. Thanks to this lack of disturbance, the surrounding area is home to interesting wildlife including badgers and red deer.

Highlights

  • Breakfast with red squirrels or see the sun set with badgers at one of the RSPB’s animal-themed events.
  • Enjoy a hike along High Street, a tall fell that was once the site of a Roman Road between Penrith and Ambleside
  • Look out for the fell ponies. The small herd is hard to spot, but are a delightful additional to the scenery if you’re lucky enough to come across them.




Thirlmere

Thirlmere

Thirlmere was two separate lakes until it was dammed and made into one single reservoir in the 1800s. Helvellyn dominates the skyline along the eastern shore and the views from the 10-mile route around the lake are simply beautiful.

If you don’t fancy the full walk, then there are easier routes through the surrounding mixed woodland, or more experienced hikers might want to head up to the Hill Fort on Raven Crag. Whichever direction you go, you’ll see fewer people than at the other, better-known lakes. Despite its central location, Thirlmere remains a quiet and peaceful place.

Highlights

  • Avoid the crowds and take the quiet way up Helvellyn. The west side sees much fewer walkers than the more famous route from Ullswater, yet still provides spectacular views and the option to traverse Striding Edge.
  • Pop into the quiet valley of St John’s in the Vale for its historic church and lush countryside walks.
  • Enjoy the drive along Thirlmere down Dunmail Raise towards Grasmere and Ambleside. It’s one of the best drives in the Lake District.




Ullswater

Steamer on Ullswater

Ullswater is thought by many to be the most beautiful of the Lake District lakes. Stretching for 11.8km in a long ribbon, it’s home to some of the best walking in the national park. Imposing Helvellyn towers over the lake, with the dramatic ridge of Striding Edge forming part of its most popular walking route. The High Street fells and Red Screes also offer much-loved mountain walks.

If you want to take in the scenery without the hiking, then you’re in luck! Ullswater is surrounded by some lovely villages such as Glenridding and Pooley Bridge. Or why not take an easy walk to Aira Force? For the history buffs amongst you, the area is swimming in interesting sites including stately homes, stone circles and spectacular ruins.

Highlights

  • Chestnut House in Pooley Bridge sells 400 gins as well as other local produce and gifts. It’s the perfect place if you’re a bit of a foodie, or if you want to pick up a gift for friends and family.
  • Head up to the Cockpit Stone Circle on Askham Fell. It’s the most prominent Bronze Age structure on a fell that’s covered in clues related to our ancient ancestors.
  • The heritage Ullswater Steamers stop at four jetties around Ullswater. Use the boat to explore different areas of the lake, complete linear walks, or to admire the surrounding scenery.




Wastwater

Wasdale in the Lake District

Wastwater is the deepest lake in England at a whopping 74 metres - that's nearly as deep as Big Ben is tall! It’s found in Wasdale, which itself is a valley of extremes, also being home to England’s highest mountain (Scafell Pike) and its smallest church (St. Olaf’s).

The lake offers up an impressive view thanks to the imposing screes that rise out of the water along the whole south-east side. It’s also a favourite starting point for hiking the Scafells, and many walkers can be seen heading up there, as well as up paths to the other high fells of the area.

Highlights

  • Take a detour off the busy route to Scafell Pike and instead seek out remote and beautiful Burnmoor Tarn. The old lodge on the edge of the tarn is a somewhat incongruous addition to a landscape that otherwise seems untouched by humans.
  • Enjoy a pint and lunch at the Wasdale Head Inn at the end of the valley. The famous pub offers a warm welcome and hearty fare.
  • Get in touch with West Lakes Adventures to take you out on an adventure activity on the lake and in the surrounding mountains.




Windermere

Windermere

Windermere is the best known and most popular lake in the whole of the Lake District. It’s also England’s longest natural lake, stretching for over 18km.

If you’d like a taste of just about everything that Lakeland has to offer from one place, then head to Windermere. Bowness and Ambleside are bustling towns that retain a traditional feel and offer easy lake access, while villages like Windermere and Hawkshead are also well worth a visit. The western banks are less populated and provide a taste of the famous Lake District tranquillity.

For getting onto the water, you can take a lake cruiser, hire your own boat, or even jump right in and go swimming! There are lots of attractions, too, including the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway, Lakes Aquarium, Wray Castle and Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s former home.

Highlights

  • Learn about the history of Windermere - particularly its boating history - at the fantastic Windermere Jetty Museum.
  • Visit the “Lake District Visitor Centre”, Brockhole. The beautiful house and gardens will keep you and the kids busy with activities such as archery and Treetop Trek, boat hire, and regular exciting events throughout the year.
  • Hire a bike and cycle along Windermere’s West Shore. The easy route is suitable for children and casual cyclists.

Stay at a self-catering holiday cottage in the Lake District

Wetherlam in the Lake District

So there you have our guide to all the lakes in the Lake District. Are you excited to explore and discover a new one? Or perhaps you have a long-standing favourite that you return to again and again? Either way, you can use our cottage search to find your perfect holiday cottage nearby.


Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.

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