Coniston squats at the foot of high, rugged fells, its terraced miners’ and quarrymen’s cottages overshadowed by peaks that have been exploited for their minerals for many, many centuries. From the south-east edge of the village, the slender Coniston Water, one of the National Park’s largest lakes, stretches five miles into the distance.
The fells and the lake are the chief attractions here, with outdoor enthusiasts flocking to the village in all seasons. The highest peaks are Dow Crag (2,552ft/778m), which is particularly popular with climbers and scramblers, Wetherlam (2,503ft/763m), Swirl How (2,631ft/802m) and the big daddy of the bunch, Coniston Old Man (2634ft/803m). Enjoying far-reaching views in all directions – as far as Snowdonia in north Wales on a clear day – these exposed summits are linked together by long, windswept ridges that make for great walking.
As on most of the other major lakes, boat trips operate along the length of Coniston Water. Choose from the Coniston Launch or the more refined Gondola, a Victorian steam yacht that has been restored by the National Trust. The Coniston Boating Centre, located just half-a-mile from the village centre, hires out kayaks, canoes, rowing boats, motor boats and dinghies. Fans of Swallows and Amazons can even follow in the wake of their heroes and sail out to Peel Island, which became Wild Cat Island in Arthur Ransome’s children’s adventure story.
Brantwood, the former home of the Victorian art critic and social thinker John Ruskin, has its own pier and is just a short ride from Coniston. The house, filled with paintings, objets d’art and exquisite period furniture, is open to the public, as are the extensive gardens rising above the wooded eastern shores of Coniston Water. In the village itself, the Ruskin Museum charts the area’s history, from prehistoric times to the escapades of twentieth-century speed aces Malcolm and Donald Campbell. Both father and son achieved water speed records on the lake between 1939 and 1959. Son Donald lost his life here in January 1967 while attempting to break the 300mph barrier. His boat, the Bluebird K7, lifted out of the water, did a backward somersault and then nose-dived into the lake. The wreck was only recovered in 2001, followed soon after by Campbell’s remains. He has since been buried in the village cemetery.
Many of Coniston’s buildings date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when output from local mines and slate quarries was at its peak. Some say the Romans were the first to work the rich seams of the Coniston fells, although it wasn’t until Elizabethan times that copper was mined on an industrial scale. The Coppermines Valley, a 20-minute walk from the village centre, is dotted with the remains of the mines – a fascinating excursion for anyone interested in industrial archaeology.
Coniston’s located some way to the west of the A591 and A592, the main roads through the Lake District, so it takes a bit more effort to reach it. If you’re coming by public transport, it’s best to get the train to Windermere and then the 505 bus via Ambleside, a road journey of about an hour.
Accommodation options range from YHA hostels and self-catering cottages to hotels, inns and B&Bs. There are also a few campsites just south of the village, along the western shores of the lake.
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 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.
Coniston Water, one of the Lake District’s largest ribbon lakes, stretches from Coniston in the north to the tiny hamlet of High Nibthwaite in the south – a total distance of five miles. It’s a particularly slender body of water, never more than about half-a-mile wide. Rising above the eastern shores are steep, wooded slopes that lead up to Grizedale Forest and Bethecar Moor. A narrow road winds its way along this side of the lake, but it’s a slow, tortuous drive. To the west, the terrain is more open – room for grazing land and low moorland as well as an A-road. A delightful trail hugs the water’s edge on this side, from Torver Back Common to Coniston, making an easy outing for walkers when combined with a trip on the Coniston Launch.
There are several small islands on Coniston Water, including Peel Island, which became Wild Cat Island in Arthur Ransome’s children’s adventure story Swallows and Amazons. Dedicated fans might want to follow in the wake of their heroes by sailing out to the island for a picnic; less adventurous types might settle for having a peep at the ‘secret harbour’ from the relative luxury of one of the cruises that operate on the lake.
The boats of the Coniston Launch operate between Coniston and Lake Bank, with additional piers at Brantwood, Sunny Bank, Torver and Waterhead. For something a little more special, there’s the National Trust’s restored Victorian steam yacht, Gondola. If you don’t mind getting wet, the Coniston Boating Centre hires out kayaks, canoes, rowing boats, motor boats and dinghies.
Coniston Old Man is one of the most popular fells in the Lake District; visit the summit platform on a sunny day, whatever the season, and it will be thronged with walkers enjoying the extensive, 360-degree views. Not only are you able to look into the high, rocky heart of the Lakes, the Pennines are often visible and, on days when the air clarity is at its very best, you’ll be able to see the Isle of Man, Scotland and even Snowdonia in north Wales.
So, is that why the Old Man’s so popular? After all, at 2634ft (803m), it’s not exactly up there with the biggies – in fact, it’s only the 31st highest fell in the National Park. Its popularity will have a lot to do with those views but it’ll also be partly to do with the ease with which it can be climbed. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re not used to fell-walking, it can be a tough old haul to the top, but it’s less than 2.5 miles from the centre of Coniston to the summit – following, for much of the way, ancient tracks once used by miners and quarrymen.
If you don’t want to follow the ‘tourist route’ on to the fell though, there are other ways to approach the Old Man. If you enjoy striding out along superb, high-level ridges, combine it with a visit to Wetherlam and Swirl How to the north, or Dow Crag to the west. For a head-start on the crowds, consider staying at the YHA’s Coniston Coppermines hostel – it sits right at the rocky foot of the mountains, at almost 650ft above sea level.