I think this has to be the most unusual and unique ‘property’ on my list. It is categorised within the NT’s list of ‘Houses and Gardens’ but clearly it is neither of these things. Mind you, if they introduced a ‘Boats’ classification, it would have a membership of one so I guess they had to put it somewhere else.
Now, first of all, be prepared to pay. Unlike traditional properties, even members have to fork out the £11 for a trip on Coniston’s gondola. Clearly, the service has to compete with other boat companies on Coniston and the other Cumbrian lakes and there are fuel costs to factor in as well as the cost of trained staff. After all, the Trust can’t really use volunteers on this occasion; my Mum is a volunteer for the National Trust and, no offence, Mum, but if you were in charge of the boat, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it! All that steam and pressure and water… it just doesn’t bear thinking about.
The boat can be picked up at Coniston Pier and you will need to plan ahead as sailings vary from day to day and include shorter (45 mins) and longer (105 mins) trips as well as some that are afternoon tea cruises. I chose the shorter lake cruise.
Throughout the 45-minute journey, there is an occasional commentary to draw your attention to various things along the shoreline and I was particularly interested to learn more about Coniston’s mining history and about Donald Campbell’s death on the lake while hitting speeds of over 300 mph in Bluebird K7. There were also some lovely views of Brantwood, John Ruskin’s home (not NT), which has its own jetty on the lake where you can alight to visit the house before picking up a later sailing back.
However, while the surroundings were wonderful, I was more than a little disappointed that there was no information about the actual boat itself in the commentary. The steam aspect was apparent to all on board, as we occasionally belched out a nice cloud behind us as we cruised up and down the lake, but the commentary focused solely on what we could see and not what we were sitting in.
I had to resort to Wikipedia when I got back, which is where I discovered that ‘Gondola’ is actually the name of the steam yacht and not a description of it. It is a ‘rebuilt Victorian, screw-propelled, steam-powered’ passenger vessel, originally launched in 1859 and built to carry passengers from the Furness and Coniston railways. In commercial service until 1936, it (she?!) was then retired and converted to a houseboat in 1946, possibly becoming the inspiration of Captain Flint’s houseboat in Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (how I would have liked to have known that while I was on board, it’s one of my favourite books from childhood).
The boat fell into disrepair and in the 1960s was almost sold for scrap before the caretaker of Water Park at the southern end of Coniston bought it and deliberately sunk it to slow down the deterioration. Bought by the National Trust in the 1970s, she was fully repaired and was launched back onto the lake in 1980. And the rest, as they say, is history.
On my way off the boat I saw some file folders that might well have contained some of this information but they weren’t easy to spot on the way in and who wants to wade through an A4 folder anyway? It is reported that the yacht now carries up to 40,000 passengers a year and I am sure that an awful lot of them would be interested to know more about the boat and its history. So come on, NT, it wouldn’t hurt to put some of those key facts in the commentary now, would it? I mean, Captain Flint’s houseboat, it’s iconic! And with all the Wordsworth and Potter kerfuffle, I for one would be delighted to see more signs of Ransome in the Lakes’ literary melting pot.
And so I came to the end of my three-in-one-day adventure, and what a relaxing way to finish it off.
Highlights: Tranquil way to view the beautiful Coniston scenery