Winter Kayaking on the Ullswater Water way

By Tim Clarke

It was 4 degrees C and overcast, but no rain foreseen. The Glenridding Sailing Centre where I keep my kayak was deserted. The yachts and dinghies were roped up in an upper section of the car park, the highest ground above the lakeshore. The previous Winter my Canadian canoe ‘Charlie’ had been on the second level of a canoe rack, and had been upended, literally vertical, by fearsome winds. This winter precautions had been taken to move everything as high up as possible, and even the wooden offices had been roped to trees to prevent them blowing off into the lake.

Time, to test the waters. On a previous visit in August last year I had been shocked by the state of the lakeshore, with litter and debris everywhere, despite the best efforts of volunteers to clear up the mess. Rock ‘jetties’ constructed on the shore waterfront were dotted about the shoreline with creative rock sculptures and charred stone fires.  

I was wanting to see the lakeshore in all its pristine beauty.

The wind was getting up but I felt well protected from all the elements.  There were ripples on the lake surface, but not the white horses I had seen from previous days. The water was cold but bearable. I pushed off silently from the shore. My aim was to follow the Ullswater Way as far as Glencoyne Bay, catch up on ‘Andy The Swan Man’s news and see how his ‘bevy’ of swans is fairing, cross the middle of the lake to Silver Point, then meander down the other side past Lingy Home, Pursee point and Blowick Bay, then cross again to the Sailing club. It’s a relatively relaxed 2 hour circuit.

I floated past the Inn in the Lake in all its majesty and the pink Glenridding House Hotel – the site of Charles Darwin’s last family holiday before he died.  The hotel manager loves old sports cars – they are all parked up in the drive. Two external hot tubs are strategically located looking over the lake. 

I paddle on past a boat house that had been seeking planning permission for an access road and conversion into a second home. The shoreline here is in great condition. I can imagine it being more or less in the same state since Ullswater’s creation 10,000 years ago. Polished shingle on the beach, and crystal clear water.

A kneeling paddleboarder with his son seated in front of him flows by. I’m happy to see they are both wearing life-jackets – the one who died in the lake last year was not. I concentrate on the shoreline, the moss-covered rocks, and the gnarled trees, some of which are damaged from endless battering by fearsome winds. 

I paddle past a Canada goose and soon reach Stybarrow Crag dominating the skyline. The road at its base was blasted out of the rock over 175 years ago. A stony protective wall, 2 to 3 metres high, protects its foundations from the lapping water. This was a favourite spot for painters, with splendid vistas across the lake facing both North and South. At this spot the Ullswater Way brutally transforms from an idyllic path along the shoreline either side of the Crag to a narrow road with a blind bend where walkers,  cars, lorries and motorcycles are squeezed between a sheer cliff on one side, and a stony wall on the other. FOUW still campaigns for a separate path at this point to separate walkers from everyone else.

I pass 12 mallards in couples bobbing in front of me. Two divers are on the shingle beach getting kitted up in their wetsuits and tanks, ready to walk into the cold water.  As someone who learnt diving in the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, swimming amongst turtles and coral reef fishes, it is hard to imagine the attraction and pleasures of diving in Ullswater. Maybe one day I will take the plunge and find out.

The stretch of shore line between Stybarrow and Glencoyne Bay is wild and beautiful. In the Summer it’s the haunt of Goosanders and Grebes. Today I see no birds. Fallen tree branches from previous storms stretch out into the lake. Many of the uprooted trees are clothed in mosses and lichens. There is no litter.

I see Andy in the distance surrounded by ‘his’ swans.  

High up Gowbarrow fell on my left hand side I see 3 beautiful white fell ponies. I struggle to get a clear picture from such a distance.

I navigate around 3 young swimmers in the water, two in wetsuits, one in just a bathing costume. They smile stoically. To my surprise it looks like they are really having fun!

As I get closer I pass a regal line of young and adult swans. When I reach him I see there and 16 swans this morning, including 4 cygnets. The number is smaller than usual. But maybe the others are at the Glenridding end of the lake They look in great shape. But Andy’s news is not at all good. He recently found a dead Greylag goose – presumably from avian flu. His big fear is that the flu virus will reach the swans. Fingers crossed. 

The shore here in the Summer can be a chaotic seething mass of bodies, producing prodigious quantities of unwanted waste left to be dealt with by volunteers from Aira Force and elsewhere. Today the cold weather has deterred visitors, and the beach is spotless.

The lake surface is a bit choppy but not too bad. I decide to head perpendicularly across Ullswater towards Silver Bay. I very soon come across two swim-hatted ladies, dragging their safety buoys behind them. They appear completely at ease. After a brief greeting I continue on my way. Water splashes over me, and my water proof trousers soon get spotted with flying spray. In the middle of my crossing I stop, and take stock.

I know there’s 60 metres of clear water beneath me. From where I sit I can see no-one around me. It’s a moment of sheer tranquillity – no sound, no smell, just the sensation of being at one with nature. The iconic Ullswater Steamers are on their winter schedule – not a boat in sight. On my far right hand side I see Norfolk Island rising out of the water and the craggy rocks where cormorants are often seen, hanging out their wings to dry.

I continue towards the mouth of Silver Bay, keen to see its condition. It’s deserted, with no obvious sign of human presence. Anything that may have been left there in late Autumn early Winter seems to have disappeared. 

 I paddle from the Eastern to the Western side. Some invisible rocks under the water on the Eastern side of Silver Point try to de-stabilise me, but I regain my balance and paddle on. I see three individuals climbing up the track between Birk Fell and Silver Crag. Ullswater Way walkers have a choice at this point of taking the ‘low’ road or the ‘high’ road. Most stick close to the shoreline. 

I hug the shore and head directly South between the shore and Ling Holm, a tiny rocky outcrop. There are more hidden rocks under the water designed to capsize an unwary kayaker. On the shore line I see a large bright red bucket, which previously must have been filled with concentrated cattle food. Discarded. At the same location, two solidly built jetties/pontoons are a reminder that a family must have spent a pleasant day creating their shoreline ‘home’. They’ve withstood the battering of the wind and water during Winter and will doubtless will be waitng to be ‘discovered’ in the Spring. High on the left hand side I see three more walkers above the Devil’s chimney coming to a small summit, affording splendid views down the lake to Patterdale.

I come across more tumbled down trees whose trunks and branches are gradually becoming submerged in moss, eaten by the lake water. I skirt around the shiny rock faces leading to Purse Point, marvelling at how the tiniest of Scots Pine seedlings seem to find little crevices in the rocks which, over time, gather enough soil nutrients to provide them a safe and secure home. 

I see a Dipper hopping from rock to rock. Stopping every now and again, seemingly  to display to an invisible companion.

I turn into the beautiful inlet on the North side of Blowick bay – a secluded paradise that regularly fills with day trippers armed with wild camping gear. Last year, on one marvellous moment I saw the blue flash of a kingfisher which was heading for a small birch tree on the shore line. I wanted to preserve that magic moment all for myself but my dreamy, silent contemplation was disturbed by two canoes filled with kids – keen to make a noisy, Long John Silver landing to discover hidden treasure on the shore. I muttered quietly something to them about a kingfisher, but they weren’t interested. Knowing that my moment of magic had now passed I turned tail and left. 

Every time I visit this inlet I head for the ‘kingfisher’ tree. So far I’ve never seen it again. I certainly don’t want to be a killjoy – as a place for kids to enjoy nature in the wild, few spots can be better than Ullswater, and Arthur Ransome’s legacy really does live on. Thankfully, there’s plenty of space for both ornithology and adventure – it’s a matter of mutual respect.

I continue on towards Cherry Holme, past the swinging rope and jumping off point for countless Outward Bound adventurers. A little further on I spot on the bank a bush wearing what looked to be a ‘skirt’ of plastic about half a metre off the ground. Getting closer I realised that this was all plastic waste that had been floating on the surface and had got caught on the branches as the water level had fallen.  The waste will spend the year adorning the bush until some time in the future the lake level will rise, and the plastic waste will float away to find another host. 

In the far distance, near where Deepdale beck runs into Ullswater, I spy 5 swans. Andy will be happy.Their favourite locations seem to be close to the reed banks on the Southern shore of Ullswater, and the two Boat Houses close to the A592. 

As I turn back to Glenridding Sailing club I see three birds in the sky heading towards Side Farm. They had very diagnostic down-pointing beaks. Can they be curlews at this time of year? They were flying too fast for me to take a photograph. No photo, so no proof. But it was a good spot.Still no-one at the club when I slid my trusty kayak on to the gravel, two hours after I had set off. Two hours of huge pleasure on the water. Ullswater in almost pristine shape. Who said winter was a bad time to visit Ullswater? 

by Tim Clarke