More than 13 years after the 10-knot speed limit, opinion is still divided over the outcome, as Rob Melotti reports
Sailing the still waters of England’s biggest lake
The weather is a perennial topic of conversation on holiday in the Lake District. Seathwaite near Borrowdale, north of Windermere, is the wettest inhabited place in England with over 3.3m of rain per year. Travelling north from the scorched landscape surrounding my house in Southampton this summer, a bit of cool rain sounded like heaven. But the weather in the far north-west of England was also unusually dry and warm. Apart from the day I went aboard Grey Pearl.
Grey Pearl, a very recent Beneteau Oceanis 38.1, is one of a number of 10m-plus yachts plying the 14.8 square kilometres of water in Windermere, England’s largest lake, offering afternoon cruises and sunset dinners. These are extremely popular skippered charters for those who wish to enjoy the stunning views in peace and tranquillity far from the madding crowds queuing for the Lake Cruises or waiting in traffic to find parking.
So what did I learn afloat on Windermere for the first time? That the 2005 speed limit of 10 knots, bitterly opposed by many, has made the once reputedly wild-forwatersports lake into a haven for open water swimmers, paddlers, sailors and sunset cruisers, without affecting tourist numbers. And that I am weirdly fascinated by the boat houses that are dotted like ornaments around the edge of the lake.
“We could never hope to run a charter yacht on the lake without the speed limit,” says Chris Jackson who owns Grey Pearl. Chris also owns and operates Heart of the Lakes, a holiday letting agency looking after more than 300 properties across the Lake District. Grey Pearl is available exclusively to clients letting Heart of the Lakes accommodation. “There would be constant waves all across the lake and it would be unpleasant for a yacht like this – especially without much wind.”
Chris went on to describe the scene in the early 2000s when waterskiing boats would start their runs at 0500 and continue until nightfall setting up a permanent chop in the lake and driving some residents mad with the noise. “Apparently the best waterskiing is when the water is flat and there has been rain overnight and the surface of the water is well aerated,” said Chris.
It's not hard to imagine how unpopular that activity would be for land owners beside the lake. But it is also not hard to see the point of view of those who consider the byelaws to be too restrictive. “I can see both sides of the debate,” admits Chris.
Tour of the north basin
We sailed north from Grey Pearl’s berth at Windermere Aquatics, carefully skirting the moorings in Bowness Bay to avoid running aground. The lake is made up of two deep basins divided by a shallow band across the middle around Belle Isle. With so little rainfall, the yacht’s 1.64m draught made it a struggle to get into her marina berth and at risk of grounding when crossing the bar in the middle.
We headed out of Bowness Bay, put the sails up and drifted serenely at a knot or two taking in the sights in the limited
visibility. Intrepid oarsmen and the electric-engined hireboats were the only vessels on the water apart from the traditional-looking lake cruisers full of passengers. We passed the building site that is set to become the new Windermere Jetty, a museum described as potentially the biggest cultural attraction in the north of England. Due to open in early 2019, the Museum of Boats, Steam and Stories will display the Lake’s history of steam and classic speedboats, but perhaps the more interesting part will be the on-site restoration workshop, wet dock and outside jetties, offering visitors a behind the scenes look at how historic vessels are maintained and restored.
With Bowness disappearing into the murk astern, we had the lake to ourselves. Then out of the gloom a Windermere 17 appeared, one of dozens of examples of this 17ft one-design classic still raced on the lake.
We gybed over to sail close to Langdale Chase – once a private residence – now a high-end hotel. Like many of the big properties on the lake, Langdale Chase has a boathouse built of stone, which has been partially converted into holiday accommodation. Later in the week we went for dinner at the hotel and our hosts, it turned out, were actually staying in the boathouse, having booked at the last minute. So I was invited to look around the room which sported a balcony overlooking the dock and a roof terrace as well. The building itself stretches back a good 15m from the water’s edge; the suite, on the floor above, occupies less than half of that length – it’s quite a big berth inside. On the dock was a whitehulled daysailer, but inside was a classic steamer – gleaming and ready to sally forth. It’s fair to say that I was quite taken with Windermere's stone boathouses – they exude a touch of glamour to the shore no matter what the weather.
Around the next headland was a newer, modern hotel undergoing a huge expansion, but still relatively low-profile in appearance, nicely tucked away in a bay. Low Wood Bay hotel and watersports centre is a landmark location on the lake with a marina and an armada of dinghies, windsurf boards, paddleboards, kayaks and more. They offer a vast menu of activities for residents and non-residents including waterskiing. Wake surfing is popular – an activity that is designed for low speeds.
And the conversation aboard Grey Pearl turned again to the speed limit. A 1991 survey of lake use confirmed that ‘on an average day’ there were 812 craft on the water, of which 368 were fast power boats. This represented an increase of over 300% in fast power boats since the first lake use survey carried out in 1977 – an increase that had exceeded all forecasts – and the lake was described by the Windermere Joint Steering Committee as ‘dangerously congested’.
The boat registration scheme was
introduced in 1978 and after a series of management plans, consultations, conventions and proposals the new byelaw for a 10mph speed limit (this was later amended to 10 knots) was submitted to the Home Office in 1992. Eight years later it was ratified with a further five-year delay instituted to allow local businesses to prepare for the change.
The protest leading up to 29 March 2005 was energetic and vocal, but today, over 13 years later, the key group KWAA (Keep Windermere Alive Association) is no longer a registered domain on the Internet. Dozens of news reports from day one of the ban were published, but one line from The Daily Telegraph stuck with me: ‘The Lake District National Park Authority claims that since power-boaters make up less than one per cent of the area’s 12 million annual visitors, the impact on the economy if they all left would be minimal.’ Official tourist numbers are now 19 million annually.
Economic disruption might have been minimal, but change was definitely noticeable. One magazine report from the early 2000s put the number of registered boats on Windermere before the ban at a whopping 13,000. The latest figures (2017) show 3,577. The number of boat launches from the lake’s main public slipway at Ferry Nab, near Bowness, fell rapidly in the years preceding the change, from nearly 4,000 in 2003 to about 1,200 in 2005. Ten years later just 691 launches were recorded (the figures do not include permanent mooring holders using the slipway), although the past three summers have seen numbers bounce back to more than 800. New boat registrations dropped from 1050 in 2010 (the earliest date figures are available) to 691 in 2013, but have crept back up since that low point to 772. Renewals since 2010 have dropped steadily from 3,349 to 2,800.
The Lake Rangers are charged with catching and prosecuting those flouting the byelaws, as well as attending all manner of breakdowns, strandings and other incidents. There were 134 incidents of speeding with six offenders going before Magistrates in 2017. More than 60% of incidents recorded by rangers that year were for breaking the 10-knot limit or for registration offences. Les Lansley, a director of the Lake District Boat Club, reckons the ban was a step too far. “I do think it was more dangerous when there was a lot more speed on the lake,” he said. “I think it just needed managing rather than banning.”
New life on the water
We continued north and passed an open-water swimmer flanked by a kayak and a RIB displaying the blue and white check flag. It is estimated 12,000 people take part in swim events on Windermere, and there are 3,000 people regularly taking part in swim coaching sessions on the lake. The Great North Swim was launched in 2008 with 2,000 entrants. Ten years later there were around 10,000 participants across all the different distances and races.
Enchanted by the boat house at Langdale Chase, I asked if we could stop at a jetty at one of Heart of the Lakes’ waterside properties. So we continued across the lake to Pullwood Bay – a grand Victorian mansion that was once a school. The Pullwood apartments almost all command exceptional views, residents have exclusive use of the jetty and the boat house is also a holiday let on the first floor.
Later in the week we visited friends staying at Low Wray campsite and spent the entire afternoon sitting in a little cove, paddling various boats around a tiny island and trying to avoid annoying the swans. When I looked over the dry stone wall as the evening drew in, it was quite a surprise to realise we were just metres from the Pullwood boat house: luxury private quarters on one side – camping in the forest with shared toilets, showers and washing up facilities on the other. Both require booking a long way in advance – especially in school summer holidays.
An absorbing place
For the rest of our week’s holiday on Windermere the sun shone, the temperature reached the high 20s and the traffic jammed, but I saw few boats on the lake. “It tends to be quiet in the week,” admits Lansley, but weekends are busier. “Sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, if you look down the lake you can barely see a gap to sail through.”
The Lake District as a whole is a completely absorbing place to visit: bring a canoe, a dinghy or a stand-up paddleboard and whenever the sun shines, find a body of water to get afloat. For residents and travelling racers there are regular regattas and round-the-cans events on Windermere and several other big lakes.
But for cruising in the aftermath of the speed limit, Windermere is a work in progress. In the words of the Lake District National Park Authority’s published action plan: ‘the offer for boat users is seen as tired and out-dated’, although recent improvements include additional public jetties and better fuel provision. Anchoring overnight will save on accommodation, but it occurred to me that a trailer-sailer or a cruising Wayfarer that you can haul up on a beach might be fun to sail from campsite to campsite over 10 days or a fortnight, but bear in mind that booking in advance will almost certainly be necessary – especially in school holidays.
And the lake is connected to other bodies of water: white water rafting is popular, depending on rainfall, on parts of the River Rothay, which feeds into the lake. With a guide it is possible at some times of year to canoe or raft quite a long way down the river ending up in the lake itself. And the Leven, which drains the lake to the sea at the south end is navigable downstream to Newby Bridge and once over the weir, all the way to the sea.
Still waters run deep
The Lakes are cherished by visitors and residents alike and the speed ban is still a hot topic. I tend to agree with Les Lansley that management would have been better than a ban, and said as much in my editor’s letter (September 2018). I was rebuked by one PBO reader who wrote: ‘Everything that could be said on the subject has been said many times; I suggest you leave well alone...’
Then a second letter arrived from a lifelong waterskier: ‘I enjoyed many years on the lake and numerous friends and family learned to Water Ski. Hopefully it may return one day but at my age, 74, it may be too late.’
The moist cool climate is a boon in heatwave summers
Windermere Lake Cruises wooden launch
Grey Pearl is for charter to Heart of the Lakes clients
Low Wood Bay Marina, hotel and watersports centre
The boat house at Langdale Chase
Lake Rangers enforce the byelaws
Grey Pearl at a private jetty
Low Wray campsite