When I wasn’t plotting and scheming to become an engine driver on the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, my eight-year-old self was bent on a career as a lake steamer porter. Surely, you say, being an engine driver is much more interesting than being a porter, even on a steamship.
But it isn’t necessarily so, because the romance of sailing up and down Lake Windermere—and actually getting paid, although at such an age I didn’t consider this aspect—was exquisite.
Last week I told you how I emotionally blackmailed my old grandmother into traipsing up and down the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway, come hail, shine or rain, for an entire day. And then another day. I was addicted. That was on Mondays and Thursdays during my big summer break when I was foisted on grandma. We usually bought a Lakes Rover ticket which gave us unfettered access to the local railways. So we had to get our money’s worth.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, in contrast, my fickle attention was refocused on the delights of cruising on Lake Windermere, the largest of the lakes in Cumbria, some 12-miles long. Since Victorian times the length of the lake had been plied by “steamers”, from Ambleside in the north to Lakeside in the south—with an intermediate stop at Bowness, for access to Windermere town. Life on the ocean wave beckoned.
A big part of the romance of cruising Lake Windermere was the unusual rail access to Lakeside. A branch line ran up from the Cumbrian coast line at Ulverston, some four miles distant, to the foot of Lake Windermere. This branch line was opened in 1869, a part of the Furness Railway, and was quite a grand affair, judging by the terminus station. Sadly it fell on hard times in post-war years.
The railway was built primarily to transport holidaymakers (as they were then known) to the lake where they could spend money on the steamers. I remember the vaulted roof of the grand terminus at Lakeside. There was even an imposing clock tower, just like at King’s Cross in London (as I thought). I was delighted with this station as it existed in my childhood, completely unchanged from its heyday in the late nineteenth century.
It was on the train to Lakeside that I met The Porter. His name is long forgotten, but at the time he seemed old, very worldly-wise and possessed of a very glamorous job. A job which I coveted mightily. I presume he was a called a “porter” because the lake steamers were operated by British Railways and that job designation was a fixture. They probably called the captain “The Driver” and, under BR’s highly unionised rules, the boats no doubt also featured a stoker and a guard. The lake cruises, were, after all, trains on water in the eyes of BR.
I can see him now in my mind’s eye, dressed in his rather natty dark blue porters’ uniform, a peaked cap bearing the maroon BRITISH RAILWAYS badge on the front. In reality, I suppose, he couldn’t have been much more than twenty. But he caught the same train as we did every day, on his way to a day’s work on either the Swan or the Teal.
The Porter couldn’t help noticing that the old lady and the little boy had become part of the fixtures. He sort of adopted us and kept an eye on us during the day. This is where I got the idea that I’d like to be a porter on a steamer. Becoming an engine driver was small potatoes on those Windermere days as I imagined life on the ocean wave, but I soon got back my enthusiasm for the footplate when returning to Ravenglass.
Arriving day-trippers emerged into this vaulted station, which wouldn’t have disgraced a minor city, and were able to walk across to the lake steamers for onward progress to Bowness and Ambleside. The station is now a shadow of its former self, just a couple of open-air platforms with the adjacent landing stage.
This unusual branch line was closed in 1965, and the station at Lakeside fell into disrepair. The vaulted roof and the clocktower were demolished, presumably for safety reasons towards the end of the seventies. Fortunately, little earlier, in May 1973, the branch line had been rescued by enthusiasts. A 3.2-mile section between the intermediate station of Haverthwaite, not far from Ulverston and alongside the main A590 road, continued to take visitors to Lake Windermere. The Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway has been in operation ever since.
When I was young, however, the full length of the line, from Ulverston to Lakeside, was operated by British Railways and it was a simple matter of hopping off the coastal train at Ulverston and crossing over to the Lakeside branch. There was a delicious sense of anticipation as the train rumbled alongside the River Leven, through Newby Bridge on the way to the lake.
Sailing on one of the lake steamers, the old Tern, built in 18911, and the newer 1930s motor vessels, the Swan (1938) and the Teal (1936), was pure bliss for my young self. I much preferred the newer vessels because I thought them to be similar to transatlantic liners (which, of course, I had never seen, so the scale was irrelevant). The trip from Lakeside to Bowness was every bit as exciting, I was convinced, as a crossing on the Queen Elizabeth from Southampton to New York. Young minds are impressionable and, it has to be said, often missing the means of comparison and objective assessment.
It was so exciting that my poor grannie was condemned to endless cruises up and down the lake, at least for six or seven hours every time we visited. We were fixtures, the staff swept around us, and we were adopted us as mascots.
From early morning to late afternoon, we were there; we never got off. There was a cafeteria, but most times, grandma had brought along a picnic and, of course, her knitting to keep herself busy. At the same time, I enjoyed the importance of being Ernest the porter, ordering all the passengers around.
Looking back, I realise just how much of a little nuisance I must have been. Endless journeys in uncomfortable miniature carriages, transatlantic cruises on a 12-mile-long lake. She must have been a saint.
- In my youth there was another old steamer, the Swift, in operation but it has now disappeared ↩