School children find Swallows and Amazons style adventures on Coniston water
PUBLISHED: 11:16 03 May 2012 | UPDATED: 19:09 13 April 2016
Youngsters from across Lancashire are being given the chance to live the Swallows and Amazons lifestyle at Coniston. Paul Mackenzie reports Photography by John Cocks
To many people the childhood enjoyed by John, Susan, Titty and Roger seemed idyllic. They spent their days sailing on the lake, having adventures on the island, playing with friends and revelling in the great outdoors.
But for many children now the pirate games Arthur Ransome imagined for the young characters in his Swallows and Amazons series are as far removed from everyday life as the Amazon itself.
The stories were set on and around Coniston Water and now a generation of children who have known only the bricks and mortar of urban life are being given the chance to experience the thrills the Walker children had.
A charitable trust created by Preston-based building firm the Eric Wright Group, funds residential visits to Coniston by youngsters from across the North West, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The trust was launched in 1986 and opened the Water Park on Coniston’s south eastern shore in 1999.
Roger Ward has been at the centre, which occupies a 65 acre site and has a mile of shoreline, since it opened, and is now the centre manager. He said: ‘We teach outdoor activities to young people who might otherwise not have the opportunity to try these things.
‘They can come here, either for a week or a weekend, and we have a range of things they can have a go at – sailing, canoeing, kayaking, wind surfing, ghyll scrambling, climbing and other outdoor pursuits.’
The centre can cater for 37 people and each group who books has exclusive use of the building and facilities. A week’s stay costs £8,500 but where groups struggle to meet the fee, the charitable trust can step in to make up the shortfall. Last year their contributions were around £180,000 and that figure is expected to rise in 2012 to around £200,000.
‘Eric has always been involved in the outdoors and was an accomplished wind surfer, skier and sailor and I think he saw the benefits of the outdoors and wanted as many young people as possible to be able to enjoy those benefits,’ Roger added.
‘Local authority funded outdoor centres are finding it tough at the moment – they are seen as soft targets for cuts but once a centre is closed it will never re-open and that opportunity is denied to future generations of children.’
The centre is based in a former family home where Prince Albert is reputed to have once stayed, although it’s not known if he went wind surfing or ghyll scrambling. It is open 49 weeks a year and has closed for just one weekend in 13 years – because snow blocked the narrow winding lanes. ‘We’re out there in all weathers,’ said Roger, a former Liverpool John Moores University student who worked at outdoor centres around the country before taking the job at Coniston and moving to Grange.
‘This is me now, though, I’ll stay here until I retire. I couldn’t wish for a better place to work.’
And thousands of holiday makers agree – although they are there to rest and play. Coniston is a perennial favourite with tourists and the village’s narrow streets can be clogged at peak times with coaches, while the pavements throng with day trippers browsing the shops and walkers preparing for, or recovering from, treks up the Old Man.
The mountain – the highest point in Lancashire at 2,633 feet – looms over the village and it once dominated industry here, too. The hillside is riddled with tunnels and shafts left behind by the copper mining and slate works which were big business for generations of villagers.
Their story is told at the village museum, alongside those of some of the famous names associated with Coniston including John Ruskin, who lived just across the water and is buried on the village churchyard, and Donald Campbell, who died on Coniston Water in 1967 while trying to break his own world water speed record.
His boat, Bluebird K7, was recovered from the depths in 2001 and the long-running campaign to return it to Coniston continues. Vicky Slowe, the museum’s curator, said it could now be next year before the re-built boat is on show.
Restoration work is well underway at the Tyneside workshop of Bill Smith, the man who rescued Bluebird from the depths and Vicky said: ‘There’s no point doing the job quickly just to get it finished but not doing the best possible job.
‘The dream is to get Bluebird back out on the water for some test runs before she goes on display and obviously she has to be in the best condition for that to happen so it’s a painstaking job which will simply take as long as it takes.’
When work is finished, almost all the materials used in her construction will be original and until she takes her place in the Bluebird wing of the museum a life size footprint of the boat gives visitors a sense of its scale.