For anyone living in a rural area, when politicians speak of “integrated public transport networks” and “sustainable travel” it is usually a moment to roll your eyes and move on. Without any alternative available, the car remains king.

It is not true everywhere, however, and the latest developments in the Ullswater valley prove that change is possible. You just need a dynamic group of residents with the imagination and initiative to take on a complex issue.

The volunteer-led community group, Sustainable and Integrated Transport for Ullswater (known by the much more user-friendly acronym SITU), was set up at the end of 2020. Its members, who all live and or work in the valley, had been concerned about increasing numbers of cars on the main A592 lake road and along the eastern shore. Following the lifting of pandemic lockdown restrictions, the congestion, especially in villages like Pooley Bridge and Glenridding, reached unprecedented levels.

Great British Life: Danie Holder (left) and Michael FirthDanie Holder (left) and Michael Firth (Image: SITU)

Michael Firth, who chairs SITU, says: “The after-effects of Covid highlighted what would happen with a very large number of cars coming into the valley. We were also becoming more and more aware of the contribution the private car makes to the carbon footprint of Cumbria and the Lake District, which is huge.”

Michael and three other members of Matterdale Parish Council – Daniel Holder, Emma Bray and Veronica Gore – were charged with looking into the issue of sustainable transport.

“We realised at our first meeting that it wasn’t something we could do anything meaningful about by ourselves and that we would need to involve as much of the valley as possible,” continues Michael.

“Ullswater is relatively self-contained with a small number of entries and exits so we felt we had an opportunity to be a pilot for a local, integrated, sustainable transport network.”

A wish list developed into SITU’s mission which includes ambitions for more visitors to arrive by rail at Penrith supported by easy travel to Ullswater and safe pedestrian and cycle routes, together with family-friendly cycle routes throughout the valley in the future. Visitors who must come by car would be encouraged to leave their vehicles at new gateway hubs or at accommodation thanks a variety of affordable, convenient and safe public transport options once here.

All of this would be centred around the lake as a transport corridor with a cheap, regular and efficient service for pedestrians and cyclists to connect to points in the valley.

Residents would be supported too, with more frequent and affordable public transport options enabling them to leave their cars at home.

Big ambitions, but the group is already well down the road in terms of ticking off some of its aims.

Great British Life: Part of the Ullswater Way with St Sunday Crag in the distancePart of the Ullswater Way with St Sunday Crag in the distance

Last year, working with Friends of the Ullswater Way, the Eamont Way opened, a five-and-a-half mile walking route between Penrith railway station and Pooley Bridge ‘Steamer’ pier.

It was no small undertaking involving months of negotiations with landowners, route planning and volunteers installing every waymarker along the route themselves. The path provides visitors and residents with a safe and scenic ‘active travel’ alternative and can be integrated with the local bus service for a one-way walking option.

Stagecoach already runs its 508 service from Penrith to Patterdale on the A592 at least four times a day (depending on the day) in winter, with the service continuing on to Windermere and increasing in frequency from March 23 this year.

A significant challenge, however, remained both for residents who live away from the main road and visitors in accommodation which is centred on holiday parks above Watermillock and across the lake between Pooley Bridge and Howtown.

Michael explains: “A bus service that links visitor accommodation with the villages and attractions just hadn’t been done before.” Their idea was for a ‘hopper’ minibus, partly inspired by the old Ullswater Post Bus, that could safely access the smaller lanes and connect with other transport options.

“We approached Stagecoach in 2022. We wanted to work with them so that they could timetable the main bus service for connections and because they were already working with the Steamers to provide combined tickets. We didn’t want to be in competition; we want Stagecoach to continue and succeed because it’s a vital part of the transport network in the valley.

“By the end of the year we reached agreement in principle. Stagecoach said they would provide a bus for 2023 if guaranteed income could be supplied to run it at weekends and bank holidays from July 1-October 29. We agreed that SITU would pay Stagecoach then be credited with the fare income.”

Great British Life: Raven, Ullswater 'Steamers' (c) Jeff AshtonRaven, Ullswater 'Steamers' (c) Jeff Ashton

Daniel Holder, owner of multi award-winning The Quiet Site, explains that the group had to assume zero fare income and apply for grants, which came from Eden District Council and Cumbria Action for Sustainability through its Lottery-funded work with Zero Carbon Cumbria.

It resulted in a total fund of £32,500 with which to ‘underwrite’ the new Ullswater Bus scheme, supported by pledges from businesses and local parish councils to cover any outstanding balance should the fares be insufficient to meet Stagecoach’s costs.

Three routes were created with the first bus leaving Ullswater Holiday Park at 9.30am, travelling up to The Quiet Site and on to Pooley Bridge. From here a service ran to Askham, Lowther and back to Pooley Bridge for a connection to Howtown. With several services throughout the day the last bus pulled back into Ullswater Holiday Park at 6.27pm.

The fare was set at £2 for a single ticket or £4 return, in line with other services newly subsidised by the Government, with under-fives going free and normal concessionary fares applied. “It was an amount we felt people would be prepared to pay – £8 for a family of four – and compared well with car park charges,” says Michael.

With space for buggies and inflatable paddleboards, the Ullswater Bus carried 1,150 passengers on the weekends it ran.

“Although the fare income didn’t cover the full cost of the service every day, we didn’t have to call on the pledges and we didn’t use all the grant funding either, which has meant we can put the surplus towards this year’s service,” explains Michael.

“For concessionary fare holders, Stagecoach is able to get reimbursement from the Government, which they also passed on to us. We ended up well within the range of what Stagecoach regards as ‘good’ for subsidies, and we all deemed the service a success.”

Daniel adds: “We were pleased, Stagecoach was pleased. That was the start of our relationship, which this year has blossomed.”

This year there will not be just one bus but two running for a longer season from March 23-November 3 and on a longer route. It will still operate on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays only but with a more frequent timetable.

Great British Life: Aira ForceAira Force

Michael explains: “Aira Force is one of the major attractions in the valley, for both visitors and locals. Stagecoach has agreed to extend the hopper bus service further south to start from Aira Force and increase from three runs a day to four. With all the services available, there will be 20 buses on weekends and bank holidays in each direction between Aira Force and Pooley Bridge.”

The National Trust confirms that more than half a million people visit Aira Force each year with around 100,000 of those using its car parks. Based on average monthly ticket purchases it can estimate that visitor numbers increase by around 220 per cent between the winter and summer months.

A spokesperson says: “We always look to encourage our visitors to arrive using sustainable transport where possible, and so we are very supportive of the work SITU is doing in the Ullswater valley and are especially pleased to be included on the hopper bus route for the coming year.

“Previously we have worked with the Steamers to have a pier on Aira Green and we have installed canoe/kayak lock points on the shore so people can arrive by boat. We welcome cyclists by having plenty of cycle racks, as well as our new bike boxes which provide maintenance supplies for those caught out on their journey, and we will continue to trial new initiatives to make sure we are making it easier for people to arrive by sustainable means.”

At the same time, more businesses have pledged to support the Ullswater Bus scheme, seeing the advantages of visitors being brought closer to their doors.

“There isn’t a business we’ve contacted that hasn’t been in support, and the more people pledge, the less each one may be required to contribute. It’s a win-win,” says Daniel. “It’s in their interests for it to work and they are in the best position to encourage their guests to use the service in the best way they can.”

Great British Life: Glenridding and Ullswater from Birkhouse Moor footpathGlenridding and Ullswater from Birkhouse Moor footpath

Guests of The Quiet Site, for instance, are informed of the scheme on booking, in a pre-arrival reminder and when they arrive. The team is producing an e-package for SITU’s business partners so they can do the same.

The success of the scheme does not stop at the hopper, however. It has also inspired fresh possibilities to Stagecoach which has devised a completely new service – the 509 – from Penrith to Lowther, Pooley Bridge and Aira Force then up through Dockray, Matterdale and on to Keswick.

David Rich, head of commercial with Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancashire, says: “We’re building upon what we started last year when we operated one minibus on weekends that was doing three small routes around Ullswater. This year we’ll have the minibus operating for a longer service on a longer route passing through Pooley Bridge as the central hub, and our new 509 service that links Penrith to Lowther, Pooley Bridge, Ullswater and Keswick.

“With the 509 and the hopper bus in addition to our existing 508 service, there is more public transport across the area than ever which we’ll be promoting in our timetable and in publicity. We’ll be showing people how to travel sustainably around the Lake District, which already has a really good bus service which a lot of people use to travel extensively by bus.”

Daniel adds: “We think it’s very exciting, not only having an improved service but also for opening up day trips to Keswick for visitors and directly linking Keswick to Ullswater. It’s brilliant for residents and staff and means we can move our staff around by public transport.

“This number of buses really underlines what we are trying to do in terms of giving people a car-free alternative, that once they are here they can leave their car and use public transport to get around because it is so attractive financially and in terms of accessibility.”

Great British Life: A signpost on the Eamont WayA signpost on the Eamont Way

SITU is putting together day trip itineraries built around public transport which visitors will be able to access on its website. They have already worked out that visitors can get the 7am from London Euston to Penrith, have time to walk the Eamont Way to Pooley Bridge, catch a Steamer and be in Glenridding in the afternoon.

Daniel adds: “The Steamers are the backbone of the network. Running a fleet of vintage boats is incredibly difficult so anything we can do to keep that going is vital.”

Rachel Bell, head of marketing and development at Ullswater ‘Steamers’, says: “Connections of local buses to boat piers are a vital link to provide an integrated sustainable transport service around the Ullswater Valley and promote the car-free day out agenda. We are delighted that Ullswater ‘Steamers’ are playing an important role in this initiative, which aims to benefit local residents, businesses and visitors.”

With other plans for upgrading transport links in the area, SITU says it is more important than ever to build a sustainable and integrated network so that congestion in the Lake District is not exacerbated.

Daniel warns: “I am nervous about the effects dualling the A66 will have on car numbers in the Ullswater valley. Local Government is looking it at as a good thing but I worry that the congestion we already have here in Penrith on a Friday could become a daily occurrence.

“We have to start to think about the movement of people, not cars. The sooner we get a public transport network up and running in the valley the better.

“We are very lucky. We’ve obviously got the most beautiful valley in the country, and we’re like an island in the sense that we’re quite self-contained so we can influence what happens here.”

“For a tiny community we achieve a lot,” adds Michael. “It took a lot of effort to get going last year but this year the improvement is massive.

“Stagecoach has clearly seen the advantage of an increased service around the lake and, in particular, working with a community group that can help promote these services. They are already talking about taking the route in-house which would free us up to look at the next part of our vision.”

David confirms Stagecoach’s support: “As a group SITU is really forward thinking and progressive with a real vision for sustainable integrated transport. They have gone to all of the businesses in the area and got their support.

“Our partnership with SITU is a good example as we look towards the future, using smaller vehicles that can get along narrower roads to serve campsites away from the main bus routes. It's a really good example of what's possible. It’s recognition for the tourist industry too and opens up attractions and accommodation to a whole new market of people who will come to spend money who don't have access to a car”

The bus network is only one of the successful initiatives of the active Ullswater community. Last year it led the 10,000 Daffodils art project, which The Friends of the Ullswater Way (FoUW) initiated and Helen Ratcliffe devised, that involved more than 500 people and raised more than £300,000 for four local and two national charities.

FoUW also created a virtual art gallery of sites around the valley associated with art masters and contemporary creators, ran the Understanding Ullswater lecture series and launched the Eamont Way.

The residents are in no way resting on their laurels, however, and are already looking into formalising a Wordsworth Way walking route and even more ambitious plans aimed at cyclists.

Michael explains: “We would really like to have a safe family friendly cycle route from Penrith to Pooley Bridge. It's possible to cycle it now but it's on a busy road and it's not pleasant so it's a no no for families.

“When we did the Eamont Way we looked at whether it would be possible to have a multi-user trail but because of the way footpaths and bridleways work it was going to be far too difficult as the first stage. We have looked at other routes but the ones that are most direct have the most issues, so it’s going to be a much longer-term project.

Great British Life: There are several jetty stops on the lakeThere are several jetty stops on the lake

“The dream is to have safe cycling right along the lake itself.”

They had permission last year to close part of the A592 from Watermillock to Aira Force temporarily to motor traffic to allow walkers, cyclists and horse riders to enjoy the experience of a traffic-free route. However, roadworks beat them to it and with the negative impact on businesses caused they did not feel it was appropriate to go through with their plan. “We have the grants and the permissions to do it though, and the principle is established,” adds Michael.

Eventually they would like to see a park-and-ride scheme developed for the valley. Daniel says: “We understand people have to use their cars to go on holiday, but 80 per cent of the cars in the valley are day trippers who come maybe three or four times a year. We have very little control over that as accommodation providers or attractions with limited car parking.

“If we could have car parks at the entrances to the valley that link with the buses everyone will have a better time and could get where they need to go more affordably, and the attractions can bring more people in without contributing to the congestion. That’s where we want to be heading in the long term.

“We want to become known as a valley where you don’t need your car and we think that will happen over the next few years.”

He is confident of another busy holiday season this year. “Things have changed,” he says. “Instead of booking three months in advance people are booking three weeks in advance, but ultimately people are coming and the numbers are very, very good, 80 per cent repeat and recommended business for us. We’ve got a great product here and the staycation isn’t going anywhere soon.”

With that in mind, improvements to public transport could work for everyone. Less carbon and less congestion!”

The Ullswater Bus service begins on March 23. Visit for more information.