Despite a population of less than 1,000, Grace Hammond discovers how Coniston has contributed more pages to the history books than most Lake District villages.
John Ruskin was a ‘can do’ sort of fellow.
Not content with being a respected watercolourist, draughtsman, social reformer and all-round force for good when he moved to the Lake District in 1872 he also proved quite handy at DIY.
Buying dilapidated Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water, Ruskin constructed a small harbour to moor the boat he rode daily across the lake, installed an ice house, built a turret to improve the views from his bedroom and best of all, redirected a waterfall so he could better see the local flora and fauna.
It’s a wonder he had time to do anything else but, by the time of his death 30 years later, at the age of 81 he had also turned out a library-full of weighty tomes with titles like The Storm Cloud of the 19th Century and Collected Studies of Lapsed Waves and the Life of Stones.
The truth is, it would hard to not be inspired by this part of the world. A few months in Ruskin’s old home, which is now open to the public and a bit of a shrine to the man himself, and I reckon I might just turn out the next Booker Prize-winning novel.
Coniston is beautiful and despite being on the Lakes’ well-trod tourist path it has somehow managed to remain free from the crowds which can often turn Windermere and Ambleside into a bun fight.
It might be because that aside from trips across the lake on the Steam Yacht Gondola to hear how Coniston also inspired Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and provided the backdrop for Donald Campbell’s world-record attempts – more of whom later – most come to scale the Old Man of Coniston rather than browse the souvenir shops.
The ascent takes around three hours and involves almost 2,000ft of climbing, but the views from the top – on a clear day you can see Morecambe Bay and Blackpool Tower in miniature – are impressive. If your legs aren’t up to the hike, shorter and less steep routes, which skirt around the bottom and where the sheep amble around remains of historic mineworks, are equally interesting.
Like much of the Lakes, Coniston was a hub of slate and copper mining before industry gave way to walkers fuelled on Wainwright and Kendal Mint Cake. It’s that past which means there is much to explore and the village is also a perfect base to explore the rest of the Lakes.
We stayed at the Gate House, which is an attraction in its own right. The former home of Bolton Town Hall clerk turned renowned Lakes painter Alfred Heaton Cooper, it is tucked away under the shadow of the Old Man and just a short walk from the heart of the village itself.
It has been a holiday cottage for some years but when it was put up for sale a couple of years ago it was bought by a family who had loved staying there so much they wanted to write their own chapter in the property’s history.
Beautifully decorated and with four en suite double rooms it doesn’t skimp on accommodation and the large lounge areas and bespoke kitchen mean that should the weather turn you have a little slice of Georgian loveliness in which to dodge the rain clouds.
At the end of the road leading to the Gate House is Coniston’s other major attraction – the Ruskin Museum. While it tells the story of the village from the first stone age settlements to the present day and has a comprehensive Ruskin gallery, it’s the Bluebird Wing, dedicated to speed merchant Donald Campbell, which is the major draw.
In 1949, Donald arrived in Coniston determined to break his father’s water speed record and exorcise a few personal demons. Malcolm Campbell had been crowned the unrivalled Speed King in the 20s and 30s and his relationship with his son had always been strained.
When Malcolm died in 1948 leaving everything to his grandchildren, Donald was determined to show he was more than equal to the legendary figure who had cast a shadow over much of his life.
Campbell senior’s chief mechanic Leo Villa warned Donald against following in his father’s footsteps. “If you once start you will never stop”. He was right.
Donald finally broke the world water speed record in 1955, but it wasn’t enough. By the time he set out on Coniston again in the January of 1967 he had already broken eight land and water speed records, but there would be no more.
When his beloved Bluebird cartwheeled across the water and broke apart on impact the crowds who had gathered on the lakeshore knew this was a crash no one could walk away from.
In line with his wishes, Campbell and Bluebird were left in their watery grave but when the site began attracting interest from divers in 2001 it was decided the only way to protect the wreckage was to recover it.
Campbell’s daughter Gina gifted the Bluebird to the museum and it has since been the subject of a lengthy restoration, finally taking to the water again for the first time this summer.
Despite its rich history, Coniston is always looking towards the future.
As well as housing a museum, Brantwood also plays host to open mic nights, literary retreat and exhibitions by leading contemporary artists.
Like the rest of the village it’s a perfect blend of the past and present and I reckon Ruskin would have rather liked how the old place lived on without him.
The Gate House is available to book through Coppermines Lakes Cottages and sleeps up to eight people. There is also private parking and cycle storage. Full weeks and short breaks available throughout the year. Prices dependant on season. To book visit www.coppermines.co.uk or call 01539 441765.