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It was mid-February 2022, and we were looking at changing our campervan for something more up-to-date. Soon, the deed was done and we needed a couple of ‘shake-down’ trips before launching off on our annual May trip to the Scottish Highlands. Where better to start than the Lake District.
A couple of days in Langdale at the beginning of March was a good start to the shake-down process, followed a week later by four days at Threlkeld near Keswick. The next trip was to be a fortnight in Northumbria and the Scottish Borders, but we just couldn’t keep away from Lakeland – Ullswater and Aira Force are just a short hop from the M6 Motorway, so a couple more days there seemed like a good move.
I lived at Patterdale at the south end of Ullswater in the 1980s, and I know the area well. In fact, I got to know the mountains surrounding the lake very well but spent little time exploring some of the lower hills in the area. So, the plan for this trip was to put that to rights by taking a circular route from Aira Force around and over Gowbarrow.
When it comes to ‘lower hills’, Gowbarrow is definitely on the shortlist at a mere 481 metres (1578 ft) height. It’s thought that the name comes from Old Norse and probably means ‘Windy Hill’ – the area has other Old Norse names dating back to the 9th Century onwards, when the Vikings first started to settle, so you will come across beck (bekr) for stream, Force (foss) for waterfall, Tarn (tjorn) for a small lake and Fell (fjall) for mountain.
Our route took us east from Aira Force (more of which later) on a gradually rising narrow path. Gowbarrow isn’t going to get you into a sweat, either through exertion or excitement, but like many lowly hills, it’s a great place to view the surrounding country, and the views of Ullswater and the surrounding fells compare well with the views from Hallin Fell, just a couple of kilometres away on the opposite side of the lake.
The narrow path continues for a while before taking a turn to the north, followed by a second turn, this time to the west, to the small summit of Gowbarrow with its stone cairn – the views of the Ullswater area included much of the lake, and further away to the northwest, the northern hills of Blencathra and Carrock Fell were also visible. I had taken two cameras (Olympus) on this hike, one with an equivalent 35mm lens and the other with an equivalent 200-600mm lens – the longer lens was included in the hope of getting some red squirrel images but ended up being used for long landscape shots due to a ‘no show’ by the squirrels.
Our next port of call was a short diversion to the hamlet of Dockray, but before that, we had to negotiate a badly eroded section of path. Our route had been deserted, but this was March and I guess that hundreds of boots must pound along here in summer – a bit lower down we found helicopter drop bags full of stones to repair the path. Once past the worn section, we were soon at ‘The Royal’ at Dockray for a cool cider – well, it would have been rude not to!
Our route back to the van went via the 20 metre (65 ft) waterfall of Aira Force, one of the best-known waterfalls in the Lake District, if only for its connection with Romantic poet William Wordsworth. It’s a favourite on the tourist circuit, but the best views are out of reach at the moment, due to damage caused by fallen trees – I did the best I could to get a decent photograph from the accessible viewpoints before heading back to the van to top up my cider levels.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock
p.s. It was T-shirt weather for the Gowbarrow hike, but three days later we nearly found ourselves marooned up near Simonside in Northumbria – it snowed overnight, then froze in the early hours, making the steep road out like a skating rink. I’d decided that there was no way I was launching a 3-tonne camper van down a steep icy slope, but by the time we had taken Border Collie ‘Mist’ for her morning walk, the road was thawing out – one consolation would have been that getting cold cider would not have been a problem!