Round Thirlmere (28 miles/44 kilometres)

via Ambleside, Under Loughrigg, White Moss, Grasmere, Dunmail Raise, Armboth, Thirlspot, Dunmail Raise, and Grasmere

This ride takes the cyclist on a journey round Thirlmere, travelling from Ambleside to Grasmere via Under Loughrigg and White Moss, then over Dunmail Raise flanked by Steel Fell and Seat Sandal to Wythburn and the quiet western shores of the lake. Pause at Hause Point, lunch at Launchy Gill and pass through Armboth to reach the northern end of the lake. Rejoin the A591 to travel south down the eastern side side of lake. Make sure you stop at Wythburn church.

Thirlmere is a man-made lake. A short dam across the northern end of the valley, completed in 1894, followed by later building to raise the usable depth of water to 50 feet, has created a reservoir with a capacity of 9 billion gallons. The high annual rainfall (upto 100 inches) on the large catchment area, which includes the Helvellyn range to the east and Armboth Fell to the west, can usually keep pace with the baths, showers, and cisterns of Manchester located at the far end of the 96 mile aqueduct. Even so, an additional aqueduct was constructed to bring the waters of Mill Gill, from its valley that reaches up to the summit of Great Dod, into Thirlmere.

Under Loughrigg

Leave Ambleside on the A593 towards Coniston. Cross the River Rothay and immediately take the next right, sign-posted for Under Loughrigg. This narrow lane follows the river closely for about 750m at which point you cross the first of two cattle grids.

About 20m further along the road there is a bridleway that leads eventually to the summit of Loughrigg Fell. This was the starting point for my survey of the natural history of a few square kilometres of the fell during 2004/5. If you're interested, there's a link to the right that shows my efforts.

Follow the road for another 1.5Km when you come to the stepping stones over the River Rothay. If you're travelling in the week, be prepared to duck as low flying jets scream through here with grinning pilots and worried sheep. Carry on over the next cattle grid and down to Pelter Bridge, crossing the Rothay again. At the junction, left is to Rydal and Grasmere, right is back to Ambleside.

Rothay Stepping Stones

Rydal to Grasmere

Rydal Water

The hamlet of Rydal at the eastern end of Rydal Water was home to William Wordsworth and his family between 1813 and 1859, when they lived at Rydal Mount.

A little over half-way along the lake is Nab Cottage which operates as an English language school, and directly across the lake from Nab Cottage, you can see Rydal Caves - or at least the top of one of them.

Round White Moss Common

Along the road between Rydal Water and Grasmere, you reach a point where there are car parks on both sides of the road and a junction with a right turn that climbs steeply away from the A591. Take this turning and quickly gain height and tranquillity. This road follows the same line as the main road, winding around White Moss Common, but is quieter for the cyclist and has the advantage that you drop conveniently down to Dove Cottage with its striking new visitor and conference centre.


Grasmere has much to entertain you, especially if you like gingerbread, are a fully paid-up member of the Dead Poets' Society, and admire the watercolours of the Heaton Coopers. You can also spend some time looking for Gordon Sumner who has a place here, I believe. You won't find him waiting at a wet bus-stop, or standing too close to anyone, or watching anyone breathe.

Grasmere to Dunmail Raise

Head north out of Grasmere on the A591. The 4km climb to the top of Dunmail Raise is unrelenting. A technique I use for the 'conquest of suffering' is to concentrate on a point far in the distance, and try to ignore what my body is doing. I keep pedalling, and time passes, and then I'm there.

There's plenty to look at on the way up, though. The River Rothay is down to the left as you pass Helm Crag with the rock formation at the top that from different angles is The Lion and The Lamb or children gathered round a piano. North of Helm Crag is Steel Fell, while on the opposite side of the road is Seat Sandal, these two giving the valley its impressive 'U' shape.

Somewhere through here runs the aqueduct that takes the clear, fresh water on its two day journey to Manchester.

Dunmail Raise (cum tardis incognito)

Dunmail Raise to Armboth

Hause Point

Over the top of Dunmail Raise, take a breather and free-wheel the kilometre down to the turning for Wythburn and Armboth. Immediately you take this left turn it becomes quieter and more fun to ride. It really is a pleasant journey to wind among the trees on a relatively flat road.

Watch out for Hause Point where you can climb some steps and get a good view up the lake. A little further on is Launchy Gill where there's a forest trail and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. There are some 1900 acres of forest surrounding the reservoir, including a plantation in which 40,000 trees are grown for the Christmas market - with one special tree going each year to be displayed in Albert Square, Manchester.

Before the reservoir was built there were two smaller lakes here: Wythburn Water to the south, and Leathes Water to the north.

Armboth to Legburthwaite

At the north end of the lake there is a right turn indicated as the cycle route to Keswick. Take this road. After dropping a short distance you enter the realm of the civil engineer as you cycle over the dam that makes Thirlmere a reservoir. Rest assured that there are many 3 ton 'plums' of solid stone randomly set in concrete supporting this structure.

St.John's Beck is fed by the overflow from the lake, making its way along St.John's In The Vale to join the Greta and then the Derwent, flowing into Bassenthwaite Lake.

Over the dam, the road comes to a junction with the A591. Left is the main road to Keswick, right is Grasmere, and straight over is the cycle route to Keswick.

Thirlmere - 9 billion gallons of water

Legburthwaite to Dunmail Raise

As you head south it's fairly flat as far as the hotel at Thirlspot, but then you climb steadily to a car park and view point on the right-hand side of the road. From here you enter the woods and the road is close to the lake again. From the view point, it's about 4km to Wythburn Church, and another 2km to the top of Dunmail Raise.

Somewhere along this run is the Straining Well. This is the apparatus at which the extracted water is filtered before entering the aqueduct.

Dunmail Raise to Grasmere

If you're doing the circumnavigation of Thirlmere, and started from Grasmere, then here comes the reward for cycling up Dunmail Raise earlier in the day. Free-wheel pretty much the whole way to Grasmere. I was too chicken not to brake and only reached 66kph, which converts to just above 4 Windermeres per hour (W4.125). The speed of sound is W76.9, so you're not going to hear any sonic booms from me, not even coming down Wrynose or Hardknott.

Grasmere to Ambleside

Stay on the A591 all the way through to Ambleside. Alternatives are to make another pass through Grasmere if you need provisions, or take the left turn at the Town End roundabout, passing Dove Cottage and climbing along the road that skirts White Moss. If you're getting a bit tired, you might prefer to stay on the relatively level road that stays close to Grasmere, the lake.