First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A beautiful day was promised over the eastern fells of the Lake District, with light easterly winds and plenty of blue sky. So it turned out, as we set off from the tiny village of Dockray to make a circuit of the craggy outlier of Gowbarrow Fell.
In the pastures around Parkgate Farm they were training an excitable young sheepdog in the business of gathering his charges. The flock swerved and fled across the field like a shower of white iron filings impelled by the black-and-white magnet of the dog. He yapped shrilly, they bleated high and low, the farmer shouted and whistled. Gradually the noise faded as we crossed Riddings Beck and turned up Gowbarrow’s steep rocky slope.
The fell rises in a graceless lump of green-grey rocks and fox-brown bracken to the east of Dockray. Norsemen named it ‘Windy Hill’, but all was still today under the winter sun. ‘More deer than trees’ was a late 17th century description of this private hunting ground for the lords of the Greystoke estate. Gowbarrow is still a wild place today, a hummock of moorland, rock, heather and boggy ground.
Views as much Alpine as Cumbrian opened to the south as we gained height on the steep stony path, a view of Ullswater’s lake and wooded shores. Beyond rose the long hummocky ridge of High Street, where the sun was causing the last curls of early mist to shred away in the clear air.
Up we went, a stony ascent by rocky steps and tree roots. Sparkling streamlets descended beside the path with a tinkling sound like distant sheep bells. A meadow pipit, disturbed from a mossy bog pool, darted up and away with snipe-like jinkings and a sharp chip! chip! of complaint. Near the top of the fell the gradient eased and the path ran over a wide heather moor to reach the trig pillar on Airy Crag at 1,579 feet.
The view from here was superb in unbroken sunshine, Ullswater trending northeast towards the flat plain of the Eden Valley and the rise of the North Pennine fells beyond, Great and Little Mell lumping in the northern foreground and a big crumple of high fells towards Helvellyn in the south west.
Down a well-trodden path, clockwise round the hump of Gowbarrow, to reach the lake shore level and a woodland path to Aira Force.* The waterfall that Wordsworth and countless other poets admired came bouncing and sluicing in white water down a black rock chute slick with mosses and liverworts. A fine spectacle to mark the homeward path through woods of alder and silver birch, along the fellside and back to Dockray in the last of the afternoon sunlight.
*NB spelling = Airy Crag; Aira Force
How hard is it? 5 miles; strenuous; steep climb to Airy Crag; many trip hazards on paths; many steps at Aira Force.
Start: Royal Hotel, Dockray, Penrith CA11 0JY (OS ref NY 393216)
Getting there: Dockray is on A5091 (Glenridding-Troutbeck)
Walk (OS Explorer OL5): Cross A5091; follow lane beside Dockray House (‘Aira Force’). Cross Riddings Beck at Millses (397217); in 200m through gate; left (399216, ‘Airy Crag’) through gate. Steeply up beside stone wall to Airy Crag trig pillar (408218). Keep ahead clockwise on clear path for 2¼ miles to footbridge over Aira Beck (401203). Don’t cross; turn right up right bank to Aira Force (399205). Cross lower footbridge; up steps; right to recross upper bridge. Path north on right bank to Millses and Dockray.
Lunch/Accommodation: Royal Hotel, Dockray (01768-482356, the-royal-dockray.co.uk) – friendly, characterful village inn.