Autumn in Ambleside, the heart of the English Lake District.

The town pavements are teeming with crowds of families, walkers and locals; people in a hurry to arrive or depart.

Heading south out of town the Waterhead Pier is bustling with people boarding boats to cruise Lake Windermere. Traffic along the A591- the main road through the Lake District- is heaving with cars in a slow, noisy crawl.

I need an escape.

Recently, a friend told me about Stagshaw Gardens, a secret little paradise just a 25 minute walk from Ambleside on the road towards Windermere.

As soon as I turn off the main road and up the hilly lane, I can already feel myself breathing a sigh of relief.

Grey pavements have been replaced with hedgerows of waning wildflowers of late summer. The blackberries are green and fattening, ready for the impending start of autumn.

At the end of the road lies a small cottage and a decorative wooden gate with the familiar National Trust sign.

Created by Cubby Acland, a National Trust land agent from 1959 until his death in 1979, he set out to create a woodland garden with a subtle balance of rare and colourful plants intermingled with a variety of trees on the side of Skelghyll Woods.

Stepping inside the gate, it’s hard to believe this sanctuary is so close to the bustle of Ambleside. A stream provides the central artery to the steep hillside garden, full of rocks that provide an ever-present soothing soundtrack as I wander around the steep stony paths.

I choose to start my walk in an anti-clockwise direction on the lower path, with airy beech trees providing a shady canopy to the dappled sunshine. The air is thick with that beautiful earthy dampness after a few days of summer rain.

After a short climb, I veer off the main path to the left through a narrower path lined by shrubs which leads to a simple wooden bench with stunning views over to Lake Windermere.

I sit and pause, tuning into all my senses and allowing myself to be completely in the moment.

Back on the main path which continues to rise steeply, it suddenly feels like a more rugged landscape. Towering cedar trees, a Christmas tree like Norwegian spruce and a Californian redwood. At the top of the gardens, an unusual patch of soft green bamboo hides in the corner. It feels like a fleeting trip around the globe in one magnificent garden.

The path then starts to descend, firstly reaching a small wooden bridge over to a remarkable patch of red barked rhododendron trees all gnarled and twisted like the hands of an old man. Weathered by the world but still bearing strength.

The path continues to wind its way down, past newly blooming blousy, oversized hydrangeas and the gigantic leaves of a Chilean rhubarb plant, as big as three dinner plates.

I think how humbling and otherworldly this place feels as I find myself back to where I began but with a calmer, softer mind.

Upon my return, I notice a path into Skelghyll Woods is just above the entrance to the gardens. I walk the first part of the Champion Tree Trail, home to a wide variety of trees from around the world, and even Cumbria’s tallest tree – a great fir standing at a lofty 59 metres. The circular trail takes around 45 minutes, or if you are in need of a longer hike, continue up the steep hill to Jenkins Crag and follow the terrace path back across the top of the crag which takes you back into Ambleside.

An added beauty of the gardens is they provide something different to see in every season: snowdrops in late winter, wild daffodils in spring, crisp leaves in the autumn and a spectacular display of rhododendrons from over 300 species in early summer.

A little piece of escapism from the Ambleside hustle and bustle, no matter what the season is.

Helpful Hints

Take a photo of the map at the start on the information boards as the trails are not marked and it’s easy to get lost in the maze of tiny paths!

The walk is over steep, uneven ground – decent footwear with good grip is recommended.

There is a small free car park (space for around 6 cars) or it’s a 25 minute walk from Ambleside. Buses 555 and 599 also stop close to the gardens.

There are no other facilities (such as toilets or a cafe) in the gardens.

Rebecca is a writer and hillwalker based in Ambleside, find her on Instagram at @lookwithneweyes and at

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