Buttermere fills my heart with joy. It’s like your favourite song that’s only two minutes long and you wish it went on longer. Buttermere is a small lake, but if it was bigger – if you magnified all those things that make it special – it wouldn’t be special any more. Bigger doesn’t always mean better. The best things in life always leave you wanting more. What makes Buttermere special, to me and to the thousands of visitors each year, is how much is crammed in to a relatively small valley. Buttermere is just over a mile in length; a circuit of the lake by the charming lakeshore path can take less than a couple of hours.
Its sylvan charm is complemented by the towering tops of Red Pike, High Stile and High Crag, which can be reached in a similar amount of time, although requiring an entirely different level of effort. When it comes to the reward-for-effort ratio, Buttermere lake and valley offer unparalleled value for money and adventure for all abilities. Set in a similar geological landscape to Wast Water, Buttermere is just as dramatic below the surface as above. The lake is fed by becks and streams running straight down from high fells surrounding the lake. The water has little time to warm up before it reaches the lake, rendering Buttermere crisp and cool all year round despite the relatively shallow maximum depth of around twenty-eight metres.
Buttermere Map – Buttermere Camping Photo Gallery
Its edges are precipitous in places, particularly along the eastern and western shores which, for me, just adds to the thrill of swimming here. I’ve been lucky enough to live within a twenty-minute drive of Buttermere for more than ten years now. Even so, the first glimpse of Red Pike on the final descent over Newlands Hause never fails to lift my heart. It’s the first hill I climbed, and it ignited a passion for this particular part of Cumbria. I have to pinch myself that I can swim here whenever I feel like it. Buttermere will never be a workhorse swim for me. I come here for joy not exercise. The exhilaration of stepping forward into the beckoning teal-blue void never diminishes. Buttermere is a real treat, a four-finger KitKat swim.
Around the head of the lake is the only part of Buttermere where the path deviates from the lakeshore. It leaves the lake at Lower Gatesgarth and continues briefly on the road before crossing Warnscale Bottom to the quaintly named Peggy’s Bridge. The path remains slightly higher than the lake and would require a climb down the rough slope to get to the water. I have never been tempted to swim along this stretch in the knowledge that a favourite location lies not too far ahead. Horse Close, where a clump of larch trees cover a flat peninsula, is directly beneath Burtness Comb. Few walkers deviate off the path here and until recently there was a gate barring the gap in the wall. It is a quiet enclave on busy days. With water crashing down from Burtness Comb it is always slightly fresher around Horse Close and beautifully clear. It is also a great place for a post-swim picnic.
The track out of the village towards the lake must be one of the busiest foot highways in the Lake District. Endless pairs of boots tramp along here all year round heading for the high fells or a sedate circuit of the lake. And now, increasingly, feet are carrying swimmers along the path towards the edge of the lake. At the final gate the classic Buttermere view appears. A small meadow stands between you and the water. The slope of Fleetwith Pike draws the eye down to the water and Warnscale Head broods magnificently at the head of the lake. Initially the lake bed is unforgiving, paved with awkward rocks.
Your steely determination to enter the chilly water barefoot must be matched by steely soles. On a fine summer’s day this is a popular spot for family paddling – shoes are highly recommended for splashing about. The lake bed is shallow for quite a distance, some twenty metres or so, however nonswimmers should still be supervised. 1 Light on Horse Close and Hay Stacks behind 2 Buttermere shore For early starts (or late ones) you can park on the road near Hassness and follow a sylvan path along the beck and through the wood.
The parking strip fills up during the day but the bus will stop here on request. The small bay is less than a five-minute walk from Crag Wood, but the two locations have entirely different characters and qualities for swimming – this I feel makes them worthy of separate inclusion. Lottie introduced me to swimming here one breezy October day. The beauty of Hassness is how sheltered it is by the headland of Crag Wood.
While white horses are whipping across the middle of the lake you will be guaranteed a gentler time here. Overhanging trees obscure the path along the edge of the water as it emerges over a rock step from the Hassness Tunnel; you will almost certainly have some spectators on this swim! There is a bench for non-swimmers to take in the view. A messy tangle of blue pipework right in the middle of the bay is the water supply pipe to the manor house and is easily avoided as you wade in. As with much of Buttermere the swimmable depth is reached after several purposeful strides.
This narrow spit of fine slate is one of my first and most enduring loves of the Lake District. The peninsula sticks out into the water with a magnificent view of High Stile and High Crag. It is a committing swim. A couple of steps forward and you are floating freely above the edge of the deepest part of the lake. The fine shingle is a joy underfoot. Put your head underwater and marvel at the perfect clarity. The view is exhilarating above and below.
Where the road runs close to the lake at Lower Gatesgarth there is a small beach just beneath the embankment. It’s rather public but a decent spot to swim from and where I usually set off to swim the length of the lake. The gravel beach is adjacent to the only strip of private lakeshore but I’m sure the landowner won’t mind you swimming past to look at the view!
Technical information MAXIMUM DEPTH 28.6 metres AVERAGE DEPTH 16.6 metres LENGTH 1.28 miles MAXIMUM WIDTH 0.34 miles PRIMARY INFLOWS Gatesgarthdale Beck, Warnscale Beck, Comb Beck OUTFLOW Buttermere Dubs into Crummock Water.
Leave your car and take the Honister Rambler (77/77A), Easter to October only, from Keswick. It is a fantastic journey. Strong cyclists can take on the epic sweeping descents of Honister Pass or Newlands Hause (expert level). A gentler approach is via Lorton and Crummock Water. There is very limited car parking in Buttermere; there is a small Lake District National Park car park (parking charge) and toilets in Buttermere village (next to The Fish Inn) or the National Trust car park (parking charge), which is a short walk from Buttermere village in the direction of Crummock Water. Limited free parking can be found above Buttermere village beyond the church. At the head of the lake there is a small car park at Gatesgarth Farm (parking charge).
» Croft House Farm Cafe, Buttermere village. This cafe has wooden benches for seating, positioned over long, low radiators. What could be better after a chilly swim than a warm bum and close proximity to cake!
» Syke Farm Tearoom, Buttermere village. Serves amazing home-made ice cream and delicious cakes, and now dog friendly inside. This is my top recommendation for those with dietary requirements, offering an unrivalled selection of gluten-free, dairyfree and vegan food.
» There are also two great pubs in Buttermere village – The Fish Inn and The Bridge Hotel, both serving hearty fare for hungry swimmers. General notes on Buttermere From 1 April until 30 June the National Trust close a section of the northern shore to protect nesting sandpipers. Gates are locked to prevent access; swimmers on an end-to-end or point-to-point swim should be aware for exiting the lake. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/buttermere-valley/features/springwildlife-in-buttermere-valley Although boats are allowed by permit you will rarely see one. Buttermere is peaceful on, in and around the water. A permit is also required to launch a canoe, kayak or paddleboard.