Our Lakes – Windermere
Our Lakes – Windermere: England’s largest natural lake was formed from the meltwater of retreating glaciers around 15,000 years ago.
The ice crept north through the valleys containing the rivers Rothay, Brathay and Trout Beck, which still feed the 11-mile long lake all these years later.
Overlooked by the Langdale Pikes, Windermere is considered the quintessential Lake District and draws people from all over the world with walkers flocking to its shores to complete the 45-mile Windemere Way which circuits the lake. Spectacular views from the top of nearby Orrest Head changed the life of the Lake Districts most famous fell walker, Alfred Wainwright, in 1930 when the then 23-year-old first visited from his Blackburn home.
If you prefer to stay dry you can rent a pleasure craft or hop on one of the steamers that ply the length of the lake. The Windermere Ferry crosses from Bowness to Far Sawrey and the 490-metre section of the lake forms part of B5285 which also makes Windemere part of the national road system.
The shrewd Romans knew a thing or two about roads and their fort at Galava, on Windermere’s northern bank, was used to protect their vital trade routes. But with the surrounding terrain unfavourable for travel they preferred to use the lake to ship goods in and out of the area.
However, the area’s historical significance stretches back to Neolithic times (around 4,000 BC) when the Langdales was the centre of the stone axe making industry and supplied around a third of all axes heads in the UK at the time.
The Viking invasion probably gave rise to Windermere’s name thanks to Winand or Vinand, who likely controlled the area at one time. ‘Mere’ means lake in Old English and the word lake was very rarely used by locals who much favoured their dialect calling it ‘Windermere Watter’.
It’s important to make a distinction from the town of Windermere – which is not on the lakeside – and was little more than farmland before the railway came in 1847. The station and town that grew around it took the name Birthwaite, which was the nearest farm. Some clever spin from the railway company meant the upstart village changed its name to Windermere in 1859, much to the chagrin of Bowness – which is on the lake – and had been the centre of Windermere parish for centuries.
Windermere froze for 6 weeks in 1895 and it was possible to walk right across the lake, or to its largest island, Belle Isle, which was originally called Lang Holme and was the centre of the manor of Windermere 800 years ago. It’s one of 19 ‘holmes’ which derive from the Old Norse ‘holmr’, meaning small island.
Before William Wordsworth’s “Guide to the Lakes” was published in 1810 the area was regarded as little more than a dangerous backwater but ever since his poem ‘There was a Boy’, Windermere was changed forever and has held a place in popular culture ever since.
It was the setting for Swallows and Amazons, home to Peter Rabbit and his creator Beatrix Potter, while a lake monster affectionately nicknamed Bownessie reputedly lives beneath its surface.
Windermere also hosts the annual stone skimming championships and witnessed the amazing feat of Scot Alex Lewis who stunned spectators in 2019 with his staggering 98-metre effort – and that was despite an elbow injury.
There’s much more to this famous lake than lovely views if only you scratch the surface.
Pictures courtesy of Andre Locking and Carmen Norman.