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Journeying Through Time on Lake Windermere

by Pearl Harris

Windermere is England's largest lake, situated in the northwest county of Cumbria. It is, strictly speaking, incorrect to refer to this lovely stretch of water as "Lake Windermere," "mere" being another word for "lake." The name, "Windermere," derives from the old Norse "Onundar Myrr." We need to travel back in time long before the Norsemen, however, to trace the origins of human habitation on these shores. The first evidence we have of man living here is that of Neolithic man.

Lake Windermere

The remains of an axe factory dating back to 4000 BC were discovered near Langdale Pikes. It is clear that the manufacture of stone tools (used mainly for tree-felling and killing of animals) was a thriving industry, as tools from Langdale have been discovered at numerous other sites around Britain. By 2000 BC, the Windermere countryside had developed into a fertile agricultural region, ground being cleared and trees felled for this purpose. Copper, lead and iron ore were mined and the pottery industry gained importance.

Evidence of Roman occupation at Windermere dates back to 1 AD, as evidenced by the extensive remains of the fort at Galava. Galava fort is thought to have been constructed in 90 AD and later extended by Hadrian. It was linked by road to the important port of Ravenglass, as well as to Hadrian's Wall, the boundary of the Roman Empire.

Between 300 and 400 AD, when the Roman occupation of Britain ended, the region came under the control of Furness Abbey. Farming continued to prosper, with the introduction of the hardy mountain sheep, while small foundries were built to smelt the iron ore. By 1000 AD, the area was inhabited by a thriving farming population who built the dry stone walls, such a distinctive feature today, as boundaries to control grazing. The most significant event of this period was the Viking invasion.

Lake Windermere

Ambleside, at the northern tip of Windermere, is said to owe its name to a Viking landowner by the name of Hamel. Ambleside gradually developed into an industrial hub. The 'old' town on the hill around St. Anne's Church was built after the departure of the Romans, with expansion in the 6th and 7th centuries into what is now the town center. Ambleside's farming population continued to be self-sufficient, while copper and lead mining and the quarrying of slate brought in extra revenue. The gray slate buildings today remain a striking feature of the Lakeland.

During the reign of Henry VIII, monasteries were closed down and farms divided into smaller lots. A successful market center was developed at Ambleside, with a bustling trade in corn, cloth, paper and bark.

The Industrial Revolution heralded a new era in which Windermere's water power was utilized for the important industry of bobbin production, so essential for the "dark Satanic mills" of the North. Wealthy mill owners and ship owners of the North began to build luxurious holiday mansions on the shores of Windermere. Many of these stately homes stand to this day in an excellent state of preservation, most having been converted into hotels or holiday apartments.

Steam TrainWilliam Wordsworth (1770 - 1850), one of the first Romantic writers to extol the beauties of the English Lakeland, helped to popularize it as a tourist destination in lines such as:

There was a boy: ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of *Winander! -- many a time
At evening, when the earliest stars began
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone
Beneath the trees or by the glimmering lake...

*the old name for "Windermere"

In 1847 the railway first reached what is now the town of Windermere, at that time just a tiny village known as Birthwaite. The railway facilitated access to the Lakeland for the ordinary working man, and not only for the idle rich. By 1850, Ambleside had become a popular resort and tourism an important industry. The Victorian shops and houses to be seen in Ambleside today, as well as St. Mary's Parish Church were all built in this era of increasing tourism and prosperity.

Not everyone, however, waxed lyrical about the Lakeland! Ambleside was most unflatteringly described by Charles Dickens as follows:

Round Ambleside you will indeed find hills and waterfalls -- decked with greasy sandwich papers and porter bottles, and the hills echo with the whistles of the Windermere steamersΙ brass bands play under your hotel windows, char-a-bancs, wagonettes and breaks of all colours rattle about with cargoes of tourists who have been 'doing' some favorite round. Touts pester you in the streets and in the hotel coffee room you overhear a gentleman ask angrily, "Why don't they build an 'ut on 'elvellyn * -- they've got one on Snowdon."

*Helvellyn -- one of the peaks above Ambleside

Dickens was also particularly rude about the excessive drinking habits of the locals. A 21st century local on an Ambleside webpage comments that "nothing has changed since Dickens' time, except that there are more locals now. One theory is that this drinking is stress-related, brought on by the constant territorial invasion by tourists!"

Although prosperity rapidly increased as a result of the tourist influx, Ambleside was slow to improve its standards of living. The feminist journalist, Harriet Martineau, who made her home in Ambleside, reported on the poor health, sanitation and housing conditions of the locals.

In 1845, the first paddle-steamer, the Lady of the Lake, was launched at Windermere by The Windermere Steam Yacht Company. She was soon joined by the Lord of the lsles. The Windermere Iron Steamboat Company, a second company which linked up with the railway, was also established. Their iron paddle-steamer, the Firefly, assembled by a firm of Liverpudlian shipbuilders on a specially constructed site near Ambleside, was launched in 1849.

The Teal

These two rival companies vied for business for a decade before finally amalgamating in 1858 under the title of The Windermere United Steam Yacht Company. In 1867, the Furness Railway constructed a line from Ulverston to Newby Bridge and later to Lakeside and, in 1872, bought out the United Steam Yacht Company. The Furness Company acquired the Swan, a specially designed lake-going vessel, which plied the waters of Windermere for many years, to be superseded by the present-day Swan. The Swan was joined by two sister ships, the Cygnet and the Teal.

The Furness Railway transported many thousands of visitors to Windermere, the golden era of rail travel ending, however, with the advent of the motor car and the outbreak of World War I. Today, surprisingly, there has been a great revival of interest in steam train travel. Enthusiasts have preserved approximately three miles of track from Haverthwaite to Lakeside, enabling travelers to experience a small part of British transport history when they "take the train to the lake."

Central Lakes Bridge HouseDespite incredible expansion due to tourism, Ambleside manages to retain its ancient charm. This is a historic town worth exploring at leisure, with architectural treasures around every corner. The Old Water Mill in the center of town is an exact replica of one that used to serve the bark mill. The Bridge House on Stock Ghyll was built right on the small stone bridge spanning a gurgling stream! Legend has it that the owner did this to avoid paying rates, the stream being public property! Whatever the truth of the matter, Bridge House is a much-photographed tourist attraction today.

St. Mary's Church, built in the 1850s in the Early Gothic style, is constructed of sandstone with a distinctive spire and contains beautiful stained glass windows. The choir stalls are carved with figures of fourteen Saints. St. Mary's is one of only five Cumbrian churches that still continue the annual Rushbearing Ceremony in July. This ceremony originates from the time when Church floors were made of ground, covered in rushes. In the past, it was the custom to bury corpses inside the Church, as well as in the churchyard. On special occasions, villagers brought sweet smelling rushes, with which they covered the Church floors, thereby freshening the air and insulating worshippers from the cold. Rushbearing ceased in the 19th century, when Church floors became paved. The children of Ambleside today carry a cross of rushes or flowers to the Church, in a procession led by a band and clergy.

Ambleside's Armitt Museum houses an astonishing collection of archaeological finds, works of art, archives, books and historic local photographs. Of particular interest are the superb collections of Neolithic, Bronze and Roman artifacts found in the area. Another highlight of the Museum is the collection of over 400 water colors by Beatrix Potter. The Armitt Museum archives include letters, folk songs, legal documents and manuscripts. These relate to famous academics, writers and noteworthy characters of the district, such as Harriet Martineau and John Ruskin.

Armitt MuseumOver 10,000 books of historic significance to the Lake District are on display. Among these titles are huge collections of early guide books, local history books and books by local authors such as Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome and Norman Nicholson.

Undoubtedly the ideal way of savoring all the historic and scenic wonders of Windermere is to take to the water. Steamboats have departed from Waterhead pier, a short distance from Ambleside, since 1845 when the first steamer company started operating here. Sailing from Waterhead, you pass close to the remains of Galava Fort on the western shore. Next, historic Wray Castle comes into view. Built in the 19th century as a residence for Dr. James Dawson of Liverpool, Wray Castle is now owned by the National Trust and used as a training college.

Cruising through one of the deepest parts of the lake, you may see the char fishing boats near Belle Grange Bay. On the shore of Belle Grange Bay is the western base of the old Windermere Ferry, which crossed the lake at this spot for centuries.

Three-quarter mile-long Belle Isle (formerly known as Wynandermere Holme) is a famous landmark. The Round House on Belle Isle was built at a cost of £5000 in 1774 and remained in the Curwen family until recently. Wordsworth referred to the Round House as a "pepper pot." After a severe fire in 1996, extensive renovations have succeeded in restoring the Round House to its former glory.

Hilltop, once owned by Beatrix Potter, is situated at Sawrey. Other stately homes seen from the boat are Silverholme, a country mansion now converted into flats, Lakeside Hotel, once a coaching inn, and Graythwaite Estate.

Belle Isle Round HouseBowness, one of the oldest recorded settlements on the shores of Windermere, makes a pleasant port-of-call in any cruise of the lake, situated as it is midway between Ambleside and Lakeside. One of the earliest references to Bowness dates back to 1190, when it was known as "Bulenas," meaning "Bull Headland."

Apart from an isolated incident in the Civil War when a Roundhead party from Kendal unsuccessfully besieged the Philipsons' estate on Long Holme (at which time the Church organ was 'cutt in pieces') Bowness has remained a tranquil rural community. During the past two centuries, tourism has overtaken the fishing industry in Bowness as the Number One money-earner.

Legends interwoven with history abound along the dreamy shores of Bowness. In 1864, Windermere froze and it was possible to walk or skate across the lake from shore to shore. This remarkable event happened again in the severe winters of 1894 and 1929, when thousands came to experience the thrill of walking and skating on the frozen lake. The lake froze over again in 1963 and 1982.

While breaking the world water speed record on Windermere in June 1930, Sir Henry Seagrave and his engineer were killed near Bowness, watched by hundreds of spectators.

Another famous Windermere legend is that of Calgarth Estate, former home of the wealthy Philipsons. The Master of Calgarth envied the land of the neighboring Cooks, who stoically refused to sell to him. As the story goes, Philipson subsequently had his neighbors wrongfully arrested for theft, for which they were tried and hanged.

The Philipsons thereafter acquired the Cook lands, but with it inherited a curse. After being condemned to death, Dorothy Cook raised her hand and ominously predicted that "Calgarth should know no peace." After their hanging, the skulls of Dorothy and her husband returned from their graves to haunt the Philipsons. Bishop Watson, a later owner of Calgarth, had the skulls walled up in a recess in the passage window where they have remained at peace to this day!

On 19th October 1635, Windermere experienced its greatest tragedy. After a wedding at Hawskhead, the wedding party set out across the lake to continue its celebrations at the bridegroom's home. The entire party of fifty was drowned, though whether as a result of "a squall of wind or lack of careful management" will never fully be established.

Bowness Bay

21st century Bowness Bay is a bustling port crammed with steamers, ferries, pleasure launches, waterbuses, canoes, windsurfers, rowing- and motor-boats of every description. Fishing is enjoyed by locals and visitors. Numerous hotels have sprung up, private homes have been built everywhere, resulting in Bowness and adjacent Windermere today being the most populated areas of the Lake District National Park.

From busy Bowness pier, take a short stroll back in time to the old town itself. You may choose to dine in The Old England, one of the Lakeland's most famous hotels, or pause for refreshments in The Stag's Head, formerly a coaching inn.

The Hole in't Wall PubThe Hole in't Wall (right) is reputed to be the oldest tavern in town, deriving its name from the small window through which ale was passed to servants watching over their masters' horses outside in the yard. It was the setting for Charles Dickens' narrative, "The Champion Wrestler of All England."

St. Martin's Parish Church in Bowness, built in 1203, contains magnificent stained glass windows of which the East Window, bearing the coat of arms of the Washington family, is of special interest to American visitors.

Windermere town itself, a mile uphill from Bowness, was virtually non-existent before 1847 when the railway terminal was built here. Many of the early Victorian guest houses still stand today and Windermere remains the transport nerve center of the lake.

Continuing southwards on your cruise, disembark at Lakeside , the southern tip of Windermere. A few steps from the steamboat jetty, the Aquarium of the Lakes, the United Kingdom's leading freshwater aquarium, is a highlight not to be missed. Here, you may observe the famous char, a fish unique to glacial lakes. A fully grown char is about 10" in length and is generally reputed to be a gastronomic delicacy. Speculation has it that this fish was trapped in Windermere at the end of the last Ice Age. Another theory is that it was introduced from the Swiss Lakes by Roman legionnaires. Whatever the truth of its origins, the char has remained a prized fish throughout history. The Monks of Furness were given permission to catch it and a few boats still retain this right to this day.

Daniel Defoe wrote of the char : "Winander Mere is famous for producing the Char-fish.... It is a curious fish, and as a Dainty, is potted and sent far and near by way of Present."

Before being potted, however, the char was more often used in pies. Sir Daniel Fleming of Rydal spent large sums of money sending Char Pies to friends in London. In 1666, a Char Pie weighing no less than 28 kg. was sent to the Earl of Carlisle in London. The Char Pie became a fashionable and much prized gift. Its price rose from 3 shillings and 6 pence per dozen (approximately 3¢ US each) to 9 shillings per dozen ( 8¢ US each)!

As the fish became increasingly expensive, housewives and chefs concentrated on potting it instead of baking it in pies. A report in 1787 reads: .'.many pots are sent to different parts of the Kingdom every year.'

The Aquarium of the Lakes also affords close encounters with eels, pike, sharks, otters and a variety of other aquatic life Over thirty informative displays recreate the journey of a Lakeland river from the mountain top to Morecambe Bay.

Wray Castle

Lakeside is the traditional home of the Lake Steamers as well as being the historic headquarters of the Windermere Iron Steamboat Company, located in the elegant Victorian structure at the water's edge. A covered colonnade runs the full length of this building, supported on the original decorative cast-iron columns. This building also serves as the terminal of the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway.

On a visit to Windermere, it is a good idea to escape the stresses of driving and parking, while helping to preserve the environment by using Cumbria's extensive network of rail, bus and boat services. Traveling by public transport is a relaxing -- and Eco-friendly --way of visiting the numerous attractions of the Lake District.. Pre-planned itineraries for days out on foot, bus, boat or bicycle are obtainable from any Lake District Tourist Information Center.

Various economical Travel Passes are available. The "Freedom of the Lake" pass allows unlimited sailing for 24 hours on all scheduled services between Ambleside and Lakeside, with stop-offs anywhere en route. Combined tickets may also be purchased, such as the Combined Boat and Aquarium ticket, which includes entry to the Aquarium of the Lakes at Lakeside; the Combined Boat and Train ticket, which includes a trip on the steam railway; or the Combined Boat and World of Beatrix Potter Attraction ticket, which includes the cruise to Bowness and entrance to The World of Beatrix Potter.

Whichever means of transport you choose to visit Windermere, you will store up a trove of historic knowledge, memories, sights and sounds to last a lifetime!

Boats at Lake Windermere

Related Articles:

Wordsworth's Lakes, by Keith Kellett

More Information:

Lake Windermere

Windermere Lake Cruises

Lake Windermere

Aquarium of the Lakes

Windermere Tourist Information Center

Traveline public transportation information
Telephone +44 (0) 870 608 2608

Pearl Harris, whose ancestors hail from Britain, was born in South Africa. In 2002, she emigrated to the Czech Republic with her husband, their dog and cat. Pearl resides permanently in the Czech Republic where she works as a freelance travel writer, English teacher and proof-reader. Her main passion is travel. Having traveled extensively in Africa, Europe,the USA and UK, she never intends to stop. Other interests are pets, photography, reading and writing. Pearl, a retired Diagnostic Radiographer, has a B.A. in English and Linguistics, post-graduate Diploma in Translation and TEFL qualification. Her only daughter, a professional photographer, lives in New Orleans.
Article and Bridge House photo © 2006 Harris
1st, 2nd and last photos courtesy of Britainonview.com; Armitt House, Hole i' the Wall and Wray Castle © Keith Kellett; "Teal," railway and Belle Isle courtesy of Windermere Lake Cruises; Bowness courtesy of Cultural and Tourism Services, South Lakeland District Council


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