As I started to write this item for our blog the newspapers, radio and TV, both local and national, were full of Lake District and wider Cumbrian stories. More than a foot (>300 mm) of rain in little more than twentyfour hours had swollen rivers, formed lakes where previously there were none, and generally made the lives of many Cumbrian residents a misery. Bridges had been destroyed, and it was just being reported that a policeman attempting to save others had been lost as the bridge on which he was standing was swept away. Clearly this has been an exceptional weather event which is going to have massive human consequences. I trust that by the time this post is due to appear on the blog the big clean-up will be well under way.
It was, however, not water to this extent that was on my mind when I first thought of writing about things to do in and around Coniston in the winter. Rather it was a simple response to the fact that things to do indoors take on an added significance in the colder months of the year.
For many decades one of the economic difficulties faced by the Lake District tourism industry was the shortness of the season. Gradually this has been changing. Of course, the enthusiastic outdoor person may laugh at wimps who want to be inside in the warmth. As someone who used to love the battle against an icy wind, and revel in pressing footsteps deep into mountain snow, I can empathise with that.
As the years have worn on, however, I’ve come to appreciate that pretending to be Hilary on Everest or Scott in the Antarctic is not the only way to enjoy the uplands in winter. There are warmer occupations. So what does the area immediately around Coniston have to offer the person who prefers to keep reasonably warm and dry?
The Ruskin Museum
In Coniston village itself there is the Ruskin Museum. This should not be confused with Brantwood, which was John Ruskin’s home on the opposite bank of the lake from 1871 until his death in 1900, and which I’ll mention in a later paragraph. The museum is in the village itself and although it includes a considerable amount of Ruskin-related material it also covers a far wider range of local interests including the Coniston Coppermines in “Coppermines Valley” up the slopes of Coniston Old Man above the village.
Originally established by the writer and philosopher W. G. Collingwood in 1901 it has been extended substantially down the years. It has informative displays on the local (now defunct) copper mining and slate industries as well as many local crafts. Most recently the part of the museum devoted to Donald Campbell and his waterspeed records has been greatly expanded. Sometime in 2010 it is planned to bring the restored Bluebird to a permanent display here.
What John Ruskin would have thought of careering up and down the Coniston lake at 250-300 miles per hour we’ll never know, but certainly he considered the view across the water to Coniston Old Man from his study window to be more than outstanding. I guess that under today’s planning regimes he would not have been permitted to develop the old cottage into the house as it now is, but thankfully he lived before the age of such restraints and we can now visit Brantwood to enjoy exhibits of the art and philosophy of this highly influential artist, writer and social reformer of the mid/late-nineteenth century.
To quote the Brantwood web site, its displays and activities “reflect the wealth of cultural associations associated with Ruskin’s legacy – from the Pre Raphaelites and Arts and Crafts Movement to the founding of the National Trust and the Welfare State.” Over the years I’ve paid many highly enjoyable visits to Brantwood, and particularly recall an exhibition describing the influence of Ruskin’s thinking on Ghandi.
Brantwood, however, is not only concerned with the past. It has a lively programme of contemporary style events. For example, the Severn Studio has an exhibition under the title “Space and Place” showing the recent work of five south Cumbrian textile artists.
Oh, and there’s also some good food to be enjoyed! As the house doesn’t open until 11:00 am you might want to enjoy the Ruskin Museum in Coniston village in the morning and then go on to Brantwood for lunch before touring the house in the afternoon.
The above two places can easily occupy a relaxed winter’s day before the darkness falls and one retreats to a warm Coniston area hotel or guest house. A second day might involve a trip to nearby Hawkshead with its Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter connections. Or, a little further away, how about the Laurel and Hardy museum in Ulverston?
Take Care in the Winter Outdoors
Finally, if you decide that it’s the outdoors for you, then please make sure that you’re properly equipped, check the weather forecast and the daylight times … and don’t take risks on the fells. The rescue services have enough on their plates without having you as another of their statistics.
Check Winter Opening Hours
One important point about visiting anywhere in the Lake District during the winter months (or for that matter any tourist destination around the whole of the UK outside of the big cities) is: Check the winter opening hours. Not only are daily times usually shorter than in the summer, but some venues may be closed totally for several weeks, especially in late-December and January. Check the relevant websites carefully before travelling far:
Brantwood – home of John Ruskin
The Ruskin Museum in Coniston village
The Beatrix Potter Gallery, Hawkshead