Aira Force and Early Tourists

by Emma Bray

Banner Image: Ullswater and Lyulph's Tower. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Belinda L. Randall from the collection of John Witt Randall

Aira Force sits in a designed landscape, part of a pleasure park created by Charles Howard, the 11th Duke of Norfolk. The Duke had a northern seat at Greystoke and owned the deer park at Gowbarrow, an ancient park thought to have been part of William II’s hunting forest. In around 1780, he built a hunting lodge, Lyulph’s Tower, to satisfy his interest in the Picturesque and Gothic revival. The lodge was built with a crenelated façade forming three sides of an octagon with four polygonal towers and round-arched windows.

The visitor to Aira Force today sees only part of the designed landscape – it was no accident that the Howards chose to site Lyulph’s Tower near to the falls. Although Harriet Martineau suggested in 1855 that the tower was built on the site of a more ancient one, other evidence contradicts this.

The Picturesque experience of the late 18th century played on the emotions - a sense of terror as well as perfection and beauty. From Lyulph's Tower, the visitor was led through parkland planted with trees, along a series of pathways, finally to be surprised by the noise and danger of the falls. In James Clark’s Survey of the Lakes, 1787, he said “If, however, the spectator can summon up resolution to descend, he will see such a scene as will amply repay the terrors of the attempt”. Visitors would be rewarded by “terrible beauties” such as the “arch of liquid crystal” that flowed from the falls. There was no easy viewing platform or bridges that the visitor finds today. Instead, those courageous enough climbed down to a rock to view the falls.

Illustration from The Beauties of England and Wales 1805, with thanks to the National Trust

The falls became part of the recommended highlights for visitors to the Lakes in search of the Picturesque. The site was mentioned in Hutchinson’s Guide of 1774, Clark’s Survey of 1787 and appeared on Crosthwaite’s tourist map of Ullswater of 1783. At some point in the early 19th century, wooden bridges were added to the falls to aid viewing – there is no sign of them in an illustration in Beauties of England and Wales of 1805, but they are present in an image by Thomas Allom dated 1835.

Engraving by Thomas Allom 1835. With thanks to Carlisle Library Cumbria Image Bank.

As well as tourists, the park attracted poets and painters, including Wordsworth, Coleridge and Turner.

In 1846, the 13th Duke planted a pinetum in the area below the falls. It stood above an open lawn with a bridge over the beck at the south end. It included 200 specimen conifers including a Sitka spruce which is now 118 feet.

The site continued to attract tourists in the 19th century, although the experience was perhaps more sedate, with a landing stage allowing arrival by boat to the bay below the falls. It was recommended in many of the 19th century guidebooks and directories, including Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes.

The spelling of Aira Force has varied through the centuries. Early maps and documents refer to Airey or Airy Beck and William Wordsworth used the term Airey in his poem about the valley in 1842. The Crosthwaite map of 1783 uses the spelling Ara. By the late 19th century, however, the term Aira was in mainstream use.

by Emma Bray


James Clarke’s Survey of the Lakes, 1789

Peter Crosthwaite’s Tourist Map of Ullswater, 1783

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