Jutting out into the ocean or stretching into a calm lake, jetties are about departures and arrivals, anticipation and travel. They are where we pause in the moment before a big adventure.
Unless, that is, they ARE the journey, as is the case with Windermere Jetty museum, which was opened by HRH, The Prince of Wales on 8 April. Built to showcase “the sights, smells and sounds of life on the lake”, the building greets visitors with a glass wall that leads the eye straight through the boat house on to Windermere itself. This allows us essentially to experience the life of England’s largest lake (14.8 square kilometres) without taking one step from its shore.
The exhibits tell the story of boating on Windermere from 1780 to the present day through a variety of old means and new. Metre-wide retro index cards itemising all boat fixtures, from steering ropes to toilets, are used alongside paintings, moving images, interactive touchscreens, sound recordings and the museum’s collection of boats to bring Windermere’s boating history to life. The museum’s permanent collection includes Dolly, one of the oldest mechanically powered steam boats in the world (built between 1850 and 60); Margaret, the oldest sailing yacht in the UK; world-record-breaking speed boats; canoes and even a water glider. On the day I visited, sailing dinghies Swallow and Amazon, stars of the 2016 remake of the film based on Arthur Ransome’s 1930 novel were centre-stage among the guest boats moored in the boathouse.
Bad things happen to good boats
Conservation workshops held at the museum twice a day offer visitors an opportunity to watch experts at work, painstakingly conserving and restoring the museum’s collection of historic craft. A lot of bad things would seem to happen to boats. “Belle Isle, Windermere in a Storm”, a wall painting by Philippe-Jacques De Loutherbourg (1740-1812) currently on loan to Windermere Jetty from Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, sets the scene, depicting an ill-fated wedding party comprising the bride, groom, 45 guests and 11 horses, all of whom drowned when a storm sank the Windermere Ferry in 1635. Dolly herself spent more than 65 years at the bottom of Ullswater after sinking during the Great Freeze of 1895, just four years after her debut as a steamer on Windermere. Then there’s the small flat-bottomed rowing boat that belonged to Beatrix Potter. It was dredged up from Moss Eccles tarn in 1975, some 25 years after sinking.
Happier literary endings
Still, boats can be such fun. Beatrix Potter bought Moss Eccles tarn in 1903 and spent many happy days there, stocking it with lilies and fish and pottering about (pardon the pun) on the water. Her boat is depicted in a letter written in 1896 to Noel Moore, the young son of her friend and former governess – the same little boy who received Beatrix Potter’s first illustrated letter about Peter, that rabbit that later became a superstar.
Arthur Ransome’s sketches for Swallows and Amazons and Winter Holiday – two books based on childhood memories of sailing on Windermere and Coniston – also evoke happy times spent messing about on the water. Ransome’s initial pencil sketches for the pen-and-ink illustrations featured in his books can be seen through an interactive touchscreen display at the museum. They include early ideas for Captain Flint’s house boat in Swallows and Amazons, inspired by Esperance (1869) of Windermere (now housed at Windermere Jetty) and Gondola (1859) of Coniston – the latter now owned by the National Trust and still steaming on Coniston today.
A far from quiet backwater
Visitors come to the Lake District UNESCO heritage site from all over the world in search of tranquil landscapes, glass-like lakes and rugged fells. However, Lakeland is as much about people as it is about landscape – the latter shaped by farming, livestock and industry as well as by glaciers. This is where industrial pioneers in the 18th and 19th centuries gouged out quarries in the hills and pits and mines below the mountains to procure the precious minerals and metals needed to fuel the industrial revolution. Then there are the tourists – lots of them – travelling to the Lake District from the 18th century onwards. First, artists, poets and the wealthy seeking rural retreats and the “picturesque” and, later, factory workers flocking in from the conurbations of Manchester and Liverpool for fun and fresh air after the opening of the Windermere train line from Kendal to Windermere in 1847.
“Windermere, 1821”, a 19th century painting by the celebrated English artist, J.M.W Turner (currently on loan to Windermere Jetty from Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal), captures the excitement of some of those early visitors, showing local fishermen, slate workers and ferrymen alongside fashionable parties of ladies and gentlemen enjoying a day on the lake. Excitement is also conveyed by the museum’s stories of real-life adventurers – inventors, engineers and designers – drawn to Windermere by its vast stretch of water. They include Oscar Gnosspelius and Edward Wakefield – developers of the first British seaplanes, later to play a crucial role for Britain in two world wars – and Norman Buckley MBE, known for securing no fewer than four world water-speed records on Windermere in the 1950s. Together with Arthur Ransome, these men have forever branded Windermere a site for adventure seekers – not just a rural idyll for those “with an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy” (William Wordsworth, Guide to the Lakes, 1810).
Waiting for a ship to come in
Appetites whetted by a stroll around the exhibits, visitors may choose to relax over lunch in the museum’s light and airy restaurant overlooking Windermere, or ride out from the jetty on the heritage steamboat Osprey (built 1902). I sat outside with a picnic on a bench in the sunshine, gazing out across the water with the museum behind me. At this jetty that’s a journey, I felt as though I’d done more than enough travelling for one day, and was content – like one particular gentleman sitting in the café with his daughter – to watch for the Osprey coming home. I knew from the daughter that her father had managed the Windermere Steamboat Museum – Windermere Jetty’s precursor – for almost 30 years before its closure in 2006 and that he’s been waiting patiently ever since for the museum’s fortunes to rise again.
Yet another piece of Windermere’s past, drowned for a time, brought back joyfully to the surface. The pain as well as pleasure of waiting for a ship to come in. Knowing that it one day will.