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The English Lake District: Coniston Water

Coniston Water is at the southern end of the English Lake District. Before the 1974 administrative boundary changes and the creation of the new county of Cumbria the Lake District included parts of three different counties. Coniston Water was one of the “Lancashire Lakes”. It was Coniston that provided Arthur Ransome with a setting for Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale.

A Heaton Cooper - Coniston Charcoal Burners
Charcoal Burners, Coniston Lake
by A. Heaton Cooper, 1908

This is the third largest of the lakes, after Windermere and Ullswater. It is a narrow “ribbon” lake, almost straight with just a gentle curve at the southern end. It is five and a half miles long, only about a quarter of a mile across at its widest, and a maximum depth of 185 feet. Coniston Old Man rises on the west of lake to 2633 feet and is popular with Lake District walkers and climbers.

Coniston village is at the northern end of the lake on the west shore. The lake now takes its name from the village, but anciently its was known as Thurston Water. This is thought to derive from Thorstein’s Water, presumably named after an early Viking explorer Thorstein coming up the River Crake from the coast. Coniston village was little more than a hamlet until the 1700s. In the following century the Coniston copper mines in the hills above the village combined with the traditional Lake District slate quarrying to give a period of considerable growth.

As in the rest of the Lake District there is available a wide variety of hotels and B&B accommodation as well as camping sites.

Campbells, Bluebirds and Coniston

Although now the lake is usually fairly quiet Coniston has quite a history of high-speed power boats. It was here that Sir Malcolm Campbell in 1939 broke the world water speed record at 141 miles per hour. It was here also that almost thirty years later, his son Donald Campbell was killed. He had previously in Australia set world records of 276 mph on water and 403 mph on land. In January 1967 his Bluebird turbo-jet hydroplane crashed during an attempt to become the first man to break the 300 mph water-speed barrier. (His father before him had been the first man to reach 300 mph on land).

There are memorials to both Campbells in the village. The Ruskin Museum in the village has recently constructed a “Bluebird Wing” to provide more extensive facilities for its existing Campbell exhibits and to create space for the display of Bluebird K7, recovered from the lake in recent years and currently in process of reconstruction.

Ruskin and Brantwood

By the eastern shore of the lake is Brantwood, which was the home of John Ruskin (1819-1900) for many years. Ruskin grew up close to London, and was busily involved in artistic and social affairs at national level. He was, however, from an early age drawn to the quiet seclusion of the Lake District. He bought Brantwood in 1871. His achievements in art and poetry, plus his work as social philosopher and conservationist, are celebrated in the Ruskin Museum in Coniston village and also in the house at Brantwood which should not be missed when visiting the area.

Coniston Water – On The Lake

Coniston Water is well provided with boat trips. You can sail around the northern or southern areas of the lake, or even take themed cruises focusing on Ruskin or Campbell or “Swallows and Amazons”. You can also combine a boat trip with a visit to Ruskin’s home, Brantwood. Another interesting option is a sail on the National Trust’s only passenger carrying steam yacht, Gondola. This unusual old boat brings together design characteristics of a Venetian gondola with Victorian steam technology.

The Lake District National Park Authority operates the Coniston Boating Centre and from there you can hire rowing boats, electric self-drive boats, canoes and kayaks.

Coniston offers many opportunities for fishing with trout, perch and eels to be caught. However, many anglers come here for the pike which are quite plentiful.

Finding your way to Coniston Water

Until the 1970s when the line was closed, visitors in their thousands arrived by train, especially during the summer holiday season, but nowadays the roads take the strain. If you’re arriving in the Lake District by road from the south, leave the M6 motorway north of Lancaster and Carnforth onto the A590 Barrow road. Follow this through Newby Bridge to Greenodd, where a right turn onto the A5092 leads through the village and up the lovely Crake valley. At Lowick don’t miss the turn onto the A5084. This will bring you to Blawith and the foot of Coniston Water. (If you find yourself going up a steep hill to Gawthwaite, you’ve missed the turning!) If you’re already in the Lake District then there are other roads from Millom, Broughton, Ambleside and Hawkshead.

Coniston Copper Mines

There is an interesting article on the Around-England blog: Coniston coppermines