How to do the Lake District car-free

Hop on board the Ullswater bus service aimed squarely at getting tourists out of cars (Michael Firth)
Hop on board the Ullswater bus service aimed squarely at getting tourists out of cars (Michael Firth)

This was how my recent weekend in the Lake District went: climbed a fell (two, actually), took a lake cruise, explored a castle and gardens, walked parts of a long-distance path, slept in a cosy glamping cabin, enjoyed tea and cakes (several times), went to the pub (twice). And I did all this without once using a car.

My new best friend for the weekend was the Ullswater Bus, a dapper, shiny 16-seater and a new trial service that links hotels, campsites, landing stages and attractions around much of Ullswater (the valley and lake share the same name), with the aim of reducing car usage. As the Lake District’s second-largest lake (after Windermere), Ullswater annually draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to enjoy its water sports, lake cruises, Aira Force beauty spot, and walking and cycling routes. It’s the main starting point for Helvellyn, one of the Lake District’s most-climbed fells at 949 metres, and also offers the 21-mile round-lake Ullswater Way walking route.

Pooley Bridge, sitting prettily on the River Eamont where water flows out of the lake at the northern end, is a popular village, too – three pubs, four cafes, two gift shops, smart restaurant-with-rooms, deli, bookstore, village store. And all of this lies just 20 minutes from the M6 Junction 40 at Penrith.

Go exploring on the Ullswater Way (Helen Pickles)
Go exploring on the Ullswater Way (Helen Pickles)

“If we do nothing, we’re going to see real problems in our lifetime,” asserts Daniel Holder, owner of the Quiet Site eco-friendly camping and glamping site above the lake’s northwestern shore, and one of the scheme’s instigators. “The valley will become gridlocked. It’s a valley of small roads, the same ones in and out. It gets incredibly busy with cars in the summer. We need an integrated system, now.”

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Hence Situ (Sustainable and Integrated Transport for Ullswater), a voluntary group of local residents and parish councils, was born in early 2021. After creating the five-mile Eamont Way footpath that links Penrith railway station to Pooley Bridge, the Ullswater Bus was the next target. Launched in July 2023 as a weekends-only scheme, and financed by community funds, Heritage Lottery, Zero Carbon Cumbria and Westmorland & Furness Council, its three routes are designed to tie in with the 508 Stagecoach service between Penrith and Windermere, and the cross-lake Ullswater Steamers.

One of the joys of a small bus in the Lakes is that not only can you wiggle down narrow lanes but enjoy the views, too; take your eyes off the road when driving and it doesn’t end well. On Saturday morning the bus picked me up from my base at the Quiet Site, tootled the three-and-a-half miles down to Pooley Bridge and then continued on to Lowther Castle in the neighbouring valley. On the way we collected a retired couple in full walking rig, whom we deposited in Askham village, below the castle, to walk back over the fell to Ullswater. “It’s like a taxi service! Long may it continue,” they cried waving their walking poles as they stepped onto the pavement.

The impressive grounds of Lowther Castle (Buena Vista)
The impressive grounds of Lowther Castle (Buena Vista)

The castle – inaccessible by public transport – was once the family seat of the Earls of Lonsdale until the Yellow Earl (1882-1944) went on a spending spree that made the Kardashians look like amateurs, and emptied the family coffers. By dint of some canny financial manoeuvring, a colossal contents sale, removal of the roof and a truly inspired “rebirth”, the vast Gothic Revival castle and its 130 acres have been reinvented as a fun, family day out. There are numerous gardens (both inside and out), hidden summer houses, “surprise views”, majestic woodlands and an adventure playground of ropewalks, zip wires, tunnels and twisting chutes; I caught at least two dads whizzing down the latter, grinning sheepishly.

After demolishing a huge scone and flapjack in the castle’s cafe, I could have waited for the bus to collect me, or hired an e-bike; instead, I walked down through the village and up a wind-whipped Askham Fell to take in stupendous views over Ullswater. After a couple of map-reading errors, I followed the (very obvious) path down to Howtown on the lake’s southern shore, just in time for more tea and scones at the eponymous tearoom before the Ullswater Steamer arrived at the pier to chug back to Pooley Bridge.

Had it been a sun-drenched afternoon, I’d happily have waited the hour and a half for the bus to deposit me back at the campsite. Instead, I drew on my substantial reserves of scones and flapjack and picked up the Ullswater Way which, very conveniently, passes the campsite after three miles.

If we do nothing, we’re going to see real problems in our lifetime

Daniel Holder, the Quiet Site

The infrequency of the bus is a mild irritation of the scheme, though understandable: the one bus has to serve all three routes. It requires forward planning, even more so if you arrive for the weekend by train at Penrith on the Friday (the service, remember, is at weekends only). Unless your accommodation is close to the 508 route, you’ll need a taxi or a helpful pick-up service such as the one offered by the Quiet Site.

Fresh pizza, a large glass of malbec in the campsite’s bar – a magnificent 18th-century barn full of very agreeable folk – and a blissful night’s sleep, lulled by the small stream that ran beside the decking of my cabin, and I was ready for my Sunday adventure.

I planned to explore the bus’s third route, along the southeastern shores of Ullswater, on an unforgivingly narrow and twisting road that peters out a couple of miles beyond Howtown, thus leaving the southern point of the lake unreachable by traffic on this side. Nevertheless, the section close to Pooley Bridge “can get completely blocked”, says Holder, due to the number of lakeshore campsites and water sports centres. Three walkers – Sasha Thomson, partner Steven Atkinson, plus Steven’s mum, Barbara – agreed the bus was invaluable for their planned Sunday walk back along the Ullswater Way from Howtown. “None of us drive. Otherwise, we’d have to get the boat, which is more expensive. It’s a big help to us.”

Pedestrians can also get around using the Ullswater Steamers (Ben Barden Film & Photography)
Pedestrians can also get around using the Ullswater Steamers (Ben Barden Film & Photography)

I took the bus to its furthest point, just beyond Howtown at the foot of some devilish hairpin bends, to Hallin Fell. It’s a short, steepish climb to its modest 388m summit, but the views, sweeping over the lake and Helvellyn range, were exhilarating. Then it was back along the Ullswater Way to Pooley Bridge. I could have continued south from Hallin Fell to walk in Martindale – a blissfully quiet area I shouldn’t really tell you about – and round to Glenridding at the south of the lake to pick up the hourly 508 bus back to the village. But uncertain timing, the potential for map-reading errors plus a train to catch from Penrith persuaded me to play sensible.

Next year, if the trial is successful, I could probably be more reckless. Plans include not only a fourth route but also an e-bike pick-up and drop-off scheme. Holder thinks there’s no time to lose. “If we don’t do it now, in 10 years it will be too late,” he says. But he points out that it’s as much up to the visitors as Situ to make it happen. “It’s about a behavioural change, and that requires effort.” Use it or lose it. So next time you head to the lakes, why not leave the car at home and treat yourself to a proper adventure?

Travel essentials

Getting there

Trains run direct from London Euston to Penrith in just over three hours with Avanti West Coast. Manchester, Newcastle and Lancaster are connected to Penrith via Northern Rail.

Staying there

Helen Pickles was a guest of the Quiet Site; glamping cabins from £90 per night, other options from £45.

More information

Ullswater Bus runs weekends plus Bank Holidays, until the end of October 2023, £2 single, £4 return, children under 5 go free.

Read more of our best Lake District hotel reviews