Ullswater lies in Cumbria’s aptly named Eden Valley, nestled in between some of the region’s highest fells. It is England’s second largest lake. It is also my favourite lake retreat, a destination for those times when I want to empty my head and become absorbed into the land and waterscape.
Despite its popularity with visitors, Ullswater has been able to retain a tranquil presence and serenity which can oft-times be lost when a place of great beauty becomes a magnet for tourists. To my mind this can be explained in two ways. Firstly (and rather more mundanely) people who visit Ullswater tend to be there with a purpose: walking; climbing, orienteering, sailing. Often hiring a local cottage for the week or pitching up tent at one of the many lakeside camping sites. Families and groups, when on the lake, are usually sailing across or trekking along the shore line on route to a next stage in their day’s activity. Sporting backpacks, waterproof clothing, climbing gear and dogged determination, high-spirited and motivated they happily endure rain and wind to reach another point on their map. They are on a mission and on the move.
Contrast this scene with one from Windermere – the best known of the English lakes – where in parts the water’s edge is lined by throngs of day-trippers queuing at the various burger kiosks and throwing the scraps from their chip wrappers to the flocks of swans and lake fowl waiting in anticipation. Even when you have successfully woven your way through the selfie-sticks, home movie makers and familial huddles of ice-cream eating toddlers and buggies to eventually make your way to the lakeside landing stage, you might find your view from the deck of the cruise launch obscured by enthusiastic tourists, blissfully spatially unaware in their attempts to find the best vantage points to click their cameras.
Windermere, much more commercial and accessible, is a haven for tourists and those who want a nice day out in a pretty setting; for Ullswater visitors it is more about ‘doing’ than taking the photograph.
I think there is a second way in which the serenity of Ullswater is preserved; there is an aura of tranquillity, a magical haunting quality with which one’s mind can meld even whilst being seated on a crowded ‘steamer’. Every time I have visited Ullswater, regardless of the season, the sky has been grey and the surrounding hills have been enveloped in mist. I recollect that most sailings have been in the rain. Rather than detract from the experience the weather has added an almost metaphysical element to that already mysterious ambience. It is hypnotic. In essence, a visit to Ullswater offers the possibility to get lost in the crowd.
The village of Glenridding lies at the southern tip of the lake, overlooked by the imposing form of the Helvellyn fells, a Mecca for serious walkers. These giants provide a gateway to the southern lake region beyond. Pooley Bridge, a small but thriving village at the lake’s northern point has proved to be as hardy as any of the local flora and fauna in recovering in fighting spirit from the devastating floods which brought life to a standstill and destroyed so much property during the onslaughts of relentless rainfall during the winter of 2015/16. A temporary metal construction has been erected to replace the Bridge of the village’s name, which crumbled into the swollen river beneath. Life goes on; excellent cafes continue to serve delicious food; hotels, hostelries and B&Bs display their ‘no vacancies’ signs and the lake‘s currents and rhythms continue, timeless and unperturbed.