Unless you are travelling outside normal working hours or not in peak season expect roads to be busy with local and tourist traffic. Windermere is one of the best-served lakes for public transport; on foot or by bus is often the most convenient way to get around. Bike hire is available within a short walk of the bus and railway station in Windermere village from Total Adventure Bike Hire and Country Lanes Cycle Centre. Stagecoach buses operate along the eastern shore. The number 6 operates a limited service between Windermere railway station and Barrow-in-Furness calling at Bowness-on-Windermere Ferry Pier, Fell Foot and Newby Bridge.
The 555 (Kendal to Keswick) serves the north of the lake and the 599 operates between Bowness-on-Windermere and Grasmere. The 505 shuttles between Windermere and Coniston via Hawkshead and Ambleside. If you are arriving from further afield, Windermere is linked via regular services from Keswick, Penrith, Kendal, the southern Cumbrian peninsulas and Lancashire. Windermere Railway Station is the terminus for the single branch line service that offers connections with the West Coast Main Line and Manchester Airport. A quaint chain ferry crosses the lake between Bowness-onWindermere and Far Sawrey. If you find yourself in Bowness-onWindermere and wanting to be in Hawkshead, or vice versa, the ferry is the quickest way across.
» Homeground, Windermere village. I love a good breakfast after an early morning swim and Homeground is a royal treat. They only serve breakfast and brunch, along with good coffee and cake.
» Method @ Fell, Kendal. This comes recommended by local swimmers who travel from Kendal to Windermere for early morning dips.
» 1st Floor Cafe, inside Lakeland, Windermere village. Not an obvious choice, but the combination of a lovely cafe and the opportunity to browse the Tupperware in the shop downstairs is weirdly compelling. Best for home and kitchen gadget fetishists.
» Bandito Burrito, Windermere village. This spicy Mexican street food makes a refreshing change to twee Lake District coffee shops. I save this as a winter treat as my palate is hopelessly unaccustomed to spice.
Windermere Map – Windermere Lake District Camping Guide Photo Gallery
Windermere has long been associated with open-water swimming and first hosted the Great North Swim in 2008. Its original base was at Low Wood Bay with 2,200 people swimming in the mile course. The event now takes place over an entire weekend at Brockhole and attracts 10,000 swimmers tackling the six different distances on offer. The Great North Swim has been and continues to be many people’s first and possibly only experience of openwater swimming in the Lake District. As the longest lake in England and a qualifying distance for prospective swimmers of the English Channel, Windermere is a siren call for long-distance swimmers.
Since the railway first brought Victorian tourists to a small fishing village on the shores of Windermere, it has been the most popular visitor destination in the Lake District. The eastern shore is predictably busy where the main road hugs the side of the lake pretty much tip to toe. The western shore feels wilder though. It feels different from other parts of the Lake District, with dense broadleaf woodland offering tantalising secretive glimpses of the lake while gnarly mountain scenery is in short supply.
Windermere has a more pastoral setting with the immediate lake edges made up of rolling countryside and woodland, not the crags and precipitous ridges of Ullswater or Wast Water for example. While the Lakeland hills beckon in the distance, it’s the lake that really takes centre stage. Gummer’s How in the south and Wansfell above Ambleside are lovely low-effort viewpoints where you can really appreciate the majesty of the lake and its stunning 10.4-mile serpentine length.
Roughly halfway along the lake is perennial favourite Orrest Head. Alfred Wainwright was so moved by the view from Orrest Head that it inspired him to write his famous fellwalking bibles. I wonder how he felt about swimming. Despite its well-known association with outdoor swimming, I haven’t always found Windermere the easiest place to swim and it was difficult to know where to start. It’s the biggest of all the lakes and it can be as busy out on the water as it is in the heart of bustling Bowness-on-Windermere. I swam with local swimmers and chatted with those who know the lake best. Pete Kelly of Swim the Lakes pointed out that where public rights of way exist you can swim anywhere that a path leads to water. All the places to swim are there if you know where to look. So with that in mind, and armed with a map, off I went.
Best reached on foot (or from the handy car park at Ambleside RUFC), Borrans Park is on the very northern tip of Windermere by Waterhead. It’s a short walk from the centre of Ambleside and a peaceful enclave from the madness of the central Lake District in summer. In the park there is a long slate shelter where you will often bump into local swimmers on their lunch break. The shelter would definitely benefit from a row of hooks but as far as changing facilities for the outdoor swimmer go, this is one of the best! Borrans Park is right on the water and has steps leading down to a shingle beach – watch your step on the last one, it’s so high it feels as though the last step is missing.
Benefiting from a steady top-up from the River Rothay the water is somewhat fresher than other places on the lake and algae blooms are rarely an issue. Litter is a problem though and I pick glass out of the water on most visits. Mind your step. A stone’s throw across the water from Borrans Park is Waterhead. There are boats moored in the bay, and lake steamers and launches operate from here. Smaller motorised craft and rowing boats are available for hire. Waterhead has a small promenade with cafes overlooking the water. Needless to say, swimming in that direction or from that shore is not recommended. When I launch from Borrans Park I head west towards Seamew Crag and the interesting shoreline around Brathay where cormorants and goosanders patrol the water.
The roadside buildings near Jenkins Field look a little forlorn. Prior to the introduction of a six miles per hour speed limit, this area was busy, and speedboats and jet-skis frequented the bay. With their high-speed activities curtailed, Jenkins Field is now a peaceful peninsula edged with trees rising to an impressive crag viewpoint towards Langdale. Across the road is Stagshaw Garden, another peaceful antidote to this busy part of the Lake District. In spring the woodland floor is carpeted with bluebells and wild garlic and the garden is home to the 57.8-metre Skelghyll Grand Fir, reputedly the tallest recorded in England. The gardens are owned by the National Trust and are free to wander round – great for non-swimming companions or as a warm-up after a chilly swim.
At the crack of dawn, the lay-by on Rayrigg Road fills up with cars. By 8.00 a.m. they have gone, and as rush hour begins it’s as if they were never there. Millerground is where bleary-eyed swimmers from across South Cumbria and beyond meet for an early morning swim. I love swimming here not for the location – it’s completely out of my way and inconvenient – but for the lovely group of people I meet when I come here. It’s an unofficial group with a strong ‘swim at your own risk and stay within your own capabilities’ policy. Swimmers tend to congregate at Millerground. Rayrigg Meadow is a family friendly location a stone’s throw to the south, benefiting from a wheelchair and buggy-friendly path from the car park to the lake, a kids play area and accessible toilets.
Fell Foot is a neatly manicured country park at the foot of Windermere, run by the National Trust. For just £2 you can get a day pass which enables you to change in the luxury of a heated changing room and enjoy a hot shower after your swim. By its very nature outdoor swimming is often less than friendly for swimmers with a disability, but Fell Foot goes a long way to redress the balance. Here you will find wheelchair-friendly paths, a Changing Places facility – the first in the national park – and a free-to-hire allterrain wheelchair. Dedicated slipways make it much easier to get in the water and although the lake bed is soft and stony and doesn’t shelve you should still enter with care. Non-swimmers can watch from the picnic benches or the comfort of the cafe making this a very family friendly place to swim.
Red Nab is a small wooded National Trust car park (parking charge). Its secluded location on the western shore is a dead end for vehicles and one of the quieter places on Windermere. It is a great starting point for swimming adventures on the western shore.
My only swim here was a memorable one thanks to a low mist hanging over the lake on a muggy August evening. As the mist thinned and lifted the busy lights of Bowness-on-Windermere briefly appeared from across the lake before grey swept back with a vengeance. The craggy shoreline is thick with overhanging trees and vibrant heather; surrounded by mist it felt quite otherworldly. In clear conditions you have a duck’s-eye view of the bustle on the eastern shore, while suspended in soft, moss-green water. A great place to watch the world go by. Wray Castle is a National Trust property; parking is available at the castle (parking charge).