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Hairy Aira Force

Ascend and descend the river gorge of Aira and High Force beneath Dockray.

Distance 3 miles (4.8km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 460ft (140m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Stony tracks, steps, grassy paths and surfaced road

Landscape Pinetum, tree-lined river gorge, woods and open meadow

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer OL 5 The English Lakes (NE)

Start/finish NY 400200

Dog friendliness Under very good control; narrow paths with steep drops, sheep pastures and open road,

Parking National Trust pay-and-display car park beneath falls

Public toilets At car park

1 Leave the car park beneath the arch, and cross the field until the path leads right into the woods. Go right over the footbridge to cross Aira Beck and continue following the terraced track up its east side. Take the low route to gain the impressive view of Aira Force from the bottom bridge, before climbing to the upper narrow stone arched bridge via the steps and hand rails. The view directly down the chasm and waterfall from the upper bridge is quite breathtaking and not for those averse to heights.

2 Continue to follow the path up the east bank (true left) of the beck. A short deviation may be made by taking a wooden bridge which leads left, off the main path, to cross over a ravine to a viewpoint. Return to the main path and continue to the delightful rocky falls of High Force. (Alternatively you can greatly foreshorten the walk by returning to the car park down the opposite side of the beck from here.) There's a viewpoint from the rocky slabs above. In times of spate it is probably safest to leave a close inspection until later in the walk when you return to High Force from the Dockray road to the west.

3 Keep along the narrow stony path above the beck. Go through a narrow wooden gate bearing a notice 'Farmland - keep dogs on the lead' to enter a small natural wood of hazel, silver birch, oak, ash, alder, rowan and sycamore. It seems light and airy compared with the thicker pinewoods found at the start of the walk. Beyond the wood, fields lead easily to a junction of ways. Go left and cross the beck via a bridge. Rise, to pass the buildings, and follow the track into Dockray and a junction with the road opposite the Royal Hotel.

4 Turn left down the road and continue until opposite the old quarry car park, where a path leads off left, signed 'Lower Pinetum'. Pass through the kissing gate to leave the road and descend the field. The path then bears right above the west bank of the beck. At High Force it is possible to make a scrambled descent to the bank directly below the waterfall. This is a worthwhile viewpoint, though caution should be exercised. Follow the path above the beck to pass above the upper bridge of Aira Force. Continue the descent, following the path and steps along the edge of pine tress with open field to the right. This leads to a junction with the original path rising from the car park.

This circular walk climbs the tree-clad gorge of Aira Beck to pass two waterfalls, before continuing to ascend through meadows and natural woodland to the hamlet of Dockray. The lower, larger waterfall, Aira Force, is the more famous of the two. It offers an impressive sight from the viewpoint stone bridges above and below the falls. The beck cascades some 70ft (21m) vertically down a narrow rocky chasm into the pool beneath the lower bridge. Particularly when in spate, the upper falls of High Force, which fall some 35ft (11m), are also impressive. Broader than Aira Force the falls resemble the rapids of an American river canyon. View them from the east bank, when ascending, from the outcropping bed of waterworn rocks above. Care must be exercised, particularly when it's wet, as the rocks can be very slippery and there are no safeguards to prevent a fall.

Whilst the waterfalls are undoubtedly a major attraction, the whole area surrounding the beck is a delightful mix of pine and exotic trees. It was purchased by the National Trust when the estate of Gowbarrow Park came up for sale in 1906. It had been owned by the Howard family of Greystoke Castle, who landscaped the area around the force. In 1846 they created a pinetum and pleasure garden, planting over half a million native and ornamental trees and establishing a network of tracks, footpaths and bridges. They planted over 200 specimen conifers, including firs, pines, spruces and cedars from all over the world including a Sitka spruce from North America which now stands at around 120ft (37m) high.

What to look for

A short distance from the entrance to the car park, occupying a commanding position on the hillside of Gowbarrow Fell and overlooking Ullswater, stand the impressive castle-like walls of Lyulph's Tower. Although the façade of the building is a rather grand folly, the structure it incorporates is still a working farm. The building was originally a pele tower modified by Charles Howard of Greystoke around 1780.

Where to eat and drink

The Aira Force Café can be found in the car park and on a sunny day the outside benches offer a pleasant place for a cuppa or light meal. The Royal Hotel is in Dockray at the half way point of the walk. This 16th-century coaching inn once served merchants travelling north and south across the Scottish border - a Scottish coat of arms lies above the door. Bar meals are served all year.

While you're there

There are numerous little car parks and pull-ins off the A592 along the north east shore of Ullswater. They all offer a pleasant place from which to paddle, swim or contemplate the magnificence of this most beautiful lake.

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