When author Arthur Ransome wrote the popular children’s novel Swallows and Amazons his main source of inspiration came from the stunning scenery that surrounded his Low Ludderburn home, which was close to Coniston Water in the Lake District.
If you’ve never read the adventures of the Walker children, the lake which the kids sail on is only described as ‘that great lake in the North’, meanwhile Ransome spent a lot of time on Coniston’s Peel Island, which is said to be Wild Cat Island in the book.
Having read Swallows and Amazons when I was younger, and watched the film, I knew a little of the area. And back in the summer of 2016, The National Trust hosted The Great Swallows and Amazons Summer, as many of their locations provided a backdrop for the family film.
But seeing the Lake on-screen, is no comparison to viewing it in real life, and on our holiday to the Lake District back in the summer, I would cite our sailing trip on Coniston Water as one of my favourite experiences.
The weather the day we boarded the National Trust’s Steam Yacht Gondola from Coniston Pier was glorious. It was mild, and there was a slight breeze in the air, just enough to ruffle the whisps of my hair, while the sun reflected across the still, calm water.
Perhaps it was the unseasonably warm weather, which made our sailing trip even more enchanting, or perhaps it was the laughing children paddling around the lake, but the general feeling that day was one of optimism and joy.
Or maybe it was because we got to enjoy Coniston Water from the vantage point of a Victorian institution. The Steam Yacht Gondola is an impressive vessel. Not only does it have the look and feel of a charming entity, but it is shrouded in history. The launch of the original Gondola back in 1859 was to cater for wealthy Victorians who wanted to enjoy the Lake District. She started off life as a houseboat, but fell into wrack and ruin after a violent storm meant she became partly submerged and languished in her watery grave for over a decade.
In the late 1970s, however, Vickers Shipbuilding & Engineering came to the rescue and lovingly rebuilt and restored the Gondola which was then relaunched in 1980 and has been cruising Coniston Water ever since.
You can tell the staff absolutely love taking the Gondola out and delighting the many visitors lucky enough to board her. They are wonderful with children, too. Monkey was so excited to be able to peek through the open hatch to the engine room, while the engineer explained just how the Gondola is propelled by steam.
The best bit by far for him came a little later, when the captain declared that all the children onboard could take a turn at the helm. They all loved it.
Standing out on the deck and being able to learn the stories of not only the vessel but of the lake was fascinating – such as the tragic death of British Speed Record Breaker Donald Campbell after his jet-powered boat Bluebird flipped over and disintegrated as he tried to set a new water-speed record in 1967.
It was also interesting discovering more about the area’s real estate and how exclusive – and expensive – the properties are on Coniston Water, such as the Victorian boathouse that influenced Ransome’s story. It went on sale for a whopping £150,000.
The Gondola also stops off at the different points around the lake, which means passengers can disembark or board should they wish to discover more around Coniston on foot – such as hike up to Tarn Hows, or the Tree Trail at Monk Coniston Estate, which was once owned by Beatrix Potter. You can also get off to explore Brantwood, the home of artist John Ruskin, which houses fine art, architecture and furniture.
We chose not to get off, enjoying our peaceful journey across the lake and the sunshine on our faces. Even with the baby deciding not to nap, we found time went ever so quickly and our two-hour sailing trip soon came to a close.
We all waved as the Gondola headed off into the sunset dropping of the last of the passengers at a nearby campsite right on the water’s edge. It was difficult to tear ourselves away, so we got some ice creams and sat on the pier, skimming stones. We may not have been sailing our own dinghies but in some small way, we also had our own mini Swallows and Amazons adventure that day…
Things To Know
• There is car park by Coniston Water but if you’re unable to find a parking space – which is likely – you can find residential streets around the village and walk in.
• Check out the Gondola’s timetable online and drop-off points – tickets can also be booked in advance.
• Tickets costs from £11 per adult and £6
• Prams cannot be brought onboard, but there is a buggy park on Coniston Pier
• There is a toilet on board the Gondola
• There are facilities and a cafe near Coniston Water Pier