‘A love of boats and sailing is the surest of all passports to a happy life,’ wrote Arthur Ransome. Standing on Windermere Jetty on a crisp clear morning, gazing out across the cool grey water, you can see what he meant. Sailing around England’s largest lake is a great way to spend a lazy day, and the new Windermere Jetty Museum is the best place to embark.
There’s been a boating museum in Bowness since the 1970s, but it used to be more modest — a collection of old steamboats saved from the scrapyard by a local builder called George Pattinson. Now his old fleet has a much smarter home: a wooden building with stunning views of the lake. Some of Pattinson’s boats are inside, some are out on the water, and several more are being restored in the workshop next door. If you’re a sailor you’ll love it here but there’s plenty for landlubbers to enjoy, in particular lots of fascinating bits and bobs associated with Arthur Ransome.
Ransome’s timeless children’s books were inspired by his lifelong love of the Lake District. He went to prep school here, he spent his holidays here, and when he married Trotsky’s secretary, Evgenia Shelepina, they bought a house near Windermere. Windermere Jetty has a fine array of Ransome ephemera: snapshots, letters, sketchbooks… best of all, the museum owns Esperance, the inspiration for Captain Flint’s houseboat in Swallows and Amazons.
Lakeland purists tend to regard Windermere as too tame and touristy. OK, so it’s not as dramatic as Ullswater, or as picturesque as Coniston, but for any newcomer to the Lake District it’s the natural place to start. And although it can get hectic in midsummer, it’s easy to escape the crowds. Catch the ferry across the lake and head up to Hill Top, the farmhouse where Beatrix Potter made her home and wrote many of her charming stories. From here it’s an easy walk to the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, which houses a collection of her paintings, and reminds you what a brilliant artist she was. A few miles away along the western shore is Wray Castle, where Potter spent her summer holidays when she was a child.
I spent the night at Lindeth Howe, another place where she used to stay. She came to the area on holiday with her parents and finished off The Tale of Pigling Bland and The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes here. When her father died, she bought this handsome villa for her mother. Today it’s a comfy hotel with lots of Potter memorabilia and a restaurant serving good local grub.
Next morning I was back in Bowness, recalling my only childhood trips and the family holidays we took when my kids were small. It seems busier, but maybe that’s just nostalgia. Bowness has been a tourist trap since Victorian times, the gateway to the Lakes. In some ways it’s got better since John Ruskin visited as a schoolboy and complained about the dead cats and dogs on the beach and dirty water in the bay.
On the train back to London I reread Swallows and Amazons, for the first time in 40 years. I’d forgotten what a good book it is. ‘The sun was sinking over the western hills,’ writes Ransome. ‘There was a dead calm. Far away they saw the island and the still lake without a ripple on it, stretching away into the distance.’ I shut my eyes and wished myself back on Windermere again.