Neil Sowerby explores irresistible Ullswater in the Lake District
NEVER go back, they say. But the allure of Ullswater is irresistible. Where to stay, though? The legendary Sharrow Bay, England's first "country house hotel", finally gave up the ghost in autumn 2020. The chintzy birthplace of sticky toffee pudding had failed to move with the times. That's definitely not the case across the lake at another old haunt.
The Rampsbeck, with fewer past glories to fall back on, has now been transformed from dowdy Victorian pile into Another Place, mini-resort sibling of Cornwall's Watergate Bay, with all the hip trimmings, which don't come cheap.
We were channeling our inner Bilbo Baggins, without the need for hairy feet
Our alternative bolthole this time, then, was The Quiet Site, an altogether different proposition but on top of its own ultra-sustainable game. It may lack the lakeside wow factor but way up on a fellside, above Another Place, it offers its own spectacular vistas and a genuine sense of being embedded in the Cumbrian terroir.
This former hill farm is home to a variety of camping and glamping options but we were there to road-test its latest planet-friendly option, The Gingerbread Houses. The plan was for this set of 15 timber cabins to all be ready for May, but by eve of lockdown lifting, only two had been completed, one of which we tumbled into with delight at its rustic meets luxury mix.
The remainder were well on their way; the russet beech hedges that will blend them into the landscape still a budding work in progress. It's all part of a long-term responsible plan. On the site hundreds of trees have already been planted, meadows, wildlife corridors and water-filtering reed beds created as part of former electrical engineer Daniel Holder's biodiverse vision.
Pioneering precursors of The Gingerbread Houses were the 15 Hobbit Holes burrowed into a ridge at the top of the site. These were what attracted us in the first place, channeling our inner Bilbo Baggins. Without the need for hairy feet naturally, though two adults and up to four small children sharing a leather sleeping ledge (bring your own bedding) offers its own kind of quest. I snore like an Orc, apparently. Even kept our chihuahua Captain Smidge awake.
Gingerbread accommodation is a step up while advancing the eco credentials. Heating is provided by a remote ground source heat pump and electricity is generated from their solar PV panel roofs. There's a larger covered deck with a picnic table and a barbecue stone. When it gets too cold to sit outside you retreat into a toasty interior with a basic kitchen featuring sink, microwave and fridge.
There's also, separate inside, an economical power shower and lavatory, complete with Who Gives A Crap, recycled paper rolls to save the forests. This ethical company also donates 50 percent of its profits to build toilets and improve sanitation in the developing world.
Enjoying all the amenities had to wait, mind. The forecast rain was replaced by fleecy clouds and staff had supplied us with a leaflet of four walks in the area, all linked to the Ullswater Way, a 20-mile circular path around arguably the most scenic of all the Lakes.
Our debut trek included a stop-off at the excellent 18th-century Brackenrigg Inn to sample the range from their own Brack'N'Brew brewhouse. The terrace was blustery but the views and pints of stout made up for it.
The Monday after our weekend stay, when indoors nationally was back on the cards, we need not have strayed further than the Quiet Site's own bar - a conversion of an 18th-century barn that makes a very good fist of replicating a vintage Lakeland boozer.
Bottles of their bespoke 'Quiet Pint', made by local brewery Tirril, are also available from the zero-waste shop along with a variety of picnic snacks. Our granddaughter Bella was delighted by The Quiet Bite counter selling breakfast pancakes and terrific evening pizzas.
Because of these treats and a posse of girls her own age to hang out with on the adventure playground it was hard to prise her away from the site. As the weather continued fair it had to be done.
A Force of nature
Recommended on that walks list is an eight-mile loop to Aira Force, the most popular waterfall in The Lakes. Next day, we chose a different approach but similarly avoiding the congested National Trust car park at the base of the walk.
Instead, we parked next to the Ullswater Steamers' southern terminus at Glenridding and took a 20-minute return trip on one of their vintage vessels. Kayakers, upright paddle boarders, red-breasted mergansers (sawbill diving ducks for those of you not in the RSPB), they were all out on the choppy lake; we chugged past them all with a certain Victorian (not steam-driven) swagger.
From the landing stage it's a five-minute walk to the National Trust cafe, where it's hard to say no to a cream tea in the garden. Then it's a not particularly arduous half-mile climb to Aira Force. The name comes from the Old Norse words eyrr for gravel bank and á, meaning river. Fors is the Norse word for waterfall.
The 65ft cascade is the centrepiece of a wooded ravine (among the evergreens there's a 170ft Sitka pine with a 6.77m girth and resident red squirrels). It was a medieval hunting ground. In Victorian times it was shaped into parkland and an arboretum by the Howards of Greystoke Castle. They built the vertiginous top bridge over the Force. Scary to gaze over the edge. We urgently persuaded our Bella the parapet wasn't the spot for a selfie.
Which leads us neatly to the ghosts that haunt the Force. Sir Eglamore and Lady Emma are the protagonists of a tragic legend, given poetic voice by William Wordsworth in The Somnambulist.
The pair were betrothed but knight errant Eglamore was always away crusading and the like. It drove lovely Emma distraught and she took to sleepwalking on the edge of the ravine. Cue unheralded return of her beau. As he gently touched her shoulder she shuddered awake and plunged into the abyss. After he plucked her from the torrent she died in his arms and ever after he lived as a hermit in a nearby cave.
Presumably without all those luxury touches of a Hobbit Hole or a Gingerbread House.
Follow Neil Sowerby on Twitter @AntonEgoManc
The Quiet Site, Ullswater, Penrith CA11 0LS. 017684 86337.
Gingerbread Houses are from £90 per night low season to £160 high; Hobbit Holes £70-£140. The site, in existence 50 years and a winner of AA North West Campsite of the Year, also hosts cottages, pods and pre-erected tents plus static and touring caravans and motorhomes. Among add-ons there is everything from super-fast wifi to a bath for washing the dog after those walks. Several of the Gingerbread Houses are allocated as pet-friendly.
Ullswater Steamers sail the length of the lake between Pooley Bridge and Glenridding Pier, stopping off at Howton Pier (and in summer at Aira Force). Covid-related restrictions are in force until June 21 2021, so for Glenridding-Aira Force return you must purchase an Adult Duo ticket (£24). Dogs travel for £1 each way.