For five miles, the boats of the Coniston Launch make their way south from the village of Coniston, beneath the steep, wooded slopes leading up to Grizedale Forest; for five miles, they make their way north again, under the watchful gaze of the Old Man and his gnarly mountain neighbours. It’s a great journey, in enthralling scenery.
The southernmost jetty on Coniston Water is at Lake Bank, which is visited by a limited, summer-only cruise, but there are other piers too, most of which are served all-year round. Alight at Brantwood to visit the former home of the nineteenth-century art critic and social thinker John Ruskin, a man who had a profound influence on matters as wide-ranging as the formation of the Labour Party and the birth of national parks. Or lace up your walking boots before embarkation, in readiness for the lakeshore stroll back from either Sunny Bank (3.5 miles) or Torver (2 miles). The path, which forms part of the long-distance Cumbria Way, winds its way in and out of pretty woodland, enjoying superb views throughout. It also passes the sixteenth-century Coniston Hall and the earthwork remains of two bloomeries where iron was smelted in medieval times.
Another pier, at Waterhead, links up with the 505 bus service from Windermere to Coniston. The ‘Ruskin Explorer’ combined ticket enables visitors to catch the 505 from Windermere or Ambleside, alight at Waterhead Hotel, catch the boat to Brantwood and then use the ticket to gain entry to the house and gardens.
Two special, themed cruises are also available from April until the end of September – the ‘Campbells on Coniston’ and ‘Swallows and Amazons’, each lasting 90 minutes. The former includes a talk on the lake’s links with father and son Malcolm and Donald Campbell, who set water speed records here in the 1930s and 1950s. Donald sadly died on the lake in 1967 when his jet boat, the Bluebird K7, crashed at about 300mph. The ‘Swallows and Amazons’ cruise visits some of the locations associated with Arthur Ransome’s book of the same name. Peel Island, on the opposite shore to the Sunny Bank jetty, became Wild Cat Island in the book – to where the fictional Walker children sailed their dinghy ‘Amazon’ and set up camp. The Sunny Bank jetty was damaged by storms in 2015. There are plans to reinstate it but it's not likely to be operational until spring 2021 at the earliest.
The pontoons at Coniston and Torver have been modified so that they always remain level with the boats’ gunwales, allowing easier access for those with mobility issues. The boats do not have full wheelchair access but they can carry small, folding wheelchairs.
There are different cruises available depending on the season, so you’ll need to check the website before setting out. Check also for cancellations due to extreme weather – in strong winds, for example, or when the water level is exceptionally high. But don’t be put off by a bit of a chill in the air; there are heated cabins to keep travellers comfortable in the winter.
The main Coniston pier is located just half-a-mile from the village centre, next to the lakeshore Bluebird Café.