Stretching ribbon-like for over five miles, Coniston Water is a true summit-to-sea lake. Its source rises in the high fells enclosing Coniston village; the outflow is the River Crake which joins the coastal estuary of the River Leven at Greenodd five miles to the south. Coniston Water is slightly separated from the rest of the Lake District in a way that no other lakes are. Its hills and high ground do not form any continuous ridges or links to other groups of hills and the entire area is neatly encircled by roads.
The roads form a border in more ways than one. Historically, Coniston was part of Lancashire until the area was absorbed into the new county of Cumbria in 1974. Donald Campbell, John Ruskin and Arthur Ransome are names synonymous with Coniston Water. Admittedly, the high-speed record-breaking exploits of Donald Campbell are perhaps less relevant to swimmers, although some might find macabre interest in swimming his route and lingering at the crash site that claimed his life. Watching the sedate steamers sailing by, it’s pretty hard to imagine anything travelling over 250 miles per hour on this lake.
Coniston Water Map – The Camping and Swimming Guide Photo Gallery
However, each November the ten miles per hour speed limit is temporarily relaxed for the annual Coniston Powerboat Records Week. Swimmers beware. Celebrated thinker John Ruskin was well travelled across the globe, but he chose to make his home on the shores of Coniston Water. He favoured mountains more by ‘the beauty of their glens than the height of their summits’. In this respect, Coniston Water was the absolute best choice for him. Ruskin found inspiration in the gentle character of Coniston Water and its uniformly slender shape. Like Windermere, the mountain scenery is contained to the head of the lake and the landscape softens as it flows south.
If I could only ever do one swim again, the swim to Wild Cat Island (Peel Island) would be in my top ten. I didn’t have a Swallows and Amazons childhood and came to Arthur Ransome’s work as an adult. He picked out locations on Coniston Water and Windermere for his tale, Peel Island being one of the most famous landmarks. It is utterly enchanting to swim into the bay and be dwarfed by its cliffs, evoking a childlike sense of excitement.
Writing Coniston Water has been slightly troublesome. Not only did I lose my entire notes and drafts at a crucial stage, its distance from my base in the north-west Lake District made it easy for me to put Coniston off for another day. I’m indebted to Anna for logistical support, lodgings and a never-ending supply of crisps and cider, and to Edward for sharing his passion and enthusiasm for the lake and helping me appreciate its majesty.
Water Head & Monk Coniston
At the head of the lake, Water Head and Monk Coniston are a calm enclave away from activity. The bigger boats and launches won’t trouble you here, but you should still be aware of smaller craft that can be launched from the piers at Coniston Boating Centre. A narrow stone beach arcs round the bay and, although the road passes close by, it’s a nice place for paddling or a lazy dip. In spring this beach is overrun with wild garlic and in autumn the water is flecked gold by falling leaves. The famous Chillswim Coniston End to End finishes at Monk Coniston. It takes place every September, starting at the southern end of the lake and swimming north, allowing for the most fantastic views as you progress up the lake.
This section of shoreline is private; however, the owners of Bank Ground are welcoming to swimmers. Bank Ground Farm will be familiar as Holly Howe, the fictional farmhouse in Swallows and Amazons. These days it is a bed and breakfast with self-catering cottages and a charming tearoom. Guests are welcome to swim during their stay or on a visit to the tearoom provided that you ask permission first. They even sell tow floats and swim caps in case you have forgotten yours. Swim here for a magical view of The Old Man of Coniston, and a nice slice of cake afterwards.
High Peel Near and Low Peel Near are two quaintly named peninsulas on the eastern shore. They are eternally popular due to their proximity to Wild Cat Island (Peel Island) so you are best to arrive early, or on foot. The Steam Yacht Gondola stops nearby at Parkamoor. The eastern shore gets the evening sun in summer and swimming around Peel Island as the sun dips down behind Beacon Fell is just glorious. Low Peel Near is further from Peel Island (around 450 metres) and has a prominent and popular beach. It’s lovely underfoot as the shingled shore shelves slowly into the water, but watch out for scattered, submerged boulders lying in wait to trip you up. If busy, and it often is, wander through the woods of High Peel Near and find your own spot. The small wooded peninsula is crisscrossed with paths all leading to the water. Pick the right path and you will find yourself directly opposite Peel Island which is eighty metres from shore. Limited parking keeps the eastern shore beautifully quiet, although inevitably the easier to access beaches will be popular in summer. I’ve picked out High Peel Near and Low Peel Near as key locations to visit but in truth there is a lot to explore between Brantwood and the private Water Park Lakeland Adventure Centre. The real charm of the peaceful eastern shore is the options it offers. Don’t take my word for it, go and have a look yourself.
Brown Howe gives a rare opportunity for swimmers with limited mobility to access the water with relative ease. There is quick, level access from the car park to the shore suitable for wheelchairs and buggies, and there are disabled facilities too. Close to the shore the water is shallow, great for paddling and so smooth underfoot it’s as though some kind soul has landscaped the area for swimmers.
Technical information MAXIMUM DEPTH 56.1 metres AVERAGE DEPTH 24.1 metres LENGTH 5.2 miles MAXIMUM WIDTH 0.45 miles PRIMARY INFLOWS Torver Beck, Church Beck, Yewdale Beck OUTFLOW River Crake.
The 505 bus runs from Windermere to Coniston Water via Ambleside and Hawkshead; the X12 bus (Monday–Friday only) runs from Barrow-in-Furness to Coniston Water via Ulverston and Torver. The main car parks around Coniston Water are at Brown Howe, Monk Coniston and Coniston village; all are pay on arrival. At Coniston Boating Centre you can park up for the day (parking charge) and hire bikes, paddleboards, canoes, rowing boats and motorboats or take the Coniston Launch or the Steam Yacht Gondola across the lake. There are several small, free car parks on the eastern shore but they fill up quickly. Park up in Coniston village and take the Coniston Launch or the Steam Yacht Gondola to cross the lake and wander along the shore looking for the perfect swimspot – get off at Brantwood or Parkamoor for the best options.
» Swallows and Amazons Tearoom, Bank Ground Farm. Everything is home-made here and meat is reared on the farm. Stop here for a morning swim and breakfast then order a picnic to take away as you explore the rest of the shore.
» Torver Deli, Torver. Handy for the south of the lake. Stock up on picnic goodies here – I hear the vanilla slices are good.
» Our Plaice, Coniston. Every swimmer, mountain biker and walker said this was the place for fish and chips in Coniston, and there was a queue out of the door and round the corner on my first visit – always a good sign. Pie, chips and gravy for me!
» The Sun, Coniston. A charming old inn, the kind with a creaky door and warm welcome. Whoever decorated the bar is very fond of corny quotes and motivational signs; it’s hard to tell if they are ironic or not.
» The Black Bull Inn, Coniston. Home to one of the most famous pints in Cumbria, Bluebird Bitter. Named after Donald Campbell’s boat, it’s a fitting post-swim pint and the food is good too.