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11/15/2004 Archived Entry: "Windermere & Lakes"
Today's diary entry comes from the Lake District where we spent a few days exploring the countryside in remarkably mild November weather, and with the richly colourful autumn leaves still clinging to the trees in both garden and forest. On some evenings, golden sunsets bathed the entire landscape. The colours can only be described as breathtaking, these brilliant sights lasting only a few stunning minutes while the sun sank behind the mountains to leave the lakes looking like darkened glass with the moody hills behind.
Our base was a splendid and isolated small hotel in the hills above Windermere, a former country house surrounded by acres of rocky Lakeland fells for us to enjoy. Its quiet gardens with a variety of trees were rich with wild life - we spotted grey squirrels, magpies, various garden birds such as chaffinches, robins and members of the tit family, plus a nuthatch whose antics on a bird feeder kept us entertained at breakfast.
In the valley below was Windermere, the largest of the English lakes, being ten and a half miles long by a mile wide at the broadest point. It is also the most popular in terms of tourists, visitors and sailing facilities. Even though it was November when we called, the lakeside at Bowness was packed with visitors and the water was full of boats of every kind, but this kind of popularity is not new. William Wordsworth, the Lakeland poet, suggested that Windermere's grandeur can only be seen from the bosom of the lake and so we took a short cruise from Bowness to Ambleside to take in some of the splendid vistas that inspired the poet.
One of the regular sights on Windermere is the ferry which carries vehicles and people across the lake from The Nab just south of Bowness, to a point below Near Sawry on Claife Heights. The first mention of a ferry on Windermere is probably 1454 when one crossed the lake at its widest point some distance to the north. A tragedy occurred in 1635 when 47 people drowned as the boat capsized after a wedding at Hawkshead and the ferry also features in a folk tale. Even at the time of this tragedy, the ferry was a rowing boat which carried passengers only (no vehicles). The ferryman would respond to a shout of "Ferry" when anyone wanted to cross but after this tragedy, it was a long time before any ferryman dared to respond. They were afraid of the Crier of Claife, a fearsome spectre which lived on Claife Heights and which would falsely call for the ferry so that the crew and passengers would meet their death. Needless to say, we didn't call for the ferry to return us to Windermere!
Bowness and the adjoining town of Windermere have merged until they are almost inseparable and both owe their popularity to the railway. When the line from London to Carlisle was being built in 1847, it was decided to build a branch line from Oxenholme to Keswick but this was never completed and the line stopped at Birthwaite, a village overlooking Windermere. Then, because few passengers associated Birthwaite with Lake Windermere, it was decided to rename the station "Windermere" - and so it remains today. In time, Birthwaite was swamped by Windermere and Bowness.
Not far away is Coniston Water, well-known for the ill-fated attempt by Donald Campbell to break the water speed record in the winter of 1967. As he tried to reach 300mph, Campbell's speedboat, Bluebird, crashed and he was killed. The Ruskin Museum in Coniston has extensive exhibits covering Donald Campbell's life and achievements.
Among the many boats on Coniston Water, is a stately Gondola, an 1859 iron steamship. Recently restored by the National Trust, it now takes visitors on cruises around this peaceful lake.
Coniston is also associated with the Victorian writer John Ruskin who between 1871 and 1900 lived at Brantwood, a large country house on the eastern shore of the lake. His former home is now open to the public and in the village the Ruskin Museum includes an exhibition of Ruskin Lace. Ruskin did not make the lace himself, however! It was made by the women of the village to cover his body for burial in Coniston churchyard and was based on a pattern he brought back from Greece. He asked his housekeeper to adorn all his household linen with lace of that design; other women in the locality adopted the idea and so a new household industry was created. Ruskin lace is still made.
There is bustle aplenty in the Lake District - and peaceful tranquillity if one cares to seek it.