Aira Force

Aira Force waterfall and woodland, Cumbria

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Foss, meaning fall in Old English, has morphed over time into Force; the spot where the River Aire tumbles gloriously over the rock face into the gorge below. This stunning spray is hidden deep inside woodland not far from the shore of beautiful Ullswater Lake. The landscape was once the playground of landed gentry, developed in the 1800s and covered with specimens of trees from all corners of the empire for the pleasure of a few. Happily, Aira Force and surrounding woodland is now a place of delight for thousands of visitors to the Lake District National Park.

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The approach from the road leads through a hive of activity. Families sprawl on the grass or sit at picnic tables in conference over well used maps; routes are plotted, laces tied and rucksacks packed in preparation. Well trained dogs sit patiently, tethered to table legs; perhaps like their people they are appreciating time out from a long trek. The National Trust shop is doing a brisk trade in bottled water and visitor guides whilst the refreshments van dispenses hot chocolate and cheer to weary walkers.

Walking away in the direction of the woodland, the grass gradually becomes longer and untamed. A gravel path crunches underfoot, forking off in different directions. Laughter comes from the river bank and a bright-eyed dog suddenly comes into view, vigorously shaking water from his coat before turning back.

Which way should I go? I’ll follow the sound of the water.

Sinuous roots rise up from beneath the ground. Trees so high, their tops seem lost. Deep green pine and fir perfume the damp air with the heady scent of resin, conjuring memories of childhood Christmases. Olfactory sensors prickle and drink in the woody aromas. Myriad shades of green, layer upon layer, merge to create a leafy collage. The earth is soft and springy beneath the tramping of hundreds of feet, eager ears focused in the direction of the gushing water in the distance. We are drawn to water; a primal call that pulls us towards the life force. Feathery ferns and winding hemlock glisten as the sun highlights the beads of rain water on their lustrous leaves.

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Steep and uneven, a red earth path leads upward and onward. Still out of sight, the roaring water can be heard in the distance. Next, a flight of steps, hewn from the rock, steep and mocking challenges all except the young and the fit; more will follow, steeper and harder as we climb higher towards the peak. With some trepidation and with heart in mouth I look down into the gorge hoping that feet and path will not betray me. Eighty feet below, the rocks are edged like knives. A long way down, a small crowd is gathered on the wooden footbridge, eyes wide and cameras clicking, sharing the view.

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The majestic waterfall cascades over grey boulders, frothing white and forceful. The clear beck follows its course over the cobbles and rocks. Children, noisy and exhilarated, clamber over the stones, revelling in nature, splashing and laughing in the shallow water. Dogs, released from their leads, frolic and roll, happy to cool down. Even in the shade of the woods the day is humid and takes its toll.

Felled tree trunks fashioned into benches provide respite and an opportunity to imbibe the beauty of this place. Signs provide interesting facts about some of the other inhabitants of the woodland; no red squirrels are around to greet us today, but maybe they survey us from the safety of the tree tops, curious about the human visitors; or maybe they’ve seen it all a thousand times and have better things to do.

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The path down presents another challenge. Muddy in parts and uneven it requires careful footing. It’s a long way down! Eventually I get to the bottom with calves aching but mind invigorated.

DSCF3827An enormous monkey puzzle tree fascinates those who gather at its base, curious fingers exploring the ridges of its exotic trunk. Cypress and Oak stand proud nearby, each a labelled exhibit in this green gallery. The strange stump of a Douglas Fir twinkles as sunlight dances across the edges of the silver coins embedded in its surface; a years old tradition.

Onward again into the daylight, I choose my  path and continue my journey.

 

 

 

 

Ullswater

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420Ullswater 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.

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Despite its popularity with visitors, Ullswater has been able to retain a tranquil presence and serenity which can become 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 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.

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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. 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.

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Ambleside in the English Lake District

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The wheel of the year has turned. The temperature is barely above zero and my fingers feel like the ice formations I see in the puddles and ditches, but the grass looks lush and these verdant landscapes shout out their promise of blossoming and ripening in the months ahead. The land is quickening. Winter is taking its leave as spring impatiently waits to step into the breach.

I don’t mind the cold at all, as long as it’s dry, and February sunshine and blue skies are a joyous combination. A day like this couldn’t be allowed to go to waste, so I decided to get out into the countryside and tap into that vernal energy. Cumbria is my favourite county and the villages, woods and footpaths around Lake Windermere are some of my favourite places to relax and appreciate the land. Where better then to spend a beautiful day on the cusp of the seasons?DSCF3486

Ambleside’s history can be traced back to Roman times. Then known as Galaca, the remains of the fort near Waterhead Pier are a reminder of when the settlement was part of the Roman defences against the possibility of invasion from the Scots to the north. Centuries later, the town is reputed to have taken its name from Hamel, a Viking who owned land there. Evidence of Nordic occupation is evident in the present day lexicon of the land. Words like beck (brook with a stony bed); fell (rock, cliff) and tarn (mountain lake) are synonymous with the power and mystery of this rugged, often-bleak, but always awesome northern landscape. When they first set foot on the mountain paths and beheld the icy clear tributary streams flowing down into the vast lakes below, the Scandinavian invaders would surely have felt they were home from home.

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Putting Viking warriors to one side, for me, the town evokes other more peaceful and relaxing associations. How could a place name which contains the verb ‘amble’ not conjure up images of quiet green lanes shaded by towering trees, expanses of pasture land, dry stone walls and the sound of bird song? The footpath from the northern pier of Lake Windermere up the gentle incline to the town certainly matches that description, though the town itself, small and unspoiled, is a hive of activity.

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Situated at the gateway to the Langdale pikes (another Scandinavian word, meaning ‘pointed mountain’) and south lakes fells, Ambleside enjoys enormous popularity amongst tourists and serious walkers and climbers. It has an abundance of hotels, B&Bs and restaurants, mostly full, even out of season…………..if there is such a thing as ‘out of season’ here.

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One highlight of this particular visit to Ambleside was being able to see the magnificent view of the white-topped peaks before the strengthening spring sunshine melts the snow, transforming it into crystal water.

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The views from the lower valley are breath-taking. High snowy peaks merged with sky line; I’m sure I even saw some fluffy sheep amongst the stratus, perhaps spirits of a fell-dwelling flock from Viking times, still holding on to their connection with the land. It’s easy to let the imagination run wild in such an inspirational setting.

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I love my visits here and feel so blessed that I live quite close to this bit of England’s green and pleasant land.

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Rydal Hall Gardens, Cumbria: a retrospective

Spring is around the corner and the promise of some better weather coming up has inspired me to get back out there after my winter semi-hibernation. I think Cumbria is on the cards for next week, with the hope of some golden daffodils to show you. Below is another visit to one of my favourite counties, made as summer came to its end.

DSCF3879Tucked away behind tall stone walls on the A591 between Ambleside and Grasmere is Rydal Hall. Describing itself as ‘The Christian Centre at the heart of the English Lake District’, this beautiful house and its surrounding gardens, woodland and water courses is a serene and lovely place. It’s somewhere I like to go on my own from time to time when I feel the need to recharge my batteries and just relax. I have never been inside the house, but I’ve spent many hours doing nothing much in the Hall’s outdoor spaces. The main reason why, for me, Rydal Hall is such a sanctuary is because it is so quiet. Even at the height of summer it is sometimes possible to sit undisturbed in one of several gardens, savouring the stillness and peace. Outside of the Christian communities who use the venue for conferences and retreats, Rydal Hall is one of the Lake District’s ‘best kept secrets’. The Diocese of Carlisle very kindly opens the garden gates to all.  A perfect place for weary limbs and a tired mind, this green space soothes, inspires, excites and invigorates.

Relax for a short while and walk with me in a one of my favourite places…………..

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First stop, the formal gardens. Symmetrical, sculptured and taking inspiration from Italianate architecture, the formal garden is a grand design. Situated in front of the house, it was created in 1911 by the celebrated landscape architect, Thomas Hayton Mawson. The garden was designed with the main focus being the views from inside the Hall, in particular from the grand staircase in the home of the Edwardian generation of the Le Fleming family whose ancient forebears first occupied the land. Beautifully kept and with some interesting nooks, crannies and novelty features, the formal garden in its elevated position is also a great spot from which to look out over the surrounding countryside. Nab Scar in the distance provides a wonderful contrast against the formal lawns and the concrete pillars. I like to spend some time appreciating the beauty and the fragrance of the magnolia as it climbs the pagoda.

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Let’s move on now, making our way through the iron gate and down the steps, crossing the path into the wild and wonderful quiet garden.

In parts overgrown, this place celebrates nature. In complete contrast to the precision of the formal gardens, here there is a feeling of being in a little wilderness; a real secret garden. Grasses have been left to grow undisturbed; giant ferns line the pathways and wild flowers adorn untouched corners to the delight of grateful feasting bees. That this part of Rydal estate is as carefully contrived as the rest does not diminish from the delightful illusion.

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Our senses are engaged here. The colour palette of Mother Nature dazzles our eyes, as does the stunning art work which takes us by surprise as we turn around every corner. Animal representations painted on wood hang from branches like talismans, reminders of a natural habitat shared with other lives. Sculptures stand like sentinels, obscured behind giant plants. We can hear the beck gently trickle nearby, and beyond is the sound of a waterfall. Let’s go there………

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Crossing the little beck, it seems as though we have come to the end of the path but we can definitely hear the tumbling water not too far away. Suddenly, there is a fork in the pathway which can’t be seen until you’re almost upon it. This leads to a tunnel which brings us out at the side of the crystal clear beck as it flows over the stony bed; very tempting on a hot day to have a paddle. Here, there is an interesting wooden building, ‘the grot’ dating back to the 18th century when it was added to this carefully selected spot to enable the family and their visitors to enjoy the view of the impressive cascade. This photograph doesn’t do it justice.

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Numerous artists, including John Constable, have committed the scene to canvas. I feel lucky to be here savouring this location. Looking up above the majestic spray I can see the stone bridge and am reminded that the tea room is there. Shall we go up?

Back the way we came and exiting through another wrought iron gate, we find ourselves at the former school room which has been transformed into a pretty little café. We can’t buy a meal here but there are some delicious cakes and beverages and a cosy corner next to the wood burner. Looking through the window I smile at the colourful animal sculptures outside and next my attention is drawn to the purple felt butterfly with its sparkly wings encrusted with tiny pieces of mirror. The woodland lies ahead.

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The path into the woods leads us up a gentle slope, firm under foot today, but quite slippery when the autumn leaves have fallen and turned to mulch. One of the things I like best about this part of the grounds is that I never quite know what to expect. Serving as an outdoor art gallery, Rydal Hall wood plays host to various artists at different times, who use the space innovatively to show off their creations, mostly sculpture and fun installations. I’m fascinated by the textiles I see woven between the branches and wrapped around the tree trunks. The place looks magical. Batik, crochet work, woven fibres adorn nature. Here, colours and textures are vibrant and invite touch.

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A little way further on and we find ourselves alongside the upper beck. We can sit for a while and listen to the flow of the water over the stones before we return to our lives, all the better for having spent time in Rydal gardens.

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Grasmere village, Cumbria – Wordsworth country

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 daffodils;

The opening verse of arguably the best Known of William Wordsworth’s poems gives an insight into the way in which the natural world inspired Wordsworth’s romantic and metaphysical poetry. A visit to Grasmere, the tiny village where Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) was born, provides an opportunity to experience how he was moved to put pen (or quill) to paper, and share his joy in his surroundings.

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The Wordsworth connection was not the reason behind my little expedition to lovely Grasmere, though it was an added point of interest. The village is named after Grasmere Lake, which lies about a mile to the south and is one of my favourite spots in the south lakes area. This quaint and quintessentially English location is small and charming. Basically, it’s built on a loop road off which shoots a lattice of small streets. Grasmere boasts some pretty little independent shops and some quality hotels, guest houses and restaurants. It is exactly what any visitor to this region would come to expect. Husbandry and its subsidiary trades are no longer the way the locals earn a crust; it’s mostly catering to the needs of tourists.

There are certainly plenty of those -tourists, that is – though not in the numbers to be found just a few miles away at Lake Windermere. It’s less than 40 minutes away by bus with Ambleside being the half way point. The main attraction is definitely Wordsworth, more specifically his final resting place in the Wordsworth family section of the parish church yard, and also the daffodil garden, centred on the title of arguably his most famous poem. The path which meanders through this delightful little garden is made up of paving stones engraved in dedication to Wordsworth appreciators who have paid for the privilege of being part of it.

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Another popular Grasmere pull is the world renowned gingerbread shop. This establishment is to Grasmere’s visitors like the witch’s gingerbread house was to Hansel and Gretel. The first clue to the delicious treats inside this tiny place is the intoxicating aroma of ginger, cinnamon and sugar which is carried along the street on an inviting breeze. Its popularity is such that it can be impossible to enter the shop, which holds about 6 customers at any one time, without a considerable wait. On the day of my visit back in August the queue was winding around the building, and somebody was advising that the wait was about 20 minutes. Expansion could be a solution, but that would spoil the whole point. I hope that a visit at a quieter time of year might result in some tasty treats for my own delectation

Greens organic restaurant on the main street offers an excellent menu of both veggie and non-veggie fayre and the service is with a smile. Coffee shops and tea rooms all seem to be very pleasant and offer beautiful views and space to relax.

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Derwent Water and Keswick

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It’s no wonder so many visitors from other parts of the UK and beyond flock to the Lake District National Park during the summer months. To my mind, Cumbria is without question the most visually stunning part of England. Its beauty is unrivalled. Even in the colder months the backdrop of majestic mountains and the deep and mysterious lakes and tarns provide the most awe-inspiring views.

A friend of mine loves Keswick, the north Lakeland town on the shores of Derwent Water. For a long time she had been encouraging me to visit, but I had been put off by the journey, which was not particularly long, but would involve a lengthy bus ride. I suffer from appalling motion sickness. I’m fine on trains (probably the illusion of travelling in a straight line, even when I’m not), but any travel on buses, coaches or cars must be very carefully planned. I was determined to give it a go and see if the north lakes region was as lovely as the south.

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I was delighted to find the road to Keswick was for the most part a straight, very busy dual carriageway, hardly any twists and turns, and  I made it all the way to Keswick and felt fine the whole time.

Summer had arrived and the tourists (yes, I know that included me!) had arrived with it. Keswick is a small town, picturesque and quaint and at peak times is ill equipped to deal with the high number of visitors. Crossing the town’s roads was a challenge.

After a tasty veggie breakfast at a local eatery I decided to explore further. I didn’t see any of the usual high street stores, but there was an abundance of independent retailers selling local produce, gifts and arts and craft items. The street market appeared to be thriving; indeed, I gave up on trying to negotiate the heaving walk ways between the various stalls. I was saddened to find one man selling cow hide rugs and furs whose origin I could not determine. I suppose that’s something, very sadly, to be expected in a region that makes its living from farming. That fur, however, had not come from any creature I had ever seen grazing in a field. I gained some small satisfaction from noticing that the man looked a little nervous and was very noticeably scanning the crowd for signs of potential opposition to his grisly trade.

There were lots of places to eat, some of which looked fashionably vintage and homely, but all were packed. It was just as well I’d had that hearty late breakfast to set me up for the day. Keswick loves dogs, which is just as well, because canine visitors also flock there (pardon the mixed metaphor!) with their people, many of whom are serious fell-walkers sporting all the proper kit. Many of the friendly shops and cafes had doggie water bowls outside and the pooches were indulging enthusiastically in the heat of the midday sun.

It’s a pretty little place in a wonderful part of the world – it’s just so busy.

I made my way to the edge of the town on my mission to reach the stunning Derwent Water. Despite it being such a tourist attraction, I have always loved Windermere and for me it remains – after Ullswater, the most beautiful of the English lakes –  a firm favourite. Not so, my good friend had insisted – I had to see Derwent Water and then I would understand.

Access to the lake was by way of a pleasant walk through Hope Park, which was quite lovely and, like the rest of Keswick, very busy.

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Past the ice cream vans, visitors’ centre, and a bizarrely located grazing area where a small herd of sheep seemed to be making the best of it in spite of the unwanted attentions of the tourists determined to photograph them, Derwent Water’s north shore came into view. I had to agree with my friend’s depiction of it as being much more humble than Windermere. I could imagine at quieter times it would be serene and soulful. In my mind’s eye I conjured a sunset over Cat Bells. Little rowing boats glided across the lake’s surface in contrast to the large steam cruisers of Windermere.

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There were a lot of people around, most of them probably visitors. The area is a hub for walkers and campers rather than those who just want to spend a day of their British holiday schedule at a countryside beauty spot. Folks seemed to be enjoying the place for what it was, not ticking off another stop on a vacation itinerary. For my friend that was the attraction – and I get that. I still preferred Windermere’s glamour though.

I spent about three hours meandering along the lakeside. I sat; I pondered; I watched the dogs swimming and having great fun retrieving sticks from the water; I found an accommodating rock and sat for a while taking photographs, and I read. I explored the wooded areas along the shore line and rested in some secluded spots. I didn’t opt for the lake cruise as the boats were very small and the passengers crammed in like sardines.

The south end of the lake was quiet with nothing much happening there. Perfect for getting away from the noise and people and indulging in some quiet contemplation, but also a bit isolated, and possibly not as safe for the lone female traveller.

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Once back in town and after a quick stocking up of provisions I boarded the bus back to Penrith. Passing through one quaint and tiny hamlet on the way back, I did feel rather envious of the lucky folks who lived there. I wonder if I would feel the same in mid winter.

Penrith has a nice little park across from the station adjacent to the remains of the town’s castle. The end of my day of travel was spent sitting in the rose garden, enjoying bees and butterflies and watching some elderly men playing bowls on the immaculate green. Pure nostalgia and a fitting end to a quintessentially English summer day.

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http://www.visitcumbria.com/kes/derwentwater/
http://www.visitcumbria.com/kes/keswick/