Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston - Lake District - photo Zoe Dawes

Lake District Day Out Hawkshead Coniston - image Zoe Dawes

If you were brought up on the charming little books of Beatrix Potter, you’ll understand my delight in seeing her original drawings at the National Trust Beatrix Potter Gallery.  It’s in the disarmingly pretty village of Hawkshead, slap bang in the middle of the Lake District World Heritage site. On display this year is an item rarely seen. It’s Miss Potter’s copy of the letter she wrote to a poorly little boy over a hundred years ago. It starts, ‘My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write about, so I shall tell you a story of 4 little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter …’ Simple line drawings show baby rabbits being sent off to play in the fields but warned not to go into Mr McGregor’s Garden. Of course, naughty Peter Rabbit ignores his mother’s advice …

Beatrix Potter Hawkshead Gallery Peter Rabbit letter - photo Zoe Dawes

What struck me most was the foresight Beatrix Potter had to make a copy of this letter and use it as the basis of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, her first children’s story book. She was a multi-faceted woman of many talents which are showcased in an exhibition called ‘The Right Sort of Woman‘. The title for the exhibition comes from a letter Beatrix wrote to The Times in 1916 on the subject of Women on the Land. She wrote of her determination to employ the right sort of woman to work on her farms and also of the value and role of women in rural communities. The exhibition uses artworks, letters, photos and everyday objects to tell stories of her work as a farmer, sheep breeder, conservationist, landlady, business woman and entrepreneur.

Hawkshead and Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter and Liz Hunter Macfarlane Hawkshead Gallery

I was shown round by Liz Hunter MacFarlane, House and Collections Manager for the National Trust Beatrix Potter’s places. She knows just about everything there is to know about Beatrix Potter and is clearly a big fan. ‘Beatrix Potter was a very clever woman with strong views about what should happen in her beloved part of Lakeland.’ She moved here from London, having come on holiday for many years. She married William Heelis and quickly settled into her role as champion of the Herdwick breed, buying land and farms to save for posterity, dealing with her tenants in a firm but fair manner. She even helped set up the first District Nursing service in south Lake District.

For more on this indomitable woman, read The Many Faces of Beatrix Potter

District Nursing in Lake District - Beatrix Potter Gallery Hawkshead

I took my time looking at the exhibits and absorbing as much information as possible before emerging into Hawkshead, glowing in the summer sunshine. It’s one of the Lake District’s most popular villages and attracts visitors from around the world. I popped into one of my favourite shops, Hawkshead Relish (I can highly recommend their Black Garlic Ketchup) and then walked back to my car, past Hawkshead Grammar School, where poet William Wordsworth was educated. Next stop on my day out in south Lakeland was Coniston, about 20 minute’s drive from here.

Zoe Dawes in front of Beatrix Potter Gallery Hawkshead

Coniston and The Gondola

Coniston is another popular touritst destination and on this sunny day the village was buzzing. Tables were full outside The Black Bull and the shops were doing a brisk trade in souvenirs, walking gear and ice-creams. I headed down to Coniston Water and went into the Bluebird Cafe to get some lunch. As I was enjoying a tasty bowl of vegetable soup, I heard a sonorous toot and saw an impressive boat gliding gently towards the jetty.

Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston - Lake District - photo Zoe Dawes

Steam Yacht Gondola is the most beautiful of all public vessels sailing in the Lake District. Operated by the National Trust, she sails daily from March to October, ferrying passengers in luxurious style around the lake. I joined her for the Full Lake Cruise which takes almost 2 hours to complete a leisurely circuit of Coniston Water. There are other options, including Walkers Cruises, Picnic Cruises and the Steam Footplate Experience. Check the website for more details.

Bill King, captain of Gondola on Coniston Water

Captain Bill King gave a commentary on the history of Steam Yacht Gondola and Coniston Water. Launched in 1859, SY Gondola was originally built to transport passengers from the Furness Railway and the Coniston Railway to enjoy the lake. She retired from commercial use in the 1930s and was converted into a house boat. Following a storm she was severely damaged and was deliberately sunk to slow deterioration. Eventually a group of enthusiasts, local benefactors, the National Trust and sponsors raised enough money to have her restored and she was relaunched in 1980. She now steams quietly around the lake, running on environmentally-friendly fuel logs and is admired by all who see her.

Zoe Dawes on Gondola Coniston Water

I spent a long time sitting at the front of the yacht, taking photos and admiring the sinuous snake adorning the bow (symbol of the Cavendish family) and fluttering flag as we sailed past mountains, impressive houses, people swimming and messing about in boats. The interior of Gondola is as stately as her exterior. The comfortable saloon, great for escaping the heat (or rain) is reminiscent of Victorian elegance with seats upholstered in red velvet and large windows to enjoy the impressive views. Old photos show Gondola in her heyday. I had a peek into the Engine Room, all gleaming copper and pristine paintwork; you can book an Engineer for the Day experience and learn how to light the boiler and raise steam.

Steam Yacht Gondola collage - by Zoe Dawes

Bill invited me to join him in the wheelhouse, from where the views were even better. I even had a go at the helm, endevouring to keep us on a straight line. Writer Arthur Ransome spent many holidays staying with a family on the shores of Coniston and was inspired to write his Swallows and Amazons books here. We passed Peel Island aka Wild Cat Island and Bill pointed out the tiny ‘harbour’ and rocks from which young lads were leaping.

Peel Island aka Wildcat Island Coniston Water

Throughout the trip, Bill told us about Donald Campbell‘s doomed attempt to break the world water speed record and pointed out the yellow buoy, marking the spot where he went down in Bluebird. On such a glorious day, with the Old Man of Coniston looking benign in the sunlight, it was sobering to contemplate such a dramatic scene.

Steam Yacht Gondola and Old Man of Coniston Lake District - photo Zoe Dawes

We stopped off at Brantwood, home of John RuskinVictorian patron of the arts; a fascinating house with an excellent cafe/restaurant, The Terrace. Just before arriving at our last stop, Monk Coniston, I spotted the wooden carving of Ransome’s Captain Flint walking the plank, carved with a chain saw by local sculptor Andrew Levy. We sailed slowly towards Coniston Pier, the late afternoon sun glittering off the water as a woman swam in circles trying to grab her dog, who was clearly enjoying his doggy paddle. Bob shook my hand as I left the yacht and urged me to come back soon. I am sure I will …

Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston Water Lake District - photo Zoe Dawes

The National Trust in the Lake District

I visited the Beatrix Potter Gallery and sailed on Steam Yacht Gondola as a guest of the National Trust in the Lake District. They looks after England’s highest mountain, its deepest lake and over 20% of the National Park. Entrance to the Beatrix Potter Gallery Hawkshead is free for NT Members. Gondola is operated by National Trust; NT members have to pay for tickets, but a 10% discount is available on all Head of Lake and Full Lake cruises.

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Lake District Day Out Hawkshead and Coniston - image Zoe Dawes