Holidays & Travel

Travel: Lake District - Coniston offers all of Cumbria’s charm within easy walking distance

Within easy reach across the Irish Sea, picture postcard perfect Coniston is an ideal destination for walkers but the Lake District has a lot more to offer besides

The Old Man of Coniston provides a rugged backdrop to the picture postcard perfect village

In and around the Cumbrian village of Coniston, many aspects of the English Lake District’s history, heritage and geography converge. You would expect a place with a mining past to perhaps look a little more industrial but resting on the shores of the eponymous lake beneath the substantial Old Man of Coniston, the village is picture postcard perfect.

It’s a popular destination for walkers, offering both immediate access to the at times challenging fells but also less strenuous, lowland strolling options for when the weather makes an upland walk inadvisable – which is more often than you would hope.

Coniston didn’t always rely on tourism to support its isolated population. Like so much of the Lakes, livelihoods were once maintained by the sheep farming that alongside nature has shaped the landscape the area is renowned for. However, the village grew as the nearby slate and copper mines prospered.

It’s the latter which today provides a spectacular, mildly quirky setting for visitors’ accommodation and a small wedding venue a couple of hundred feet above Coniston. The transformation of the buildings at the head of the disused copper mine was the brainchild of businessman and community stalwart Philip Johnston, who bought the site in the early 1980s, some three decades after decommissioning.

Coppermines Cottages includes accommodation with its own functioning water wheel

The Coppermines project is clearly a labour of love. The cottages, including one with its own functioning water wheel, are sympathetically restored with the perfect compromise between authenticity and comfort.

The accommodation is the showcase for the wider Coppermines Lakes Cottages, a portfolio of more than 90 self-catering properties in and around Coniston.

With a vista that includes a slag heap, I imagine the 65-acre re-wilded valley isn’t to everybody’s taste but nature’s resurgence in a landscape that once bustled with dirty and dangerous industry gives it a distinct beauty.

On the side of the valley is Irish Row, a line of dark slate workers’ houses built in the 1800s and so named because so many of their occupants had come to work in the Cumbrian mines from across the Irish Sea.

These days, the journey from Ireland is mostly made for leisure purposes, taking advantage of Stena’s North Channel service to Cairnryan and the A75/M6 corridor.

You can board the Stena service in Belfast at 11.30am and be in Coniston to enjoy pre-dinner drinks in a village with an adequate handful of good pubs and restaurants, including a top-notch Indian, within easy walking distance.

The pubs are as visitors expect them to be, whether it’s authentic or not: traditionally furnished, free of TV, and with a good selection of ales. Most are also dog-friendly – but please don’t tell our two, who were left at home.

The interior of the Old Post Cottage. PICTURE: MARTIN GRACE

Recommended hostelries for pints and food include the Black Bull, a family-owned pub that dates back 400 years; the Yewdale Inn for the best slow-cooked lamb shank in Cumbria; and the Crown Inn, part of the Robinson’s brewery chain.

Having recently undergone a major refurb, the latter boasts a cosy and intimate bar alongside a spacious restaurant with friendly, efficient staff, serving the finest seasonally-themed dishes.

Irish Row is a line of dark slate workers’ houses built in the 1800s and so named because so many of their occupants had come to work in the Cumbrian mines from across the Irish Sea

Accommodation for our three-night stay was in the heart of the village, in the Old Post Cottage, where olde worlde, open fire charm meets 21st century living close to the angry-looking yet soothing-sounding torrents of Church Beck and across the road from the Parish Church of Saint Andrew, where John Ruskin is buried in the graveyard.

For the uninitiated, Ruskin was an English polymath and social reformer of the Victorian era, whose writings are said to have inspired Mahatma Gandhi.

The view from Brantwood that gave so much inspiration to John Ruskin

London-born Ruskin lived the latter part of his life, and died, at Brantwood, which lies a mile south east as the crow flies across Coniston Water, or a short drive away. The recommended route to Brantwood, which is open to the public, is on the Coniston Launch, which sails from the village, enabling passengers to disembark onto a jetty below the house.

Brantwood is more than just a house, however; it’s a treasure trove that reflects its former owner’s range of passions, from geology and philosophy to painting and travel.

The house itself, much of which visitors are encouraged to explore, is an idyllic lakeside residence with commanding views of the fells across the valley. Originally an eight-room cottage, it was expanded and enhanced over the decades Ruskin resided there and today hosts a number of his collections and regular art exhibitions, both traditional and contemporary.

Equally worth exploring is Brantwood’s 250-acre estate, which includes eight unique gardens created by Ruskin, his cousin Joan Severn, and head gardener Sally Beamish.

With an on-site café serving what are arguably the best scones east of Donaghadee, Brantwood aims to offer something for all tastes and ages, helping to nail the myth that country houses and gardens are the sole preserve of elderly folk obsessed with the upper class.

The Coniston Launch makes regular sailings to Brantwood. PICTURE: STUART HOLMES

While Ruskin is widely credited with popularising Coniston and the Lakes in the public imagination, it was an episode in more modern times that put the area on the global map.

Donald Campbell’s 1967 attempt to smash his own world water speed record on Coniston Water, and his subsequent death as the Bluebird K7 hydroplane somersaulted at around 300mph, has gained legendary status in the decades since.

The wreckage was raised by a dive team in March 2001, while Campbell’s body recovered two months later.

Following a lengthy legal battle, the restored Bluebird returned to Coniston in March this year and is now on permanent display in its own wing at the Ruskin Museum in the village.

You don’t need to be a petrol-head or engineering nerd to be captivated by the ambitious spirit and derring-do of what Campbell undertook. From a time before carbon fibre and plastic moulding, this cockpit with a jet engine effectively bolted on the back speaks of an altogether different era, when health and safety were secondary to triumph and notoriety.

For those who love the outdoors, Coniston has a great deal to offer but it also provides plenty of interesting and stimulating alternatives for when the weather doesn’t match your enthusiasm.

John Manley stayed at the pet-friendly Old Post Cottage in Coniston where breaks start from £452 (3-night weekend or 4-nights midweek). Forming part of ‘The Bridge Cottages’, the Old Post Cottage is one of the oldest buildings in the village and was the original village post office. Ideally situated just a short walk from the church, local stores, gift shops, cafes and numerous pubs. Perfect for couples, families and friends, it sleeps four in two bedrooms, with two bathrooms, log fire and hot tub. For more info go to a
He travelled to Cumbria by car via Stena’s Belfast-Cairnryan route. With a choice of up to six daily sailings with Stena Line you can travel by foot or by car to Cairnryan from Belfast in just 2 hours 15 minutes. From £139 single car and driver, Stena Line’s spacious and stylish Superfast ferries have a variety of facilities onboard to provide a relaxing and comfortable journey, including Stena Plus Lounge, Hygge Recline Lounge, an onboard shop, restaurant, cinema, Pure Nordic Spa and Happy World play area for children.