Aira Force waterfall and woodland, Cumbria
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An 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.