Conservation Family Adventure Capital Mini Feature Nature & Wildlife

Can comic heros save us from death by detergent?

Written by Kirstie Pelling
Electric Biking Windermere

Lake Windermere looks in great shape but beneath the surface all is not well

How do you save an iconic lake from death by detergent? It’s a job for superheroes and needs community involvement, kids included. But how do you engage kids in serious environmental stuff like this? At Windermere Reflections they’ve recruited a time travelling girl with a teddy bear, a starlit umbrella, a smartphone app and local creatives.  And I thought managing a lake in decline would be all about pulling up knotweed….

Kids, cartoons and a big clean-up

The most iconic lake in the English Lake District needs help. And it needs it fast. Our modern way of life is threatening the ecology of this green corner of the UK. Phosphates from detergents and fertilisers, invasive species, leaky septic tanks, careless ramblers, fallen trees and greedy sheep; all these and more have affected water quality and contributed to the decline of Windermere. Conservationists are worried.

Saving Windermere before it’s too late

Windermere is the star of the Lakeland postcard. It has hosted world speed records and inspired world famous poets and artists. It even inspired us to take up Tai Chi for a day. Since Victorian times, millions have come to worship this icon of the English countryside. The mesotrophic lake provides the backdrop to a thriving Cumbrian farming community and feeds an extraordinary array of wildlife and birdlife. But all this takes its toll. A very public alarm bell sounded in 2010 when the Great North Swim had to be cancelled due to the presence of toxic blue green algae in the water, but there are other more creeping signs that all is not well; like the prevalence of Japanese Knotweed, Western Skunk Cabbage and Himalayan Balsam, the disappearance of reed beds over the last 30 years and sediment run-off from the hillside caused by deforestation.

Derwentwater Wild Swimming

Wild swimming, like here on Derwentwater, can be hazardous due to algal blooms

Fortunately help is at hand in the form of Windermere Reflections; a £1.9 million lottery funded project that has identified the main risks and works tirelessly to make the community aware of them. But on its own, it’s not enough. The only way forward, say the Reflections team, is to involve as many people as possible in the campaign. Enter Murky Merv; the pile of soil, and Trudy the Intruder; a Dame Edna Everage lookalike with lips that could scare a shark.

Move over Iron Man; there’s a new kid on the block

Cumbrian cartoonist Colin Shelbourne created the series of characters after an initial competition that asked the local community to come up with ideas for designs. His merry band of rural superheroes is led by a lass with a sparkly star brolly who travels through time.

“It’s all very technical and has been highly researched. We asked people at the Hadron Collider,” laughs Colin as he introduces the colourful crew to a team of creatives and field studies officers in a day long workshop in Ambleside.

Lancaster University is currently digitising the cartoons, to produce a phone app and a series of digital figures that children can drop into their own stories and games, and local volunteers will go into schools to introduce children to the characters online.

Canoeing on Windermere

A modern solution to a modern problem

Now a mobile app clearly can’t save Windermere. That would be like expecting a Dime Bar to sort out a famine. And as a parent with i-pod obsessed kids I’m dubious about an app actually doing anything other than trapping them in their bedroom for yet another hour. But I can see where they are coming from. The thinking is that in a world where we are bombarded with messages and hard sell, it’s not enough to call people to action. You have to engage people’s imaginations and tap into their interests. The idea behind the comic book characters is to raise awareness, inspire families to get involved, and encourage some creative thinking around the issues.

It’s more of a starting point than a solution; a way of opening the conversation. And it’s not the only proposed weapon in the arsenal against pollution and invasive species. Amanda Hancock, Project Officer  from Windermere Reflections explains that it’s just one strand of an education programme running throughout the 235 km² catchment area this year. Starting this term, five local schools will take part in workshops that consider the threats and solutions. They’ll be physically exploring the area on foot, and metaphorically exploring it later with creative days back in the classroom.

Lake Windermere from the steamer

Looking over Windermere there’s no obvious sign of a problem… but it’s there

The silent destroyer

Standing on the shores of the iconic Lake District stretch of water on my way home from a day with the Reflections team, it’s hard to believe there’s a problem here. As boats merrily chug up and down and the sunlight catches the ripples, there’s no sign of detergent or knotweed or any of the other threats to the environment that you hear about on the wind. But they are there, in their silent but deadly way.

If an app can help, then why not give it a try? In the digital age; if you can’t beat it, download it. And if it’s successful, perhaps they could design another app to sort out world peace. And then an app to tackle the thorny issue of children playing on apps all the time. Who said saving the planet was easy?

On board the Windermere Cruise

If we don’t look after the lake then maybe the visitors won’t come..


How do you engage your kids with serious environmental issues? We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. 


This post is part of our Family Adventure Capital Season. We’re exploring different ways families can adventure together in and around Cumbria, sharing ideas and inspiration to encourage families to get out, get active and adventure together. Got some ideas for things we should try? Let us know.



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.

1 Comment

  • Pix! We wanna see pix of the comic superheroes! Strangely this is a blog entry I must have skipped so far. What a lovely house lake! And yes, it is a good idea towards getting people involved. I just couldn’t find the bit telling me what the people, from kids upwards, should then do. My phantasy ends at – not litter – clear up the beach zones. Clearing the water input, the ground, the fauna, apparently requires expertise beyond that of the ordinary family involvement?

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