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 me 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. I continue my ascent.

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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 relate 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.

 

 

 

 

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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Conishead Priory, Cumbria: a magical place

Conishead Priory, home of the Majushri Kadampa Buddhist Temple and learning and meditation centre, has experienced several incarnations in its own right. On a hot day in August in a secluded corner of the temple’s wild flower garden, it is easy to experience a sense of nirvana.

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Built on the original site of a 12th century Augustinian priory, the grade 2 listed Victorian gothic house was for hundreds of years home to many generations of Cumbrian aristocracy. It has also been a hydro-hotel, described as the ‘paradise of Furness’, a convalescent home for miners and was used as a hospital in World War II.

The Priory is about 2 miles from Ulverston Station. On their website, Conishead Priory recommends travelling there by taxi and even provides an ample list of local taxi numbers. Based on prior (no pun intended!) experience of poor taxi services in parts of Cumbria l had looked up a few more for good measure. Onthe fourth attempt I got through to a chap who sounded quite put-out that I had disturbed him, but said he would be with me in 10 minutes and was good to his word, though surly with it.

I was surprised at first that the Priory house was not older; I had misunderstood the blurb and had thought it was 12th century, but that was the when the original Augustinian building was erected. The existing house is early Victorian. Tours are available but I didn’t partake.

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A short walk across the car park leads straight into the gardens and outdoor dining area. The café is situated inside the conservatory. Monks and visitors alike sit and chat, appreciating the vibrancy of the garden and enjoying food together. The café offers a selection of vegetarian sandwiches, snacks, homemade soups, cream teas and cold drinks and ice creams.

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The gardens are beautiful in a very understated and natural way, not artistic or flamboyant, but tranquil and vibrant without trying too hard. I particularly enjoyed walking in the wildflower garden (as wildflowers are my favourites) and the many and varied pots on the terrace.

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The pleasant stroll to the beach is by way of a path which is a bit steep at the start and probably not suitable wheelchairs or prams. Follow the signs through the wood to the pebble beach; although it’s an inlet, you can see out to open sea.

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In one sense, the temple seemed so strangely incongruous in that English-country-house setting, yet it is perfectly at ease there. It wasn’t as large as I had expected and not as ornate. It’s modern and airy and has some religious art and beautiful displays. On entering, I was welcomed and given the choice of removing my shoes or covering them with the disposable covers provided. Everybody is made welcome, Buddhist or non-Buddhist alike.

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After more peace and quiet time spent looking out over the lawns behind the temple, I decided to call a taxi in plenty time to get back to Ulverston Station. After four unsuccessful attempts I managed to book a taxi which arrived about 20 minutes later.

Conishead is well worth a visit and I would defy anybody to not find something there that appeals to them, be it the grand house, the beach, the temple or the wonderful gardens.

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