Fed by rivers that come crashing down from the high fells, Windermere snakes its sedate way from Ambleside in the north to Lakeside in the south. From head to foot, it’s almost 11 miles, making it the largest natural lake in England.
The wild western shore is the quietest. Draped in dense forest, low-lying hills drop abruptly to the water’s edge, leaving just a narrow strip of land along which public rights of way pass. The northern half of the lake is particularly popular with walkers and cyclists who can enjoy several miles of traffic-free routes. Bikes can be hired from Low Wray, Brockhole, Ferry Nab and Bowness. Attractions along this side of the lake include the National Trust’s unusual Wray Castle, a Victorian neo-Gothic mansion, and Claife Viewing Station, recently restored to allow visitors a unique perspective on the lake.
With a main road running alongside it, the eastern shore is more developed. It’s here that you’ll find the tourist resorts of Bowness-on-Windermere and the adjoining Windermere village. Luxury hotels and expensive homes, all with breathtaking views across the water, are scattered along this shore. Public access is limited to a just a few places outside of the villages. From north to south, these include Holme Crag, the National Park’s visitor and activity centre at Brockhole, Millerground near Windermere village, Cockshott Point and the National Trust’s Fell Foot Park in the south.
Fell Foot Park and Brockhole are among the many places where kayaks, canoes, rowing boats, motorboats and stand-up paddleboards can be hired – although not in winter. A range of vessels are also available from businesses at Waterhead, Bowness, Ferry Nab and Low Wood Bay, which is home to the Lake District’s only water skiing centre. In some cases, instruction is available, ranging from hour-long taster sessions to multi-day sailing courses. At Low Wood Bay, you can even try your hand at fly-boarding, flying above the surface of the lake on boots propelled by water-powered jet nozzles.
There are lots of places where owners can launch their own boats too, although permits are required for powered craft. There is a speed limit of ten nautical miles per hour, which drops to six miles an hour in some places.
Windermere Lake Cruises offer a gentler way of enjoying the Lake District from the famous lake. Boats operate all year round, serving various points along the entire length of Windermere. There’s also a council-run cable ferry that carries passengers and vehicles across the middle section of the lake in about 10 minutes. These also run throughout the year, weather and lake conditions permitting, with three ferries each way per hour.
There are several islands on Windermere, most of which are little more than tree-crowned rocks. The largest of the lot by far is the privately owned Belle Isle, occupied by a neo-classical, domed house. Built in the 1770s and heavily influenced by the Pantheon in Rome, it’s thought to be England’s first cylindrical mansion. There is no public access to Belle Isle.