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.

Bank Ground

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

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.

Getting there

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.

Refreshments

» 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.

Getting there

There are a few car parks within walking distance of Rydal Water. There are two car parks at White Moss (parking charge), one on either side of the A591. The one to the south of the A591 has toilets including disabled facilities and compacted stone paths to Grasmere and Rydal Water. Both car parks are controlled by number plate recognition, pay on exit. The small car park at Pelter Bridge (parking charge) is accessed over a humpback bridge, which may not be suitable for low vehicles. The car parks fill up quickly and the bus is often the best option – regular services from Keswick via Grasmere and from Ambleside stop at the end of the lane leading to Rydal Hall. Cross the road and cut through the drystone wall opposite the Badger Bar. Access to the water is a short hop over the bridge.

Refreshments » Glen Rothay Hotel and Badger Bar, Rydal. The bar has a hearty menu and great selection of burgers. The rock feature in the toilets is something of a visitor attraction too.

» Rydal River Cafe, Rydal. Creative vegetarian and vegan menu served in Rydal Lodge or in the peaceful riverside garden. Signposted from near the river bridge by Rydal Oak.

» Old School Room Tea Shop, Rydal Hall. The tea shop serves soups, sandwiches and cake. Take time to walk in the gardens (free entry; donations towards garden maintenance greatly appreciated) or see one of the regular art exhibitions.

Rydal Water Map Rydal Water, Lake District Travel Guide Photo Gallery

Introduction

Rydal Water is a little gem. It takes all the good things about swimming wild in the Lake District and distils them into one concentrated experience. There is a navigable stretch of river, islands to explore, lakeside paths and craggy fell views. Best of all, in my opinion, it has a terrific pub just across the road for postswim libations. Despite the proximity of the A591 along the northern shore I find Rydal Water peaceful and interesting, a real nature lover’s lake. Rydal Water has its own pair of swans, vicious maneating beasts, that patrol the mouth of the river where it enters the lake.

Kingfishers flit up the Rothay and frequent the quiet private corners of the north basin. Herons stalk the reed fringes and Canada geese noisily make their presence felt. If you are really lucky, you might see an otter, particularly in the southern reaches. The twin lakes of Grasmere and Rydal Water share many similar characteristics. They are both shallow, no more than twenty-five metres in the deepest section. Loughrigg Fell sits astride both lakes and offers several pleasant routes between the two on foot or on wheels. A rare feature for rural Cumbria is an accessible Miles without Stiles path for wheelchair users linking the two lakes and giving access right to the edge of the water.

The River Rothay drains from Grasmere into Rydal Water and in the interests of research I decided to try and swim the river from one lake to the other. I enlisted the help of my friend Anna and we set off, rather drastically overestimating the depth of the river. Defeated after several non-negotiable rocky falls, we slopped along the path to a wide bend further down the river and disrupted the picnic of a conservative-looking family who were spread out on the grass. At this bend the river deepens dramatically – there is a handy sign indicating DANGER Deep Water.

Here we stepped off a shelf and allowed the gentle current to take us down the short stretch of river, where it is just wide enough to swim side by side. Anna and I glided along, emerging into Rydal through the reeds, the view suddenly opening up in front of us. This remains a highlight of my swimming adventures.

Rydal Oak

My number one place to swim in autumn is where a big old oak tree leans over the water at the end of the lake, its branches reaching out over the surface and autumn gold reflecting on the water. A crag juts out from the shore creating a small, shallow bay that fills with lilies in summer.

On the other side of the exposed rock and gnarled tree roots there are several more tall oak trees and a nice patch of grass for picnics. It’s off the path and fairly private, although the road is quite close, just a stone’s throw across the mouth of the river. A stone wall shades this changing spot from most traffic, just watch out for snap-happy tourists on the doubledecker bus! Take care immediately after periods of rain which speed up the flow of water leaving the lake here. More than once I’ve had to chase a wetsuit making a break for freedom this way. It’s not enough to sweep a swimmer down to Windermere, and remains shallow enough to stand in, but it might catch out paddlers or small children. 

Oak Southern shore It is a short walk from Pelter Bridge Car Park to the southern shore of Rydal Water, where there are several popular beaches. It’s a rare day that you don’t see a swimmer here, even in winter.

The gently climbing bridleway of compacted stone offers good access to Rydal Water, and on to Grasmere, for those with limited mobility or pushing buggies. The car park is small and fills up quickly but has the added bonus of an ice cream van most days in summer. The path runs close to the water and you won’t be short of an audience. Stepping into the water is initially rocky but it soon deepens. There are four or five islands on Rydal and the two largest are opposite the southern shore, neatly dividing the lake into two basins. The water is deep enough to navigate between the two main islands (Heron Island and Little Isle) and, outside of nesting season, it is easy to get out and explore. Look out for a ruined hog house and the final resting place of a dog named Crusoe.

River Rothay

One of the pleasures of Rydal Water is how mild it is.

Being a small, shallow lake it warms up quicker than most and retains its relative ‘warmth’ fairly late in the season. A trick to make any lake feel warm is to swim into it via a feeding river. As previously mentioned, you can swim into Rydal Water from the River Rothay. It’s a wonderful safari swim and over far too soon for my liking. As you approach the lake, dense reeds appear to bar your way but there are a couple of exit channels through. The mouth of the water is shallow and is best avoided after a dry spell as the lake bed is very soft. Disturbing the thick silt releases a sulphurous pong that can leave you eyeing your companions suspiciously. You should bear in mind that you are committed to swimming at least 400 metres to reach the shore and it’s best suited to a oneway trip unless you can swim back up the river against the current. Another advisory is the man-eating swans who nest in the reeds. During nesting season you should give them a very wide berth and avoid disturbing them, but at most other times of year they will merely glide past with a supercilious billow of their wings.