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A steamer on Ullswater lake. Photographs: Thinkstock
A steamer on Ullswater lake. Photographs: Thinkstock

Ullswater, England | Forever lake

In the middle of the Lake District, nostalgia for Indian hill stations and ruminations about history

Glaciers just don’t get enough credit for all the great things they’ve done for us. They’ve carved our valleys, gouged out our lakes, shaped our mountains, sculpted the wonderful landscapes of some of the world’s most beautiful tourist destinations. And what did they get in return? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. In fact, worse than nothing. We’re melting them all down with our fossil fuels and aerosols and cattle farts. Surely it is high time we organized an ice bucket challenge to save our ice?

There are few better places in the world to ponder upon the wonders that glaciers have bequeathed to us than on a steamer in the middle of Ullswater. Ullswater, not far from the much more popular Lake Windermere, is arguably the most beautiful body of water in England’s Lake District. And this is saying something. The Lake District is a ridiculously scenic part of the British Isles. It is one of a few places in the UK that has the ability to please the eye and lift the spirits in both glorious sunshine and grim rainfall.

The Lake District is full of wonderful small and large bodies of water, all surrounded by excellent walking trails, cosy hotels and an array of aquatic activities. Choosing the best looking of the many lakes in the region is a little like deciding which of your seven children gets left behind on the Titanic when the lifeboat runs out of space.

Ullswater would take some beating, and the locals know it. Official literature on Ullswater makes the lofty claim that the vaguely z-shaped, 12km-long body of water closely resembles Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. These comparisons are not without justification, especially as I gaze over the lake in the evening, from the terrace of the Sharrow Bay Country House hotel, caressing a glass of wine in my hand, and wondering why every day of the rest of my life cannot be like this.

Ullswater owes its provenance and shape to the retreat of three glaciers during the last ice age. The glaciers left behind a groove on the valley floor, which was then filled in with melted snow. Over subsequent millennia the region was to witness many more comings and goings, but of a human nature. The Romans came here of course, and so did the Vikings, who were followed by the Victorians, the great romantic poets and other persons of an aesthetic bent of mind. The Germans under their Kaiser came shortly before World War I, and then of course there were the modern-day visitors.

Each itinerant wave left its own mark on the land. The Romans built a road that traverses the tops of the surrounding hills. The Vikings not only left behind gravestones and graves but also numerous names—Ullswater is perhaps named after Ulf, a local Viking chief, or the Norse god Ullr. The enterprising Victorians turned the whole region into the tourist destination it is today.

The Aira Force waterfalls skirt Ullswater
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The Aira Force waterfalls skirt Ullswater

Wait. Had I been to Cumbria before? Perhaps I was a Cumbrian Viking in a previous life and this explains my rugged deportment? And then suddenly it all came together. Of course I had seen this before. Well, not exactly Aira Force. But dozens of little waterfalls and little uphill tracks like it. All over Kodaikanal and Ooty and Yercaud and dozens of other hill stations in India, built by the British far away in the east. The similarities were numerous: from the little beaten track, to the falls themselves, to the man-made vantage points designed for the views.

But for the most aesthetic legacy ever left by a visitor to Ullswater you need look no further than a book by William Wordsworth. It is said that Wordsworth was inspired to write his great Daffodils, no less, by a visit to Ullswater.

Wordsworth was a great lover of the Lake District, finding inspiration in its views, flora and fauna. So much so that in 1810 he wrote a wonderful little book titled A Guide Through the District Of the Lakes. A revised and expanded edition published in 1835 was a best-seller and played no small part in making the Lake District a magnet for those seeking nature’s healing bosom.

Ullswater, Wordsworth writes in the book, is “perhaps, upon the whole, the happiest combination of beauty and grandeur, which any of the Lakes affords".

Today Ullswater broadly attracts two types of visitors. The first, like your writer, seeks to do nothing more strenuous than sitting by the lakeside reading a good book, occasionally looking up from the pages to look at the beauty and grandeur.

The second type of visitor wishes to witness this grandeur from up close. So she packs her worldly possessions into tiny little bags, wears rugged shoes, and goes on long, exhausting treks over and around the surrounding hills and valleys and fells, until, in the worst case scenario, she is lost and then eaten by wild animals at nightfall.

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By Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

I walked around it a little, inhaling the fresh air, watching the sunlight-cast patches of light and dark all over the valley. And then I stumbled upon a gravestone in the church yard. A companion, Greg Stephenson who handles public relations for Cumbria Tourism, pointed it out with glee: “I’ve been meaning to show you this," he said. “An Indian connection!"

The epitaph read: “Here lies the body of Andrew Wilson. Traveller. Orientalist and Man of Letters. Author of The Abode of Snow. Born at Bombay April 11th 1830. Died at Bank House Howtown June 8th 1881".

Later I discovered that Wilson was a literary star of his time. His travel writing was quite popular, even if he appears to have spent much of his time in India and China in various stages of ill-health. But most interesting of all, Wilson was once editor of the Bombay Times, a newspaper that would later become The Times Of India.

I stood by his graveside for a few moments. I felt the sun on my head and the wind through my hair. And I thought to myself, no one, anywhere in the world, rests in greater, deeper peace than Andrew Wilson of Bombay.

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Getting there

The best way to get to Ullswater from London is to catch a train to Penrith and then a short taxi trip up to your hotel by the lake. One-way train fare starts from £97 (around 9,600).

Stay

The area around the lake has many small and large hotels. A number of converted stately homes make this a particularly unique venue for small and big groups, self-catering groups and destination weddings. The fine facilities of the Sharrow Bay Country House ( £370 per night for double occupancy) by the lake will take some beating. The luxurious hotel offers excellent rooms and top-notch dining.

Eat

Ullswater offers a wide range of dining options—from chain sandwich shops to gourmet sit-down restaurants.

Do

There are many option for visitors of all ages and persuasions. Ullswater offers excellent waterborne activities, not least a relaxing circuit on the ferry service, fantastic for readers and writers (all-day tickets offering unlimited trips are available). There are also trekking routes, heritage buildings, and, depending on the season, music festivals.

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