Transport in the Lake District not only covers miles of roads, but acres of water,too, and it would be incomplete to talk about travel without including the famous old Lake steamers, which years ago really did run on steam and relied on coal instead of diesel.
Maybe we all need an escape from the frenzy of jet-age living; but the current boom in nostalgia would have us believe that our grandparents existed in an elegant and unhurried world. The restoration of The Gondola on Coniston conjures up this very image of gracious living; but was it really so?
"There were two saloons, there was a first class and a second class. you went through the second class to get through to the first class. The first class in my recollection had a little bit more fancy doo-dah and it had curtains on the windows, velvet curtains my recollection is, and the seats were velvet and in the second class they were some kind of leather or Rexine or something like that."
The lady who recalls The Gondola in the 1920s was the daughter of the Captain, who had left the Navy to join her crew.For the 30 years or so before that, both Gondola and and her sister ship Lady of The Lake ploughed up and down Coniston under the command of Captain Hammell, father of ten children, who all lived in a boat house built over a lower section used for storing equipment for the boats. The new Captain and his family moved into the house:
"In that cellar down below they used to store the tanks that were life rafts that were fitted on to the boats in summer and they folded up, and they were sort of air tight things. And all through the winter when they were stored in there every now and again there would be a loud bang. It would be one of the air rafts going off and we got quite used to it!"
Furness Railway owned The Gondola until it sold out about 1923 to London Midland and Scottish.
"There were three men on the steamer on Coniston, on The Gondola. There was an engineer, a ticket collector and my father (the Captain), and they used to arrive early in the morning to coal ship, because of course it was a steamer and the coal was kept in a large bunker at the side of our house and they had a trolley on wheels and they used those skips, the same sort of skips that are still around and these were filled with coal and put on the little trolley and wheeled on to the pier and into the steamer and they coaled up first thing in the morning - and then they all changed into their Sunday best meeting things to take the boat out in summer and it was really quite good, they had a tremendous number of people around."
The LMS uniform was navy blue, with LMS brass buttons and a peaked cap with an LMS crest. The boats, or boat, ran from Whit to late September, pretty well full nearly all the time:
"People used to come and take season tickets. They would go up and down the lake every day, they would take a weekly ticket and they would go every day. They would arrive first thing and spend the day going up and down the Lake."
In August, without fail, heavy rain would lead to flooding and the steamers couldn't run:
"I think the problem was caused by the River Crake down at the other end at Lake Bank getting silted and eventually it was cleaned out and it stopped the flooding, I don't think it happens now, but it did in those days.It used to happen every August. I've many pictures here of the pier completely covered and they weren't able to run the steamers. Water everywhere."
Winter brought little time for leisure:
"The Gondola would come out on the slipway for the winter and then my father would be painting and doing that sort of thing and repair work and general caretaking and he also looked after the boats for various people, most of the gentry round about who had boats on the lake, the boats would be brought over to our side and they would spend the winter upside down and he would do his sparetime painting of the insides."
Passengers on a round trip with boat and bus tickets caused the Captain quite a few headaches when a connection was missed, and the pace then was anything but unhurried:
"They ran a bus service which met the steamer as it came in and if the bus had gone before the steamer got in my father used to go crazy! We had a peculiar kind of telephone, it only went to the Station and to the Waterhead Hotel. The buses came into The Waterhead Hotel and I think you rang one for the Station, two for us and three for the Waterhead and immediately he would dash in, he'd have passengers who'd booked a round ticket which was from Lake Bank to Coniston, by bus to Ambleside and down lake Windermere to Lakeside, you see, and it was a round trip which they did for a certain price. And if the bus had gone before the boat got in, my father used to get so angry and he would dash in, ring the bell to find if the bus had gone, then he would ring up the Station and then they would have to ring the bus people, whoever they were, and there'd be great to-ings and fro-ings because of this - because of course his passengers would be stranded and they couldn't continue their journey. It was great fun! He was dependent on the bus bringing people up to Lake Bank and if that was late coming from Ulverston, then he was late, and if the other bus didn't wait and they went off without his passengers, they were stranded!"
But the fun eventually came to an end, and The Gondola ceased to operate at the outbreak of War and was finally sold as a houseboat before coming to rest in the Coniston mud. But a spectacular new career awaited her resurrection as she rules the ripples again, finer than ever.