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.