Real Ales & Pirates
It was Saturday morning, I was sat eating my cornflakes and flicking through the December issue of CKUK, when I came across the Lakeland Adventure article about Derwent Water. I’ve been so busy this year trying to find warm countries to paddle, that I’d actually forgotten how much I use to enjoy paddling in the Lake District. So out came the maps and with a quick call to Al, to see if he was doing anything that afternoon, it was all sorted. By 12.30pm the car was packed, the boat was on the roof and we were on our way.
As we made the 3 hour trip to Cumbria I was still trying to decide which lake to visit. Some I had paddled before, some where just too small and some seemed a little tricky to get to. Then I saw Coniston water on the map and memories of playing Swallows and Amazons on the river as a child came flooding back. Author Arthur Ramsome had based the story around Coniston Water and I’d heard, the novel’s landmarks where easily identified. For those of you, who didn’t read the book or see the film, the story goes basically like this. There was John, Suzie, Titty and Roger who were on holiday there and borrowed a boat named Swallow and there was Nancy and Peggy who were local’s and sailed a dingy called Amazon. They used to meet up on Wildcat Island and have adventures revolving around, sailing, fishing and piracy.
After a slight epic involving our canoe straps sheering off on quite a hazardous stretch of road just off the M6, we finally arrived in Coniston at 3.45pm and discovered there where quite a few campsites to choose from. We decided upon Coniston Hall campsite, which by the map, looked like it had direct access to the lake. It was tricky to find and we had to do a sharp u-turn off the main road to get to it. The 16th century Hall was a very impressive building with huge chimneys and a good array of (quite stoney) camping fields to choose from. We were charged £4.50 each for camping and an extra £1.00 to launch the canoe, which seemed quite reasonable. Camping on the beach wasn’t allowed but we managed to find a lovely spot literally 30 seconds away from the waters edge so ideal for launching the boat.
We pitched the tent and within 15 minutes I was on the water. It was a stunning afternoon. The sun was shining and the lake was lovely and calm. We only had a couple of hours before it would be dark so we decided to paddle across the lake and head towards the northern end. I had read that no powered craft were allowed on the lake so I was really surprised when this Steam powered Gondola came past us crammed to bursting with passengers.
It was heading to a small pontoon which we hadn’t noticed before. I thought I could make out some picnic tables and possible a café next to the pontoon. So we followed behind and sure enough we pulled up on a little pebbly beach surrounded by tables and sun umbrellas. As we stepped out from our canoe, much to the amazement of the other customers, a waitress came over and handed us the wine menu. It was excellent. We found a table and sat drinking our Cabernet Sauvignon as we watched with amusement some other holidaymakers and small children take a great interest in our boat. It wasn’t long before the sun started to set and we had to make our way back to the campsite. We took a short cut through the Marina which was home to some beautiful sailing yachts.
That evening we enjoyed a stroll across the fields to the village of Coniston. It was one thing wanting to relive childhood memories and finding Wildcat Island but it was just as exciting finding a Micro Brewery in a 400 year old coach house in the Village. Based in the old Black Bull pub, the Coniston Brewing Company make CAMRA award winning beers like the ‘Blue Bird Bitter’ and ‘Old Man Ale’. Obviously we had to sample them all so we could determine which was the finest ale. Although after 3 glasses, I was away with the fairies and can only vaguely remember walking home through a thick mist which had descended over the fields.
The following morning I was up early and headed straight for the lake. The mist was still thick and I couldn’t even make out ‘The Old Man of Coniston’ the highest fell in the area which stands 803 meters above the west side of the lake.
We made our way the southern end of the lake and saw what looked like ‘Wildcat Island’ on the other side. It would have been good to have a copy of the map printed inside the Swallows and Amazon’s book for reference as I’m sure I recognised lots of places like, Kanchenjunga, the Pigeon Post Country and the Amazon boathouses along the way. We reached the end of the lake and started to paddle down the River Crake for a while. However the flow started to get too strong and I was worried we wouldn’t make it back up, so we turned around and headed back to the lake.
Passing a tiny island with a single tree, I persuaded Al it would make a great photo if he stood on it, and to my surprise he did. Obviously I had to paddle away and leave him there, which I found quite funny. He really didn’t seem that bothered and looked quite happy there so I soon got bored and went back to get him.
It was now nearing lunch time so we headed straight for what we now new was Wildcat Island. I was so excited. Would it be how I’d imagined it all those years ago. I have to admit I had butterflies in my belly as we approached the Island. We paddled right around the Island and finally found a little inlet which was virtually hidden by rocks. We made our way down the gap and came to a little beach just big enough for two canoes. A tiny little path led us from the beach and through some bushes until we reached a big clearing in the trees. It was just like the book. The path continued up and with a bit of a scramble I was at the highest point of the Island and through the trees I could see all the way down the lake.
We stayed on the Island for an hour or so and had some lunch and a well deserved cup of tea. It was a shame we had to get back to Wales that evening as I would have loved to have stayed the night there. I don’t know if camping is officially allowed but it’s obviously well used and there were remains of several camp fires. It was now 2.30pm and we had to get back to the tent. A breeze had got up and was going in our direction so with a make shift sail made from my cag and two paddles, we sailed all the way back to camp.
We were only away for 24 hours but I honestly felt like I’d had a proper holiday. If you have more time than I did, then there is so much more to see in the area. Coniston is an ideal base for walking and climbing in the Lake District. The lake is famous for the world water speed record set by Donald Campbell in 1955 and which sadly cost him his life when he tried to regain it in 1967. There is a memorial to him on the village green and the shops in the area are full of ‘BlueBird’ memorabilia. Down the road there is the famous Ruskin Museum, which houses the tailfin of the famous Bluebird and artwork and books from Ruskin himself. There are copper mines dating back to Jacobean times and the Tilberthwaite Slate Quarries which are worth investigating.
Rowing boats and sailing dingies can be hired next to the café at the northern end of the lake where there is also a public slip way and boat storage facilities.
If you don’t own a boat and fancy taking the children for a weekend of adventure, then ‘Outdoor Connections’ run special Swallow and Amazon weekends especially for families. They visit all the famous places from the book, dress up as pirates, paddle out to the island, make pirate pennants to fly from their boats and have an action-packed couple of days guaranteed. And finally, don’t forget the Micro Brewery. Visits around the brewery can be made by prior arrangement but if you’re happy just sampling the beers then pop into The Black Bull or The Sun Hotel, where you’ll find the famous ‘Blue Bird Bitter’ and an array of other interesting ales.
Coniston Hall Campsite Tel: 01539 441223
Outdoor Connections Tel: 07875 276607 website: http://www.outdoorconnections.co.uk/
Swallows and Amazons written by Arthur Ramsome available at http://www.amazon.com/