Six miles south-west of Ambleside is Coniston Water and the village of Coniston. Much of the history of the village is connected with mining, particularly of slate and copper.
The mountain rising above the village is The Old Man of Coniston (height 803m). This rather quirky-sounding name probably has its origins in the ancient language spoken in Britain over 1500 years ago, but similar to modern Welsh where Allt Maen means High Rocks. The main path to the summit from Coniston passes many of the mine workings, but it should be mentioned that it is best not to enter any of the tunnels unless accompanied by a guide. The Old Man of Coniston is the most southerly of Lakeland’s high fells, giving it wide-ranging views in all directions; on clear days it is possible to see Blackpool Tower, almost 40 miles away to the south.
At 5 miles long, Coniston Water is the fifth-largest of the lakes. It is perhaps best-known as the place where Donald Campbell broke his own world water speed records in his Bluebird K7 boat during the 1950s, prior to his untimely death in 1967 on Coniston Water. After the death of his father in 1948, Campbell took on his ambition to be the fastest man alive. Sir Malcolm Campbell achieved nine world records on land and three on water and, in 1935, had become the first man to travel at 300mph. In his new car, Bluebird. Donald set out to continue a family tradition, despite the fact that at the time of his father’s death, he had driven nothing faster than the family car. In 1964, Campbell achieved a unique double, breaking world speed records on both land and water at 403.1mph and 276.33mph, respectively.
Campbell raised the world water speed record from 202.32mph on Ullswater in 1955, to over 280mph on Coniston Water in late 1966. During his final record breaking attempt on the 4th January 1967, the timekeepers recorded speed in excess of 300mph.
The Coniston Bluebird was the third boat to bear this name. Launched on Ullswater in 1955, she was a three point hydroplane, powered by a Bristol Siddeley Orpheus turbo jet engine, capable of developing 5,000 lbs of thrust. The craft was 30 feet long, with a beam of 10 ft 6 inches. The fuel consumption was 600 gallons an hour, which meant that she carried sufficient fuel for less than six minutes at record breaking speed.
Donald Campbell’s tragic final record attempt took place on an exceptionally calm morning, on the 4th January 1967. His first run, north-south along Coniston Water, yielded a speed of 297mph. He turned beyond Peel Island and then returned at more than 300mph. At 8.55am, 140 feet from the last kilometre marker, Bluebird soared gracefully into the air and somersaulted back into the water, vanishing in a cloud of white spray.
Bluebird lay undiscovered on the bed of the lake for over 30 years. She was found by a group of divers in 2000 and finally recovered from Coniston Water in March 2001. Donald Campbell’s body was also recovered from the lake in 2001 and was buried in Coniston churchyard. A tribute to him, in the form of a Lakeland stone memorial, stands in the centre of the village. Much more about the history of Bluebird and the mining around Coniston can be found by visiting the excellent Ruskin Museum in the village.
The best way to see any of the lakes is from the water, and Coniston has its own special way of doing this, which is The Steam Yacht Gondola. The Gondola was built in 1859 by the Furness Railway Company; they had recently built a branch-line to Coniston and wanted a unique tourist attraction to bring in visitors on their railway. The boat’s design took its inspiration from the gondolas of Venice, and it was in service for over 70 years before being retired. It then spent some time as a private houseboat before being restored by the National Trust in the 1970s, and is currently the largest steam-powered boat running regular services in the Lake District. For anyone who wants to discover more about the age when steam-powered boats ruled the waves of the Lakes, a visit to Windermere Jetty Museum just north of Bowness is recommended.
Coniston Water also has literary associations, being the main setting for Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series of books. Ransome had spent many childhood holidays here and knew the area in intimate detail, including individual farmhouses and little valleys hidden in the hills; many of these featured in Swallows and Amazons, but he never used the real place names, meaning that fans of his books had to do a bit of detective work. Perhaps the most famous location is Wild Cat Island, an uninhabited island claimed and contested by both the Swallows and the Amazon children; in real life this is Peel Island at the southern end of the lake.
Coniston Water was also home to John Ruskin, the eminent writer, artist, art critic and social campaigner. He lived at Brantwood on the eastern side of the lake from 1871 to 1900. The house is a wonderful, rambling mansion, originally built in the late 18th Century, but which Ruskin added to, including the distinctive turret. The house is open to the public (along with its gardens), and has one of the grandest views of the lake and the Old Man of Coniston.