Aira Force

Aira Force by John Dawson“Force” is a Norse word meaning waterfall. On Ullswater's western slopes is a series of waterfalls, Aira Force, enclosed by precipitous rock walls. The waterfall at the top of the gorge is quite small with only a 70-foot drop and is not a torrent at the best of times.

Aira Force is set in 12,782 acres of National Trust fell, woodland and farm. The waters begin in Aira Beck on Matterdale Common before making their way through the gorge that gives birth to Aira Force, then flow downward into Ullswater.

Aira Force NT sign by Andrew LeaneyThe Howard family (Greystoke Castle) owned a hunting lodge (now called Lyulph's Tower) in the surrounding countryside. Like many Victorians, they turned much of the land around Aira Force into a pleasure garden, building bridges and footpaths and an arboretum. They planted a large number of trees including evergreens, one of which was a 118 foot tall Sitka spruce. Ash, oak, willow, beech, and alder are part of the woodland scene. In late spring wild orchids carpet the woods.

Aira Beck by Barbara BallardIn the gorge a path leads across a footbridge, through the woods, and along the beck up to the falls. At the top an arched stone footbridge crosses to a narrower and muddy path on the ravine's other side-best avoided as it can be slippery.

Aira Force was the subject of a poem written, in 1842, by William Wordsworth. Entitled Airey-Force Valley, it is about the valley through which the water flows:

“... Not a breath of air
Ruffles the bosom of this leafy glen.
From the brook's margin, wide around, the trees
Are stedfast as the rocks; the brook itself,
Old as the hills that feed it from afar,
... A soft eye-music of slow-waving boughs,
Powerful almost as vocal harmony
To stay the wanderer's steps and soothe his thoughts.”

Aira Force upper falls by Ann BowkerEnglish essayist and critic Thomas de Quincey, a Grasmere friend of Wordsworth, wrote An Apparition at Airey Force.

The waterfall has its own legend which Wordsworth writes about in the poem, The Somnambulist. The hunting lodge was home to a girl named Emma who was engaged to a knight, Sir Eglamore. His long absence while fighting affected her mind and she fell into a sleepwalking trance and wandered along the path near the waterfall. The returning knight spotted her and made the mistake of touching her, which awakened her from her trance. Startled, she slipped and fell into the water, drowning before he could save her. Wordsworth relates:

“The soft touch snapped the thread
Of slumber--shrieking back she fell,
And the Stream whirled her down the dell
Along its foaming bed.”

Aira Force by Tony RichardsBroken hearted, Sir Eglamore lived the rest of his life as a hermit in a cave near Aira Force.

The steep, boulder-strewn ravine of Aira Force with its series of waterfalls that culminate in a dramatic view from the top bridge is a favourite with walkers and is a busy spot in the summer season.

A592/A5091 off western shore of Ullswater, 7 miles south of Penrith.Aira Force Beck courtesy Andrew Leaney

Owned by the National Trust
AV tape available for Victorian arboretum
Cafe with information boards
Car Parks: Aira Force and Glencoyne Bay
Aira Force Tearoom nearby at Watermillock

Photos by Barbara Ballard and courtesy of Tony Richards , Ann Bowker , Andrew Leaney and John Dawson

Waterfalls of Cumbria

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