One explorer’s longstanding love affair with a lake.
Words and images: Kevin Rushby
They were all beautiful, but this one was special. She was wilder, more spectacular, and a bit dangerous. I was ten years old and ready to fall in love. My parents threw us together with uncharacteristic glee, repeatedly taking camping and walking holidays in her company. I loved the way, when we arrived from Penrith in the east, she always seemed rather dreamy and lovely – a bit Laura Ashley – but delving further west she became wilder and moodier – definitely Raquel Welch (this was a long time ago), or should I say Veronica Lake. No, I’m serious. My love was a lake, a nine-mile long silver beauty that is the equal of anything that Italy or Switzerland can offer.
My opening encounter with Ullswater was not promising. Our first camp was at Park Foot and my father borrowed a sailing dinghy with the stated desire of teaching me and my brother to sail. The only drawback was that he didn’t know himself. We set off on a lovely calm afternoon from Pooley Bridge and an hour later a vicious little squall blew down off Barton Fell and turned the boat over. The water did not seem so cold, but after half an hour of attempting, and failing, to right the craft, we were all exhausted and starting to shiver. Fortunately a man in a speedboat came along and helped us to shore. We stuck to using the vessel as rowing boat after that.
Curiously the experience did not put me off the lake, if anything it increased my fascination. When I built a coracle, it was Ullswater that I automatically chose for the grand launch. When I bought my first tent, it was to Side Farm at Patterdale that I went to camp. When I decided to do a triathlon, I chose one of the hardest and most spectacular, the Helvellyn, whose swim is in the shockingly chilly water off Glenridding pier.
In any estimation of Ullswater, that fell, Helvellyn, looms large. I’ve climbed it dozens of times from Glenridding and I would happily go again tomorrow. Like the lake itself, the route has a perfectly well-balanced drama about it: a bit of forest at the start – watch out for red squirrels – a bit of a tussocky uphill trial followed by unfolding views that just get better and better. Everyone remembers Striding Edge, certainly the finest ridge walk in England, matched only by Swirral Edge, its immediate neighbour. Between them lies Red Tarn which, despite any suggestion of heat in the name, is freezing cold all year.
One baking hot summer’s day, I came down Swirral Edge with my new dog, then a pup who had to be carried part of the way. At Red Tarn I left him on shore and swam across, only to turn for the return leg and find him right behind me. He had never been in water before. From that moment Wilf was a hero and the swim in Red Tarn a fixture of every summer ascent.
Dogs, it should be said, have long had heroic status on this fell, ever since the artist Charles Gough fell to his death on Striding Edge in 1805. His body was guarded by his faithful terrier, Foxie, for several weeks before discovery. A small plaque marks the spot these days, a bit of a pilgrimage for any hound. It is perhaps typically English that the dog should be commemorated and not the man.
“The lake love affair still goes on.”
That tragic event was in the early days of hill walking. Both Coleridge and Wordsworth came up several times and the latter wrote a fine poem, ‘Inmate of a Mountain Dwelling’, about the view with the “solemn shadows” of the valleys and the distant ocean, “a silver shield”. In those days mining was just starting in the Lakes and the most famous, Greenside, close to Ullswater’s northern shore was to open in 1825. By the time it closed in 1961, 45 tonnes of silver had been extracted. I once donned a wetsuit and clambered all the way up Swart Beck to the mine’s entrance. At one spot I fell into a deep pool and scrabbling for a handhold picked up a fist-sized lump of galena, the raw natural lead sulfide that holds the silver. I couldn’t believe my luck, and heaved its considerable weight around with me all day, even into the pub that night for several celebratory pints. No doubt like many hapless prospectors before me, I then managed to lose my fortune somewhere between the beer pumps and the saloon doors. The loss still hurts.
If the Helvellyn side of Ullswater has attracted walkers for over two centuries, it is the other side that remains less trodden. It was there, on a bizarre assignment, I was sent to “help de-stress” a prima donna television host. I called him ‘Golden Boy’. We were dropped off at Howtown pier by the highly recommended Ullswater steamer – Golden Boy in complete new top-of-the-range walking gear, me in my filthy old boots, carrying a leaky thermos flask. We lunched on Place Fell, which is a great spot for it, with views to Brothers Water and Ullswater. Golden Boy had brought quails eggs, a selection of Italian artisanal cheeses and prosciutto, a Bulgarian shopska salad, a dozen bread rolls, various patisserie, a bottle of Dom Perignon and a guide to carry it all; I had half a bar of Kendal Mint Cake and half a flask of tea. I suggested we share. The weather was superb and Golden Boy declared he loved the mountains: “What do you call it again? The Lakeland District?”
When we finished the day, he demanded a massage – not from me, from a trained professional – and then ran up a £486 bill at the bar. I cannot imagine how he managed that, but then I was concentrating hard on helping him achieve his avowed goal of sampling every whisky in the house.
There are, it has to be said, some excellent places to celebrate various swims, ascents and descents on the shores of the lake. There is even a brewery now, at the Brackenrigg Inn at Watermillock. Other local ales are available at Sharman’s store in Glenridding, one of two shops where I’ve stocked up for walks and camps for many years (the other is the mini-market around the corner).
The lake love affair still goes on. I still get excited when I drive over to see her from my home in Yorkshire. But I do vary my approach nowadays: sometimes I cycle over ‘The Struggle’, the legendary pass in from Ambleside, foregoing the softer Laura Ashley preamble for the straight Raquel Welch experience. Yes, she can still send shivers through me. The thrill is not gone.
Kevin Rushby is Guardian Travel’s ‘Explorer’ and author or four travel books. His latest book, Paradise, is an historical account of human’s search for perfection.