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Boats, Steam and Stories – Windermere Jetty Museum Review

Windermere Jetty Museum Boathouse - Image by The Family Adventure Project

Windermere Jetty Museum – Hub of Boats, Steam & Stories

Lake District activities for families just got even better.  If you plan to visit Cumbria this spring and summer, you’ll want to make the new and interactive Windermere Jetty Museum of Boats, Steam and Stories part of your Lake District break itinerary. This £20 million Lake District tourist attraction, located on the lake shore at Bowness-on-Windermere, offers trips on some of the UK’s oldest and best heritage vessels, and the chance to view master craftsmen at work. You can also catch a rainbow in your teacup on a café terrace with arguably the best view in England. Here’s my review of this Lakeland maritime museum, peppered with some of my poetry, in the red quotes…

Windermere Jetty Museum Gallery. Image by The Family Adventure Project

Windermere Jetty Museum Gallery. Image by The Family Adventure Project

“Our stories are anchored by our craft, anchoring us to Windermere past, where the launches are king, with their vaporous crowns. Let’s sail back a century on this ribbon of lake, where limestone and slate slide past rowing boats weighted for steep gravel bays, dipped in bobbin mill browns and deep gun powder greys. In this Victorian landscape rich with estate, an industry in infancy is selling escape from war’s end and factory. Tempting the wealthy with mahogany and teak.”

A reinvention of Lake District Activities for families

The rain beats down, as only Lake District rain can. And as always, it suits this brooding stretch of water. In fact today Windermere could beat London Fashion Week for shades of metallic shimmer. The trees seem to hang above the surface like cotton wool balls dipped in dusk and a threadbare island hovers in the distance, as though it can’t decide whether to stick around for the sun to shine or drift away in the grey. But as people make their way along Rayrigg Road by foot, car and bus, for once they are not looking at the water; all eyes are drawn to seven new buildings that demand attention. The new Windermere Jetty Museum of Boats, Steam and Stories has launched with a splash in the Central Lakes.

Windermere Jetty Museum jetties. Image by The Family Adventure Project

Windermere Jetty Museum jetties. Image by The Family Adventure Project

A modern link to an industrial past

It’s one of the first contemporary buildings to be constructed on the lake front in 50 years. And while the constituent parts may look like they have just landed from Scandinavia, this maritime hub has been designed with location firmly in mind. Rain pours off huge overhangs, giving shelter from the weather if you step outside, The materials used are sympathetic to the environment; the copper roofing will oxidize and mottle green in time, blending in with the surroundings. “The style of roofing is true to other houses and villas in the Lake District going back to Victorian and Edwardian times,” explains Liz Moss, Chief Operating Officer for Lakeland Arts, who own the museum. “Although it’s a large form building it doesn’t look like it. It really blends in, and meets the dark days of the lake and the water in front of it.” She emphasizes the industrial past of the site, and its purpose of storing boats, “The overhangs are not dissimilar to other boathouses. If you were to go to a canal side wharf, you would see these giant overhangs where goods would have been lifted up and down. And you are constantly connected from the land to the water.”

The overhangs at Windermere Jetty Museum. Image by the Family Adventure Project

The overhangs bring the outside inside,and the inside outside. Image by the Family Adventure Project

A connection with nature

Connection with the lake is an important design feature; leading architects Carmody Groarke have enabled the visitor to see water from every building. This is most apparent when you enter reception and see the huge boathouse through the glass, with a clutch of shiny exhibits bobbing about, content in their natural environment.

The outside has been brought inside and you feel both the vision and the chill.

Windermere Jetty Museum - one o the best Lake District activities Image by The Family Adventure Project

Windermere Jetty Museum – one o the best Lake District activities Image by The Family Adventure Project

“Seek out handsome Branksome for a silver service tea we’ll still be admiring in our century. Hop onto Osprey. Relax and repeat. In a hundred year’s time she will shine up a treat. Watch records fall down as Segrave stakes claim to a water speed high that’ll end like his name. Admire movie star Jane with her proud red veneer. See how CanFly can fly? Not up there in the sky, but right here, on a mirror of cloud; try and stop her. And don’t write off Dolly, she may outlive you and I. Oh! Is that Beatrix Potter and friends bobbing by?”

A family maritime story

I sit on a bench looking into the wet dock with Diana Matthews whose family began  transporting materials around the lake by boat in the 1850’s and were instrumental in saving the boats that line the walls and ceilings today.

“My Grandfather was the first one to salvage Esperance from the bed of the lake in the last century and my father George Pattinson saved a lot of them. We acquired boats and raised money for acquiring boats that were of great importance to the history of maritime heritage on Windermere.” George Pattinson founded the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 1977 and naturally wanted to involve his family, says Diana.

“My poor father had three daughters. One of us had to do the honour to drive a steamboat and that was me. When I was  14 I took friends out in a pressure vessel on the lake with no lifejackets,” she laughs at the memory. “I’ve been brought up with this, our school holidays were spent polishing brass and boating on the lake.”

Windermere Jetty Museum Boathouse

A childhood messing about with boats. Image by The Family Adventure Project

An adopted family

The new museum is on the site of the old Steamboat Museum and Diana thinks of the exhibits as her adopted children, “I loved steaming Dolly. She was so special. And Branksome was like steaming a Grade One listed building in boat terms. It’s wonderful that all the boats are being looked after here and they can all be together on Windermere. They all have an association with Windermere in some form or other and that’s so unique. We’ve got the first of all sorts of different boats here whether it’s the oldest mechanically powered boat in the world, the oldest yacht, the oldest motorboat, the oldest steam screw yacht in the county and then all sorts of funny little bits like Beatrix Potter’s rowing boat.”

All sorts of boats at Wndermere Jetty Museum. Image by The Family Adventure Project

All sorts of boats at Windermere Jetty Museum. Image by The Family Adventure Project

A part of Lakeland Arts

The current collection of 40 vessels was acquired by Lakeland Arts who run Abbot Hall and Blackwell; two very traditional Lakeland buildings. “This museum is a very different proposition with its concrete floors and panel windows,” says Helen Watson, Director of Programming, “But it brings together all the strengths of Lakeland Arts; quality, culture, and craftsmanship, with views and materials guided by the lake, the landscape and the mountains.” It was important to get it right, not only is the Jetty Museum on the waterfront in a National Park, it suddenly became part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site as construction neared its end.

On board Osprey. Windermere Jetty Museum. Image by The Family Adventure Project

On board Osprey. Windermere Jetty Museum. Image by The Family Adventure Project

“Our stories are anchored by our craft; anchoring us to the workmanship of a conservation team applying thermodynamics to the rusted mechanics of Edwardian steam. Join in their mission to restore and re-beam, re-valve and re-varnish, repair and re-seam, import cotton covers to coat wiring looms, pull apart and restart the propeller and the dream.”

An individual plan for the boats

Stephen Beresford, the museum’s Senior Conservation Boat Builder has felt the weight of expectations more than most as he has been in charge of getting the heritage boats ready for the launch. “It is a responsibility – a two edge sword,” he admits. “A lot of these boats are on the national historic ships register and there’s an accountability that goes with that. You can’t muck it up. Before we strike a blow there will be a really considered view about how we approach each job.” This involves an individual conservation plan for each boat: “Sometimes we want to retain as much original material as possible, and not put them back on the water because we’d lose so much of the original. We treat it in a way that means it’s going to be there for our grand-kids and our grand-kids’ kids and not just be consumed for the next decade or two.”

Boats and planes at Windermere Jetty Museum. Image by The Family Adventure Project

Boats and planes at Windermere Jetty Museum. Image by The Family Adventure Project

A chance to chat with the experts

An open access conservation workshop aims to inspire people coming to the Lake District with kids to explore STEM subjects together. Visitors can chat with the boat builders as they restore future exhibits and there are plans to offer apprenticeships to local school leavers in the future. The ticket price for heritage boat rides on Osprey and other boats will enable the museum to restore more crafts to add to the fleet and offer more opportunities. I pop outside to meet the crew of Osprey as they shine up an already spotless white and gold funnel. They are excited about their role in taking 12 people at a time off round the lake for an hour to Bowness and round the back of Belle Isle. MV Jane, an American motor boat built in 1937, will offer more exclusive trips for two for those with a bigger budget or romantic disposition.

Osprey Crew at Windermere Jetty Museum Image by The Family Adventure Project

Osprey Crew polish a spotless boat at Windermere Jetty Museum. Image by The Family Adventure Project

“Curate curiosities for gallery rooms. Create curiosity in future engineers about material properties, topographies, geographies, what makes a boat float, and what makes it sink. Make a girl think about a technical career. Be a treasure matchmaker, be the link, be the linker. Put fragments together. Help memories stick. Reproduce steam till it’s tangible and thick.” 

An education in physics

Not all the boats will be restored to pristine condition. Outside the workshop Mary Anne, one of the oldest surviving pre-steam ferries used on Windermere, (built in 1870) is barely holding herself together.

“Just one good sneeze!” jokes Learning Officer for Schools and Families Natasha Scullion, pointing towards the cradle the decaying boat lies in. “This will help keep her supported when we look at boat shapes with school groups and talk about the different hull and shape.” she explains. “This is a load bearing boat; we will use her to explore the Archimedes Principle, displacement theory and how with a greater surface area you have more of a balance between gravity and up-thrust. Basically why do boats float? It’s my role to tell them and make it all accessible.”

Mary Anne - an old fashioned contrast to the modern construction

Mary Anne – an old fashioned contrast to the modern construction process – Image by The Family Adventure Project

“Slay outdated perceptions of solemn Victorians. Display pencil sketches of Swallows and Amazons. But before you make a dent, or strike a hammer blow, be still, feel the flow of the deep lake below. Let her spirit fill you, as the rev counter thrills you, get the engine to splutter to life if it kills you.”

A historical anchor

The team have over three thousand small objects at hand to help inspire schoolchildren, families and enthusiasts. These objects will be rotated in the temporary exhibition spaces (around 500-1000 at a time,) to tell different stories and act as an anchor-point to stop stories getting lost, says the museum’s Heritage Curator Rachel Roberts. “History is not one thing. It’s millions of stories that people can relate to. Everyone makes their own interpretations. You start with a collection of objects but have to put them all together to see what the big stories are, and what they are telling us about the history of the area, or boat building or humans. The objects work as an anchor-point to remember and capture and preserve the story and history.”

Rachel shows me some of her own favourites, like the delicate char pots that Victorians bought as souvenirs from their Lake Windermere activities, and the original sketches of Swallows and Amazons that people can flick through on an interactive screen. She says that while the boats show Windermere’s industrial history, the smaller exhibits make the museum more understandable on a human, domestic scale. “You can imagine the person that owned them. The steamboats were equipped with cushions and curtains and kettles; they were floating houses, really relatable. I can imagine sitting there having tea.”

Unlike Stephen in the workshop, Rachel isn’t interested in the noise of the engine revving to life, but a quieter sound of people reacting to exhibits. “The noise we want to hear is ‘huh!’ It tells us somebody has made a connection. I want to see people dragging their friends across the museum to show them something they’ve connected with.”

Early Swallows and Amazons sketches - Image by The Family Adventure Project

Early Swallows and Amazons sketches – Image by The Family Adventure Project

A story of triumph and tragedy

Five themed museum displays tell the stories of people whose lives are linked to the collection and their Lake District activities.Some stories are more dramatic than others. I‘m drawn to the tale of Henry Segrave and his speed record attempt that ended in disaster. His original seat looks about as sturdy as my laundry basket and made out of similar materials. I read on the interpretation signs that he ordered life jackets with steel strips for his record attempt but when only one arrived the three men wore jackets padded with reindeer hair.

The next boat queues up for her conservation work. Image by The Family Adventure Project

The next boat queues up for her conservation work. Image by The Family Adventure Project

“Our stories are anchored by our craft, anchoring us to this reconnection with a nationally important maritime collection. Even Tizzie Wizzie couldn’t fake our great affection for the luxury steamers and cargo boats that served, the speed boats and dinghies the lake has preserved. We are all made from water and shape tales like clay, as we cradle the wood in this jetty display, bringing boats, steam and stories to life. But a good tale must travel beyond a windless bay. So  let’s raise the anchor, and sail them away.”

A place for sharing our own stories

In the cafe I share a table with a local who introduces himself as Dr Gartside from further up the lake. He relates his own pastimes sailing char boats on Windermere and tells me one of his vessels is on display in the museum. “I didn’t intend to come in today; I only popped out for a paper.” he laughs.

This museum is like that. As conservationist Stephen Beresford says, we are all drawn to boats:

“There’s a romance isn’t there? There’s something about boats and journeying and travelling, the exhilaration of a race or going from here to there. There’s something about the aesthetic. A boat is a thing of beauty. Boats that have endured have done so because people loved them. Everyone sits in front of a computer tippy tappying, and it’s hard to feel the reality of something. And you go on one of these boats on a day like today and it’s freezing and it’s very sensory.”

As Osprey toots out excitable coils of steam, and receptionists work with a rowing boat hanging over their heads with the oars extended and ready to go, you get the sense everyone involved in this project has already been on an extraordinary journey. And that they cannot wait to take you on one too.

A cafe with this view incites yo to share stories. Image by The Family Adventure Project

A cafe with this view incites everyone to share stories. Image by The Family Adventure Project


Practical Information

Getting there:

The Lake District for families just got even better as you can make a day of the whole thing and arrive at the museum by boat. From April, The Windermere Jetty Museum of Boats, Steam and Stories is working with Windermere Lake Cruises to bring people in from Bowness and Ambleside via their standard Red Line Cruises; check the summer timetable for details. For more information on the cruises check out our review of a day out on Windermere Cruises Yellow Cruise Line.

You can also arrive at the Bowness museum, two miles from Windermere, by bus, car, bike or on foot, mixing and matching your plans for other Lake District tourist attractions with a visit to the steam trains at Lakeside, the Motor Museum or the nearby Beatrix Potter attraction – one of the most established Lake District kids’ activities.

Opening hours:

March to October: Museum 10.00am-5pm. Café 10.00am-5pm

November to February: Museum 10:30am-4pm. Café 10:00am-4pm


Admission tickets cost £9 for adults, £7 for children. Under 4’s are free. A Family ticket for 2 adults and up to 3 children costs £27. A Family ticket for 1 adult and up to 3 children costs £18. Entrance to Windermere Jetty café and shop is free. There is an additional £4 parking charge for museum visitors.

Windermere Jetty Museum. Image by the Family Adventure Project.

Windermere Jetty Museum Exterior. Image by the Family Adventure Project


About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.

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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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