• Neil

Thirlmere Circular, Lake District

A Venture Around One Of Cumbria's Northern Lakes Under The Shadow of Helvellyn and Central Fells

I like to think that as walkers and hikers, everyone has their own 'go to' places we revisit again and again and never grow tired of. A place we go to switch off and forget about the day-to-day. I think mine is Thirlmere up in the northern part of the Lake District of Cumbria.


A reservoir formed out of a natural lake in the 1800s by the Manchester Corporation, for 90% of the route around the lake you wouldn't think you were in northern England. With its tall broad leaf trees and craggy rocks it wouldn't look out of place in one of America's National Parks.

Its hard to imagine its quite a man made feature. The northern part of the Lake District draws me in much more than the south, as I feel its an area less travelled for tourists (although this post certainly features some!) and altogether quieter. It was certainly the case when I ventured up here on a chilly sunny day in October.

The quickest way I've found is to travel up past the Lakes on the M6 until you hit Penrith. From Penrith pick up the A66 west and when you see a sign for Thirlmere (B5322 just past Threlkeld) follow this and you'll come out at the tip of Thirlmere passing through St Johns In The Vale en route. You'll hit the A591, swing a left to take you towards Thirlmere.

Pre-Walk Heads Up

This area is a total dead zone for phone/data signals. If you use our GPX route, please load it into your apps before going (FYI OS Maps is my weapon of choice for plotting/uploading routes).

You'll want to park your car once getting there. There are several designated pay and display car parks dotted around the lake (going clockwise from the A591):

  • Swirls

  • Wythburn

  • Steel End

  • Dob Gill

  • Armboth

Between Steel End and Armboth there's several lay-bys which can also be parked in (free but at your own risk), and a patch of land at the north westerly edge by the start of the road traversing the dam that I've seen cars parked on. Several of the car parks also have toilet facilities (which is handy on a walk of this length!). There is a car park directly opposite Swirls, this is the only one out of these that accepts card payments should you be short on change - there are very limited spaces on this though. This walk can be picked up from any of these car parks, but for the sake of this post, I'll start by Swirls.

Note: The Dam Road running along the northern edge of the lake is still closed off to vehicles whilst United Utilities continue with redevelopment work there, however on foot or bicycle you are fine. Just a heads up for anyone looking to park on the west edge.

The Route

The route follows the entire circumference of the lake via a trail path and along roads at various points. Aside from crossing the busy A591 at Wythburn, the rest of the road sections are very quiet used mainly by people heading to the car parks.

Distance: 9.7miles Approximate duration: 3hrs10mins Total elevation gain: 1256ft

You'll find from following the loop route that there is a plethora of ways you can modify your walk if you so wish to take in the many offshoots stemming out of Thirlmere.

You could head up Helvellyn (as I unintentionally did earlier this year), or along the western edge of the lake you have access to the central fells, Blea Tarn, Harrop Tarn, The Benn and Raven Crag (a personal favourite). There is also Great How at the north eastern tip. No two visits here have been the same for me, depending on how energetic or adventurous you feel, add in a fell or tarn to mix things up.

From Swirls car park, head towards the car park exit and pass through the small gate onto a track to your left. If you get to the main road, you've missed the gate. This will set you off on a clockwise loop. This grit track will fall and rise, with Helvellyn towering over to you to the left. Dropping away to your right you will see the A591 and views out over Thirlmere and its islands (which you'll get a closer look of later) in between the tall trees that line the track.

You will eventually come to a cross roads of sorts. To your left, a path heading up to Helvellyn via Nethermost Pike. The track ahead will carry on before doubling back on itself to reach the A591. To your right, is a gate leading down quite a steep rocky path. This is the route to take (although in bad weather by all means add a little extra to your journey and carry on along the track). This part of the walk alone is why I'd advise going clockwise around Thirlmere. I've done anti-clockwise and that rocky path is a killer on the leg muscles towards the end of a walk.

The path will take you down into woodland, before coming out at a clearing for Wythburn Car Park. Also here is Wythburn Church, a church dating back to 1640 and referred to by Coleridge and Wordsworth as a humble and modest house of prayer.

Keep on the road leading up to Wythburn Car Park and you will see another track continuing on into more woodland. Follow this, as the A591 here is not pedestrianised so is extremely dangerous for walking along. The woodland path will take you a couple of hundred metres further up alongside the road and bring you out facing a road coming off the A591. There is a bus stop here and at Swirls should you be staying in nearby Keswick or Ambleside and want to travel out to Thirlmere. Cross the road carefully on to Thirlmere West Road. With the Dam Road being closed to traffic, this is currently a road less travelled by cars, which makes it all the more quieter along the western stretch of the lake.

Aerial shot looking north up the lake
Aerial shot looking north up the lake

Follow this road down past West Head Farm on your left with Wythburn Fell in the background, until you see the signs for Steel End car park on your right. Go down on to this car park to pick up the loop trail heading north again. Follow this until it leads you back up to near the road again to cross Dob Gill which runs down off Harrop Tarn. There are paths leading up here to the gill and Tarn should you wish to make a detour.

Continue along the road until you see Dob Gill car park. There are toilets here should you need a comfort break, but if not, you'll see a gate to your right letting you rejoin the path. You now won't need to rejoin the road again until the very northern tip of the lake. There's plenty of places to stop and break out the snacks along the shore of Thirlmere. At Hause Point (marked on a map below) you can if you wish rejoin the road very briefly through a rock walled section of it. Once past this you'll see two gates on your right, one rejoining the path but another with steps rising up on to the rocks. At the top of here is a fenced off vantage point with a bench perfect for a half way point sandwich.

Hawes How Island under Helvellyn
Hawes How Island under Helvellyn

On past Hause Point, you will pass closely by the two islands on Thirlmere. Firstly the larger of the two Hawes How Island, then further up Deergarth How Island. It was quite windy that day, but I'd always wanted to get an aerial shot of them, so opted for the smaller of the two given the conditions and took a few photos before stitching it together to make a top down view of the island.

Drone shot of Deergarth Island
Drone shot of Deergarth Island

These islands can easily be reached on foot during the summer months when water levels are low (if we're having a particularly warm summer that is!). They are densely populated with trees giving off a mysterious feel to them and what lies at the centre. Prior to the dam built by the Manchester Corporation, Hawes How wasn't an island at all but the raised water level changed this.

Keep an eye out along the western side of the lake, particularly the forested areas across the road underneath the crags. There are plenty of deer to be spotted if you are lucky, alas I've only ever heard or read about them and never dropped on when they've decided to mooch around. Also, brace yourself at any point on the lake for fighter jets screaming through the valley. The western edge is eerily quiet at times, so the noise of jets appearing out of nowhere was definitely an adrenaline shot. It was also an awesome spectacle (far too quick for me to pull the camera out).

As you near the northern tip, you'll see Raven Crag looming above you to the left. This sheer face of craggy rock looks amazing in all conditions and really juts out on the landscape. Take some time to sit on the shore beneath it, before either heading over the road and picking up the trails to head up to it, or continue along the Dam Road.

As previously mentioned, this stretch of road is currently closed off to vehicles so it looked wonderful and untouched with the falling leaves mounting and the trees a variety of autumnal colours.

Dam Road with Raven Crag in the background
Dam Road with Raven Crag in the background

It is only here you feel the sense of the lake being not altogether natural, with the waves of the lake hitting the dam wall, and the monument referencing the Manchester Corporation's construction of it. One side of the road you've got 3.5 miles of water stretching out in front of you, on the other United Utilities busy at work.

On this particular trip to Thirlmere I hadn't seen a soul all day, except when I was at this point. A coach pulled up next to the road blockade and out stepped a plethora of Japanese tourists. I'd just set my drone up to launch and do a pull back right across the lake. I swiftly bagged it back up so as not to draw any unwanted attention.

When you reach the opposite side of the dam, on your immediate right there is a gate. Head through this and you are back on the trail and won't join a road until you get back up to the car park.

Above you looms Great How. For a truly magnificent view of the entire lake, Helvellyn or Raven Crag I recommend a climb of this. You'll reach a point on the loop path where a new path takes you off spiralling up to the top of it.

For a good chunk of this route, you have farm fields (more often than not populated by sheep) to your left which make for an amazing foreground to Helvellyn behind them. There are parts along this path which can get quite boggy after rainfall, so tread carefully, particularly when you are crossing the land that sits in front of Dale Head Hall, a 16th century hall which is now a really nice hotel (NB the boggy land is United Utilities land, not part of the hall!).

Depending on how much rainfall there has been, as you near the incline that leads back up to the car park, you'll hear the lower levels of Helvellyn Gill flowing down into the lake. Sometimes it can be quite ferocious, but there are a few points on the way up where you can divert off the path and take in the (very) small falls.

Swirling waters at the lower end of Helvellyn Gill
Swirling waters at the lower end of Helvellyn Gill

Once you are back up to the top of the path, you will have the car park opposite Swirls above you, and there is a tunnel that leads through to the other side of the A591 and back to Swirls itself. A nice big circular of nearly 10 miles, along a route which I've always found to be very quiet, which is great if some peace is what you are after. On my last walk it took me much longer than the anticipated 3hrs 10mins simply because of messing about with my camera and drone. This has good tracks along most of the route. The constant up and downs can be a bit of a labour on the western edge, but the trade off is some spectacular views across the lake towards Helvellyn. GPX Download

To download the GPX route for your walking apps, simply grab it HERE (it should auto download). This will provide you with the exact route I've done several times and should see you right.

Post Walk

If you are looking to make a stay of it in the Lakes, then there is Keswick to the north, Ambleside to the south and Penrith to the east which would put you back somewhere handy for the motorway. We often stay in Penrith at The George (review of that to come in the future). If you are after a drink, then I highly recommend The Badger Bar along the A591 into Ambleside. Worth it for the loos alone (they're built into a rock face within the pub!).

And that's it!

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