In the first of the 2FOR20 series, I’m going to share a recent day trip to Aira Force near Ullswater in the Lake District. I visited the falls in February during a surprise trip to the Lakes for my birthday. The weather during the two days we were there was, umm, changeable, shall we say! Everything from glorious winter sun that makes sunglasses a necessity with your hat and scarf to horizontal rain; and then the magic of waking up on my birthday to snow-capped fells. The day we went to Aira Force had started with torrential downpours, though when we pulled into the car park the rain slowed to a drizzle before petering out for all of our walk until we were nearly back at the car. Then it hailed.
What is Aira Force?
Aira Force is basically a living fairytale location, with a 65-foot thunderous waterfall at its heart. Surrounded by walking trails, towering trees, and the odd woodland creature in the form of the endangered red squirrel, it’s ideal to spend a few hours feeling like a Disney princess – or a Game of Thrones Wildling – depending on your preference.
Where is Aira Force?
In the car, it’s roughly 20 minutes from both Keswick and Penrith, and about 40 minutes from Ambleside, so if you’re in the Lake District as part of a longer stay, it’s doable for a day trip – or even half a day depending on your plans.
What is there to do?
Part of Gowbarrow Park, the falls are in a whopping expanse that nestles next to Ullswater, hugging the shore from Pooley Bridge to Glenridding. The area was carved from a long-gone glacier, and is surrounded by some of the most impressive fells in the Lake District, including Helvellyn, the third highest mountain in England.
Ullswater itself is the second largest lake in the Lake District, and so there are plenty of activities to do on the water. The Ullswater Steamers, operating from Glenridding, run the length of the lake, and even offer a ‘shuttle steamer’ to Aira Force, which I imagine would be a lovely way to start your adventure. In fact, as part of my birthday trip, The Great Dane had booked us to go on the Steamers, but due to the awful weather in the UK in the weeks before, the water level was too high and so weren’t operating!
Glencoyne Bay is about a 30-minute walk from the main car park and you can hire kayaks if you’re after something a little more energetic. This is also where you’ll find Wordsworth Point, where the Romantic Poet was inspired to write ‘Daffodils’. Though, Aira Force itself features in two Wordsworth poems, making the area quite the literary hotspot!
There are numerous walking trails through the park that take in Aira Force on the way, with a couple of car parks on higher ground, offering different access points depending on your route. Or, you could do what we did, which was make the falls the main event.
We parked at the main car park (details and prices below). You’ll find a tea room serving drinks and snacks for pre/post hike fuel (read: cream tea), plus there is also an welcome office at the start of the trails, with maps, routes and volunteers on-hand. We didn’t really have a route set out, and rather, just wandered, following along the water’s edge. The paths are clearly marked, and particularly the main one to/from the car park is suitable for all ages.
As I mentioned earlier, it had been raining furiously before our visit, and so some of the path was muddy, and some of the rocky areas a little slippery, but nothing that made it dangerous or strenuous. In fact, there were a lot of families also enjoying a walk that day. The beauty of most of the main paths being shielded slightly by the trees means you’re saved from the full brunt of northern England’s wet weather! The beauty of visiting on a rainy day means the force is in full flow, making it a really impressive sight – and sound. We heard the crashing water long before we saw it. The top of the falls is around the same height as a Victorian bridge, making it look like the water is coming out from underneath it when you’re at the bottom. Climb to the top, via stairs cut into the stone, and you can peek over the side of the bridge to watch the water torrent down.
From there, we started to climb higher, towards another waterfall. However, the ground underneath was simply too boggy, so we made our way back to the car park in a circle. We’d have definitely hiked longer if it was a little more firm under foot.
We got back to the car just in time. The sky went dark, the heavens opened. There was only one thing for it – crack open the flask. Hot cup of coffee, pre-packed Linda McCartney sausage roll and we were off for the next adventure.
I definitely will visit again when the weather is a little more favourable, though that’s never really guaranteed in the UK. You can swim and paddle in some of the shallower pools, which would be fantastic after a good hike in the summer. I’m too wimpy to do that in winter! Then dry off with a picnic in the sun.
How much does it cost?
Entry to Aira Force is free, however you will pay for the car park. It’s £5 for 2 hours or £7 for 4 hours. If you’re planning on making a whole day of it and exploring the area, I’d suggest opting for one of the other, nearby car parks which, in addition to the 2/4 hour options also have an ‘all day’ rate at £7.50.
This means you’ve got change left over for an ice-cream (or coffee). Take a picnic to enjoy on the water’s edge, or in the car like we did.
Want to know more?
The National Trust website has the SatNav postcodes for the car parks, plus you can search their website for one of the planned walking trails. You can print them, send over the GPS details to a device – or simply go rogue like we did!
** Currently Aira Force is open to the public, but with car parking restrictions due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation. The National Trust Website has the most up-to-date information**