Coniston Water

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Formerly, Thurston Water

Coniston Water is situated within the boundaries of the historic county of Lancashire. Today Coniston Water forms part of the administrative county of Cumbria. Coniston Water is an example of a ribbon lake formed by glaciation. The lake sits in a deep U-shaped glaciated valley scoured by a glacier in the surrounding volcanic and limestone rocks during the last ice age. To the north-west of the lake rises the Old Man of Coniston, the highest fell in the Coniston Fells group.

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Remains of agricultural settlements from the Bronze Age have been found near the shores of Coniston Water. The Romans mined copper from the fells above the lake. A potash kiln and two iron bloomeries show that industrial activity continued in medieval times. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Coniston Water was an important source of fish for the monks of Furness Abbey who owned the lake and much of the surrounding land. Copper mining continued in the area until the 19th century.

The lake was formerly known as “Thurston Water”, a name derived from the Old Norse personal name ‘Thursteinn’ + Old English ‘waeter’. This name was used as an alternative to Coniston Water until the late 18th century.

The Victorian artist and philosopher John Ruskin owned Brantwood House on the eastern shore of the lake, and lived in it from 1872 until his death in 1900. Ruskin is buried in the churchyard in the village of Coniston, at the northern end of the lake. His secretary the antiquarian W. G. Collingwood wrote a historical novel Thorstein of the Mere about the Northmen who settled on the island in the lake.

The Victorian and Edwardian artist Henry Robinson Hall settled in Coniston during the Great War and is buried in the parish church graveyard.

Arthur Ransome set his children’s novel Swallows and Amazons and the sequels Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post and The Picts and the Martyrs around a fictional lake derived from a combination of Coniston Water and Windermere. The fictional lake resembles Windermere, but the surrounding hills and fells resemble those of Coniston Water. Some of Coniston Water’s islands and other local landmarks can be identified in the novels. In particular the books’ Wild Cat Island with its secret harbour is based on Peel Island. The Amazon River is based on the River Crake. The Swallows and Amazons series involve school holiday adventures in the 1930’s.

Historically, Coniston was part of Lancashire (North of the Sands), until Local Government reorganisation in 1974 when Cumbria was created.

In the 20th century Coniston Water was the scene of many attempts to break the world water speed record. On August 19, 1939, Sir Malcolm Campbell set the record at 141.74 miles per hour (228.108 km/h or 123.168 kn) in Bluebird K4. Between 1956 and 1959 Sir Malcolm’s son Donald Campbell set four successive records on the lake in Bluebird K7, a hydroplane.

In 1966 Donald Campbell decided that he needed to exceed 300 miles per hour (483 km/h) in order to retain the record. On January 4, 1967, he achieved a top speed of over 320 miles per hour (515 km/h or 278 kn) in Bluebird K7 on the return leg of a record-breaking attempt. He then lost control of Bluebird, which somersaulted and crashed, sinking rapidly. Campbell was killed instantly on impact when decapitated by the K7’s windscreen. The attempt could not be counted as a record-breaking run because the second leg was not completed. The remains of Bluebird were recovered from the water in 2001 and the majority of Campbell’s body was recovered later in the same year.