Lines in the Sand click here to read or make an observation about this  article

by Alistair Wasey - Great Britain


Steaming Lake Windermere

To use the words "steam launch" is, in two words, to invoke an image of Edwardian grace, luxury and elegance with the minimum of effort. It is a term to conjure thoughts of polished brass shining against luxuriously varnished mahogany; of a fine, white rope coiled smartly alongside an immaculate bow anchor; of white trousers, deck shoes and straw boaters at a suitably rakish angle, and all topped by the faintest wisp of crisp, white steam.

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I must apologise that this is the best photograph of the S.Y. Swallow that I can offer, the narrow dock didn't allow much flexibility! Note the neat folding table in the bow and the finely formed clerestory roof to allow standing headroom in the cabin without excessive windage.

(click images for larger views)

It was while on holiday in the English Lakes that Hannah (my year-long-suffering better half) and I took advantage of the opportunity afforded by the Windermere Steamboat Museum to take a trip aboard the 45'6" S.L. Swallow built by Edward Shepherd of Bowness from exquisite carvel teak. Her triple expansion Sissons engine, fed from a locomotive-type boiler provided the power to coax her, with the aid of her slippery 8' beam, to a top speed of 12 mph. In keeping with her air of refinement, her near-plumb bow, fine fore-sections and pseudo-draketail left hardly a ripple of wake to be lost amongst the chop kicked up by the brisk northerly wind.

Our Captain for the trip taking a breather next to the engine. Just to his left can be seen the fireboz of the boiler, and just above that, the copper tea urn, the filament of which is fed by steam from the boiler - a very speedy way to boil a gallon of water!

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Normally I have a mild dislike of powered craft (with a few exceptions), preferring a craft that is sailed, paddled or rowed; to me these boats seem more "alive" (despite the obvious idiosyncracy of such a view!). However, from the first moment of stepping aboard the Swallow there was the faint sizzle of the boiler and the smell of slightly sulphurous coal smoke to mingle with the normal wooden boat characteristics - the smell of varnish, the little creaks and groans as she nestles against the pier, all those things that make a wooden boat so much more alive than her plastic counterparts.

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One of the points of interest on the lake is the car ferry that operates between Far Sawrey and Ferry Nab. Rope hauled, the ferry makes several crossings an hour, dependant on available trade.

However, as with any boat, it was not until the dock was left astern of us that she really sprang to life. Much as a rowing boat beats with the stroke of the oars and a sailing dinghy sways across the swell, steadied by the breeze and breathing with it, so too a steam launch has a beat and motion all of its own. The three cylinders of the triple expansion engine provide a steady hearbeat *thud* thud THUD! Her motion is quite unusual, the length and weight of the craft lending her a remarkable longitudinal stability which, with her fine foresections, enables her to cleave the water with an absolute minimum of fuss. However, her slender sections and higher-than-typical centre of gravity, give her a little pitch, tempered by her considerable weight. Of course, like any living thing, she needs to be fed, although remarkably frugally. I couldn't help wondering whether she did rather less environmental damage than many of the super-efficient four stroke outboard-powered plastic boats nestling in Bowness bay encouraging a vast algal bloom in the otherwise crystal clear waters...

Just visible over the bow (and the bouyancy aid!) are the remaining workshops of Bowness Bay, it was in one of these that the S.Y. Swallow was crafted almost a hundred years ago.

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Nestled comfortably in the lee of the bow I found it was fascinating to see this lake, around which I have spent little time, from the water. Here one is deep in Ransome Country: this mid-lake archipelago provided the model for "Rio Bay" and the lake of Swallows and Amazons is a composite of Windermere, Coniston Water and Ransome's imagination. If one applies a suitable rose tint, it is fascinating to pick out the vintage yachts and boats, blank out the plastic rubbish (with apologies to the owners!) and imagine the scene a hundred years ago. The Lakeland mountains have changed little, the fitful sunshine peering playfully through the high cloud picking out a shining wavecap here and there, the fresh breeze filling your lungs with clean, healthy air. A host of rowing boats fills every available space in the bay, ladies with white parasols seated primly in the sternsheets, or a wealthy gent trolling a line for the famous arctic char. A large steamship carefully rounds the Hen and Chicken rocks making for the landing stage next to the boatsheds from which a cacophony of hammer blows fills air tainted with hints of hemp, tar and fresh timber. Through it all sail two small dinghies, one with a tan sail, the other white... from the masthead of one flies the scull and cross bones, the other a swallow and... then a modern boat trolling boat with a rattling two stroke motor put-puts past and the image is gone...

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The English Lakes and the North Lake seen as seen from our cosy seat in the bow. The incredible volume of boat traffic is clearly discernible, despite the recent imposition of a 10 mph speed limit on the lake.

At the furthest corner of Belle Island a very welcome cup of tea, the water boiled in ten seconds using the same steam that is propelling us is passed forwards on a red plastic tray with a couple of Rich Tea biscuits. I have often observed that tea drunk in the Great Outdoors has a distinct (and preferable) flavour to that brewed in the home; it is my new recommendation that the very best tea is to be drunk aboard a vintage steamboat whilst enjoying the company of a fine young lady and admiring some of the finest scenery in the world. The Steamboat Museum has for a long time been one of my favourite institutions and I can think of no other that will allow the casual punter to sample the delights of a world lost a century ago and once available only to the very pinnacle of society, while having the earthy common-sense to pass forward a hot cup of tea and smile on a slightly chilly summer day.

To my mind, the highest form of hospitality:

a well brewed cup of tea and a dunking biscuit. Full marks the Steamboat Museum!

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While I have no intentions of hanging up my sailing boots any time soon, leaving my oars on the rack nor my canoe in the shed, such an experience can only whet one's appetite for a style and class of living far removed from one's own. Perhaps, in the fullness of time, before I am too doddery to safely hold a saw or a chisel, I shall build a steamer of my own, retire to a suitable lakeside residence and steam my way into the sunset...

Well, one can dream can't one?

Alistair Wasey