In my opinion, one of the best ways to enjoy the outstanding scenery around Coniston is from Coniston Water itself, so if you’re looking for a unique, relaxing (and dry) way to do this, a trip on board the National Trust’s Steam Yacht Gondola won’t disappoint!
It was with just seconds to spare that I made it down to the Coniston Pier jetty and onto this beautiful Victorian vessel which was waiting to set off. I don’t run with any grace, so the moral of the story is this: however long you think it will take you to get somewhere on a very hot day in the school holidays, add plenty of extra time to the extra time you’ve already allowed – otherwise you risk missing the boat! A few moments later, and we were off…
I have to admit that it’s been many years since I last visited Coniston, so for me this visit was a complete rediscovery of the area. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to do it – it was a stunning, hot August day, and those wiser than me had got there early and were already settled on Gondola’s outside seating. Having explored both the ‘sharp end’ and the ‘blunt end’ of the boat (sorry – I’ve watched the film Carry on Cruising too many times! 🙂 ) I found a perfect little standing spot to the rear of the boat which meant that I could take pictures from both sides and, as a bonus, I was in the shade!
A bit of history…
According to the National Trust, Gondola started out life when in 1859 she was commissioned by the Furness Railway and built in Liverpool. Between 1860 and 1914 she provided cruises for the wealthy tourists of the day, and these were linked to carriage and railway services as part of a grand Victorian tour. After a period of rest during the First World War, Gondola returned to service in 1919, but in 1936 she was sold and became a private houseboat at the southern end of the lake.
Sadly, Gondola was wrecked in a storm in the 1960s, and this left her partly submerged in the water until in the ’70s National Trust volunteers raised funds to restore her. She was rebuilt by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering in Barrow-in-Furness, and launched once again as a pleasure cruiser in 1980. What a history!
A look round the boat
Following my slightly flustered start, I can honestly say that Gondola had the most wonderful calming effect from the minute we started our journey. I recorded a short video, below, in which you can hear the gentle chugging of the boat, which even now is running on steam power.
When Gondola first set out in 1860 she was powered on coke from the gasworks, and these days her fuel takes the form of compressed wood and sawdust logs. For those interested in the actual running of Gondola, you can see what’s going on ‘below deck’ through an open side hatch to the rear of the vessel, and talk to the engineer.
One of the things that strikes you as you move around Gondola is the attention to detail. The 1st class saloon was apparently modelled on Queen Victoria’s private railway carriage, and the fittings and finishings throughout (look at the intricate brass edging on the outside steps) are what make a cruise on Gondola unique.
A live on-board commentary, provided by the helmsman, gives you lots of interesting snippets about the lake and the features surrounding it. It focuses in particular on two of Coniston’s claims to fame:
- as the inspiration behind Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series of novels, and
- as the stretch of water on which Donald Campbell tragically died during a world water speed record attempt in Bluebird.
There are lots of other interesting facts too, particularly about the area’s industrial past. The crew have created a great balance, because the talk is informative but not overly obtrusive, so you’ve plenty of opportunities to just sit back and enjoy it all.
Swallows and Amazons
I chose to take the full lake cruise (lasting an hour and three-quarters) so that I could see and photograph the various sites that inspired Arthur Ransome, when writing his Swallows and Amazons series of novels. He confirmed that all the locations he wrote about were based on real places, but that they couldn’t all be found in the correct order on a map.
Although some features can be found on Windermere as well, it is Coniston Water in particular that Ransome used in his descriptions. Peel Island, towards the south of the lake, along with Silver Howe on Windermere, formed the basis for ‘Wild Cat Island’, the island on which the Swallows children decide to camp during their holidays. You also see the Swallows and Amazons boathouses, and on the return journey the helmsman pulls in close so that you have roughly 20 seconds to catch sight of the ‘Secret Harbour’ on Peel Island.
From taking the cruise, I now realise how vivid the sense of place is in Ransome’s first and most famous novel. (Although I have a confession to make, which is that I didn’t actually read Swallows and Amazons until very recently, as I was more of an Enid Blyton child – she did in fact write her own island adventure called The Secret Island, although I don’t know where it was based).
If you’re a keen walker, you may like to combine the Walker’s Cruise on Gondola with a walk, catching a service again later on for your return journey – visit Gondola’s profile on the National Trust website for timetable information. There’s also a jetty stop at Brantwood, the former home of John Ruskin, and another place I’d highly recommend you visit.
The first jetty we stopped at was Lake Bank Jetty at the southern tip of the lake, where you can see the original Victorian waiting room and stretch your legs for five minutes on the jetty – don’t go far though if you’re on the full cruise, unless you really do want to walk the long distance back!
This is definitely the most tranquil end of the lake, with reeds and a narrowing beyond which lies Arthur Ransome’s ‘Octopus Lagoon’ where the his fictional characters, the Swallows, go on a sailing adventure to try to overthrow the pirate Amazon sisters.
It was soon time to set off again, and on our return journey north we then stopped at Parkamoor on the east side of Coniston Water, the Brantwood jetty, and again at Monk Coniston at the most northerly point.
And now for a thought to put fear into the hardiest sailor – ‘Captain Janine’!
The crew members are all very friendly and pleased to answer any questions you have. I may have asked one too many though, as at this point something most unexpected happened: I was sent up a tiny ladder to the helm, and given the chance to steer Gondola for myself – quite something considering the only boat I’ve ever sailed was under a foot long and made Blue Peter-style at a Girl Guiding camp! (I did win a gold medal though, made of foil card and Christmas ribbon…)
Back to Gondola though, and the first instruction I received from the helmsman was to turn the wheel starboard. I was grateful a couple of seconds later when he clarified that starboard is ‘to the right’. Cue brain block and a frantic mental scramble to remember which is left and which is right… it’s like driving lessons all over again!
In all seriousness though (and in layman’s terms, for my sake!) to feel the weight of the boat gently pulling to one side when you’ve turned the wheel is really quite satisfying. I was advised that as we were now at an ideal distance from the shoreline we would continue to follow it, and that the trick is to find a single point on the horizon and line the boat up towards it.
I even got to frighten all the other passengers to the rear of the boat by pulling the rope to operate the steam whistle, a shiny, innocent-looking fixture which is a very loud, but essential part of the Gondola experience!
Talking to members of the crew confirmed what you already sense as soon as you arrive on board, which is that everyone takes great pride in running and maintaining Gondola. During the winter months the crew members carry out more heavy maintenance tasks and continued restoration too. Last winter, Gondola was treated to a new wooden wheelhouse roof to replace the previous metal one, and this has been lovingly crafted so that it looks as though it could always have been.
For the rest of the journey I sat quietly and let the helmsman carry out his various tasks, from visiting the final jetties to pick up return walkers, to giving out the last parts of the passenger commentary. With the sun starting to lower, and the view becoming steadily more hazy, the experience was so restful that I could have happily sat there all evening – Gondola also does private functions, which is where she was headed immediately after our cruise finished.
Why a lake cruise is a must on any Lake District holiday
If you’re on holiday in the Lake District, I would say that at some point during your stay a lake cruise is an absolute must. The scenery surrounding each of the Lake District’s stretches of water looks completely different from the vantage point of a boat, and there are various cruise companies operating on Windermere, Ullswater, Derwentwater and Coniston.
What makes a cruise on Coniston’s Gondola so special though has to be the boat itself, with its elegant features both inside and out, its history, and the fact it is still steam-powered (along with that authentic steamer smell – well, where I was standing anyway!). It’s also not a large boat, so people are friendly, and the whole experience has a great atmosphere. The northern half of the lake in particular was packed with people enjoying themselves on small boats of every shape, colour and description, and Gondola receives a lot of attention as she goes by – be prepared to receive lots of waves, and to return the gesture with a wave back!
It wasn’t until I was back on the jetty that I remembered to get a shot or two of Sidney, or ‘Sid’ as he’s affectionately known, the iconic sea serpent who sits on the front of Gondola and was replaced by a new Sidney in March this year – I can’t say I was happy with the pictures I took though. Two days later and I was back in Coniston to photograph Brantwood, so I went down to the Brantwood jetty to catch Gondola on her mid-day tour around the lake. Got you in the end, Sidney!
Gondola tour options
Gondola offers a number of day-time services, including Full Lake, Head of Lake and Walker’s Cruises – take a look at Gondola’s pages on the National Trust website for timetables and some useful walking suggestions.
And if you’re looking for something even more special, you could book one of Gondola’s on-board cream teas or picnics. For those who are more interested in what’s going on inside the boat than around it, there’s even an Engineer for a Day experience!
In partnership with other local organisations, the National Trust is also offering a Lake District Grand Victorian Circular Tour, a full day itinerary across the Lakes, complete with steam railway journey, which recreates a tour once provided by the Furness Railway Company.
If you’re planning to visit the Lake District this autumn, I have to say that the photographs I’ve seen taken on Coniston Water at this time of year are incredible, so even when the summer’s over, the enjoyment most certainly isn’t!
I’d like to say a big thank you to the Gondola crew for making me so welcome during my cruise experience. I should point out that although I always write with care, any errors in my ‘technical’ descriptions of Gondola will be my own and not those of the crew! Some of the Swallows and Amazons facts I researched separately. I also found Ivan Corlett’s blog about the maintenance of Gondola a helpful and entertaining read (I love the philosophical question, ‘is Gondola similar to Trigger’s broom from Only Fools and Horses?’ 5 February 2015), so do visit that too if you’re interested to see behind the scenes.
- Shortly after visiting the Steam Yacht Gondola, I paid another visit to Coniston to see Brantwood – you can find out more in my post about Brantwood and its fabulous grounds and gardens, and see Coniston later in the season when I returned to Coniston and Gondola in the autumn.
Have you been on board Gondola or any of the other cruises available in the Lake District? If so, it would be great to hear more about your experience. Do share your recommendations with other visitors to the blog by leaving a comment below.