The stream which flows over the waterfall is Aira Beck, which rises on the upper slopes of Stybarrow Dodd at a height of 720 metres (2,362 ft) and flows north-easterly before turning south, blocked by the high heather-covered slopes of Gowbarrow Fell. It turns south on its eight-kilometre journey to join Ullswater, at a height of 150 metres (492 ft). One kilometre before entering the lake, the beck makes the 20 metres (66 ft) leap down a rocky ravine at the falls known as Aira Force.
The river name Aira is derived from Old Norse eyrr, a gravel bank, and Old Norse á, a river, hence The river at the gravel bank, a reference to Aira Point, a gravelly spit where the river enters Ullswater. The Old Norse word fors, waterfall, has been adopted into several northern English dialects and is widely used for waterfalls, with the English spelling 'Force'. Thus, The waterfall on gravel-bank river.
Aira Force lies on land owned by the National Trust. The Trust purchased the 750 acre Gowbarrow Park (on which the force lies) in 1906 and has provided facilities, such as car parking, disabled access, graded paths, and viewing platforms to make Aira Force one of the most famous and most visited waterfalls in the Lake District.
A small arched bridge spans the stream just as the beck goes over the falls giving a spectacular view from the top as the water makes its leap. There is also a second bridge at the foot of the falls. Both bridges were constructed in honour of two members of the Spring family early in the 20th Century. Cecil Spring-Rice was the ambassador to the USA during World War I, while Stephen Spring Rice was a senior civil servant. The bridges are of particular interest: the lower is made of vertical stones, not traditional in these parts, while the higher has horizontal stones, more in keeping with the dale customs.
The Lake Poet William Wordsworth paid many visits to the area around Aira Force; he was probably inspired to write his poem "Daffodils" with the opening line, "I wandered lonely as a cloud" as he observed daffodils growing on the shore of Ullswater near where Aira Beck enters the lake near Glencoyne Bay. The falls themselves are mentioned in three Wordsworth poems, with the most famous reference being in "The Somnambulist", where in the final verse he writes:
- Wild stream of Aira, hold thy course,
- Nor fear memorial lays,
- Where clouds that spread in solemn shade,
- Are edged with golden rays!
- Dear art thou to the light of heaven,
- Though minister of sorrow;
- Sweet is thy voice at pensive even.
- And thou, in lovers' hearts forgiven,
- Shalt take thy place with Yarrow!
Beside the walk that passes up the glen is located a good example of a Wish Tree, in this case using a large fallen tree trunk. Visitors hammer coins into it using stones from the site.
- Gambles, Robert: Lake District Place Names: Hayloft Publishing (2013): ISBN 1-904524-92-3
- Visit Cumbria. Details National Trust purchase.
- Segnetworks. Gives details of bridges.
- www.visitcumbria.com. Details that Wordsworth was probably inspired to write daffodils at Glencoyne Bay.
- www.calstatela.edu. Gives full version of "The Somnambulist".