Rydal, Lake District: Swimming, Hiking, and William Wordsworth
Celebrating Thanksgiving in Rydal in the Lake District, England’s mountain lakes national park, is a very special treat. Since the 19th century, romantic poets and the likes of William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter have roamed and been inspired by the grassy hills and quaint villages of this region also known as Cumbria. For my second Lake District Thanksgiving, after the mountains of Black Sail Hut in 2016, I chose Rydal as the focal point of our adventures.
Here in 1813, poet William Wordsworth moved with his family to a house called Rydal Mount to live out the rest of his life. Given the beauty of the landscape and the proximity of a lake, it’s no wonder he chose this very spot. In November 2022 with friends and family, I enjoyed a full weekend of mountains, lakes, and William Wordsworth inspiration.
Rydal, a hamlet part of Ambleside, is a scattering of houses and a church on a steep hillside above one of the most romantic lakes in the Lake District. Rydal Water, a human-size body of water, lies between majestic Windermere and fell-fringed Grasmere, connected with both lakes by the River Rothay.
While rye crops gave the valley its name in Old English, they have long been replaced by sheep farming in this landscape synonymous with dry stone walls and rough-grazed slopes.
Rydal Hall: The Bunkhouse
When we arrived on Friday evening at Rydal Hall, a 19th century mansion overlooking landscaped gardens, it was pitch dark. Two in our party had already arrived by train and bus from Windermere and were warming up by a fire in the bar. I checked us in and hopped in the car to find the bunkhouse, a converted barn equivalent, where we would be staying. After unloading the car, we quickly sorted the food supplies, assigned dorms and started a wood fire in the cast iron stove.
The bunkhouse could accommodate a much larger group than ours, so we each scored two bunk beds to unpack our belongings and spread out our sleeping bags. The kitchen, in contrast, was relatively small and had not been designed for more than three or four people at a time, projecting a rather archaic vision of a handful of cooks serving crowds rather than everybody pitching in for meals. The one thing that gave away a scout feel was the line up of gendered bathrooms and showers on the ground floor, with a wide hallway and by the exit door, a drying room (where things didn’t dry much at all). As Rydal Hall is owned by the Diocese of Carlisle, scouting groups must indeed be their bread and butter.
By 7pm, a full recce of the bunkhouse had been carried on out. A beer or a glass of wine in hand, we settled on couches in front of a nice wood fire to wait for the rest of the group, already feeling far away from it all. Two more swimmers drove in at 8pm, followed by the kids by via train at 10pm. Our Lake District Thanksgiving group was complete.
Rydal Water: Saturday Swim
On Saturday morning at daybreak, six of us swimmers woke up at 7am and left the warm comforts of sleeping bags to gather our swimming kit in the communal room. Minutes later, we were pushing the ornate iron gates leading to the beautiful gardens of Rydal Hall, walking down the stately stairs of the main house and from the stone terrace, paused to admire the captivating view of Rydal Water. Even on an overcast morning, when our warm breath showed white in the cold air, it was a sight to behold.
Down by the lake, we changed underneath an oak tree whose autumn yellow leaves were turning brown and fighting with plump acorns for space around the thick roots. Mossy rocks and muddy shores around us confirmed the Lake District’s reputation for being a wet region. Gingerly and one by one, we slipped into the water, our feet finding their way around the silty lakebed to avoid big rocks, before we were deep enough to fully immerse ourselves in the cold water.
If any of us were still daydreaming of warm beds, we were suddenly awake and exhilarated, vividly taking in the sensations of a chilly autumn day. From the water, we watched the chimney of a nearby hotel let out smoke that spoke of a roasting wood fire and the comforts of a warm dry room.
Across from the tree where we changed, I swam to reed beds lining the narrow channel where the River Rothay exits Rydal Water, flows under a wooden footbridge and continues across a woodland until Windermere. Silently, I watched the golden plants crisscross the surface by the riverbank until water gave way to land.
After sharing hot tea in porcelain mugs by the lake, we walked back to Rydal Hall, now fully in tune with our environment. The smallest details stuck out where they had passed in a blur earlier. At foot level, we spotted multiple fungi on fallen dead oak trees. This delicate fanning specimen looked like hairy curtain crust (Stereum hirsutum), an unpalatable mushroom that I shortly considered for an omelet, but wisely left alone.
Hiking the Coffin Route from Rydal to Grasmere
Back in the 18th century, before the Toll Road (now the paved car road) was built, the Coffin Route was the route from Ambleside to Grasmere. This was the route that pall bearers and locals took to bury their dead in consecrated ground at St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere. As Robert MacFarlane wrote in his book The Old Ways, “Certain coffin paths in Cumbria have flat ‘resting stones’ on the uphill side, on which the bearers could place their load, shake out tired arms and roll stiff shoulders.” We would, of course, obliviously pass some of these stones and assume them to be natural parts of the landscape.
For us, the Coffin Route offered an opportunity to hike to the gingerbread village of Grasmere via an ancient trail above the lakes, away from car traffic and with splendid views unobstructed by trees, once we were past the immediate surroundings of Rydal Mount.
Like Hansel and Gretel, we entered a woodland lined with mossy stone walls and ferns, a trail of potent, magic things worn by boots and hoofs of long-dead generations. Almost level with the valley floor, we walked north by northwest, as the wood gave way to open hills, following Rydal Water’s shoreline from up above. Along the way, we encountered a few cows, including a stray black and white cow that was drinking from a stone fountain (and that the kids wanted to pet).
When we reached the end of Rydal Water, before going downhill to get to Grasmere, we had a change of heart at a trail junction. Trail junctions are dangerous and wonderful places, where a world of possibilities opens up and where you can choose a different track on the spur of the moment. Standing there, we poured over a topo map, when suddenly our eyes were attracted by a blue dot on the map. It was only a few map centimeters away from our position. Could this indicate a viable swim? Following the dotted footpath line with a finger, checking our position on a GPS app for certainty, we realized that we could aim for a high swim in the mountains for lunchtime. The path would be harder, but the reward that much sweeter.
One by one, we veered right on a path that was initially quite steep as it followed the gradient profile of a ridge named Grey Crag. We rapidly gained altitude and started feeling a chilly breeze that wasn’t felt at lower elevation, inspiring some of us to stop and add a layer of clothing.
Our destination, a small lake called Alcock Tarn, appeared at the top of the climb after the terrain plateaued. Surrounded by lush grassy banks, with a stone wall and a gateless gap at the back against the uphill side, Alcock Tarn was even more perfect than we had hoped. Not a soul in sight, only a quiet pond exposed to the wind under menacing clouds that momentarily parted for a ray of sunshine. Considering that we were only an hour away from one of the most touristy villages in the Lake District, Grasmere, we felt very lucky to be able to enjoy this landscape alone.
When Wordsworth roamed these mountains, Alcock Tarn likely did not yet exist in this form. Known as Butter Crag Tarn (tarn is a local word for pond), the small pond was a swampy pool that was dammed and enlarged in the mid-19th century, right around Wordsworth’s death. The modification was carried out by a Mr. Alcock from Grasmere, Victorian owner of ‘The Hollins’ (now the National Trust regional office), who stocked the newly-formed Alcock Tarn with brown trout.
Keeping an eye out on black clouds rolling our way, we got changed and jumped in. It was nippy! The tarn was shallow and up until its middle, when the bottom dropped, I could feel stringy grasses under my feet. As the wind was picking up and we were anticipating a downpour, we took a quick pic before getting out.
What a glorious lunch spot. We feasted on egg and cress sandwiches, apples and Nutella, before going down via Butter Crag towards Grasmere. The open valleys, whose colors oscillated between green grassy sheep pastures and autumnal fern hillsides, were gorgeous.
Grasmere: William Wordsworth’s Final Resting Place
An hour later, we were down in the village of Grasmere. In 1799, William Wordsworth arrived in Grasmere aged 29, largely unknown and writing innovative poetry in a new style. Whilst living at Dove Cottage with his family, Wordsworth wrote many of his greatest poems and his sister Dorothy kept her Grasmere journal.
When we visited, Grasmere was a quaint picture-perfect village whose streets were lined with shops milking Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter’s legacy ad nauseam. It was very pretty, you couldn’t deny the visual appeal, but I wondered how many people would live a normal life in Grasmere if it weren’t for tourism.
Grasmere’s Gingerbread Shop
In a world of superlatives, Grasmere’s Gingerbread Shop did not disappoint. It was simply the best gingerbread in the world. And who could argue with that? Certainly not the dozens of eager shoppers queuing outside the tiny shop by of St Oswald’s churchyard.
Again, Wordsworth would not have known Grasmere’s gingerbread as its recipe came into the world in 1854, four years after his death. Would he have cared for it? Unclear. Wordsworth paid scant attention to gustatory matters, celebrating at his table, as in his work, simple country provisions such as fresh bread and milk, cheese, and “hasty pudding,” a gruel of oatmeal boiled in brine. He did, however, accept edible gifts from admirers, and was once given an entire calf’s head. Grasmere’s gingerbread, a unique, spicy-sweet cross between a biscuit and cake, might have been too extravagant for his taste.
It certainly wasn’t too much for our taste, as we all lined up outside the small cottage to buy a few pieces of gingerbread, presented as rectangles wrapped in white and blue paper.
William Wordsworth’s Grave in Grasmere
Right next to the gingerbread shop, we entered the churchyard under an archway and walked around the grounds, looking for the man whose name is synonymous with the Lake District. Where could he be? Would he have a majestic mausoleum?
Wordsworth, as it turned out, was a humble family man in death. He and his beloved wife Mary, who died 9 years later, have a simple tombstone in the churchyard of St Oswald’s Church, now one of the most visited literary shrines in the world. Nearby are buried his sister Dorothy, his children Dora, William, Thomas and Catherine, Mary’s sister Sara Hutchinson, and other members of the family.
In its simplicity, the place was poignant and though we only stopped shortly for a photograph, we were surprised to have to decipher the worn gravestones to find the poet’s name.
By the Wordsworth Daffodil Garden, no doubt bursting with yellow daffodils in the spring but rather muddy and forlorn in November, we leaned over the low wall and gauged the feasibility of a swim in the crystal clear River Rothay. How tempting it would be, to wade in and drift under the bridge, wave to passersby and emerge gloriously wet and alive on a crisp November afternoon. Without an easy access point though, we left it at the project stage and went for a pint instead, at Tweedies, the only pub in town that was open and that wasn’t hosting a wedding party.
Back at Rydal Hall, we spent the rest of the day prepping and cooking for our Thanksgiving feast.
Rydal Water: Sunday Swim
As in Agatha Christie’s book And Then There Were None, we lost two brave swimmers to the comforts of warm sleeping bags on Sunday morning. Still, four of us got up for a pre-breakfast swim around 7am and prepped our swimming costumes, still damp from an impromptu night swim after dinner.
What awaited us outside caught us by surprise––in a very good way. Mist, mist, and mist everywhere. Overnight, mist had descended from the mountains and wrapped the valley floor in a thick white veil, turning the landscape into a romantic painting.
The terrace of Rydal Hall would not have been out of place as the dreamy setting for Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” 1946 movie.
By the River Rothay, the trees’ autumn colors seemed more vibrant, whereas the rest of the landscape around seemed more quiet. By the water, we were torn between the desire to stand still and freeze the moment, and the desire to get in the water and actually freeze with the moment. As swimmers, we chose the latter, obviously, and walked into the lake ceremoniously, wishing not to disturb the painting.
As we were making our way to the first islet in the lake, chitchatting about hypothermia, afterdrop and post-swim shivering, a stranger’s voice joined our conversation from the shore.
Stranger: “You better shiver!”
Us, looking to where the voice came from and spotting two vague human shapes: “Shivering’s good, it’s your body’s natural rewarming mechanism. Say, are you fishing?”
Stranger: “Yes, first time here. Very quiet. Glorious, innit?”
Us: “Absolutely. Come and join us, the water’s good.”
Stranger: “Nah, too cold.”
Us: “Maybe another time, then.”
Stranger: “Maybe my wife.”
Wife: “Not today! When it’s warmer.”
Us: “Happy fishing!”
Lovely people, these two. Voices carry remarkably far over the water, but it was very hard to pinpoint exactly where sounds came from on the lake. We were lucky that we had enough visibility to spot them, otherwise we would simply have conversed with ghosts.
A few minutes later, we reached the tiny island covered in trees and stood by their watery roots, feet firmly planted in soft mud. Unanimously, we decided that this island, given its ridiculously small size and excellent location, would make a perfect extension to our swimming club’s spartan changing room, sort of a home away from home for swimmers. The island was thereby christened Golden Island before we swam back to shore and returned to Rydal Hall for a hot cup of tea.
Later that morning, when all mist had burned off, we opted to go for a last walk before hitting the road and returning to London. Rydal Cave is a popular destination for families, but we actually missed the main chamber and initially found a more secluded chamber accessible only with a bit of climbing from a muddy spot in the forest. Fortunately, we had two climbers in our party who facilitated our access to the cave.
Once in the top chamber, the cave echoed of water dripping on stones that were partially submerged. From the back, the gaping opening of the cave looked like a giant mouth and quite eerie, but that was not all.
A tunnel led to another pitch black smaller chamber, where we had to use phone torches and headlamps to find our way. If you have ever been caving, you know how incredibly dark a cave can be, darker than the darkest night.
You may also have heard about sound in caves and how it reverberates on stone walls, making caves perfect echo chambers (literally). That chamber had amazing acoustics, so two of us gave a rousing rendition of The Sound of Music’s “Doe a Deer,” followed by a piece we sing with our swimming club choir, “Dona Nobis Pacem.”
When we exited, the weather had turned to the first gloriously sunny day in a month, and we retraced our steps via a rough rocky path to the lake for a last goodbye to Rydal Water.
On the shores of Rydal Water, I told my oldest daughter how seeing the Lake District shone a different light on Wordsworth’s most famous poem, Daffodils. Whereas she had studied it at school, reading the poem in situ would be an entirely more authentic experience, even in autumn without daffodils or breeze. I pulled a small book of Wordsworth’s poems from my backpack and gave it to her so she could read it.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
She agreed that the location enhanced the richness of the words and wished that the Lake District was easier to reach because it was truly a magical place. Which it is.