At eve: how softly then
Doth Aira force, that torrent hoarse
Speak from the woody glen!
(William Wordsworth, The Somnambulist, 1833)
The second of three autumnal meditations this year took us on a Hidden Literary Lakeland walk in search of the Ullswater Way. I often like to catch an Ullswater Steamer from Glenridding to Howtown and walk back along the south-east side to Glenridding. This time, however, we walked a section of the Ullswater Way that starts near Pooley Bridge, at the northern-most tip of the lake, ending at Aira Force. Arriving by bus just days before the new stainless steel bridge at Pooley – the only one of its kind in Britain – was opened by a flock of sheep, we started the walk just short of the bridge, heading off and up through sodden fields for Maiden Castle, topping the first of many rolling hills.
The castle is actually now just a mound, but still affords tremendous views of the Ullswater Valley, as well as to the Pennines to the east and Blencathra to the north. Hedgerows mark the way onwards, providing great opportunities to pick hawthorn berries for making ketchup and blackberries for munching there and then. An hour into the walk, occasional glimpses of Ullswater to the left gave way suddenly to views from a lavish balcony walk extending on and on through blushing bracken – turning brown in autumn – and the last of the purple summer heather, trembling on a day when lowering clouds threatened rain, but mercifully didn’t open. Eyes drawn irresistibly to the panorama of the Cumbrian mountains at the southern end of the lake, it’s a dream you don’t want to wake up from.
The path leads on over lowland fells and lower still wetlands and meadows to Swinburn Park, one of the five medieval deer parks surrounding Ullswater. Although at this time of the year, there’s every chance you’ll see stags rutting or does skittering for cover as you pass, we weren’t so lucky this time. Rather easier to spot on the way (or Way) were stones that help walkers sheep-walk as well as sleep-walk through the Ullswater dreamland. Numbered yan, tyan and tethera in a special counting system of Celtic origin that still exists in the Cumbrian dialect, the Herdwick Stones celebrate the role shepherding plays in the Ullswater Valley as well as the region’s much loved Herdwick sheep – the now native breed of sheep thought to have come across with the Vikings over 1000 years ago. These quirky and harmonious installations are a delightful addition to the natural landscape, each one borrowing the colours of the Cumbrian rocks they sit on and skies and trees they huddle beneath – every bit as much a part of the landscape as the ubiquitous sheep they celebrate.
Other things to look out for include the mysterious Memorial Seat “a thank offering” (for the view, presumably) from October 1905. There’s also the crazy castellations of Lyulph’s Tower, built in the 1780s by the Howards on the site of a 13th century pele tower – one of 90 defensive pele towers strung across the north of England to impose English rule on Scotland.
Then at last to Aira Force, a natural woodland and waterfall turned pleasure park by the neighbouring Howards who added non-native species of trees such as the giant Sitka spruce and Monkey Puzzle Tree to ornament the woodland in the 19th century – a practice fashionable at the time. We can only imagine William Wordsworth’s wrath at efforts to improve on nature in this way, but eco-politics aside, the tree canopies and fors (Old Norse for waterfall) of almost 22 metres make for a magical woodland walk, enjoyed best from two stone bridges above and below the waterfall itself, one an old packhorse bridge. They also make for the perfect setting to the local legend and gothic tale of lovers, sleepwalking and death by water captured by Wordsworth in the poem, The Somnambulist.
Furnished with a National Trust Tree Trail – something I bought a year before when showing guests around Aira Force in the summer – we looked for trees picked out as being of special interest in the guide. Since the trees are no longer numbered to match their descriptions, this is harder than you’d think, but it was terrific fun and probably more instructive to play tree detective – hunting among the sessile oaks for trees which matched the descriptions and simple drawings of Hemlock, Himalayan firs and English and Irish yews.
Although we’re looking forward to when the cafes are back to normal, a hot cuppa and piece of cake from the kiosk was still welcome before boarding the bus home at the end of this point-to-point walk. That said, with views from a spectacular bus route that takes in not just Ullswater but tiny Brothers Water, the Kirkstone Pass and the Troutbeck valley on the way back to Windermere, and from then on, to Kendal, the day was far from over.
Wild stream of Aira, hold thy course,
Nor fear memorial lays,
Where clouds that spread in solemn shade,
Are edged with golden rays!