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Lake Windermere History

Lake Windermere is England’s biggest lake. It’s about a mile wide at its widest point and around 11 miles long. It runs from Waterhead in the north to Lakeside in the south. This is a distance of 10.5 miles, but some believe the lake stretches further south and only ends at Newby Bridge where it becomes the River Leven. This would make the length 11.65 miles. The deepest point is 219 ft (67m) and this is towards the north end. It is also relatively deep towards the south. In contrast, the mid-section is only 10 feet deep in places.

It was the site of Roman occupation from 1AD, with the Galava Fort being built on the edge of the lake at the north end in 90AD. Ambleside, which is about a mile from the lake at the north end, grew after the Romans departed.

The Industrial Revolution saw many wealthy mill owners and ship owners buy huge properties, with these generally being on the east side.

Whilst the lake had always been of interest, perhaps the most significant mark in its history came in 1847, when the railway line was built with a station a mile or so away. The lake then became accessible to the general public, not just the wealthy.

The station was built in an empty area a short distance from Birthwaite. The area had no name and as the community grew, the villagers took the name of the lake and called the village ‘Windermere’. With this new influx of visitors, Ambleside at the north end became extremely busy and many Victorian shops can be seen today.

 

Windermere Visit

It’s England’s largest lake and if you like the outdoors you’ll find it in a wonderful area, which is the aptly named ‘Lake District’. Around Lake Windermere there are a host of other lakes and mountains including England’s highest peak Scafell Pike (9 miles away as the crow flies) and the nearby Lake Coniston, the scene of many water speed records over the years. The district is easy to get to, being just west of the M6 motorway.

For visitors, it’s useful to describe the layout of Lake Windermere. It’s shape is long and narrow, being ten and a half miles long from north to south and a mile wide at its widest point. It has 18 islands as well as areas of shallow water that are marked with red buoys. The largest island is the 40 acre, privately owned, Belle Isle. Other islands include Lady Holme, Bee Holme, Crow Holme, Birch Holme and Hen Holme.

There is only one town or village on the lake shore and this is Bowness-on-Windermere which is central to the lake on the east side. There are another two habited areas around the lake, Waterhead at the north tip, a mile from Ambleside village centre, and Lakeside at the south tip. Whilst both these have hotel accommodation etc.,  Bowness is far and away the biggest with, I can imagine, the vast majority of people who visit the lake visiting Bowness. It’s the hub of activity, a town with a host of shops, restaurants, pubs, hotels, banks and amenities. Newby Bridge is nearly a mile further south than Lakeside, with some claiming that this is the south point of the lake, but most reckon it’s part of the river that starts near Lakeside.

The village of Windermere is a mile and a half east of Bowness and it was near here, near a place called Birthwaite, that the Kendal and Windermere rail line stopped in the direction of Ambleside in the 19th century. The local population, including poet William Wordsworth, mindful of the effect that the rail line would have on their peaceful community objected to the continuation of the line so it stopped, and the village of Windermere sprung up. The population expanded and the wealthy started to arrive and build dream houses around the lake with the east side being much more popular for houses due to its accessibility. Much of the road along the east side runs near to the lake, whilst on the west side, the north/south road is some distance from the lake. But at the mid-point on the west side, the road from Hawkshead suddenly veers, from a comfortable distance away from the lake, straight down to the shore. This is the point at which the ‘Windermere Ferry’ carries cars and pedestrians around four hundred yards across the lake to a point about half a mile south of Bowness. This trip, which is a continuation of the road on the map, saves the 14 mile journey if travelled by road around the tip of the lake. The ferry can carry up to 18 cars and runs every 20 minutes. It runs from Far Sawrey on the west side, to Ferry Nab on the east.

The lake is a hive for water sports and with about 3,500 registered pleasure craft, they need around eight ranger patrol vessels to create a safe environment. Much debate surrounds the 10mph speed limit, which reduces to six in the area around Bowness. The obvious exception during busy times is the speed boat racing area on the south east side. Across the lake you see boats of all kinds, from the passenger ferries ‘Teal’ and ‘Tern’, to smaller passenger launches, to a host of motor launches, rowing boats, yachts, dinghies, canoes, speed boats and windsurfers. At Bowness you’re able to hire rowing boats or mini speed boats, and although the latter are restricted to 10mph, they look great fun.

There are three main ferry cruises – the yellow trip, from Bowness south to Lakeside and back; the red trip, which is runs north from Bowness to Waterhead, Ambleside and back, and the ‘islands’ trip which congregates around the middle portion. A return journey on the yellow takes around 90 mins, with the red taking about 70 mins. The cost is around £10 for the yellow, £7 for the red or £18 for a 24 hour Freedom of the Lake ticket, this may even include something additional eg parking or reduced attraction entrance. From the 1950s there were also 30 traditional brown passenger launches and even today there are still four of them operating. Two of these are based at Waterhead and travel to Wray Castle and Brockhole. Smaller summer only ferries travel from Bowness to Far Sawrey and from Lakeside to Fell Foot park.

From Lakeside (at the south end) runs a rail line – this for three and a half miles along the River Leven down to Haverthwaite. From here, the river continues on for another few miles before reaching Morecambe Bay. The height of the river drops 128 feet from Lake Windermere to the sea. Passengers often get the ferry from Bowness to Lakeside and then jump on the train. I think there’s a ticket to combine the two.

The rail line was built by the Furness Railway. They were investors in the lake steam ships of the 19th century before taking over the rest of the shipping side too. They had five passenger vessels which were the Cygnet, Swan, Swift, Teal and Tern, with the Cygnet acting as a cargo vessel. They were hugely popular and the Teal and Tern survive as ferries today – but as diesel vessels, not the original steam ships. The railway is now run by the Haverthwaite Steam Railway.

Apart from the obvious opportunity to enjoy water sports on the lake, the area has a number of attractions and it’s hard to know where to start. There are a number of yacht, dinghy and power boat clubs as well as over a dozen outdoor adventure centres dotted around the lake.

There are some marvellous walks and vantage points with the ‘Windermere Way’ being a designated 45 mile walking route around the lake, often deviating away to accommodate views etc. There are great hill views from the north end and these run from Wansfell (and Jenkins Crag half way up) around to Loughrigg and Scots Crag. The walk between these points is a marvellous horseshoe. Orrest Head above Windermere has a wonderful view, whilst above Bowness there are fine views from Biskey Howe and Post Knott, whilst a short distance north from Bowness is Adelaide Hill, this fairly near the lake and a point where Queen Adelaide came ashore many years ago.

A great view at the south end is from Gummers How near the south east corner, and this the highest point around the lake. Also at the south east side is Fell Foot, a very popular park, in fact a short ferry service takes passengers from Lakeside across to the park. Also at Lakeside is an Aquarium and a fine looking hotel.

At the north tip is Borrans Head with Borrans Park forming the entrance to the site of the Roman Fort of Galava which was built between 79-125AD. Stagshaw Gardens are nearby.

There are a number of grand houses around the lake with many being built as private residences, but later becoming hotels or trust properties. Wray Castle was built in the 1840’s for Liverpool surgeon James Dawson and his wealthy wife and is now run by the National Trust. This is on the northwest side and is a place where Beatrix Potter took her first holiday. Across the lake and slightly south (north east side )is Brockhole, again a marvellous private residence that is now the main Lake District National Park Visitor Centre. Near Brockhole is White Cross Bay, this renamed to recognise the memorial cross on display that commemorates an historic tragedy. A few miles from the lake are Wordsworth’s house, in Grasmere to the north west of the lake, Beatrix Potter’s House on the road from Hawkshead, about two miles from the Far Sawray ferry point on the west side, and Levens Hall to the east of Fell Foot park. Langdale Chase and Low Wood are two marvellous lakeside hotels.

Renowned children’s writer Beatrix Potter is synonymous with the area with a Visitor Centre near the centre of Bowness showing her work. She acquired great wealth and such was her love of the area that she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land to the National Trust. Her farm house in Sawrey, on the Hawkshead road, is called Hill Top and she left this to the Lake District National Park on condition that it was left almost untouched and open to the public.

I’m sure there’s plenty more in addition to the above. A great place to visit and certainly a jewel in England’s crown.