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Semerwater - A Legendary Glacial Lake

Legends - perhaps with a basis in dim and distant truth - surround Yorkshire's biggest natural lake.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 853ft (260m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Field paths and tracks, steep ascent from Marsett, 19 stiles

Landscape Valley, lake and fine views over Wensleydale

Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 30 Yorkshire Dales - Northern & Central

Start/finish SD 921875

Dog friendliness Dogs should be on leads

Parking Car park at the north end of the lake

Public toilets None on route


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1 Turn right out of the car park up the road. Opposite farm buildings go right over a ladder stile, signed 'Stalling Busk'. Go through a gated stile and ahead towards the barn, then through two stone stiles. Just beyond the second is a Wildlife Trust sign. Continue over two more stiles to a gate.

2 Just beyond the gate, follow the Marsett sign to the corner of the field and over a gated stone stile. Follow the waymarked path as it curves beside the river, to a barn. Go over a stile above the barn to another stile. Cross the field to another stile and on towards another barn, and on further to cross a stream bed.

3 Immediately afterwards, turn right down the well-worn footpath, which curves towards a roofless barn. Cross another three stiles, then turn right, following a path to the trees, with a stone wall on your right. Continue over two stiles to a footbridge and go straight on to a track, where you turn right to reach a ford.

4 Before the ford, veer left over a footbridge and back on to the track, which winds into Marsett. Just before the village, follow the stream as it goes right, and make for the road by the red telephone box. Turn right over the bridge. 100yds (91m) beyond take a track signed Burtersett and Hawes (not the path by the river).

5 Walk uphill to a gate on the right at the start of the stone wall. Go over the stile and continue uphill, over three stiles. Soon after the steep path flattens out, you reach a track that crosses the path, coming through a gap in the wall on your left.

6 Turn right along the track, which goes through a gate in a wall. Where it divides, take the right fork downhill to a stile. The path descends steeply through two gates, to reach a crossing track. Continue straight ahead and follow the track as it bends left to a gate on to a metalled road.

7 Turn right and follow the road downhill to the staggered crossroads, turning right, then left, signed 'Stalling Busk'. Go down the hill, over the bridge and back to the car park.

Semerwater was formed as the result of the end of the last Ice Age. Glacial meltwater attempted to drain away down the valley the glacier had gouged out of the limestone, but was prevented from doing so by a wall of boulder clay, dumped by the glacier itself, across the valley's end. So the water built up, forming a lake which once stretched 3 miles (4.8km) up Raydale. Natural silting has gradually filled the upper part of the lake bed, leaving Semerwater - at half a mile (800m) long Yorkshire's largest natural lake.

Semerwater boasts several legends. One concerns the three huge blocks of limestone deposited by the departing glacier at the water's edge at the north end. Called the Carlow Stone and the Mermaid Stones, they are said to have landed here when the Devil and a giant who lived on Addlebrough, the prominent hill a mile (1.6km) to the east, began lobbing missiles at each other. More famous is the story of the beggar who came to the town that once stood where the lake is now. He went from door to door, asking for food and drink, but was refused by everyone - except the poorest couple. Revealing himself as an angel, he raised his staff over the town, crying 'Semerwater rise, Semerwater sink, And swallow all save this little house, That gave me meat and drink.' The waters overwhelmed the town, leaving the poor people's cottage on the brink of the new lake. Some say the church bells can still be heard ringing beneath the waters.

There are indeed the remains of a settlement beneath Semerwater. Houses perched on stilts were built along the water's edge in Iron Age times, though there may have been an earlier settlement here in Neolithic times, too, for flint arrow heads have been found. A Bronze age spear head was found in 1937 when the lake's waters were lowered.

Marsett, at the lake's southern end, and Countersett, to the north, both end with the Old Norse word denoting a place of hill pasture. Marsett is a hamlet of old farmhouses, and on the road to Countersett, at Carr End, is the house where Dr Fothergill was born in 1712. A famous Quaker philanthropist, he founded the Quaker school at Ackworth in South Yorkshire. The American statesman Benjamin Franklin said he found it hard to believe that any better man than Fothergill had ever lived. Countersett has one of several old Friends' Meeting Houses in Wensleydale, and the Hall was home, in the 17th century, to Richard Robinson, who was responsible for the spread of Quakerism in the Dales.

What to look for

Semerwater offers a wide variety of habitats for wildlife. The waters of the lake, which have a high plankton content, support many fish including bream and perch, as well as crayfish. Water birds include great crested grebe and tufted duck. You may also occasionally see Whooper swans. Over the fringes of the lake dragonflies and damsel flies can be seen glittering in the summer. On the wet margins of the lake grow flowers such as marsh marigold, marsh cinquefoil, ragged robin and valerian, while in the dryer areas the wood anemone is frequently found. Birds such as lapwings, redshank and reed bunting may also be seen, while summer visitors include the sandmartin.

While you're there

Visit Bainbridge, with its wide green and attractive houses. The Romans had a fort here, Virosidum, on top of the hill called Brough. The River Bain, crossed by the bridge which gives the village its name, is England's shortest river, running all of 2 miles (3.2km) from Semerwater to the River Ure.

Where to eat and drink

The nearest place to Semerwater is Bainbridge, where the Rose and Crown Hotel by the Green dates back more than 500 years. The Bainbridge Horn, blown to guide travellers to the village in the dark winter months, hangs here. The hotel serves home-cooked local produce both in the bars and, in the evening, in the Dales Room Restaurant.


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